Muscle Memory

One thing I have learned over the years, through playing various games in various genres at various levels of competition, is that every one of them requires base skills that can only be acquired through hard work and repetition. At a basic level I’m sure everyone realizes that: no amount of natural talent will give a player perfect marine splits on demand. That sort of thing needs work.

Muscle memory seems to have entered the pop culture lexicon now. I have seen it being mentioned on prime-time television. I assume most everyone is familiar with the concept, yet the application of these ideas in most games is like the Mortal Kombat series in the 2000s: sparse and low quality. Every half-decent fighting game made in the last 15 years has a training mode, and every half-decent player knows why: to practice combos. This is more than the research of those combos, which is also important, but is primarily to facilitate the very repetition needed to form muscle memory in the first place. This is the part of competitive gaming that requires the most initial work, but is also the easiest to do because there is no thought involved. But that work also means that it is often neglected, which leads to so many dropped combos.

I see comments all the time to the effect of, “I have this combo down in training mode, but when I’m online (which is a different kettle of fish) or at a gathering I suddenly forget how to do it in the middle of a game.” The reason for that is that the player stops in the middle of the round to try and remember what they are doing, which is always a recipe for disaster. It is like trying to keep conscious power over every breath or heart beat. The point of muscle memory is that it removes thought from the equation, freeing the player up to think about other things, like their next move, or where they are going for lunch. Of course, even the best players can drop a combo in the heat of the moment, but that usually means they are under so much stress that they have started to second guess themselves in the moment, which is when they have been properly mind fucked by their opponent.

As stated, for fighting game players this is nothing new, but I am not writing this to or for fighting game players. I am writing it for DotA players.

Many people have seen this video, but what did they think when they saw it? “Oh, that Dendi! He’s a card!” It is easy to miss what is actually going on in this video. This is not a player showing off for the camera (well, it is a little bit), it is a player demonstrating a training method that gave them the muscle memory needed to play Invoker in competitive games. I am willing to bet that Dendi, iceiceice, Ferrari_430, et al have spent hours in offline -wtf games practising their spell invokes to the point where they only have to think of a spell and their fingers will do the rest. It is not only never having to look at the invoke spell list, but that they never have to think about what they are doing. They can think about how they will apply a given spell, but not the key strokes needed to get that spell ready. That is the difference and importance of muscle memory, and that is what DotA players neglect.

People who play DotA with me know that the hero I hate the most in the game, by a wide margin, is Kunkka. I have hated him since he was first added to WC3 DotA, when he had to be nerfed into the ground, and I have hated him since because he has been getting nothing but buffs. This is a hero that everyone claims is gimped because of how difficult it is to execute his combos–and they are combos in the fighting game sense. Well, here is another thing that fighting game players know: it doesn’t matter how hard a move’s input or a combo’s timing is, good players will go into training mode and practice it till they can do it every time. Classic examples of this would be Ivy’s command throws in Soulcalibur games. She has two of them, Summon Suffering and Calamity Symphony, and the commands for each change from game to game, but they are always amongst the most difficult moves in the game to pull off (Check her frame data for each game, they are in the throws section.), and good Ivy players can all do them on demand. They will kick up a fuss when a new game comes out and they have to relearn the commands, but by the time of their first big tournament most of them can do it without issue. And most Soulcalibur players use controllers instead of arcade sticks.

The main reason I hate Kunkka, besides having to lane against Tidebringer, is that every now and then there is a Kunkka player who actually knows what they are doing, and gets to wreck pubs for free. When he was first added to the game I knew a player who took the time to learn his timings, and it was not fun to play against. Even lazy Kunkka players should at least be able to slap the requisite 2 points into X Marks the Spot (2 second return time, 2 second before Torrent hits) and land their Torrents and boats most of the time, but they do not seem to be able to manage even that much. Good Kunkka players should be able to land XMTS, Torrent, boat with 4 points in XMTS without having to think about the timing on XMTS. They should be able to press the buttons in the correct sequence because their fingers know the timing. That is what it means to have muscle memory, and anyone who wants to play Kunkka–or any other hero that requires some sort of combo inputs or timing–should be willing to put the time in to learn their timings. The same way Invoker players should be able to Eul’s into their spells without thinking about it.

Creativity can only truly flourish when a player already has their basics down. The building blocks need to be known and understood before they can really be played with, and there is absolutely no substitute for experience and work. Nothing about these heroes is difficult in perspective, the only thing standing between most players and that really good Torrent into boat team wipe, or that perfect Invoker Euls combo, is the willingness to put in the time.

This could be you.


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