AKA: Everything You Need For Combo Creation
This is part nine of a series of written guides on Pokkén Tournament Deluxe for Nintendo Switch. I’ve always loved this game and I’ve wanted to give back to the community and generate more interest in it. I’ll be creating more guides like this in the future and I hope this gets new players invested in the fighting game that taught me about fighting games. If you would like to try out Pokkén Tournament Deluxe, and learn more information about the game, be sure to check out the community Discord!
This week, we’re kicking off a new series within Trainer’s School that is designed to break down each character in the cast so new players have a starting point for learning their main. Or, at least, we were supposed to. I had promised the Blaziken article by this weekend, but as I was writing it I started to realize there were a few pieces of information that I hadn’t explained yet. This is in part because this information is not entirely unique to Pokkén, and also in part because it was more complicated information that is usually only used or referenced when studying outside of the game. Pokkén in particular is somewhat behind other titles in the sense that its training mode does not have a frame data counter or a hitbox viewer- however, it DOES have a toggle that allows people to see when animations begin and end. That being said, the following breakdown is going to be important when you, as a new player, inevitably begin to learn the more intimate aspects of a fighting game, or at the very least of your character.
This article will go over the following topics: Numpad notation, frame data, frame advantage, and damage scaling. Understanding numpad notation will allow you to read movelists and combo routes, and learning the numpad notations for your moves will help you communicate in shorthand. Understanding frame data will allow you to understand frame advantage, which will help you figure out which moves link into each other for combos and which moves are unsafe in certain situations. Understanding damage scaling will teach you why combo optimization is important, and in Pokkén specifically it will show you how to abuse the wall for big combo damage. Simply put, putting all of these topics together will allow you to read movelists, combo guides, and execute your own combos.
Also, this might be jumping ahead of myself, but since I’m more familiar with Scizor than the rest of the cast, I’ll refer to him often for examples. If you were planning on learning that character, you can probably cut ahead of the class a little bit by the time I finally get to his guide.
Lesson 9.1: Numpad notation
Numpad notation is probably the easiest one here to understand, although it can look intimidating at first glance. That’s not surprising, since it’s kind of like learning a new language, and even old FGC heads have a rough time with it. The reason we use numpad notation is because it’s easy to reference (nearly everyone has a numpad on their PC keyboard,) it transcends language barriers, and it’s easier to understand than indicating stance or motion acronyms. Older players who got used to saying things like QCF.HP (quarter circle forward Heavy Punch) or cr.MK (crouching Medium Kick) don’t really care much for the adjustment to 236HP or 2MK, but it ultimately benefits everyone reading movelists.
To get started… well, just refer to the numpad on your PC keyboard! The top row should read: 7 8 9. The middle row should read: 4 5 6. The bottom row should read: 1 2 3. I’ll provide a handy dandy guide for reference as well. Now imagine a controller’s D-pad or a joystick superimposed over the numpad. Five would be in the center of the D-pad, 6 would be the right directional input, 4 would be the left, 8 would be the up, and 2 would be the down. For example, in Duel Phase, Scizor 5A (simply not pressing any directional input and the A button) would be Swords Dance, 6A (forward and A) would be Metal Claw, 2A would be Bullet Punch, and 4A (backward and A) would be U-turn. 8Y (up on the D-pad and the Y button) is a universal anti-air button that every character can use in Duel Phase.
Numpad notation is useful when reading inputs for 2D combat, but in Field Phase, we have to switch to a simpler notation based purely on the directional inputs. When in Field Phase, up on the D-pad is forward or simply f, left and right are combined as side inputs or simply s (this is because side inputs have no differences besides the direction you perform them) and down inputs are back or simply b. In Field Phase, n.A (no directions held and A) is Scizor’s Swords Dance, f.A is Metal Claw and b.A is U-turn.
Learning to read inputs this way will help you in other titles too. Pokkén has none of the typical fighting game motions like quarter circles or dragon punches, but you would commonly see the former written in numpad notation as 236 and the latter as 623. In Guilty Gear, a common input for supers is half circle back then immediately forward, or 632146. There’s also some more indepth notation to represent particular situations, such as j or jc to indicate a jump or a jump cancel during a combo, secondary brackets  to represent hold-charge moves, and W! to indicate a wallsplat.
The rest of this gets a bit more complicated from here on out, but hopefully it’ll help you understand all of the values you’ll see when you open certain documents while studying your character. Of course, we won’t go into the intricacies of what everything means here, lest you be burdened with too much knowledge all in one go.
Lesson 9.2: Frame data
Fighting games are displayed at a framerate of 60 frames per second. A frame is a unit of animation, a terminology derived from when traditional animation would literally move frame-by-frame, from one image to the next, in order to create the illusion of movement and progression. Many animations in fighting games begin and end in less than a second of animation, and fighting game rounds can often be over in less than a minute. For reasons you can likely infer, this is why players generally value things like high quality displays, lagless online, and machines that don’t crap out on them while rendering the game- if even a few frames are dropped, you could end up losing your input and doing the wrong thing at the worst possible moment. Fighting games are fast and many precise inputs may even be “frame-perfect,” needing to be performed correctly within an incredibly small number of frames to be successful. We’ll talk about just-frames later in character-specific documents, but those are excellent examples of frame-perfect inputs.
A character’s frame data refers to all of the different intricacies of the timing of their moves. This can specifically refer to how long it takes for the move to begin (the startup frames,) how long the hitbox is out for (the impact frame,) how long it takes for the animation to end (the endlag,) and when is the earliest you can act out of the animation (the first actionable frame.) There is a great big Google Doc for the Pokkén frame data that is probably one of the most useful documents to study in this game.
When we open this document and navigate to a character (look at the tabs at the bottom of the page,) the columns we mainly care about are the Impact, Block, and Hit columns. This shows you the impact frames and the frame advantage of each move. The Google Doc has a glossary for anything specific you may not understand, but if you see an X in the Hit D or Hit F columns it’s because that move doesn’t exist in that corresponding Phase, and thus has no data.
Lesson 9.3: Frame advantage
Let’s look at Scizor’s Bullet Punch series, which are moves he can use in Duel Phase by pressing 1A, 2A, and 3A. Each input corresponds to a different range- 1A Bullet Punch hits right in front of Scizor, 2A hits at a medium range, and 3A hits at the furthest range. According to Scizor’s page on the document, 1A Bullet Punch has an impact frame of i11- this makes Scizor’s 1A one of the fastest moves in the game! Frame data in Pokkén is universalized, and the fastest moves in this game are always going to be i11. With some unique exceptions, you can even see by scanning through the document that most moves are designed with incremental impact frame data, ascending from i11, to i15, i17, i19, all the way to the slowest moves being i27 or more. Anyway, let’s go back to Bullet Punch. The 1A version is i11, meaning it’s the first to hit, but it’s also -20, meaning if someone blocks it, Scizor will be stuck in a whopping 20 frames of recovery lag before he can move again. The blocking opponent can then simply mash any of their moves with an impact frame of i11 through i19 and score a huge punish.
This is called frame advantage, and is a huge reason why knowing frame data is so important. Moves are referred to as unsafe if they can be punished consistently on whiff or on block. Look at the other two versions of Bullet Punch: 2A hits on frame 19 and is -16, and 3A hits on frame 27 but is only -12. This means that on block, 2A and 3A are harder to punish than 1A, especially when you consider the distance that you are blocking the Bullet Punch at. The tradeoff is, since it takes nearly a third of a second or more for 2A and 3A to hit the opponent, this means that these versions of moves are extremely whiff punishable. If I were to misjudge the distance and mash 3A instead of 2A, my opponent could dash up and press pretty much any attack button they wanted and beat my ass. On the other hand, while 1A is hard to whiff punish, it is very easy to block punish for the reasons described above. This is generally why Bullet Punch is usually only used in specific situations, like poking from afar or for crushing throws.
Likewise, moves are referred to as safe if they leave you with more frame advantage than your opponent. This could mean that you are “plus,” i.e. able to act before your opponent does. Scizor’s 4X and 4[X] are both +4 on block, meaning that Scizor can act four frames before his opponent does. If both Scizor and his opponent mash an i11 move after Scizor lands 4X or 4[X] on block, Scizor’s i11 move will hit first. However, safe can also mean that you can protect yourself after your move lands on block. For instance, 5YY is -4 on block, but remember that there are no moves in Pokkén that are i3. Also remember that block and counter armor both come out on frame 1. This means that even if Scizor lands 5YY on his opponent’s block, his opponent doesn’t have enough time to punish it with a normal move.
Understanding your frame data is also important for figuring out your combo links. Let’s look at Scizor’s Hover Dash 6Y, sometimes also written as 66Y or h.Y due to the unique Hover Dash Stance. 66Y is -12 and special cancellable, meaning on hit or block you can mash a special/Poké Move like Metal Claw right after. If you look at Metal Claw Swords (6AA with a stack of Swords Dance up,) you can see that this move is only -4 on block and a whopping 24 frames on hit. Since 66Y 6AA is not negative enough to be punished on block, and leaves the opponent in 24 frames of hitstun, this string is a safe combo starter. (Remember that hitstun and blockstun are the states in which you cannot move while being hit or while blocking a move.)
On hit with 66Y 6AA, we can pick any move i23 or faster and continue the combo. On block, we likely can’t get punished due in equal parts to the pushback properties of the attack and the fact that no move in this game is faster than i11. 66Y 6AA will usually only get whiff punished if you start it from an unsafe distance to your opponent and they throw out a projectile, although even then they still might get hit by the Swords Dance stack on 6AA. To keep the combo going after 66Y 6AA, Scizor will hit the opponent with the 6YX Poké Combo, since it’s i15 and will launch the opponent. Now that they’re in the air, Scizor needs to use fast moves that will prevent the opponent from following, so he’ll juggle them forward with 4Y, 2Y, then end the combo with 1A Y+B- Bullet Punch Bug Bite.
In numpad notation, this combo would be displayed as 66Y 6AA 6YX 4Y 2Y 1A Y+B.
There’s still one last thing we have to go over before we wrap things up here, though. If you’ve been looking at the Damage column of the frame data document, or have been experimenting in the training room (good for you either way!) you’ll know that 66Y does 50 points of damage and Metal Claw Swords does 94 damage. However, when you combined that into the 66Y 6AA combo starter, it only did 124 damage rather than the full 144! Metal Claw Swords also seems to suffer from this if you break it down. Metal Claw by itself does 80 damage, and if you were to space properly so that only the Swords part of Metal Claw Swords hit, it would do 38 damage. So why does Metal Claw Swords only do 94 damage instead of 118 damage? Something fishy’s going on here, wouldn’t you say?
Lesson 9.4: Damage scaling
Damage scaling is the property in many fighting games where the subsequent moves in a combo will do less damage than if they were by themselves. This is to prevent combos from doing absurd amounts of damage as they get longer. In Pokkén, moves have their own varying percentages of scaling penalties, but in general light moves will scale less than heavies. Fortunately for us, we also have a big Google Doc that has the damage scaling for every character and their moves! If we look at this document and scroll to Scizor’s 66Y, we would see that it has a 20% damage scaling penalty. This means that the subsequent move in the combo will deal 20% less damage. At this point, the math gets kind of complicated and you don’t have to keep these values in mind, but you should remember that in Pokkén, the damage scaling caps at 90%.
So what’s the point of combos then? If the individual hits of a combo do more damage outside of the combo than as a part of it, why don’t we just go for big hits all the time? Well, as you’ve probably seen, not all of the little individual hits of a combo are safe, so they often don’t have use as anything other than combo extenders. Furthermore, this is often the only way to guarantee certain hits, like that Bug Bite at the end of the BnB I just taught you. Bullet Punch Bug Bite is not a true combo despite Bug Bite being a special cancellable follow-up to Bullet Punch. In fact, Bug Bite will only land on an opponent after Bullet Punch on a successful crit, if Scizor is in Burst, or if the opponent is in the air or being juggled. Hence, we had to land the 66Y 6AA combo starter, then pop the opponent into the air with 6YX. We then extended the combo a little bit with 4Y 2Y for some damage optimization, then landed the 1A Y+B. Since Bug Bite has useful properties- lifesteal, Synergy Gauge steal, and buff steal!- this BnB allows us to safely earn that powerful combo ender, and it still does 206 damage, which is not too shabby at all.
Understanding damage scaling is mainly only useful for the real lab rats who love experimenting with combos in training mode, but I included the explanation here because inevitably it will be something you will learn just by observing damage long enough. Damage scaling generally means that trying to figure out combos is only useful if the damage you get out of it is substantial or there’s some other reward, which is why newbie players should stick to small but useful BnB combos before branching out and experimenting.
For the sake of discussion, there are a few more Pokkén-specific damage scaling properties that are important to consider when creating and optimizing combos.
1. Remember that in general, while heavy hits are way unsafe, your reward for landing them is less damage scaling. Scizor has a powerful BnB with three different starter moves to begin the route: 66XX, 5XX, and 1/2/3AA. The 66XX route will do the most damage, but since it’s -16 it’s very unsafe to begin the route this way. The 5X route will do a little less damage as it is a relatively safe heavy (only -4 on block) but the Bullet Punch Swords route will do the least amount of damage since you began from a light move.
2. There is an inherent 10% damage scaling penalty for air hits. This means air combos and juggle combos will have a 10% damage scaling penalty applied as soon as the opponent is hit in the air.
3. There is a 20% damage scaling bonus for the second hit onward after a wallsplat. This means that you do 20% more damage per hit during a combo with a successful wallsplat, so combos against the wall can be devastating.
4. There is a similar 20% damage scaling bonus on a critical hit, with a subsequent 10% damage scaling bonus for the rest of the combo. All this really means is that combos started with a crit will do big damage.
And that about wraps everything up! The lesson plan was unexpected and fairly long, but I didn’t want to have to pause and explain new concepts every time I ran into something relatively minor during a character guide. Remember the following, in summary: Numpad notation is how you read and type fighting game inputs when communicating with other players. Frame data is the list of mathematical values that determine how fast a fighting game moves. Frame advantage is the concept that helps you determine which moves are safe or not, and which moves can link into each other for combos. Damage scaling is the balancing mechanic that prevents combos from being absurdly powerful.
Now that you have all of this put together, you will be able to understand the information presented to you in an indepth character guide, and you will also be able to experiment with your character’s tools and combos once you’ve gotten your feet wet with them. These concepts can even carry over into learning other fighting games, so even though this guide is Pokkén-centric, it can be applied to any other game you’re trying to play. The next article will, for real, be the first part of our Pokkén Tournament character guides- starting with the Blaze Pokémon, Blaziken!
EDIT (1/3/2021) While the Blaziken guide was in fact the next released guide at the time of initial publishing, you can also find the next major Trainer’s School lesson here. Lesson Ten discusses some esoteric move properties, namely height properties and just frames.