The main thing to start going from basic poking to basic footsies is not just knowing the maximum range at which your pokes will hit, but also knowing the minimum range at which they will whiff, and how those whiffs will interact with the ranges of your opponent’s pokes.
If you understand those kinds of distances, as well as the speed of your various moves, you can do stuff like:
- Whiff a light attack to bait a whiffed low medium kick from your opponent, then punish with a low medium kick of your own (that you were JUST in range for because the opponent extended their hitbox towards you)
- Walk up and bait a roundhouse that you predictively focus absorb, dash cancel forward and throw them out of their recovery
- Walk backwards out of a stuttered pressure string (fishing for a counter hit or a reversal bait) and punish a whiffed low short with your own low short
- Whiff a light attack just outside throw range to make people flinch into blocking, then walk up or kara throw
What you’re trying to accomplish with footsies is not just to get free damage from counter-poking your opponent’s limbs, but to make your opponent less willing to press buttons, leaving your character with much more freedom to move to their ideal position on-screen and poke, pressure, etc. with impunity.
When your opponent finally gets fed up with letting you do whatever you want and decides to push buttons again, you anticipate and/or react to their presses and go back to counter-poking/punishing them. If you can stay one step ahead in this flowchart against most players, you are in good shape. Depending on the situation (full-screen zoning versus midscreen poking versus defending yourself in the corner) and the character matchup, this can be relaxed or intense, easy or hard.
Of course, a big chunk of footsies is learning how to quickly figure out your opponent’s intentions and tendencies, which can be hard to figure out on the fly against players you don’t know very well. A good experiment to try online to practice your footsies is this:
Start the match by blocking. Wait a half second or so after round start to look for a round-start jump or fireball or something along those lines.
If the opponent doesn’t twitch after that half second, or does something like jump backwards or walk backwards, start walking forward towards the opponent. Be ready to block at a moment’s notice. Don’t press any buttons yet.
Keep walking forward in small bursts (walk, wait for a twitch, walk a bit more) until the opponent either jumps in or throws a move at you. If they do neither of those, throw either a blocked poke or a whiffed light attack at them, then go back to blocking.
If they still have room to walk backward away from your pokes, keep playing the walk-wait game. If you’re already in poking range, stay there and block. Keep looking for a vertical or forward jump or a whiffed poke.
Play this game of “chicken” as long as you can, getting the opponent as close to the corner as you can before they decide it’s time to jump or hit buttons. This takes a lot of patience and you may not be able to react to the first real move they decide to do (this will go away with practice, don’t worry too much about it), but if you can last longer than your opponent can playing this game of mental chicken, chances are you can get them to make some kind of jumpy mistake that you can capitalize on.
If you successfully walked them to the corner, congratulations, you can now start looking for things you can poke/fireball/Shoryuken, and if you’re a rushdown character, you can start going to work on them. If they escaped, don’t get flustered – just defend yourself conservatively, wait patiently for a knockdown or some other opportunity to regain the initiative, and get ready to try again. Remember, if you practice playing this psyche-out game well, you may only need to play it once to win against the majority of players. Good footsies are the primary avenue to a good, high-quality mindfuck.