Tiers in Evolutionary Time

Nerf, Buff, Patch - Adapt?
By on August 28, 2019

On August 5, 2019 self-described “mathemagician” and all-around Smash Bros. community MVP Andrew Nestico tweeted that he’d found the key to understanding Smash Ultimate’s tiers:

Aside from being a very quick assessment – Ultimate had only been out for just under eight months at the time of Nestico’s tweet – the intriguing thing about the Robbery-Oppression tier list is that it’s rather similar to my own findings relative to Street Fighter V.

Why is this interesting? Well, first, Ultimate and SFV are markedly dissimilar games. One released with 74 characters, the other with just 16. Neutral approaches, defensive strategies, and combo trees differ significantly between the two titles. And, of course, Ultimate is a platform fighter whereas SFV is a traditional health-based fighter. So it’s surprising that their meta-games would behave similarly.

But there’s another reason to pay close attention to the Robbery-Oppression paradigm: because, over time, it seems to go out of style.


Before we get too deep, let me start by saying that tier lists tend to be controversial. Different people generate tier lists for many reasons, which means that two tier lists can disagree and yet both be valid on their own terms. For example, Shoryuken’s tier lists are calculated using tournament results, whereas the tier lists at EventHubs are voted on by the community. What I ask of you is that you keep this in mind and remember that I’m not making any claims to pure objectivity.

Robbery, Oppression, and Other Scourges in SFV

So, having said that, let’s talk about the year-by-year tier lists in SFV and how those tier lists compared to Capcom Pro Tour results. All of the data in this article comes from my CPT Character Power Rankings, which I’ve maintained since the start of the 2016 CPT season.

In that first season, both Shoryuken and EventHubs agreed that Chun-Li was the strongest character in the game. This is a strong statement, given that SRK and EH construct their tier lists in very different ways. Still, it’s easy to see why Chun was ranked so highly: she had outstanding buttons and her movement speed was quite fast. Indeed, Chun was so fundamentally strong in 2016 that she blew away the competition in terms of reaching the top eight: she had 78 top-eight finishes that year, as compared with 67 for the next-highest character.

The only catch is that Chun didn’t end up winning the most tournaments in 2016 or winning a championship. Karin had the most wins that year, and Nash and Mika won Evo and Capcom Cup, respectively. Then, in 2017, something similar happened: the most-used characters (Necalli, Cammy, Dictator, Laura) all fell short of winning a title, as did the highest-ranked characters (Cammy according to SRK, Guile according to EH). Instead, Akuma won Evo and Birdie won Capcom Cup. And in 2018? You guessed it: Cammy, the consensus top-ranked and most-used character, barely took home any wins at all, while Juri, Dictator (backed by Abigail), and Rashid won the year’s three titles. (Evo Japan, Evo, and Capcom Cup).

Now, to some extent, this is perfectly compatible with the tier system. After all, the whole point of using tiers instead of forced (numerical) rankings is that tiers can assign a roughly equal strength to many characters. So, for example, although Akuma wasn’t ranked #1 on any major tier list in 2017, he was still ranked highly enough (6 on SRK, 5 on EH) that he would likely have been included in the top tier. But there are still major exceptions: 2017 Birdie was considered solidly mid-tier, 2018 Dictator was outside of the top ten, and nobody believed in Juri even after her win at Evo Japan.

So through the first three years of SFV’s lifespan, it was easy to concoct a narrative in which the game simply did not reward fundamentals. Instead, it rewarded corner carry and corner pressure (2016 Mika, 2018 Rashid), oppression or comeback factor (2018 Dictator, 2017 Akuma), hit-and-run tactics (2016 Nash), and other miscellaneous shenanigans. This narrative is not too different from what we see in Nestico’s Robbery-Oppression tier list – with, however, one major twist. In SFV, the narrative is changing before our eyes.

SFV Grows Up

If 2016-2018 represented SFV’s impetuous youth, we may now be able to say that the game has reached maturity. This year, Evo was won not by a mid-tier surprise character or a heroic effort by a character specialist. Instead – and for the first time in SFV’s lifespan – Evo was won by Karin, the most-used character in 2019, a consensus top-tier pick (1 on SRK, 3 on EH), and a character who thrives using the very same tools that weren’t quite enough for Chun back in 2016.

Of course, this is just one title for Karin, and things could change. Maybe, after Capcom Cup, we’ll all be complaining about G’s nightmare-inducing V Trigger or Zeku’s setplay. But for the time being, we’re living in a world that we’ve never lived in before: a world in which the tier lists, the traditional theories about character design, and the results are aligned.

Who’s Right?

So does this mean that Nestico is wrong? That, in other words, robbery and oppression aren’t the real determiners of character strength in Smash Ultimate? No – what it means is that, however right or wrong Nestico is today, he’s only right or wrong for the moment. As time goes on, we should expect the characters in Ultimate to rise and fall in prominence, and we should expect this even without major balance changes or other patches. Why? Well, in short, fighting games evolve over time. Just as geological or climatic changes can disturb the established balance between an animal and its environment, fighting game tiers get rearranged when players discover new tech, learn matchups more deeply, pick up pocket characters, and generally become comfortable with a new game. For one reason or another, robbery, oppression, and other such tactics may well prove to be more effective in a game’s early days than they are in its old age.

And, again, this is no mere hypothesis: as of now, it seems to be the established reality of SFV. Only time will tell whether the same pattern will repeat itself in Ultimate, but I, for one, am excited by the prospect – indeed, the likelihood – that Ultimate (or any other similarly young fighting game) will look very different in 2022 or 2025 than it does now.

Eli Horowitz (@BODIEDnovel) is a longtime fighting game fan and player who lives in Pittsburgh, PA. His first novel, Bodied, is set in the FGC and celebrates the ability of fighting games to make us stronger and more resilient people. For more information about the novel, his CPT data, or any other subject, find him on twitter – he’d love to hear from you!

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