If you happened to be watching Marvel on stream this weekend, you saw one particular team winning. It doesn’t matter WHERE you were watching, the same team won! Nova/Spencer/Dr. Strange. When one team or character starts getting good results all at once it’s generally the result of new technology found or refined and tends to mean something. Last year when Tokido won CEO and I won Revelations about an hour apart both using Phoenix teams (with Filipino Champ taking 2nd at Revelations with a Phoenix team also), it signaled a large shift in the MvC3 metagame; for better or for worse, the Dark Phoenix saga had begun. Do this week’s results mean that we have more Dr. Strange good books to read? Well…
The Nova/Spencer/Dr.Strange team is a creation of Japanese player Nemo, who is one of Japan’s best players in many games. He’s gone on record as saying that his team is the best team in the game and can’t think of a team out there that beats it, a bold claim. Nova/Spencer as a combination is not new in American tournament play. Infrit was sitting on match point at Evo playing a team of Nova/Spencer/Sentinel. So really I’m not going to spend too much time talking about how Nova and Spencer work together; everyone knows that already. Instead the main focus will be on how adding Dr. Strange makes the team better.
The most obvious benefit to this team structure is easy access to Dr. Strange’s flames of the faltine loop. You can get to FoF off of Nova/Spencer’s crumple at the end of the BnB combo. This combo builds enough meter to always get to level 3 off any common starter (air throw, ground throw, air-to-air hit, bolts starter, low A, etc etc). This makes structuring a match considerably easier. No matter what you touch, no matter how you touch them, if you land the first hit you are going to kill them and you can get Nova back in to reset the match and set up a strong incoming setup.
The most important benefit is how Dr. Strange’s assist helps Nova start offense. Nova is a strong offensive character but it somewhat easier to block than a character like Magneto or Storm. This is because it’s hard for Nova to set up a good solid high low mixup. Not only is his fastest low slower than normal (cr.M is 11 frames, cr.H is 13 frames), due to the hitch in his diagonal airdashes, he can only create a fast high-low mixup when close enough to airdash straight up and down. Typically the way to block Nova is to default to a high block and react to his lows. Essentially the opposite of how people tend to block most rushdown characters. The bolts of balthakk assist helps Nova out with of these problems and opens up a new way to create offense. Bolts is an assist that most characters can crouch or jump away from on reaction. Nova wants you to do both of those. With his huge airdash range, he’s perfectly happy to square dash around and option select H until he pins you onto a spot of land and then can start looking for the high-low game.
This is something that other offensive assists like Sentinel set up also as Infrit displayed at Evo this year. What sets Dr. Strange assist apart is that it helps set up crossups better. Nova square dash H can set up some complicated crossup setups because of the acceleration property on his airdash. Since the bolts of balthakk come out in 2 separate waves, you can do one mixup as the first bolt strikes then look for a crossup when the second one comes out. This is a huge upgrade over Sentinel and turns Nova’s rushdown game from “Magneto-but-worse” into something unique and arguably more dangerous.
When Spencer is on point he can set up similar crossup options with the zip line and can use the pause in between the bolts to set up safe overhead fishing attempts. He gets roughly the same benefit out of the bolts assist as he does out of the Sentinel assist. The mixups and timing is different but the benefits are about the same. Nova gets the real boost on offense.
Defensively Nova gets a significant boost from the bolts also. Yipes used a strong keepaway pattern to keep PR Rog’s Wolverine out and this helped him win the set. Yipes would find a place to put the H gravimetric pulse out, then call the bolts and start throwing energy javelins. The pattern does a fair amount of chip damage but is very safe due to the presence of the gravimetric pulse. It’s an easy pattern to repeat and completely lock out a character without airdashes or teleports like Wolverine. The bolts make the defensive pattern slightly better than Sentinel drones in this situation in that the bolts give you a chance to rush in which is what Nova wants anyways. The chip is a nice benefit but Nova wants you to dash up to the gravimetric pulse and block it (or get hit, that’s fine too!) at which point he goes back on offense and sets up a 4-way mixup with the second bolt and javelins as extra cover.
The biggest negative to this team is that it’s extremely frontloaded. As a 3 character unit it can stand up to almost anything. But as you start losing characters your options start closing up. Spencer/Dr. Strange as a two man unit is a good combination and has some obscene damage but you wouldn’t classify it as better than a lot of other two character shells that are common to the metagame. And finally, Dr. Strange as an anchor is not on the level of other dominant anchors like Vergil, Magneto or Strider and probably isn’t even on the level of the much maligned Doom anchor. He does have a nice matchup against Phoenix for what that’s worth (not much) even though that wasn’t reflected in this weekend’s tournament matches.
Another big weakness on the team that exacerbates the above is that Spencer doesn’t have a lot of options on incoming. He doesn’t have a double jump or an airdash and his zipline is slow to start up. This isn’t a damning weakness; a lot of other good characters have no real way to avoid incoming mixups other than clutching out a couple blocks but on a team this frontloaded it means that things can frequently go from bad to worse. More on this later.
Dr. Strange’s assist is much better in the early game than in the late game. In the late game once meter has been built up and people are more willing to burn their x-factor you have to be very careful with how and when you call him out. Up to now I’ve talked only about the benefits of this assist. The biggest negative is that he stays out for a VERY long time. If you call him at the wrong time or if your offensive pattern doesn’t hold them in place like you planned out, you’re not going to get Dr. Strange hurt, you’re going to get him killed.
In practice this all combines to making this team somewhat easier to take apart strategically once you land a hit. When you structure a match against this team and are playing top tier teams you don’t ever have to snap. You land the first hit, you carry Nova to the corner and kill him, then mix up Spencer, then go to work on Dr. Strange.
By far the most important consideration is how this team does against other top teams. We had a useful look at this when Combo Fiend played Forward in the grand finals of This Is It. Forward’s Viper/Strider exposed a few weaknesses in this team that bear studying. The weaknesses listed in the con section were on display here. Viper/Strider have an incoming unblockable setup on a character like Spencer through level 3 focus + Strider assist for the pin. In order for Spencer to break this setup (if timed correctly) he has to zipline away from the focus strike area immediately, then x-factor to block Strider coming down, THEN block or tech Viper’s FADC/EX seismo options. This is not practical to do every time; many times in the match Combo Fiend would lose Nova then immediately have Spencer take damage. If anything, Forward gave up a few opportunities by not x-factoring earlier on Spencer OR Nova. Combo Fiend had not given him a reason to respect Dr. Strange on anchor and had not shown a consistent ability to escape the unblockable. Even played perfectly this shows that the Viper/Strider shell has a strong matchup against this team. The snowball effect was on display. Matches where Forward landed the first hit he was going to win unless he gave away control of the match somehow with a drop or a botched incoming setup.
A similar problem comes when this team runs up against Zero/Dante. If Zero lands the first hit, he’s going to take Nova and then Spencer is going to have a very difficult time blocking the multiple mixups meaning that the whole game could come down to that very first hit. On the bright side, Nova does significantly better against Zero than the average character. However since Zero is so short, the bolts assist doesn’t bother him nearly as much as other assists do since it doesn’t restrict his ground movement. His height also invalidates a lot of the unique left-right mixups that Nova/Strange can create. I think the Nova/Spencer part is a good choice against Zero but against Zero/Dante Infrit’s old team of Nova/Spencer/Sentinel is probably a better team. You don’t need Strange’s FoF loop since Zero dies so fast and Strange’s assist is less helpful than drones are.
Team Nemo has a very interesting matchup against MorriDoom. Nova/Strange can set up Morrigan and force her to play defense until she gets the astral vision up. Nova always has the option of resetting the match with the human rocket super and actually can use that to set up crossups on Morrigan. You can count on Morrigan to be in the sky blocking after an unfly but due to the gap in the middle of the bolts Nova can at any time choose to cash out a meter and go fishing for a crossup. It may not sound like much but anything that gets in Morrigan’s head and forces her to stop playing her game works in your favor. On a more orthodox level the energy javelins can annoy her in getting her pressure started and keeping the match in neutral as much as possible. This team has a huge edge over MorriDoom in this case; the longer you can prolong the neutral situation the better chance you have of landing the first hit and snowballing to a win.
This team also dominates Phoenix teams even though that may not be worth that much. The way you take down this team is landing the first hit, spending whatever resources you need to kill Nova, mixing up Spencer, then dealing with Dr. Strange. Phoenix teams CAN’T spend the resources to kill Nova right off the bat. Or rather they could but would be playing the rest of the match suboptimally and thus shouldn’t have picked Phoenix in the first place. Filipino Champ had some difficulties against this team for this reason. Even if he had landed first hits if you don’t get the kill you haven’t taken advantage of the team’s primary weakness. This applies to all reset based teams and not just Phoenix teams; Phoenix teams make it more obvious and the weakness of Phoenix vs. Dr. Strange anchor is a final kick in the balls.
So is this like Phoenix back in vanilla? My conclusion is no. This is a very strong team definitely worthy of consideration among other top tier teams but it has definite, exploitable weaknesses that keep it out of the very top group. We saw some of them this weekend even though the team won two high profile tournaments. That doesn’t mean this team doesn’t have room to grow. A weakness I’ve talked about is how Dr. Strange anchor is exploitable. This doesn’t have to always be the case. Nemo, the team originator, has a devastating Dr. Strange anchor and from what I’ve seen, he’s only improving. If you can make your opponent fear a level 3 Dr. Strange coming in at the end of a match then everything changes and the team isn’t so frontloaded after all. I look forward to getting blown up on stream by someone’s level 3 Dr. Strange and having this whole post get thrown in my face!