Subtractive Gameplay, Part 3: Case Studies
I've discussed in part 1 and part 2 the pros and cons of the subtractive playstyle. For the third part, I'm going to look at players who demonstrate this playstyle, for better or worse.
For starters, somebody you probably don't know. B-stick is an Arizona Marth player who has managed to remain near the top of AZ's Melee scene for a long, long time. His playstyle has always, for at least 4 years now, consisted almost entirely of of grabbing and forward-smashing.
Unless you are perfect at sweetspotting and edge-teching, he will almost always perfectly time f-smashes and tippers to keep you off the level. He happily stays near the edge for most of the match, using dash-dances into grab and shield-grabs to throw you off the level so he can f-smash away. Occasionally he uses full-jumping forward-airs from his shield, and I swear I once saw him up-tilt. He can wavedash and short hop, but he'd rather walk and smash.
Why is his playstyle so successful? For starters, Marth's f-smash is a really really good move. Damaging and far-reaching, decent speed when it comes out, and with appropriate spacing almost impossible to beat. Its weakness, of course, is its long ending lag; additionally, many bad Marths overuse it and it becomes very exploitable. You can shield it and then wavedash out to punish it, you can roll behind him or simply dodge. Such a good move is bound to be overused, and therefore become predictable and easily beatable.
B-stick seems to break this convention. His f-smashes seem perfectly timed to reach through and hit you just when you decided you wanted to aerial, and at least half of them are tippers. He's very good at judging its spacing, and reading opponents' movements to call when they will leave themselves open. When it comes to using this move, B-stick is a pro. (His advice to a Marth player who was having trouble winning against Peaches was "less technical, more forward-smash," and the player immediately improved).
On top of that, his shield grab timing is very precise, which lets him deal nicely with most characters' shield pressure. He can also actually combo and chase people around the level with aerials when the opportunity falls in his lap, but he prefers to f-smash and grab, which works out nicely for him.
B-stick is hardly perfect though. For one thing, though he's very precise at what he does, he has a definitive technical limit. He almost never short-hops out of shield, he doesn't wavedash out of shield, and he has trouble dealing with people who are just too fast for him. He rarely travels out of state, so he lacks experience and can have trouble reading players from different regions, and sometimes he's bewildered by uncommon matchups.
However, he's been of tremendous benefit to the Arizona scene. He forces people to learn how to deal with his playstyle and the wall of priority that Marth can throw out, he forces them to learn to sweetspot, and he forces them to adapt to his patient yet brutal method.
HugS is a Samus player whose successful career began based around almost a single move: up+b out of shield. While the meta-game began revolving around Foxes and Falcos with powerful shield pressure, HugS mastered one of the best anti-pressure moves in the game. Using his shield almost as a weapon, he made it very difficult for most players to even attack him as he wormed his way in.
His second major claim to fame was his f-tilt. HugS spaced f-tilt about as perfectly as it could be spaced. He coupled it with wavedashes, erratic dash-dances, and confused people's spacing. They ended up pressuring his shield and eating an up+b, or they would try to space and get poked.
Mastery of these two moves gave HugS a foundational, positional playstyle that let him sneak in a few of Samus' other moves. He loved poking shields, so it came as a surprise when he'd throw out a seemingly random grapple, and when the opponent became too impatient, he'd have an f-smash or charge shot. Combined with solid up-tilting for edgeguards, HugS ate most space animals alive.
He didn't stop there, though. He gradually began adding components to his game that gave him more options and made him more difficult to read. He added up-air and f-air to his Samus game, giving him an extra degree of aerial pressure and combo ability. He also pioneered the use of Samus' n-air to edge guard: when his opponents were focused on sweetspotting and escaping the wrath of his u-tilt, he'd simply run off the stage and n-air them while they were vulnerable (and very surprised). He remained a top player on the West Coast for a long time with his own distinct style until he retired. He claims he'll be making a comeback though, so I'm looking forward to that (but not to playing him in tournament :/).
Chu more or less invented most of the tricks Ice Climbers players use, and he was singlehandedly responsible for raising them up to high-tier Melee's metagame. He's been, for most of his career, a top contender in every tournament he attends. There was a long period, in fact, where it would be a shock to everybody if Chu did not take top 3 at a tournament, regardless of size and location.
Chu's game, however, was based around surprisingly few things. When he grabbed people, he would have Nana blizzard, and then d-throw d-air them. If they were at KO percents, he would grab smash. When not grabbing, he would focus on spacing d-smashes around his opponent's approaches, intercepting people in the air with u-air, and then throwing out surprise b-airs as his wildcard approach.
What really defines Chu's ICs, however, is the way he moves. The ICs are naturally an erratic character; their wavedash allows them to move in bursts, but their running speed is relatively low. Chu maximizes that by dashing, then shielding to immediately stop his momentum, then wavedashing out of the shield. Sometimes he shields for seconds at a time, sometimes he shields for only a few frames. Sometimes he keeps dash-dancing, sometimes he fox-trots away. The opponent almost never seems his actual decision to attack or retreat coming.
He couples that by slowly figuring out his opponent's timing and favored approaches. This often costs him stocks and even the first game of his set--it's not uncommon for players far beneath his level to take the first game against him, myself included--but by the second game he's unconsciously assimilated his opponent's style. These two skills--they aren't even actual moves--are the main reasons why Chu has always been so good regardless of the state of the metagame: he's difficult to read and a very fast learner.
He's hindered somewhat by the fact that his favored chaingrab, d-throw d-air, is escapable, and more players are familiar with the timing of the smash DI needed to escape; as a result, his grab punishes aren't as deadly as they once were and he's lost some of his efficiency. Nevertheless, he's still an amazing player.
Those are the players who really stand out to me with this playstyle (and they're the ones I've really stopped to analyze). Here are some other examples:
--Hungrybox, a Florida Jigglypuff and recent national breakout, was known for initially relying almost exclusively on Jigglypuff's b-air.
--Drephen, Sheik player from Ohio, was known for happily abusing Sheik's d-smash, and mixing it up with the occasional tilt, grab and f-air. You can see this highlighted in his combo video "All this nigga do is grab."
--JMan, Fox from NY and mentioned in part 2, is incredibly fond of using n-air as his cure-all move, and he's very good with it.
--Just about every community's got one, really.
And that's about it. It's important to know that mastering a technique doesn't just mean being good with one or two moves. Often, it also means skill with your character's movement and understanding their attributes. It means knowing the crucial peculiarities that set your character apart and knowing how to exploit them to maximum advantage. It means knowing how to keep the fight in a place where you have control and forcing the opponent to fight at a pace you dictate.
I hope this has been an interesting and educational read for everybody. Peace out.