Who Needs Tiers?

It's not the size of the hammer, it's how you use it.

Posted on February 18, 2009 at 4:20 pm by Eddy Fettig

My good friend and Smash Brothers pupil once said, "There are no low-tier characters -- only low-tier players." Now, I'm not going to even bother arguing about the existence of tiers because I know there are some empirical qualities that can be measured in some loose form to determine them, but the fact of the matter is that by and large, tiers are generally irrelevant to the majority of Smash Bros. players because the majority of Smash Bros. players aren't elite tournament players. It's a contradiction of terms to get so worked up over something that changes periodically and doesn't change anything about the game itself as it is. So don't get so upset about it -- if your favorite characters are on low tiers, who cares? If it really upsets you, join this 1000 page discussion and flame each other or something. Supposedly, only the most obsessed, tournament-level players can take full advantage of every aspect of a character's abilities, which is where the concept of tiers derive from. Of course, this changes, and I couldn't direct you to a solid, for-sure tiers list because it doesn't exist and never will. That said, here is the one that, as far as I can tell, is the current "official" tiers list, per the SBR-B. On a scale from 1 to 15, Mario is 4.56 while Zelda is 7.0. This is far from scientific, though it may seem that way: it's calculated by averaging votes cast by a group who apparently consider themselves to be the top-level players of Smash. For those who are curious, Meta Knight has a perfect score of 15, with Snake close in second, and everyone else trailing behind them. You can see the full chart as well as the groupings, etc. here. While we're at it, feel free to even try to comprehend where on earth charts like these come from.

Now, I'm no tournament player, so we're not here to discuss the uber-hardcore-elite intricacies of Smash Bros. We're here to talk to the everyday gamer who would like to explore some of the more subtle depth of Super Smash Bros., a franchise that is often written off by some traditional fighting fans who ignorantly believe it has a lack of depth and strategy simply because it's different. On the other hand, the uber-hardcore Smash Bros. players try to break SSB down into a strange form, trying to make it Street Fighter or Virtua Fighter when it's simply not. There's a reason why the "Final Destination, No Items, Fox Only!" joke exists: because it strips an animal down to its bones. Take a look at what seem to be official "tournament legal" rules for Brawl and you'll see what I mean. A truly well-rounded player of ANY game, be it a sport or video game, can adapt to any situation and still succeed -- or at the very least, do well. It's important to note that the tier list changes periodically, and is "measured" based on how well tournament-level players expect any given character to perform based on these very tournament conditions, which are generally limited in an effort to try and change SSB's traditional mechanics into something more reminiscent of the classic fighting genre. In this way, it makes the game easier to "master" because it narrows down the unpredictability the game's overall design encourages. For some people, this is their flavor of action, and that's great -- but why on earth do people get so wound up about them? "Boo hoo, Captain Falcon is the bottom of the barrel," someone whines. How so? Because some tournament chaps declared it so? He could be halfway up a year from now, but Brawl as a game hasn't changed one bit. This is because it's all based on the "metagames" of each character, which means that when those highly experienced players learn something new, they have to reconsider things. But see, this is why most of you reading this need not give a hoot about tiers -- they don't apply to most of you, I imagine. I'd like to present one key question regarding tiers: for all of the seemingly empirical ways of measuring the tiers list, wouldn't this mean that the tier list wouldn't just change over time, but also change depending on what rulesets we're playing under? Street Fighter doesn't have items, 4-player free-for-alls, team matches, completely different terrains to play on, etc., so it's a lot safer for pro players to decide which characters are balanced and which aren't.

As someone who's been dedicated to Smash Bros. for almost a decade now, I'd like to explore this concept with you: How do you become a truly experienced and well-rounded player at Smash Bros.? I'll tell you one thing off the bat: you don't play on Final Destination every time, you don't always leave items off, and you don't play as only one character. The best way to know how your opponents will attack and what is at their disposal is to know how to play as them yourself.

I could try to explain some of the detailed, hardcore tactics the "elite" players of Smash employ, but frankly, that's not my place. I don't care much for that stuff because I have other games I like to play, too -- I'm not an expert by those terms. I'm not part of that scene, I'm a competitive casual player, I suppose, so we'll just be digging into how those of you who aren't interested in the "uber hardcore" scene might be able to improve your skills by considering many of the elements of Smash Bros. as a whole. Essentially, we'll be exploring the many varied options that Smash delivers to its players that often get written off (on the internet, at least( and why none of these sets of options is really "the best" because learning to deal with anything at anytime makes one the most well-rounded. That, and there is no dead-set way Smash is "supposed" to be played (aside from every way possible), and not even a specific way that demonstrates the most skill, either. Certainly, some modes or levels, etc. might take less skill to excel in, but there isn't really any gameplay type that is the end-all-be-all. The current style of tournament play is simply the one with the least random elements in it and thus is the most controlled, but a skilled player will be able to perform well no matter the ruleset because in most cases, random elements are not entirely chaotic. It's extremely rare to suffer a KO by some completely uncontrollable, arbitrary random element. Your opponents are just as susceptible to them as you are by principle, so it just requires a different type of skill to overcome them.

For starters, it's important to take into consideration that one of Smash's main goals is to deliver a customizable experience -- items, levels, characters, stock or time, coins, damage ratio, handicaps...the list of options goes on and on. Don't underestimate the power of handicaps to help level the playing field in a more casual group -- I've used handicaps to even out the odds in free-for-alls, and an enjoyable experience can be had by all, even between very experienced players and novices. Team matches can also be a fun way to balance things out, and playing as a two-man team on a more competitive level changes up the dynamics in interesting ways. One of the key choices you can make when setting options up in the match-type (common sense, isn't it?). Most people don't seem to prefer coin matches, and I must admit that I don't, either, but they're a unique game type that can still be quite enjoyable, especially in playing fields tailored to such bouts.