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Personal opinions on the state of the SSB4 meta, and why I'm optimistic about Dr. Mario

A2ZOMG - May 18, 2017

If you know who I am, you're probably aware of my analytical drivel about Ganon and Dr. Mario in Smash Bros for Wii-U. My current competitive focus is on Dr. Mario, who I believe is a viable strong character in the current metagame. But before I explain more about my opinions of Dr. Mario, I want to talk about the metagame at a larger scale, and what I make of it.

In Smash Bros for Wii-U, the things that most matter for winning at a top level I believe can be summed up in 4 concepts.  They are disadvantage state, grab game, safe unreactable pokes, and out of shield options. While all of these are essential, they are ordered from lowest priority to highest priority. Characters like Diddy, Sheik, and Bayonetta are exceptionally strong at every single one of these categories, making it fairly obvious they are top tier characters in this game. Now I want to explain why I believe these specific qualities highlight what Smash 4 is about.

Disadvantage state I list as the lowest priority of the top tier qualities, but Smash 4 makes it fairly obvious that having a ability to safely reset neutral from a bad position generally makes you less likely to lose.  This is true in every fighting game admittedly, but compared to previous titles, it's relatively speaking much harder to gimp characters with extreme consistency offstage when ledge hogging no longer exists. And while grab confirms and kills still exist in Smash 4 (which will be covered in the next section), they are overall less powerful than grab confirms from previous titles especially when many of them are made situational due to the implementation of Rage, which can drastically change ideal confirm windows if not ruining them. So thus in this game, a lot more kills need to happen either from ledge traps, juggles, or raw neutral wins. It's easy to see why this type of game focus gives fairly large flexibility for a character to utilize tools in a disadvantage state.

Grab games, both in terms of being able to land the grab and what you get from landing a grab, are the next thing I believe matters a lot. Shielding is still pretty strong in Smash 4, as most attacks in this game leave you at large enough frame disadvantage that your opponent has options to react or reposition after dropping shield in most (but not all) situations. Plus, grabs are useful in that throws virtually always interact with your opponent the same way when used at the same percents, meaning the positional advantage you get from them is generally more consistent than landing an attack. The ability to confirm a kill off a grab in some way is very strong in this game and can force your opponent into being pressured to take risks, which by extension is a powerful conditioning tool in the neutral game when you know your opponent is not going to want to sit still in shield against you. Conversely, if a character has a very difficult time getting in range to grab, and/or has a grab that doesn't lead to anything remarkable, the opponent loses very little using shield as a conditioning tool to put pressure on the opponent to approach them unfavorably. In short, stronger presence with a grab is extremely meaningful for any character. I also will give a special mention to Cloud, as I would argue this is actually the thing Cloud is strongest at in the metagame. Cloud's grab game in a sense is mediocre in that he doesn't get a lot of guaranteed damage or setup from it, however Cloud's universal reward from grab is top tier in the sense that he is given free time to charge Limit, his main win condition, any time he makes a trivial neutral win. Since this type of advantage works against the entire cast, I believe it's the primary reason Cloud is strong competitively, in spite of clearly having problems in the other three categories.

Safe unreactable pokes are actually fairly rare in Smash 4, believe it or not. So having access to one is a huge deal, probably a much bigger deal than people commonly admit. While the definition of a safe unreactable poke should be simple, I should clarify that I am most likely talking about a ground move or a rising aerial that is about -15 or safer on regular shield that also has a startup time under 12 frames (not counting jump squat). Commonly, to maintain safety when using an attack in neutral, it is ideal to retreat an attack to maintain a distance that cannot be punished if the opponent attempts an out of shield option. Granted, retreating is in itself an opportunity cost which a shielding opponent can use as an opportunity to gain stage control. The level of safety I'm talking about in "safe unreactable pokes" is when you have both the startup and low enough cooldown to throw out a move that the opponent cannot reliably reactively punish, even if you are not explicitly retreating sometimes. The ability to gain stage control off a shielded attack in a way that the opponent cannot react to is relatively rare in Smash 4. However it's massively important and abusable on the characters that can do this. When people complain about how oppressive Diddy's walling with F-air and B-air is, it's not simply just because the move has outstanding startup and hitbox. It's also because the relative safety of those moves is outstanding even when he uses them rising, which both makes the moves impossible to directly react to and gives them extremely limited counterplay outside of trying to bait him into whiffing in a poor position. Similarly, Sheik and Bayo's F-airs are both outstandingly good moves when used rising, that not only have good frame data and hitboxes as pokes, but even lead to conversions.

Finally we get to out of shield options. As mentioned in my section about grab games, shield by itself is actually a strong defensive option in Smash 4 with a lot of flexibility and pressure potential. Given this is naturally core to how the game plays out, the characters that have the best options to use after shielding have very obvious advantages over the cast. When your ability to counter offense with shields is very consistent, it means you don't need to take many risks to react to an opponent's pressure. A character like Fox for instance actually has relatively few strictly safe pokes on shield (I know he has F-tilt and B-air, but they're a bit on the conditional side), but more importantly, Fox's general frame data and burst mobility means very little is safe on his shield simultaneously. So Fox doesn't actually need to play the strict poke game as much as other characters when most characters can't even play it vs him without him reacting with a safe punish when his opponent overcommits. So even if your poke game isn't the absolute safest, you can still play an incredibly safe and consistent neutral if your opponent has very limited ways of pressuring your shield safely, meaning you can force bad options from an opponent at low risk by simply dash or perfect pivot shielding. Better yet, if your out of shield options can kill, it means that you can also secure a win condition safely if your opponent fails to respect the extent to which they can be punished if you break their zone with shield. Bayonetta deserves something of a special mention in that while technically her out of shield options are a bit limited at several ranges, her Up-B out of shield by itself stands out as both a conversion and an escape tool, giving her a completely different level of safety when abusing shield.

So how does this all add up in my opinion of Dr. Mario in the metagame? In general I think he's actually pretty strong in most of these categories, the weakest of which he performs in being disadvantage state. Some characters who are strong enough to edgeguard the entire cast of characters can also edgeguard Dr. Mario decently (though his recovery is generally speaking fine in the majority of matchups). Dr. Mario's slightly below average airspeed also means certain large hitbox juggles are hard for him to outmaneuver, even though his Cape serves as a powerful B reverse mixup in the disadvantage state.  Overall, this is probably the hardest thing for Dr. Mario to deal with competitively as a whole, but I don't see it as crippling enough to ruin any of his matchups by itself.

Let's talk now why I believe Dr. Mario is in fact strong. For starters, his grab game. Doc's grab range is good, in fact better than Mario's, meaning especially if they both use a shieldgrab or dashgrab out of shield, Doc actually can reach further than Mario in that punish situation. Admittedly, his grab game has the major fault of having rather character specific effectiveness, most notably being weight dependent.  Doc's combo game is in fact weakest on superheavy characters, such as Ganon's weight or heavier, given they recover fastest from Doc's D-throw preventing a lot of preferred true combos, most notably D-throw F-air.  But let's also remember that the majority of top tier characters are below average weight, and several of those characters are also fastfallers. Sheik, Diddy, ZSS, Bayonetta, Cloud, Fox, Marcina, and Mario all in some way can either be true comboed into D-throw F-air, or trapped into F-smash if they mash airdodge to avoid the F-air followup which cannot be jumped out of or interrupted with a reversal. Keeping in mind that the F-air in this situation can kill anywhere from 80-100 on these characters.

As for safe unreactable pokes, let me explain why Doc's B-air is actually the best B-air in the game. It's a safe rising aerial that does 14% sweetspotted, 3 sweetspot and 5 sourspot active frames, and when short hop fastfall autocanceled it is -13 on block at worst while still hitting even the shortest characters while rising when they are standing or shielding. This is literally better than even Diddy's F-air, the main downside is Doc has to be facing backwards to use it. When you consider the sheer risk/reward of this move however, even most sword characters have to fear just how much pressure this move exerts in neutral. A typical sword character is going to wait until after the apex of their short hop and fastfall before using a spaced aerial for maximum safety on shield. Doc maintains a lot of safety on shield without this air time commitment by doing this move rising, creating situations where Doc simply does not have to respect short hop fastfall spacing commitments when he's in range to B-air, especially since 14 damage is quite a lot. As an added bonus, the large number of active frames on Doc B-air (which is longer than Mario's active frames) makes trapping ledge jump for kills at the ledge remarkably easy.

Finally oos. Doc shares both identical startup and dash shield sliding distance to Mario. The extremely fast startup on Mario and Dr. Mario's normals means the opponent explicitly has to commit to spacing outside of a certain range to avoid being punished, given any closer, Mario and Doc consistently have the frame data to punish things that touch their shield. Due to how far Mario and Doc slide forward when dash shielding, creating a situation where the opponent either misspaces or gives up stage control is generally not that hard. It even gets better when we factor perfect pivoting into shield, as Mario and Dr. Mario both have a frame 9 backwards facing Up-smash that are strong kill moves that aren't outrageously unsafe on whiff or block. For the things that dash shield is too high commitment for, a perfect pivot to instantly zone break and perfect shield attempts to wall out Mario and Doc can suddenly turn into a low risk kill opportunity. Naturally people can grab Mario and Doc for shielding, but when you have the startup they do, you simultaneously have a lot of options to outplay grab attempts, not limited to Jabs, N-airs, and the instantaneous leanback on their F-smashes.

I'm of the strict opinion that Mario is in fact underrated (commonly 6th on many tier lists, I believe he should be higher), and by extension Dr. Mario is also underrated because he shares virtually identical and powerful ground tools to Mario in the neutral game. As shield is strong in Smash 4, and retreat aerial walling is relatively weak in this game compared to previous titles, it is my observation that strong frame data first and foremost gives control over this particular game. As Dr. Mario also has strong win conditions he can create from his neutral wins, I believe he's a viable character that can potentially win a major.

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