The Smasher Skill Set: What It Takes to Be Great
I like to think about things, that fact is probably why I ended up starting up this blog in the first place, to have an outlet for my thoughts. One idea I’ve always entertained was the skill set behind a good smasher, akin to what you’d find in something like Madden player stats or an RPG. Ultimately, I streamlined all the skills required into key traits of a player. There are many fine details regarding what makes a great player, but far more often than not, they will trace back to the following traits.
“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.” – The Art of War, Sun Tzu
Sun Tzu’s famous teachings in The Art of War may have become somewhat of a trope to some people, but these things become cemented in contemporary wisdom for a reason. In the case of Smash, knowledge means an understanding of characters, match ups, stages, spacing, kill percentages, priority, and frame data. The latter part of the list is composed of things that fall under the umbrella of the first three, but I decided to specify them to avoid too much vagueness. There is, of course, far more detail to it than just what I’ve listed, but hopefully you get the idea.
A deep and robust knowledge of whatever you are competing in, Smash in this case, is the foundation for a player’s success. Without a strong base of game knowledge, you cannot hope to place well at tournaments in a well established metagame. Knowledge and tactical expertise is often the responsibility of coaches and team captains in team games and sports, but in a solo competitive environment such as Smash, the burden of responsibility with regards to knowledge lies solely with the individual player. For this reason; research, discussion with other players, and extensive match up experience form the very core of your development as a player.
Knowledge isn’t just about being able to recite facts about the game, knowledge at its greatest potency is knowledge that is deeply ingrained in your brain, to the point where you don’t have to consciously call upon what you know. It should be as natural as knowing to eat when you’re hungry, this is the level of mastery present in top players.
Candid shot of PPMD at Apex 2015
Composure is an often misunderstood trait, much like bravery. Bravery is often seen as the absence of fear, but in reality, it is the ability to do something despite being afraid. Likewise, composure doesn’t equate to feeling no nervousness, but rather the ability to perform and thrive under intense pressure.
Every player, no matter how great, feels nervous when the stakes are high enough. Nervousness is not a sign of weakness, it is a sign that you acknowledge the importance of what you are about to do. Players with great composure can maintain the coherence of their thoughts under the stress of a racing mind, and the absolute best channel the surge of mental activity to enhance their performance.
The ability to maintain mental clarity and focus, whether it be during intense mid match pressure situations or from general nervousness, is a key component of being able to perform in a competitive setting. It is also much easier to keep oneself focused if ome’s base of knowledge is strong, since knowing and understanding what you need to do is what provides the focus for your play. For those who want to develop their composure, consider the following:
A) Nervousness is okay, accept it and what it means rather than trying to fight it.
B) Understand that mistakes are okay, you make mistakes in training and in friendlies, you will make mistakes under pressure too. Do not let a mistake break your spirit.
C) Remember everything you know, and assure yourself that you have a base of knowledge sufficient to compete.
With continued expoure to high pressure situations comes a greater degree of composure, so don’t shy away from them!
The possibilities are endless…
Option assessment is the ability to evaluate all the options available to both you and your opponent in a given situation. This, of course, ties in greatly with the base of knowledge and composure a player has, but it is also an inherent ability that manifests itself very strongly in talented players.
The ability to assess all the possible options available to both players, judging the probable outcomes, and weighing/understanding the risk-reward ratios for all these options in extremely short spaces of time is a trait that creates a truly fearsome player. Option assessment has a strong aspect of creative flair attached to it, since while two players can have essentially equal levels of knowledge and composure, the ability to process it all into novel ideas isn’t necessarily guaranteed. To create your plays, you need to understand what you’re working with, but you still need to be creative to reap the maximum benefits from your knowledge.
To improve this trait, it’s important to experiment with ideas in friendlies, and even in competitive matches, although the nature of friendlies gives you greater freedom to experiment with impunity. This is a very intuitive trait and it’s not something easy to develop, but with time and copious experimentation, it does improve.
You got read, scrub
Anticipation, also known as being able to read your opponent’s moves, is obviously a key trait for any player to have. Noticing player habits and predicting based on observation is often seen as the archetypal hallmark of a great fighting game player.
This draws on previous listed traits, where understanding the game at a fundamental level, maintaining composure, and being able to quickly visualise all the options available to both players contributes massively to applying the last step in prediction: reading the habits and playstyle of your opponent.
Anticipation is possibly the most celebrated trait next to technical skill, for its nuanced psychological nature and demoralising effects when on the receiving end of repeated punishing reads, it’s pretty much treated as an artform. To develop this skill a player should generally focus on just one thing: watch your opponent rather than yourself. Although obvious enough conceptually, a player who has difficulty making reads is usually focusing more on what they themself are doing rather than their opponent.
Always shine, sometimes multishine.
Having a strong decision making game is tied to the speed of making decisions, as well as the quality of decisions made. Very often a completely overlooked trait, but the ability to be decisive and effective with one’s choices is of vital importance in competitive play, and a stand out trait of the upper echelon of players.
Having strong knowledge, composure, and option assessment gives the player access to a deeper pool of choices, after all if you lack the ability to see the best option even exists, you won’t be able to choose it, even if you’re the type to make the smart choice. On the other end, being able to see all the relevant options and predict your opponent’s next move, only to choose a minimally effective option for something like the infamous “swag points” (pitchforks imminent), shows that decision making as an independent, emergent trait is still exceptionally important.
To get better at decision making, it’s largely a case of getting to grips with the risk-reward ratios in each situation. For example, a high risk-high reward option becomes far more acceptable at a 2 stock lead compared to even stocks. Ultimately, it’s a case of the value of options relevant to the situation, and learning to choose what you understand will be the most effective.
The environment informs what I become!
Adaptability is the ability to adjust one’s play based on a change of circumstances. Whether it be the pace of the match, or a marked shift in the opponent’s tactics, being able to change one’s strategy when it’s appropriate is what separates exceptional players from solid ones.
To be able to adapt effectively, especially at the highest level, you need a strong understanding of what is actually happening to be able to do so. So, again, knowing the game, staying composed, assessing options, anticipating your opponent, and being able to effectively choose to adjust your playstyle when it is appropriate are key precursors to a strong adaptive game.
You might be thinking that adaptability seems to just fall under the umbrella of decision making, which is essentially true, but a powerful part of adaptability is also the ability and willingness to play outside your comfort zone or desired rhythm/style of play. The ability to be fluid, and even go as far as to change the basic approach to your play, is the key to being able to win against a varied set of opponents.
It’s not easy to train your ability to adapt, inability to adapt is a strong mental barrier that represents being uncomfortable with changing how you approach playing the game. The best thing to remember is that although you may want to play a certain way, you want to win even more.
He’s got style, and plenty of grace
Ah, technical skill, the only thing most people care about. Another misunderstood trait, and a trait that’s either over or underestimated in importance.
Technical skill is immensely important, and is, in the simplest terms, the ability to actually execute what you want to do with consistency and ease. However, when preceding traits are lacking, where you don’t know what’s going on and what the best choice is, it doesn’t matter how many flashy shine techs you are capable of, because a bad idea is still a bad idea, even if perfectly executed. On the other end, it doesn’t matter how sharp and astute an individual you are, if you physically cannot execute an idea, then it will never cone to fruition. An idea that isn’t actually executed is just that, only an idea.
Technical skill is often seen as being able to execute blazing fast button press combinations, but this is a shallow and narrow view of the total picture. Precision and timing are also vital components of technical skill in Smash, which is why I would actually consider Hungrybox, often called “not technical”, to have excellent technique with Jigglypuff. Of course, the extent of his technique is restricted to his precision and timing, with his manual speed not quite there, but for the character he uses, his execution is magnificent.
A musiciam with ten times the soul and half the manual technique of another will always produce more beautiful music on a piece within their ability, but they will find certain music is out of their reperoire range. The key, then, is to understand their strengths and limitations, and choose the best repertoire for them.
Every character has their own unique technical challenges, many things which are precision and timing based, and thus not immediately considered technical aspects, but a robust technical facility with all aspects of the game gives you the power to realise all the ideas that come from a powerful playing mind. The more varied your technical repertoire is, the more characters you can develop to a high standard. That doesn’t mean you need to be amazing at all aspects of technical play to find success, because each character is reliant on different technical abilities. Find a character that suits your inherent strengths, and develop from there.
In terms of training technical skill, there are probably more Smashboards posts and YouTube videos dedicated to the subject than anything else, save for tier list discussion, so you shouldn’t be too lost in that department!
So, to wrap up, I’m just going to lay out the process of action that occurs in a Smash Bros. match, and by making it through the whole article, you’ll hopefully understand how it all fits together and why they are all so important (and interdependent).
Knowing the game > Staying composed > Assessing all the options available to both players > Reading what the opponent is likely to choose > Making the right decision fast enough > Adapting when necessary > Executing what you want to do
Also, on a side note, I’d like to point out that in my opinion, PPMD is the player right now that exemplifies the overall balance of all these traits, with exceptional strength in every aspect of what it takes to be a top player. Even as an underdog, it’s not surprising he took Apex this year. Oh, and obviously I’m not saying the other top players don’t have a strong balance of ability, just that PPMD, seems to have the best balance and development as of now!
Anyway, until next time, keep up the hard work!