Ice Climber Syndrome – When does one move dominate a game?

I. Ice Climber Syndrome

I am a follower and occasionally (terrible) player of the game Super Smash Brothers Melee, which is a very old game that still has an active competitive scene. As such, it has gone through a lot of changes over the years and many new strategies and exploits have been discovered. There is one exploit in particular that I want to talk about, which is called “wobbling” (named after the player Wobbles, who didn’t discover it but used it to great effect). Wobbling is done with the character Ice Climbers, and it’s an infinite grab combo; basically if you land a grab and do the right follow up inputs, your opponent is trapped in the grab until they die. I personally have never tried to use it, but by all accounts it was not difficult to execute, so even local level players could essentially convert any grab to a kill when using the Ice Climbers. For some reason, this exploit was allowed in high level competition for the vast majority of the history of the game’s competitive scene, from its first known uses in 2003 until it finally saw widespread bans at the highest level throughout 2018. 

When playing against Ice Climbers, because of the wobble exploit, opposing players would try as hard as they could to avoid getting grabbed, because getting grabbed is almost a guaranteed death. Because the conditions of the game are so skewed towards avoiding a grab, this now allows the Ice Climber players to take advantage of other openings that would not have otherwise existed if grabbing were not so powerful for them. So what you would see sometimes was Ice Climbers players winning games or matches while actually not landing very many wobbles. After seeing an Ice Climbers player win without landing any wobbles, one may be tempted to think that wobbling is not a problem, because players don’t need them to win, but they’re missing the real hidden value of the technique, which is the fear of getting grabbed. 

II. One Handed Attacks

Now that I’ve set this up, the knowledgeable reader knows that there are a few places I could go with this. I referenced the Ice Climbers in my article on takedowns, but today, in relation to Sean’s recent article on why he bans one handed strikes, I’m going to talk about one handed strikes. One handed strikes can be a contentious topic, and I’m personally somewhat ambivalent towards them. Most tournaments I have fenced in allow them, but when they are not allowed I don’t hate it. I used to use them a lot, then I stopped relying heavily on them around 2017, and now I only use them occasionally, usually about between zero and one times during a tournament, provided they are allowed. 

When coming up with rulesets, I personally always allow them, though they are often weakened in some way. Usually we play with target priority, which does not weaken one handed attacks in general, but implicitly does since they often target lower areas like leg and lower torso. Right of way may also weaken them a bit, since there is less consequence for going in with a regular two handed attack, and one handed strikes are less likely to require commitment of the body with a step, and are therefore less likely to give attack priority. Either way, they are still allowed, and they do score sometimes. 

When the question of banning comes up, it makes me think about what it would take for me to want to ban them. As I said, I don’t have an issue fencing under a ruleset where they are banned, and I don’t think they add a huge amount to the game that makes it better. The criterion I have always had in mind for banning them is if they start to dominate the game, much like how wobbling dominated the Ice Climbers matchup. The problem is, how do I identify when that happens? 

In order to investigate things like this, it’s useful to have examples. One example that always comes to mind when discussing one handed attacks is Ivan Novichenko, who earned second place in Swordfish 2017 by relying heavily on one handed attacks (video of the finals here). While this caused some controversy when it happened and still does to this day, it did not lead to a shift in fencing paradigm, and the 2018 finals were back to normal primarily 2 handed actions. So I think it’s safe to say Novichenko’s good result was an outlier, and did not dominate the game. 

A second case study I looked at was a recent tournament in which I had heard there were a lot of one handed attacks, Pražský argument 2023, a tournament which took place in Czechia. This is also a good tournament to study because there is a long, easily accessed playlist of matches from the tournament. The first thing I did was count the actual number of one handed and two handed strikes scored. I went through the first 16 videos on the playlist, and came up with 15 one handed, 83 two handed, which came out to be a little more than 15% of scored points being from one handed attacks, which is between 1 in 6 and 1 in 7. In reality it doesn’t shake out that way perfectly, fencers are different, so sometimes there will be a match that is half one handed strikes, and sometimes you will have a match that doesn’t have any at all. For context, the ruleset of this tournament was everything worth 1 point, doubles sometimes have a form of priority but in most cases result in 1 point for both fencers, and matches are to 5 in pools and 7 in eliminations. 

There are a few follow up questions that come with these numbers – first, is 15% a lot? Unfortunately it’s difficult to know the answer to this question for sure. While some data is tracked by HEMA scorecard, how many hands you have on your sword when you get points is not. You can review video, but there are not a lot of tournaments that have a wide variety of general video available to review, usually it’s a few individuals getting video for themselves or their club, so the results would not be representative. What I can say, which is very unscientific, is that it feels like a lot. 

The second question we can still ask is, even if the number of hits is high, does that mean it’s dominating the game? Still about 85% of hits are scored with two hands, which is the vast majority. However, remember that “dominating the game” does not necessarily mean they score all the time. In order to determine this, there are a few other pieces of information that I would want to know, which I’m not going to find out because it would be difficult. 

  1. What is the ratio of attempted one handed hits to landed one handed hits, and how does that compare to the ratio of attempted two handed hits to landed two handed hits? This is important because if one handed hits tend to land at a higher rate than two handed hits, then it follows that not enough are being attempted, so we can expect the number of one handed hits to tend to increase in the future. 
  2. What are the results of one handed hits that do not land? There are three main options here,
    1. The one handed attempt is hard countered, directly resulting in a point to the other fencer
    2. The one handed attempt itself does not land, but leads to a successful hit from the fencer who used it
    3. The one handed attempt does not land and leads to a reset to a neutral position

If (a) happens more often, then we may see one handed attempts decrease in the future, if (b) happens more often, then that may lead to an increase, and if c) happens more often, then that shows that they are low risk, and there will tend to be less reason not to throw them. 

III.  Baseball – Supply and Demand of a Tactic

As a real life example of what I’m trying to get at here, I will use baseball. Baseball is largely a game of probability and stacking the odds in your favor, so there are a lot of stats taken on it. While I am generally a casual occasional watcher of baseball (if the Phillies are doing well), I have been interested in the current 2023 season, because the MLB has implemented some rule changes with some specific goals in mind, and I like rules so I have been paying attention. One goal was to increase the number of stolen bases, because stolen bases are exciting and make for a more fun viewing experience. 

Two main changes contribute to the increase in stolen bases, 1) physically larger bases (reason should be clear), and 2) the pitch clock. The pitch clock is a mechanic in which there is a 20 second countdown for the pitcher to make their pitch, otherwise they are penalized. Why does this affect stolen bases? Trying to pick off a runner causes the pitch clock to reset, and if the pitcher can reset the clock whenever they want by trying to pick off a runner, then the pitch clock is pointless, therefore they implemented a limit of 3 attempts to pick off a runner before the pitcher is penalized. This makes it more difficult for pitchers to pick off runners, and therefore easier to steal a base. 

How has this affected the amount of stolen bases? According to this article from April, stolen base attempts per game was 1.7, which is higher than previous years, but not unprecedented, there have been 1.7 seasons in the past. The success rate, however, was 81%, which is the highest in history by a fair margin. 

What this tells me is that the “demand” for stolen bases exceeds its “supply,” that is they should be attempting more stolen bases until the success rate simmers down to a reasonable level. Since this data is a little outdated, I tried to find a more recent article to see if that actually happened, and sure enough according to this article from May, stolen bases per game had increased to 1.8, and success rate had decreased to 79.4%. Why is this relevant to one handed attacks? Basically because if people aren’t getting regularly punished for attempting one handed attacks, then the demand for them exceeds the supply, and therefore fencers should try them more often. 

IIII.  Takeaways

While I did not take data on it, from casual observation it seemed like b) and c) were happening more often than a) in the video that I watched. Even though only 15% of the actual scored hits were from one handed strikes, they were being thrown quite often. Like other actions, they had various use cases – when not used as a serious threatening attack, they could be used for distancing in order to keep the other fencer from getting too close, or as a preparation from which they launch their real attack. 

Even if I had exact data on all of these parameters, the question would still remain, at what point would I consider them to be dominating the game? Ultimately I don’t have a clear answer on that, it’s really a subjective measurement. They dominate the game if they feel like they’re dominating the game. For this specific tournament, I’m not sure, it seems like it’s kind of on the edge of what I would find acceptable. If they are truly not being punished enough, and the “supply” of one handed attacks rises to meet that “demand,” then I think there will be a point where they turn the game into something more lame than I would like to see, but time will tell. 

Ultimately the problem with wobbling with the Ice Climbers is that it’s lame – it’s lame when it happens, and it’s lame watching someone playing keep-away to desperately not get grabbed. Doing away with it is both an aesthetic and gameplay choice, it both makes the game more exciting to watch and more fun to play. We can take the same aspects into account when deciding if a move or strategy becomes overpowered in longsword.