a) its insight on fundamentals is sometimes so abstract or generalized as to be vague and indeterminate, actively doing little beside confirming practices that you already know. It ends up being something that is “good to come back to every now and again” because it has more information than you can appreciate at any given point but most of that information is inaccessible.*
b) It has demonstrably bad advice regarding mindset.
c) It is actually several different articles hashed together.
This document offers an alternative, process-based model for Improved Drastic Improvement (lol) based on recent condensed research** and conceptual work with S0ft.
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I sincerely believe that being a relatively strong competitor in Melee is not overly difficult WITH GOOD DESIGN. 15 minutes twice a day with one tournament every other week is enough to see incredible growth if you are deliberate with how you use that time. Time spent is incomparable with time spent well. It is not difficult to spend your time better than other smashers.
This document focuses on identifying a specific, pragmatic process to improve what we are going to call your Holistic Gameplan. Your gameplan is you as a player. It is the sum of your understanding (or misunderstanding) of the game as it applies to the decisions that you execute. Every win is a confirmation of some strength in your holistic gameplan. Every loss is a confirmation of some weakness in your holistic gameplan.
Picture a ruler. At one end is the worst that someone can possibly play. At the other is the best. If we were to represent ourselves on this ruler, we wouldn’t put a marker on, say, 6 and call it us. In reality, we have a natural range. Maybe the worst that you will play is a 4. That 4 represents all your weakest decisions that come to fruition when you play at your worst. Maybe at your peak you play at an 8. This range from 4-8 is the shape of your gameplan. It’s pretty wide, but that’s representative of the wide inconsistency in the strength of your gameplan as you execute it. Eventually, you will establish a stronger peak and eliminate fatal errors resulting in a higher and narrower range which in turn results in better and more consistent gameplay and results. All of this is completely in your control. Improvement is all about taking control.
Now how should we go about this?
The primary way to ease improvement is to organize and track your goals/structures/notes/ideas. That's easiest to do in one designated place. You may want to purchase a thick notebook (more likely a binder) and a nice pen, something that you are fond of because it will be your pride. If you prefer to type then you can format a word document/folder/blog/evernote journal. I personally prefer evernote. The avenue doesn’t matter so much but it is imperative for you to have an organized place for your notes. If you can’t hold yourself accountable to maintain a notebook then there is no way in hell you will be able to hold yourself accountable to radical improvement.
Some rules of thumb:
The more lists you write the cleaner your process.
Optimization of process looks like:
- Is this useful?
- Does this fit my needs?
- Is this the best conceivable way to improve myself? If not what would be?
- What is the best way to integrate this into my process?
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The New Smasher
1) Define what you want.
• If you want to win then you must construct a methodology specifically designed to win.
• If you just want to enjoy yourself that is fine (probably smarter) but all of your decision-making will be much less focused because your decisions are suddenly subjective judgement calls from this point onward.
• Always remember: It is impossible to fulfill goals that you can’t define.
2) Read Playing to Win if you haven’t already.
3) Pick one character.
You can change your mind later. The better you are at the game the easier it is to switch characters. But there’s no reason to place arbitrary barriers on your success at the start. Don’t think that you’ve already invested so much time or effort. If you want to win, pick one character (preferably a top tier) that you find exciting to play and to learn about.
4) Learn to control your character.
None of your decision-making matters if you can’t translate it to the game.
When learning techskill, deliberately work through the Four Stages of Competence***.
5) Learn as much as you can about that character.
• Find the R&D Group group
• Look over the frame data and hitboxes
• Watch videos of a top player using your character in slow motion, looking not at what happened but why it happened.
6) Find your local scene.
Preparing to play competitive melee without access to a competitive scene (even if it’s just a like-minded friend or two) is a fool’s errand. Locate local players and tournaments and commit to them. The more regimented your playing the more thoroughly you can plan for making the best use of it. Netplay is also obviously acceptable.
7) Mark a section in your notebook for each matchup.
Ultimately, Melee is a collection of related but distinct mini-games called matchups. Per MU, Identify your broadest strategy and any smaller tactics that best enable that strategy. Memorize the strategy and try to come back to it quickly whenever you find yourself deviating. It is fine for the strategy to change and develop, but you can't internalize or even evaluate a strategy if you don't commit to it.
8) Remember, failure is not just expected-- it's encouraged.
Sucking is difficult for your ego, but great for your skill-building. The moment after failure is the moment of neural plasticity, the learning moment. Your brain literally temporarily gets softer so that it can attempt to fix whatever went wrong. As such, repeated failure is a stronger teacher than easy success. Every time your focus slips, every time you get frustrated, every time you have a tech error, that is is your most powerful opportunity to acknowledge your mistake, acknowledge what the correct action was, and keep moving forward.
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The Initiated Smasher
Your one and only goal is to establish a process that is specifically designed to enable drastic improvement. To do this, I suggest following to a T the following model adapted from The Mental Game of Poker:
The Process Model
This is a cycle of 4 distinct phases of learning. You want to maximize the effectiveness of each. The primary method for this is to cut out any multitasking. Identify which phase you are in and commit to doing that one well. Quality and depth. The other phases will have their turn.
When you sit down to play or to learn, define your goal for the time you're about to spend. Good goal-setting and follow-through is the key to optimizing the learning process. Visualize what your goal looks like before you start and review your discipline after you finish. Then move on with your day. This will allow you to be more On when you are On and more Off when you are Off.
Consider again the ruler analogy. To move your range forward you need to improve both your peak and your valley. In the preparation step, your task is to move your valley mark closer to your peak by resolving your gameplan's weaknesses. It should be said that these weaknesses can be of any sort. Lapses in focus, diet, sleep, and mentality can be just as detrimental as lapses in strategy or execution. Whatever the weakness, use this time to improve it. Remember, the winner of a given set is determined by the time spent before the set much more than during the set itself. If improving your gameplan is largely improving your habits (your Unconscious Competence), then Preparation is a stage for identifying bad habits and not just breaking them but replacing them with good ones (which any psychologist will tell you is much easier than only breaking them).
make a list in your notebook of your perceived weaknesses in order of
• specific to general
• most costly
• most often
• cause emotional turmoil
Systematically fix these one at a time. Remember to deliberately address the Four Stages of Competence.
Design specific exercises for the problems that you want to solve.
I have found the most personal success in setting aside a certain amount of time and running through a list of execution hangups for 2-6 minutes each. This small amount of time ensures my focus and concentrated effort over a realistic span. If I have a strategy hangup then I will write about it or look at the frame data/videos until I fully understand my lapse, at which point I designate friendlies to focus solely on addressing this problem as the opportunity arises. If I am having a mental or conceptual hangup then I will ask a trusted player for advice or reading material. Make sure to document your work in your notebook so that you can refer to it and/or improve on it later.
(Note: it is well within reason to substitute a serious friendlies session for a tournament.)
Performance is the execution of your gameplan on tournament day. Your exact methodology will be greatly individualized, but should center on maintaining your focus and execution throughout the day. This naturally includes having plans for your sleep, eating, hydration, monitoring your mood, caffeine intake, etc. You want to have an established protocol that makes it as easy as possible to play every tournament set well.
Warmup is: being ready to play full and well from GO! This might include some pre-game ritual such as a breathing exercise. It might also include going through some maintenance tech-skill exercises the morning of or in the days before, particularly if the tournament is high-stakes.
Before the tournament, make a list.
What can you do to make it as easy as possible to play each set well throughout the day?
Now it's just a matter of execution!
3) Results (the measure of success)/Evaluation
The inclusion of this step is important because it allows you the best of process and results orientation without falling into the pitfalls of either. With a designated time to focus solely on evaluating your results you cannot wallow endlessly in disappointment nor can you perpetually avoid looking at the fruit of your labor.
The greatest thing about competition is that there is a built-in feedback mechanism called results. If you win then your gameplan was good enough to win. If you lose then it wasn’t. If you go 3-2 then it was a 3-2 gameplan. If you get 5th it was a 5th place gameplan.
Ask yourself: how did you do?
• How did you play on a scale from 1-10?
• How was your mentality on a scale of 1-10?
• What did you execute especially well/badly?
• What was your enjoyment on a scale of 1-10?
• How does this compare to past tournaments?
After your tournament experience (or serious friendlies), ask yourself the following questions.
• What were the problems?
• What are the solutions?
• How can you best integrate these solutions into your gameplan during Preparation?
Keeping this inquiry rooted in your recent performance keeps it relevant to your immediate goals and experience. Obviously, if you have an important money match coming up then you can turn your attention to analyzing that MU, etc.
If you have video footage or a good memory for the problematic scenarios, ask yourself further questions.
What more is there going on here that you didn’t know about or didn’t know how to solve? Take a magnifying glass to your gameplan. What patterns become apparent with study? What decisions are you making that can be improved? In game? Out of game?
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The Advanced Smasher
If you aren’t using the Process Model then get on that.
Additionally, you will make an addendum to your focus during 4) Analysis.
Building on personal strengths
Part of the beauty of Melee is that it carries enough depth to allow for multiple solutions to the same problem. What solutions you choose culminate in a sort of personal expression. Much of the time, the stronger player dominates the tone of the match by controlling what kinds of decisions are made. They turn the match into a game that is designed specifically to accent their personal strengths and avoid their weaknesses. For some players this may be reducing the game to battles of attrition, for some that may be applying a depth of situational knowledge, for others that may be creating chaos and being the first to recognize opportunity inside it, for others it may be tracking habits and curating deadly punish opportunities, etc.
Identify what modes or logics you fall into when you are playing your absolute best. Look carefully at the situations that best enable that mode of playing. Fine tune your strategy to enable your personal expression and turn it into a drastic advantage. Do this with all the focus and diligence of any other process. Preparation is for narrowing your range, but analysis is now an opportunity for you to extend your peak.
At this time I don’t presume to know any more than this regarding advanced stages of learning the game.
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I believe that the usefulness of this document lies in rooting engagement in a cyclic process-orientation that systematically creates ample material and opportunity to more fully engage with the game and our learning process. It is rigid enough to hold ourselves accountable for our own growth but flexible enough to leave room for individual problem-solving.
Melee gets richer and more fun the deeper we fall into the rabbit hole and this is a great trail-guide of sorts to prevent you from stagnating.
I believe that the single most difficult problem when approaching Melee is identical to that of approaching learning altogether; it is overly difficult for humans to learn something that they don’t already recognize. This is why it is difficult to recognize highly evolved strategies in top-player matches sometimes even years after the fact. Until they are aware of something, humans are highly unlikely to observe it at all. For the most part we only see what we expect to see. We can’t recognize instances without a pattern to marry to the concept.
Then how do we learn? With some amount of difficulty. There are, by my reckoning, three main ways to learn novel concepts.
Exaptation is the adaption of processes/concepts that were invented for an entirely different purpose but work well when transplanted and adapted for a new context. It is “moving an idea sideways.”
Examples include Opportunity Cost, Tempo, Exaptation itself (lol), etc.
The rote method for instructing new information in an academic setting is to present a carefully curated set of isolated examples that clearly display the concept. After sufficient exposure, a pattern emerges and gets identified with the concept itself.
You build a theoretical schema that necessitates the existence of an idea a la Aristotle et al.
The first two of these methods can be INCREDIBLY inefficient without careful design, hence the problem. The third can be and more often than not is INCREDIBLY misleading. Unlike an academic subject, Melee does not have a guiding scholastic tradition. Its closest relatives (probably fgc articles, sports psychology, and game theory) are all tangential or badly organized. Smash is a bit of a wild west and ALL of our resources are suboptimal, but this is neat because it means that you can optimize things on your own with effort and good attention and see immediate and dramatic feedback.
Resources (In particular The Mental Game of Poker, The Art of Learning, and some cognitive science in education summaries/further research on)
see also: Practice