Thursday, August 24, 2017

Initiation and Counterplay


Note: Neutral/Positioning is a bit of a prerequisite. This article is a second tier.

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Initiation and Counterplay

A discussion on and vocabulary for Player vs Player neutral interactions in SSBM.


The usefulness of an Initiation/Counterplay model is best illustrated by delineating the weakness in more generalized vocabulary. Consider the worn dichotomy of aggro and campy playstyles. When you get down to it, descriptions of aggro/campy provide very little usable information and is often little more than misleading. Is dash dancing campy if done for 5 seconds but aggressive if it’s only done for 2 seconds? If Falco repeatedly AC bairs in front of your dash dance is that aggro or is it campy? Is a SH dair in place at the edge of your DD range aggro or campy? Is an approaching laser followed by a dash back aggro or campy? The more specific you get the less meaning the words have.

The FGC footsies model of Poke<Whiff Punish<Movement is far more specific than aggro/campy and is a great starting point to understanding fighting game mechanics. But the Poke<Whiff Punish<Movement model also runs into ambiguity and its usefulness runs out when looking at more complicated situations, particularly those in which frame advantage or situational move-mechanics make their use multi-layered. It’s not so much that you can’t consider a CC grab or a shielddrop bair or even a preemptive FH dair a whiff punish, rather, “whiff punish” isn’t the best descriptor. Because their game is relatively simple at its core, Street Fighter players can make due by introducing additional vocabulary like counter-pokes, anti-airs, command-grabs, etc, terms that correspond exactly the the conscious design and use of the move— a luxury that Melee simply doesn’t enjoy.

At the heart of it, Melee is too speedy and complex for either of these models to suffice. Sooner than later, specifics outgrow their usefulness and you start trying to fit an organic process to a foreign model at the cost rather than at the service of understanding. For this reason I propose an alternate vernacular built specifically to handle a greater depth of learning and description. This vernacular is organized around the interplay between Initiation and Counterplay.

Initiation can be understood as intending to land a hit or otherwise act preemptively.
Counterplay can be understood as looking to punish something.

This model is derived from two principles by which it overcomes the weaknesses of Aggro/Campy and Poke<Whiff Punish<Movement while profiting from their respective utility.
1) Specifics are more powerful than trends. This is the strength of Poke<Whiff Punish<Movement and the weakness of Aggro/Campy.
2) Understanding why moves are being used is more important than the identity of the moves themselves. This is the strength of Aggro/Campy and the weakness of Poke<Whiff Punish<Movement

The form that these intentions take will vary and there is some gray area between the two, but nothing destructive or distracting. It is a clean, effective, and flexible structure.

Let’s look at these concepts a bit closer.

Initiation can range from SHHFFL attacks to defensive zoning tools. Its defining characteristic is that it is preemptive and its intention is to, well, initiate. Counterplay can include deep to shallow dash dances, run up shields/CCs/FHs, run away lasers, etc. Counterplay is defined by what it intends to punish, usually on reaction. Initiation can lose to counterplay in the same way that pokes generally lose to whiff punishes, but not uniformly. Some initiation is safe vs some counterplay. For example, a shallow, zoning aerial is technically a poke, but it’s primary purpose is to initiate in order to gain or keep space, not to start a combo. Thus, a deep dash dance or crouch cancel intended to counter a deep aerial does not directly win against a shallow aerial. Similarly, a close dash dance will counter shallow attacks but lose to—or at least drop the opportunity to counter—deep ones. A player can take center stage with an attack, an empty wavedash, or even with a run up shield, all of which would require different punishes. In this way, a player has to prepare for not just what the opponent will do but how they intend to do it. For this reason much counterplay is as specific as initiation. An opponent that is committed to counterplay is waiting to react to something. But they aren’t robots, they’re humans with human reaction times. They can’t keep track of every option at once. If you do something unexpected then they can’t punish you immediately.

That being said, there are two main ways to color these interactions and avoid having to guess as frequently. Remember, maximizing reward while minimizing risk wins tournaments. Both of these methods are more fully understood as a development of the initiation/counterplay context.

1) Option Coverage

In order to cover multiple options, players have to develop tactics or use a sequence of moves designed specifically to do so. This is why sheik players will initiate with a zoning ftilt but hold down during its endlag or falco players will laser then jab and dash back. These sequences are favorable against multiple options. Specifically designed option coverage is the only way around tunnel-vision and reaction times in neutral. It’s obviously strong but has its limits. It’s very rare for a tactic to cover every option. Additionally, any given player will have only internalized so many tactics.

2) Staggered Punishes
Initiation and Counterplay are most useful in neutral situations when both players have access to many unreactable options. When one character has significant frame advantage then it is more consistent and advantageous to use what I call staggered punishes. In a staggered punish, you recognize frame advantage and make an immediate, gut judgement whether your next punish is solid or not. At that point you either take the punish or DD and wait to reactively punish what they do next. Let’s say for example that Fox nairs in front of Puff. A mediocre Puff will try to grab every time, but a better Puff will recognize when the grab punish isn’t guaranteed and will instead use the nair's landing lag as a sort of buffer in order to react to (or read) and punish what fox does after the nair. However, if you passively DD too often then you can drop this opportunity to dash aways or immediate attacks.

By frequently introducing a 50/50 between attacking or reacting, staggered punishes are obviously related to the initiation/counterplay model. The significant distinction is that while in a purer neutral you may have to interpret your opponent's behavior and guess their intention, a staggered punish allows you to make those decisions based on frame advantage and character states. That being said, I don’t think that you should worry too much about the mixup part of it, at least not initially. You should just prioritize keeping up on it until such time as you’re sufficiently practiced to develop that decision-making.

Internalizing staggered punishes is extremely gratifying. Getting into the flow of them is identifiable with NEO! mode. Neutral and punish game blend together and you start to see and feel the logic of the game.


Case Study:

Leffen vs Hbox at GOML (Game 1)


Using It:


A solid matchup gameplan should have tools to initiate successfully against common counterplay strats (at least a positive expected value if not winning), tools to initiate vs common initiations, tools to counterplay common initiations, and tools to counterplay common counterplay strats. These tools may or may not be foundational, but they are vital to both avoiding and engaging in exploitation. Once they are established variations will be easy to recognize as well as solve even in the moment!

What does this look like?

• Initiation vs Initiation: (most often identified as scuffles)
    You mean to initiate and win despite the other player also initiating. This requires better spacing, move selection, or situational awareness.
    Examples: In close range falco SH laser vs puff SH bair, whoever jumps first wins. Puff can also space so that the bair will beat laser and uptilt. Spacies using uptilt to try to trade with or beat Captain Falcon's aerials.

• Initiation vs Counterplay (most often identified as tactics)

    You mean to initiate and win despite counterplay. This requires you to either identify and subvert the counterplay method OR to have a tactic that beats multiple options.
    Examples: A deep aerial that starts as Captain Falcon dashes away. Captain Falcon can’t turn around and whiff punish. He has to keep running, get hit, or shield. Holding down during the a move so that if it's punished lightly you can immediately ASDI down and grab.

• Counterplay vs Initiation (most often identified as DDing or whiff punishing)
    You mean to scout out and punish an attack. This requires you to space outside of the threat but close enough to punish an overextension.
    Examples: Dashing outside of an attack's range then grabbing it. FHing on platforms then falling though with an attack on a whiffed aerial.

• Counterplay vs Counterplay (most often identified as a bait or disrespect)
    You mean to scout out and punish a failed attempt to punish.
    Examples: Spacing outside of a shieldgrab and punishing. Walking forward and downsmashing.


Note how all of these ideas are very familiar and are very complimentary. All top players frequently and deliberately commit to all of these in order to punish tendencies and cut the right corners at the right times. Note too how they are complicated but not overwhelmed by the addition of option coverage, staggered punishes, and even positioning. They’re still adequate descriptors/mental signposts even at high specificity/complexity.


Conclusion

The usefulness of this vocabulary, as demonstrated in the case study linked above, isn’t to put arbitrary labels on things. Rather, it’s to provide a succinct and more relevant vocabulary that better identifies how and why we make decisions so that we can recognize patterns faster and improve that decision-making. If these patterns are recognized correctly, then you can quickly, effectively and safely(!) adapt your gameplan to harshly exploit any imbalance. It’s a methodology for attacking a player’s understanding and I’d be hard pressed to locate a more core fighting games priciple than that.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

AC Dair Rest

AC dair rest

It is possible to autocancel puff’s dair and combo to rest at low %s.

Dair’s last hit is on frame 26 and it autocancels as early as frame 39. This means that if you hit with the last hit of dair and can land on or very soon after frame 39 and the opponent is still in hitstun after your 4f of landing lag (for a total of at least 17f of hitstun) then you can combo AC dair to rest. You need 23f of hitstun for grab. You can look up what % that is per character here.

The frame advantage of AC dair happens to be effectively identical to L-canceled dair HOWEVER with an AC dair you maintain enough control to steer puff over the opponent regardless of their hitstun animation, allowing you to combo dair to rest at low %s. AC dair will combo to rest on spacies from as low as 20% after the dair. Remember, spikestun is useful because it allows us to hit-confirm based on the predictable animation but with AC dair's low profile and extra drift control that is not necessary.

Similar to the spikestun setup, the last hit of dair is the only one that’s important and any hits before the last one increase the likelihood that your opponent will SDI out of the combo. The biggest drawback to AC dair is that it is much more difficult to execute than an L-canceled dair. It’s difficult to set up and it’s difficult even to see how close/far you are from perfect without using frame counter. For the time being, AC dair rest is not worth practicing for tournament use. But it is sick AF.


Setups:

* SH DJ dair FF
https://youtu.be/mGv6Gv7Rm2I

* FH dair FF
https://youtu.be/X7sbW0oUTCI

* shield drop DJ dair FF
https://youtu.be/AC9tf-kb9uk

* from a late double jump
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-ToqD6Ha_7M

* from the ledge
https://youtu.be/hUzBirXhAlU

* SH ff dair off top plat
(you also can reach this height with SH DJ from side plat or a FH DJ DJ)
https://youtu.be/6KTLDBKFGYM

* fall through slight delay no ff off top plat
(you also can reach this height with FH from side plat or a FH DJ)
https://youtu.be/UaryHWkUyDg


Obviously other intermediary/stage specific setups are possible and will require different variations on timing/ff. The setups listed above are only the most obvious reference points.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

MAC Approach

MAC Approach (Mindfulness Acceptance Commitment Approach)

I personally used to have a very very difficult time performing in tournament to the point that I developed a strong dislike for singles and rarely if even entered anything but doubles. Soft recommended TMGoP to me and it helped my conceptualization significantly but I still had lingering issues. I decided to research more and eventually came across the MAC model. I read the book, took notes, and completed a course through http://mindgames.gg/. Since integrating the MAC Approach my mental-game is my strongest asset. I use the principles every day and haven’t found anything else that approaches its usefulness or efficacy. It is, to my knowledge, the superior mental tool.

Following, I will present a summary of MAC principles. It’s necessary to stress that knowing the principles is completely different from internalizing them, but reading and seeing just how cohesive the system was very exciting for me, so an illustration of the model is merited.

The Psychology Context

In sports psychology it is generally accepted that personal superior performances are a product of total concentration marked by a “peak” or “flow” state. For this reason, it has been more and more common for athletes to undergo psychological skills training designed specifically to best achieve a peak performance state. Traditional psychological skills training in sports uses methodology including goal setting, imagery, mental rehearsal, arousal control, self-talk, and pre-competitive routines to enhance performance by attempting to reign in peak states to a replicable routine as well as reduce anxiety and negativity, psychological roadblocks. However, these approaches carry subtexts implying a) that negative internal states must be controlled or reduced before a positive internal state can take their place and set the stage for flow and b) that flow is a fickle mistress impossible to achieve without perfect preconditions. Neither of these hold up to recent research and these traditional methods have been demonstrated to have no or even negative empirical support (i.e. they don’t actually work lmaooo).

The MAC Approach, a development of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for sports, is a program of psychological skills training designed to remove this subtext and teach relevant, empirically-supported skills. Rather than remove or control internal states, MAC aims to enable our control over focus and behavior despite internal states, that it is not the avoidance of negative states but the degree of experiential acceptance that enables peak performance states.

MAC has seen increasing use and study over the past decade, including in olympic athletes, tennis players, and professional basketball, volleyball, and even esports teams.


Mindfulness and Acceptance

It is tempting to identify our thoughts as our selves or our emotions as pervasive. But in reality, these are small events in a much broader landscape. Thoughts and emotions are just flashes of chemical/electrical activity not so different from other sensations such as sounds, touches, gravity, temperature, balance, vision, etc. All of these can be understood as Internal States. Internal States (including thoughts and emotions) are like water-bugs skirting over a much greater depth. They come and they go. They are inherently temporal.

Fixation on internal states can be disastrous for performance. Imagine that there’s a parade of internal states in front of you. If you fixate on one thought/emotion/etc even after it passes, you can’t respond to those that follow. You’ve created a mental traffic-jam between your focus and the new present. This is why it’s so easy to fall into a downward mental spiral.

If the goal for sports psychology is to maintain a high-focus present-moment/task orientation (i.e. peak/flowstate) then the foil is a self/future/past orientation. The emphasis of traditional sports psychology is to censor or to remove potentially harmful internal states so that they can’t interfere with your focus. But remember, the emphasis of MAC is to engender the skill of maintaining your focus despite internal states.

There is no reason to censor your feeling angry any more than there is reason to censor feeling cold or hearing someone talk. You’ve already experienced those things, they’re already there in your mind. This relates to my post on Tilting. It’s a bit ridiculous and small-minded to worry about censoring every little bump in the road. It's also mentally-taxing and actively turns our attention from the task to the self. If instead we see and accept temporal internal states for what they are then they have no power and there’s no need to censor them. This work is done primarily by dispelling cognitive fusion.


Cognitive Fusion

Cognitive fusion is the habitual act of treating thoughts as though they are what they say as opposed to treating them as the simple internal states that they are. Reacting to feelings as if reality is what you feel. Reacting to thoughts as if reality is what you think. When put this way it’s easy to recognize how inherently irrational cognitive fusion is. Thoughts aren’t reality, they’re just thoughts. Feelings aren’t reality, they’re just feelings. Now it’s just a matter of making it a habit to by way of mindfulness consistently recognize the onset of cognitive fusion and to instead perceive reality as it is. This is simply a less reactive and more accurate way to engage with the present-moment. Within MAC, you accept that emotions occur naturally and for the most part uncontrollably. Instead of wresting with your emotions in order to set the stage for your mental state in order to set the stage for correct behavior you simply commit to correct behavior.

It’s not “I feel/think __ SO I act.” It's “I feel/think __ AND I act.”

Ex: Thinking “I can’t work with this person” isn’t necessarily reflective of reality. Thinking instead “I am thinking that I can’t work with this person” is un-fused. It doesn’t buy in to habitual schema and instead allows you the opportunity to divorces your focus and behavior from mindless reactivity. The capacity to make mindful, reality/value-based choices rather than mindless ones is mental toughness or Poise.

“We define mental toughness as the ability to act in a purposeful manner, systematically and consistently, in the pursuit of the values that underlie performance activities, even (and especially) when faced with strong emotions that we as humans naturally want to control, eliminate, or reduce.”

Imagine yourself in a last stock last hit scenario. You feel psychological arousal, fear, excitement, anxiety. Now you’re going to make a choice between correct behavior (clutch) or letting your emotions dictate your focus and behavior (choke).


Commitment/Value Driven Behavior


If you aren’t basing behavior reactively on internal states or schema then what are you basing it on? In the MAC model, you base your behavior on a system of values. Values are distinct from goals as values are principles used to enhance experience and behavior whereas goals are end-points that direct experience and behavior in a direction but diminish the present-moment experience (This is basically a Destination vs Journey orientation).

In sports, the method is the body and the end. It’s not what you do, it’s how you do it.
Similarly, how you use your time or effort determines the value of that time spent. Consider:
1) What do you want to get out of this time-spent? Why? (Why?)
2) What would you want someone to say in your obituary if you died tonight?
3) How do you want your effort to be remembered?
4) What matters to you about your sport/occupation?

The answers to these questions identify our individual values (what the Inner Game of Tennis identifies as the Inner Game). Engagement with these values not only makes our time and effort spent more gratifying, but also provides direction for behavior independent from internal states (including motivation!). Success in the inner and outer game is a measure of our commitment to our performance values.


Avoidance

The alternative to Commitment is Avoidance. When the going gets tough or confusing, it’s natural for humans to avoid difficulty. It's an evolutionary necessity. Just like I avoided entering tournaments to avoid feeling disappointed in myself, it is extremely easy for us to shy away from trying or painful situations and we often engage in avoidance without even realizing it. Every time we do we are coloring if not determining our behavior with avoidance.

But it is important to recognize that the cost of avoidance is growth.

It’s impossible for humans to learn without stretching their limits. We have to brush up against what we can’t do and extend into the impossible in order to grow. The mentally-tough athlete leans in to difficulty and embraces it— accepts it— not as problematic but as an opportunity. That’s exciting! It’s best conceptualized as akin to weight-lifting. The value of lifting weights isn’t in having hoisted something heavy, it’s in overcoming the difficulty in order to grow. By recalling our values, persevering through pain and difficulty and managing to do something at the edge of our capability our muscles get stronger. That’s the worth.

In MAC, difficulty takes an identical role. The bulk of MAC-training is done through open monitoring meditation. In this meditation you develop awareness and practice your capacity to direct your focus despite internal states without succumbing to the temptation to avoid them AND to recover that focus readily and with forgiveness when it wanders. You accept the states as they come and go and commit to the attention-training. Every time we overcome a bad mental habit, every time we redirect our focus and behavior from reactive to valued, it’s a rep and we get stronger.


Conclusion

By rooting itself in open monitoring meditation, the MAC Approach develops a lasting and pervasive utility not only for sports but also for life-goals and day-to-day experience. It takes and instructs the perspective that success is not a matter of what you are, rather, that what you are is a reflection of how you do, as informed and motivated (i.e. cultivated) by your commitment to value-driven behavior. This kind of approach is both liberating and empowering. It provides tools to make meaningful progress in the pursuit of excellence as well as fulfillment and does so with a model that is elegant, comprehensive, cogent, and enjoys empirical support. I for one have a fuller competitive and otherwise life for it.



Sources:
As mentioned, initially I got The Psychology Of Enhancing Human Performance: The MAC Approach from the library. It has since been uploaded as a pdf here.
I started to do things by myself based on the material contained but eventually shelled out $25 for Weldon Green’s arrangement of the program at http://mindgames.gg/. It was well worth it.
Additionally, http://headspace.com/ is built from the same model. The first 10 sessions are free. Afterward content is $5 a month. I haven’t used more than the 10, personally, but there’s a lot of content there and apparently it covers a wide range of focuses and it’s all very high-quality and similarly well-grounded in research.