Coming from an RTS background and being good at a lot of games, I’ve always had a lot of thoughts about how to get good at Melee. I wrote this guide https://www.reddit.com/r/SSBM/comments/2jc3gb/nmws_guide_to_getting_good_at_melee/ some time ago, and though I still believe this methodology was good for me, I am more cognizant than ever that it is not right for everyone. One of the main deterrents for improvement in Melee is the quality of practice partners, and my old guide takes that into account. I now have significant experience in tutoring people at Melee, and education in general, which have given me more thoughts about how to improve. Tools for practicing have also come a long way since I wrote that article.
People suck at getting good at games. There are innumerable reasons. This guide is written with the assumption that you have regular access to some practice partners that aren’t complete noobs and that any individual reading it does not lack proper motivation. Mentality problems are a common reason for stifled improvement that I won’t discuss here. Coming from RTS, I’m used to hearing people should blindly copy top players until they understand them, i.e. fake it till you make it by emulating good players. This is awful advice in Melee. I would know because I tried to emulate SilentSpectre when I started. This was among the worst ideas I’ve had in my Melee career. Doing things that you don’t understand the purpose behind is terrible in Melee. Your hands should never move faster than your brain, unless you’re one of the 1% of people like n0ne or Mango who are actually good at playing solely on feel.
Practice useful things. W33dl0rd sits in my living room all day practicing the most useless shit. It can be difficult as a newer player to recognize what’s useful and what isn’t. I too spent a ton of my time practicing useless shit. If you aren’t at least an upper-mid level player, it’s unlikely that any of your ideas for next level tech are useful. If you are struggling to find useful things to practice, look at the paragons of your character—Leffen, Wizzrobe, Plup, etc. Though no one has a maxed out toolkit, watching any of these optimal/standard players should give you plenty to practice. If you have practiced something to the point that you can execute it, but after a month you are still unable to integrate it into your gameplay, it might be time to abandon that idea. Not every technique needs to fit into your style. You’ll probably learn some stuff during attempted implementation even if you are unsuccessful. Ledge play is something most people with most characters could spend a lot of time polishing. Check out Laudandus’s practice regiment from a few months ago to see examples of useful things http://i.imgur.com/oEL0zpV.jpg.
If you are a newcomer, the single best thing you could do to improve is to get 20xx and to turn on the color overlay for wait state and missed L-cancels. Get rid of all your idle frames. The color overlay does not work when you’re airborne or in IASA frames, so be sure to not neglect your fastfalls or movement out of grounded moves like Marth’s dtilt. Despite the fact that you can improve at Melee in infinitely many ways, this is the thing that will make the most difference out the gate. The two most important things for being good at Melee are movement and knowledge of situations. The first you can grind out and rapidly improve at, and the second comes through experience and having an active mind, both in the game and between sessions.
Playing Melee is not necessarily practicing Melee. Your brain should be fully engaged and you should have several things in mind you want to practice going into every session. Your skill level and your partner’s skill level should directly influence this. If you are still new, you should practice tech skill, DI, and punish game. At any level, there’s still punish mixups and tech skill to work on. The worse your opponent is, the more you should focus on these things. If you are a mid level player against another mid level player or a better player, neutral game will probably occupy a large portion of your cognitive load. Improving your neutral game is something that is harder to dedicate focus to within a practice regiment, and an area where you will probably do much of your learning implicitly. If you are just playing fuck around, not very serious games, don’t dedicate more than half of your focus to neutral. Neutral game is best practiced when at peak focus against better players who are actively trying to counter you. If you aren’t really in the zone, it’s probably best to focus on practicing punish game and other technical techniques because these are the areas where practice most readily translates into glaring improvements.
Even if your punish game is good, it might not be good against someone with better defense than your common opponents. Remember that punish and offensive mixups are likely to work on bad players but may not work on better ones. Thus, work on recognizing the situations, and work on the execution, but don’t get it worked into your muscle memory to indiscriminately cover certain scrubby things, like instant double jumps or rolls towards center. Better players navigate defensive situations much better than your nooby friends. Good examples of situations where the disparity in defensive skills are the most salient are recovering when off stage, getting out of the corner, and moving oos (especially after a late aerial on shield). Always be diligent in trying to think about how someone might escape and what options might cover their escape. Your friends may not have good SDI, but top players do, so if you’re trying to get better, you need to develop ideas for how to cover options against better players, even if you don’t come across these options often.
Part of getting the most out of your practice is recognizing which practice on your opponent will generalize to other players. The fewer practice partners you have, the more you will develop metagames just to beat them, which may even harm you when you play someone else. For instance, I live with Shroomed, who likes to run at you and fight. I might be very good against him, but I could be very bad against Sheik in general. If I am only exposed to a style where my opponent runs at me, I am likely to have no idea how to deal with planking, platform camping, standing in the corner and throwing needles, etc. When people say “x is so good at a matchup because they practice with y,” this is almost always bullshit because they are just good at the player matchup. No one plays every style of a a character. Overstating the relevance of character matchups and understating the value of style vs. style or player vs. player matchups is among the most common fallacies in our scene. People always stupidly talk up their friends for being good at a matchup, then they come across styles they haven’t played before, and they look like they have no idea wtf they are doing, e.g. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2D_khO6JK9s.
In order to figure out what is useful to practice against which opponents, categorize things you want to practice. The order of categories here correlate to the skill level of your opponent, i.e. focus entirely on the first categories if your opponents are bad, and work your way up as the quality of your opponents increases.
- Things that are useful against everyone, like spacing moves at their tip, grabbing the ledge quickly, and ledgedashing.
- Guaranteed punishes, bearing in mind that things that feel guaranteed against your friends may not actually be guaranteed.
- Things that are generally good. You want to avoid spamming gimmicks because that will inevitably stifle your improvement. There is a big difference between things that work and things that are good. Good is mostly a function of risk reward, so good things should be hard to punish, or they should have an extremely high reward based on you having a correct and not outlandish read. Basically, you want to cover as many options as safely as possible, or you want your option to cover an option with extreme potency.
- Ways to trick your opponent. Actual mindgames and trickery are unlikely to be relevant until a higher level. At lower levels you can just wait for someone to do something stupid, and even if they don’t do stupid things, you still might struggle to trick someone because they lack situational understanding. Someone might actually be too stupid to roll or spotdodge because they don’t understand they’re pressured!
- If playing against someone who’s much better than you, put extensive focus on getting out of bad situations by doing things like good SDI, crisp WDs OOS, Amsah techs, etc. This builds situational awareness.
Not included in these categories is experimentation of next level shit. Do that when you are feeling yourself and have moments of inspiration. These are likely to come out when you are noobstomping, but sometimes it can happen against better players. Or maybe you are just drunk and everything feels like it’s working magically. Don’t be hesitant to record yourself if you aren’t in a sober state. It’s not unlikely that this is the time when you learn the most from watching yourself play.