Mastery over aerial drift is a significant boost to a Melee player’s gameplay. In traditional fighting games, a jump is typically a concrete commitment: once you jump, you are committed to that action. Smash is unique in that, after a jump, you can choose to implement some combination of vertical and horizontal drift. Melee also uses analog input, so the degree to which you incorporate your drift can vary a great deal.
Aerial drift is an integral component of the current meta. Puff has the best aerial drift in the game and is seeing an increasing amount of success, even beyond Hungrybox’s claim to the #1 spot. It behooves any player that wants to beat Puff to learn the ins and outs of aerial drift. Leveraging drift can also make a difficult matchup feel much more doable, especially if your opponent (see: most players currently) are not fully utilizing drift themselves. Despite many Fox players’ complaints about the Marth matchup, Crush has used aerial drift masterfully to beat Zain, PewPewU, La Luna, and yours truly over the last few months. Wizzrobe is also a great example of how drift can be used to create mixups that allow Falcon to get openings against opponents like Falco and Puff, who typically make neutral quite difficult for Falcon.
How to Drift in the Air
Put simply, aerial drift is changing the way your character moves in the air by inputting a direction. You can hold left or right at a variety of degrees to implement horizontal drift. Vertical drift is a bit more straightforward: in general you are either falling normally, or you input down and initiate a “fastfall” (which is exactly what it sounds like).
I must recommend that, before reading any further, you check out this great tutorial by SSBM Tutorials. They explain a number of usages for aerial drift and break down the concepts nicely, using Mang0’s Marth as a case study. The video was released in 2016, during which time Mang0 had been experimenting with his Marth in tournament (notably, he pulled it out in a nail-biter set versus Hax at Pound 2016, and defeated Armada with it at WTFox).
One more note before digging into things - let’s talk about SHFFL-ing. The term SHFFL has been around for a long, long time. It stands for “Short Hop Fast Fall L-Cancel,” and for a long time has been regarded as an “advanced technique.” In reality, a SHFFL is just one variation of aerial drift utilization: fastfalling out of a shorthop. In a way, the terminology we use to describe our actions can affect how we choose what action to take, and I believe that the pervasiveness of the term “SHFFL” has largely affected the meta over the years. The sooner you get out of the habit of holding a “SHFFL’d” aerial in higher regard than every other variation, the closer you will be to mastery over aerial drift mixups.
Expanding on Traditional Bait and Punish
Let’s consider this simple bait-and-punish example.
Fox can commit into the yellow area, or do a fadeback aerial, thereby baiting Marth into punishing where Fox might otherwise go and punish Marth’s whiffed grab. This is a standard bait-and-punish scenario that will be familiar to any fighting game player. You can see it in action in the following gif:
Due to the properties of aerial mobility in Smash, you can expand the principles of baiting and punishing in a variety of directions, including up-and-down. Consider this example - Marth wants to juggle Fox, and both characters have the choice to either fastfall or not.
If Fox goes with the fastfall drill, which is a more traditional option (as I mentioned, fastfall’d aerials are highly favored by most players), then Marth needs to go for an early Uair. But what if Fox doesn’t fastfall the drill?
Here the Uair whiffs and the drill connects. There are other considerations to make, such as the fact that it may be easier to SDI hits on a non-fastfall’d drill, but that’s just Melee. The important takeaway here is that aerial drift actually allows you to play the bait-and-punish mixup games in multiple directions.
Also of note is that the timing of your aerial is equally as important as the drift you choose - these are very closely tied together. An early, FF Uair as Marth may cover the same drill timing as a late non-FF Uair. Play around with different timings and drift choices and you’ll see more options open up.
These mixups are especially useful in holding space and can manifest itself in neutral exchanges in which both players fight for center, as well as juggling exchanges.
The SSBM Tutorials video I linked earlier nicely demonstrates how aerial drift can be used when fighting for center. I’d like to point out that in general, the player who already has center has more to gain from these mixups, as that player can always choose a safe fadeback aerial. In the case of a non-interaction, the center-holding player maintains the stronger position. When I mentioned Crush and Wizzrobe earlier in the article, this is the skill to which I refer. I recommend checking out how Crush mixes in aerial drift with empty lands into high-reward openers like Dtilt and shine. Wizzrobe is known for his last-second Uairs, which are very strong combo-starters. They are also relatively safe, and he relies on his drift to keep his opponents on their toes.
An important part of mixing in aerial drift is the usage of your double jump. You can double jump as soon as you leave the ground from your first jump, so the height from which you begin mixing in aerial drift can actually vary greatly. This is especially useful when juggling opponents.
Of course, you can also short hop in one direction, then double jump in any direction, followed by whatever aerial drift you want. The point is that there are a great deal of mixups, and you should explore as many as you can.
Drift in Pressure Mixups
The last topic I’ll touch on is how you can utilize drift as a mixup while pressuring opponents. If you read my last article, Max Yield: Falco, recall that I discussed how important aggressive mixups are. Also recall that I referred to Mang0 as the master of aggressive mixups. Aerial drift is a huge part of how you can mix up your aggressive options.
I mentioned earlier that you can fadeback aerials, but you can also go all in and try to cross-up your opponent’s shield. You could do an early, non-FF aerial cross-up and punish their movement out-of-shield (e.g. non-FF Falco Dair cross-up, then Utilt their attempt to punish from behind the shield), or wait until you’re almost past their shield and go for a safe FF aerial to begin “safe” shield pressure (e.g. FF Falco Dair cross-up into shine).
Even putting together two or three solid drift mixups with the possibility for strong openings will net you a great deal. The way each character can utilize drift varies, however, so I won’t go into too much more detail in this article.
When doing analysis of your own videos, or of top players videos, be sure to pay attention to how aerial drift is utilized. Sometimes focusing on one specific aspect you hadn’t paid attention to before can offer invaluable perspective. Aerial drift manifests itself in virtually every aspect of the game.
For those of you who are eager to eliminate the scourge of Puff, this is especially important. How are Puff players drifting around your shield? Are they always placing their Bairs so that they have sufficient time to drift away? If so, this clues you in on when to expect Bairs (and where they’re going after if you dodge or block). Are they mixing in empty lands near you to fish for Utilt Rest or grabs? Can you react in time if you see they haven’t used a move with sufficient time to drift away? These are the types of questions you should ask.
That’s all for this topic. As always, feedback is appreciated and let me know what else you’d like to read about!