Going into a set, a narrative often occurs in the mind or is forced on us by our peers. We’re told to be confident, believe in yourself, and play your game. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this narrative, but it’s not always good advice. Many players, even at a high level, play more on feel than on thoughtful reflection as the set progresses. But what if things are unfolding in a way that you are legitimately baffled by? Matchup knowledge is an important part of being prepared for a set, but in many cases, it will be inadequate. Your opponent might know more than the people you practiced with. He might employ a degenerate strategy. Maybe he just outclasses you when it comes to speed or fundamentals. In these situations, it’s unlikely you can just “play your game” the way most would like to going into a set. Here are some heuristics to help formulate a plan to give you a fighting chance.
Against opponents that aren’t top players, think of situations where people tend to struggle. Just for brevity’s sake, I’ll just say that this post https://nmwhittier.wordpress.com/2016/11/04/list-of-common-noob-habits-you-should-all-try-to-break/ is a solid list of things you are likely to be able to exploit in low or mid level players. Add to that list situations where you need to DI/SDI correctly to avoid death, like Marth fthrow à fsmash or waveshine setups.
Against top players, think of things that they are known to struggle against or things that they whine about. Some top players are pretty stubborn and can try to force options in situations where they aren’t totally appropriate, especially when they previously failed to execute them at the proper times. Or maybe they are just extremely predictable in some situations because they believe one option is the best option. Try to think of a high risk counter to what they like to do. If you punish someone for doing something “safe,” you have a high chance to distort their focus or make a chip in their mental armor. Taking a stock by doing something that absolutely “should not” work can really get under your opponent’s skin. Even against top players, sometimes cheesing them can be the way to go. I was playing Shroomed the other day, and he knows better than anyone that I spam CC, but despite this and his enormous effort to counterplay it, I managed to take a couple stocks per game with CC cheese. Extreme frustration ensued. I know plenty of top 100 players who could potentially get hit by the “The Fendy” and inevitably get tilted.
At Evo 2013, Tomber made a four stock comeback on Scar. Tomber did this by noticing that wobbling him to excessive percents tilted him. This strategy does not have any inherent value in the game, but outside the game, Tomber was able to net a huge advantage. I never spend more than a few seconds on a platform before coming down to the stage, but if I played Duck, I would consider spending significant amounts of time stomping on the top platform because he’s notorious for complaining about this strategy (frankly, I agree with him that it’s extremely lame). When people hate something in the game, there’s a high chance that they are going to be less level-headed when combating it. Don’t limit yourself to winning via traditional fighting game fighting fundamentals. Find ways to win the mental war. Frustration distracts from focus. Hbox ended Mango’s 3vo by doing some planking that was invariably punished by a more level-headed Armada.
Adjust to your own state as well. Sometimes you are going to be playing like shit. Let’s say you’re playing against someone near your level who you know you can beat, but who has taken you to the brink in previous sets. I would probably try to come up with a strategic approach where I might be able to win without my conventional approach, which often relies on highly precise tech skill. I would try to think of situations where my opponent might flounder, overcommit, or expose themselves to give me easy stocks. Alternatively, I might play riskier at the edge, knowing that if I manage to get a crucial read or two, this might make up for me losing more engagements on stage than normal. There are times that warrant ceding coverage of many options in favor of covering what you feel will give you a more decisive advantage should you make the correct read.
Platitudes like “you have to believe you will win” instill a naïve belief that the quality of your play is a direct reflection of confidence. More often than not, confidence is correlated with better play. However, if you’re playing like shit for the hour before the set, believing you’re going to play well is most likely going to be fruitless. You can try to rectify your own mental state going into the match by meditation, smoking, or whatever else helps you get in the zone. Carrying a notebook is a good way to remind yourself of what you should be thinking going into a set. Dealing with your own sluggishness, anger, frustration, etc. is an integral part of being a champion. Come up with a strategy to win. Always anticipate potential paths the set might take in order to facilitate coming up with responses to probable situations. Never assume that playing the style that you play on autopilot is going to produce the best result.