On Sunday, Ginger had biggest victory of his career: a first place finish at Low Tide City at the Kalahari Resort in Texas. It involved defeating two of the South’s top players, SDJ and Magi, as well as beating longtime demigod Axe twice. Heading into Smash Summit 12 season, the win cements Ginger’s case as one of the strongest leading candidates outside of the expected invitees to be voted in.
@SsbmGinger just won his biggest Melee tournament yet! An incredible run and some excellent insight into how he changed his approach from Riptide to LTC to maximize his play through working on his mentality.
— Cale Michael (@XJustified) October 4, 2021
This showing was also much needed return to form for Ginger. Relative to his own standards, he had slumped over the past few months. At Riptide, Ginger’s 13th place came at the hands of KoDoRiN and, most significantly, Flash. Before that, Ginger had dominantly won Hold That L #6 and a Chicago weekly over Ben and Polish, but he also dealt with personal health issues that kept him from competing as much as he had been accustomed to.
The runner-up at this tournament, Axe, had a slightly less dramatic run to second place than his wild loser’s run to fifth place from Riptide. Although he lost to Ginger twice, these sets came in winners and grand finals. Outside of those two, Axe convincingly double eliminated KoDoRiN, beat bobby big ballz, survived a scare from Android 0, and whooped NoFluxes.
Just so you know, I totally acknowledge that the last result is barely noteworthy at all for someone of Axe’s caliber. At the same time, it had been so long since I had seen a high-level Ganondorf vs. Pikachu match, and frankly, the idea of Axe being challenged by the “villain of Chicagoland Melee” was way too funny. As I put it to my dear friend Ambisinister before the set, “I have never been more invested in the outcome of a match in Melee history.”
Let’s Talk About Axe
If it weren’t for Hungrybox’s decline in performances on rollback, Axe’s shift in results over the last two years would be the main storyline of 2020 to 2021 Melee. The greatest Pikachu player of all-time just hasn’t quite performed up to part with what many Melee fans have come to expect from him.
At the same time, this is nothing new for him. Anyone who’s familiar with Axe’s trends as a player would know that he typically goes through boom-bust cycles. In the past, top Ice Climbers and Sheik mains have given him headaches. Even before his shocking loss to Secrets, Axe was on the receiving end of one of Melee’s most forgotten historic upsets vs. R2DLiu, another Fox player who infamously spent months learning the matchup after losing to BonkCushy at a regional.
The story goes along the following lines: Axe slumps for a bit. Then, we wonder if the field has finally figured out Pikachu and a bunch of us talk about how Axe should switch to Falco (or in Ambisinister’s case, Fox) – right before Axe reminds everyone that he’s incredible at the game by obliterating some poor top Marth player, Mango, and Leffen at a tournament. So just how good is Axe right now?
In today’s column, I’m going to be taking a look at Axe over the last two years. I will be evaluating his results in three phrases: what he looked like before the pandemic on LAN, how Axe performed over rollback, and what he looks like now. After that, I will talk about where I see Axe within the broader international field and analyze what his potential return to glory looks like.
2019 was the best year for Axe in his long, unambiguously successful career. After years of being Melee’s greatest player to never win a major, he finally did it at Smash Summit 8 – and he did it all with Pikachu. This and a series of impressive second-place runs at majors were more than enough to give Axe a world No. 4 spot in his first ever Top 5 appearance on an MPGR. It was a great time to be an Axe fan. The sun was shining, the birds were chirping, and the Fox mains were watching the only top player to truly play the losing sides of multiple 6-4 matchups – let alone one or two – overcome them.
But frankly, the Fox mains themselves had put a lot of work into making that matchup sometimes look much worse than 6-4. At the start of 2020, Axe ran into Panda – the most random Melee player in the world – early at Genesis 7 and got worked before losing to Plup’s Fox for 33rd place. By placements, it was the worst performance by Axe at a supermajor since his inglorious 65th place exit from The Big House 6, but when you look at the bracket, it wasn’t that bad.
I lost 3 – 0 vs Plup.
Somehow I still feel like I can win and I felt like I was learning a lot. There's so much room for improvement.
I'm just happy to be playing in person again. I missed this feeling so much.
My fire for Melee is insanely strong rn. I can't wait to play more
— Tempo 🌩️I Axe (@TempoAxe) July 16, 2021
Axe proceeded to follow this performance up with a return to form at Smash Summit 9. Here, he proceeded to tear Zain’s heart out, as well as beat Spark, Fiction, aMSa, and Wizzrobe en route to fifth place. Although he lost to Mango, Plup, and Leffen, give his other victories at the tournament, you could hardly hold that against him.
According to PGStats, the only other documented and notable tournament for Axe before the pandemic came at the Arizona regional Settle It!, which happened six days before Genesis. Here, he dropped a somewhat shenanigan-filled set – one which temporarily involved secondaries on behalf of both players – to Schythed before blowing by the rest of the field in loser’s bracket, winning the runback in loser’s finals, and dismantling Spark twice in grand finals to win the event.
What did these three tournaments tell us about Axe? Not a lot. Outside of dropping a set to Panda and a local set, he boasted a 3-0 record against Spark, had beaten Top 10 or Top 10-trending players, and his only other “real” losses came to former supermajor champions. All things considered, he was still probably a Top 5 player, maybe Top 10 at worst.
During The Pandemic
Although I wouldn’t go as far to say that Melee couldn’t survive a pandemic, it was reasonable of people during the delay-based Netplay days to wonder how the community could keep its top competitors invested. The format of the game was nothing close to what CRT felt like, and most of Axe’s early online results tracked with our diminished expectations. Someone who beat Spark thrice in a row on LAN was suddenly struggling with him on Netplay, barely getting by A Rookie, and losing a Falco ditto to Traplord.
It seemed pretty clear that two things were at play: Axe wasn’t taking Netplay too seriously and Netplay itself was not a legitimate competitive format. When rollback came around, it wouldn’t have been out of the norm for smashers to expect a rejuvenated top competitive field with its greatest Pikachu player leading the pack.
That’s not what happened. Instead, what we saw from Axe for the rest of the year was nothing short of a step back from the player who looked capable of winning a major. Below I have listed his wins, losses, and placements at every notable post-rollback release tournament I could find within the PGStats database for 2020, as well as SCL. For the sake of keeping the data relevant for national fields, I have not included Wired Weekly Wednesday events, each of which Axe won handily over local fields.
|N/A||Double DQ, played Young Link|
|East Park Rollback||DannyPhantom
|DontTestMe||Loss to DontTestMe involved Young Link|
|Frame Perfect Series 2: Online||Cliche
|Set vs. DontTestMe was with Young Link|
|East Park Rollback 2||Android 0||Colbol
|Set with ALP involved winning with Pikachu on Game 1 and playing Marth for portions of the set|
|SCL Season 1 (cumulatively)||PewPewU
|Mango x 2
|Plup played Fox in their set and Axe picked Falco vs. Spark|
|Smash Summit 10 Online||Shroomed||Wizzrobe
|LACS 3||Blues Clues
It seemed like Axe was doing a bit better than he was on delay-based Netplay. To his credit, defeating Zain, the unofficial 2020 No. 1, was still a valuable feat. But just briefly looking at the results, Axe had clearly taken a step back against his peers. We hadn’t seen anything particularly ‘bad’ from him, but outside of beating Zain, every player who was formerly comparable to Axe in talent was beating him up. Mango, iBDW, Plup, Wizzrobe – Axe was a clear step behind them, which wasn’t always the case.
But you know what? Rollback is still kind of new, and it’s not like Axe was the only player who saw a deline in results. Maybe in 2021, a new year where the scene’s had time to adjust to a new format of Melee, we will see shades of the Top 5 player we knew from before. I’ve documented Axe’s pre-Summit rollback tournaments of this year below. I want you to notice a recurring theme in them.
|Galint Melee Open (January)||Anjo||N/A||Axe double DQ out of the event and played Young Link.|
|Rollback Rumble: NA West||Traplord
|Axe played Ice Climbers|
|Frame Perfect Series 4: Online||Cilan
bobby big ballz
|Axe played Ice Climbers; Rishi played Donkey Kong in their set|
|I Dair You!||Quaff
|Black Empowerment Melee Invitational||WiLD
|Four Loko Fight Night||Typhoon
bobby big ballz
|Axe played Young Link|
|Galint Melee Open (Spring)||Justus
|LEVO 14||Blues Clues
|SCL Season 2 Week 1||N/A||moky
|GOML 2021||John Wick
bobby big ballz
|Axe played Marth|
|Pound 2021 Online||Jflex
|Axe played Falco and Marth|
On a human level, I sympathize with Axe’s clear lack of competitive motivation. At the end of the day, rollback isn’t LAN. If competing seriously online just isn’t fun, Axe doesn’t owe it to anyone else to do something he doesn’t feel like doing. As someone who doesn’t compete any more, I support anyone’s right to play whomever and whenever they want.
However, let’s not mince words. Purely as selfish fans, we can admit that this is incredibly wack. If we had to choose between seeing Axe’s Pikachu at a big event or his Young Link, is it a question for what we’d rather see? Besides, the rate at which Axe picked secondaries was disproportionate to the actual success he was seeing with his mains. It’s like if Zain was going Roy at stacked rollback events, but his Marth was struggling against players he used to beat and dropping meaningful sets.
At least Hungrybox was picking Jigglypuff at events he was underperforming in. Axe didn’t even have the confidence or motivation to stay his best character. When we did see the Pikachu, it was far beneath in results what we had seen in the past. As the rest of the field continued to improve over rollback, Axe continued to struggle against his peers.
Again though – this was online. Eventually, LAN events returned. With them, Axe would get a chance to show his old self in a format that he definitely cares about. So, is Axe finally back from his Netplay slumber? Let’s take a look.
Out of the Frying Pan…?
|Smash Summit 11||2saint
|Low Tide City||NoFluxes
bobby big ballz
KoDoRiN x 2
|Ginger x 2|
This is assortment of results is difficult to take anything away from. Axe’s showing at Summit on its own was impressive, but outside of beating 2saint in the runback and having a convincing win over aMSa, I’m not sure we could call it a definitive return to form. His Riptide showing came with one standout loss, which he then followed up by clawing through a loser’s bracket from hell. I’m not sure we learned anything new about him from Low Tide City either; he really just beat players we thought he’d win against and he continued his stretch of struggling against Ginger.
I’m probably going to make many people mad – especially Axe himself – when I bring up something that isn’t covered in the above table: locals. For previous years I used to jot down Medz vs. Axe as an example of an outlier in-region rivalry. These are situations where the “worse” player can often have more chances to close the talent gap with the “better” opponent by occasionally taking sets or closing the gap within their head-to-head.
Now, to be clear, sometimes these go the other way around. Every now and then, you get an in-region rivalry where one of two approximately equal level players within a national field just completely destroys the other one (see Colbol vs. Gahtzu). But the point is that rather than viewing individual results as “good” or “bad” – it’s important to contextualize them within broader trends; to see them as a byproduct of unique head-to-head dynamics. Even one negative trend vs. a particular player in your local scene wouldn’t be enough on its own to outweigh stellar major results.
This year, we’ve seen something different. Medz has not only finished No. 1 in the most recent state power rankings, but he outranked Axe, who was actually active enough to qualify. It’s the first time Axe hasn’t finished No. 1 in a local scene that he’s been active within in 2013, when Wobbles was No. 1. Looking at their specific head-to-heads within the post-pandemic power rankings, according to results tracked in the Melee Stats Podcast server, Medz had the lead, 6-3.
I know what you’re thinking: didn’t I just say that one head-to-head trend wouldn’t cloud how I view a player’s chances at a major? If you thought this, then read what I said more carefully: it wouldn’t enough to outweigh stellar major results. For a good example of this, let’s look at someone that Axe actually defeated at Summit. It’s going to be a bit of a detour, but I promise – I’ll bring it back to the topic.
To this day, I have no idea how to make sense of aMSa’s long-term results within Japan. Including when he’s active, aMSa not only drops individual sets, but he actually trends negative against peers like Sanne, Shippu or Shunsuke. However, as long as aMSa keeps embarrassing top players at majors and making it deep into bracket, I do not care about these performances. They may as well have happened in some alternate reality.
When aMSa came back to Smash Summit 11, he finished in only ninth place, but wow – he still floored me with his performance. In spite of the entire field improving and Yoshi players like Whiskers, BZimm, and Mono gaining more notoriety on rollback, aMSa made Aklo look completely lost in a solid 3-0, he smacked down n0ne, and he beat the eventual champion of the event on his first try. The only losses on his resume: two heartbreakers to Zain and Hungrybox, as well as a 3-0 loss to Axe. Forget Top 10 – before loser’s, he straight up looked like a Top 5 player.
I have every reason to expect aMSa to do this again. His entire career is like a performance art in converting longtime mid-tier skeptics like me. I might have said this about Axe two years ago, but I can’t say it now considering that he just trended negatively against an in-region opponent and had it complemented by underwhelming showings at bigger tournaments. Fresh off a second place to Ginger at Low Tide City, Axe has to be seen a little more critically.
Where is Axe Now?
Ignore Axe and inactive players for a moment (so no aMSa). If we were to make a top 10 seeds a a random LAN major, the list would probably go something along the lines of the following active players, with Axe’s head-to-heads listed in parentheses since the start of rollback. It’s not pretty.
- Mango (0-3)
- Zain (2-0 in serious sets)
- iBDW (0-4)
- Plup (0-3)
- Hungrybox (0-0)
- Wizzrobe (0-3)
- S2J (0-2)
- SFAT (0-3)
- n0ne (0-0)
- Ginger (3-5)
To be clear, these records are deflated by how often Axe has gone secondaries. At the same time though, within this level of play, that’s something which is going to hurt Axe’s potential to perform at any event that his peers are indeed taking seriously. In other words, if he’s sandbagging and they’re not, that’s an advantage they have over him if they are competing and performing well, which they are. Think about it for a second. Outside of Zain, does Axe feel like a surefire bet against any of these players? Maybe n0ne and S2J are matchups where Axe might eventually head in a positive direction, but that’s about it.
When you look at the players beneath the Top 10, it looks a little more favorable for Axe, but still not great. Axe clearly holds an advantage against KoDoRiN and Logan, but I’m pretty cautious about his chances against everyone else he could realistically play in winner’s side of Top 32 at any major. He’s lost his most recent sets against these players: Aklo, Polish, Lucky, Gahtzu, and Colbol. If he plays 2saint, lloD, or Kalamazhu at a major, it’s nowhere near a surefire bet. Players beneath them like SluG, ARMY, Zuppy, Panda, or Zealot have to also be terrifying prospects, let alone a rematch with Secrets. Without knowing that it was Axe, looking a list of his results, you could barely call it a Top 15 resume, let alone Top 10.
— Daniel Mtz (@pepisgt) October 3, 2021
And yet somewhere in my heart, I still believe in Axe. I’ve spent a lot of this column writing about Axe’s decline in results with brutal honesty, but remember: I once wrote a column calling him Melee’s true protagonist. What he’s accomplished with Pikachu is nothing short of incredible; a testament to his steadfast loyalty to his own character on the biggest stage. He had every reason to jump ship, but he didn’t, and, my Marth main bias aside, I’m glad he didn’t.
So for the sake of ending this column on a positive note, I want to bring up an amusing hypothetical: imagine if Axe continues to decline a little bit. Ironically, it could benefit him. Imagine an Axe that returns to Mainstage as a relatively sleeper 16 seed, makes it through a slightly more difficult early bracket, and then plays Zain in round of 16.
Is it so crazy to think that Axe could beat him yet again, and then possibly rediscover some magic against some combination of a rusty Leffen, and any of the attending Marth or Captain Falcon players? Honestly, I don’t think so at all. That’s part of what makes Axe such a fascinating player to watch for the future.