How do I deal with tracers? With some fighters, as soon as I throw a shot, they throw a shot. So I end up with a lot of simos. Sometimes I kill them and just lose an arm, sometimes they kill me and I just wound them. If I don’t throw a shot, they just wait for me to throw.
Tired and Traced
Excellent question. Tracing is a common problem that fighters have to deal with. People who trace can end up being difficult opponents to deal with for mid-level fighters, despite the tactic being a dead-end for fighting development. There are several approaches you can take to dealing with opponents who trace.
Before you can develop a tactic to deal with someone who traces, you need to know they’re a tracer. If you’ve fought them before and already know they trace, then you can skip this part entirely. However, you’re eventually going to be in a situation where you’re fighting someone new and you don’t know if they trace or not. There are three methods for detecting tracers.
Die. You can just hope they’re not a tracer, throw some random shot, and get killed if they trace. Most people who are tracers do it incessantly, so now you know that they’re a tracer. Also, you’re dead. Sadly, this is known as “losing” in Amtgard, so I can not recommend this method.
Feint. If you throw the beginning of any traceable shot, which is to say a shot that a tracer has an opportunity and opening to counter-attack into as soon as they see you start to move, a tracer will immediately twitch and start their counter-attack. They usually won’t finish it, but that twitch reveals their nature.
Play Safe. Throwing a safe shot, where you can cover yourself against the primary counter-attack, allows you to expose a tracer without getting killed by their counter-attack. This usually means throwing a low probability shot that you don’t expect to land, but your goal was to determine the nature of your opponent, not to win.
Once you know you’re facing a tracer, there are many strategies for killing them safely. The biggest weaknesses of a tracer are that they are both predictable and controllable. It is typically apparent what the tracer will throw when you make your attack. Additionally, you have complete control over when the tracer will attack; they will throw their shot the moment you swing, and not a moment before. With these two factors, you can select from a variety of strategies to defeat the tracer.
Block with your secondary equipment. In situations where you have a second piece of equipment, you can block the primary return with that equipment as you throw your shot. Not all shots are safe to accomplish this with, nor are all primary returns blockable this way. If a sword-side hip-wrap is going to be the primary return, you can’t effectively block that with a shield. Conversely, while lunging florentine, it is fairly safe to guard your sword arm with your non-attacking hand.
As an extension of this idea, a single sword user can block the primary return with their off-hand instead of using their hand to guard the secondary return. However, this is a poor choice for facing a tracer, as this will result in the loss of a limb, leaving you an arm down against the next opponent.
Defensive Transitions. An alternate method to block a tracer is to throw a shot that has a quick transition into a block of the primary return as part of the return to guard. (Remember that in general, when you throw a shot, you should almost never be recoiling through your outgoing weapon path to return to guard. Returning to guard along a path that leads through or begins a block against the primary return is usually the best practice and allows you to quickly block ripostes. If the opponent doesn’t throw the primary return, you do not need to complete the block and can continue back to a guard position or transition to block the slower secondary or tertiary return as needed.)
If you choose a shot that has a very short motion between the completion of the shot and the beginning of the block of the primary return, it is possible to both land a shot and block the tracer’s counter-attack. This is a high-risk option, however, as most tracers throw a shot that lands almost instantly in time with yours. An example would be throwing a back-handed chop to the top of an opponent’s arm through the outside lane, ending with the palm rotated upwards and the blade parallel to the ground. This leaves you under the opponent’s weapon, inviting the tracer to throw a quick downward chop as the primary return. The return to guard begins with collapsing the elbow with the elbow pointed down, which immediately puts your weapon in place to block the primary return as soon as the elbow begins to bend.
Weapon Jamming: Instead of blocking the attack of a tracer, it is possible to preemptively interfere with their weapon before they begin their attack. One option is to jam their weapon as part of your attack. This allows you to control the opponent’s weapon and prevent them from launching their tracing counter-attack. An example of this can be seen in hand-matched single sword, by throwing a flat horizontal chop to the opponent’s torso through the inside lane. As part of the chop, the aggressor closes range and strikes the blade of their weapon just above the handle against the middle of the opponent’s weapon, with the blade parallel to the opponent’s chest. The aggressor then uses this weapon as a fulcrum, continuing the motion to strike the opponent in the chest while pushing their weapon towards them and slightly to the side. Obviously, this will only work against opponents whose guard leaves their sword somewhere close to vertical.
Weapon Beats: A less aggressive form of weapon manipulation is to make a beat at the opponent’s weapon. The intent is to disrupt their reflexive motion, forcing them to spend a portion of a second regaining control of their weapon before they can counter-attack. The aggressor then uses this time window to land a strike without being hit. With a beat, the attacker’s blade should stop as soon as the defender’s blade is struck. You are knocking the blade aside, not pushing it aside. It should be noted that the tracer will often still attempt to counter-attack, even though the resulting shot will be late. An example of this is a standard lefty attack against a sword and board righty. The attacker beats the opponent’s blade two-thirds of the way up with a backhand beat (palm facing to the attacker’s shield side) to the inside (shield side) of the blade. As the defenders sword is knocked to the outside, the attacker changes the strike to a vertical chop to the defender’s sword shoulder or upper sword arm.
Partial Shots: The fact that a tracer is going to start their counter-attack as soon as they detect that you have begun your shot gives you a great deal of control over the fight. By beginning but not completing a shot, you can force the tracer into action. The degree to which you complete the partial shot will also give you additional control over whether the tracer completes his counter-attack or attempts to abort it partway through. Often a simple but pronounced twitch will cause the tracer to start his counter-attack, abort it, and then reset. By preceding your actual shot with this sort of feint, you can often land your shot while the tracer is still resetting from his aborted counter-attack. A more pronounced feint, where you complete more of the shot, will often draw the tracer into completing his counter-attack. In this scenario, since you did not commit to the shot, you are in position to either open range to avoid the shot, or, preferably, block and riposte.
Off-Target Shots: Another method of drawing the tracer into premature or inopportune action is to throw an off-target shot. In this scenario, instead of striking the opponent, you will deliberately miss. This allows you to keep the motion of your strike and use it to either continue moving out of the way or to flow through the attack into a block. An example of this can be seen in hand-matched single sword. In a scenario where the tracer is going to counter-attack with a vertical chop at your arm when you attack their sword arm (a common tracing tactic), you can swing just past their arm on the outside lane and continue moving your arm down. In this case, you will be dropping your arm at the same time the tracer is swinging at it, allowing you to keep moving your arm out of the way of their sword. You would then roll your wrist in a loop, transitioning from palm to the inside to palm up as you bring your hand back up after evading their strike, landing a back-handed strike to the tracer’s sword arm or sword-side body.
Noncommittal Shots: Another way to draw a tracer into action is to throw shots without committing to them. Such a shot has little chance of landing effectually, but it looks a great deal like a real shot while providing the advantage that the attacker has not committed themselves to the shot and is therefore less exposed. A classic example of this is a strike to the back of the hand. In the scenario where an attacker is facing a florentine fighter, it is a given that crossing the body to strike the unmatched arm will draw a strike from the florentine fighter’s hand-matched hand to the attacker’s sword arm. If the attacker instead strike at the back of the florentiner’s unmatched hand, the attacker does not expose as much of their arm by reaching for the arm, nor do they get as close to the opponent. The attacker can instead bounce his strike off the opponent’s unmatched hand and immediately transition the motion into an aggressive block against the matched hand’s expected vertical chop counter-attack. Blocking this vertical chop aggressively will open the florentiner’s hand-matched shoulder for a riposte by the attacker.
Overfeint: Feinting can also be taken to an extreme. Instead of making one or two feints and then throwing a shot, continue feinting different shots until the tracer’s brain short circuits. This does run the risk that the opponent will elect to stop tracing and just hit you while you’re throwing your eighth feint. This sometimes has the benefit of breaking the tracer out of “trace mode” so they stop tracing and become a more interesting opponent, but most tracers are monomaniacally dedicated to tracing as a fighting style and have no other modes.
Open Range: While any fool who says “the best block is to not be there” should be ignored until they stop getting their fighting advice from Karate Kid (part 2, at that), evasion is still a valuable tool in any fighter’s toolbox. Opening the range as part of your shot allows you to complete a shot out of range, which makes it harder for a tracer to strike you. The classic example of this is the retreating chop. The attacker begins with a simple chop from within range, and as part of his strike retreats. The weapon should make contact with the opponent while the attacker is in retrograde motion and is at the very limit of effective range. This means that, the moment after the strike lands, the attacker has left effective range. The tracer is left to strike empty air as the attacker opens the range and returns to guard. This type of action can be difficult to pull off and requires good footwork and range control, but opens up a variety of new attack options.
As always, if you have questions for Ask the Champion, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and I will answer them in my column.