Ultimate has an apex predator. His name is Leonardo “MKLeo” López Pérez, and just got signed SK Telecom T1 after mounting the biggest and best losers run the game has ever seen. At Frostbite, MKLeo fell in a very early upset to Armada | Pedro” Prodigy” Alonso, a 15 year old Mario main. MKLeo then beat king_chris, Salem, Dark Wizzy, Samsora, Nairo, Zackray, Dabuz, Tea, and Tweek before 6-0ing Maister in Grand Finals.
He ended the tournament 16-1 in sets. Along the way, he beat the 37th ranked player on PGRU Season 1, the current 30th ranked player, and then the 22nd ranked, the 2nd ranked, the 4th ranked, the 7th ranked, the 9th ranked, 12th ranked, 3rd ranked, and 6th ranked players. It’s hard, if not impossible, to imagine another one of Ultimate’s competitors making a run like this.
Frostbite is only the tip of the iceberg. MKLeo has been so dominant in this first year and a few months of Ultimate that he makes an easy comparison to Alliance | Adam “Armada” Lindgren and Tempo Storm | Gonzalo “ZeRo” Barrios. To put it into perspective, MKLeo has placed under 2nd place at just 4 PGR ranked tournaments in Ultimate’s lifespan and won seven total S-tier tournaments already.
MKLeo does this by having the number of literally every other player in the top 10. He is 74-24 against the rest of the top 10 in set counts – that’s a 75.5% win rate. His closest competitor is Marss, with a 9-8 head to head. He has a disgusting 9-0 record over SSG | Enrique “Maister” Hernández Solís and 8-0 record over Liquid | Samuel “Dabuz” Buzby. He is the best by such a wide margin that he could afford to a few 65th or 33rd placings. If he wanted to, he could main the random button for a month and still keep his rank.*
You could ask why and how MKLeo wins, or you could just watch any upcoming S-tier and watch how it happens yourself. I’m more curious how anyone else has managed to beat him. How have Samsora, Nairo, and Marss all dethroned the Emperor of Ultimate?
Why not Tweek, JW, Salem, Umeki, Light, Kameme…
If you follow Ultimate closely, you’ll know that Samsora, Nairo, and Marss aren’t the only three players that have beaten Leo. Leo has lost to a handful of competitors and even experienced a small slump in the post-Ike, pre-Joker era where he played a mix of Lucina and Wolf. Some of his worst placings came right at the end of that era just as he started to pick up Joker.
MKLeo really came into his own after returning from Japan with an optimized Joker in hand. Even when he came into his own, he has never been invincible in the way ZeRo or Armada was. ZeRo had an incredible run where he just did not lose – period. Armada had a run where you needed to be one of the Gods of Melee – or a top ten player who had been around for years – to beat him. MKLeo occasionally takes a bad loss but he rarely takes a bad elimination. This is what makes him his own kind of champion – and a particularly beloved one. There’s always something a bit unpredictable and heroic about his runs.
If we set the Joker Era as MomoCon 2019 and on, MKLeo hasn’t placed lower than 2nd. At all. Since May 23rd of last year, MKLeo has only gotten 1st or 2nd place at a PGR event. MKleo has won four of his eight tournaments with over 500 entrants from the Losers Bracket. In the Joker Era, MKLeo takes bad losses but he does not take bad eliminations.
This is why I’ve isolated Nairo, Samsora, and Marss. These three players have the unique achievement of eliminating MKLeo from tournament during the Joker Era. No other players have. TSM | Gavin “Tweek” Dempsey eliminated MKLeo prior to the Joker Era and just before Leo’s slump, which is a huge achievement. However, I want to focus on how players beat MKLeo’s Joker because that will be his main, and a staple of competitive Ultimate, for the foreseeable future.
I took a look at how PG| Tyler “Marss” Martins beat MKLeo at Genesis 7, how NRG | Nairoby “Nairo” Quezada beat him at Mainstage, and how EUnited | Ezra “Samsora” Morris beat him at Shine – Grand Finals in each case. My goal was to isolate a few things each competitor did to win and see how their strategies compared. I wanted to see the few ways that MKLeo loses in the Joker Era.
Knowing Joker – Eiha!!!
MKLeo, and most of the top 10 in Ultimate, will pick one character into pretty much any match up. To beat MKLeo, players don’t just need to know the Joker match up, they need to be good at it. They need a deep understanding of all the little interactions Joker loses and the timing windows they can exploit. In particular, Nairo, Samsora, and Marss all showed an intricate knowledge of how to beat Joker’s Eiha/Eigaon (side special), recovery, and Arsene.
If MKLeo does play something other than Joker, it’s usually because he has the room to. At Uprising, Korea’s biggest tournament, he played a lot of Chrom because his biggest threat was RRG | Gakuto “Gackt” Ito. Gackt is a strong Japanese Ness main but not a top ten player, and MKLeo was in the winners side of Grand Finals. MKLeo has done the same with Marth at Ultimate Fighter Arena in Europe and with Byleth at Frostbite.
Leo’s 75.5% win rate against the top 10 gets even better if you isolate for Joker. His total set losses drop from 24 to just 13 and his win rate (57/70) goes up to an absurd 81.4%. Beating MKLeo is a huge achievement in its own right but beating his Joker is colossal.
Joker’s Eiha may be one of the more underrated parts of his kit. In the hands of a smart, adaptive player like MKLeo, it can be infuriating even to watch. Joker’s Eiha functions like Lucas’s PK Fire, knocking an opponent away and doing a nice bit of damage.
However, Eiha has five less frames of startup (16 total). It also launches an opponent upward, putting Joker in a situation where he can pressure their landing with his large and fast aerials. Eiha’s angle can also cover short hop jump approaches and ground approaches for tall characters. Spaced poorly, it’s easily punishable. Spaced well, it can be nearly risk-free. Leo has the impeccable spacing of a player who has mained swordies at the top level for years.
Like most moves, Eiha gets better with Arsene, the missile travelling faster and further and dealing more damage (Eigaon – 12%, Eiha – 8%). Eiha does serious mental damage as well because it disrupts the flow of the game and punishes players for not knowing both Eiha and Eigaon spacings.
Here’s an example. Samsora catches Leo trying to keep him off stage with a full hop aerial and beats it. Samsora gets back on stage and, as Peach mains will normally do, pulls a turnip to help him push out of the corner. Leo almost perfectly spaces an Eigaon so it hits Peach during the turnip pull animation. Samsora goes back in disadvantage in an even worse situation than before and dies to back air. Eiha probably wouldn’t have reached Samsora, nor knocked Peach that high.
Eigaon can disrupt a player’s normal rhythm and spacings, making it a natural tilter. Once Samsora returns, he isn’t tilted and he deals with the projectile well. He knows Leo wants to build damage and put him in disadvantage with Eigaon and he simply shields or floats above the projectile. Peach’s float means her best way of beating Eiha/Eigaon is in the air or just shielding and resetting the situation.
Marss has a few extra advantages against Eiha because of ZSS’s mobility and mid-range. Like Samsora, Marss will shield Eiha a lot because Eiha hitbox is reactable. However, he can also use ZSS’s super fast jump and mid-range hitboxes to punish Joker where normally he isn’t. In the clip above, he short hops the Eiha, drifts in, and punishes with his own side special. At about the 8:20 stamp, Marss slides off the platform and hits Leo with another side special to catch Leo jumping after an Eiha whiff.
Marss also has great low inputs to beat Eiha/Eigaon. Flip Kick, for example is an aerial move with a downward input that Marss can use to punish Joker’s normally safe side special. Marss knows when he’s in Eigaon range of Joker and will immediately use Flip Kick to land a big punish. In the clip below, you’ll see one of the biggest Eigaon – and MKLeo – callouts in Ultimate’s young lifespan. Marss rolls Eigaon distance away, crouches, crawls forward to keep in range, then Flip Kicks immediately, buries Leo, and turns the match’s momentum.
Nairo doesn’t have Float or Flip Kick to deal with Eiha but he does have projectiles. Nairo sometimes responds with auto-reticle, which doesn’t net a hit but evens out the rhythm a little. While shielding Eiha is pretty neutral, Shield takes 11 frames to drop and slows a player’s rhythm. By auto-reticling, Nairo forces Leo to shield, making it harder for Leo to use Eiha to gain space on the stage or get in rhythm.
Each player also has a general understanding of the proper Eiha spacing and will often punish Leo for his rare mis-spacings. It might seem like this is much ado about Eiha, these slight edges are what make the top level Ultimate player so indomitable. Their level of technical skill is about level – they’re all consistently attack cancelling, pivoting boost grabbing, and reacting. Their raw level of game-study and intelligence is a big part of what ranks them so high. Knowing the full complexities of one of Joker’s main neutral tools is a part of that.
Knowing Joker – Recovery
Knowing the complexities of Joker’s big tools disadvantage is the next step. Even though Leo’s Joker looks untouchable, the character’s disadvantage isn’t as strong as other top tiers. Joker doesn’t have as good of out shield options as Fox or Palutena and doesn’t have the same get out of disadvantage for free cards as Pikachu and ZSS.
In particular, Joker’s recovery is exploitable. It isn’t bad – because very few recoveries in Ultimate are truly bad – it’s just not excellent. Nairo, Samsora, and Marss all understand the points where they can exploit Joker’s recovery and use it to get crucial stocks. They also play characters that can edgeguard very well.
In his Mainstage set against MKLeo, Nairo used explosive flames to bait and force Leo into spots where he could guarantee a gimp. Nairo clinched his Mainstage set against MKLeo by forcing Leo into a low Arsene recovery, which he could very reliably cover with a neutral air. Earlier in the match – about the 20:50 mark – Nairo throws Leo off stage, forces a jump to ledge and covers the air dodge with Palutena’s down tilt, which then leads to a back air. A few times in the set, he lets Leo roll on stage and pivot grabs him into a back throw as well, sometimes directly after edgeguarding.
In one really innovative moment, Nair baited the rebel’s guard with an explosive flame then hit Leo out of a jump with auto-reticle. Joker’s normal recovery is very good but very angle-specific and Nairo disrupted the angle. Marss went for these deep, innovative edgeguards a lot in his 3-0 win over MKLeo at Genesis 7.
In this portion of the match, Marss sees Leo jumping, knows he has only one angle to recover, and covers it with a suicide down air. It’s easy to see this as an even play since both players die, but it’s decidedly in Marss’s favor. Marss is playing a lighter character at a higher percent and Joker has full Arsene meter left. Marss’s edgeguard destroys Leo’s momentum and increases his own because, c’mon, that was sick.
Samsora has the advantage of float, which lets him cover ledge very well against a lot of characters. Arsene’s recovery is particularly exploitable at the end and Samsora puts a neutral air out at the perfect time, popping Leo outward. Samsora floats out deep and secures the kill.
Knowing Joker – Arsene
The last piece of the puzzle is Joker’s biggest tool in advantage – and really the whole game – Arsene. Arsene makes Joker one of, if not the best characters in the game and beating Leo’s Joker requires having a game plan for Arsene. Each player adopts a different game plan based off of their character’s tools.
One of the most common game plans is to camp. This is much, much easier said than done. Camping Arsene out with jumps is incredibly dangerous because if Arsene catches a jump and sends a character off stage, Leo can likely read their recovery and get a very early stock with an edge guard. Arsene is also incredibly fast and has a great projectile so outrunning him isn’t a great choice.
Samsora and Nairo both player characters with two very unique movement options – floating and teleport cancelling respectively. They both use these mechanics to duck and weave away from Leo’s Joker and buy crucial time.
However, all three characters prefer whiff punishing and walling out to camp Arsene. That’s both because Arsene can chase any character down and because Leo can break down any camp. Leo is insanely beloved despite being at the top of Smash for so long (by this point Ken, Hungrybox, Armada, and ZeRo got much more hate) and it’s partially because he tears campy styles to shreds.
Leo can do this because he can read timings very well and he can adapt very quickly. Campy styles rely on knowing the opponent’s timings and patterns and reacting accordingly. Leo will regularly empty hop in place just to throw random static into his rhythm – random data that breaks down pattern-reading players. For proof, see Leo’s match spread against campier players Maister, Dabuz and Ally – 9-0, 8-0, and 3-0.
To really express how good Leo is against defensive players, the game (not set) records for those three are 27-6 (Maister), 24-3 (Dabuz), and 9-1 (Ally). Two of Maister’s wins were against Marth.**
True, blue camping isn’t viable against Leo, but walling out and whiff-punishing is. Samsora and Marss both did this a lot in their wins against Leo, using their characters’ unique aerial mobility to fall in and punish Leo’s whiffed approaches and hits. That’s exactly what Samsora does in the clip above. He doesn’t retreat or give ground, he patiently waits for Leo to approach, reacts to the approach, and whiff punishes.
Don’t miss and don’t lose (until Grand Finals)
To beat Leo, players have to operate at their near-perfect level. That much may be obvious, what’s less obvious is to eliminate MKLeo in the Joker era, a player has to hit their hardest, cheesiest shots and they have to do it from the Winners Bracket. Leo has not yet lost a tournament from Winners during the Joker Era.
Leo has literally not lost two sets in a row to any player in Ultimate during the Joker Era. It’s unclear if anyone is even capable of resetting and winning a Grand Finals against Leo because Leo adapts so well and so quickly. Leo’s ridiculous ability to adapt shows in these huge Losers runs he makes. He can pinpoint his mistakes and fix them quickly.
This is also why having the extra set in Grand Finals makes such a huge difference. Being on the Winners side of Grands matters because the player gets an advantage in adaptation. They have one set to read and study Leo’s patterns and then another set to completely change their rhythm and style to match. Leo can counter-adapt but he needs time to do that and he won’t always have that time if he comes from Losers. Samsora and Nairo both needed the extra set to beat Leo.
Marss did not need the extra set. He is the only player to eliminate MKLeo with a 3-0. Marss managed the 3-0 by playing out of his mind and missing almost none of his major conversions – his big plays. For example, Marss reads one jump with an Up-smash, converts it into forward air, platform-land forward tilt, run-off zair, Flip-kick spike, kill at under 60%. This isn’t a flowchart play. This kind of opening isn’t common enough to autopilot.
To abuse this opening so hard requires not only playing well but playing with a lot of mental clarity and a lack of fear – which is difficult against a player who literally hasn’t placed below 2nd since he became trained up on his current main.
It won’t be Marss’ last time getting a play like this. Marss takes Leo’s second stock in the same game with a flashy string of up airs into a boost-kick. Mars wins the second game by whiffing, baiting Leo’s jump off stage, and Flip Kicking him into the blast zone. Marss even suicide boost kicks Leo off stage for the first stock of game 3 even though he had a lead on Leo. To 3 stock Leo, you have to take every opening to its full limit and rarely ever miss.
This is all part of why, despite him being so incredibly dominant, so insanely over-present, we love Leo. Many of us still root for Leo to win. It isn’t just that he plays one of the most exciting characters in an exciting way. It’s that he demands other competitors to play beautifully to eliminate him. Playing well is not enough, having a good defense is not enough nor is having a good offense. Only playing a gorgeous game of Ultimate is enough.
When we see Leo step up to Grands we know that if we look close enough we’ll see something new even though we’ve seen this same story so many times. Leo elevates the competition so consistently that he elevates the entire game of Ultimate. This is something few players in all of fighting games can say and it’s something that puts Leo in the realm of legends like Dominique “SonicFox” McLean and Daigo Umehara.
Of course, a lot more than just what I covered goes into beating Leo. I could spend many more paragraphs talking about how players need to change styles, change their aerial timings, condition and predict neutral options, abuse Joker on the ledge, and so much more. Ultimate has so many rich nuances to its neutral game at the high level that I missed more than I covered.
More than anything, I hope that I covered how MKLeo makes people play beautifully. I hope that I helped explain why he is consistently so fun to watch, so hard to root against despite his dominance, and such a gift to Ultimate. The Emperor is dead. Long live the Emperor.
- Marss 61%, 82 votes82 votes 61%82 votes - 61% of all votes
- Nairo 22%, 30 votes30 votes 22%30 votes - 22% of all votes
- Samsora 17%, 23 votes23 votes 17%23 votes - 17% of all votes
*A brief note about the stats: I pull from Smashdata.gg because it’s at a good crossroads of reliable and convenient. Many, if not all, Smash websites have gaps in their data and recording so don’t take these numbers as law.
**Defensive and campy play can be hard to define. Any top 10 player can switch styles and be more offense but some do have a bigger penchant for defensive play and some play characters that rely more on campy, repetitive, or defensive play that Leo punishes very well.