Melee's Ouroboros: The Spirit of Red Marth
The first known ouroboros -
- the snake that eats its own tail - was found on the tomb of Tutankhamen in the 13th century B.C. For the Egyptians, it would represent renewal, repetition, and the eternal cycle of time (via the BBC)
The first known originator of Melee’s “20BC” movement - a movement to push the swordsman Marth’s meta to its theoretical peak - was found in 2003. Playing the red color, Ken “SephirothKen” Hoang will birth Melee’s ouroboros: the cycle of innovation, recontextualization, and perfection that eventually pushes Marth past what was ever thought possible. Eighteen years later, this cycle finds itself completed in the rise of Zain “Zain” Naghmi: a red Marth who revives both the perfectionist play and optimistic philosophy of Ken.
When I set out to create this article, I originally wanted to document a factual history on the development of Marth, a character I felt represented the progress of Melee as a whole. However, along the way, it became clear that his development was nonlinear. Certain techniques became prevalent, then later fell out of the competitive meta. Many of these discoveries didn’t fall out of usage due to unviability; they were simply forgotten, lost to time. An interesting phenomenon began to emerge out of this: old, nearly forgotten ideas suddenly returning to prominence in the context of a more advanced meta. Instead of top Marth players adding every previously-known technique to their arsenal, they chose some of the older ones to perfect - while adding new ones of their own.
In trying to understand Marth’s nonlinear growth pattern, it became apparent that there were three types of growth in competitive play: innovation, recontextualization, and perfection. Each of these can be found in the three “eras” of Marth. The beginning of Marth is the era of innovation, followed by the middle era of recontextualization, and ending in the late era of perfection. Starting around 2019, a new era of Marth emerges, one where the cycle loops back around to innovation.
ERA 1: INNOVATION (2001-2009)
The first era is defined by innovation, or the discovery of a new usage for an option. Melee’s quintessential red Marth, Ken, would be the chief innovator. Ken’s usage of the dash repeatedly to move around the opponent, or dashdancing, would come to shape the way Marth players chose to use dash. Another important discovery Ken made at this time was the usage of grab as a combo move, leading to the rise of “chaingrabbing,” one of Marth’s most important punish tools. More importantly than just the raw techniques would be the shift in Marth philosophy:
In the early days of Melee, what was your thought process behind dashdancing? What do you think you were able to see in it at this time that other Marth players weren’t?
“Everyone was bent on wavedashing, I just felt like with the wavedash length you could only do so much. Dashdancing came from 64, I was a big fan of dashdancing in 64 to dodge and attack.” - Ken
During the rise of Ken, many Marth players relied heavily on slow, heavy moves. Ken was the first to begin the shift of Marth away from the philosophy of “hitting hard” to “avoiding damage.”
Dashdancing, possibly Ken’s most important innovation, is both a byproduct of this philosophy and a major reason why the philosophy became prevalent. In an early meta, each discovery becomes groundbreaking𑁋making individual philosophies and advancements all the more contagious. Ken and Isai’s philosophy of dodging attacks influenced thousands of Marth players into playing lower risk styles. The next Marth main to rise to the top would show just how compelling philosophies could be in the early era of innovation.
How do you feel Mew2King’s approach to Marth is different than yours?
“He used all the dashdancing moves, and tried to do it better. The thing is, he tried to perfect edgeguarding with Marth, and that’s the major difference between us. His edgeguard is better than mine, and he picked up the other stuff from me.” - Ken
If Jason “Mew2King” Zimmerman is one thing, he is a perfectionist. Painstakingly labbing out all of the character’s frame data by hand, Mew2King’s goal was total reform of Marth’s punish game. His main innovation would come through this mindset: edgeguarding. Edgeguarding in Melee is a complicated thing; it requires you to prevent the opponent from recovering by covering options one-by-one, never committing to the wrong move, and having full knowledge of all of the opponent’s possible choices. Mew2King’s personal philosophy of knowing everything about Melee was perfect for the job, allowing him to dissect the game scientifically in a way that nobody had done previously. His ideals were just as contagious as Ken’s: soon, there would be an entire generation of Marth players practicing chaingrabs, edgeguards, and punishes until they were perfect.
At the same time in Texas, Wesley “FASTLIKETREE” Hunt would quietly begin to shape Marth’s metagame. Although he managed to take a set off of Isai at his first major, he never truly reached the same level of prominence as Ken or Mew2King. Despite his relative obscurity, he would become one of the most important Marth players of all time - he would be the one to show Austin “Arc” Conley how to pivot.
To the Melee community, Marth is generally not regarded as a technical character. None of the techniques that Marth players utilized at this time required very precise inputs, and the ones that did - such as chaingrabbing - weren’t nearly as difficult as what other characters were doing. Arc, and FASTLIKETREE by extension, would change that. Pivoting involves inputting a move during the single frame Marth is standing up during his turnaround animation. It requires absolute perfection: in a game measured by frames, a single frame is the tightest possible window for a technique. Not satisfied at being the only Marth to be able to pivot consistently, Arc found practical, real-world applications for pivoting that are still used today.
ERA 2: RECONTEXTUALIZATION (2009-2017)
The second era is defined by recontextualization, or the increase in usage of an old option in light of new developments. These developments usually stem out of either a philosophical shift that makes an old option more valued in the mind of the Marth players or a technical discovery that makes the old option more objectively valuable. Kevin “PewPewU” Toy, Mew2King, Tony “Taj” Jackson, and Kevin “PPMD” Nanney are the primary figures of this era, figuring out new ways to use the old tools gifted by the innovators.
This era can be separated into two categories. From 2009 to around 2012, Marth’s punish game was refined beyond what had previously been thought possible. Two of our four figures representing this era stand out here: Taj and Mew2King.
In the Melee community, Taj plays a strange role. He is the best Mewtwo player in the world, a master of the fundamentals who was able to push the bottom-tier character to a shocking 17th place at Apex 2010. However, the moment he is most famous for in the community is not his Mewtwo at all.
Taj’s moment of glory would arrive at GENESIS 2, one of Melee’s most influential tournaments of all time. Here, Taj managed third place𑁋in the process outplacing Juan “Hungrybox” Debiedma and Mew2King, two of the five “gods” of Melee. On this run, Taj participated in a legendary set that would become engraved into Melee’s history. On this run, Taj got four-stocked.
Loser’s Finals of GENESIS 2 would only end up being two games. After a historic beatdown by Joseph “Mang0” Marquez, Taj’s run would end in a forfeit. Yet, just by making it to that point, Taj would forever reshape the landscape of Marth. One of the aspects that makes this set so legendary isn’t just the fact that it was so one-sided; it was the fact that Taj had just previously beaten Mang0 in the winner’s side of that same bracket.
Mango would later describe this set as a set where he “got gimped twelve times” to lose. Although his comment is (mostly) in jest, it reveals a key philosophy shift that would come to define Marth in this era: the push to kill the opponent in one hit.
The core idea behind gimping is that you throw the opponent offstage and steal their recovery options, leaving them dead at extremely low percents. Even for the time, this style of punish was considered controversial: in a game that prides itself on the amount of skill needed to win, gimping is still viewed by many as a way for worse players to win versus better players. It is clear to see how many players find it frustrating; Taj kills Mang0 repeatedly at zero percent without much flash or style, gaining massive advantages while seemingly being outclassed.
As simple as it looks, this new style wasn’t the result of a single mind. Remember Mew2King’s goal of reforming Marth’s punish game? Taj is a byproduct of that contagious philosophy, using Mew2King’s innovative edgeguards and recontextualizing them to fit his goal of killing as efficiently as possible. His individual expression in the larger philosophy of the time led to his ability to master the gimp and win versus a player he was predicted to lose against.
Taj wasn’t the only player at the time using gimps and efficient edgeguards to take stocks far earlier than before. Mew2King, the other player pushing Marth’s punish in this era, had already started recontextualizing many of Ken’s old ideas - and bringing them to the next level.
Ken’s ability to chaingrab made fighting him on Final Destination feel difficult. Mew2King’s ability to chaingrab made fighting him on Final Destination feel impossible. His knowledge of what to do in every single followup at every single percent was unparalleled, and he would kill with one grab if he grabbed you - even without gimping. It didn’t help that he was the best in the world at gimping, too.
The second half of this era, starting in 2013, is marked by a shift away from the philosophies of Mew2King and Taj. No longer were Marth players satisfied by killing in a single hit. They wanted perfection - a playstyle to avoid taking hits entirely. If Ken’s ability to chaingrab was pushed to the theoretical maximum, then it was time to also push dashdancing to its theoretical maximum. The player to do that would be PPMD.
PPMD is a perfectionist. However, he is a distinctly different kind of perfectionist than Mew2King: whereas Mew2King’s goal was to understand everything about the game, PPMD’s goal was to understand everything about his opponent. To pursue this individual philosophy, he looked towards Ken’s initial innovation of dashdancing.
Ken had the right idea with using the dashdance to bait out attacks from the opponent. Yet, for PPMD, that wasn’t enough. He framed the dashdance itself as a tool for gathering information from the opponent. In recontextualizing the technique in this way, he was able to use it like nobody had before. His dashdance was threatening. It was aggressive, yet safe. PPMD’s goal with the dashdance was to understand how the opponent would react under the pressure of Marth advancing towards them, and to exploit their habits as they panic. It was an exploration of the psychological side of Melee, in a time where Marth players were focused on raw mastery of technique. His recontextualization of the dashdance would pay off: he would be the first Marth to ever take a set off of Adam “Armada” Lindgren, the best player in the world at the time.
Meanwhile, another player was preparing to shape the landscape of Melee to come. PewPewU, a NorCal Marth, was preparing to use a technique that none of the other Marth pros at the time had implemented at all. This technique did not come from Ken, nor did it come from Mew2King. It came from Arc and FASTLIKETREE - the innovator of the pivot.
Because FASTLIKETREE taught Arc the secrets of the pivot, because Arc chose to continue using and experimenting with a technique thought impossible to do consistently, PewPewU would make one of the biggest upsets of his career. Two years after PPMD beat Armada, at the same tournament, playing the same color, with even the same name - PewPewU would use the pivot to beat Hungrybox.
Historically, Jigglypuff was considered a weak matchup for Marth. Hungrybox had generally beaten every single Marth in his path, and it was thought that Marth had no way of consistently killing her. Many Marth players had given up and switched to Fox for the matchup. In the face of this daunting task, PewPewU set out to change the way Marth players approached the matchup. PPMD’s increased focus on dashdancing helped make the neutral more equal, but there was still the issue of finding kills. Pivoting would change that. After Marth throws Jigglypuff, there is a period where she is left helplessly tumbling through the air.
From this, Marth players at the time went for mix-ups and mind game dependent strings, hoping that the Jigglypuff player would mess up. However, if you pivot, you are able to get true kill confirms off of both of Marth’s main combo throws. PewPewU’s recontextualization of the pivot as a punish tool would inspire a generation of Marth players to learn about and begin practicing the technique. Once the pivot was implemented, many of Marth’s hardest matchups became either even or Marth-favored - allowing Marth players to go farther in brackets and begin multiplying in number.
ERA 3: PERFECTION (2017-2019)
The third era is defined by perfection, or the usage of an option with all developments incorporated. This is the stage in which players attempt to blend together all discovered usages of Marth’s tools to gain an advantage over the competition. In this era, the players that succeed are well-rounded in every category. They have the intentional dashdances of PPMD, the refined punishes of Mew2King, and the pivots of Arc and PewPewU. Marth philosophy is less deviant from the norm on average, and focuses more on consistent implementation of all of the known tools. One player defines this era: Zain, the red Marth who rises to the top and completes the cycle that Ken started.
Zain’s first big win would come in 2016, in a surprise upset vs Justin “Plup” McGrath. However, his rise to glory wouldn’t begin until a year later. In 2017, after beating William “Leffen” Hjelte at Smash n’ Splash 3, he just… kept winning. It would only take him two years to absolutely dominate the field, winning major after major. At every tournament he attends, he is predicted to win. Eighteen years after Ken’s reign of dominance, a new red Marth would appear - shockingly similar in spirit.
Although Zain’s gameplay is refined in every category, one piece stands out: his dashdance. Seemingly effortless, he is able to bait out bad attacks and punish immediately. There is a certain beauty to how easy he makes it look.
Here is where the ouroboros bites its tail: Ken brought simple dashdancing to the table in a time where punish was the meta. Zain brought simple dashdancing back to the table after years of a community-wide focus on the punish.
What did you believe the future of Marth would be? Is it similar or different to today?
“When I first played Marth, I thought that if you mastered his range and dashdances, that nobody would be able to touch you. If you could be consistent and get your punishes, then you should be able to win anything. I still believe that today.” - Ken
Zain is not the only Marth attempting to perfect what is known; a wave of new Marth players now litter the top 20. However, starting in 2019, something strange began to occur in Zain’s gameplay. Many of the players around him were regularly pushing him to his limits - Mang0 being his primary rival. He began dropping sets to players ranked lower than him. One thing became clear: perfection of what is already known would not be enough if he wanted to reign.
He needed to innovate.
ERA 4: INNOVATION (2019-)
If you look at the list of things that Ken did that no other Marth had done before, it becomes immediately apparent how he was able to dominate the scene. He was new. He was fresh. But that didn’t mean he wasn’t already a master of what existed before him: he studied combo videos from other Marth players, he learned the basics, and he was consistent with every technique that existed at the time. In other words, he had already attained a level of perfection in his gameplay before innovating.
Innovation isn’t born out of nowhere. It is the result of a player trying to find an advantage anywhere they can, and realizing that the tools they have are not enough. It is the result of not only looping back around to the tail but extending the body of the ouroboros in the process.
Zain would find himself in this scenario. And, just like Ken, he would begin to innovate, to lengthen the body of Marth technique and theory. Perhaps the most known trick that Zain innovated was ledgecanceling, or canceling your aerials on the edge of a platform. This allowed him to get down from the air safer, to extend his combos in completely new ways, and to maintain a constant threat no matter where he is on the stage. This, along with being the first Marth to fully incorporate crouch-canceling into their gameplay, propelled him forward.
He perfected most known techniques, from powershielding projectiles to reflect them, to using pivots in both neutral and punish. And so, he began to dominate. In the online era of Melee, Zain was untouchable - winning nearly 80% of his games on Marth since April 2020. He routinely made top players look helpless - with a 7-5 record on Mang0, 2-1 record on Wizzrobe, and a collective 23-0 record on Ginger, SFAT, Plup, Hungrybox, and iBDW. (According to PG Stats data).
This move past perfection into innovation is the true result of someone that masters Melee’s ouroboros of meta development. It is also the connecting thread between past and present, Ken and Zain, allowing both to skyrocket past their contemporaries. They have a level of optimism in the character that keeps them pushing forward, with both believing that Marth is the best in the game. The spirit of the red Marth is the need to push a little bit harder, to perfect your technique, and to innovate past what is known.
That is the ouroboros of Melee: the renewal of the old, the refining of the new, and the cycle of growth that pushes players to the future.