The Art of Wushu The truth about mind games and timing
Once upon a time, I was teaching a friend how to duel in Age of Wushu. She was easily frustrated by things, and she expressed to me that she felt as if everyone had superhuman reflexes compared to her. Because she was a beginner, I couldn't just convey all the complexity of mind games to her. Explaining all the different options (beyond the basics), weighting them, and explaining the opportunity costs of each was not really an option. She was having trouble even with slightly advanced stuff (which is totally normal), but she also lacked some of the natural "killer instinct" that allows some of my other friends to duel.

At the same time, I had been fighting Zyden, one of the most skilled duelists in English-speaking Age of Wushu. He actually does have near-superhuman reflexes. Earlier that day, though, I had hit him with a very slow-animating feint that he normally interrupts with a stun. Normally, his reactions are superhuman, but there are some times when they aren't. It's not a matter of "off day," either. He just wasn't prepared for me to do what I did right at that moment.

I told my friend, "Outside of a moment, you can only react." Immediately afterwards, I realized just how important those words were.

Oh no, Street Fighter again

Many years ago, I was playing Street Fighter. I was fighting against a number of opponents, and they would interrupt me out of everything I did. The matches I played against these people were outright embarrassing. They would interrupt everything, often with high-risk moves like dragon punches or super moves that are unsafe if done predictably. I couldn't really understand how they were guessing right so often at the time, and it took a long time to figure out exactly why.

I read guides, studied, and learned from some great players. In time, I realized that there were key moments in a fight when someone was most likely to try to attack, and against intermediate players it is a relatively safe bet that they will try to attack in virtually all of these times. Experts were using this knowledge against me, and their superior sense of when these moments were gave them the edge they needed to utterly destroy me. These moments in time are colloquially called "critical points" in the fighting game community.

Since I had taken my fighting game expertise with me to Age of Wushu, I carried an understanding of these moments in time and had been using them since early in my career to exploit people in duels. There are simply times where people want to try to make plays, and I knew just how to take advantage of that because it had been done to me so many years before.

The Art of Wushu The truth about mind games and timing
Finding the moments

In Wushu, critical points occur immediately after someone acts. A basic list of critical points might go something like this:
  • After an attack hits or is blocked
  • Immediately after a slide or airdash (for the sliding or airdashing player)
  • After the player is recovering from a knockdown or stun
  • After a player hits air ("whiffs" in fighting game lingo) with an attack (usually a feint)
At any of these times, at least one fighter is heavily encouraged to attack. After an attack is blocked, it's just a natural instinct to attack back. In some cases, the defender just gets free damage, but in a lot of cases, both fighters recover at the same time and no one has an advantage. The attacker will tend toward wanting to block, since he's expended a useful cooldown, while the defender will tend toward wanting to attack. In the big scheme of predictive actions, this leads an experienced attacker to feint to beat the defender's block. This results in a giant predictive chain of mindgames that can go on endlessly until the moment is defused when a second goes by with nobody doing anything.

Lunges are an extremely important case in Age of Wushu because they magnify critical points. They force both attacker and defender to lose access to their actions for a brief moment while the lunge animates, and both fighters usually recover at exactly the same time. After waiting out the lunge animation (whether it hits or misses), both fighters have had time to ponder their next moves. Immediately after a lunge is blocked, someone almost always tries to do something.

What you ultimately do in these moments is ultimately up to you. You may try to artificially create moments to cause your opponent to react, and then punish his expected reaction. Simply knowing that they exist is a big step forward in becoming a master.

The Art of Wushu The truth about mind games and timing
But outside the moment...

At other times in a match, there is a sense of tension. Both fighters are like tightly coiled snakes, waiting for something to happen to release a deadly strike. Someone has to do something at these times.

There is no point in trying to react to something like a lunge. They activate instantly and overpower an opponent's attack, so they cannot be reacted to. The aftermath of a lunge creates a critical point, but the initiation is impossible to beat. While this makes lunges good to use in the time between critical points (since they are reasonably safe), they are also bad because they have somewhat long cooldowns and are a key tool needed to defeat enemy attacks. If you know the enemy will feint, it doesn't matter if your only response is to use a filler. You are better off sliding away or otherwise escaping the moment. Whether you want to use your lunge to initiate mindgames is mostly a matter of the matchup you are facing.

Other non-lunge attacks have startup windows, and it is quite possible to react in time to beat them. Feints are the most notorious of these. Feints generally have startup times in excess of 250ms, well within the reaction speeds of most human players. If you are specifically looking for the startup animation of a feint, you can react to it in a near-superhuman fashion. If your opponent's main mindgame options are feint or lunge (and obviously block), you can worry yourself only with looking for his feint.

If you have a very fast-animating attack, you can also use that to create or bait moments. Wind-Chasing Blade's ranged slash has a very fast animation that is impossible to react to outside of lunge distance. However, if you do it with the right spacing, you can bait a reaction just outside the range where you can be punished, which will allow you to punish or otherwise react to your opponent's attempt to punish.

Some feints are not reactable. Some simply hit before they start animating, though you can sometimes read them by watching to see if your opponent releases his guard. Some are just too fast to react to. In order to defeat these, you must read the events that lead up to the enemy's feint and predict it. Don't allow someone with this kind of feint to get into range without resistance.

Prediction and reaction are concepts that are universal, whether in fighting games, Age of Wushu, or even in real-life tournament martial arts. Understand the limits of when you can predict things, and look to react to likely threats at other times. Perfect these things and you can become a true master of the Art of Wushu.

Age of Wushu is a wonderous place, full of hidden secrets, incredible vistas and fearsome martial arts. Join Patrick as he journeys through China, revealing the many secrets of this ancient land. The Ming Dynasty may be a tumultuous time, but studying The Art of Wushu will give you the techniques you need to prevail.

This article was originally published on Massively.