Sunday, October 2, 2016

I Didn't Know What This Post Was About Until Halfway Through

Hey friends. It's been awhile.

I said it before, but it's been weird trying to play Melee well again. I had a bleh performance at Genesis 3, but right afterwards had a big peak, getting fourth at Battle of the Five Gods, one of the most stacked tournaments in the game's history. After that, success and I set our relationship status to "It's Complicated" and I started getting much lower results, the kind I haven't seen in about five years.

It was funny, but a lot of people did not mentally register me as "good player" until Evo 2013. I was on very few predicted top 10 lists, even though I top 10'ed almost every major I went to for quite awhile. My lowest placing was Apex 2013 at 17th place, losing to Armada and VWins (a highly underrated Peach player from Canada, who got 9th). I was actually really successful for a long time and nobody noticed.

Evo 2013 happened, and people noticed! Then I stopped playing and people speculated that I was secretly the next god of smash and if only I hadn't stopped and et cetera. Let's be fair though, "2nd at the biggest tournament of all time" and "a bunch of top 10s when most of your matches aren't recorded" are quite a few steps apart on the recognition Richter scale. But it is kind of funny, nonetheless.

Now that I'm consistently playing again, a lot of people have gotten better. A lot of people have learned the matchup against my character--and since many regions have a wobbling-heavy Ice Climber now, opponents are becoming less afraid of the nuclear grab game. Certain weaknesses in the way I play the game and think about it have come to light. I had a huge dip in placing earlier in the year, though funnily enough, I'm starting to bring it back a bit. Under top 50 at Genesis 3, then just outside top 32 at CEO, followed by top 25 at EVO, then top 13 at Shine... it's actually coming back a bit. That's cool.

(Ironically, since I haven't posted an Evo2013 level performance and everything else is pretty weak compared to my BOT5G 4th place finish, I've read comments lately from people who believe that I am washed up or falling behind, when closer inspection suggests I'm actually returning to pre-vo status. I think it has to do with comparing me to my peaks, as well as some of the losses to lower-ranked players)

It seems as though things are coming back, a bit at a time. Mostly, however, I keep learning more and more about my mind. Sometimes I don't learn more. I just relearn things that I thought I knew, and forgot about.

Here are some things I'm learning lately.

Lesson one: it was way easier for me to feel calm and focused when I felt no expectations on my performance. The fact that I had few (if any) fans, the fact that most people expected me to lose and thought I was bad... that was actually quite a load off my mind. Adding fans (using that word still makes me feel weird) and expectations has made it a lot harder on me, and it keeps drawing my thoughts away from the actual game. That's something I still have to work on.

This is because--lesson two--I have a debilitating fear of not being good enough. I also have a very vague definition of what it actually means to be "good enough." This allows me to redefine it on the fly so that I always feel bad about myself. I knew I had perfectionist tendencies, and I knew (yet keep forgetting) just how much an impact my expectations have on me. But I keep re-discovering new depths to this fear of inadequacy, and just how deeply it has infiltrated the way I think and function.

That fear inhibits me, but also motivates me. On average, it keeps me from trying new things, particularly if other people are watching. It's bad enough if I am not successful at something, but God help me if other people know it and can remind me via Twitter. In some cases, it motivates me to grind at things until I am much better than your average person (which means I don't have a fear of inadequacy, but a fear of being merely adequate, which is pretty prideful).

The big downside? I stop caring once I meet the threshold. For instance, I played a lot of Overwatch when it released, because a little part of me hated that I never became very good at FPS games. I grinded and studied better players and obsessed on improving, and managed to hit rank 72 in the season one competitive ladder. That was pretty high, especially for somebody who always sucked at the genre (and no, I didn't just play Reinhardt and Lucio). I also felt very good about the improvements I made to my aim, as well as my ability to focus on aim and getting frags while maintaining situational awareness. After a lot of practice and study, I could finally feel good about my performance in an FPS. I met my goal! I wasn't awful anymore.

I haven't touched Overwatch since.

The sad flowchart goes like this: I like a game and play it because I like it. Then I start to feel the need to prove myself and get good at the game, because deep down, not being good is wrong, somehow.

I obsess on the game. I get better. I don't enjoy the process, because learning and improving is filled with failure. The thing about getting good is that you aren't good now. Improvement involves practice, which involves confronting the thing you're bad at. Competition involves losing, which means somebody forcing you to deal with your imperfection. None of that is pleasant to somebody like me, who feels so much stress.

Because I have this deep fear of inadequacy, that process is painful. I can't ignore it, however, because leaving the process undone is equally painful. Either I fail and lose so much that I can't handle playing and practicing anymore, or I finally grind it out and succeed.

When I'm done? I have forgotten the initial enjoyment of the game. The game now has an incredibly strong association with stress and unhappiness. I meet my goal, I become satisfied, and then I don't want to play anymore, because I forgot what fun was.

The sad thing is that's where Smash has sat with me for a long while. Right now I struggle to enjoy myself while playing the game, because I have cared too much about being good at it. It is very hard to have fun, because my immediate reaction is to view the game and my opponent as enemies trying to make me feel bad about myself. 

Winning doesn't feel good, per se. It feels like a large angry dog is in my living room and barking at me, and I finally got it to leave. It's a relief, but not a joy.

On the other hand, losing just feels like being bitten.

Let's not be too depressing though. I have recently had multiple personal victories when it comes to my emotional state, and more lessons learned.

I mentioned in my last post that I was trying to think of the match as a teaching and learning experience. Unfortunately, that proved to be more of a band-aid than a real solution. I have had to get more and more at my root motivations.

Recently I lost to Zealous5000 at Shine, up in Boston. During the set I could not for the life of me figure out why I was losing or making certain errors. By the end of the set, this had not changed.

Historically, being unable to figure things out tilts me harder than anything. One of my ego-triggers is my intelligence. Feeling stupid and incompetent makes me flush, it makes me tense up, it gives me a sick feeling in my stomach. It also prevents me from thinking clearly and logically, which doesn't help me fix things.

However, going into the tournament, I had committed myself to paying more attention to my emotional and physical state during matches. I spent a lot of time meditating on my anger and depression flags, the thoughts that spiral me downward, and the physical responses that tell me what's happening in my head (sometimes before my conscious thoughts do). So as that set went on, I was able to stay focused on defusing those things before they built up. I lost, but there was no edge to it. It may seem odd, but I felt prouder of myself after losing that set than I have after many of my higher profile wins. It was nice to be able to shake his hand, stand up, and not want to break something.

Another big reason that I did not feel so bad was because part of me was happy for my opponent. He had a lot of his friends behind him getting very excited for his potential win as the set reached the end. When he beat me, he seemed pretty happy about it. I was able to think of that as a good thing, something that didn't actually hurt me, make me a worse person, or make me dumb. In a one-on-one game, one person wins. It's a sad state of affairs if you can only be happy when the other person loses. It is also the height of hubris and pride to say "you should be happy for me when I win, because I am supposed to be the victor, but if I lose, then I will be angry about it." (It should also be said that if somebody and all their friends become very happy about beating you, they probably have a high opinion of you, so at the very least, you probably shouldn't feel insulted) defines "compassion" as the desire to alleviate another person's suffering, but I think it makes more sense to rephrase it as "the desire to see somebody happy," whether or not they are suffering right now. Being happy for the other person's win is a way of expressing that. It is also, in a lot of ways, the inversion of fear.

This leads us to lesson 3: fear makes you self-centered. Compassion removes self-centeredness.

There are a some players who seem able to lose and shake their opponent's hand with a big smile on their face. Some people seem capable of being honestly happy after losing. I am rarely able to manage that when I try my hardest, and I think it's as simple as this; my fear of being inadequate makes me self-centered. I worry about my performance, my skill, and what those things say about me. It makes me feel threatened. If I am playing to learn, then I know I'm sacrificing my win, and I don't worry as much. If I am playing to goof around, then I know I'm sacrificing my win. If I'm playing my hardest to win? I become afraid that it won't be good enough, and I start to turn inward.

That might even be okay, except I am not looking at how I feel to make sure that I'm staying in a clear state of mind. Something like that isn't being self-centered, we just call it "centered," or grounded, or something. That thinking would be productive. Instead, I'm looking at my performance, and what it says about me. I start crashing into my ego tripwires by thinking "am I playing well enough? Am I good enough?" Now I am not looking at how I feel. I am panicked, trying to eliminate the source of my fear.

Once I go too far down this path, getting back is very difficult. Usually I just get mad and embarrass myself. This also distracts me from focusing on the game, because it's not the game that is upsetting and hurting me. Losing is not hurting me. Errors aren't hurting me. My fear is hurting me. It's the thoughts in my head that I chase around, the criticisms I throw at myself, the way I imagine people are thinking about me.

Think of all the things I could be focused on during this time. I could be observing my opponent's habits. I could be paying attention to the state of my body and adjusting my gameplan based on how I seem to be playing. I could count backwards from 100 by increments of seven and a half. Anything but worrying and dwelling on fears that I can't actually dispel. 

That right there is the other key thing about this self-centered fear: I can't actually do anything about it! If I win, my errors are still eating at me from the inside. Sometimes I just feel like a fraud for winning when I know how bad I am. If I lose, I become incredibly mad, and at that point, I can't undo the loss, I can't say "at least I did this right." The thing I'm afraid of, the thing hurting me, is a ghost that can't be killed. I can't run from it, because it lives in my head.

We defined compassion; let's define fear. Fear is the desire to eliminate or escape a perceived threat to one's well-being. If it's a physical threat, you fight or you run (or you try to look unimportant so it goes away). If it is more nebulous, like a threat to your social standing, or a threat to your self-esteem, you can run from the situation, you can try to conquer the source, or you can try to *justify* the threat away with excuses or rationalizations. You have to make yourself feel as though the threat does not exist.

I said that compassion is an inversion of fear; here is why. The reason compassion takes you out of yourself, especially in a competitive context, is because it is very hard to feel fear when you don't perceive or imagine a threat. When you feel compassion for something, you stop worrying about what hurts you and more about what helps them. The threat begins to vanish from your mind as your focus goes elsewhere, and soon the fear does too.

I also want to clarify that when I say "compassion," I do not mean "want the other person to win." I don't mean "let them win," "sandbag," or anything like that. It doesn't even mean "stop wanting to win yourself." Compassion means acknowledging the other person as somebody like you that also wants to be happy, and viewing their happiness as desirable. When you see the person and the situation as a threat, whether it's to your ego, your health, your reputation, or whatever, that is when fear kicks in. That is when you begin worrying about yourself and destroying the source of the fear.

Forget fun. You've convinced your mind that you're in a fight for survival.

I have been trying get better at noticing this fear as it arises. I have been trying to replace it with compassion for the person I am playing against. They want to play well, they want to succeed, they want to win, they want to be happy, just like me. I am afraid that I'm going to look bad and be bad... but what about my opponent? Do I feel that fear for them? Why not? Do I want them to feel bad? Do they have to feel that way for me to be happy?

In nature, things kill each other and eat each other to survive. It's pretty understandable that they don't have soul-shaking moments of empathy and compassion for their predators or their prey. But in a video game? When the other person is a human being who is a lot like me? Focusing on my fear takes something that could have been a fun and enjoyable learning experience and makes it a lot more mean-spirited. Like I said, it also means I don't even focus on the game, because I'm not afraid of the game. I'm afraid of other things, so my attention goes to them.

And don't forget, compassion is something you can feel for yourself. One of the most insidious things about traits like neurotic perfectionism and low self-esteem is that you may start to treat YOURSELF like a threat. You become the enemy. You can't escape yourself. In my case, I am constantly asking myself "why aren't you good enough?" Suddenly, I am the threat that I fear. I'm the one attacking me by asking myself that question, and I'm the one dragging myself down with perceived failures. The fear sets off chain reactions that make me lose focus and become stressed.

I try to feel it for the other person, because this helps me believe that something good will come out of the match no matter what. I try to feel it for myself, because this makes me avoid negative self-talk. If I wanted another person to be happy, I wouldn't tell them that they were stupid and bad. I wouldn't insult them for making mistakes, I'd try to give them productive advice. If I want that happiness for myself? Then I can't say those things to myself. I wouldn't say them to somebody else, not if I desired their happiness.

The thing is, I knew some of that before. But it hadn't quite occurred to me to couple the concepts together, using one as the antidote for the other.

Lately I have been in circumstances that might have ordinarily set me off, except they haven't. I would say that my anger management has gotten better, but that's not quite right--I just feel a lot less angry and stressed from the get-go. It's not necessarily that I developed new antibiotics, it's more that I'm getting sick less.

Still a work in progress though. I'll let you know how it goes. Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Frame of Mind

Hello friends. Been awhile.

In Melee, one of my biggest struggles recently has been with my mindset. Well, that's always been difficult for me, and it's the reason I created a blog in the first place, but it's definitely flared up a lot again lately. I’m going to share some personal information about how I think and feel about the world, how it’s influenced my play, and why it’s made competing so hard for me lately.

Recently a friend helped me frame an attitude that seems to have resolved a lot of internal conflicts I’ve been having. It is the fusion of a lot of different thought processes, and I hope it will allow me to compete at full capacity, so I am also going to talk about that. I hope you find this interesting.


The first thing to know about me is that I have very serious depression. Many people don’t quite know what clinical depression entails, so I’ll give you the basic rundown.

Depression is not the same thing as sadness. Many times, we say “I’m really depressed” to mean “I’m really sad,” but the condition of depression is something else. Depression, as a condition, can probably be summed up most effectively as “a chronic lack of motivation, reward, and positive reinforcement.”

Basically, you don’t want to do things. When you do things, you rarely feel good about them. Over time, this creates a feeling of pointlessness, hopelessness, and despair, because it seems like no matter what you do, nothing ever makes you happy. It’s easy to feel sad or upset, because things never seem to work. When they do work, you don’t feel good about it, so it becomes harder and harder to care.

You lose interest in your hobbies. You lose the desire to start things, you lose the desire to finish them. The same chemicals that govern sleep and appetite are also involved in joy and reward, so your sleeping patterns and appetite can get messed with.

“Getting over it” doesn’t work, because there is nothing on the other side of the hill. It’s just another valley of depression. That feeling that a non-depressed person gets from succeeding at something? That feeling of success, of joy, of sustained interest and effort? That feeling that yes,  I know I don’t want to get out of bed, but if I get moving I will feel better? Being depressed means not having that. There is a wall of frustration and sadness and difficulty in front of you, and if you break through it, there is nothing on the other side.

To make up for this, you will probably find yourself turning to external generators of reward and positive feeling to make up for it. Those hits can come from gambling, drinking, abusing drugs, eating certain types of foods or just eating lots of food. If it’s a vice, it probably has some way of temporarily plugging the depression.

But why? Why does this happen? Why would a person not feel success, reward, and achievement?

This can result from your habits of thought. You can have absurdly high standards that you never meet, or you can have an internal voice that trashes you constantly. No matter what has happened, nothing ever feels like a success, nothing ever gives you that emotional hit that comes from reaching a goal or finishing a task. You rarely think “I succeeded” because you set your standards of success so high, and so your brain responds by denying you the chemicals that give you that positive feeling.

Or perhaps you don’t have high standards, just extremely skewed judgments of yourself. It’s not that things are that difficult or hard, you just always fail. If you always fail, why try? Over time, you can convince yourself to avoid doing anything, and you can think your way out of every positive experience.

It can also be biological. Our brain is an incredibly complicated network of… stuff. Lots of stuff. Screw with any piece of the machinery, and weird things happen. We know this, because you give somebody a medication to help with one problem, and it creates five others. I’m not a neurologist or a psychiatrist, and even if I were, I doubt I’d have the exact explanation for why and how it happens. However, if you are willing to accept that a substance can change the way you feel (like a drink or a drug) then you automatically accept that chemicals have an influence on how you think and feel, and that your emotions have some biological basis.

Likewise, if you’re willing to accept that people can vary across different physical attributes, or even be born without attributes that you’re “supposed” to have (like arms, or hearing, or the ability to see certain colors), then you should be willing to accept that people can differ in their brains in such a way that it affects how they feel and experience the world.

Your environment can also constantly deny you rewards, and if you spend enough time in such an environment, then you may develop depression. If you have something very important to you and you lose it, you might develop depression, because everything served that important goal, and without it, what’s the point?

And of course, there’s no reason it can’t just be a mixture of the three. In fact, one may cause or feed into another.

All of that is a prelude to this basic statement: I have a tough time finding reward and joy in anything. Most things are not fun for me. Most jokes do not make me laugh. Most things do not make me smile. I struggle, on a daily basis, to find a reason to get up and exist. I have serious depression, and I have had it for a long, long time.

I’ve got several workarounds for this. One is soda (I love soda) and it’s pretty much because it’s chock full of sugar. Another is video games. After all, games constantly funnel achievement into you: defeat an enemy, gain a level, find an item, everything is a pseudo-concrete thing you can point to and say “I did that” and then feel good about. In case you ever wondered why some games are so addictive, it’s not that they are super fun. It’s that they find ways to funnel lots of tiny achievements to keep you going while dangling the big ones just out of reach. The little stuff sustains you while the promise of the big stuff keeps your brain salivating, chomping at the bit for more.

Most things happening in real life? You sink effort into them, you complete them, you feel a sense of reward, and the circuit is complete. If you don’t feel reward? You stop pursuing them. What’s the point? Why care? Why bother? You won’t feel good. You won’t care.

That’s me. Most things do not matter to me, because I sink my mental energy and effort into them, and feel nothing afterwards but fatigue. I started feeling this way when I was pretty young (the trigger, as best I can recall, was adolescence), and I also developed thought habits of perfectionism and low-self esteem that compounded it.

I also became incredibly unhappy if I did have a source of satisfaction and reward (like winning a game) and had it denied to me. I don’t feel much positive payout from my life, so when somebody or something inhibits that payout, I get angry. The more I’m expecting it and counting on it, the worse the backlash.

Nowadays I take medications that help a lot with this, and they let me get up and do things I enjoy. Or rather, they let me enjoy things that aren’t digital or sugary (God help me the day I find a way to eat digital sugar). I still fall into depressive spells, but knowing that I will emerge from them mediates the effect a lot.

I also have always found that teaching people has a unique way of circumventing my depressive feelings. When somebody else achieves something, I feel happy for them. Each person is unique, and explaining and teaching them something is its own challenge. The whole system feels quite rewarding, so even when I have trouble doing something for my own sake, helping somebody else has actually given me satisfaction. That’s important to keep in mind for later.

However, I still have a lot of traces of my depression within me. You never really “beat” depression, especially if there’s a biological component; you find your workarounds, you find your solutions, you get support from others (who keep helping, even when you try your best to ignore them), and ideally you carry on.

I still have perfectionist tendencies. I still beat myself up for mistakes. I still get these sinking feelings that everybody else is better than me at everything and that I am a constant failure. If I’m not paying attention, these thoughts creep up on me, they shift my mood, and sometimes it takes a lot of work to shift back. I have to monitor my thoughts and how I evaluate situations, or I set myself up for a lot of emotional backlash.

It is much better now than it has historically been. It’s never truly gone, but it’s improving.


Another element of who I am is my craving for novelty. It might be related to the same things that make me feel low achievement and success.

I don’t have a problem grinding the same task over and over again. I will keep at it over and over again until I have succeeded. I can spend hours doing the same level or boss in a video game, practicing the same tech. I think the main force behind achievement is not brilliance, but erosion.

That is… until I achieve it. Once I know I have achieved it, I stop caring about it almost instantly. I care about proving to myself that I can do it. Once I have done it, it’s not interesting to me.

This is why Melee has held me in its grip for so long. It is ruthless and there are many strong players to defeat, so I always feel tested. The tech is difficult, so I never feel like I’ve “made it” and that holds my interest. The tech and skillsets of the game keep changing, so the game rarely feels stale. Somebody is always improving with a new character or adding a new tool to their game, and learning to deal with it has provided me a constant source of novelty.

There is another side to this coin, however. If I am in a strong position that gives me a big advantage, I don’t want to use that big advantage. I want to try something else. If I have a combo that I will work, I quickly tire of using it (unless it’s really hard and flashy). I constantly seek out different positions that I haven’t practiced, areas where I’m weak, and try to win from those situations instead.

If I know that camping under a platform will net me victory, then I don’t want to do it anymore. I know I will win if that happens, so what is there to explore? I would rather attack, put myself at a disadvantage, and try to win from that disadvantage, just to see if I can. I will intentionally do something I’m not very good at to try and improve it.

This puts me in positions where I’m more likely to lose, and a part of me demands that--why would I play a game that I know I’m going to win? The uncertainty and the novelty hold my interest, and this shapes a lot of how I play the game nowadays.

The positive is that I keep pushing and exploring and learning. I keep finding things that are new and fun and wacky. The downside is that I’m deliberately setting myself up to have higher odds of losing, and as somebody who hates losing on a deep emotional level, I’m not doing myself a favor.

Playing To Win

So lately I’ve been saddled with a huge dilemma.

--If I play to win, then that means I deprive myself of novelty. I focus only on the things that will get me to victory, and if I don’t achieve victory, then I lose out on my designated source of satisfaction. It also means that any mistakes I make are detracting from my target, which upsets me, and makes me more prone to tilting and raging.
--If I play for fun and novelty, then that means I throw away opportunities and wins on purpose to satisfy my own novelty craving. If I lose doing this, part of me is dissatisfied.
--If I play for fun and novelty, but the other guy plays to win in a boring fashion, then I am restricted in terms of how I can play, and I lose out on the fun factor. If I win, it’s boring. If I lose, it’s boring. If the opponent is predictable, I get bored of playing them, because the “correct” method is repetitive and dull, but the “fun” method might afford me no advantages and make me lose… so I quickly shift back into “play to win mode” without being ready, and I tilt myself again.

Basically, it’s becoming harder and harder for me to enjoy myself when I play the game. But I can’t walk up to my opponent and ask them “hey could you purposely do stupid combos and weird stuff so I can have a better time?” That’s pretty irrational. Pretty much nobody is going to do that for me.

In fact, the more they know that I will be playing inefficiently, the more they can maximize the likelihood of their victory by being boring, because I’m more likely to tilt and overextend and fall for the same stuff. If I play to win, then I risk boring myself, the win is less fun, losses hurt more, and errors upset me more. I can end up winning and hating it. Then nobody wins.

I haven’t even touched on issues of reputation or the expectations on my performance from others and myself, but I don’t think I have to; I think we’ve got enough to deal with as is.


I think that how you frame a situation changes a lot about it. The best solution for dealing with pressure is approach the situation in a way that reduces pressure from the beginning. Getting yourself out of emotional states is actually quite tough; you’re going to think in a way that perpetuates it. Depressed minds think depressed thoughts. Angry minds think angry thoughts.

In this case, my goal is simple: find a way to approach the game so that I can try my hardest to win, using the best tools I know, without getting bored or pissed.

I said simple, not easy.

I was recently at a small tournament at a local player’s house, and I was getting incredibly upset. I had to deal with matchups I didn’t like, almost losing to another player while tryharding, making dumb mistakes, and I had no idea what to do. A friend of mine talked with me for awhile to help me sort through my feelings, and by the end of the tournament I felt much better, played much better, and I feel deeply satisfied with this way of framing the game for myself. It lets me feel like I win no matter what, takes pressure off my mistakes, reduces expectations on myself, and lets me feel satisfaction from a situation even when my opponent outplays me. It lets me deal with potentially boring opponents, and it lets me feel like every match is meaningful.

It is rooted in a philosophy I have about competition: your opponent is your teacher, your student, and your test, all in one. They show you where you are weak, and teach you how to be stronger. They try to learn from what you throw at them so they can defeat you. They test your skills and try to match yours. With that in mind, the things that I really enjoy doing are all present.

I like teaching people things and seeing them succeed. When teaching people Smash, I am perfectly content to sit there and f-smash their shield a hundred times while waiting for them to master their wavedash out of shield. So in this regard, it is perfectly fine for me to play as optimally as I know how, because in doing so, I’m teaching my opponent the matchup and testing their ability to deal with it. If they beat me and it stops working, I can take satisfaction in knowing my student learned. If they lose and I advance, I can take satisfaction in knowing that my best play has withstood another test.

I like learning new skills, and I am content to work on the same puzzle or problem for a long time while I grind away at an answer. In this regard, if my opponent is better or using an abusable strategy on me, they are giving me the opportunity to practice dealing with it. If my opponent is strong and I don’t know how to beat them, then I feel no qualms about throwing my absolute best at them to try and win, because the outcome is uncertain, and that’s exactly how I like it.

I like showing people that I’m skilled. If I win, I have done so, and I can feel satisfaction. If I lose, I’ve shown myself what I need to work on, and now I have something to practice and study, and can feel satisfaction.

Moving Forward

I am going to try and hold this frame of mind in my head as clearly and squarely as possible while going forward. I will still do my best to explore and test and try new things, particularly in friendly matches, but from now on I want to be the best possible teacher and student in tournament as I can be. My hope is to be able to use my strongest knowledge and strongest techniques in matches without losing the satisfaction that comes from learning and having fun.

This means that when you watch me play seriously, it is going to be less wild and less wacky than the playstyle you’re probably accustomed to watching. I also am determined to see satisfaction in every situation, even if I play poorly or lose when I am putting everything forward to win, and keep focused on being a source of positivity in the game and the tournament scene.

I believe that when you compete earnestly in something you love, in a community that shares your passion, you are able to find ways to always win, even if you lose the game, even if you make mistakes, even if you feel like you failed. It’s hard to keep focus on that, but hopefully this frame of my mind lets me do that.

I’ll see you guys at Evo! Take care.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Local Maxima

It’s weird when I feel those bursts of inspiration to improve at Melee again. Also weirder when I write about them in a blog.

I just came back to America from my first international tournament, BEAST6, in Sweden. It was a wonderful time, and I’ve had the chance to reflect on a lot of things. One of those things is that I got 7th place, and I would much rather have won. Another is where I’m trying to take my training and development in the game.

When I tell people that I am trying to win and get better, their first response is usually “start wobbling again.” Normally, my response has been “but it’s boring” or “I don’t like playing like that anymore.” I’m starting to take something of a different attitude right now; this newer attitude is based on looking back at my thoughts and emotions while playing, as well as the fruits of my different playstyle.


You are blindfolded, standing on a hill. You can feel wind whipping around your face, and you gingerly put your foot out, trying to find ground to walk on. After spinning around a bit, you find a direction that is sloping upward, and you start to climb the hill.

It’s slow going, but you poke around and feel with your hands and eventually it feels like you have climbed a fair distance. Finally, you reach a point where nothing leads up, and you are at the peak of the hill. Happy, you take off your blindfold and look around to survey your progress.

It turns out that you are actually at the base of a massive mountain, and its peaks are soaring high into the clouds. Your hill, by comparison, is incredibly tiny.

Your hill can be called a “local maximum.” It’s the highest point in its immediate vicinity. Every change from your current location would be a downgrade. But if you ever want to climb the mountain, you will have to leave the hill, and you will have to go downward. If you want to go up, you have to go down.

This is, funnily enough, a problem in machine learning. A program will learn how to do something, and improve its results, and then get stuck doing something “optimal.” Because any immediate change will reduce its results, it never changes, repeating itself. However, it only found an “okay” strategy or idea and perfected it; it has to go in a much different direction to achieve truly great results. When you want a computer to do the learning for you, you need algorithms that don’t get it caught up in local maxima.

(Recent book: The Master Algorithm by Pedro Domingos. It’s really good!)

Though there are very bright people who have found ways to handle that problem, many non-machine learners get stuck in it as well. Currently, this is the problem I’ve been thinking about in Melee with regards to my character.

Right now, most ICs will use the infinite to secure kills. They will also use styles that emphasize the grab game, to get as many of those infinites as possible. This works pretty well against a lot of people, and consequently, Ice Climbers that wobble a lot will win a lot.

Unfortunately, it seems like we’ve hit a peak. When somebody is skilled at avoiding that grab… what do we do? Well, generally speaking, we lose. Our answer is typically “we have to get better at grabbing somehow,” and despite that we are not getting that much better. In fact, certain players absolutely eviscerate us, leaving our sad eskimo entrails spilling all over loser’s bracket.

We have pretty much reached the peak of that hill, but the real mountain is sitting right next to us, tall and imposing as ever before. It also makes people think that the character lacks the potential to succeed. You just have to look at how badly the best players destroy us.

The real answer, I think, is to start climbing down, so we can start climbing up.


Originally, I just wanted to avoid wobbling so I could do crazier, sillier things with my character and have more fun. Now I am actively trying to avoid thinking about it because I want to attain the skills that other players have, and apply them to my character.

One problem is that our infinite is just *too rewarding.* It skews your thoughts towards getting that next grab. Even if it doesn’t, it can make you complacent, letting you ignore certain mistakes because you’re still winning by a fair amount. It also causes you to avoid certain difficult situations, because they won’t lead to grabs, so why bother? Especially when those positions are risky!

However, this means we are ignoring facets of the game that every other player has to master. We aren’t focusing on our defensive smash DI. We aren’t focusing on the close-quarters scuffling that every Fox learns because he has a Falco for a training partner. We make lots of little technical mistakes, or simply fail to optimize them, because those don’t necessarily pertain to our grab game, and then they cost us.

In short, we are falling behind. We are falling below. Other people are climbing up the other peaks, and we are idly shuffling around, trying to find the best spot on our hill to watch them.

Another problem our character has is that… well, our character is very very different from the others. We have a different neutral, one that is heavily based on the wavedash, like Luigi, rather than dashes or air mobility. ICs are also the only puppet character, which involves desyncs, understanding the other Climber’s AI, and playing miniature 2v1s constantly during matches. We have a group of skills to master that no other character worries about, which spreads our attention. Lest I sound like I'm ragging on other ICs too much, that isn't our fault at all, and it's part of why we're struggling.

Again, this means that while other players are using smash DI on jab-resets to avoid guaranteed followups, or practicing reaction tech-chases, or mastering invincible wavelands, we are still trying to figure out the mystery of how Nana knows the exact worst time to taunt every match.

We are playing a different game. Our emphasis on grabs (with a character that itself is bad at grabbing skilled players) is making it a much smaller game. The infinite also tricks us by giving that small game a huge payout, making us think the hill is the peak of the mountain. But it’s not.


So enough about us, let’s talk about me.

One of my current weaknesses is that I’m trying to play extremely fast all the time. I am currently trying to push my technical skill and eke out every frame from every situation I can. I am trying to use invincible wavelands (and SD’ing). I am trying to master pivots for the small benefit they give in close quarters microspacing. I am also trying to add this to quicker reactions, particularly in scuffles (those situations where two players are on each other in close range, hitting lots of buttons).

The result is that I’m making a lot more errors. These errors are costing me games and sets, and I’m just going to have to deal with that. You have to go down the smaller hill to start climbing the bigger mountain. Other players are using these kinds of advanced tools and using them consistently, so I have no excuse for not integrating them.

I am also trying to avoid wobbling as much as possible. If I get a grab, I intentionally convert it into a different scenario. Originally this was just for funsies, but now I think that it is, in fact, the right thing to do if I want to improve. Mind you, there is no point in truly forsaking such a strong punish game. It kills people dead. As far as punishment strategies go, it is pretty much the peak for my character, whenever it’s available. That is why this past weekend, I tried to use it as often as I could, especially in my (super close) top 8 set against Professor Pro. I am still highly competitive. I would like to win!

However, if I use it every time, particularly in tournaments and pressure situations, I’m depriving myself of the opportunity to train other skills in those situations. If I keep doing that, the result will look a bit like this:

“Okay, tourney time, I’m going to use the stuff that’s consistent and not give away any openings.”
“Oh shoot, I just flubbed that pivot.”
“Uh oh, my smash DI and CCs are pretty bad, I should probably play on the outside more.”
“I can’t seem to get these autocancel u-airs right now, I’ll stay grounded.”
“Well, at least my wobbling still works, I’ll just focus on that.”

I will just end up doing what I'm most comfortable with, which is my old stuff. And it will keep happening, because if I don't train the new stuff under pressure, I will botch it under pressure. I will only incentivize myself to keep doing the same old thing, the same old strategy that will not keep working as my opponents improve. As they get better, I will become more and more paranoid about taking a few steps down my little hill.

Somewhere in here is a happy medium for pushing myself without sandbagging pointlessly and developing lazy habits with regards to my grab game. I'll let you know when I find it.

Finally, this is a list of some things I’m trying to work on. You will notice that this list is actually kind of long. Most of the stuff is also hard.

--Invincible ledgedashes
--Smash DI’ing small hits into counter hits, or to escape
--Shield angling to avoid pokes
--Shield impact DI to guarantee punishes or evade followups
--Tighter on-shield actions to stay safe, like aerial->jab
--Tighter control over aerial drift, for staying safer, dodging hits, and placing aerials better
--Better reactions in tech-chase scenarios
--Implementing effective desyncs in neutral
--Implementing faster desyncs in neutral so I don’t lose my setups under enemy pressure; also using hit-stun and shield-stun desyncs on purpose to generate advantages out of nowhere.
--Smarter CC’ing--making it intentional so I don’t DI wrong, but implementing it intelligently to score counter hits and earn respect for my space
--Tighter dash dance game, especially around get-up attacks and landing aerials.
--Intentionally clinking with moves to force my way into range or prevent enemy dominance over the footsies game
--Accounting for enemy hitstop on Nana and avoiding those extended hitboxes when counterpoking
--Tracking Nana’s AI in fast-paced situations and remembering her various methods of getting me into trouble
--Avoiding extended shield-based play, since it’s mostly just bait for shield-grabs, but it increases the odds of getting shield-poked.
--Not getting into crummy situations in the first place so I don’t need to use risky tech-skill to bail myself out constantly

I could probably think of a few others but those are the ones that came to mind off the top of my head. This is aside from simply trying to up the consistency on other skills I already have. If it seems ridiculous, that’s probably just because our game is ridiculous. More importantly, the best players also use all of those skills (well, the non-IC-specific ones) and use them consistently because that’s what gives them an edge. If I want to step into their realm and keep ascending with them, then I need to gain access to those skills as well.

The downside is that it means willfully entering situations when using tools I lack experience with. This means more errors, more free losses, and sometimes throwing away things that I know will work in favor of stuff that I hope will pay off. It means losing matches I might have won if I’d played safer, more within my comfort zone. It also means more frustration as I commit unforced errors, but that’s just another weight to carry up the mountain with me.

Those are some of my thoughts lately. I am very determined to start training a lot more and try to achieve some of these in my game, and hopefully show people we’ve still got a long way to climb. Thanks for reading.