2022 was supposed to be Zain “Zain” Naghmi’s “Golden Age.” After winning the first two Super Smash Bros. Melee majors of the year — Genesis and Pound — Zain said he hoped to have a perfect year.
“I want to go undefeated,” Zain told commentators Eric “Jorge” Lim and Arjun “Junebug” Rao in a post-tournament interview at Pound. “This is definitely my year. I’m not going to let it slip.”
But, that’s not what happened. Instead, Zain failed to claim first place at his next six majors. It was the longest stretch of consecutive tournament losses by anyone ranked as the best player in the world on an official Melee ranking.
Yet, four years after his first-ever major victory at Shine 2018, Zain ended his dry spell by winning Shine 2022 in Worcester, Massachusetts this past weekend. In the process, he overcame bracket demons old and new. With three major wins under his belt, Zain will look to finish what he started by landing at No. 1 on the year-end rankings for the first time later this year.
— Golden Guardians (@GoldenGuardians) August 29, 2022
A shocking opponent for Zain
Zain’s run to top eight at Shine 2022 was flawless. He swept players like Joseph “Azel” Resplandor, Toussaint “2saint” Turnier and Johnny “S2J” Kim without dropping a game. However, winners semis brought him a much greater challenge in the form of Jeffrey “Axe” Williamson.
On the surface, it looked like an easy draw. After all, Axe finished in 29th on the Summer 2022 MPGR, his lowest ranking to date. But, despite the rank disparity between the two of them, Axe had one very big thing going in his favor: he had never lost to Zain.
— Tempo 🌩️| Axe (@TempoAxe) August 10, 2022
After losing to Kevin “PewPewU” Toy at NorCal Regionals 2013, Axe went on a streak lasting more than nine years and more than 70 sets where he did not lose to a single high-level Marth player when he played as Pikachu. The streak included a commanding 9-0 record against Zain.
“That’s his comfort match-up for sure,” Zain said in a post-tournament interview at Shine 2022 with commentators Kris “Toph” Aldenderfer and Vish “Vish” Kumar. “I still have to really, really revamp that match-up.”
If ever Zain should have had the upper hand against Axe, it was at the Ludwig Ahgren Championship Series 3 in December of 2020. While Zain was the undisputed best player in North America, Axe had been struggling to match his prior offline success at online tournaments throughout 2020. Even so, Axe walked away with a 3-1 win at LACS.
Afterward, Zain began training with Pikachu main Dan “Swift” Petruso for upwards of five hours a day in order to master the match-up. Since then, Swift has become a top 30 player, even surpassing Axe as the highest-ranked Pikachu in the world.
And yet, Zain and Axe went nearly two years without playing each other again. So, by the time their set at Shine 2022 rolled around, Zain had not maintained his high level of practice in the Pikachu match-up.
“I always play Axe when I’m a little not touched-up in the match-up,” Zain said in his post-tournament interview with Toph and Vish.
In addition, Axe had overcome a bracket full of difficult match-ups, dominantly beating Billy “Bbatts” Batista’s Peach, Hugh “SluG” Hegarty’s Ice Climbers and Jake “Jmook” DiRado’s Sheik to reach top eight. If anything, Zain should have been an easy draw for Axe.
Zain ends Axe’s streak at Shine 2022
Staring down the barrel of a seemingly insurmountable obstacle, Zain paid for Swift to fly from Maryland to Massachusetts so they could play a few hours of friendlies prior to top eight. The extra Pikachu practice seemed to pay off.
— Zain (@ZainNaghmi) August 28, 2022
“I was remembering a lot, like Pikachu’s combo weight [and] edgeguarding,” Zain said in his post-tournament interview. “I missed a lot of edgeguards versus Axe, but the important thing was that I go for them and then dash back [to] center or something. Then, the ones that did hit were crucial.”
After a back-and-forth set, Zain came out on top with a two-stock victory in Game 5. With his lifetime record against Axe having improved to 1-9, Zain advanced to winners finals, where he faced Juan “Hungrybox” DeBiedma.
My hero pic.twitter.com/DCffYEmavY
— Zain (@ZainNaghmi) August 29, 2022
While Hungrybox had won their previous set at Super Smash Con 2022, Zain said Hungrybox didn’t seem to implement the strategy that had helped him win previously.
“He played really, really air-heavy [at Smash Con], but it felt like he didn’t do that much this set,” Zain said in his post-tournament interview.
Rather, Zain was able to employ a comfortable game plan, staying grounded and keeping toward the center of the stage. Crucially, Zain managed to take the first stock in almost every game. In addition, he excelled at spacing outside of Hungrybox’s Pound range and punishing Pound attempts with up-special or grab.
“I wish people could hear my stream of [consciousness],” Zain continued. “I sound like a crazy person because I’m at a percent range where, if he gets one stray aerial on me, my mind is going, ‘Pound, Pound, Pound, Pound, Pound.’ That’s why I’m always ready to space.”
After defeating Hungrybox 3-1, Zain secured a spot on the winners side of grand finals at a major for the first time since Pound 2022.
Overcoming the Sheik problem
So far this year, Zain’s best performances have been defined by his ability to beat Sheik. He double-eliminated Jmook to win Genesis and conquered William “Leffen” Hjelte’s Sheik en route to winning Pound. However, he collectively lost six straight sets against Jmook, Leffen, and Justin “Plup” McGrath at subsequent tournaments.
For this reason, Jmook seemed like another tough draw for Zain in grand finals of Shine 2022. Not only had Jmook won their last three sets, but he was also coming off of a five-set losers run, despite being a player who typically struggled to take more than one set in the losers bracket.
After eliminating Dillon “Grab” Draper, John “KoDoRiN” Ko and Joseph “Mang0” Marquez, Jmook faced Axe, who had beaten him 3-0 in winners quarters. He ended up being the benefactor of Swift’s surprise appearance, as he won the runback against Axe 3-0 in losers semis. Then, Jmook earned his first-ever win against Hungrybox — and a 3-0 at that — in losers finals.
Swift warming up Jmook rn 😨 pic.twitter.com/4lqRYqwdc6
— Tempo 🌩️| Axe (@TempoAxe) August 29, 2022
Nevertheless, Zain said that he was hoping he’d get the chance to play Jmook.
“I’ve reworked [the Sheik match-up] a lot,” Zain said in his post-tournament interview. “If you show that you’re crouch canceling, Sheik can only Needle and grab pretty much at low percents. And if you limit those options, the match-up becomes tremendously easier.”
While Zain said he could’ve used the technique more, he still managed to get grabs after crouch canceling approach options like down tilt, forward tilt and dash attack from Jmook. After an explosive, five-game set where every single game was a two- or three-stock, Zain ended his losing streak against Jmook.
“I just played confident,” Zain said in his post-tournament interview. “He’s going to win one of these [majors] really soon, but I’m glad I could clutch it out.”
As Zain’s loss streak grew ever larger, his hold on the No. 1 spot began to feel increasingly tenuous. Even after his victory at Shine, that rank is far from secure. Still, Zain has proven he still has what it takes to fight through his problem match-ups and win a major no matter who’s in his path.
Dylan Tate is an alumnus of the Hussman School of Journalism and Media at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is a gaming journalist with a love for Nintendo esports, particularly Super Smash Bros. and Pokémon.