Top Tier History: Marth

Anyone who plays Super Smash Bros. Melee and has access to all characters will either find themselves in love with or infuriated with Marth. Somehow elegant, slightly effeminate and terrifying, he’s also one of the most hated and popular Melee characters. He’s both the bane of casual players, but also their easiest way to enter competitive Melee. Emphasizing fundamentals more than arguably any other character, Marth has been called by many, including Mango in the past, as the “spirit of Melee.”

Whether you agree with this statement or not is another topic – when I’ve mentioned this before to my college smash friends, it’s been met with both ridicule and skepticism, due to my own bias as a Marth player. Either way, it’s hard to understate his influence on the competitive Melee community.

Rolling C-Stickers (late 2001 to early 2003)
Notable Players: Ken, Eduardo, your friend who keeps spamming forward smash, etc.

The first thing you’ll notice if you play Marth for the first time is his ridiculous range. Unlike other characters that use their body for direct hits, he has a sword that consistently covers more space within its moves than any other character. Although Marth doesn’t have any outstanding hitboxes (like Sheik’s nair), due to the arc-nature of swinging a sword, his ability to swat anything in his path is by far his biggest strength.

Because movement hadn’t advanced to the point where opponents could whiff-punish Marth’s moves, the threat of getting forward smashed was something that everyone had to consider when playing against him. Keep in mind that using smash attacks was a huge part of the early meta.

Due to Marth’s ability to control space, most of the strategies based around how to beat him involved quite a bit of camping or using characters with projectiles. Effectively speaking, Marth initially started as a defensive character, used to preemptively wall out his opponents and punish them for coming close.

It’s impossible to mention Marth in the early stages of competitive Melee without bringing up his far inferior counterpart in Roy. The latter was extremely popular within the game’s initial years and still is among casual players. For any competitive player today, even comparing the two is pretty laughable, but in 2002, tier lists were anything but definite conclusions for Melee.

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A comment on Neoseeker forums.

Marth was still seen as one of the better characters within Melee, even if he wasn’t quite on the level of Sheik/Falco/Fox. After all, Eduardo dominated his small regional scene in Illinois and Marth was popular across all levels. But in the next four years, that changed – and many wondered if he was secretly Melee’s best character.

The King of Smash (mid 2003 – mid 2009): 
Notable Players: Ken, Mew2King, Azen, EK, KoreanDJ, Tink, Husband

The King of Smash isn’t just a title for Ken’s dominance. If we’re talking about which characters actually ruled Melee, it’s hard to argue that this era was not predominantly ruled by Marth.

Ken’s use of the dash dance in particular revolutionized how Marth could be used to condition, bait and manipulate opponents. Since most of the Melee meta in its early ages was based around shield grabs, cross-up dash attacks and using projectiles to control stage, Ken’s use of movement to keep his opponents guessing illustrated a far greater understanding of Melee than his contemporaries. Marth’s movement and tools in the neutral game highlighted these strengths.

On the East Coast, Azen’s influence as a Marth player manifested itself in another way. His natural sense of spacing, guessing his opponent’s intent and knowing the innate risk-reward ratios behind specific in-game situations were enhanced by his Marth more than any of his other characters. Though it’s easy to look at Azen’s play and see it as someone spamming forward smash to win, keep in mind that the game hadn’t developed to where using such moves was significantly punishable.

Sheik was still thought of as superior based on the Melee tier list – and as shown through people who beat Ken, it’s not like Marth was unstoppable. But at the same time, think about Ken’s 4-2 Jack Garden Tournament victory against Bombsoldier. Facing an opponent with greater technical ability and a bigger punish game than anyone he might have ever played against, Ken adapted, showcasing how devastating Marth’s chaingrab could be. But if Ken showed a glimpse into how far Marth’s combos could be pushed, Mew2King went even further.

The video above isn’t just a showcase of what the top standard was for Marth’s combos in those ages. These are punishes and follow-ups that Marth mains still struggle with executing today. Claims of “2007 Mew2King” being the best player ever are righteously treated with a bit of skepticism, but any look into actual footage of his combo game proves that he was way ahead of his time.

Not only could Mew2King chaingrab both Fox and Falco with unbelievable consistency, he was also quite ahead of everyone else in the Marth ditto, in which he casually embarrassed his opponents. Consider it this way: if Ken invented Marth, Mew2King back then “perfected” his ability to convert off hits, off juggling opponents and going for low-percent kills off-stage.

Marth’s ability to finish stocks early, along with everything else Mew2King contributed, led to him being ranked second in what was supposed to be Melee’s “final” tier list on October 14, 2008. Yet based on results, you could have just as easily argued him as No. 1.

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This briefly continued even in an era when Mew2King didn’t even treat Melee as his first priority. Even Azen, playing mostly Marth, placed ninth at the Revival of Melee, despite not having played seriously for almost a year. In fact, when Mew2King lost to Armada at the first GENESIS, many thought of it as a fluky upset. Unfortunately, this loss, along with his inability to overcome Mango with any of his characters, was a sign of stagnancy to follow for Marth.

The Betrayal (late 2009 – late 2012)
Notable Players: Mew2King, Taj, PewPewU, Tai, Arc, G$

In 2009, Mew2King posted a topic on the GameFAQS Melee board, claiming that Sheik was the best character. At the time, Mew2King played both characters, but he eventually began playing a lot more Sheik. This played a big role in Marth’s decline.

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Part of why Marth dominated in the past was because of how successful he was against Fox. But remember that Fox players were also in a bit of a decline for most of the post-Brawl era. With less top-level Fox mains, Marth players had lost what was their most historically favorable matchup. It’s no surprise that at a time when Fox struggled, so did Marth.

Early in the MLG-era of smash, it wasn’t uncommon to come across people that thought Marth also held a distinct advantage over Falco. But in 2009, top-level Falco players weren’t the kind of people you could just spam shield grab against. They now had shield pressure and movement that made Bombsoldier look like he barely scratched the surface of tech skill.

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Note: Mango beat Mew2King in both sets of grand finals at Pound 3.

As if that wasn’t enough, think about all the representation from other characters that traditionally give Marth a hard time. Captain Falcon players like SilentSpectre, Darkrain, Hax, Scar and S2J (later) were on the rise. You could also argue that the Sheik meta, pushed by Mew2King himself, KirbyKaze, Lucien, Tope and even the Netherlands’ Amsah made it difficult for Marth to succeed. That’s not even going into the reign of Mango – and later Hungrybox – showing how difficult Jigglypuff could be to fight.

For the first time, Marth looked like he had peaked. In the final tier list of 2010, he finished a disappointing fifth on the tier list – the lowest he had ever been since 2002. Yet in one of the most memorable bracket runs of the post-Brawl era, one old-school Marth managed to put together old-school tricks with new-school movement and combos. Enter Taj at GENESIS 2.

Usually when you hear about Taj, you think about two things: his Mewtwo or the notorious losers finals set at GENESIS 2 against Mango. The former is understandable, but the latter is unfair.

Taj was known to be particularly proficient against Falco, due to practicing with Axe’s Falco and being particularly good at edge guarding him. At GENESIS 2, Taj lost to ORLY in pools, but also turned heads with his dominant win over Dr. PeePee, while playing Marth. Even though Dr. PeePee was dreadfully sick at the tournament, it wasn’t as if this was a one-set fluke.

Making his way to top eight, Taj beat Larry Lurr (another Falco), Hax with Mewtwo and clutched out a long set with MacD. In winners semifinals, he faced Mango: a Falco that routinely made Mew2King look foolish and in the last round had four-stocked Mew2King’s Marth at the same tournament.

Mango’s talked about how this was the set in which he “got gimped twelve times” and lost. Either way, Taj showcased that Marth could still keep up with Falco at a top level, with a mix of hard reads in the neutral game, Mew2King-esque conversions off stage and slick movement to trick his opponents. Losing to Armada and Mango doesn’t change that.

To put in perspective how impressive his GENESIS 2 run was, Taj had previously finished ninth at Don’t Do Down There Jeff, `17th at Apex 2010 and 49th at Pound 3. His bracket run at GENESIS 2, no matter how favorable it was for Taj, was the first top three finish by a non-Mew2King Marth since Azen’s victory at Viva La Smashtaclysm. Clearly, there was more to be done with the character.

It doesn’t sound like much to note now, but at Rule 6 NorCal Regional – a tournament won by Mango after he threw a set as Fox against Bladewise in winners – a rising NorCal Marth named PewPewU raised quite a few eyebrows when he took the first game of a set off Mango in losers semifinals: the same Fox that made Taj quit mid-set.

Though he still ended up losing the set, the hype behind PewPewU was through the roof. In the post tourney thread, S2J wrote of the NorCal Marth’s play: “best fucking Marth that ever lived to play the game.” Others added to the hype, with Bob$ writing that PewPewU was “godlike” and “better than Mew2King’s Marth.”

Statements like S2J’s were almost certainly exaggerated, but it wouldn’t have been to crazy to think that PewPewU’s potential was extremely high. What’s noticeable with his Marth, more than with being “aggressive” or “defensive” is his willingness to skirmish. Even in comparison to Taj, who mostly used tricky movement to get his opponents to whiff moves, PewPewU was far more proactive, also incorporating shield stops in his game as early as 2012.

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By the end of 2012, Marth was still struggling, but there was a glimmer of hope for the once reigning character – not to mention, Mew2King playing him a lot more again at tournaments like Zenith 2012. The years of stagnancy were contradicted at Apex 2013, in which Marth had his best performance in over half a decade.

The Unstoppable Secondary (early 2013 to now)
Notable Players: Dr. PeePee/PPMD, Mew2King, Mango, PewPewU, The Moon

It’s not entirely accurate to portray Dr. PeePee playing Marth at Apex 2013 as completely unexpected, given that he had tried playing him in tourney before. Additionally, PPMD was fairly active on the Marth forum in Smashboards, where he regularly gave advice to fellow Marth players. Either way, the smash world was shocked when his secondary managed to take a set from the world’s best player.

Prioritizing fundamentals like no one else did at the time, Dr. PeePee’s dash dance and ability to maintain stage control captivated spectators at the time. Trained by Cactuar, Dr. PeePee somehow managed to aggressively channel Marth’s positioning strengths while also being patient and aware enough to avoid overextending.

Remember that since his ascent to godhood, Armada had never lost to another Marth player. He had gone close with Mew2King, but still held an undefeated record against him and every other Marth. But at Apex 2013, Dr. PeePee posed a challenge to Armada in one of his historically strongest matchups, all while playing a secondary.

A month later at a special edition of a Xanadu weekly, Dr. PeePee decided to play all Marth, shocking people given that Mew2King was attending the tournament. In fact, when the two played the matchup at Zenith 2012, Mew2King beat him solidly in those games.

As anyone who watches this set can tell you, Dr. PeePee put on a clinic, revolutionizing the Marth ditto in ways that Mew2King hadn’t. Not only having far better control of Marth’s movement than the latter, Dr. PeePee maintained an extremely disciplined style that emphasized dictating the tempo of a match and using DI mixups to trick his opponents, rather than going for lengthy, Mew2King-esque explosions.

Perhaps more than anything else, Dr. PeePee’s sheer control of center stage seemed to negate what one of Mew2King’s biggest strengths as both a player and a Marth ditto specialist – his ability near the ledge. After getting swept in the first set of their rematch in grand finals, Dr. PeePee, to everyone’s surprise, stayed with Marth and defeated Mew2King, handing his Sheik the first loss it ever had to a Marth in a full set.

Dr. PeePee’s success with Marth was particularly exciting because it seemed to highlight that Marth could be pushed even further than Mew2King pushed him. He also showed that the character could deal with Sheik: his biggest nemesis. With a Marth player also taking a set off someone who was considered the world No. 1, suddenly the character was alive again, with many resources not just being put online for the character, but also players beginning to apply new concepts to Marth that even Mew2King hadn’t done.

It’s not like the character lacked any meta development over the post-Brawl era, but on June 7, 2013, frame data master and Austrian Marth player Kadano posted one of the most read and studied topics on Smashboards. In it, he covered different types of Marth tactics, along with ideas on how Marth could punish certain characters, including Jigglypuff, Sheik and Captain Falcon – three matchups Marth had struggled with over the previous years.

Much of Kadano’s guide provided the basis for what PewPewU later would apply in his game, including how to successfully use DI mixups off throws to dash pivot tipper forward smash Jigglypuff. Though a lot of the “technology” written by Kadano was based off what Marth players theorycrafted or did in the past, his guide gave Marth players a centralized location to view how to use their tools, leading to more character representation through 2013 and 2014 than in years past.

At Apex 2015, at the time the biggest Melee tournament of all-time, Marth finally broke through. Playing him in the majority of top eight and returning after a massive break from competing at national tourneys, PPMD gave the character its first big victory since Azen at Viva La Smashtaclysm.

It feels weird to say that this set is historical, mostly because it was just over two years ago, but it’s a good representation of how most Marths try to play against Fox today, while also showing just how valuable the character could be as a counterpick. Without Marth, Dr. PeePee probably doesn’t win this tournament, SKTAR 3 or Apex 2014. This isn’t going into how valuable Mew2King’s Marth was at both The Big House 3 and Shine 2016 – or even Mango’s Marth at WTFox 2.

As of late, players like Shroomed, Axe, DruggedFox and Colbol have had success experimenting with playing a lot more Marth  having taken sets off several top players in a variety of different matchups. Upstart Marth mains like Smash G0D, Zain, Nightmare, Reeve and Rudolph in the last two years also show a new group of mains  with varying play styles.

Earlier last year, I wrote about Marth’s worrying lack of strong national placings, along with his lack of successful “solo” title victories. Within a Reddit thread I posted about Marth’s troubles, PPMD wrote back, disagreeing with much of what I wrote.

screen-shot-2017-02-17-at-11-08-19-amI’m not going to mince words here: PPMD’s response, along with every other bit of data that we have from 2013 onward, proved that my previous conclusion was full of shit. What I was particularly wrong about was the ambiguous implication that Marth struggled because of his placings, use as a situational counterpick over a serious main and Fox players getting more representation. For reference, Marth did extremely well against Fox and Falco within the Top 100 in 2016, per this excellent article by smash.gg’s Kelly Goodchild.

If anything, Marth’s now at least have examples of the character doing well in “unfavorable” matchups. Even if you ignore PPMD, players like PewPewU, The Moon, Smash G0D and Zain have victories over Top 10 and 20-level Sheiks. PewPewU, a rising star of the previous era, has also improved  his game plan against Captain Falcon, while also becoming the first Marth in years to take a set from Hungrybox.

Even worse, by the same data I used to suggest that Marth wasn’t as good as his perception, you could just as easily say the same for any character that isn’t Fox or Jigglypuff in the modern era (and maybe Peach).

He might not be the king of smash anymore, but Marth is currently thriving in the modern era, with many mains and being ranked third on Melee’s current tier list. In fact, players like the The Moon, the Crimson Blur and ZoSo have said before that they believe Marth could be the best character in the game. Time will tell if the Fire Emblem swordsman can return to the throne.

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