Q: “Can I become a top player with an ‘unorthodox playstyle’?”
Context: Yesterday during my stream, a friend (who shall remain unnamed) asked if he, as an aspiring Fox player, could achieve Top 100 status considering one of his training partners told him that his playstyle was “unorthodox.” I had a pretty long discussion about the connotations of an unorthodox playstyle (including, of course, much critique from Rishi), and I think I came up with a pretty good answer.
Short Answer: Mostly likely no.
Long answer: First let’s define some things. “Playstyle” can be split up into “neutral game,” which is everything that leads up to the collision of hitboxes and hurtboxes, and “punish game,” which is the optimization of follow-ups after the neutral game interaction. Punish game is much easier to talk about, as I’d argue that every time you hit your opponent, there’s a generally agreed upon and generally optimized combo tree that you should be opting to follow (compared to neutral game, which is much more complicated). For example, if I, as Fox, connect a grounded shine on my opponent, a Peach, then my follow-up options are very clear, consisting of waveshine shine, waveshine grab, waveshine usmash, etc. I want to refer to it as a “combo tree” rather than one single optimized punish, because each option within the combo tree serves a specific goal. First of all, the percent of your opponent matters greatly, as if you can kill with waveshine usmash, then go for waveshine usmash. However, if a different option would provide the greatest damage output, or the greatest subsequent positional advantage, or the best DI trap, whatever goal you’re trying to accomplish at that moment, then go for that option instead. I’ll define the “orthodox punish game” as the combination of these combo trees that follow any given neutral interaction. The entirety of these combo trees can be gleaned from the conglomeration of the top level players of each character, as across the board, most of the important potential follow-ups are already incorporated into the distribution of top players. Not every player punishes the exact same way, but if you combine their punish games together, then you get a large distribution of combo trees that together provide a close-to-optimal punish game.
So why would you ever deviate from this distribution of orthodox punish games? Here’s where we get to what an “unorthodox punish game” is. I’ll define this as utilization of any follow-ups in a given situation that is not contained in the standardizes combo tree mentioned above. Example: Waveshine jab pivot bair triple shine spotdodge side B. Or something not as silly. The point is that an unorthodox punish game would implement follow-ups that one of the “top players” of that character wouldn’t do in the current metagame. This means that either a) your punish is bad, or else people would have been doing it already, or b) your punish is ahead of the metagame, as you’re incorporating knowledge or tech that hasn’t been explored completely yet. There could be a good reason for your unorthodox punish game. Maybe it challenges something new, like slide-off DI or double SDI, or it utilizes new tech like subfloat uair. If your unorthodox punish game has merit, then eventually, it will be accepted as optimal and will be incorporated into the orthodox combo trees. However, this flow of events requires extreme knowledge of your character and the game, as most character’s punish games are already pretty developed.
So, if you think that your “unorthodox punish game” follows this category and will end up serving a better purpose than the currently accepted standard, then by all means carry on. If instead, your goal of utilizing an unorthodox punish game is to create a niche for yourself in the community, chances are that you’re just trying to cheese some wins with janky punishes that won’t work in the long run, considering how there are more optimized punishes you can perform. And remember, “optimal combos” aren’t the same every time, as you can follow different branches of the tree for different purposes, like stage control, conditioning, and DI mixups. What you might consider “unorthodox” is something I would consider “orthodox” if it already has a place in the metagame and has a specific purpose, so even if it looks weird, it might still be really good. The “unorthodox” options are the ones that are either suboptimal, or not yet incorporated into the standard metagame of punish.
So what about neutral? Neutral is much more complicated than punish game, since movement allows a lot more creativity. I don’t think there will ever be an “orthodox neutral game” in the same way that there is an “orthodox punish game,” as there are so many more possible ways to position yourself compared to ways you can follow up on neutral hits. We can get closer and closer to optimized neutral games, but I doubt anyone will ever agree on a standard (aka an “orthodox”) one. This makes the distinction between an orthodox neutral game and an unorthodox neutral game very difficult, as how can one be unorthodox when there’s no orthodox from which you can deviate? If we were to use these terms, though, then I would say it’s much more feasible to attain success with an unorthodox neutral game, considering how fluid neutral game is in the first place and how easily you can overwhelm your opponent with movement options / neutral interactions they haven’t seen before / don’t know how to deal with. Just remember that the goal of neutral game is to hit your opponent in a way that accomplishes specific goals you have in mind (damage, stage control, etc.), so if your “unorthodox neutral game” is setting you up for neutral interactions that don’t provide as much of an advantage on average, then you might want to consider shaping your neutral game in a way that better parallels what those have done before you. Maybe once you have a much better understanding of your character, you’ll be able to incorporate “unorthodox” neutral options, as long as they have specific goals in mind. My example is how I started using SH dair against Marth to specifically beat Marth’s dtilt. The interaction is much harder to break down compared to punish game interactions, as neutral game interactions involve more variables, but if SH dair ends up proving it’s optimal in dealing with Marth’s dtilt, then maybe one day it’ll be incorporated into the “standard neutral game.”
So to recap, if you want long-term success in this game, then you should shape your punish game to match the combo trees discovered and utilized by the top players of your character in the current metagame, unless you think that your punishes (ideally derived from better knowledge/tech than the top players) could optimize the standardized punish game even more. Your neutral game can be much more fluid, but remember that your goal is to maximize damage output, stage control, etc., which again means that you should generally follow the playstyles set up by the players before you, but with potentially more deviation (relative to punish game). I certainly encourage exploration of your character with “unorthodox options,” as those options are the fastest way of developing your character, but if your goal is to achieve Top 100, then you should try to be as orthodox as possible (except for the mentioned reasons above).
That’s it for that. Kinda complicated logic but I think it’s important to discuss, as people are quick to defend their “unorthodox playstyles,” when really they just don’t want to put in the effort to optimize their gameplay (which is often harder to execute/implement). As always, feel free to ask any questions, and thanks for reading!