No one has asked, but if I was pressed, I’d have to say my favorite Season of Exceed so far is Season 3. And yes, a big part of that is the Street Fighter license (you can read more about my personal history with Street Fighter in our Yomi and Exceed reviews). But even more than that, I love Season 3’s mechanic: Critical. Critical allows Season 3 characters to spend one gauge when they set their attack in order to activate the Critical text on any of their cards. Critical attacks are, by and large, very telegraphed. If setting your attack to initiate a Strike is quietly stating, “I might have something here.”, then making your attack Critical might as well be shouting, “This is the specific attack I have and I’m very excited about it!” That telegraphing sounds like it’s strictly downside. Why would you want your opponent to have a strong idea of exactly which attack you are setting for a Strike?
The answer lies in deception. Because Season 3 characters can Critical any attack they want (whether it has Critical text or not), the Critical mechanic can provide built in mix-ups for some characters. For the purposes of this article, I’ll be defining a mix-up as a character’s options within a given range which require different answers from the opponent. In this way, Exceed has elements of Poker as portrayed by Hollywood: bluffing and mind games (as opposed to the actual game of Poker, which is much more about maximizing consistency and understanding probabilities, as shown by the fact that we now have AI capable of beating the best players in the world with regularity).
To illustrate what I’m talking about, let’s return to a character we have previously discussed on A New Challenger, Ken Masters. You’re at Range 2, and your opponent, playing as Ken, has just initiated a Strike and spent a gauge to make their attack Critical. A quick perusal of Ken’s reference card tells you that Axe Kick is the only thing that makes sense. As such, you set your Sweep, since confirming Sweep against Axe Kick will put you significantly ahead on resources and trade marginally on damage (the Ken player has already spent a gauge, and will lose a card at random while you both generate a new gauge). How surprised (and disappointed) are you when your opponent flips over his card to reveal a Spike?
The telegraphed Axe Kick forms the basis of Ken’s mix-up game at Range 2 (and is a big part of why Ken is so dangerous at that Range). Critical Axe Kick loses to Sweep and Focus, but will resoundingly beat many other options (including Block, thanks to its “Ignore Armor” clause). Conversely , Spike and Tatsumaki Senpukyaku are perfect answers to the reliable slow normals that beat Axe Kick at that range. In this way, when Ken spends a gauge to make his attack Critical at Range 2, what he’s really saying is, “It’s probably Axe Kick, but I’m willing to spend a gauge to make you have to guess.” And when that Ken player that just hit you with Spike Criticals another attack at Range 2, how likely are you to once again set a Sweep or Focus, expecting to come out ahead in the Strike? Like the misdirection of a seasoned stage magician, the announced Critical draws the opponent’s attention to the most likely option, only to confuse and amaze when something entirely different occurs.
Of course, mix-ups are not exclusive to the Critical mechanic. With the presence of the Normals, any character at Range 3 is automatically presenting a mix-up (the trinity of Assault, Spike, and Sweep). Or for another character specific example, have you ever had the pleasure of trying to respond to a Carl Swangee player that just initiated a Strike at Range 1? It could be Power Short, which hits like a bus and will soundly beat Grasp and Sweep. Or it could be Swangee Elbow, which destroys Block, Sweep and Focus (also known as a Range 1 Spike). Thankfully, Cross lets you retreat from this mix-up with relative ease, as long as you have the space to do so. Unless of course, the Range 1 attack that was just initiated with is Grasp. Or maybe it’s Authorized Force. Enjoy taking 10 damage!
Most Exceed players already keep track of the cards their opponent is playing. A key takeaway, for mix-ups, is to also keep track of the ones you have. How much less threatening is the above Carl mix-up if both copies of Swangee Elbow are in the discard pile or gauge? How much is lost by spending your gauge to Exceed? Sure, Carl’s Exceeded unique ability is powerful, but is it worth giving up being able to threaten Authorized Force and making the opponent question whether the Range 1 Cross is a safe response? Usually, the answer will definitely be yes (fully recognizing that the most common usage of Authorized Force is to pair it with a Normal via Overload to create an EX attack). Other times, effectively sealing the opponent’s Crosses at Range 1 will yield more value. While most newer Carl players will probably Exceed as soon as they reach four gauge, a hallmark of more experienced players is that they sometimes wait, depending on the current game state.
The situation above with Authorized Force is what I think of as a represented attack. The threat it poses is so great (because let’s face it: if Carl has 4 gauge, it’s likely that Authorized Force is close to lethal damage), that it effectively prevents some options from being viable (in this case, Cross). This, in turn, makes Carl’s other options at Range 1 that much more effective, since most of them would otherwise lose to Cross. Spotting these situations can help inform your risk assessment of various lines of play. If you can determine that the opponent is worried about Authorized Force, then initiating a Strike at Range 1 with Power Short is a lot more reasonable, even if both of the opponent’s Crosses are still live. And the best part: you don’t actually have to have Authorized Force in hand for this to be effective. This has the potential to work as long as the opponent is familiar enough with Carl to think about Authorized Force and both copies are not in the discard pile/gauge.
Anyone who has contemplated initiating a Strike at Range 1 against a Ryu player while Ryu has four gauge has experienced the effect of a represented attack. Sure, some characters can beat Metsu Shoryuken (things like Geoffrey’s Crusader’s Oath or Cammy’s CQC), but for a large portion of the cast, the best option is to retreat to Range 3 or greater (if you move to Range 2, Ryu will just use his UA next turn to bring the fight back to Range 1), or use EX Grasp (though this loses hard to EX Metsu Shoryuken, if we’re going to bring EX attacks into the conversation).
How about an example of a represented attack from a recent game with Mrs. Saint? It was my King Knight vs. Jess’s Eugenia. We were in the late game, both at around ten life, sitting at Range 4. Jess initiated a Strike. Given the board state, I thought it had to be something like Absinthin Arrow or Werelight (Plot Hook had already been transformed and the second copy was in the discard pile). I set Dive, content to trade the possibility of losing to Absinthin Arrow to get under Werelight. On the reveal, I was surprised to see that Jess had also set Dive. Eugenia rushing into Range 1 against a bruiser like King Knight? Why? Looking at my six cards in hand, five life remaining after taking the damage from Dive, and the ton of gauge that Jess had accumulated over the course of the game, one option immediately came to mind: Queen of Hearts.
A quick runthrough of my options showed me I had no way to boost to outspeed Queen of Hearts, and neither Grasp in hand. I took the Move action to Retreat 1, stepping out of Range of the ultra and into King Knight’s preferred range. Eugenia closed with her own Move action, all but confirming my suspicions. If I retreated again, I’d be in the corner. I could either dump my hand to move past Eugenia (making Cat’s Cradle lethal if Jess had it), or swing for the fences with a Strike that would lose on Speed to Queen of Hearts.
I decided to initiate with Sweep. Jess set an EX attack in response. On the reveal, it was my Sweep into her EX Focus. She weathered my 6 Power attack and struck back with 5 damage for exactly lethal! The game was hers. As we were resetting for the next game, Jess revealed her hand; no Queen of Hearts. She had taken a line of play which represented to me that she had the ultra, and as a result, I played right into her hands.
She used my own character knowledge of Eugenia against me. That is the power of represented attacks and mix-ups. When you are thinking about lines of play, you should also be considering how they will be interpreted by the opponent. Is there room to create ambiguity? Can you signal something that will make the opponent behave more predictably, to your benefit? Exceed is a game of layers, and it rewards exploration of its systems. And, as my recent game against Jess’s Eugenia taught me, the rabbit hole might be a construct of our own making but it goes as deep as you let it.
As a reminder, I’m an Exceed enthusiast, not an Exceed expert, so I welcome discussion and constructive criticism on this post. Let me know if you enjoyed it, or if there is something specific you would like to see covered in the future!