Rishi’s Tenets of Improvement – H1 2018

Hello. It’s been a little while since a post like this.

But here I am, and I’m going to cut right to the chase. As you regular readers may recall from “Resting from Results”, I have struggled a bit with my journey in the competitive smash world. A lot has happened over the last several months.

In short, I feel that I have achieved many of my goals. I have culminated a much healthier relationship with smash, I feel much more positive and less drained after tournaments, I’m having more fun while competing and while traveling. It’s a lot of good.

I won’t say all good, because the one drawback recently has been that I feel quite drained. As you may know, I work full-time in Manhattan. So taking a late flight out every Thursday or Friday to compete, then coming back on Monday morning (and in one case, missing an international flight) on little-to-no-sleep, has been taking its toll. For that reason, I’m currently taking a break from competing, or at least traveling to compete, until around EVO. And I’m loving it right now.

So I figured, what better time than now to share a few key lessons I’ve learned?!

This write-up will not be like lloD’s Guide to Improvement. He gives you a beginning-to-end step-by-step instruction manual on how to become a better player. I definitely recommend it, but there are many ways to learn and many phases of your journey at which points different lessons will help. My write-up will be a list of short list of items that have helped me reach, in my view, many breakthroughs over the last several months and last few years.

This might not be the first iteration of this list, because as I change as a person, the lessons that stick will change as well. And that’s lesson #1!

In any case, I totally lied and absolutely did not “cut to the chase.” But here we go.

Adopting a Process-Oriented Approach to Competing

As opposed to a results-oriented approach. This was a central topic in the last write-up on the bl0g, and is a relatively common piece of advice. But this is something you can and should keep returning to. Simply telling yourself that you are now focusing on process instead of result is not enough. In order to make a lesson like this stick, you have to keep re-evaluating your emotions, your reactions, your thoughts, your actions, and so forth, over time.

There are many reasons it’s beneficial to adopt a process-oriented approach. Many. First, it makes you better. By focusing on the process rather than the results of your tournaments, you actually will improve your results over time. And the best part? You stop caring about the actual results, and start measuring yourself against yourself, rather than against others.

I mentioned that I have been “achieving my goals” earlier. For a while I started consciously going into tournaments with the following goal at the forefront of my mind: be happy with the way that I played. This idea manifests itself in many ways, and begins a virtuous cycle when you take it to heart. After each game, ask yourself: was I happy with how I played? Was I proactive in trying to play my opponent, or did I get too hung up on applying one tech or the other? Was I happy with how consistently I did or did not land my tech?

Asking these questions helps you bypass the unproductive emotional consequences of being frustrated by a loss, or overconfident after a win. This is the real key of this approach: it makes you care less about whether you win or lose. Frankly, you’re going to win in dumb ways sometimes, and that doesn’t necessarily mean you played like a g0d.

“But Rishi, how do I know whether I played well or not?!” you ask? Watch videos of other players in your caliber, watch videos of top players, and watch your own videos (even, or especially, when you lose!). Over time you’ll develop a better sense of what gameplay you should approve of, and what you should discourage. And the more you mix in analysis of your own videos with analysis of other videos, the more easily you are able to dissociate your own gameplay with the emotional repercussions of winning or losing.

That isn’t to say that emotions have no value – they have great value. Positive emotions and personal celebration can help reinforce good playing habits. But for most people, the reactions have to be mitigated rather than encouraged. These feelings will come naturally.

The benefits of this approach really go on and on. Another example is that process-oriented playing helps you get more out of friendlies. It helps you maintain focus in matchups you might otherwise dislike. It helps you narrow down what specific parts of your gameplay you want to improve on, which in turns gives you clearer line of sight into what you should be practicing.

One of the most beneficial aspects is that the process-oriented approach serves as a sort of antidote to “tourney nerves.” If you are fully engrossed in the actions in front of you, then everything else fades away. You don’t have time to focus on your nerves when you’re keeping track of your opponent’s options, trying to feel out when they’re going to approach or retreat, and letting yourself flow into your well-practiced punish game upon landing a hit.

This isn’t something that will happen overnight – you have to keep practicing. Other techniques such as meditation and mindfulness are nice complements to this approach.

Let Go of Your Ego / Seek Out People Who Will Beat You

This is kind of a secondary lesson to the first part. For me, it serves as a way to force myself to more completely adopt the process-oriented approach.

I used to be picky about who I played, especially at tournaments before a big bracket. It’s tempting to play people are your skill level or below, lest you be discouraged by losing to good players. But experience has shown me this is not the case.

I walked into Smash’n’Splash day 2 with the intention of looking for someone to beat me. And instead of worrying about how my ego would react, I actually found myself relishing the challenge of overcoming a better opponent. Lo and behold, I actually found myself playing better. No longer was I worried about the outcome of the friendlies, as I was expected to lose or go even. Instead, I could practice focusing fully on the process. And let me tell you, against higher-level opponents, the only way to stay on your feet is by staying focused on the process.

This particular tenet came from a line I highlighted while reading The Art of Learning… honestly I don’t remember the exact quote, but it was something along the lines of losing being a part of the author’s regular routine, so fighting players of his own caliber seemed a much more manageable task in relation.

Accept That Melee is an Expression of Your Self

You can stop trying to imitate exactly what Plup is doing with Sheik, because you won’t achieve it. There is no way to perfectly replicate another player. But I see this as a strength – while you cannot replicate another player, no player can replicate you. There are so many variables in Melee that it is virtually impossible for two games to look alike.

The pressure to play exactly like another player will alleviate as you accept that there is no 100% “optimal” way to play the game. You can learn a great deal from watching other players, and you can learn even more if you accept that exact replication should not be the goal.

I’ve mentioned in the past that I ask different top players specifically worded questions just to get an idea of how they think. Oftentimes I’m more interested in their thinking process in answering the question than in the actual contents of their answer. M2K, for example, will often describe his neutral game as Marth vs Fox as “random.” I won’t extrapolate more on that, but it’s pretty telling.

Two players I think about a lot with regard to this outlook are Mang0 and Duck. Mang0 embodies instinct in Melee, playing the way he likes – often in a demonstrably suboptimal manner. Duck, on the other hand, has carefully deconstructed more scenarios than almost any other player, and has constructed an extremely powerful flowchart that maximizes Samus’ strengths.

After accepting that Melee is an expression of your “self,” it’s important to acknowledge that your “self” is not constant. You are constantly changing and re-shaping, and so is your Melee. Our journey as players and competitors is shaped by how we try to change ourselves, and in turn change our gameplay.

I see improvement in Melee and competing as a means to find self-improvement. There is no limit to self-improvement, as your surroundings and self are constantly changing. You can always be making an effort to be more mindful, to react more positively to your surroundings, to not latch onto negative occurrences, to improve your physical and mental health, and so on. Every aspect of your life affects your Melee.

Flow Freely Between States of the Game

There are a few sub-points rolled into this one:

  • Release the desire to land certain moves/combos
  • Develop a sense of when to prioritize fighting and when to prioritize positioning

Let’s talk about the first point. I often myself in a scenario where a particular option would lead to a favorable, or the most favorable outcome, for me. I latch onto the idea of landing that move. This could be landing Dsmash with Peach, Dair with Falco, grab with ICs. I begin to focus on landing the move I have in mind, and it shapes my habits and movement.

One must recognize that the highest chance of success comes from mixing in a healthy array of options. I originally noticed this issue in my own play when I saw myself spamming sideB against spacies at high %, hoping to confirm into an Utilt or Fsmash to kill. But by intentionally releasing the desire to land that move, the rest of my options became available to me. I was freed up to mix up the options I chose in neutral, and to play to my opponent rather than my own desire.

This flows to the next point – developing a sense of when to prioritize fighting and when to prioritize positioning. There are many frameworks through which to analyze the “neutral,” and this is one.

In Melee, you are constantly tracking numerous variables: your percent, your opponent’s percent, relative position, the actions you’ve taken thus far, your opponent’s habits, and so forth. But what to do with this information? If you find yourself feeling lost, which often happens when fighting against a stronger opponent, try simplifying your decision: do I fight, or do I move? You constantly remind yourself of this question as you play, and over time your mental list of variables helps inform the answers to that question. And over time, you are able to answer the question more quickly. And as you answer the question more quickly, you find yourself more comfortably flowing to the next question: how should I attack and where, or where should I move and how?

Learning new characters can help broaden your sense of how to answer this question. For example, Fox is stronger at fighting from any position than most characters. He has fast moves and safe shield pressure with high rewards – he doesn’t necessarily mind fighting out of the corner as much as Peach might. So if you’re a Fox player, try playing a slower character like Peach and learn how to move out of the corner safely. You’ll find more options open up with your main.

Your Decision-Making Should Be Reactive, Your Intuition Informed

Fight your opponent. Not fighting my opponent is a mistake I commonly make in friendlies and on netplay. I try to do the “optimal” neutral options and get frustrated when they don’t work. In reality, I’m ignoring my opponent’s potentially unorthodox, but visible habits that are beating what I’m trying to practice. At the end of the day, Melee is about interacting with your opponent.

You need to constantly react in the moment to what information you are presented with by your opponent. You can consider 1) what information you are given them, 2) what information they are giving you, and, most importantly, 3) what information they give you relative to what you give them. For example, you spam Dtilt as Marth against a cornered spacie. Do they try to fight out of the corner with an aerial? Do they wait patiently in the corner until you do something different? Do they retreat to ledge? Do they take to the platform and try to reposition? You take this information, and you can try to generalize that habit to be applicable in more scenarios than just “I am using Dtilt against a cornered spacie.”

It’s a bit hard to explain this part, but it has to do with the intention that you project with your actions, and how visible that intention is to your opponent. Sometimes I try to project a certain intention to my opponent, but it is not clear enough and they don’t react in the way that I like. This is something you develop over time by playing many opponents.

You can start categorizing something like “Dtilting toward the corner” with any number of other options, such as “in-place aerials as Fox” or “floating in place with Peach.” The goal of these actions may be similarly perceived by your opponent, or by multiple opponents. But again, this is a hard idea to capture – context matters greatly. A Dtilt in the same spot can mean very different things based on the past actions in a set.

When I say your “intuition” should be “informed,” I mean by the state of the meta. This is how you can keep your gameplay relevant and refreshed – you should constantly be watching matches of other players.You learn different ways that players are reacting to popular scenarios in the current meta, and you consider the variations of that action and the variations of the reactions.

If this section hasn’t made any sense to you… here’s the baseline takeaway. Remember to be reactive to your opponent, and come to the fight prepared with analysis.

Wrap-Up

All of these points are somewhat disjointed, but ultimately they all flow together. There are many ways to fill in the gaps. I have a lot of experience competing and talking about improvement with other players – these points just happened to be the lessons that stuck out to me greatly as I’ve progressed in 2018. Your job is to learn what you can, and fill in the gaps with your own experience. As you gain experience, some of these lessons will become more important, or you’ll find new frameworks that better fit your approach.

I may come back and tweak some of these sections, and I may provide a future update with new lessons as I learn them. If you want to discuss these points with me, I suggest you don’t do it over Twitter. Instead, talk to me in Discord (discord.gg/rishi) or on my Twitch (twitch.tv/rishi – this one is probably best). Good luck out there!

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