Trainer’s School: Lesson Two- Phase Shifts and the Attack Triangle
Earn Nia’s praise by playing successfully around these mechanics
This is part two 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!
In my Pokkén Primer article, I had already discussed the two core mechanics of the game, within the context of why they made Pokkén such a good beginner-friendly fighting game. In Lesson Two of Trainer’s School, I’ll be talking about Phase Shifts and the Attack Triangle at greater length- how they function, why they matter, and finding the extra layers of depth within the system.
Lesson 2.1: Phase Shifts
I’ve gone over this before, but even people only vaguely familiar with Pokkén as a spectator experience likely recognize the Phase Shift mechanic. Matches begin in Field Phase, the 3D arena gameplay that may remind players of Bandai Namco’s licensed anime titles like Naruto Ultimate Ninja Storm or the more recent My Hero Academia brawlers. Given the team that worked on Pokkén is the same team that developed Tekken, you would expect Field Phase to take after some of that series’ traits, and in a way it does since you can sidestep and maneuver around your opponent’s attacks. This is the more ‘footsies’ or ‘neutral’ oriented gameplay mode. Think about a typical match in Street Fighter: Ryu and Ken begin the match by feeling each other out, poking with moves like standing light or crouching medium, with the occasional Hadoken thrown out every now and again. Eventually, after successful walking and blocking forward, Ken will punish Ryu’s next whiffed standing light with a big Shoryuken, and as a result, he’ll win the advantage. This is the same general gameplan being adhered to in Field Phase, only with a somewhat larger reliance on using projectiles to get in. While the goal is to score a Phase Shift eventually, most zoner-type characters tend to feel very comfortable in this Phase.
In much the same way, when you or your opponent ‘win’ Field Phase, the gameplay switches to the 2D-oriented combat of Duel Phase. Duel Phase is clearly the more traditional Street Fighter-style gameplay, with a focus on combos and big damage. Your moves in Duel Phase are different than the ones you were using in Field Phase- instead of throwing projectiles with Y and pressing forward with Homing Attacks, now your light and heavy attacks all link together to do devastating damage. Most non-zoner characters tend to thrive in this Phase, since they get access to the better tools in their kit. Winning Duel Phase usually means getting in your opponent’s face and keeping them locked down against the wall until you earn your Phase Shift.
When you win a Phase, you usually score a knockdown and crank your Burst Meter up, which makes you more suited to continue pressing the advantage. But what causes a Phase Shift?
1. In Field Phase, successfully landing all hits of your Homing Attack will trigger a Phase Shift. Certain projectiles and autocombos will also trigger a Phase Shift.
2. In Duel Phase, a 21-hit combo or a successful Burst Attack will trigger a Phase Shift. Certain big hits will also trigger a Phase Shift.
3. All normal grabs and some command grabs will trigger a Phase Shift in either Phase.
Notice that I said “certain projectiles and autocombos” and “certain big hits,” neither of which are very specific terms. This is because the real reason for Phase Shifts is an invisible property known as Phase Shift Points, hereafter referred to as PSP (not like the doomed handheld.) Each player has a PSP counter, and when their PSP hits 12, they’ll score a Phase Shift. These ‘certain hits’ that are triggering Phase Shifts are really just hits that bring your PSP to 12 after a few confirms. Likewise, what’s really happening when you throw someone into a Phase Shift is that your throw is bringing your PSP all the way to 12.
An invisible counter only known to people who’ve labbed the data or studied a Google Docs spreadsheet can be a turnoff to some players, but I promise you: you do not actually need to be counting PSP even at high levels of play. Take it from me, a top player in this game- I’ve been playing Scizor for some 500 hours without taking into account the individual PSP of each move I do. PSP is something that is very easy to intuit, and being aware of its existence really only puts a face to a name more than anything.
Having said that, keeping track of PSP can be important for certain characters and playstyles that rely on optimized combos and damage output. Take Gardevoir, for instance- a zoner who thrives in Field. While she can also do a lot of damage with her setplay and keep-away in Duel, a particularly obnoxious Gardevoir can keep her opponent in Field for an entire round if she wants to. Keeping track of PSP is also important when optimizing combos, especially if you’re a character like Gengar or Mewtwo who needs to maximize meter gain.
Something that is indeed important to remember regardless of if you’re actually keeping track of PSP is that Burst Mode activation will reset the PSP counter for both players to zero. This can come in handy if you’re being pressured by your opponent but you don’t want to exit the Phase you’re currently in- you can Burst to get your opponent off of you, heal a bit of damage back, reset PSP, and get a chance to exert some pressure yourself! Likewise, if you’re the one who’s been keeping your opponent oppressed, you can intentionally reset your combo and then Burst to keep your opponent locked down in the Phase you’re currently in.
So that’s the ins and outs of Phase Shifting in a nutshell. Phase Shifts mainly teach the player about the neutral game, how to win advantage, and how to keep pressing that advantage. Field Phase is largely comprised of footsies-heavy gameplay, and after scoring a Phase Shift/hard knockdown, you can begin your okizeme/setplay in Duel Phase, further limiting your opponent’s options. Due to the hard reset nature of Phase Shifting, this allows the cycle to reward the winning player without being completely oppressive to the losing one.
Lesson 2.2: The Attack Triangle
The Attack Triangle is one of the most derided mechanics by players who are unfamiliar with the title or only aware of it as a spectator experience. While one could argue that it is indeed a manner of rock-paper-scissors tactical gameplay, the system still has a lot of depth to it.
On the surface level, the Attack Triangle functions as follows: translucent and red normal attacks (hereafter ‘normals’) beat the green-colored grabs or throws. Next, grabs beat the blue-colored armored ‘counter attacks,’ and they also traditionally beat blocks. Finally, counter attacks all beat normals. Every character in the game has a grab (Y+B) and a counter attack (X+A.) The standard counter attack has frame 1 armor activation and can be charged. Taking some slight inspiration from the original RPGs, you can score critical hits when you play around the Attack Triangle successfully. Crits award you bonus damage and fill your Burst meter faster.
The dichotomy here is very clear. Since counter attacks are essentially a frame one reversal, you may be tempted to use them all the time; however, overzealous counters can be trumped by grabs; furthermore, baited grabs in misread situations can be punished by normals. At first glance, it would seem as though Pokkén’s meta is mainly based on scoring good reads. However, there are numerous ways to circumvent the Attack Triangle. Learning how to do so requires in-depth knowledge of your character while also recognizing your opponent’s options and habits.
One of the biggest and most universal options for turning the Attack Triangle on its head is the counter pierce. The game will recognize that a counter pierce has occurred by awarding the player with the eponymous bonus, and the blue armor on the opposing player will be shattered. Scizor’s held 4X, String Shot, is a very powerful counter pierce tool that I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of- after a knockdown, I’ll use 4X to punish wakeup counters.
There is, however, a second class of armor that cannot always be pierced. Red armor is a property awarded to certain special moves and stances that are still classified as ‘normals.’ Pokémon in a red armor state can still take damage, but they will take absolutely no hitstun for ten hits. Red armor can be difficult to pierce in a single hit, and many red armored moves such as Blaziken’s Flare Blitz and Chandelure’s Overheat will pierce blue armored counters. Thusly, red armored normals are better off blocked or whiff punished- but if you’re particularly clutch and the red armor user is low on HP, a few hits may actually grant you the win!
There are also certain grabs that can be difficult to crush with normals, but these are fairly matchup specific. Still, it goes mainly to show that command grabs can often circumvent the Attack Triangle and can’t always be crushed or teched out of. Machamp’s EX Submission and Gengar’s Hypnosis are good examples of this. EX Submission actually has counter armor on the startup, meaning it can’t be crushed and you’ll actually lose the Attack Triangle exchange if you try to hit Machamp out of it! Hypnosis is also invincible from frame 5 to 18, which means a poorly timed option on wakeup (a meaty) or grab crush will lose to Gengar and get thrown.
Counter attacks are also not armored throughout the whole move, meaning there is a moment after the armor disappears and before the hitbox comes out that your opponent can be struck. While this is risky up close, projectiles that are highly active and multihit moves can technically ‘beat’ counter attacks in this way if they are properly timed. Gardevoir is a good example of a character who can set up traps that are difficult to armor through.
Circumventing the Attack Triangle is very matchup-specific, so I’m not going to inundate new players with this information very heavily. It’s simply important to recognize that the Attack Triangle is a crucial mechanic in Pokkén without being reductive about how easy it is to play around. The Attack Triangle teaches you a lot about your moves and your opponent’s options. Which options are good and bad in this situation? What can I expect from my opponent? What properties do my moves have? This is a key concept that can even carry over successfully into other fighting games.
And that’s a cap on Lesson Two of Trainer’s School! Hopefully you’re more familiar with how the main Pokkén mechanics function in a way that’s not super intimidating. The next lesson will be centered around cancels, with an emphasis on the most important technique in the game: Counter Attack Dash Cancelling!