Thursday, August 24, 2017

Preemptive Play and Counterplay

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

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

The usefulness of a Preemptive Play/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 Preemptive Play and Counterplay.

Preemptive Play (PEP) can be understood as intending to land a hit or otherwise act preemptively.
Counterplay (CP) 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.

PEP can range from SHHFFL attacks to defensive zoning tools. Its defining characteristic is that it is preemptive and its intention is to initiate a play in this moment. CP can include deep to shallow dash dances, run up shields/CCs/FHs, run away lasers, etc. CP is defined by what it intends to punish in a future moment, usually on reaction. PEP can lose to CP in the same way that pokes generally lose to whiff punishes, but not uniformly. Some PEP is safe vs some CP. For example, a shallow, zoning aerial is technically a PEP 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 CP a deep aerial does not directly win against a PEP shallow aerial. Similarly, a close dash dance CP will beat shallow attacks but lose to—or at least drop the opportunity to counter—deep PEP. Consider how a player can take center stage with an attack, an empty wavedash, or even with a run up shield and all of which could 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 CP is as specific in its intention as PEP. An opponent that is committed to CP is waiting to react to something specific. 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 development within a PEP/CP context.

1) Option Coverage
In order to cover multiple options, players have to develop tactics or use a sequence of moves designed to do so. This is why sheik players will initiate with a PEP zoning ftilt but hold down during its endlag or falco players will PEP laser then jab and then dash back. These sequences are favorable against multiple options, including common CP. 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
PEP and CP 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 PEP/CP 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)
(at the time I did it I used the word Initiation instead of Preemptive Play. Exact same concept.)

Using It:

A solid matchup gameplan should have PEP tools to initiate successfully against common CP strats (at least a positive expected value if not winning), PEP tools vs common PEPs, tools to CP common PEP, and tools to CP common CP strats. That sounds like a lot, but it’s actually quite manageable. Additionally, the exercise can reveal and patch foundational holes in your gameplan. But the biggest advantage to examining all four thoroughly is that you will very quickly notice patterns that are true to the game’s mechanics across MUs. With familiarity, those patterns make it much much much easier to recognize and crack an opponent’s strategy in real time!

What does this look like?

PEP vs PEP: (most often identified as scuffles)
    You mean to initiate and win despite the other player also initiating preemptively. 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.

• PEP vs CP (most often identified as tactics)
    You mean to initiate preemptively 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.

CP vs PEP (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.

CP vs CP (most often identified as a bait or disrespect)
    You mean to tease out and reactively 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 lush descriptors/mental signposts even at high specificity/complexity.


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 principle than that.

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