“Should I learn SF6 with Classic or Modern controls?”

Patrick Miller
16 min readJul 10, 2023

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Hi Pat,

I’m writing to get your opinion on the choice of control style (Classic v Modern) to go with in Street Fighter 6 as a brand-new player. When I say brand-new, I mean brand-new: I’ve never touched any fighting games before in my life except for maybe an hour in the first Injustice before I refunded it.

So I’ve just finished the World Tour portion of the game, which for me essentially went from “press right to walk” to somewhere around “here are the basic mechanics of this game and how to use them” by the end of the story mode and tutorial side missions. Planning to do the arcade mode next to know each character better.

And the question now is, do I switch from the modern controls to the classic input system, now that I’ve got a taste of what characters can do and have a vague idea of how the game works?

I’m thinking the more general question would be: what would the consequences be if I decouple the execution (A) from the decision-making (OOD) during the learning process? I’ve read the discussion on the Modern v Classic issue online and apart from all the “Modern is for scrubs”, I’ve repeatedly seen arguments presented along the lines of “If you wanna learn, you might as well learn it correctly the first time and go for classic”, “Stop building bad habits” on one side, and something like “Modern reduces the mental stack so it allows you to focus on fundamentals” on the other.

Being no stranger to having to look up extensive documentation for the games I used to play, I noticed one more point that wasn’t being brought up: most if not all of the detailed documentation and discussion (and even teaching on Discord) is done in the context of the classic inputs anyway, which does tilt my preference towards classic inputs more when I consider this fact.

Looking forward to your analysis and advice on this.

Confounded by Controls

Great question, CbC! Glad to have an opportunity to tackle this.

For starters — those of you reading this who don’t know what the “OOD” and “A” are, check out “I’m not fast enough to play fighting games” and “Using OODA loops to talk through playing fighting games”. I wrote them because I think that having a framework to describe the moment-to-moment cognitive work that goes on while playing fighting games does a lot to demystify the process of getting good at them.

That said, I don’t think that Modern completely gets rid of the Action phase itself; you still have to press the right button, after all. It just makes it a bit easier and faster to do so. You’re still playing the game, you’re just playing a different chunk of it, and there are advantages and disadvantages to learning with either control style. If you play Modern, you’ll have an easier time getting to the part where you can interact with the opponent’s decisions in real-time without tripping over your hands, but you won’t have the full toolset to play with, so you’ll be learning a more superficial version of the game. As a learning experience, it’ll be a bit more evenly-rounded, but notably incomplete in ways that you’ll have to unlearn later.

The icons for Modern and Classic look like Adobe Creative Suite products and I hate it.

Before I dig into the specifics, though, let’s talk a bit about where Modern controls are shaking out in SF6 thus far. As of this writing, the game is still new, and there is a lot that we collectively won’t know about the game until we’ve tested it thoroughly in competition. Additionally, every new character that shows up in SF6 is essentially going to have two versions, one for Modern and one for Classic, and some characters will function better in Modern than others. Modern currently isn’t showing up in higher-skill play that often, but it could happen as the SF6 generation gets stronger.

All this is to say that as far as we can tell right now, Modern is the weaker option between the two. There are a couple things that get dramatically easier, like easily anti-airing with one-button specials or punishing fireballs with one-button supers, but it seems unlikely so far that those options are worth the restricted toolset or the damage penalty, and frankly, if we saw Modern dominating at high levels of play, I’d be surprised if Capcom wouldn’t end up nerfing it a little bit.

So, I’m going to assume that if you’re learning to play SF6 because you intend to play it for a while, or you want to learn things that will carry over somewhat to other fighting games, you’ll want to learn Classic eventually — and based on what you wrote, it sounds you’re at least somewhat interested in learning it, which is great.

For you, and for many others, Modern controls is what we’d call a “training wheels” mechanic; it exists to smoothen out the learning curve and make the upfront experience a bit more enjoyable, but at the cost of delaying certain aspects of your learning until later. The thinking behind these mechanics is basically that for some people, the upfront learning experience is so harsh that it turns them away before they’re able to start having fun with the game, so giving them an easier path to fun early on will get them interested enough to keep playing. Eventually they’ll have to ditch the training wheels to improve further, by that point they’ll be invested enough in the game that they’ll suck it up and deal with it.

This is, for what it’s worth, my exact experience learning how to ride a bike with training wheels; I got to experience the fun of riding a bicycle pretty much immediately, but when I outgrew my bike with the training wheels, I had to relearn how to ride a bicycle all over again, and it sucked for a couple days but eventually I figured it out and had fun again. Had I tried to learn how to ride a bicycle without training wheels, it’s entirely possible that I would have gotten discouraged enough that I wouldn’t have kept on going before finding out that it was worth it. (That said, I think I was like eight years old or so when I first started riding a bicycle, and I’d like to think that my emotional stamina for dealing with adversity in the face of learning new skills has increased significantly since then.)

I had no idea they made adult training wheels.

Part of learning a new skill is managing your intake of “Yay, I did a new thing” good feelings and your “Fuck, I failed to do the new thing” feelings of stress and frustration, and everyone has different tolerance levels here based on their general temperament and prior experiences. So while it may be more efficient to learn how to play “the proper way” on Classic from the very beginning, you may also be speedrunning your way into quitting the game entirely if your frustration levels run too high. (This is indeed efficient, but not for getting to the intended outcome.)

I wouldn’t worry too much about the perceived risk of “learning bad habits” or “focusing on fundamentals”. I think it’s a totally natural learning curve to learn “bad habits” in either Classic or Modern, because “bad habits” are just “suboptimal ways to do a thing”. You can’t learn the entire game at once, so you’re always gonna have stuff that you can improve on, and what most people call “bad habits” is just “stuff that worked against bad players but doesn’t work against less bad players”, and finding those things and improving them is just part of how learning fighting games goes. Yeah, it’d be way more efficient if you just learned how to play the right way from the very beginning, but you’ll need a lot more experience playing fighting games before you could really begin to handle that level of knowledge and detail upfront when picking up a new game for the first time. Similarly, I don’t think Modern controls really let you focus on “fundamentals” any more than Classic controls do; they just let you play a little bit of the game earlier than you would otherwise.

It’s worth noting that for many players, Modern controls isn’t a training wheels mechanic; it’s the entirety of how they intend to play the game. Some of these folks are physically unable to play with Classic controls to their satisfaction. Others just want to casually enjoy the game the same way they play other video games; they’ll play the single player World Tour mode, maybe noodle around with some low-level online PvP, and mash some games with their friends. They do not want to treat SF6 as a skill to cultivate; they just want to have some uncomplicated fun and move on with their lives. Personally, I don’t understand how anyone can play fighting games and not make them into a lifelong all-consuming obsession, but hey, different strokes for different folks and all that.

You are new enough to fighting games that you probably don’t know for sure where you fall yet on the “pleasant casual diversion” vs. “lifelong all-consuming obsession” spectrum, so the primary factor I’d consider in learning Modern or Classic is heavily dependent on whether you’re at risk of churning out if you find Classic difficult to learn and end up not having fun. If you’re just sticking to Vs CPU play upfront, that tends to be less of a factor — I think playing against the CPU is a great way to learn Classic controls and build familiarity with all the characters — but it’s good to play against other human beings early and often as well. This is usually where people get frustrated with their inability to control their character to their satisfaction and end up quitting, because they’re expecting to play fighting games like any other video game, and most other video games don’t ask their players to spend as much time and effort learning to control their character properly before they’re able to engage with the rest of the game. If that sounds like it might be you, I’d say start with Modern and see how far it takes you before digging into Classic.

However, there are plenty of people out there who enjoy the physical aspect of fighting games and have no problem jumping headfirst into it. Anyone who is used to cultivating other skills, like playing sports or learning musical instruments or speaking new languages, will have little issue taking the tools and emotional resilience they’ve developed doing those things and applying them to fighting games. I’ve been casually learning to play golf over the last few months, which is a sport that basically requires you to spend a lot of time in the lab (well, driving range) until you can get good enough to not impede the flow of play on the course. I think it’s great, but as attested by my decades of engagement with fighting games, I adore activities that require a certain amount of upfront practice and investment before you get to play the “real” game, and not everyone is down for that.

We stan a fighting game legend.

If that’s you, just play Classic and don’t look back. Personally, I think Classic is a great way to learn to play fighting games, because I think the physical element of fighting games is central to the genre, and the last thing I’d want is for a Modern player to discover that they just hate the physical part of fighting games after hitting a wall a couple hundred hours in. But from what I’ve seen, there are lots of people who come in thinking “Who cares about pressing buttons good, I’m here for the elegant mindgames” and after soaking it up for a bit they come to understand that the physical game enriches the mental game and vice versa. So if Modern gets them to stick around long enough to discover they really dig this shit, that’s great.

And, hell, if you don’t really know which one you are, then just try both out. Pick a character you like and learn them in Classic, then pick another character you like and learn them in Modern. Switch between the two so you can get to see what they both feel like. The absolute best thing you can do with your early fighting game learning experience is to get in the habit of just trying out all kinds of different stuff — different combos for your character, different characters in your game, different games entirely — so that the process of learning how to do a new thing becomes less scary and more streamlined. You might not rank up quite so quickly as you would if you just laser-focused on a main, but you’ll get to see your growth in-game very clearly just in how you play.

Hey Pat,

I’ve moved to Classic since we last spoke and it’s been tough! Going to Classic controls after 40ish hours in World Tour with Modern feels almost like playing a different game…

Some notes and observations so far:

1) I noticed that my thumb would get very uncomfortable after 30–45mins on pad, so I’m practicing classic inputs on the keyboard in preparation for a hitbox. Fine motor inputs under pressure are significantly more difficult compared to doing it in a vacuum. 5x DP in a row is all well and good but the moment the training dummy jumps at me I will mess up the input by entering the punch input too early. Funnily enough this does not entirely go away even at 50% game speed.

2) I miss the one-button special moves to be honest. By the time I notice “Hey he’s jumping at me” and enter 626+P it’s too late 1/3rd of the time and the other 1/3rd of the time I miss the input under pressure. This could very well likely be the consequence of my reflexes and timing being conditioned by the preceding 40h or so of Modern.

3) Defensive play has to somewhat be relearned since I’m using keyboard and all the muscle memory built from the “survive 15s without taking damage” tutorial stuff was all done on pad. Not that I know much about defending but the blocking muscle memory has to be replaced somehow.

4) Vs. CPU has been a mixed bag. I really struggle to take down a lv.4 one and I’ve been told this is mostly because it reads inputs. The symptom here is that I rarely get to block since the opponent seems to wait for exactly when I move to hit me (If I don’t move I’ll just get thrown over and over). Poking with something like Ken’s 5HK seems to work half the time though so that’s good I guess?

5) I’ve begun to structure my practice around Ceelow’s Rookie to Bronze video, so the base requirements are quite simple on the surface, but I still can’t AA reliably and I’m not sure if I should move on to the simple combos.

6) I found a comment talking about anchoring my understanding my fighting game practice in the concept of “understanding whose turn it is”, but I don’t know how to translate this into something actionable to practice.

Glad to hear you switched over, and thanks for the progress report!

As far as the specifics you mentioned: The thumb definitely gets more work in Classic. I don’t play on pad, but my understanding is that this gets easier the more you practice (in part because your thumb gets accustomed to it and in part because you learn to press with a lighter touch). That said, I’m a big fan of leverless controllers so I hope you like the keyboard change. I know it may feel awkward to change up your input device and control scheme like this, but I’ve found that learning to play like this is actually pretty good for newer players in the long run, and makes it easier to learn new fighting games and input devices in the future.

Pressing the punch button too early also makes sense for a Modern switch because you’re used to thinking of an anti-air as a one-button, right-hand only move, and the challenge for you now is to learn to synchronize your left hand with your right hand, which is much more complicated. I like to think of special move motions as my left hand “passing off” the motion to my right hand to finish, kind of like fretting on a guitar or chopping an onion; the left hand starts, then the right hand finishes. This is where the “training wheels” aspect of learning on Modern hits you; you’ll need to learn to mentally budget more time and attention to actually performing the action of an anti-air now. Welcome to the full game!

Learning to block on a keyboard is definitely different, but once you get used to having two fingers to switch between standing and crouching block, I think you’ll have a hard time going back. Just default to down-back to block the lows, and when you see a high attack, release your crouching input and you’ll stand immediately. I find this a lot faster than switching my block on a stick or pad. (Also, in SF6 you can input parry and throw from crouch, so you technically don’t ever need to leave crouch block if you’re nice with your other defensive tools, but for now let’s make sure you’re stand blocking properly.)

Pictured: Neo switching to Hitbox.

Playing in Vs. CPU is a useful training tool, especially when you’re still getting accustomed to stuff like basic inputs, but I wouldn’t worry too much about whether you’re winning or losing right now since the flow of combat against an actual human will be dramatically different. Your goal here is really just to spend time practicing against a resisting opponent so you can get used to testing out the things you’ve been practicing under a little extra pressure, but without the additional stress or complication of PvP matches. SF6 also has a bunch of preset basic training mode menu options to help with practicing stuff like anti-airs and whiff punishes, so you can try those out first to practice them in isolation, and then play against the CPU to see how it feels to put it all together. You likely won’t see dramatic improvement during a single practice session, but if you do this a little bit every day you’ll see those gains build up quite nicely.

Regarding the Rookie to Bronze stuff: I think that’s a fine way to practice, but it makes more sense for the game and context it was presented for — namely, new players in SFV who are intimidated by practicing combos upfront and are learning mostly in ranked matchmaking. If you want to practice combos, then practice some combos! There’s no perfect ordering to learning how to play a fighting game, and if you’re enthusiastic about trying something out, just do it. Yeah, anti-airing is an important skill that will be invaluable for fighting your way out of lower ranks, but learning how to do combos is also very important, and I think you’d get more out of practicing both in a single play session than just doing one or the other. However, if you’re feeling overwhelmed with the amount of stuff you’re trying to learn, cutting things back is a good way to refocus your efforts.

“Turns” are a pretty fundamental concept in fighting games, and it usually comes up in the concept of frame advantage. The short version is basically that every animation in a fighting game consists of three phases: Startup is the windup period before your attack puts out a hitbox, Active is the period where the hitbox is out and can hit stuff, and Recovery is the period where your hitbox is gone and you’re waiting before you can do your next move. When a move makes contact with an opponent, it will put them in a blockstun or hitstun animation, where they can’t do anything until they recover. The length of the stun and the length of the attack animation phases differ depending on each attack, and the difference between how long the defender is in stun and how long you’re in recovery determine who’s “turn” it is, because whoever recovers first has more time to start their next attack animation before the other player can. (You can turn the frame advantage viewer doohickey on in SF6’s training mode to make it a little easier to visualize this stuff, by the way — it’ll tell you how long each action takes in an exchange and who recovers first by denoting it as +1 or -1 or whatever number.)

James Chen has a solid video on how to use the frame meter in SF6.

The reason we call these “Turns” is not because the person who recovers first is literally the only one who can act in that situation, it’s just that their attacks are more likely to succeed than the person who recovers second. If I make you block something that leaves us both even, then whoever chooses their fastest attack next will win the exchange, but if I make you block something that lets me recover 4 frames earlier than you do (also known as “+4 on block”) then I can choose a slightly slower attack with a higher payoff and still beat your fastest button because I got to start my attack earlier than you did. If you know that I’m +4 in that situation, then you know that most of your attacks won’t beat my attacks, meaning that it’s not your “turn” to attack, and it’d be a better idea to just continue blocking until a better situation comes up. But because fighting games are real-time, you can also choose to respond to that situation with a move that can “steal your turn” — like a move with invincibility, or a Parry. These moves are valuable for keeping the opponent on their toes, but they’re higher-risk if the opponent anticipates them and punishes, so you need to learn how to use them sparingly.

Overall, turns aren’t really something I’d worry about while practicing against a CPU, but it’ll be important for learning to structure your offense and defense against actual human beings. For now, I’d recommend just turning the frame display tool on in training mode, and paying attention to which attacks leave you plus and which ones leave you minus. When you play against an actual human being, you’ll want to take note of how often they’re attacking while you’re plus, or how often you’re getting counter hit for attacking while they’re plus, and over time you’ll learn how to punish people for being disrespectful of frame advantage (or too respectful of frame advantage) but you probably don’t need to worry too much about that now.

Thanks for reading!

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Patrick Miller

a little bit miyamoto musashi, a little bit yoga with adriene.