Lab Notes: Learning to Bet in Street Fighter

By on July 30, 2014 at 11:11 am
Why did I throw out a random EX DP at a weird range? No idea.

Hey, SRK readers! Lab Notes is a new series I’m trying out where I write about my own fighting game practice. This is the first installment, so let me know what you think on the comments or on Twitter @pattheflip. And no, this article isn’t about side betting.

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I’m not the gambling type. I’m pretty risk-averse with my cash, and I hate leaving anything up to chance. And as far as I can tell, this makes me something of an anomaly in fighting games. So, while the Brokentier crew was gearing up for their Evo 2014 recap panel last week, Jay “Viscant” Snyder and Kyohei “MarlinPie” Lehr were bantering about Lehr’s performance at the Vegas tables, and so I jokingly asked them: “Why does Marvel attract so many degenerate gamblers?”

Jay gave my dumb question a smart answer: Because you have to be willing to gamble if you want to win. Not just in Marvel, but in all fighting games. Martin “Marn” Phan — another notorious fighting game gambler — also recently attributed his top eight success to his willingness to gamble (be warned, a bit of NSFW language follows):

Playing by the book

I found both these examples quite thought-provoking; in my experience, I find that the first step in a budding fighting game player’s path from “scrub” to “solid” is generally characterized by learning how to “play by the book” — learning how to wreck Flowchart Kens by playing safely and consistently. Most of my practice in Street Fighter has been about trying to improve my solid Ryu play; playing smart, not taking risks, and trying to beat my opponent on pure fundamentals.

ken flowchart

However, after listening to Jay’s answer, I realized that Ryu probably isn’t a character that can win on safe play and fundamentals alone. In fact, being able to to beat a by-the-book Ryu is probably a good litmus test for whether you’ve got a good handle on a character in general. And when I look at all the Ryu players I admire, they’re all known for both having impeccable fundamentals and the willingness to make bold bets on hard reads.

So, I decided it was time to put the book down and learn how to make some bets. But I couldn’t do it myself — so I decided to ask for help.

Unleashing my inner scrub

“Oh, I’ll make a scrub out of you.”

That’s what Leah “GIANTSWORD|gllty” Hayes told me when we started sparring. “Like the Mulan song.”

I was skeptical, at first; she has been picking up Dhalsim lately, and even though I hadn’t had much matchup experience against the character, I felt pretty confident that I could wreck her new Sim with some solid Ryu play. And, at first, I did, winning two or three games for every one she took. But as the set progressed, I found her gameplay getting more and more oppressive — punishing every obvious jump-in, pinning me down with perfectly-placed pokes, and consistently converting her Ultra 1 into damage every round. Playing honest was getting me killed, so I tried to adapt.

In this case, my adaptation looked like all the scrubby stuff I had tried so hard to remove from my game; so scrubby that I felt a little bit dirty. Win or lose, each match punctuated my shame:

“Why did I do that?”

“Wakeup Ultra. I never do wakeup Ultra.”

“You made me just do three full-screen Dragon Punches in a row.”

Why did I throw out a random EX DP at a weird range? No idea.
Why did I throw out a random EX DP at a weird range? No idea.

It felt wrong, but it worked — bringing me out of my textbook Ryu shell forced her to give up some of the space she had controlled with her fearsome aura and gave me space to breathe. It didn’t stop me from feeling like a total idiot each time I wasted a super on some dumb read on an anticipatory poke punish that never came, though. (Note to self: Betting is all well and good, but an entire super meter is probably a bit too high-stakes for now.)

“My playstyle makes my opponents devolve,” she told me. “Isn’t that interesting?”

All the world on one DP

Now that my Ryu had a little bit more scrub in him, I needed someone to test it against — and I suspected my coworker Jon “Deacon” Lo would be the perfect guinea pig. Ever since Ultra came out, he’s been working me over with his Yun; as far as I can tell, Ryu simply has to work harder than Yun does to win in nearly every aspect of the game.

However, Jon is pretty much the textbook definition of a Solid Player: He’s got a ready set of solid mixups, his execution is consistent, he can study an opponent’s tendencies in order to exploit them, and he’s good at putting himself at the right places on the screen to set up some unfair fights. And if a by-the-book Ryu plays a by-the-book Yun in Ultra Street Fighter IV, Ryu is probably going to lose more than he wins — so it was time to see if a few big bets could help me win the matchup against Jon instead of losing to Yun.

Yun is wrong and if you play him in USF4 you should be forced to use this dumb costume.
Yun is wrong and if you play him in USF4 you should be forced to use this dumb costume.

As with the sets against Leah’s Dhalsim, it took a little while for me to relearn the matchup in a way that factored in my increased tolerance for risk. In practice, this meant I spent the first 18 games trying to figure out how I could effectively bet against Jon’s Yun. He beat me 18 games in a row.

I learned a lot over those 18 games, though. For starters, not all bets are equal; I started out pretty much trying to dragon punch everything, to see if I could find any holes in his Yun’s offense worth betting on. In the 19th game, I figured out something that got under Jon’s skin: Meaty fierce Dragon Punch. He jumped in with a divekick, I knocked him down with a deep fierce DP, dashed over to throw range, waited a tick, and did another fierce DP. Then I dashed over, waited, and did it again. (I’m sure there’s probably a brilliant option select here to only get DPs at the right time, but I don’t know any, so I Just Did It.) Then I threw him. I looked over at him while the throw animation completed; his brow was furrowed and his posture had hunched over a bit more.

Isn’t that interesting?

Get outta my head

I’d love to say that I ran back those 18 games in a row with my newfound mind-fuckery, but I didn’t. However, I did find that I had way more room to breathe in the following matches, because he now had to respect and adapt to a Ryu that no longer played strictly by the book. He hesitated a bit each time I knocked him down (and I did catch him with several more meaty fierce DPs); he was less aggro with his jump-ins for fear of getting knocked down; he was far more susceptible to throws, as well. Obviously, I’d never be able to afford to lose 18 games in a row in a tournament before figuring out how to start opening up my opponent’s mental state a bit, but I’d consider this experiment a success.

"Get outta my head, Patrick."
“Get outta my head, Patrick.”

I still had one question, though — why was it the meaty fierce DP that pushed him over the edge? I’m not 100% sure, to be honest. It’s a scary thing to get hit by, to be sure; it connects with a satisfying thud and does a big chunk of damage. I suspect, though, that the real reason is because it’s not really an optimal choice for a meaty DP; medium punch DP has more invincibility and is focus-cancelable, giving it a far more optimal risk/reward calculus.

Jon knows that, which means he also knows that a meaty fierce DP is kind of a big Screw You to optimal Street Fighter. That means he has to pay more attention to how I deviate from the typical script, and that’s just one more thing to think about that might slow him down — miss a throw tech here or there, or an anti-air, or something. Who knows? Maybe it would have had that effect even if he blocked it the first time.

I can’t say that I’m going to open my first round of each tournament with that move, but if I learned one thing from this little test, it’s that the right plays aren’t just about risk and reward; sometimes it’s about sending a message, and stepping outside the matchup to get in your opponent’s head.

So now I ask you: What’s your go-to setup for messing with your opponent’s mind? Tell me more in the comments!