HugS, Tafokints, and others have written guides to tournament preparation. While some may find them helpful, I know they would not be helpful for me, so I am guessing I’m not alone in this demographic. Existing guides mostly talk about prudent planning, like eating right and wearing deodorant. While I don’t necessarily disagree with what’s been written in the past, I can tell you that none of these guides would have helped me improve at the game. Thus, I want to share some tips both for how to play your best in tournament and how to get the most out of attending a tournament.
How to do your best in this particular tournament:
Prepare in a way that makes meaningful differences for you. Likely factors here are sleep, practice, drugs, and food. I happen to know that practice is infinitely more important for me than sleep or food. I might even play my best on no food or sleep but with binge practice as a substitute. Experiment as you would scientifically by controlling variables. I can’t play at all hungover, but there probably are some people who can. I’m not saying you should do anything that will adversely affect your health, but you should try to make an effort to learn what hinders you. There’s a reason why Scar used to spend half of his time on commentary whining about being hungry. If you go to Melee tournaments often, you will constantly be put into situations that could make you have a bad performance, so you want to learn to navigate these situations.
Warmup time tends to be difficult to get, so be assertive about getting on setups. I play best when I have played as much as possible with as few breaks as possible. I wish this were not the case, but I need to have my hands constantly warm to play my best. Don’t lose because you were too pussy to ask to get next. Look for setups that will get you the practice you need. Find the matchups that you want to practice or the setup with the opponents that look like they will best prepare you for coming hours. This might be the setup with the best players so you learn the most, or it might be the setup with the worst players so you get your hands moving their fastest. Don’t focus too far ahead on the bracket though. If you are thinking about the Samus you have to beat in WR3, you are getting taken out of the zone and might get upset in WR1 or WR2. There’s nothing shittier than letting yourself get upset because you assumed you couldn’t lose.
Develop a routine to help you get in the zone. This may involve isolating yourself from friends for a little bit to focus. Maybe you want to review your notes. Maybe you want to get baked and combo the worst players there. There’s no right answer here. Just experiment a lot and see what helps you play your best. There are endless possibilities for how to get into the zone. Just remember that standing around annoyed or bored makes it difficult to transition to good Melee. We can’t all play our best all the time, but you can get to know yourself so that you have the best chance to play your best. Johns are real and they make people play bad, but no one cares, so do your best to put yourself in a situation where you don’t have anything to John about. Don’t be the guy who whines about the venue being cold—you could have brought a sweater and hand warmers!
Practice things in game that help you perform better. Use your handwarmers, morning routine, or whatever time you have to practice the things that will make you win. This might sound obvious, but it’s a little less straightforward than it seems. Haxdashes, for instance, are a fairly insignificant tool in my kit. However, being unable to perform them under pressure is something that breaks my mental game. If I can’t perform my tech skill under pressure, my focus breaks and my game falls apart. Make sure you can perform everything you expect yourself to be able to perform. On top of this, practice things that are truly game winning, like waveshine into usmash, just to make sure you don’t throw games. Making sure you are on top of your basics is the best way to get ready for the impending mental battle. In your match, you want to focus solely on your opponent and you don’t want to have to spend any focus on execution.
People generally play their best Melee when they are having fun. People play badly when they are nervous or taken out of the zone by external factors. If you are thinking about what people are going to say about the result of the match, you are not playing your best. If you are thinking about a combo that you want to do to look super sick, you are not playing your best. Hopefully this guide can help you find the fun so that you will be able to play your best more often.
Don’t say to yourself “I will win” or “I need to win.” Think “I’ll do my best,” “I’m prepared,” remind yourself of strategies, etc. “Will” and “need” are sentiments that take you out of the game. “I’ll do my best” might not be the best thing for you think, but it works pretty well for me because it doesn’t take me out of the game. Thoughts about the outcome of the game do. You should be solely focused on the movements of your opponent and on his mental state. Focus is the most important factor in winning. Winning isn’t about being better, it’s about taking four stocks faster than they take four of yours. Being taken out of the game mentally leaves you susceptible to missing something (simple shit like an SDI input can win a game). Conversely, if your opponent’s focus breaks, this is an opportunity for you. Experiment playing with music and maybe even game sound in headphones to see if these things help you focus. Even if you rely on audio cues, you will be a more formidable adversary if you are well-focused and lacking audio cues than if you had audio cues but poor focus.
How to set yourself up in the long term:
Let’s start with some basic tournament etiquette, for the newcomers or the socially daft. Be calculated with when you talk to top players, i.e. don’t talk to them after they’ve lost or while they are preparing for an important match. When you do talk to them, don’t say anything too fanboyish and don’t come off too strong. Remember, these are normal guys who weren’t so different from you when you started, so it’s more likely you’ll be their friends if you just act like a normal fucking person. If you come off as starstruck, you might make them less inclined to hang out because you’ve made it awkward for them. Also, be wary of calling next when everyone on the setup is vastly more skilled than you. You might be impinging on their much needed preparation time, though you shouldn’t be too shy to ask to money match or see that this isn’t the case.
Be sparing with your shit talk. It’s fine to shit talk your friends if you’re funny and having a good time, but don’t be a dick to strangers. If you’re shit talking your friend’s opponent in r1 losers, you might actually be making a newcomer’s tournament experience shitty. Melee hasn’t gotten where it is now by being mean to noobs. Help cultivate the scene by being a decent person.
Let people money match on the setup if you’re playing friendlies. There’s a basic hierarchy of importance that tournament > mms > friendlies. If you want to use the setup, money match yourself. Don’t do 1 dollar BO5; that is the grimiest shit. If you want to play a couple games against a friend you haven’t seen in years, or something extenuating like that, people will understand, but generally be ready to vacate the setup if two people want to MM.
Expect winner stays on rotation. Melee is a fighting game. Fighting games have decades of history of winner staying on the rotation. If someone wins several rounds of the rotation and you have a desire to play someone else on the rotation, speak up. Most people don’t have a problem sitting out a game if they win ten in a row. If you really want to play someone, money match.
Ask questions when you play. Be specific. Examples of good questions include “What other options do I have in that situation?” or “do you notice any glaring bad habits that I have?” Examples of bad questions include “What do I do against lasers” or “How do I beat Fox?” Don’t argue with top players when they try to give you advice—it’s usually better to be quiet and let the advice stir, as you may come to understand it as time passes. If you come off as particularly scrubby as a result of having poorly thought out questions, the person is probably going to walk off and tell his friends about the retarded scrub he was playing. People LIKE motivated youngins. If you come off like you have the fire and a good attitude, better players are more likely to play you regardless of the skill disparity.
If all the setups look occupied and you like doubles, walk around and suggest to people to play doubles until you find a setup that agrees. If you have one person winning a setup who wants to play doubles, you only need you, your partner, and then one more random person to convert that setup to doubles. Because doubles usually comes first, people are more likely to be inclined to play doubles before the tournament starts, which is often the time with the most friendlies. Just getting your hands warm will benefit you more than doing nothing, even if you aren’t entering doubles. If you are a new player, your singles skills will increase more by playing doubles continuously than they would losing every game on a four man rotation. Playing doubles can also be a fun way to bond, get other people more into the game, and to bring people out of their social shell.
Be social. If you want to get good, it’s in your best interest to mingle because this gets you practice partners. This is doubly true if you are a new player and trying to get into a clique of top players. Top players don’t hang out with each other because they think they are so cool and so good at the game. It’s because they’ve been coming to the same events for years and know each other quite well. If you’re a newcomer, you are unlikely to offer them much of anything in the game, so building rapport outside the game is the best way to posture to get the proper practice partners for long term improvement. This is probably the most important point in this guide, so let me drive it in with an anecdote. A few months ago, I spent an hour at a setup with W33dl0rd, an acquaintance who is not very good, and a noob I had never met. The noob took 0 stocks and he asked 0 questions, just being awkward, not laughing with the rest of us when we were shooting the shit or interacting with us in any way. He was about to take one stock, then he taunted, missed the kill, and proceeded to get four stocked. He probably learned nothing from sitting there on a setup with three better players for an hour. He made himself look like a complete fucking idiot with that taunt, showed no signs whatsoever of being cool, and I certainly did not learn anything from playing him. Why the fuck would I ever invite this guy to a smashfest?
Every tournament has an ideal way to enjoy it. Some tournaments will involve lots of friendlies, some involve lots of money matches, Evo involves excessive drinking, etc. Discuss in advance on social media which tournaments are worth going to if you’re inexperienced. If you are flying to Evo to play lots of friendlies, you are making a mistake. If you are going to The Foundry to practice, you are making a mistake. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. Every tournament is imperfect. Develop your groove to have the most fun at tournaments you frequent. Find good food places, figure out what the schedule is actually like, figure out which people you want to practice with go to which tournaments, etc. If I go to Big House this year, I plan on playing at least fifty money matches. I know that’s how I will get the most out of that tournament.