If you read any Reddit thread where someone solicits metagame advice, you’ll see a bunch of oversimplifications about how to play matchups. These oversimplifications are useful because they delineate a general gameplan. Then with experience, the players will go out and add more nuanced tactics to their gameplan. These gameplans are based on using your character’s tools to exploit the weaknesses of the opponent’s character and to avoid their character’s strengths. As you play more and talk more theorycraft with good players, you’ll develop a good idea of what characters excel at. This should give you an idea what to expect when you go into a set even against an unfamiliar opponent. It is possible to encounter a player with a style and tricks that you have never encountered, but this article will focus on matches where you are encountering things within the scope of what you already knew was possible.
Though I am not much of a gameplan type player going into 2017, there are still certain situations, both in punish and neutral, that define matchups. So you should have an idea how games are going to look in matches on different stages with some degree of accuracy (I’d say 70% if I were to ballpark a number). Here’s an example: “Against Puff on Dreamland, Fox will attempt to shoot lasers, run away to platforms, play evasively, then punish Puff when opportunities present themselves. Puff will therefore try to play cautiously to avoid overextending and will try to call out Fox’s escape options to end the cycle of camping.” This outline has implications for adaptations that will take place during a set.
Certain options beat other options. That’s the nature of fighting games. All of your bread and butter has counters. Thus, you need to be ready to do the next option that beats the option that beat your first option. Ideally, you want to be at least three layers deep, i.e. have an idea of what your rock, paper, and scissors are that will beat theirs as they adapt to you. If you only have rock and paper, then you’ll be out of mixups by the end of the first game, maybe even the second stock. When practicing, your goal should be to develop a huge tree of options, where the leaves of the branches are subtle changes that can throw off your opponent(e.g. drifting back after an aerial on shield instead of fastfalling it). Then, you’ll be able to use this tree in tournament instead of having to innovate on the spot, which can be extremely difficult.
Stages lend themselves to certain strategies. See my articles about stage selection if this isn’t obvious to you. Different strategies even within the same character matchup effect drastically different paces (think Fox/Puff on Dreamland versus on Yoshi’s). Because of the RPS nature of the game, the pace of matches can be predicted. You want to pick stages that affect the flow of the match in a favorable way.
Here are some examples:
Ralph runs me over. I need time to figure out how to deal with his speed. Therefore, going to large stages first favors me.
I always counterpick Yoshi’s against Samus because I think it’s a free win for Falcon. However, last time I played Darrell, in game 2 on FoD, I was getting stuck in shield, cornered, and grabbed a ton. Therefore, I opted for Stadium in game 3, saving Yoshi’s for game 5 because I needed additional space to regain my composure and assess my neutral. Picking Stadium game 3 increased my chances of winning both games 3 and 5.
N0ne does not like FD against Fox. However, he says that playing FD first lets him learn the Foxes style, and he gets this stage out of the way. Therefore, when he’s fighting in close quarters on Fox’s other CPs later in the set, he has a better idea of their tendencies and how to win scuffles.
PPMD opts to stay Marth on Dreamland in game 5 of the first set of Apex 2015 grand finals. PP said that though his Falco was looking sharp and he might have been able to deal with Armada’s Peach, he needed to figure it out with Marth. If it went to set 2, he would not have felt he could do it if he had not gotten additional information from more Marth games. It’s possible I am confusing something from 2013 and 2015 here, but I am pretty sure I’m not, as I have a very good memory.
Note that because of how striking goes or based conditions that arise on tournament day, I may deviate from these ideas. In reality, I always start on Yoshi’s against Ralph because I will never strike to FD, and he strikes Dreamland+BF. On the n0ne note, he chooses to strike to FD because of the battle for information. I similarly sometimes choose to strike to FoD because of information even though I think it’s a horrendous Falcon stage. The nature of counterpick stages is that your character will not play the same way they will play on other stages. This is why these stages are counterpicks—they take you out of the comfort zone for your character, nerfing your bread and butter. Ergo, I can learn more about my opponent against them on FoD than they can about me. I’m not gonna spend any time in subsequent games in the set stomping platforms, ledge canceling, and spamming shield drops.
Coming back to the beginning, gameplans also have implications for how the match will evolve, which you can skew with stage selection. As an example, let’s say hypothetically that you are Ralph playing Fox. Ralph is very fast and aggressive. A logical pace for the match would be “Ralph initially runs floatie player over. Floatie player figures out some ways to avoid shielding, focuses on SDI to punish some of Ralph’s less safe aggression, and slows down the neutral, taking away Ralph’s momentum, which can be crucial for an aggressive player.” In this situation, Ralph does not want to start on a small stage, even though small stages favor aggressive players. Ideally, he probably wants to start on Battlefield, on which he can be aggressive. Big stages might be too big for him to be aggressive and gain the momentum that he wants. Small stages he might want to save for later, after the player has made some defensive adaptations, to resume smothering them. When I say small stages, I mostly mean Yoshi’s, but in Ralph’s case, he is so tight and fast with shield drop aggression, smothering someone on FoD is also a possibility.
Learn to anticipate how the flow of a match is going to go. Experiment with which stage selection to give yourself a better idea what boons a stage gives you, which strengths it takes away, and how it affects the flow of the match. Don’t neglect the flow of the match going into your opponent’s counterpick—remember that they picked a stage because of specific advantages and try to neuter those advantages with adaptations of your own.