Finding Your Build

I reckon you could consider this something of a continuation of my Playing to Win (at Life) post over at Insert Credit, where I mostly talked about how to seriously develop skills. Wawro said to me the other day that he gets the impression I spend my free time “casting a steely eye toward the limits of productivity”. I don’t think that’s quite the case, per se–I just think, well, if I’m gonna spend my time playing Marvel/training BJJ/working at a magazine/etc., I might as well be the best Marvel player/BJJ fighter/magazine editor I can be.

But if that post was basically saying “Go big or go home”, this one is saying “train smarter, not harder”. That is to say, with games–and with life, I think–hard work alone can only get you so far. Hard work will get you the day-to-day gains that inevitably open doors for you later on, but a big-picture look at whatever it is you’re trying to excel at will help make sure that the doors you’re opening are leading in the direction you want to go toward. And eventually, when you hit the point at which you simply can’t dedicate more time/energy/thought to whatever it is you’re trying to improve at (in other words, the point of compromise), it’s the big-picture look that makes sure that despite whatever compromises you have to make, you’ll be able to maintain whatever standards you personally want to meet.

Think about it this way: “Getting good at your job” could mean developing any number of specific skills. I am a writer/editor, so clearly the immediate skill is “get better at writing” and “get better at editing”–which is why I do stuff like write stuff that nobody ever reads on my weekends. But networking is also a big part of my job, because it gets me better access to the people I need to talk to (and better people to write for me), and I need to get good at that, too. Managing the magazine workflow well (both my own personal workflow, and everyone else’s) means more time to spend on making the magazine better, so that’s another thing I’m trying to get good at. Getting better with InDesign would make it easier for us to make tweaks and revisions to the magazine. And so it goes. There are dozens of things I could do to be better at my job, and I simply can’t do all of them at once, so I prioritize certain skills over others to make sure my overall competence is as high as it can be in any given moment.

I just spent my Saturday morning playing Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3, in preparation for Evolution 2012 (not that I have any illusions of doing particularly well, mind you, but registering for Evo gives me a reason to play a game, and I need something to kill time before my BJJ tournament tomorrow), and I thought a bit about how I’ve been playing Marvel (and really, fighting games in general).

Most people assume that getting good at a fighting game means spending a lot of time in training mode, practicing combos, watching replays, and generally doing your homework. This is true–in the beginning. When I first got hooked on Capcom vs. SNK 2, I used to spend a whole lot of time practicing pretty much everything. I’d spend an hour working on the A-Bison “Paint the Fence” combo, or Just Defending Sagat’s fierce Tiger Uppercut, or roll-canceling Sakura’s Hurricane Kick, or whatever. And at different times in my CVS2 career, I used A-Bison, K-groove Cammy/Blanka/Sagat, or A-Sakura, so it worked out okay.

However, my best team from my CVS2 glory days was something like K-Groove Kyo/Vega/Blanka R2 or something like that. Looking back, that was the first team I had ever designed with any kind of overall strategy that wasn’t “Hey, these guys are good, and I see a whole bunch of people use them, so I’m gonna use them too!” Basically, it went like this:

  1. First, I chose K-Groove because it would guarantee that I had access to a damage boost and some scary level 3 supers, and (more importantly) I couldn’t roll cancel well, so it didn’t make sense to use a rolling groove, which left me with S, K, and P. S sucks and I can’t parry, so K-groove it is.
  2. My execution is awful, especially in tournaments. I can’t remember how many matches I have lost because I dropped a combo or something stupid like that. Given that I can’t consistently combo into a super, it doesn’t make sense to pick characters that rely on good execution to use their meter. Kyo, Vega, and Blanka each have level 3 supers that are fast enough to hit without comboing into them (as an anti-air or wakeup, for example) and Kyo additionally has a braindead-easy combo into his level 3, so they’re all good choices for me. Even if I don’t land their supers, I’ll get the K-Groove damage off their pokes, which is good.
  3. Vega does best when he has a life lead, because then the opponent has to come to him. Kyo can easily run through a whole team, or get shut down, depending on how effective his mixups are. So I put Kyo first and Vega second. If Kyo gets shut down, Vega will be in against their injured first character, and will most likely be able to even the match up. If Kyo is super effective, Vega comes in against their injured second character and can hold on to the lead.
  4. Blanka is the anchor because he is powerful, can stall the match, and is harder to make dumb mistakes with than, say, Sagat or Cammy. Plus, Blanka’s punch throw gives him an opportunity for a 50/50 mixup with his level 3 that is pretty much a guess for anyone.

If you look at that team, it is basically designed around compromises from the very beginning: I can’t roll cancel, I suck at custom combos, I suck at comboing into supers, so I picked a team that gave me the best options considering those limitations.

Right now, when I’m playing Marvel, I’m using Haggar/Zero/Hawkeye. I know myself much better than I did when I first started playing Street Fighter seriously, so I haven’t really spent much time playing around with everyone in the game. I started out using Zero/Storm/Sentinel in vanilla MVC3, switched to Zero/Sentinel/Haggar for Evo last year, and when Ultimate came out I swapped out Sentinel for Hawkeye and started Haggar. Except for a week-long flirtation with Dr. Strange, I’ve been using almost the same characters since Marvel 3 dropped in March of last year.

By now, I’m fairly aware of my Marvel limitations. I can’t react to rushdown well enough to reliably block it. I still can’t do complicated combos (like Zero’s lightning loop, for example, or any Magneto stuff) with enough reliability to try it in a tournament. And I am really bad about abusing moves which put me at risk (I wakeup DP way too often in any SF game, for example).

With that in mind, I decided to stick to Haggar/Zero/Hawkeye, for these reasons:

  1. The team is well-rounded. Haggar is good at close/mid range, Zero is good at mid/far range, Hawkeye is good at far range.
  2. The order is fairly flexible. I like to keep Hawkeye in anchor because I use his assist for both characters and he benefits the most from having meter, but if I’m not comfortable starting Haggar against certain characters (anyone who plays a lot of keepaway, for example, or Hulk), I can start Zero without totally ruining my team’s synergy.
  3. All of them have stupidly easy combos that can do decent damage without worrying too much about messing them up. (They also have harder combos, which I usually just don’t do.)
  4. Zero and Haggar don’t need meter or X-Factor to do damage. I do better damage with Haggar when I go for sneaky throw resets than I do when I burn meter with him. Same goes for Zero and teleport/shadow clone mixups covered by a Hawkeye or Haggar assist. This means I can use my meter to safely DHC characters in (instead of exposing them to a mixup when one character gets knocked out and another one has to jump in), hold onto it for a well-timed level 3, or hang on to it for Hawkeye.
  5. Hawkeye benefits greatly as anchor from having meter. Hawkeye with 5 meters and level 3 X-Factor is both capable of pulling off a three-character comeback or holding the  lead against pretty much anyone. Zero and Haggar are both good for killing at least one character apiece without using meter or X-Factor, which means it’s not hard for a fully-loaded Hawkeye to come in and Gimlet his way to victory.
  6. Haggar is great because I suck at blocking, so I can abuse his lariat (as an assist or a regular move) to stuff all kinds of mixup attempts. Depending on when I hit the lariat, I can land an OTG combo that does about 30%, or X-Factor cancel and kill whoever I hit. Between the lariat and The Pipe, Haggar is great at punishing teams built around teleport/air-dash mixups.

Once again: a team built around my limitations. But it’s good enough to take games from folks who play way more than I do, so I think it works for me.

I even play Starcraft 2 this way. I chose Terran because they have the most options in the early game out of the three races, and I spent a good few months refining different kinds of one-base all-ins instead of playing a macro game because I knew that the longer I played any given game, the more likely it was I would lose to someone who was faster and more capable an SC2 player than I. Being good at one-base all-ins meant that I would more often have the chance to engage with a better player on an even playing field (if not one that was advantageous for me), and it meant that the games were shorter, so I’d get more practice at it (and more practice in general) than I would have if I were trying to play the macro game. I eventually learned how to play a decent mid-game, though I really think Terran are the worst in the late-game anyway, so I never bothered to work on that much.

In Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, I’ve never worried too much about takedowns. I haven’t trained at many schools that stress takedowns, so my own ability isn’t great. More importantly, I realized that when I go for a takedown, the only people I can take down are people who I probably could have beaten if I pulled guard (and probably beaten them with less energy), and the people I can’t take down usually end up taking me down and getting a lead, which makes it harder for me to attack from my guard.. So it kind of looked like this:

Go for takedown = Beat scrub, lose to good guy

Pull guard = Beat scrub more easily, have chance against good guy

Given my limitations, it never really makes sense for me to try a takedown. (I do sometimes try and fake a takedown attempt to get the other guy to pull guard, though.)

This is the “theorycraft” that gamers love so much: The part where you can beat people at a game who are stronger/faster/more hard-working/better than you by being smarter than they are. It’s not necessarily by crafting a special counter-team or something like that, just about being intelligent and making the most of your finite resources. It’s why I don’t really bother copying teams or strategies from top players these days–I’ll look to them for inspiration, of course, but the fact is they’re playing with a different deck than I am.

To be sure, hard work is important. Hard work is what lets you expand your limitations; if your set of possible skills is zero, you’ll have a hard time putting together any kind of strategy or team or build that will allow you to succeed at whatever it is you want to do (and if you can, it’s probably not worth doing in the first place). But if you’re not working hard at the right things, you won’t necessarily see that work affect your results, and you’ll get discouraged.

And really, when it comes down to it, the ability to dissect an activity and break it down into different chunks that you can tie together to a functional strategy is itself a skill–something that comes from having spent a long time trying to get good at many different activities. Don’t mistake that for “experience”, mind you–it is a skill that needs active cultivation like anything else. I call it “getting good at getting good at things”, and it’s something I’ve been working on ever since I started playing Street Fighter.

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