Shaping Your Playstyle: Top-Down or Bottom-Up?

Required Reading:

What builds a better playstyle: a “Top-Down Approach” or a “Bottom-Up Approach”? These terms are frequently used in a variety of real-world fields to describe different ways to solve problems, describe conceptual methods, etc. Here’s how I’ll define them in the context of playstyles:

A Top-Down Playstyle involves determining your primary goals at any given moment, and utilizing your available tools to accomplish these goals. Examples of primary goals include damaging your opponent, killing your opponent, getting your opponent off-stage, cornering your opponent, etc. These primary goals change depending on a lot of variables, but you always determine your goals first and then your tools afterwards.

Bottom-Up Playstyle involves analyzing your available tools at any given moment, and then determining your primary goals from your repertoire of available moves. An examples of this is acknowledging that you (as Fox) can kill your opponent at X% with an usmash, so when your opponent reaches that percent, one of your primary goals becomes killing your opponent based on that one tool.

Think about the difference between the two. Those with a Top-Down approach establish positional advantage and then ask themselves what they can do from there. Those with a Bottom-Up approach determines a list of ways they can hit the opponent and then asks themselves how they can establish positional advantage to make those interactions happen. With which of the two approaches do you more closely resonate? Which do you think is better?

I actually think that a Bottom-Up Playstyle is the ideal approach to shaping your playstyle. As I emphasized in my Guide to Improvement, one of the most important components of improvement is learning the interactions of your character’s hitboxes and hurtboxes with those of your opponent’s character. Once your learn these interactions, you can start shaping your neutral game (which is the combination of positional advantage and hitting your opponent) to reflect your character’s potential tools at any given moment. The culmination of this buildup is the determination of your goals directly from your available tools. You aren’t always capable of killing your opponent. They need to be at a certain percent before your strongest kill move becomes potent. Even then, this move would likely be very obvious to your opponent, so you either need to find ways to set up your kill move (waveshine usmash, weak nair usmash, etc.) or use your other, easier-to-land, moves to build their percent up until your other, not-as-obvious kill moves, become potent. Your tools determine your primary goals with this Bottom-Up Playstyle, and it is the best way to shape your playstyle.

The other option is a Top-Down Approach, which sets your goals before looking at your tools. My first problem with this kind of approach is that it can severely limit your exploration of your character’s tools. I won’t name names, but my example would be a rising-star Peach player who has recently achieved tremendous initial success but in my opinion is quickly hitting a plateau in his/her improvement. This player first sets in-game goals, which most of the time is establishing positional advantage (which can be great!) and then exploring the available tools from that position. This style has worked so far, achieving respectable short-term success, but the style quickly falls apart against someone who exploits the interactions that this Peach player has not yet discovered. A specific example would be how this player floats in a threatening area (establishing trade control) and then sees what opportunities exist from there: trading with bairs, retreating with a whiff punish fair, etc. What if there were more useful options on the ground? Or out of shield? Or on a side-platform? What if there were interactions that had tremendously high rewards but required giving up stage control? By prioritizing accomplishing the primary goal first (in this case, establishing stage control), this player is limiting his/her rate of improvement because he/she isn’t utilizing all of Peach’s available tools.

Compare this back to a Bottom-Up playstyle. I, as Peach, want to establish all of my tools first. Here’s an example:

Combo starter: Dtilt, dash attack, FC nair, grab

Defensive options: WD back, dash back, float, CC

Kill moves: Fthrow, fair, nair, uair

Combine these options with how they interact with my opponent’s character (and how likely each is to work) to create a foundation of my repertoire of neutral options. From there, I can come up with ways for my tools to succeed (aka “win neutral”), and then finally I can make a list of goals I want to accomplish based on my available tools, based on the risks, rewards, and success rate of each tool.

Another example is the classic “Marth syndrome.” Marth’s attain Marth syndrome (difficulty killing the opponent at high percents) when they focus too much on killing their opponent (i.e. a Top-Down approach). If instead, the Marth focused on utilizing his available tools to hit his opponent and then killing when the chance occurred (a Bottom-Up approach), then Marths wouldn’t complain as much 😉

Most people have a combination of Top-Down and Bottom-Up ingrained in their playstyles, but I think a pure Bottom-Up approach is the optimal way to play, especially since victory requires damaging your opponent, which requires knowledge of character interactions. This means that to all of you Top-Downers out there, a) take some time to explore ALL of your character’s tools (and when I say “some time” I mean literally the rest of your competitive smash career) and b) see if you can change the way you approach neutral game to be based on your available tools as opposed to the other way around.

This might not sit well with some of you, as people often preach that setting goals should always be your primary goal, but take some time to think about it and let me know your thoughts.



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