by Philip

If you’re relatively new to competitive Melee, you may have encountered difficulty in adjusting from playing with your friend in your living room/bedroom to taking on local regulars at weekly or monthly tournaments. The day of the big showdown comes, you eat your favorite breakfast (Cinnamon Toast Crunch, for me) and listen to your ‘Time to Kick Ass’ soundtrack (Kanye, anyone?). You stroll down to the venue and drop your ten bucks… only to be bopped out of pools in your first thirty minutes by the eight-year old kid who can do ten Fox multishines in a row. The salt is real, but there’s a question that might stick in your mind—‘What did I do wrong?’

Sometimes it’s a mix—bad diet, tourney nerves, no sleep—but it’s much more often a perilous situation you may have entered into called the ‘two-person meta’, and it’s plagued Smashers for as long as Melee has been around.

Picture the following: you’re two hours deep into ‘practice’ with your best bud. His Falco has been spiking you off wall-jumps, one of you just did a platform cancel on Randal, and the hype has become so concentrated you can feel it in the air, like a creamy nougat you can enjoy just by breathing. Maybe you’re a Sheik who got a perfect drop-zone NAIR, and neither you nor your buddy can resist tilting back in your chairs and screaming at the audacity of your low-reaching edge-guard. Crazy moments like these happen all the time in practice—but when you go to tourney to demonstrate your wicked package of skills, the coin just doesn’t flip the same way. That Fox just keeps upthrow-upairing, and before you know it, you’re down three stocks and haven’t even gotten your movement steady. Perhaps you’ve had the feeling of being two minutes into a match and realizing you haven’t wavedashed once. This, I deem the curse of friendship, but examination is necessary to determine what exactly is going on.

When I started Smashing competitively (beginning w/ Smash 4, plagued by the nostalgia of my Gamecube youth, and then successively working back thru the tech ladder until my clunker of a PC could emulate Melee again), my friend PeKo and I were insatiable tech-monsters. We had to learn everything there was to learn, mostly because neither of us really wanted to be playing Smash 4 in lieu of Melee, but took what reality handed us. Shield-drops abounded. One-frame edge-guard options were explored. And every character was probed for viability, making sure we found the mains that suited us best, then to be subject to as many training montages as we could muster up. My Megaman was practicing metal-blade z-drops, my Fox was doing jab infinites (all over a year ago, for perspective). We didn’t assume ourselves to be better than we were—but when we watched tournament footage, it was difficult or impossible to tell where the skill gap might actually lay. “Why aren’t they shield dropping? Why are there no spikes? Why is everyone playing Diddy  Kong?”

On way to our first ever tournament, the hype fluctuated. “What if we’re completely deluded?” was the question—did we lock ourselves in a hyberbolic time chamber just to buff our egos to be the new Smash 4 Gods, waiting for the moment of our first tournament to destroy all competition and cement our names in legend and history?

If you haven’t made the read yet, we experienced the aforementioned bopping that accompanies every ‘first tournament’ (unless you’re Ken). But Ken was just a kid who showed up and was amazing—AND, he did it by practicing primarily against one person. So where was our hidden power? Why could neither of us go Super Saiyan?

The answer, my friends, is the ‘two-person meta’: the state of mind where all options are theoretical, and all that matters is beating your friend and whatever character/style he/she happens to play. PeKo mained Wii Fit Trainer, never exactly at the top of the tier-lis—and while I was semi-competent with the Blue Bomber, I had no experience against over half the cast. Why was everyone playing Yoshi, when every game I tried him out led to a quick two-stock in PeKo’s favour? What was the fun in playing that stupid Diddy Kong with his dumb Brawl-esque bananas? Were we missing the bigger picture?

Consider that in terms of practice, it’s impossible to know what you are inherently programmed to be oblivious to. If you pick up Melee and decide Mewtwo is your favorite character, you’ll give your friend a lot of practice against Mewtwo, but probably won’t help him one bit when it comes to the Fox matchup. And considering that most advice for new players begins with “pick one character and stick to them”, what does that mean for the rest of the cast that exist only in theoretical matchup spreads on Smashboards?

It’s critically important to remember that while Melee is a game of only so many characters, finding the mojo inside yourself to master every one of them is something only legends like M2K have ever done. If you’re a Captain Falcon player, you know Captain Falcon, but you probably can’t play Sheik or Peach to save your life. And why not? Sheik is the toppest of tiers, scooping more names into the top 20 rankings than Dr. Mario or Samus ever did. Peach only happens to be the handy tool of the most fearsome Swedish death-machine—but surely, you convince yourself, it’s just his individual skill. Peach is floaty, she’s dumb, no one plays her—all you need to do is watch a few Peach matches on Youtube to save yourself from the trap.

But where observation and study come in, muscle memory begins to decay. You might have the perfect execution of a tech-chase in your mind, watched it a thousand times on Youtube—but the second you downthrow that peach, she rolls in a direction you didn’t cover, and now you have to deal with turnips and nairs and all other sorts of shenanigans. ‘She can turnip all my up+b options?’, says the panicked Marth main. ‘Why didn’t my friend show me that? We played a couple of Peach/Marth matches so I could learn the matchup…’

Therein lies the rub, my friends. Because what goes on in a practice lair between two people, whether it’s streamed, informed by Youtube analysis, or even worked out on paper beforehand, is only what happens between those two people. And, most importantly, after a while, nerves vanish. What you feel in your heart as Fox shine-spikes you for the third time is nothing like what happens when your friend does it—because watching them succeed, a part of you must surely feel joy that they’ve mastered something just to beat your sorry ass. In the tournament environment, people play to win, and no one wants to hear about how cool your teeter-cancel moonwalk is—they want to smash your ass, and you have about six minutes to figure out their exact personality and play-style before you wrap up your controller and crawl away from your $10 investment as it evaporates into nothing but NaCl and bad memories.

The only escape from the wormhole of the two-person meta is exactly what it sounds like: play regularly against more than one person. No matter how much you practice vs. your best friend, neither of you will suddenly decide to entirely reinvent your play-style. If he’s a tech-monster that invincible ledge-dashes consistently, you’ll learn to anticipate and respect ledge-options—but that won’t get you anywhere against round one pools Fox, who does nothing but walk-up upsmmash until all four of your stocks are blips vanishing off the edge of a CRT. If your friend goes for the most ridiculous nipple-spikes as Falcon, you won’t have any practice against the down-throw tech-chase. You can’t ask your friend to change their personality so that you might get practice against a theoretical foe.

Take advantage of the largest tool available to you: tournaments. Weeklies. Monthlies. Opportunities to practice against as many other people as possible, each whom has a different definition of ‘optimal’. It only takes a quick comparison between Gods to see that even the most talented players have varying ideas about what the ‘best’ options is. And as good as Armada’s punishes are, he still has to hit the Jigglypuff wall when H-Box is too patient to make a mistake. M2K can edge-lord all day against newbies in the pit, but it’s rare to see a top player run recklessly into danger when a Marth is ledge-stalling, waiting for that one throw that turns into a death at twelve-percent.

Don’t be afraid—your friend isn’t sabotaging your play on purpose, and if you only have one person to practice against, it’s worlds better than grinding tech by yourself against LVL 1 CPU foxes. But keep in mind that everything you learn while sparring with your best mate can be upended in a single match versus someone you’ve never played befor—the patience they exhibit, the move selection they bring to the table, and the characters they play. You’ll never become a master of Melee thinking your way into tournament level play; so keep a strong mindset, and be ready to give your pal a pat on the back when you both have to rethink whether your Zelda/Link doubles team was ever viable in the first place. It seemed to have so much potential last week! Don’t give up on the dream, but be ready to slog it out against every double-Fox pair in the country before you escape the curse of the two-player meta once and for all.