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“Why play with people who are much stronger than you? What can you learn from getting blown up?”
It’s a good question. It sure can feel demoralizing to get 10–0ed, or 50–0ed, or 100–0ed. One of the most fun things you can do in a fighting game is play a session where both players are adapting and counter-adapting to each other, back and forth, having a good conversation. Those sessions feel so good because you’re learning on the fly, and once you get a taste of those games it becomes easy to feel like the sessions that don’t feel like that are a waste of time. I know I personally learn a lot from the times I get blown up, but I wouldn’t fault other folks who cannot deal with the frustration of losing over and over.
On the flip side, some folks kind of worship the L, and hold as holy their willingness to mash the Rematch button endlessly. Of course, you will lose a lot of games on your road to getting good, and learning to hold it and embrace it is a very valuable part of playing fighting games. But:
If you get bodied for 30 games and just pressed the same buttons for all 30 games, like you didn’t learn a damn thing in those 30 games, didn’t go home thinking about all the things you’re going to do to make those Ls worth it, you’re wasting your damn time.
That doesn’t mean you have to adapt during the course of the set; being able to do that consistently is often a product of experience and practice. You just need to make sure you come out of your asswhoopin with a list of things you can ask about or work on later. But that’s easier said than done, especially when you’re getting so overpowered that your list of things feels like it’s just “Learn how to play this game, because clearly I don’t know a goddamn thing”.
So let’s figure out what you need to do better. This, too, is something that you’ll get better at as you build up your body of experience, but we’ll start in pretty general terms. Any given state in a fighting game can generally be broken down into three phases: offense, defense, and neutral. If you’re trying to find what you need to improve on, looking at which phase you’re struggling in is a good place to start.
If you’re spending a lot of time getting hit and getting knocked down, your problem is defense.
When it comes to defense, the first step is to make sure you’re looking at the right problem. Broadly speaking, most situations boil down to reads, reactions, and knowledge tests, and if you’re using the wrong tool — like trying to read your way through something you should be reacting to — then you’re going to get hit a lot more than you should be if you were using the right tool (even if you’re failing).
- Reads are the most dangerous tool in your defensive toolkit because you’re just guessing. Use these sparingly, and find techniques to minimize the number of hard reads you have to make on defense whenever possible. If your opponent has a point in their offensive string where they can hit you with an 8F high or an 8F low, you’re going to have to guess based on their decision history (how many highs and lows have they gone for so far?) and the payoff (which one gives them a more valuable outcome?).
- Reactions are when you have to see what’s coming and make the appropriate decision on time. Moves that force you to react to them and answer appropriately typically give you at least 16 frames to see what’s coming, and if you’re having trouble there, it’s probably not because your reaction speed is too slow, but rather that you aren’t recognizing the steps your opponent is taking to set up the reactable move, so you’re not ready to react to it. If your opponent has an offensive string that can hit you with a 20F high, you should be holding down-back and looking for that 20F high.
- Lots of people think their defense is weak because they’re trying to use too many reads or reactions, when really what they’re up against is a Knowledge test. If your opponent has a string that can go into an 8F low or a 16F high, then you don’t need to guess or react, because you can just block low until 8F and switch high afterwards.
- Also: If you’re getting counter hit, stop pressing buttons and block more or find ways to get out of range (backdash and jump back).
If you’re spending a lot of time blocking, and you feel scared to poke because you get whiff punished or stuffed, your problem is neutral.
Neutral problems come largely from rhythm and timing, and they can often feel a lot more subtle and harder to diagnose. Some tips:
- Frame advantage exists in neutral too. If your opponent dashes in your face and presses a button, and you respond by backdashing, you may have avoided the attack but you probably recovered after they did, meaning they have a frame advantage that they can use to close the gap safely, or throw a fireball, or whatever. If you’re constantly whiffing big buttons or using high-commitment movement options in neutral, your opponent will have an easier time closing the gap and landing a hit.
- If you’re getting jumped in on, focus on your anti-airs. If they’re dashing in your face for free, check them. You don’t get to play neutral if your opponents feel confident that they can skip it whenever they want.
- Know the range and speed of your attacks and adjust your timing accordingly. If your pokes are getting stuffed, press your buttons earlier, stand a little farther away, or use a faster button. If your pokes are getting whiff punished, walk up a little closer and press your button later or use a bigger button. If you’re not changing up your timing in neutral to try and beat your opponent to the hit, your opponent won’t have to change anything up in neutral to match you, and you’ll just keep losing.
If your hits and mixups simply aren’t getting you as much damage as theirs are, your problem is offense.
Offense stuff can be kind of tricky to figure out because different characters do different amounts of damage per hit/knockdown/mixup, and removing the character-specific noise so you can read the you-specific signal often takes experience. In general, though:
- If you’re dropping your combos, you need to practice them more.
- If you’re not dropping your combos, you should probably move on to harder combos. :P
- If your knockdowns don’t feel that scary, you need better setups.
- If your throws aren’t working, you need to get better at cycling options (in this case, doing the thing that beats their throw defense).
- If your pressure strings are always getting blocked, you need to give them a reason to mash — more high/lows, more turn-stealing, more throws, etc.
This is just a starting point, of course, and as you get further along in your fighting game journey, you’ll find that a problem or weakness in one of these three phases may actually be exerting pressure on a different part of your game. For example, if your opponent knows that their offense is better than yours, they’ll feel free to take bolder risks in neutral and defense, because the expected value of being right there is higher than it is for you; you might think that your problem here is in neutral and defense, but the best solution here would probably be to bring your damage up to par instead of trying to overachieve in neutral and defense.
Lastly, remember that if something feels unbeatable, you probably don’t know how it works or what your tools are to deal with it, so ask your opponent about it. Asking questions is that straight up godlike S-tier tech. There’s nothing wrong with asking to go to training mode if there’s no one waiting to play next, and the games you play will be more valuable for both players when you both know what you need to do. (Honestly, it’s likely that the stronger player wants to show you how it works so you’ll stop getting hit by it, but doesn’t know if you’d interpret that as condescending or something.)
So while I hope you got some good tools for self-diagnosing your own fighting game weaknesses from this essay, I want you to know that the best person to help you get stronger is usually the one who’s beating you, and the strongest players are usually the ones who don’t let their pride get in the way of asking questions. The beauty of fighting games is that there are no clearly defined student and teacher roles; we’re all just players doing our best to get stronger together.
Thanks for reading!