I just moved from the US to China and have been playing in the arcade a lot here. At least in this city, there are not a whole lot of good SF4 players; KOF is where it’s at here. While trying to learn KOF I was able to re-experience the stumbling in the dark feeling of starting out a new game against players who are already really good. Also while playing SF4 against a lot of weak players that I could see in person rather than as a faceless laggy character over the internet, I feel like I developed a stronger sense of why people are losing.
Know why you are doing what you are doing
This sounds obvious, but there are many aspects relating to knowing why you are doing what you are doing. First you need to evaluate your current play as far as any kind of automatic habits or muscle memory type things that you just do without thinking about, for instance mashing buttons on wakeup or throwing out a specific move that makes you feel safe for no real reason. Once you realize you are doing something that may actually be a bad habit, try to look at it from your opponent’s perspective: how is whatever you’re doing going to result in your opponent getting hit or at least losing some form of advantage? If you can’t answer this question, you may be looking at a bad habit that you need to stop doing.
Some really obvious ones that I see all the time are pushing buttons or jumping on wakeup, doing “pointless” blockstrings that have no chance of making a competent opponent get hit, and doing things that are way too risky for the given situation and represent a bad risk/reward tradeoff.
Doing dumb shit on wakeup
You just got knocked down and instead of your brain stopping and alerting you consciously that you are knocked down and mentally switching to wakeup game mode, you are auto-piloting and don’t really even notice you were knocked down. You just want to throw some pokes out so that you don’t get thrown. If this sounds at all like your mentality, you need to stop and really thinking about what you are doing after every knockdown and why.
Your primary choices on wakeup should be, block low, block high, tech a throw, combined with whether to block a crossup. There are other viable options such as backdashing to avoid a command grab or whether to reversal, but these should be your main options.
What should never be an option is to throw out a normal, hold up to “jump out of whatever pressure they are going to use”, or try to use a special that doesn’t have any invulnerable properties.
It can be deceptive in SF4, and especially if you’re playing a lot on Xbox live against really bad people, all the things I listed above as “not an option” will not be punished and may even seem to be viable. It’s extra deceptive because in SF4 meaties are a lot less useful than in most 2d fighters, so doing things like mashing jab on wakeup and jumping on wakeup begin to look viable. The issue is that a good player will see that you do this and simply begin to use meaties, which beat trying to poke on wakeup or jumping on wakeup clean no matter what.
Instead of getting nervous or feeling like you have to “DO SOMETHING” on wakeup, focus your concentration on figuring out what you think your opponent is going to do. Look for patterns and tendencies and try to react accordingly. The good choices on wakeup that I listed above: blocking high, low, and teching a throw combined with blocking a crossup will get you out of most all situations. A good player is going to get in your head and make it really difficult for you to guess properly, but if you focus on these few good options instead of doing panic options that make no sense, you’ll understand the game better and become a stronger player.
The main idea behind a blockstring or any kind of offense is to make your opponent guess wrong and take a hit. A good blockstring doesn’t necessarily have to make your opponent block wrong and get hit; it can simply build meter or improve your spacing, but the best case scenario is that you hit your opponent in some way.
The classic pointless “blockstring” is Ryu and Ken’s j.mk or j.rh followed up with cr.rh. Go back to what I said earlier about looking at this from your opponent’s perspective. How is this string tricking your opponent into blocking wrong and getting hit? What is this string going to offer if it is blocked. Does this string offer any form of versatility? The only kind of player this string is going to work on is someone who is so new that they are still struggling with blocking high to block overheads and low to block low attacks. How is this string going to trick a good player? It’s not, all you have to do to against this string is to block the jump in high, and then block the cr. RH low. The cr. RH may even be punishable depending on the spacing. Most people who use this string don’t know why they are doing it; they probably are using it simply because they don’t know a better alternative. Once you just fall into the habit of using a useless blockstring, you will fall back on it and it will prevent you from learning a stronger offense.
Think of your main character and think of your offense. You can’t just look at one blockstring you use and determine if it’s good, you have to look at all of your offense and see if the string makes sense within your overall offensive plan. Even the useless j.RH cr.RH I mentioned above could potentially trick someone if you mixed it up with j.RH into a tick throw. It would still be a very bad blockstring, but by simply adding in another possibility which has a separate counter to the first possibility, you’ve forced your opponent to guess and made your offense much stronger.
Instead of j.RH cr.RH, you could use j.mk, cr.lp, cr.lp, cr.mp xx hadouken. This string makes a lot more sense, you have the option to tick throw after the j.mk or after the first cr.lp (or do a short walkup throw even after the second). If any of the moves hit, you can link the cr.mp into a cr.rh for an untechable knockdown. If the first jump-in hits, you can switch up to a combo that allows you to FADC into ultra. If the opponent just blocks everything, cancelling into the fireball builds meter, chips the opponent, and leaves you with good spacing. You could even FADC the fireball and continue your offense. Finally, if you incorporate tick throws into your offense, there is a high chance your opponent will stop blocking in preparation for a throw and eat one of the hits. Crouchteching will beat a lot of standard tick setups, but you can build in counters to crouchteching once you see your opponent doing it (which I won’t go into now).
The main thing to consider is that you need to build an overall plan that makes the opponent have to consider as many things as possible on his wakeup. Look back at the choices you have during your own wakeup: high, low, tech, crossup. The crossup can combine with everything, and a very 2D Fighters 101 concept is that when you use strong ambiguous crossup, your opponent is focused mostly on the crossup and not on high, low, or tech. Your opponent has to guess left or right no matter what, if he eats that first crossup hit there is nothing left to guess, he’s going to take a full combo. This means he’ll often be off guard after he actually blocks the crossup, making him more susceptible to high/low/throw mixup.
It’s possible to use an actual good blockstring that becomes bad within your overall offense. If you almost never incorporate throws into your game, blockstrings that are just a bunch of low hits cancelled into a safe special like a fireball are never going to trick your opponent. The key thing is to use all the tools available to make it as hard as possible for your opponent to guess his way out of your offense. Especially after every knockdown, make your opponent really have to sweat it out and be nervous about what you are going to do. Hitting them with a single cr.mk cancelled into nothing or shooting a meaty fireball and just standing there for a while after are not going to do anything.
Also don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you absolutely need a jump-in to combo into anything or to use any form of blockstring. Jump-ins have their place, usually after you land a knockdown or to punish a fairly big mistake (like a fireball shot from too close), but again ask yourself WHY you are jumping in. If the answer is “Because I practice this combo in training mode with a jump-in”, you need to figure out how to build a stronger ground-based offense. You should have a really good reason for every time you jump. Be aware of every time you jump and ask if it made sense, but especially when a jump results in you getting hit, think back to when you jumped and figure out if you even know why you did it. Chances are you just did it automatically with no real reason. Against bad players you’ll get away with this, but against good players it’s going to get punished consistently and make you lose.
Taking stupid risks
I get the impression that most new players who take a lot of stupid risks don’t even realize they are taking a risk. What constitutes a smart risk and a stupid risk depend on the momentum of the match, life/meter, how in someone’s head you are, etc.
The most obvious stupid risk is using reversals too much. Like with blockstrings, you can’t look at a single reversal isolated from the rest of the match and determine if it was stupid. Reversals are a lot stronger when they are used sparingly, the more often you use reversals the less useful they become. If you reversal once or twice per match, your opponent is very likely going to pressure you on knockdown every chance he gets and be very reluctant to waste knockdowns on baiting potential reversals. Conversely, if you reversal 80% of the time you get knocked down, your opponent is going to win solely on punished reversals.
Look at what a reversal gains for you and what you risk in doing it: if you successfully reversal, you escape the knockdown situation and knock your opponent down as well, giving you a chance to begin your own offense. You also do a fairly minimal but not insignificant amount of damage.
If you guess wrong, you will take from anywhere between 30%-70% damage depending on your opponent’s super/ultra meters and your character’s maximum HP. You will also be knocked down again and be right back where you started but with a lot less health than you had before.
When I’m playing against someone and I notice they reversal even 35% of the time, I generally use every knockdown to try to bait out the reversal and punish it. It only takes three or four blocked reversals to win a round, each blocked reversal also puts your opponent further and further toward the corner, which makes it easy to win even if they get smart and stop using reversals so much.
Aside from how often you reversal, it’s also important to know when you should do it. Say that you are playing against someone better than you, but you start off a round really well and have your opponent near the corner with like 20-30% life and you have around 80%. Even though you have him cornered he manages to knock you down. In this situation your opponent will have a full ultra meter. This is a potential turning point in the match, you’ve already lost a good deal of your momentum, but your opponent is still very low on life and cornered. In a sense it could make sense to reversal here with the logic that your opponent wouldn’t expect you to do it given that you don’t really need to. It probably makes more sense though to assume that since your opponent is a better player, he knows that you are probably more nervous than him and are probably desperate to win. You are probably afraid of his mixup and don’t want to let him back into the game. This is when you really need to have confidence in your ability to block your way out of a knockdown. If you reversal and your opponent baits it, he has a full ultra and will get right back into the game on even ground. If you just block, the chances are a lot lower (provided you don’t completely choke) that you’re going to take significant damage. Even if you were to just block low and watch for overheads, the worst that could happen is you’d eat a throw. The round is already in your favor, you shouldn’t be too afraid to continue the round with such a large life lead even if you did just get knocked down. This situation would also be a good time to FADC a reversal, you probably built enough meter up already from gaining the lead.
In the above situation, it would also make a lot of sense for your opponent to do a crossup, as it would avoid most reversals and let him out of the corner while putting you into it. If you get nervous and just decide as soon as you get knocked down “I’m going to reversal!”, you may mentally lock in the decision and do it regardless of seeing a crossup that completely avoids your reversal.
Not having any concept of zoning
It’s not really effective to explain how to zone through text. You can see good zoning and footsies from watching match videos; there are also some really good guides out there already that tell you the basic idea of it. I can definitely explain what not zoning at all is and you should check to see if this applies to you.
The ultimate version of not zoning at all is the player who went into training mode and learned one combo that begins with a jump-in. They get into a real match and really want to land that combo. They just start jumping and fishing for that hit to start their combo. Usually this kind of player is just going to get anti-aired over and over. If this player does happen to connect the jump-in (but it’s blocked), he will simply continue the combo even if it ends in a fierce DP. This is the most extreme example of not zoning and not thinking about what you are doing.
A step up from this is the player who has this vague notion that he SHOULD be zoning but doesn’t really know how or why. He usually will open the round by throwing a fireball or three, but he tends to be just throwing the fireballs as a token gesture or with the hope that the opponent might just not block, fuck up, and get hit by a stray fireball. If his opponent just neutral jumps or focus absorbs the fireballs, the player will usually just give up and start jumping in looking to land some training mode combos or tick throws. This kind of player is the Sagat player that doesn’t realize he can control a match through tiger shots, but he’s seen a lot of matchvideos of Sagat players doing just that. He tries to spam some fireballs like he knows he’s supposed to, but he doesn’t actually understand how or why this is supposed to gain him an advantage.
Another strong sign of not zoning is failing to use normals, especially outside of blockstrings. Think of your main character, now think of every single normal he has, crouching, standing, and any kind of command normals. If you can’t remember what one normal looks like or if you can’t remember ever using one outside of a blockstring or combo, chances are you aren’t zoning. There are definitely some characters who have some bad/useless normals, but generally you should be using most of your character’s normals to zone. If you realize you are only really using jab and roundhouse for instance, force yourself to incorporate one more normal into your zoning and poking each session you play. You don’t have to go from only using jab and roundhouse to using every single normal; if you add one at a time you’ll process it better and make using each move a permanent part of your play.
Really just start thinking about why you are doing what you do. Try to pick apart your own game and figure out how much of what you are doing is just complete habit with no real reasoning behind it. Weed out your bad habits one at a time and add new good habits one at a time. Once you have totally fixed something or completely incorporated something useful, only then move onto something else. This way you can systematically fix holes in your play and make yourself a better player.