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You play, you lose, you shake hands, you shrug. “It’s a bad matchup,” you mumble to yourself (and anyone who might be listening) as you walk away.
Bad matchups are a test of a fighting game player. If the promise of a fighting game is that any two players can step up and engage each other in an equal test of skill, a bad matchup tests a player’s ability to overcome a disadvantage at the character select screen. It’s part of what makes a tournament victory so meaningful; the winner had to defeat everyone in their way, even the bad matchups.
But bad matchups can also be an excuse that makes us feel better about losing, or an emotional crutch that absolves us of having to study more. Calling something a bad matchup isn’t always just describing the state of the game, it’s also a way to dismiss the effort your opponent put in.
It doesn’t have to be like this. Bad matchups are a great opportunity to understand how others feel to play against your character, because bad matchups usually don’t let you use your full toolset as freely. They’re a rich opportunity to study your character and learn the game from another perspective, but you can’t do any of that if you treat your bad matchups as a curse rather than a challenge. So let’s talk about bad matchups.
What makes a matchup bad?
Let’s start with the most basic description: A bad matchup is a matchup where one player has to do less mental or physical work to win than the other. Of course, as grizzled old fighting game veterans, we ought to be able to describe a bad matchup with more details and properties than a sommelier has for wine. Time to get specific.
The risk/reward is heavily skewed
Fighting games rely on a delicate balance of numbers — damage and health, startup and recovery, hitboxes and hurtboxes — to resolve attack interactions, and it’s not uncommon for small differences in those numbers to have major impacts in how a matchup plays out. The impacts of these imbalanced exchanges aren’t easily reduced to “I have to be right more often than you do”, though — the advantaged player gets to play freely, with more confidence and less concern for how and where those clashes happen, while the disadvantaged player has to deal with more stress and concern while playing the game.
As a Chipp player, Potemkin is my nightmare. I have all the tools in the world to go in and open him up, but all it takes is one mistimed meaty or thoughtless trade and I will evaporate in seconds. Potemkin deals and absorbs more damage to compensate for his significantly limited movement, and Chipp has lower health to compensate for his excellent movement, but since both of them have to get close to hit each other, Chipp’s movement mostly just serves to put him in the Danger Zone faster. Their respective numbers generally work out against the rest of the cast, but because they’re both outliers in opposite directions on the damage spectrum, both players will feel the numbers difference very quickly.
When it comes to these matchups, it’s not uncommon to see the disadvantaged player adapt to these matchups by making drastic changes to their typical risk/reward pattern, either by skewing more conservative to minimize the potential losses of guessing wrong, or by going for greedy high-damage payoffs to bridge the gap in expected value per clash. Neither answer is necessarily wrong, per se, but these kinds of adaptations often leave the disadvantaged player using a smaller set of their character’s tools, and if the opponent can pick up on these patterns they’ll have fewer possibilities to mentally track during a match.
Your strong position or win condition is harder to reach
Every character typically has a place they want to be on screen, or an advantaged situation they want to create, like scoring a knockdown to set up some meaty pressure, or finding a range where you can safely throw projectiles and be ready to anti-air jump-in attempts. And sometimes, other characters just make it really hard for you to get there. Sometimes it’s just because they’ve got this one annoying button that stuffs your go-to zoning tools; other times it’s that they have some mobility or defense options that feel like they’re tailor-made to give you a hard time.
This is particularly noticeable for characters who have weaker options in neutral to compensate for their stronger setplay tools. For Chipp, characters that specialize in nasty mixups often have a hard time landing that first hit that lets them get going, so even though my health handicap means they don’t have to win neutral very often, they have a much harder time doing it because they can’t rely on their screen control tools to funnel Chipp into predictable positions.
These matchups are a special kind of painful, because the disadvantaged player often feels like they’re forced to work extra hard in neutral to get the payoff they’re accustomed to, and once they get it they still have to respect the opponent’s defensive tools lest they slip out and force them to play neutral once again. Studying these matchups often requires looking for small opportunities to land the hit that gets things going, and if you realize you’re playing against a player who’s laser focused on a few specific situations, you can deny them what they want and bait them into overreacting.
You have to play outside your mental comfort zone
Some matchups feel bad because you have to pay attention to things you can normally autopilot, or be careful using tools that normally aren’t that risky. Even if your character is actually well-equipped to play the matchup overall, forcing you to stay in a zone you don’t want to be in can be enough to shift the odds in your opponent’s favor.
I run into this a lot with Axl and Venom players, who often groan at the thought of playing against a Chipp. This is because Chipp’s teleport and gamma blade allow me to punish predictable pokes and win neutral, and that’s where Axl and Venom expect to have an advantage over their opponent. Instead, they have to be a little more careful about pressing a button or dropping some balls at ranges that are usually safe for them. (I didn’t realize Axl and Venom players felt this way about the matchup until I started talking to them about it, which I think is common for these kinds of bad matchups.)
These matchups tend to be a little bit more manageable once you get used to using a different set of tools, or checking for opportunities to throw off your timing a little bit. After all, if a Chipp player is thinking he’ll get a free teleport through a predictable Axl poke, and that poke doesn’t come, Chipp is eating some big damage on the other end of that teleport. But the hard part here is that you often need to significantly change the way you play these matchups, and those changes can be hard to remember when shit is getting real and you’re playing too quickly and intensely to remember all your calculated adaptations. Not only do you need to learn to play your character differently, you need to execute on those changes in tournament stress. It’s not easy.
Matchups are often represented by an estimation of how two players of equal skill (whatever that means) would do in ten games; an even matchup would have both characters going 5:5, slightly imbalanced at 6:4, and “fuck this shit” starting roughly at 7:3 and onwards. Match outcomes are what matter most from this perspective, which makes sense when we’re talking about fairness and advantage, but it doesn’t always match with how players feel about a matchup while they’re playing it.
Weird characters and knowledge checks are a frequent source of feels-bad-matchups, and Guilty Gear is full of these. Bedman’s attacks are hard to see and read if you’re not used to them, and his Deja Vu mechanic makes his pressure seem endless. Leo’s high/low/crossup/throw shenanigans feel unfair and unstoppable if you don’t know how to deal with them (so read the Leo Countermeasures doc!). Raven’s seemingly unlimited high/lows off his glide tempt you to wakeup DP every time you get knocked down. Once you can see them coming and know what to do, it’s fine, but it can take a while to get there.
Another source of feels-bad matchups comes from perceived inequality of “match time spent winning”. Simply put, if you spend 50 seconds of a round losing and 10 seconds winning, you might not feel great about that round even if you won it. Feeling like you’re on the losing end sucks, and can contribute to your perception that a matchup is bad even if the outcomes are generally even. (Potemkin players never believe me when I tell them that they’re Chipp’s worst matchup for this reason. Try playing the other side of the matchup you cowards!!!) Even if you win the match, you might be spending a lot of mental energy that you might need for the next one.
Tips for tough matchups
Learning to play through tough matchups inevitably requires practice and study, but if you’re just throwing yourself into endless grinding you’ll crack from frustration before you even get a chance to try your new stuff out in tournament. However, over time you’ll learn to change your perspective on the game in ways that can help you break down problems faster and easier. Here are some tips I’ve found help me break down and get comfortable with the matchups I hate the most.
- Pay attention to how the matchup makes you feel. (And be more specific than “bad”.) Figuring out what you’re feeling and giving that feeling a name is a useful first step toward making a bad matchup better, because you’ll be ready to play it under additional stress instead of getting lost in it.
- Work backwards from your feelings to identify the causes of the mismatch. I’ve found that when matchups make me feel afraid or panicky, it’s because I’m having a hard time defending, and if I feel like I’m constantly frustrated and annoyed, my problem is likely in neutral. Before you try to fix your problem matchup, you have to figure out which tools, decisions, and situations are stressing you out. You can use my descriptions of different kinds of bad matchups above as a starting point!
- Beating the problem is good; avoiding the problem is better. It feels good as hell to lab a tough situation and find a piece of tricky tech that will solve all your problems, but your solution will likely still require making a correct guess or a quick reaction. Make sure you’re also looking for ways to prevent the opponent from putting you in that situation in the first place.
- Approach the matchup from other angles. Remember that you’re not just playing against the character, you’re also playing against the person. Try learning to play the other side of the matchup to get an idea for how it feels to play as the other character. Study the matchups they hate to learn what pushes their buttons. You may find that there are things you’re letting them get away with or tools you’ve undervalued because you don’t know how they think.
- Take matchup notes and look at them before you play. Matchup notes are useful for reminding you which adjustments you need to make. It’s better for you to remind yourself than for the opponent to remind you. Often, this might be all you need to take a matchup from “bad” to “manageable”.
- Study match videos. Watch your own videos to see where you struggle, then watch videos of people who are better than you are to see what it looks like for them. Match videos are your most powerful training tool for matchup study, so find them, watch them, take notes, try stuff out, test it, and then do it all over again.
Remember: Fighting games are contests of mental stamina, emotional resilience, and disciplined execution, and certain matchups will test some aspects more than others. Embrace this and be ready for it. Think of the game and characters that you’re playing as the tool you use to test each other, and learn to break them down with rigor and practice until they feel a lot less like intimidating bullshit. Playing a bad matchup can feel like you’re about to be overcome by suffocating frustration, but it’s an important part of developing yourself as a fighting game player, and it turns out that learning how to identify difficult situations, develop tech to deal with them, and practice executing is a useful skill outside of fighting games as well.
Thanks for reading!