Lab Notes: Building Your Mental Guard Meter

By on September 3, 2014 at 9:08 am
You do not know true pain until playing anchor Haggar against Dormammu with Doom Missiles.

These days, it’s easier than ever to record and review your fighting game practice sessions. Watch enough of your practice footage, though, and eventually you’ll see yourself make a dumb mistake and think, “Wait, why the heck did I do that?”

If you’re anything like me, the answer is usually something like “Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.” When you’re mid-match, your brain is trying to pay attention to all the different things going on in the match and feed the right response to your hands, so you’ll be in a different mindset than you are when you review the footage later. (That’s why it’s important to review your practice sessions!)

The ability to consistently make intelligent decisions under pressure is a key asset for any competitive fighting game player — and clever players can learn how to attack their opponent’s discipline just like it’s another health meter not tracked in-game. (Putting them on tilt, in poker terms.)

Welcome to Ultra Stress Fighter IV

First, let’s try to figure out what kinds of things get under your skin, so you can start to recognize when you’re at risk of getting mentally guard broken before it happens. Now, this kind of thing might be tough for you to notice if you’re not used to paying attention to it, so you might have to do some research on yourself. In addition to watching your match videos and making note of all the “Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time” moments, I’d recommend taking stock of the people and character matchups that leave you feeling salty and seeing if any clear patterns emerge.

I get pretty frustrated playing against Yun, especially when he's wearing this dumb outfit.
I get pretty frustrated playing against Yun, especially when he’s wearing this dumb outfit.

Also, hit your regular practice partners up for help, if you have them — I learned early on from one of my good friends that getting in the habit of asking each other “Hey, why’d you do [X]?” is a really good way to understand both how you think, and how others’ thought processes are different from yours.

Personally, I’ve found that my mental guard meter gets depleted pretty quickly when I’m blocking in the corner, when I’m getting outplayed in footsies, and when my opponent is playing a very patient, conservative, slow game. On the other hand, I don’t really go on tilt when I’m eating a “vortex” series of knockdown mixups, even if I’m getting wrecked by them; when I play against okizeme-heavy characters I expect to lose if I get knocked down and eat a setup, and each time I get out of it I’m pleasantly surprised. So it’s not just about what you lose the most to — playing against Zero or Wolverine in Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3, for example, doesn’t wear me out like playing against Dormammu does, even if I lose to Zero more often.

You do not know true pain until playing anchor Haggar against Dormammu with Doom Missiles.
You do not know true pain until playing anchor Haggar against Dormammu with Doom Missiles.

Just by identifying the things that tax your mental energy, you’re a little bit better than you were before. Once I realized that I get really impatient when I’m forced to block in the corner, I made a conscious effort to spend more time blocking before burning meter or taking a risk to get out of it. Once I realized that people who played a slow-paced game were wearing me down, I started trying to practice the slow game myself to see if I could do it to other people. And so on. Which brings us to the next step: learning how to find your opponent’s mental pressure points.

Annoying your opponent for fun and profit

The first time I met Leah “GIANTSWORD|gllty” Hayes, she told me about how she plays fighting games to stop other people from having fun. The first time I saw her play a tournament match, she managed to steal the last game in a 2-2 set at Community Effort Orlando 2014 by chanting “DON’T DROP IT DON’T DROP IT DON’T DROP IT” while her opponent had her in a game-winning combo. (He dropped it.) Naturally, if I was going to learn how to wage psychological warfare, she’d be the right person to teach me — she plays Dhalsim in Ultra Street Fighter IV and Morrigan/Dormammu/Doom in UMVC3, for crying out loud.

gllty“It’s important to identify what’s fun in games,” she told me. “Remember how when Marvel first came out, everyone was like, ‘Whoa, look at the damage’? I purposely built a playstyle around negating the fun style — not letting you get your fatty satisfying combo. Frustration is about isolating the options that are fun. When people are frustrated, it’s because they have a set of things in the game they respect, and you’re playing outside of it.”

Leah continued: “Isolating fun just makes it easier to visualize, because you can be like, ‘Hey, I enjoy this aspect of my character, it’d suck if I couldn’t enjoy it.’ You can relate emotionally! Then you can take those cards away from others and know how they feel, and so mental toughness and fortitude becomes a thing.”

Even her character selection choices take into account other players’ expectations. “People have this tendency to give heightened cred to certain things they deem like legit or skillful. For example, there are plenty of people who don’t care for Morrigan, even though she’s executionally demanding, but could watch someone doing an infinite combo or some flashy XF3 combo and go ‘Oh, shit’.”

Out of curiosity, I ask her: What happens when she goes up against someone who is just as anti-fun as she is? “I will have no fun,” she replied. “I think fireballs are fun; Ibuki standing outside her sweep range waiting to anti-fireball me shits on my fun. And as I stew on my loss, I think things like, ‘That’s really annoying, I want other people to suffer my pain.’ However, if it’s like, me against another lame player, we’re probably going to have an understanding, and enjoy our separate rules.”

So, there you have it: Find the fun, and then figure out how to systematically deny it to your opponent. But how do you like to put your opponents on tilt? Share your tips in the comments!