“Help, I can’t find a character I want to main!”
I’m a relatively new fighting game player who got absorbed into the Guilty Gear abyss never to return. Lately, I’ve been having some trouble with regards to sticking with a character. I really want to be strong in this game, but I don’t want to just burn myself out by pushing myself to do something I don’t want to do. And it feels like every month or two I start to really click with a character’s kit, and then just completely lose interest in them because they feel too limited in some way or another, or something else about them just starts seriously grating on me. And then I jump to someone else, play them enough for them to click, and then rinse and repeat.
It’s a bit of a point of pride for me that at this point with a couple days warmup I could competently play like half the +R roster, but it’s been nearly a year since I started and I still don’t have a main. I guess I’m just wondering if you think this is a normal thing, or if you have advice, or if you agree that my indecision has its root cause in the fact that actually I just want to have every tool in the game and I’ve been a secret hidden Chipp main this whole time. (Am I joking? Even I don’t know.)
Always A Secondary, Never A Main
PS: I liked that one article you wrote about risk/reward, it helped me translate some of my natural game theory-y inclinations that I got from card games into fighting game language.
Great question! I’ve written before about choosing a main character, but this particular pattern comes up often enough that I’m glad to answer this specifically.
To answer the immediate questions first: This is a normal thing, I do have advice, and I don’t think the root cause is that you want to have every tool in the game, though if you do, yeah, Chipp is right there.
The broader fighting game community generally has built itself up around the open-entry tournament bracket as its default format for testing skill, and that format largely incentivizes players to go deep rather than broad. Thus the emphasis on selecting a main, and tying your perspective on your strength in that game to your ability to progress in a bracket playing that main. But it’s not the only way to play a fighting game! I maintain that there are fewer expressions of love for a game than playing random select (especially for CvS2). After all, you paid for the whole dang game, not just your main character.
However, you’re the one writing in to frame this engagement pattern as a problem. You call it a point of pride that you can competently play half the +R roster, but you do not consider that to be a sufficiently validating indicator of strength. And yeah, I don’t know how you personally define strength in +R, but if you want your strength to be reflected in your tournament results, you’re not going to see significant gains in those results by competently playing half the cast when you could be focusing your efforts on a single character. So while I do generally hold that fighting game players are better served in the long run by playing the way they want to play over doing something that feels like work (see: On sustainable grinding and taking a break), I think you might need to dig a little deeper into your understanding of strength in fighting games to ask yourself if you really do want to be strong.
You mentioned you played card games, so let’s talk about card games. I’m not big on card games myself, but I’ve played a few. In my experience, a deck often requires a little bit of work to understand how to play it properly, and the hard part is learning how to play that deck against all the other decks (and players) out there. Yeah, sometimes you might make a change to your deck list in order to accommodate for situations that feel too difficult to outplay, but the thing that separates competent players from strong players is usually not their ability to execute their deck’s basic win condition, but their ability to outplay everyone else in order to get there first.
Now back to fighting games. While the physical and mental work required to use a character’s tools are satisfying (more so, I think, than the equivalent in card games), strong fighting game players do more than that. After all, winning the situations where you do have the right tools is relatively simple as long as you can identify the situation and react with the appropriate tool. It’s winning the situations where you don’t have the right tool that’s the hard part. If you think that the rewarding part of fighting games for you is just the part where you pick the right tool for the job, that’s fine, but you will probably not become strong just by doing that. (Even if you pick up Chipp.)
I say this is a normal thing to run into because it’s usually the second major obstacle that new fighting game players encounter. The first major obstacle for most players is learning to accept the fact that fighting game matches are generally not won by the player who mashed the hardest, did the hardest techniques, or ‘wanted it more’, but by the player who took the time to learn the rules of the game, understand how the flow of combat works, master the set of basic inputs, and develop a basic sense for pattern recognition. Once a player makes it past that checkpoint, the next one is what I call the “Git Gud Wall”. It’s for the players who have internalized the basic skills necessary to learn how to play a fighting game, but have not yet developed the mindset for going deep on a fighting game, so they can employ the tools and concepts at a competent level, but when they fail, they locate their dissatisfaction with the tools and not with themselves.
At this point in the player’s journey, they can see the bare facts of the game for what they are; there are no secret mechanics or dynamics that obscure them from understanding what’s going on. They must simply learn to do the thing better, whether it’s labbing specific setups and situations or getting their combo execution from 90% to 99% or whatever. I know the Git Gud Wall well myself, having spent a long time there for both CvS2 and GGXX, trying out different characters and grooves and telling myself that this was going to be the way that I beat the people I couldn’t beat last time. And every time I was proven wrong, because, of course, my focus was on choosing a better tool, not getting better at using the tools I had already chosen.
The good news is that the time spent trying to make it past the Git Gud Wall is not wasted. Spending your time learning how to use different tools makes it much easier to play against someone else using those tools. It’s easier to understand what a Zato player will do to protect Eddie if you’ve also had to protect Eddie yourself. When I find myself getting lost in a matchup, I’ll often spend the following week playing that character just to better understand how to read their situations.
If you truly seek to be strong, you’re going to have to eventually push yourself out of your comfort zone and settle on a toolset you want to invest in further. You don’t need to pick a single main character if you don’t want to; one of our strongest local players, CT Warrior, routinely cycles between Sol, Ky, Elphelt, and the occasional Chipp in bracket based on his opponent and his mood. But if you want your skill to be validated by tournament results, you’ll need to go deeper than your opponent does.
You may decide that this isn’t for you! I see many fighting game players draw the line at the Git Gud Wall. It’s the dividing line between the players who choose to learn the game seriously and the ones who decide that going past “competent” simply isn’t worth it. These players still show up for tournaments, go 2–2, and have a good time playing casuals and getting food afterwards. Not everyone aims at greatness, or even pretty-goodness, and if that’s you, you’ll be in good company. But if you do take a shot at it, you might be surprised by how the stuff that you don’t want to do eventually becomes just another set of tools that belong to you, not your character, and you can apply them to go deep on whatever you want. It’s all up to you.
Whether you choose to continue playing the field or settle down with a main squeeze, I hope this helps you feel more confident in your direction. Thanks for writing in!
Thanks for reading! If you found this essay valuable and want to support my work, please do not hesitate to share it around on your social channels, follow me on Twitter, check out my Twitch stream (Mon-Thurs 830PM-1030PM PST), or join my Patreon.