At Shine 2018 last weekend, Zain took 1st place with Marth by defeating the number one ranked Melee player, Hungrybox, twice. I spoke with Wobbles, his fellow teammate in Panda Global, and asked how this was possible. At first, he gave me an obvious explanation for Zain’s victory: "He was able to beat Hungrybox."
But we spoke at length to find that Zain had consistent opportunities to learn the matchup in previous tournaments, received help from M2K and Armada, as well as developed the work ethic and mindset to learn it.
Wobbles then agreed to answer some of my specific questions :
What was Zain able to do that other Marths before him weren't able to do?
For starters, he can beat HBox. That hasn’t been done by a Marth since 2015. Given that any given player who wants to win a major probably has to beat HBox at some point to do it, this is not a trivial point.
Another key factor is his consistency in a broad range of matchups. So far at the past three majors that Zain has attended (Evo, SSC, Shine), he has lost to three players: HBox, Armada, and Army. The reason that’s important is not just the obvious--winning a lot helps you win, who knew?--but because he gets to keep trying against HBox! He played HBox at all three. That’s because he was able to fight him at Evo in Winner’s Quarters, then fight him at SSC in Winner’s Quarters, then fight him at Shine in Winner’s Semis. No other Marth main is hitting those places in tournament consistently because no other Marth is consistent in so many matchups.
I didn’t know that, but it makes sense. Based on the short time I’ve known and hung out with Zain, I can tell you a few things about him. First, he’s a lab monster. He’s willing to research, study vids of himself and other Marths, and incorporate all the useful tech he can find. Second, he’s very humble; he’s willing to take advice and information from anybody. He let me, an ICs main that’s way worse than him at the game, analyze his Marth ditto against M2K at Summit to help prepare him for his match against La Luna at Evo, and he actually used some of the things we found together. Third, he’s really hungry to get better and he loves the game. He fiends for friendlies.
All of this comes across in his general personality, so it’s hard not to like him. You can also tell that if you give him advice or information that he’ll use it effectively. And last of all, playing against him is amazing practice for anybody, so he has that going for him as well.
Why couldn't M2K himself be the one to do it?
M2K emphasizes a matchup-based approach to the game--he’s the only player using three characters to make top 8 consistently. Ironically, the reason is because M2K generally dislikes learning highly specific techniques for certain matchups. He uses the most broadly applicable techniques for his given character (Fox, Marth, Sheik), then picks the matchup that best emphasizes them.
To beat HBox, a Marth needs to have practice landing grab on crouching Puff (which has a couple points of error), as well as pivot f-smash to turn those grabs into kill confirms. Those are the kinds of specific things that Zain is willing to implement, as a Marth-only player, that M2K doesn’t have in his arsenal.
Armada has placed emphasis on Zain being a fast learner. Wouldn't that imply the other Marth players aren't?
Controversy! Well, for starters, almost nobody (Marth or not) gets as good at the game as Zain has in the timespan that he’s been playing, so that says volumes on its own. Another factor is that he’s very focused and controlled, even in tournament--when he practices something, it shows in his tourney play very quickly. When he gets nervous, he might do something impulsive or miss a single pivot f-smash, then readjusts. When I get nervous, I miss the buttons on my controller and accidentally run offstage. We see a lot of flubs and chokes from players at all levels--even the ones who practice and study obsessively--and Zain seems to suffer from that way less.
The last thing to mention though is that players nowadays have a lot of resources and information for research, training, practice, etc., that weren’t available earlier in the game’s lifespan. The average player nowadays is insane compared to the average player from even just a few years ago. So it’s not just that Zain works hard--he does--and it’s not just that he’s a fast learner and doesn’t choke--he is, and he doesn’t--but he has access to a ton of tools for improvement and he doesn’t take any of them for granted.
That said, he’s definitely a fast learner. He listens very carefully when you talk about the game, and I have a feeling that he is constantly visualizing the game while you talk, “seeing” in his head whether or not what you’re saying is applicable, imagining how he would use it, etc. That probably goes a long way towards how he’s able to integrate what he learns so quickly.