Learning Melee: 1 Year In

Tagged as melee, games

Written on 2014-11-22 15:00:00


This post is mostly written for myself. It assumes familiarity with various terms, people, equipment, etc. If you find it useful or entertaining, whether you play melee or not, cool. This post is not intended to be a training guide. I'm not good enough to be educating beginners, just to observe my experience over the last year.

If you do want to get started with Melee, you need a few things:

  • Good condition Gamecube Controller (Nintendo-only, no knockoffs)
  • A CRT or lagless setup, I rock a BenQ RL2455HM with the Sewell Wii-to-HDMI converter and an Avermedia LGP for recording
  • A Gamecube and Melee disc, or better, Wii and 20xx hack pack on SD card
  • Familiarity with the basics of smash as a series and a character to focus on
  • A good guide, maybe check the resources at the end :)

Enter Melee

I'm not a gamer. The last time I really put substantial time into video games was high school. I also wouldn't describe myself as a competitive person. But for whatever reason, I've always been competitive in Smash Bros. I want to win.

Late last October, I stumbled on a documentary detailing the history of the competitive smash brothers scene. I was riveted. I was suddenly aware of a massive depth to the game I'd hitherto missed. I had to know more, I had to try to my hand at competitive play.

Why Do This?

In addition, I've always struggled with things I'm not immediately good at. I'm terrible at being patient with myself, at viewing life (and goals) as a journey and not a destination to be reached post haste. Melee remains an excellent opportunity to practice being loving and patient with myself, and handling failure and defeat gracefully.

As I said before, it's a monumentally deep game. Like in chess, character positioning and board layout is paramount. As in poker, bluffing and calling your opponent's bluffs is crucial. There's also an executional aspect. Professional players routinely execute 300 actions per minute and have to perform complex controller inputs in a 20th of a second window or less. Not to mention just learning the properties of 25 characters, their moves, and the Rock Paper Scissors of what beats what in which situations.

I've been at it for a while now. I'm still not good but I'm much more at peace with that than I was when I started. Here are a few things I've learned playing melee the past year. A lot of these things are habits I've had to work hard to break. Just remember not to get discouraged. Melee can be very unforgiving.

Rule Number 1: Keep It Fun

You have to stay motivated. If things get too serious and you're not having fun you're going to play less and your skill will plateau. There are a lot of things beginners have to absorb and a plethora of suggestions, bordering on rules, about how to practice. Feel free to violate anything anyone says in order to keep things fun.

A few semi-regular suggestions I violate in the name of fun are:

  • Focus on 1 character

I play 2 seriously (Sheik/Marth), 2 semi-seriously (Fox/Falcon), and 2 for fun (Pikachu/Doc Mario). If I don't switch it up, I find myself getting frustrated with progress on a single character. And when playing with friends, it can be surprisingly rejuvenating to go play a quick falcon ditto after an hour or more of serious play.

Additionally, I find some characters make certain kinds of practice more rewarding. For me, Fox makes it really fun to practice tech skill and Marth makes it really fun to practice spacing. Those characters really emphasize those attributes which makes the practice payoff very clear.

  • Don't practice against CPUs ... (above level 5, to hone your mental game, etc)

The big argument here is that CPUs ingrain bad habits. Especially if all you're trying to do is win. So don't try to win. PPMD talks about doing something called shadowboxing, essentially playing the CPU like a human opponent. The 20xx hack pack is supposed to improve their behavior in various ways, especially DI. I find it helpful to practice tech skill at a level where the CPU will punish me if I'm too slow or miss an input.

Rule Number 2: Structure Your Play

Editor's Note: Some of the advice in this section is specific to me because I don't attend or plan to attend lots of local tournaments. The core advice of separating different kinds of play still applies.

To play competitively, you're going to wind up doing 3 things:

  1. Practicing tech skill
  2. Experimenting with your play
  3. Competing seriously

It is important that you keep these things distinct. For example, I try to spend 20-30 minutes a day practicing tech skill. I move around the stage, working on flubs or things I execute too slowly. I try to learn new tech (such as waveshines). I don't go to many local tournaments so I experiment with different approaches and punishes against a CPU. Finally, when I want to be competitive I play (seriously) against friends.

Initially, you'll want to blur all this together. You'll be playing semi-seriously with a friend and be tempted to try "new stuff": platform movement, wavedashing, the "Ken combo", getting an off stage Falcon Punch. Don't give in to the temptation. Melee requires you to adapt to your opponent above all else. If you're too busy obsessing over moves you want to land, you'll limit your options and your play will suffer for it. This isn't to say you shouldn't try to work on specific things in matches with your friends. Just that tech skill you haven't mastered and particular combos are not those things.

To emphasize further, don't practice specific combos. Part of Melee's depth comes from DI, or Directional Influence, the upshot of which is that getting a specific combo might be impossible depending on the opponent's actions. Long story short, DI allows you (and your opponent) to change the direction a hit knocks them in, potentially making follow up attacks miss. The interesting choices in melee come in between hits as you watch what your opponent does and react to it. While there are "guaranteed" combos in specific situations (character a vs character b at XX%), most of our combos come from reacting not planning.

Rule Number 3: Work To See The Neutral Game

If you've spent years playing Smash casually, you'll largely see the game as hitting or being hit, offense or defense. But that brutal simplification will limit your ability to see the larger game. Two common adages fall under this section:

  1. Don't Mindlessly Approach (your opponent)
  2. Don't Mindlessly Trade (hit for a hit)

The takeaway is, It's better to not get hit than to get a hit.

You'll be tempted to rush in right away, ignore that impulse. You'll be dying to hit them back for hitting you, re-establish good footing instead. The "neutral game" is everything that happens outside of getting a hit or combo and trying to escape being hit. The sooner you can see encroaching on an opponent's space on the stage as a useful form of micro-aggression, the better off you'll be. Just positioning yourself in a threatening way is a hugely useful tool.

Don't force your play into a false dichotomy of attacking or defending.

Rule Number 4: Remember Where Your Good Options Are

Editor's Note: This rule was originally called "Stay Grounded" and came from my reflections on the Marth v Link matchup with my buddy Max. Some of this section will be dependent on the matchup.

Stage position is important. Let's say it again: Stage position is really, really important. When I first started playing Marth, I always wanted to approach in the air. Just all the time. Lord knows why. But being in the air takes away a huge number of movement options. Your opponent can plan around and react to your play more easily when you have fewer options.

I wound up above Max a lot and got punished. Even if your character has good aerial attacks, unless you're talking cross up nairs with Pikachu or Fox there are probably safer, better approaches. So, being above your opponent is usually a pretty negative situation.

In general, center stage is a great place to be, and above the opponent, in a corner, or on the ledge, are bad places to be. Platforms are a bit more of a mixed bag. But remember where on the stage you have advantage and where your good options aren't available and figure out why that is.

In addition, spacing is really important. Spacing is more than just trying to throw out attacks from a safe distance, or thinking about your opponent's range. It also has to do with thinking about the range at which your character performs best. Marth and Falcon, for example, are mid-range powerhouses, while Fox and Sheik generally need to get in close to be really effective. Know where your character performs well and remember to stay in that effective range as much as possible.

Rule Number 5: Do Think About Options, Action States, and Transitions

Kirbykaze's blog posts explain this much more clearly than I will. Any time you can keep most of your options open while limiting your enemy's, do it. That's a huge advantage. And any time you can narrow their range of choices you have a much better chance of predicting their play, or finding a tactic that covers every possible outcome.

Since Melee is so much about movement and positioning, being fast is key. And indeed, most of the executional aspects of high-level play are in service of eliminating as much lag as possible from your character's moves. It's useful to try to build a formal model here.

Every move in the game has a set duration, though certain moves (dash dancing, wave dashing, aerials) can be shortened to varying degrees. Once you've committed to a move, the opponent knows more or less how long the move's hitbox will be active, how long you'll be unable to execute a different move, etc.

Consequently, speed mostly comes from transitioning quickly between moves or, as Kirbykaze's blog says, "action states". The better you get at switching between shielding, standing, walking, dash dancing, wavedashing, and attacking, the faster you'll be. Seamlessly and quickly transitioning between these states is vastly more valuable than L-canceling all your down aerials.

This is something I'm just now realizing and trying to improve on. It's very appealing to just work on l-canceling or short hops or wavedashing but misses the real point. The connecting tissue between action states is where most of our sluggishness comes from.

Don't Give Up

Finally, it should be obvious that regular, focused practice makes a big difference. I'm going to try to practice 20 minutes a day, 5 days a week going forward. I'm still figuring out exactly what that practice regimen will consist of, probably mostly tech skill and movement with Sheik and Marth. Wavedashing and L-canceling are muscle memory, sure, but practicing the basics shouldn't ever really stop.

And I'm still not where I want to be but I've had a few good moments. I hope this has been an interesting post on some things I've struggled with while learning melee. Happy smashing and if you're in Atlanta and want a game, feel free to drop me a line.


I really enjoy Kirbykaze's blog and writings about the game. Two particularly good posts are Movement Drills, Part 1 and Tactics.

Various people have posted articles for beginners on getting better:

Read. Them.

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Unless otherwise credited all material Creative Commons License by Brit Butler