Helmbreaking With Intelligence? A UMvC3 Guide to Decision-Making and Planning
(Editors note: No, the website hasn’t been hacked by fighting game fans so this is not a mistake if you stumbled upon this article. Consider the posting of this article a personal favor to a supporter who also loves fighting games and wants to write about them. Don’t worry though we will be back to our nonsensical musical verbiage very soon. )
By: John “Zansam” Amenta
Part 1: “Download Complete”; Adaptation at Important Match Points
Adaptation is a topic in the fighting game community that is often mentioned but seldom discussed. Most players understand that they need to change their gameplan and behavior based on context, and they do this naturally. But what makes some players adapt better than others? Are they smarter? Maybe more experienced? Do they just “get it?”
Yes, experience and aptitude certainly contribute to a player’s ability to adapt. Unfortunately, experience cannot be rushed and aptitude cannot be created. However, preparation and knowledge can allow a player to better identify situations where adaptation is necessary and already know how to adjust their gameplay accordingly.
One of the advantages UMvC3 offers over fighting games such as Ultra Street Fighter 4 or Mortal Kombat regarding adaptation is that the stages of a match are very distinct. It’s clear to see when an opponent has more characters, more meter, or more X-Factor. As a result, players can formulate gameplans on how to shift their behavior as the match progresses. Furthermore, unlike adapting to an opponent or character matchups, this adaptation can be easily prepared before the match has even begun.
The following is an overview of key points in a typical UMvC3 tournament set where a significant change in a match take places, and success requires adapting to that change. Although there are many, many different situations and changes (that’s part of what makes UMvC3 so interesting!), these situations will happen in nearly every match and are a bit more universal. Key questions a player should ask themselves are highlighted, along with a more detailed analysis of how to make decisions in a given situation.
1) Watching an opponent select their characters
What do I think is the gameplan of this team? How does this team interact with my team? What is the best way to defeat this team? What characters/situations should I be particularly concerned about?
This adaptation phase is easily overlooked. Often players are so focused on themselves that they miss valuable insight available by considering an opponent’s perspective. After all, the opponent comes in with a gameplan as well. Taking time before the match starts to consider the nature of their team and how to combat it can easily mean the difference between victory and defeat.
Basic assessment of an opponent’s team should include the following: considering what tools work best for a player’s point character, how their assists interact with their opponent’s (speed/durability/space control/special properties/etc.), what options the opponent’s point character has against the player’s general gameplan, and what’s the best way to weaken their team. There are many other things to consider, but overall the goal is to come up with a plan that’s more specific to this opponent. Doing so allows a player to consider potential adjustments in their gameplan that can increase their chances of success.
When analyzing a team, it’s important to look not only at the individual characters, but also how the team functions as a whole. Most teams fall into a handful of archetypes that have various strengths and weaknesses. Understanding what a team does (and doesn’t) do can allow a player to make a “big picture” plan on how to defeat their opponent’s team. Here are some examples of common team archetypes:
1) “Point Character/Synergist/Anchor” Example: Magneto/Doom/Vergil
This is currently the most popular team template in the game, best known by Doom as the synergist, Vergil as the anchor and a point character of the player’s choosing. The point character uses the assists, DHC damage, and TAC combos from the synergist and attempts to win the match outright. If the point character fails, a player typically either sacrifices the synergist in hopes of having the anchor win the game with an X-Factor comeback, or DHCs into the anchor to let the anchor use the synergist’s assist and Level 2 X-Factor to win. This type of team is popular because it’s strong and reasonably stable. However, a player can change their gameplan to better combat this type of team. The player’s first priority should be to kill the point character. Team potency, synergy, and strength in the neutral game all go down drastically when the point character is removed. After that, the goal is to use fighting against the synergist to prepare fighting the anchor; whether that be trying to remove meter via a side TAC, snapping in the anchor, or saving meter when comboing the synergist to have it available against the anchor. While synergist characters are still capable of getting hits and making comebacks, they are far less likely to do so than the anchor is. X-Factor and hyper meter should rarely be used to kill the synergist since those resources better used if they’re available against the anchor.
2) “Team Frontloaded” Example: Nova/Frank/Rocket Raccoon
My own team falls into the frontloaded category. A team like this relies on its point character and a strong neutral game to beat the opponent. However, if the point character fails to kill characters (or in this case, fails to level up Frank) the secondary characters struggle to make a comeback. When playing a team like this, it’s better to concentrate all resources into killing the point character (including X-Factor if needed) and then use superior characters/neutral to dismantle the rest of the team. The loss of the point character shifts the game far more drastically than against a point/synergist/anchor team, and a player will win more often than not if the point character is defeated regardless of how many resources they used to do so. However, it is noteworthy that in this particular instance the team is no longer frontloaded if Frank gets leveled. Instead it becomes…….
3) “Team Double Barrel” Example: Magneto/Dormammu/Doom
Magneto/Dormammu/Doom, as popularized by 2012 EVO champion FChamp, is a double-barreled team. It has two strong point characters backed by a synergist. Similarly to Point/Synergist/Anchor, there are two characters that are the problem. The difference is that they’re the 1st and 2nd characters rather than 1st and 3rd. Also, this team is far more likely to use X-factor on the second character rather than save it for the last. As such, the gameplan should change accordingly.
An important decision to make against this team is when to burn resources. A player’s primary goal is to get through both the first and second characters. However, they need to decide which character requires more resources/attention in order to defeat both. For example, a player who plays Nova may feel confident in the Dormmamu matchup but less so in the Magneto matchup, and would prefer to use X-Factor to kill Magneto if the opportunity arises. However, a Zero player may have been burned by Dormammu’s Chaotic Flame hyper attack one too many times, and would prefer to save his tools for Dormammu. Regardless of preference, a player’s plan should revolve around the removal of the first two characters followed by carefully beating the Level 3 X-Factor synergist with superior neutral game. Also, a player should be prepared for the possibility of the opponent using X-factor on their first or second character; a double barrel player knows their last character is weak with X-factor, and will usually actively look for a way to use X-factor earlier in the match to gain momentum or win outright.
4) “Team Point Characters/Team Anchors” Example: Wesker/Vergil/Strider or Morrigan/Wesker/Vergil
These team templates are a bit less common, but they do still appear in competitive play. Teams like these forego neutral game in hopes of winning with powerful characters and/or X-Factor comeback potential. The key to beating these types of teams is to leverage their weakness; they lack of assists to strengthen their neutral game. Rather than focusing on mixups, it’s better to rely on stronger movement and assist usage to put the opponent in disadvantageous positions. It’s also recommended to determine which character is most dangerous with X-Factor and ensuring they don’t get to use it via snapbacks.
Although most popular teams will fill these templates, many will not. Some may change the order of an archetype. For example, 2013 EVO champion Flocker’s Zero/Vergil/Hawkeye can either be considered a double barrel team or a point/synergist/anchor team in a different order. Other teams can be combination of archetypes (Zero/Dante/Vergil has Dante as both a synergist and a point character threat, not to mention all three can function as point or anchor characters to varying degrees). In some instances, a team may not fit into a category at all. For example, Punisher’s Hawkeye/Iron Fist/Rocket Raccoon has 3 characters that are synergists (they all have great assists) and varying capabilities as point characters. However, there are weaknesses to all three characters on point, and none of them are very powerful anchors. The important thing for a player to do is to take the time at character select to try to sense how a team works, and then make a plan on how to beat it regardless of whether the plan actually succeeds.
2) Character Advantage: 3v2
What strengths did my opponent lose, and how can I leverage my new advantages? What opportunities is my opponent looking for to regain momentum?
Characters are the most important resource in UMVC3. How much meter or X-Factor a player has means nothing when they run out of characters. Furthermore, multiple characters offer many resources in the forms of assists, TACs, crossover counters, DHCs, THCs, and favorable matchups. When a player has more characters than their opponent, more often than not they’re winning.
An important shift should happen when a player has more characters than their opponent; rather than playing to win, they should be playing to not lose. Playing not to lose entails several changes in behavior: safer mixups (most common mixups have holes that can be taken advantage of, especially with hyper meter and X-Factor), careful assist usage (a player wants to press their advantage but not call the assist in a way that both the point character and assist get punished), and seeking trades (trading meter for meter, characters for characters or X-Factor for X-Factor is always a favorable trade when you have a character lead).
In addition to changing their playstyle, 3v2 situations is a good place for a player to determine what their opponent’s best route to a comeback is and how they can prevent it. Double Barrel teams mean that a player wants to focus the second character that’s now on point, whereas if a powerful anchor is in the back the player should look for ways to kill or weaken that anchor.
3) Character Advantage: 3v1 and 2v1
3v1 and 2v1 situations are about damage control to the extreme. Although players have made non-X-Factor comebacks killing multiple characters, they are very uncommon (especially 3v1 comebacks). A player’s goal in this situation is to try to make their opponent use their X-Factor prematurely (high chip damage situations, baiting an opponent into doing something unsafe, trying to win the match by time over, etc) or never let them use their X-Factor at all via strong incoming mixups. Although incoming mixups are a highly advantageous situation for a player, they should still make sure a mixup won’t give an opponent the opportunity they need to attempt to comeback. Using the time the last character comes in to gain a better position or setup is a fine decision (though not ideal) if the player’s mixup isn’t airtight or they’re confident they can beat their opponent’s last character in neutral game.
Team order and incoming defense become much more important in 3v1 and 2v1 situations. A player needs to consider their character’s health, neutral game, and incoming defensive options then change their team order accordingly. For example, if a player has a full team of Dante/Hawkeye/Strider versus a Strider anchor with Level 3 X-Factor, the best team orders would be Hawkeye/Dante/Strider or Hawkeye/Strider/Dante. Hawkeye and Dante are tied for the highest health, and Strider combos outside of X-Factor struggle to kill either of them. This means that if the opponent’s Strider got a touch he’d need to either burn X-Factor, use more hyper meter, or perform a reset to attempt to kill Hawkeye. Furthermore, Hawkeye has the weakest incoming defensive options of the three, and has the best chance of forcing Strider to burn X-Factor early by punishing unsafe actions with his Gimlet hyper ability. Having Strider or Dante second also allows a safe DHC in case something goes wrong, whereas Hawkeye second could potentially be punished by Strider’s Vajra if Hawkeye DHCs. Although all three characters are capable of fighting Strider on point, this configuration offers greater chances of containing an X-Factor comeback.
If the player does get hit, their goal shifts to minimizing the damage of X-Factor. Any extra resources that they can use to reduce/eliminate their opponent’s X-Factor (using hyper meter to force the opponent to block but not get punished, putting a high health character on point, or activating their own X-Factor to avoid losing characters to chip damage), or to kill the opposing character outright are good trades that can often guarantee victory. However, when a player uses resources to deplete their opponent’s X-Factor they want to make sure that they will still have some resource advantage, whether it be more characters, more meter, or their own X-Factor.
4) Character Disadvantage: 2v3
How do I survive the incoming mixup? What are my best options to regain momentum? When do I use my resources?
The first thing a player needs to do after losing a character is make sure they don’t lose their next one to an incoming mixup. Incoming mixups in UMvC3 are extremely powerful because of how controlled the situation is and how limited the defender’s options are. Top-tier point characters aren’t the best solely because of their neutral game/damage; their ability to do ambiguous, multi-tiered mixups on an incoming opponent can make Marvel the 1-player game players and spectators know and love. Having extensive knowledge of a character’s options for incoming mixups is a great way to increase one’s chances of winning in UMvC3 at any level of play.
At all points of the match in a character deficit situation, a player’s goal is to look for any opportunity to regain momentum. This can even be found during an incoming mixup; many players use mixups that have holes that can be exploited with powerful air moves, double jumps/air dashes, hyper attacks, or X-Factor cancels. For example, as a Frank West player if Frank is coming in at level 4 I often use air M chainsaws if I doubt my opponent’s ability to make a safe incoming mixup; they’re fast, cover a lot of space, and don’t have a hurtbox. Opportunities can come in many other forms, such as unprotected assist calls, block strings that can be X-Factor cancelled to punish, or using powerful hyper combos that the player can X-Factor cancel to continue the combo.
Just like when a player gets a hit when they have all their characters, when they get a hit in a character deficit they also need to decide how many resources they want to use to kill the character. As a rule of thumb, a player should favor using X-Factor for a kill in 2v3 situations rather than saving it and spending meter. For example, if a player has Vergil/Doom and gets a hit with Vergil, they are often better off using X-Factor to do a killing combo that costs 0 to 1 bars of hyper meter, rather than spending multiple bars on sword loops to kill the opponent. Saving that meter allows Vergil make his incoming mixup more powerful via his Devil Trigger power-up state combined with X-Factor’s speed boost, have more options in neutral with Spiral Swords, and have meter left over when X-Factor expires. If Vergil uses meter to kill, he only has a weaker incoming mixup and X-Factor available if he gets another hit (not to mention the longer the combo goes the more likely a player is to drop it). Although Vergil can win in both cases, the first one caters better to his strengths and gives him a lot more momentum.
5) Character Disadvantage: 1v3 and 1v2
How can I get the hit I need to get started? Are there any obstacles to victory once I get that touch? What defensive options does my opponent have on incoming?
The most important tool a player can have when looking for an opportunity to get a touch and make a comeback is patience. Losing both characters often brings a sense of urgency. Players may think or feel that they need to regain an advantage as soon as possible. Instead, a player needs to remind themselves that it only takes one good hit to make a difference, and that it’s worth waiting for. An excellent example of this is Justin Wong’s Akuma anchor play; he will wait up to a full minute regardless of character deficit if that’s what it takes to get a chance at winning the match. While Justin is highly praised for his comebacks, not nearly enough players note his amazing patience, which is one of several key ingredients for those comebacks.
Although finding examples of Justin Wong making comebacks in many different fighting games isn’t difficult, my personal favorite comes from UFGTX against CORN JDM. Game 1 starts out largely in JDM’s favor; he kills Wolverine and Storm with ease and leaves Justin with only Level 3 X-Factor Akuma and a few bars of hyper meter against JDM’s full team and X-Factor. Justin’s gameplan with Akuma in this match is very basic: throw fireballs, stay mobile, look for punish opportunities and mix up the opponent on incoming. Despite his extreme deficit he has no sense of urgency because either his opportunity to come back will happen or it won’t. His comeback takes about 70 seconds (which in UMvC3 can feel like an eternity), and 50 of them are him playing neutral while looking for his opportunity to beat Zero. Two mixups after beating Zero and he takes game 1. More importantly, the momentum shifts dramatically in Justin’s favor (momentum from winning is further discussed in section 7) and he takes the set in a convincing 3-0 victory.
If a player manages to kill their opponent’s first character, comebacks revolve around keeping full control of momentum and using it to defeat the other characters before the opponent has a chance to get away and re-establish control. Stronger anchors such as Vergil and Strider have pre-determined incoming mixups that can cover all defensive options easily and still allow multiple opportunities to open up the opponent. Momentum with these anchors often is a matter of executing the mixup correctly and then being able to try other mixup attempts if the opponent manages to block. Weaker anchors instead need to evaluate what options a character has on incoming and try to adjust accordingly. There are two important things to consider:
1) If an opponent has a defensive option (Sentinel’s invincible Hard Drive hyper ability, double jumps, air dashes, etc), they’ll often use it. Escaping the incoming mixup gives an opponent the chance to play keepaway and drain X-Factor, which more often than not means the player facing the character deficit will lose.
2) Mixups still need to be safe. Even when a player has momentum in their favor, they’re still one touch away from defeat. An opponent with a character advantage may consider a risky attack since they will win if it hits, and if they lose they still get another chance. Nobody wants to be the guy who loses because their anchor got hit by Dr. Doom’s Foot Dive or Vergil’s Helmbreaker on incoming.
6) Character Neutral: 2v2 and 1v1
How is this matchup different from the 3v3 situation? Who’s winning right now?
Getting back to an equal number of characters requires a player to re-evaluate the situation since they can no longer use the character lead to determine who’s winning. Instead, the characters themselves, the matchups between them, and other resources (X-Factor, assists, and hyper meter) are used to determine who is in the lead. Resource leads tend to be smaller when both players have the same characters, though not always (such as when a player is in X-Factor and about to mix up another character.) Differences may also be due to team templates; killing the point character of a front-loaded team for example puts a player at a massive advantage of their opponent.
Unfortunately, given all the possible character neutral situations it’s difficult to give general guidelines as to what situation a player is in. However, the smaller number of characters does make it easier to process the entire situation. These are a few things to consider when evaluating new character neutral situations:
1) How much health does each team have? Can I or my opponent kill a character off any touch without X-Factor? With X-Factor?
2) Do we both have X-Factor? Who has more hyper meter? Who can make better use of their meter?
3) Who has an advantage in the neutral game? Is anybody’s neutral game reliant upon assists?
4) If I kill one character in a 2v2 situation, how much more likely am I to win? Which character is more threatening?
7) Losing a match
What went wrong? How do I need to adjust my gameplan?
The first thing a player should do when they lose is stop everything.
Wait. Take a breath. There’s no penalty for taking a minute or two before hitting rematch, and this time allows a player to both assess the situation and stop some of the momentum their opponent gained. Momentum is mentioned frequently in the previous topics. Momentum is an important aspect of fighting games (especially UMvC3), and winning a match is the ultimate momentum boost. Just like when a player loses characters in a match, losing matches in a set can have drastic impacts on a player’s behavior. When a loss impacts a player it can have many consequences including frustration, increased recklessness, more dropped combos, poorer decision making, and sometimes outright giving up. Smarter opponents will want to capitalize on this, so a player should try to halt the momentum in any way possible.