By Mr. Saint
The dynamic duo! The perfect pair! The tandem twosome! Ok, I’ll stop. Shovel and Shield Knight have been affectionately nicknamed EXSK by the Level 99 Exceed Discord, because two knights whose names both start with S would naturally combine to form an EX character (I will at times be using this abbreviation as shorthand for Shovel and Shield Knight in this article). Shovel and Shield Knight support each other with a variety of situationally useful attacks and effects. In my opinion, they’re the most complex character we’ve covered to date. And while these things do not always correlate, this has also made them one of the most rewarding characters I’ve experimented with so far!
More than most other characters, Shovel and Shield Knight emphasize leveraging proper positioning. Playing them requires constant evaluation, not just of your character’s (Shovel Knight’s) position, but also the position of your marker (Shield Knight). This is due in no small part to the ability text on Shield Knight, which optionally extends your Advance and Close effects by one additional space if Shovel Knight started his movement on the same space as Shield Knight. Thanks to this ability, Shovel and Shield can, with sufficient preparation, threaten a variety of mix-ups at various ranges with lots of possible options, forcing the opponent to guess which attack is being used.
Nothing exemplifies this mix-up potential more than the starting game state, with players at Range 4, and Shovel and Shield Knight occupying the same space. When EXSK share a space and set an attack from this position, they are presenting a very potent mix-up (you can read more about mix-ups in general in our previous article found here). Thanks to Shield Knight’s ability, it could be Assault, which is above curve at this range, outspeeding opposing Dives even on defense and granting EXSK the next turn via Advantage. It could be Discovery, one of EXSK’s Special Attacks, which is two points above curve (Speed 6) at this range and provides card filtering and resource generation. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on which side of the table you’re on), both those options lose to the traditionally safe and slow normals, Sweep and Focus. Of course, a Dive that advances four spaces instead of the usual three will cause both of those attacks to whiff, thanks to Dive’s “cross-up” clause. While the EXSK player gets one “freebie” mix-up thanks to the starting positions, this and other positioning intensive mix-ups are repeatable with sufficient forethought. Planning ahead to position Shovel Knight and Shield Knight for most advantageous effect elevates their mix-up game from manageable to mystifying.
A review of EXSK’s kit reads like the contents of a building superintendent’s toolbox. They have the answer to a large number of problems, and it’s just a matter of identifying which issues need solved and finding the right tool. Shovel Knight slightly out of position? Quick Step (the boost on Discovery) provides an action compressed solution. Ditto for Shield Knight and Hop (the boost on Shovel Drop). Is the opponent posturing for a slow defensive play, like Focus? Initiating a Strike with Charge Slash is the hammer for that particular nail. It is an uncommon game where Full Defense (Shield Gong’s boost) will provide exceptional value, but it felt like the second-best card in my deck the one game I played it against Sagat at Range 5 (Shield Knight at Range 4).
The above anecdote with Sagat highlights one of the things I find so compelling about EXSK. When compared to a character like Ryu, EXSK’s list of generically “always good” cards is relatively small (mostly consisting of Shield Boomerang, which we’ll talk about in a bit). Instead, mastery of Shovel and Shield Knight requires a strong understanding of the opponent’s game plan, and valuation of your own cards based on how you plan to counter that game plan. In some games (such as against a character like Zangief), you might play the role of the zoner, defensively positioning Shield Knight to take advantage of Buckler Blow and Shield Gong to keep the opponent out of their preferred range. Against a highly mobile opponent (maybe Luciya or a Vega that keeps ping-ponging to the arena’s edge) Shovel and Shield Knight might occupy opposite sides of the arena for much of the game, in order to enable Shovel Knight to chase the opponent with Quick Switch (the boost on Buckler Blow). Strong EXSK play is a result of experience, understanding the opponent’s options, and which of yours match up well against them. Using the Change Cards action to filter less relevant options and dig for your better ones in a given match-up is a critical part of playing EXSK well.
I fully admit all of the discussion points above are things I learned over time while playing as Shovel and Shield Knight. But the reason I wanted to pick them up in the first place is much simpler: Shield Boomerang. One of EXSK’s ultra attacks, it is no exaggeration to say that the presence of Shield Boomerang can fundamentally change the nature of the game once EXSK acquire three gauge. Shield Boomerang is unique amongst attacks in Exceed, as a Range-based dodge that does not actually care about your character’s position. Rather, Shield Boomerang calculates its Range and dodge effect from Shield Knight. Assuming proper positioning (see below for some examples), this leaves Shovel Knight free to pursue a continued assault, attacking with reliable attacks while the opponent must decide whether or not to commit something valuable to stop you in the face of possibly whiffing entirely. It says a lot about Shield Boomerang as an attack that Shovel of Hope, as amazing a boost as it is, is so rarely played.
In my testing, I primarily saw two responses to the implied threat of Shield Boomerang (there were others, but these were the most repeated lines of play across many games). There were the opponents who were unaware of it, or figured they couldn’t beat it regardless, so ignored the possibility of losing to it. These opponents will continue to confidently play attacks while standing within Shield Boomerang’s range band (Range 2-4). Here, it’s often advisable to respond to an opponent’s threat with Shield Boomerang as soon as possible. In an ideal universe, you would line up Shield Boomerang with an opponent’s EX attack or Ultra, but it is often enough to make them waste a card and eat six power to swing the momentum of the game in your favor. Notably, with this line of play, be sure to watch out for the opponent’s Crosses and Dives (played with the intent to cross-up, activating Dive’s dodge clause), as those are the two normals that beat most standard Shield Boomerang positions, forcing you to spend the gauge without the commensurate payoff.
You can tell if an opponent is respecting the threat of Shield Boomerang by how they elect to move their character after EXSK reaches three gauge. If they keep spending resources attempting to move onto Shield Knight or moving to a space outside of Shield Boomerang’s 2-4 Range band, they are both aware of, and worried about the threat that Shield Boomerang poses. Depending on how the opponent is moving and the shape of your hand, it may be worth getting into a resource war with them to keep the threat of Shield Boomerang live. If they’re continually spending force to switch sides with Shovel Knight, it may be worth it for you to use a couple of EXSK’s instant movement boosts combined with Shovel Knight’s UA in order to maintain favorable positioning. You can also invalidate this war of attrition entirely if you have enough gauge to Exceed and still threaten Shield Boomerang (the magic number being six gauge, a value that is relatively easily obtainable for EXSK thanks to Discovery).
Against an opponent who is showing Shield Boomerang the proper respect, it is often correct to hold it, if you can utilize your opponent’s fear of the attack to gain incremental advantages over the course of several turns. Even better, if you behave like you have Shield Boomerang in hand, this type of opponent will most likely get drawn into this line of play, regardless of whether or not you actually have the attack. In this way, it is possible to bait the opponent’s Parry (Block’s boost) when you don’t have Shield Boomerang in hand, then follow up with a Change Cards action to get rid of vulnerable known Normal attacks and increase your odds of drawing into your powerful Ultra. Paradoxically, this series of events encourages the opponent to respect the threat of Shield Boomerang even more after seeing that it was not in your current hand.
Shovel and Shield Knight are complicated. Shield Boomerang aside, the majority of their attacks and boosts are relatively situational. Playing EXSK well is a study not just in one’s own character, but also of the potential match-up interactions with the rest of Exceed’s cast. Rather than merely having traditional good or bad match-ups, EXSK reward experience with consistency. Misplays are often harsh, as incorrect assessment of a given situation can leave Shovel Knight exposed for multiple turns while the EXSK player attempts to correct their positioning. But there is a gratifying side to this aspect of the character as well. Just as you will most likely be able to trace your losses to your own mistakes, your victories will be the result of correct game state assessment, and wholly your own.
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!