Saturday, October 15, 2016

Fundamentals: Combos

This post didn't make it out nearly as fast as I had hoped.  Between work trips and Okfest (complete with post-event plague), I've been a little behind.  I also realized that combos was a little larger topic to narrow down to fundamentals than I had originally planned for (go figure).  There are other posts in the works, but they might be a bit delayed as well.

Last time I took a look at the basic swings. While each of those shots has value on their own, especially for new fighters developing their skills, combining different shots together is essential to overcoming foes.  Most newer fighters tend to step up and swing once, then go back to guard and repeat.  As we talked about in Overswinging A Sword, this has a few potential issues in energy efficiency as well as giving your opponent more time to defend themselves.  Another issue is that by pausing between attacks while within range to swing, you allow your opponent the opportunity to take control of the fight and put you on the defensive with a combo of their own.

What we often see from more experienced fighters is approaching to range and using a combination of many basic attacks or feints (see bottom) to keep their target on the defensive and unable to counter effectively.  Commonly used combos tend to utilize the rebound from a strike as we talked about in Overswinging to recover into the next attack.  As such, most typical combos attack opposite sides of the target or switch to/from legs and arms.  Besides the natural flow of the rebounding energy, an added bonus to switching target zones is that the opponent's guard might move to cover one direction and expose another target.

I had originally considered breaking down several combinations of the basic swings here, but that started to become a little much to write in a clear fashion.  Instead, I have decided to break down a few things that significantly impact a combo's effectiveness.  Combos tend to be a defining characteristic of fighting style and part of individual development, which makes them difficult to break down to a simple list of swings (picturing a fighting game's moves list).  While simple combos can be thrown together at practice with little forethought, I have found that thinking about fighting outside of practices to be extremely valuable in improving. So, here are some things to consider when contemplating how to put together your own combos:

Common Reactions

By "common" here, I mean what many fighters often do, which can vary by person and group.  Some common reactions are more universally true than others.  In general, when thinking about combos and fighting, you should be asking yourself "what would I do to counter that swing?" This, at least, gives you some idea of what a fighter might do against you.  Each step in a combo should go through the same though process. This sort of critical thinking is the core of developing as a fighter, both for developing your combo and analyzing your own reactions to swings.

Common reactions to a swing can help figure out what swing should follow it in your combo, or where your guard should go to help it.  For example, a leg sweep is often countered by a cross to your arm.  This gives you a rough idea of where your shield should be during the swing to reduce your risk, and also an idea of where an opponent's arm might be exposed after the swing.

Many shots don't have just one common reaction, but a few different ones depending on the opponent.  The high cross, for example, is often countered with a high cross (usually a simultaneous kill), but others counter it with a very short cross towards their opponent's exposed sword arm (highly effective counter).  However, both of those attacks target the sword side, which still gives you some idea of what the opponent will do.

Knowing and understanding common reactions is an important step in utilizing feints in your combos.

Power vs Speed

As I talked about in overswinging, it is difficult to combo into the same swing/target with enough power because you are fighting against the recoil of your swing or stopping the swing early to bring it back to swing again. Both options waste time and power.  To target the same general area, one needs to work with the recoil and allow the sword to pivot around the hand, arcing back into the same area a few inches away.  Even then, power is lost as the arm/body don't fully recover from the first swing.

It is ideal, from a power standpoint, to hit targets on the opposite sides of the opponent, because your arm and body will already be coiled to deliver the next blow.  For example, when swinging to the opponent's shield side, your elbow tucks in towards the body, but throwing a cross shot causes your elbow to pop out away from the body.  The extra distance covered as the sword goes around from side to side also acts as a wind up for the next shot, which can allow each blow to be substantial.

By starting the next swing before completely finishing the previous one, the combo is done faster, but it loses a significant amount of power. 

While combos are great for hitting many targets quickly, there is danger in executing the combo too quickly.  By starting the next swing before completely finishing the previous one, the combo is done faster, but it loses a significant amount of power.  This is especially problematic for lighter weapons and min reds that already require a decent commitment to following through with shots. This can be extremely frustrating as many shots in a row will be called "light". (More on following through on the next post)

Some shots in combos can be intentionally light.  The cross shot is often used this way to temporarily disrupt an opponent's sword so they will be less able to swing.  Other shots may be thrown light as a way to trigger a common response or guard reaction from the opponent, without wasting the energy of a swing that may not have had a good target, such as a shield side swing to hopefully cause the opponent to move their shield over or up slightly.

Number of swings

A two shot combo is quick and forms a good building block for other combos by adding other swings to the end or as a follow up to a different swing. A nine shot combo that assumes the target moves a certain way for three of them, on the other hand, is way too complicated to be effective.  For the most part, combos end up being either a two or three shot attack, or some combination of common two and three shot combos.

If we knew we could kill a target with specific number of swings, that would the be correct number to have in the combo.  But, because our target can move and block, we have to assume some of our shots will fail.  As such, some combos are geared towards swinging enough to land a single blow or to take a specific limb.  For example, a simple combo that is often learned early is a short cross to the opponent's sword followed by a leg sweep.  The short cross is assumed to fail, but allows one to safely close for the leg sweep and protect against the counter swing. So, even though the first swing didn't "do" anything, it was worth doing.

In general, a combo only needs enough swings that it can regularly accomplish a set goal.  Adding extra swings after such a combo is optional, and completely dependent on the opponent's reaction to it. If the opponent somehow blocks your amazing combo's finishing blow, but has to leave themselves wide open to a followup, then add another swing when the opportunity occurs.  If the combo is super effective, but leaves you winded every time you use it, maybe you can figure out a more efficient way of achieving the goal with less swings.

As the number of swings in the combo increases, there is a good chance that your arm will be exposed for a longer period of time.  This is especially problematic in fights that are larger than one on ones.  Even a combo that does a decent job of protecting the arm against the opponent, will often leave the arm exposed to other fighters on the opponent's team.


Do you need the target dead, legged, armed, or just to move them?  Not all combos have to kill the target.  Sometimes simply forcing someone out of their position or keeping them occupied is valuable to your teammates.  Some combos are entirely about getting a feel for your opponent's reactions without making any attempt to kill them outright.

Even individual swings within the combo can have goals. For example: a short cross the close the distance safely, shield side swing to move their guard over, followed by crossing over to a sweep to take their leg, then finished with a high wrap shot to kill them over their now low guard.  Each swing here has a purpose.  If they didn't, it wouldn't add anything to the combo.

Using any combo repeatedly has diminishing returns.


Using any combo repeatedly has diminishing returns. Combos work best when they can lead into a number of possible swings. By using different options at each step in a combo, it becomes less predictable by your opponents and can better capitalize on targets of opportunity.  Lets take a look at the short cross.  If I were to throw a cross at your sword, I end up in a position that could naturally flow into a number of other shots, like a leg sweep or a swing to their shield side shoulder. In the event that I were to only ever throw a short cross, followed by a leg sweep, my opponents would soon figure it out.

One way to develop options is to practice each option as its own combo. This will help make each options a little smoother, and be easier to switch to as the situation dictates.

Number of opponents

Combos are almost always discussed in the context of killing a single target.  However, combos can be used against multiple opponents to some extent.  For example, a min red user might target one opponent's shield for the sole purpose of luring another opponent to counterswing.  In this case, the mid red user would have already planned for the common response and brought up a block, then followed with a counterswing of his own.

This line of thinking is often used more for support weapons, as they are most often facing an array of targets on the line, rather than dueling.  One key to consider here is that the recovery force between swings is carried over to a new opponent, rather than adjusting target locations on the same opponent.

Considering the common reactions of multiple opponents, and how they are different in a team vs solo, is way beyond the scope of this post.


There are many finer points of feints that might warrant their own post, but I have included them here due to their importance in many combos. In essence, a feint is using many of the body mechanics used to execute an actual swing, but only enough to convince an opponent that swing is about to happen. "Only enough" takes a bit of time to figure out, and varies greatly by opponent.  Newer fighters and those with a preference to counter swinging tend to react more heavily to certain motions. Other fighters only react when the sword reaches a certain distance from them, and don't react at all to anything outside of that.

For example, to fake a leg sweep, one might bend their knees, dip their sword side shoulder a bit, and  pull their elbow in slightly to rotate the sword to vertical (out of A-frame).  This is enough motion to (hopefully) fake out some opponents, but doesn't add much momentum in the sword, making swinging towards a different target fairly easy.  Should the opponent lower their shield to try to block the leg sweep, one could then just push out their arm into a pop shot to that shoulder, as the arm is already coiled correctly for the strike with the sword in relatively good position.  If they don't fall for the feint, one could just continue the motion to throw the actual swing instead, which the opponent hasn't decided to block.

The best feints give options to follow up with, either pressing the attack that was mimicked, or striking one of several other targets that might open up after the feint is "bought" by the opponent.

I mention feints in this post because they can be used in lieu of an actual swing in a combo under the right circumstances.  In the case above, we could also have just used a leg sweep and recovered it into another swing, but that recovery would have taken much longer and been less likely to hit an open target.  By feinting for the leg sweep instead, you save that effort and reduce the risk of the opponent's counterswing taking your arm, all while setting up a good second shot.  Feints can even be put into combos with other feints, each one leaving a couple of possibilities for follow up depending on the opponent's reaction.

Another use for feints, which I mention here for completeness sake, is to gauge an opponent's reaction.  If one was to fake a high cross, for example, an opponent with a tendency to counterswing will be far more reactive than other fighters.  This gives you a slight edge when considering what your opponent will do against your next combo, and might suggest leading with a feint would be effective at opening them up.

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