Shadow counters are the second way to spend your shadow meter, and they are a wholly defensive mechanic that is very essential to playing Killer Instinct.
When your character is in block stun, press MP+MK to activate a shadow counter. You must be in block stun, and it consumes one stock of shadow meter. Your character will cancel his blocking animation into a parry state that is immediately active, and you will flash white. If the opponent hits you while you are in this state, you will execute a predetermined shadow move as a counterattack and the announcer will shout "Shadow Counter!" The parry state lasts for a short amount of time, and then becomes very punishable if the opponent does not hit you.
Shadow counters are basically a way for you to attack while blocking, but with a few caveats. Unlike techniques from some other Street Fighter titles, like V-Reversals from Street Fighter V or alpha counters from the Street Fighter Alpha series, shadow counters need specific timing to succeed. The startup frames of the shadow move still apply (all shadow counters have 8 frames of startup), and the shadow move you perform is never fully invincible. This means shadow counters can be interrupted if your opponent hits you twice in a row very quickly, and some rare moves with very fast recovery can't be punished by shadow counters. But, if successful, a shadow counter will start a combo, just like the shadow move normally would, so it is a true reversal of offense and defense.
The end result of these conditions means that shadow counters actually feel a bit more like a red parry from Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike, but specifically, a red parry that must be done in between the second-to-last and last hit of your opponent’s block pressure, or during a moment where you’re positive his next attack will have long delay. If you do them at the wrong time, your opponent may stuff your shadow counter outright with fast follow-up attacks, or will simply stop his offense and let your parry state whiff. Learning what block strings can and cannot be shadow countered (and how the opponent can bait them) is a key part of Killer Instinct offense.
Shadow counters keep the insane offense in check in KI. They allow offensive shadow moves to be as strong and as safe as they are, because once you have a spare stock of meter lying around, shadow countering them is extremely easy; simply shadow counter after the 4th hit, but before the 5th, and your opponent will be hit during his recovery.
For stopping offense that isn’t a blocked shadow move, they require very good reactions to use effectively. For example, all two-hit normals are free shadow counters if blocked, if you have fast enough reactions. Certain special moves, like Thunder’s Triplax or ARIA's Shotgun Blitz, are always two or more hits on block and are risky to use as block string pressure as a result. This trade-off of an offensive move being strong, but multi-hitting is common in Killer Instinct; most multi-hitting moves are extremely good, but must be used with caution against a smart opponent stocked on shadow meter. If you block a jump-in, shadow countering immediately is an option which might tag your opponent if he tries to press his advantage too much.
Killer Instinct is a game full of very overpowered offensive moves, but defense is given this creative tool to counteract a lot of it. Without effective use of shadow counters, you will be left blocking for an eternity and eventually you will get opened up, which is what makes them such a crucial part of the KI system. The reactions and game knowledge required to use shadow counters effectively make it a more interesting tool than traditional alpha counters, which can be used almost any time you’re blocking for some breathing room. If you’re starting out with Killer Instinct, I would recommend you learn to shadow counter blocked shadow moves to begin with by pressing MP+MK after the 4th hit of the shadow move. These situations will come up pretty often among players of all skill levels and are very easy to handle. As you get more experience, if you notice a particular multi-hitting move causing you lots of trouble, you can try to expand your use of shadow counters to cover more situations.
Outside of your shadow meter and health bar, there’s one other gauge to worry about that is common to every character, and that’s your instinct meter. Instinct is represented as a yellow bar under your health bar, and it fills up as you take damage and perform combo breakers. When it’s full, your character portrait will glow red, and you can activate instinct by pressing HP+HK, at which point your instinct gauge will begin to drain. Instinct mode lasts for 15 seconds.
You should take enough damage over the course of the match to earn at least two full instinct gauges; how fast you build instinct will change based on the attacks your opponent uses and how many combo breakers you land, but you’ll earn your first instinct no later than around 30% health left on your first health bar. It’s a good idea in general to try to use your instinct before you lose your first health bar, so you can successfully build up a second instinct before the end of the match and maximize use of this powerful mechanic.
Instinct mode is Killer Instinct’s character-specific comeback mechanic; apart from some universal rules for activation, instinct mode grants different abilities for each character. Some instincts allow passive buffs that apply for its duration, while others allow access to new moves or abilities. Before we take a look at each character’s abilities in instinct, let’s discuss a few universal applications.
First of all, if you are touching the ground, any non-throw move that hits or is blocked can be instinct canceled by pressing HP+HK. This lets you make an unsafe move safe, including invincible reversals or certain high-low mixups. The instinct activation has 0 frames of recovery, letting you block or execute another attack immediately. Making strong unsafe moves safe is an incredibly strong tactic which has numerous creative applications on offense and defense, but you will only get access to it twice per match. Instinct mode also resets your KV meter to 0, which allows for longer combos on hit.
Secondly, instinct activation freezes the screen similar to a shadow move freeze. Coupled with its 0 recovery frames, this lets you freeze the screen at a moment of your choosing and see what the opponent is doing, then counterattack accordingly. This is particularly useful while being pressured on your own wakeup, or during a moment in footsies where you expect an opponent to commit. When your own move is blocked or hit, freezing the screen at the right time can also be very useful. Because screen freezes in KI do not stop your opponent's inputs, you might decide to instinct cancel a shadow move on block, thwarting your opponent’s shadow counter. Or, you could instinct cancel a move on hit, which may cause a lockout on your opponent's combo breaker attempt.
Once your instinct is active, each character gets a very strong ability unique only to them. Although it does not dominate the game to the extent Marvel vs. Capcom 3’s X-Factor does, instinct mode is still a game-changer when used correctly. To get a brief summary of what each character's instinct mode does, click on their icon below. To read more in-depth about clever tricks and common uses for instinct mode, check out the Character pages.