Mixups are a unique mechanic that emerges from the inherent design of fighting games as character vs character, button vs button and a 2D surface. Developers have intentionally evolved and expanded the genre by using the concept of a mixup as a— perhaps the—core mechanic. I would personally venture to say that mixups are what make fighting games an enduringly compelling genre. However, the term is frequently used inaccurately or too ambiguously to describe what is actually happening in-game. In the following article we will examine the broader design of a mixup to distinguish mixups and pseudo-random move selection as distinct strategies.
What exactly is a mixup?
A mixup is a game within the game, a key moment most often seen in neutral that takes looks something like a cross between rock paper scissors and a game of chicken. Characters all have different options. Most options will beat some, but lose to others. In a well-designed fighting game, these options create a cyclical yomi system that resembles rock paper scissors. This is simple enough to recognize. But unlike RPS, fighting games are played in real time. They have a nuanced timing aspect based on frame advantage and human reaction speed. For this reason, scissors will only beat paper if the throws are simultaneous. If thrown too late, you lose. If thrown too early, the opponent will react to scissors with rock. In this way, a mixup incorporates aspects of both strategy (weighing the risk, reward, and likelihood of rock, paper, or scissors) as well as execution (perceiving and playing with the correct timing relative to opportunity and reaction times). It’s a singular, beautiful fusion or mental and physical gaming.
What isn’t a mixup?
In a fighting game, it is crucially important to recognize the difference between mixups and randomness. In order to truly work as a mixup, an option has to be systematic. To continue the analogy, let’s say that you have options rock, paper and scissors, as does your opponent. If you choose to instead throw pencil, an unorthodox option that beats paper but loses to both scissors and rock, this should not be considered a mixup. Because pencil does not beat anything that isn’t already accounted for and actually has a greater weakness, it is not truly a mixup. It is an objectively bad play. Although this seems brutally obvious in an RPS format, 90%+ of smashers routinely throw pencil in neutral. Some simply haven’t done their homework in identifying their character’s versions of rock, paper and scissors. This is understandable because it’s a large assignment that demands learned understanding. However, others vehemently defend pencil as a mixup, claiming that unorthodox move selection is a valid strategy. This is partially true, but it is not a mixup.
If a mixup is systematic, then what is outside of the system? In high-level play, unorthodox options are either a) niche or b) suboptimal. Maybe a pencil. Maybe a scissors that only nets you half a point. Maybe a rock that gets you two points but has to be thrown a second early. Assuming the meta is evolved enough, unorthodox moves are always unorthodox for a reason. These moves don’t work well enough in the mixup system to see frequent use. That being said, using seemingly random moves is a real strategy. It takes far less research/practice. It tests your opponent’s execution and/or knowledge of the proper punish. It creates weird, unfamiliar situations that you might be better at dealing with than your opponent. In a phrase, it invites variance. This is a real strategy that works specifically because mixups exist, but it is not in itself a mixup. Remember, by definition, mixups are systematic*. Inviting variance will get you individual wins, but because it is mathematically, objectively a worse strategy for winning than a solid mixup system it is on its own an objectively, mathematically worse strategy for winning the 12 consecutive sets or what have you to win a tournament. To win a tournament you can’t just win 50% of the 50/50s. You have to win more than anyone in the room. You have to eliminate variance. Good design on top of a good punish game can do that.
*at this point it could be argued that any given option can have niche uses as a valid mixup or is at least a bad mixup but still a mixup, This is true, but outside of the spirit of this argument. It doesn’t take many weaknesses for a set of options to start having exploitable holes or insufficient rewards for the risk. This is exactly how people lose games and as such a bad mixup is not deserving of the title.