Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Endgame First

Endgame First

"In order to improve your game, you must study the endgame before anything else; for whereas the endings can be studied and mastered by themselves, the middlegame and the opening must be studied in relation to the endgame." - José Raúl Capablanca, world chess champion 1921-1927 

Chess grandmasters frequently maintain that new players should make a thorough study of endgames before moving on to openings or middlegame principles. In the following paragraphs I hope to illustrate their foresight and how it might inform a better structured learning in Melee.

In chess, the endgame is quite naturally the goal. When playing chess our primary goal is to checkmate the opponent’s king. It follows that we should examine the most common situations from which this is possible. We don’t want to drop opportunities for an easy victory due to negligence of clear-cut and completely solvable situations. This idea is easy enough.

Second, In the case of chess, the endgame emphasizes fundamental principles by reducing the complexity of the gamestate to the extreme. This is of course exactly why the endgame is clear-cut and solvable in the first place. With only a few pieces left on the board and the end so close, the control and potentiality offered by each and every piece of material is very important and very explicit. Thus, in addition to consistent victories, study of the endgame instructs us in no uncertain terms as to the individual strengths and weaknesses of individual pieces and positions when pushed to their extreme conditions and how best to work them.

The endgame also provides clear and unmistakable feedback as to the success of our learning these principles. The situations are simple enough that we must win without leaving room for error. If we draw or lose from a favorable position then we haven’t demonstrated competency. Consider Critical Squares. Without an understanding of why these squares are critical and the capacity to follow through, the concept itself is useless. We have failed the principle that we mean to embody. The same can be said of many concepts. Although they would be quick to call Critical Squares (or Stage Control) valuable, too many players have neglected to do their homework. They might occupy the winning position, but their gameplan contains sizable and exploitable weaknesses. Without understanding and execution, a winning position may as well be a losing one.

All of this should sound very familiar to a Melee player. In a nearly exact parallel, edgeguards and extreme stage control simplifies the gamestate. The number of options available to the opponent goes from overwhelming to totally containable. In many scenarios, a character trapped deep in the corner should rarely if ever survive without having first taken a hefty risk. What’s more, by removing the option to dash away from confrontation and creating an incentive to actively take space, we can more clearly demonstrate the essential strengths and weaknesses of any given character. A mastery of this extreme position translates directly to competence at center stage. Additionally it creates for other gamestates a clear and familiar positional goal. It is the simplest way to systematically reveal the principles of a MU in a way that is direct, meaningful and pervasive.

While it is true that on the short-term a novice studying openings will outperform one studying endgames, he will fall further and further behind as the endgame-minded student perfects his execution and knowledge of the principles defined by the individual pieces, and expands inward from guaranteed winning conditions to the positions that will bring them about. The same is true for a Melee player.

In our community there is an implicit understanding that you should learn the fundamentals of the game, then work toward specifics. This is backwards. Fundamentals are simply patterns of principles that persist over many situations. In such a complex game there are always exceptions, so any of these mysterious non-entities called fundamentals are unrecognizable without first knowing what they are as well as frequently temporarily unimportant. It takes intimate knowledge of specifics to make use of the patterns and to recognize their exceptions.

If we choose to follow the advice of the grandmasters and carefully analyze how to cover options from specific, endgame-minded positions, we will
   a) have a thorough understanding and better execution in that situation,
   b) recognize over time the underlying patterns that unite situations in and across MUs as well as their differences and

   c) learn the use of fundamentals much much faster.
In this way we have defined a pragmatic method of using specific situations to unearth meaningful patterns as principles, all within the language and logic of the game itself.

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