We’ve finally returned to our regularly scheduled programming here at Qrank only for any kind of normal Smash tournament to be cancelled. With COVID sweeping the entire world, we’re basically shut indoors for the foreseeable future. While this isn’t the best time for Smash tournaments, it could be an ideal time to learn more about the esport.
Think about it: what else do you have to do? Besides playing the new Animal Crossing game, anyways. This way, you’ll be even more ready for when the Melee majors resume.
If there’s a Smash game to study up on, it’s obviously Melee. When I first started watching Melee a few years ago, I was hooked without knowing much. Even brand new viewers can feel the pace, the dynamism, and the raw skill that makes the game exciting. As I kept watching and learned more precisely what was happening on screen, the game only got better.
That’s the glory of Melee as a spectator sport. It only gets better and more exciting the deeper you dive into it and the better you understand it. The main downside is, it’s not easy to understand – nor is a high level understanding terribly easy to come by.
To help prepare for the glorious return of Melee (and stay sated with it gone) I’ve prepared a list of Melee’s big (and sometimes easy to miss) techniques. With each technique, I’m going to break down how it’s performed, how you can spot when player does or misses the tech, and why it matters. Of course, I’ll put some hype clips in along the way to give that needed high level Melee fix.
Ledge hop, ledge dash, and tournament winner
In Melee, the ledge is both more dangerous and a better place to be than in any other smash game. That’s because of a technique called ledge dashing.
How it’s done
A ledge dash starts with a ledge hop, which is simply when a player drops from the ledge then quickly jumps. The ledge hop is in all Smash games and you can see it used a ton in Ultimate, where most characters have a big disjointed aerial they can use to swat away a ledgetrapping opponent. You can use the ledge hop in the same way in Melee
Or you can ledge dash. A ledge dash occurs when a player ledge hops up to the stage and directional air dodges inward, wavedashing onto the stage. This wavedash has intangibility frames and increased distance, making it super strong for most characters. For Fox, it’s heinously strong because Fox has the biggest invulnerability window in the game, gains a lot of distance, and a lot of breathing room.
How you can spot it
You’ll know when someone hits the ledge dash because they’ll immediately fly onto the stage and likely reset neutral or even land a counter-hit. You’ll know when a player misses the ledge dash because it will likely be a disaster for them.
One of two pretty terrible things happen if a player messes up a ledge dash. One, they drop down, air dodge, and drop their own stock (SD). Two, they accidentally jump from ledge without dropping, committing them to a ledge jump – a much slower animation, much less safe animation. This second option is called a “tournament winner.”
The name is a joke. A tournament winner is a disaster because the player gives up their jump right near the blast zone and usually diest. Most characters can react to a tournament winner, snipe the ledge jump with an aerial, then get an easy edgeguard or immediate kill.
(In the timestamp you can see Aziz “Hax$” Al-Yami accidentally air dodge and SD. At around 14:15 you can see Hax$ do a tournament winner. At about 12:45 you can see him do a successful ledgedash neutral air. That’s a bread and butter defensive option Fox gets. You can also see Hax$ drop down and re-grab the ledge because apparently it makes the ledge dash faster by a frame.)
What it means for Melee
(While not about ledge dashing in particular, Hax$ provides some of the best insight on Melee’s ledge and why it’s so strong.)
It means that the ledge in Melee is very potent. The ledge dash doesn’t just give players a great tool of getting off the ledge, it gives them a way to reverse pressure. The ledge essentially becomes another movement option and a source of enough invulnerability frames that it can open up an opponent standing by the ledge.
The lack of ledge pressure has a cascading effect on the meta. By discouraging ledge trapping, the ledge dash encourages edgeguarding. In the new smash titles, edgeguarding is a higher reward but also a much higher risk option than ledgetrapping. In Melee, the ledge dash can make ledgetrapping just as high risk as edgeguarding but not as high reward. Might as well go out there for the down air spike.
Ledge dash also has wider character meta implications. Fox’s incredible ledge dash is no small part of why he’s one of the best characters in the game. Weirdly, even though Puff doesn’t use ledge dash as much or as effectively, ledge dashing makes her stronger in the meta because her aerial mobility lets her respond to it very well.
Finally, the ledge dash further raises Melee’s skill ceiling. The ledge dash isn’t easy to do. The difference between a successful ledge dash and a tournament winner is a single frame. That’s because when a player touches the ledge in Melee, they can’t do anything until 7 frames pass.
When players tournament winner, they usually press down on frame 6 or earlier. This leads to the game missing the down input – the ledge drop – and then only reading the jump they put in next – turning it into a tournament winner. If the player fumbles and presses the dodge button before the jump, they air dodge and SD. If a player takes the inputs too slowly, they lose ledge intangibility and become vulnerable, or they drop too low to jump back up and wave dash onto the stage.
Ledge dashing is so difficult to do that even the top level competitors mess it up pretty often. It’s not surprising to see a tournament winner or SD from a missed ledge dash at least once in a set. The inherent danger of the ledge dash does a bit to balance the option and also serves as a decent metric to see if a top player is feeling off. If they’re missing the ledge dash, they’re messing up basic timings and it will be as clear as day for you.
Of all the weird techs in Melee, none may be more controversial than L cancelling. This simple tech simultaneously adds a massive, constant, and potentially unnecessary execution test to the game while giving the game its trademark speed. An L cancel essentially halves the lag of any aerial by making the aerials’ endlag animation move twice as fast.
How it’s done
To perform an L cancel, the player simply clicks a shoulder button 1 to 7 frames before landing on the ground after using an aerial. This essentially halves the endlag on most moves and speeds up the game by a ton. It’s necessary to perform several combos.
It’s also something that players need to master to play at a high level. While the L cancelling timing isn’t too hard to learn in isolation, it gets harder in context. The L cancel timing window also changes with things like hit stun. So if a player lands an aerial on the opponent or the opponent’s shield, they may have a different L cancel timing than normal.
How you can spot it
Truthfully, this is tech is one of the hardest to catch. The best way is to simply look at the speed and the animation. The animation will move notably faster – and for slower, more dynamic moves that can be noticeable.
For fast moves, it’s not very easy to catch. You might be able to spot a missed L cancel by a dropped punish. If a player didn’t land a normally guaranteed follow-up, it could be because they dropped the L cancel and are stuck in the aerial’s normal endlag.
What it means for Melee
L cancelling defines Melee’s punish game by adding in the frantic speed we’ve become accustomed to. Since all aerials can now have much less lag, all aerials combo into each other much better too. Many of the incredible combo sequences that probably got you into Melee can only happen because of L cancelling.
It’s also one of Melee’s most criticized features. The critics of L cancelling see it as an arbitrary skill check. They don’t see it as adding to the mental game of Melee and instead as instituting another tough physical requirement to playing the game well.
Not only does Melee already have other tougher physical requirements, these requirements also add more depth to the mental game and can be good or bad to do in certain scenarios. L cancelling is usually good to do wherever possible, so it’s less a matter of thinking about L cancelling and more a matter of performing it consistently.
And most players do perform it consistently at the top level. Redditor /u/Kered13 collected L cancel success rates across 5 major tournaments and found top players hit an average of 92% of their l cancels. So, to some L cancelling feels like an extra, mostly arbitrary button press and they have a decent case. This is genuinely a part of why more people don’t play Melee.
L cancelling does introduce some new strategic depth into the game and has its ardent defenders (Adam “Armada” Lindgren, most notably). L cancel defenders point out that, at the top level, a player can throw off their opponent’s rhythm by changing up their spacing when shielding an aerial. The new spacing means new hit stun on the shield, which means a new landing timing, which means a new L cancel timing.
Obviously, the speed L cancelling brings is great but some players wish that aerials were always that fast and see the L cancel as a mostly arbitrary and unnecessary skill check. Other players see L cancelling as another way to reward spacing mix-ups and getting right in your opponent’s face.
Interestingly, the L cancel debate is more important than ever because of Project +. Project + is like a finalized version of Project M, a famous Smash mod that changed Brawl to look a lot more like Melee. Project + has L cancelling and right now there’s a discussion about whether or not competitive Project + should have auto L cancelling or manual L cancelling.
One simple mechanic yields a whole world of intricacy, debate, and movement. That’s Melee for you.
Shield Platform Drop
Or just shield drop for short. The shield drop lets a player instantly drop from the platform while holding shield. That’s all it is. Like so many things in Melee, what seems small is massive. Shield dropping is one of the best defensive techniques in the game.
How it’s done
Shield dropping is simple but not easy. The player has to hold shield and move the grey stick down quickly and lightly. If they hold or force the stick down, they’ll input a spot dodge instead. You can also be holding down while inputting an aerial or dash with c-stick.
However, the easier way to shield drop is to hold the grey stick to one side and slide it down in a quarter circle motion to another notch in the Gamecube controller. By holding to the side, the character’s shield points in that direction, which makes the character shield drop rather than spot dodge. This method is called the Axe method, since Jeffrey “Axe” Williamson popularized it.
A lot of players will quickly move the grey stick over while in landing lag of an aerial so that as soon as they shield, the shield is titled to one side. That way, the shield drop is even faster. Players will also practice moving the grey stick over simultaneous to shielding to get the same effect.
How you can spot it
This one’s much easier to spot than an L cancel but harder to see than a ledge dash. Shield drops are insanely fast because they have little to no animation to them. In any Smash game, a character will do a weird little roll when they drop through a platform. When a character shield drops, they phase right though with no animation.
You can tell if a platform drop works because the movement will be so fast. Not to mention, most players will use an aerial right after platform dropping, which will also be super fast. You can tell if a player missed a platform drop by if they spot dodged or rolled on the platform. In high level Melee, an intentional spot dodge on a platform is rare.
If you want to look for platform drops, you should watch Plup, Axe, Or aMSa. Each player makes the platform drop a key part of their game plan. They flub the platform drop so rarely that the flubs are easier to spot because they’re so abnormal. That’s why I’ve linked a Plup vs. Axe set above. Well, that and because it’s a sick set. (Also, if you wanna know more about Plup’s insane platform movement, check out my other analysis article.)
What it means for Melee
The shield drop revolutionizes platforms in Melee. The discovery of the shield drop turned platforms from a disadvantageous spot to a powerful defensive high ground. Prior to shield dropping, getting off a platform meant sliding, running, or jumping off, or dropping through. While that sounds like a lot of options, it’s just a few compared to the crazy amount of options players have on the ground, in neutral.
(For reference, take a look at this 2005 match between Ken “Ken” Hoang and Joel “Isai” Alvarado. I linked to a section above where Isai takes advantage of Ken being stuck on platforms. To be completely fair and transparent, it’s not all just a lack of shield dropping, it’s also a lack of wavelanding and other platform tech.)
The shield drop not only makes it lagless to fall through a platform, it allows players to jump without an animation. Every character has a jumpsquat animation of a certain amount of frames. Shield dropping cuts out the jumpsquat animation, giving the player on the platform access to an instant aerial out of shield.
This means that if the opponent hits the player’s shield while they’re on the platform, the player can shield drop and aerial right away in response. All of a sudden, platforms become very powerful positions that can cover a lot of ground. The Battlefield platforms let a player sit near the edge, out of the range of get up attacks, ledge dashes, and so on, but in range to punish these options.
On top of all that, this weird little nuance has huge implications in the character meta. Axe and Plup nail the shield drop so well because both of their characters can get huge rewards from shield dropping. Pikachu has very active, long-lasting aerials with weird hitboxes, while Sheik has very fast, large aerials.
Both characters get a big buff from shield dropping because it makes platforms one big threat zone where they can land quicker hits. Not to mention, shield drop aerials on side platforms lead to gimps and low percent edgeguards. And I haven’t even touched on Yoshi yet.
(You can see Masaya “aMSa” Chikamoto shield drop in the timestamp above. If you go to 14:50 you can see how Yoshi’s shield game works on Final Destination, where there aren’t platforms. You can also see how much harder the game gets for the dino.)
Yoshi can’t use an aerial out of shield on the ground. It’s one of his biggest flaws and a reason why he got a bad rep in the early days of the game. However, on platforms can Yoshi shield drop and aerial, functionally giving him aerials out of shield. With shield dropping, Yoshi becomes a lot better on three platform stages like Battlefield, Dreamland, and – fittingly – Yoshi’s Story.
Shield dropping also adds complexity to the Puff matchup. Justin “Wizzrobe” Hallett couldn’t camp the top platform against Juan “Hungrybox” Debiedma nearly as effectively without shield dropping. Shield dropping matters in some way to pretty much every character and is one of many meta features that makes 2020 Melee faster and more optimized than ever.
When I first sat down to write this article, I planned to make it even more comprehensive and go over more big and easy to miss Melee techs. Then three techniques took nearly 3,000 words to cover.
Melee wouldn’t be the strange, beautiful, incredibly resilient esport that it is if not for the depth every technique has. The game has the incredible strength of a natural, fluid depth – pretty much like the sports that hit the mainstream and stay there. Nintendo finding that depth without a games-as-service model and without even trying is both incredible and ridiculous.
Like many sports, and unlike some other esports, Melee has the genuine struggle of communication – readability. How do you help others decipher what’s on the screen? It’s a tough question. But hopefully this article helps answer it.