In Magic: The Gathering, there is a card called Ancestral Recall which allows you to spend one mana to draw three cards. It was printed as a part of a “one for three” cycle that let you spend one mana on a variety of things like three life, three damage, so on so forth. However, it was the only card in the cycle that was eventually elevated to “power nine” status, one of the nine strongest cards in MTG history. Why? Because drawing three cards effectively gives you three more options and options are easily the most valuable resource in Magic. As Magic evolved, the most powerful and broken cards routinely ended up being the ones that gave you more options, allowing you to do more things than your opponent and execute your strategy most efficiently.
So what does this have to do with fighting games? Well, like Richard Garfield in the early days of magic, we have not yet grown to think of options as a resource, or if we have we certainly do not put the right value on them. This flawed point of view is what eventually causes huge gaps in character balance. Essentially, “tier lists” are made based on which character has the most options in the most situations.
Let me give you an example. When was the last time you said “man, this character can do everything, but their health is so low they are easily bottom tier.” My guess is never. Yet there is a very common example of characters with high health and high damage that routinely end up at the bottom of fighting game tier lists. I’m talking about the low tier forever grappler.
I’ll draw another parallel here. There is a common misconception that raising a character’s health and damage can compensate for their lack of options, and to a certain extent this is true. A character with more health can afford to make more mistakes. At low levels of play, this makes grapplers absolute powerhouses, because both players are making tons of mistakes. Few combos are being executed and so the grappler’s high health and high damage will let them win in a button mashing competition.
In Magic, there was a card called Necropotence which allowed you to trade life in for more cards. On face value, this actually doesn’t seem like a good deal and at low level play, it wasn’t. Newbies’ decks weren’t strong enough to take advantage of the card advantage Necropotence gave you. As a result, they would pay life to get cards, only to have their face stomped in by a simple and more straight forward big strong dumpy creature strategy.
Sounds kind of similar right? Well, Necropotence was eventually powerful enough to get banned in Magic: The Gathering, because at high level play it was hard to stop. Experienced players built their deck to make every card count so having more options was eventually far more valuable than having more life. By building up an impenetrable defense, an offense that won the game before you could be touched, or creating some combo that ended the game outright, life totals simply never entered into the equation. Opponents with decks that did more damage and conserved more life never matched the sheer speed of a Necropotence deck. It didn’t matter if you were going to eventually be able to cast fireball to kill your enemy in once shot, because you never got the chance to do it.
Similarly, in the case of the low option grappler, high life and high damage begins to matter much less when you get to high level play. Oftentimes, combos nearly completely invalidate a grappler’s higher health. Whereas it takes several extra small hits to kill a high health character, at most it will take, maybe, one extra combo. In fact, half of the time, it doesn’t even take an extra combo at all. The entirety of the grappler’s extra health is made up for by simply executing standard BnBs. As a result, they aren’t actually allowed to make that many more mistakes, while they still suffer from an overall lack of options. It doesn’t matter that they can, eventually, get in on the opponent and deal a tremendous amount of damage all at once. If they never manage to get in on the opponent then their high damage and 35 cents will get them a phone call… if they can still find a payphone.
Grapplers aren’t the only characters to suffer from option deficiency. Examine, if you will, the case of Ryu. In every Street Fighter game that Ryu has been in, he has never fallen to bottom tier status. That is because, to an extent, Ryu can do everything. He has a good DP, a projectile, a hurricane kick that moves him, normals that cover all angles of attack, and supers that work well with the rest of his tools. He is a jack of all trades and master of none and this has solidified him at the top or near top of the tier list for all Street Fighter games.
But then Marvel comes along and this same character suddenly becomes much worse. Why? It’s because Marvel opens up a whole host of other options. Air-dashing, screen long beam projectiles, flight canceling, and more supercede Ryu’s middle of the road toolset.
In fact, the ultimate example of why health doesn’t matter is Phoenix from Vanilla MvC3. Phoenix had absurdly low health, far lower than any other character in the game. However, it was X-Factor LVL 3 Dark Phoenix that made her such a threat, so much so that no one ever really stopped to think about how low her health was. Marvel 3 evolved to be mostly a one-touch death game anyway. So it didn’t matter if you were landing that one touch on Phoenix or Wolverine, that one touch was going to equal a dead character. Dark Phoenix broke the rules by absolutely requiring two good touches if you can activate her. This combined with ludicrous speed, power, and all the attack and mobility options in the world made her hard to stop.
So how did Capcom handle her nerf in Ultimate? While they may have reduced her health slightly, they also reduced her options. They allowed her to do less, and with the addition of side TACs reducing meter, characters with meter reducing specials, and an overall nerf to X-Factor in general, they managed to defang her, while barely touching her health at all. In the end, the true power of Dark Phoenix lied in her options, and to this day people remember the nerfs to her aerial action count far more than the nerf to her health
Though we have come a long way from the early days of Street Fighter II, many developers still don’t seem to fully understand this concept of options being the most valuable resource, and it’s possible that they never will. MTG still prints unbalanced cards and thus fighting game developers will most likely continue to make unbalanced characters. Bad matchups will always be part of the art of the fighting game. Even now in P4A, which is certainly more balanced than many games of our past, suffers from this problem. Kanji, a fairly powerful grappler, can barely take on characters like Mitsuru or Elizabeth. Both have easy answers to all of his tools and his opponents need to make stupid mistakes in order to allow him to get in and deal damage.
It could be argued that games that don’t rely on life as a balancing tool eventually create better grapplers and “strange” characters overall because they focus on options first. Goro Daimon is widely used in King of Fighters XIII and Cerebella is widely used in Skullgirls. Both have essentially the same amount of options as any other character in the game, those options are just different. They focus on grabs over attacks but they both still have lots of mobility. They don’t have higher life totals than the opponent, and so they can’t rely on “making more mistakes.” They have to play just as solid as the next guy who is playing an agro or keep-away team.
When you look at any popular fighting game, it’s obvious that the character’s with the most options always creep to the top of the tier list. In fact, that’s about the definition of top tier. A character that can simply do more than another will always come out on top, even if their damage is crap. This is not to say health and damage cannot be used to balance a game, but it is to say that health and damage should be entirely secondary to what characters can do. However, one thing is certain. Life, damage, and options are not equivalent and developers need to stop treating them as such.