Potemkin's a funny case because in just about any other game he'd have been absolutely terrifying right from Vanilla XX. Unfortunately for him he happened to be developed for the same game that had Dizzy and Eddie. Nevertheless, Potemkin steadily gained various tweaks through the six years from X to Accent Core that were mostly buffs and eventually led to his peak strength in Accent Core. What did he get to make him arguably a top 5 character? Let's find out!
Part 1: Movement
Guilty Gear is a game where the footsie game is built around far-reaching weapon-based normals, often the Slash button. These can be nasty to run into, and running has recovery. You can remove the recovery frames on running by using Faultless Defense (Hold any two non-dust buttons while blocking, but not S+H if it's Accent Core you're playing). Potemkin doesn't need to worry about this since he can't run or airdash. Instead, he has two other ways to move: Hammerfall and Double Jump.
Potemkin being allowed to double jump is a huge difference between him and Iron Tager. When approaching people he can bait uppercuts like anyone else in the cast, he can jump over things like Dizzy scythes or fish lasers much more easily and if people try to antiair with normals he can FD them, then instant block the jump attack and airthrow. Being allowed to double jump means he gets to play some of the key components of Guilty Gear's mindgames while still feeling like a lumbering giant.
Hammerfall is a dash attack that launches on hit and can tank a single blow from the opponent before being interrupted. It can also be cancelled before the actual attack part by hitting Punch. This means that after scoring knockdowns with sweeps, antiair grabs (this is of particular note for pre-AC and Xrd Potemkins) he has a way of dashing forward in short bursts that are somewhat safer than, say, SF4 Makoto's dashing. He gets the anti-fireball movement of Zangief's greenhand, but doesn't just die the second someone opts for a sweep instead of a projectile. Hammerfall is also a key component of the next step.
Part 2: Pressure and maintaining momentum after knockdowns
Hammerfall does two things for his pressure. It lets him set up tickthrows off of all sorts of normals in blockstrings by using the cancel function, and if you let the full move rip you can FRC it to turn the move into something that's got a buttload of plus frames. Once he's gotten in with this he can opt to crank up the guard bar with more pressure so his next hit does massive damage, or go for the mixup straight away. There's very little gambling on Potemkin's end once he's in. You're the one who's panicking.
On top of this, there's two key reasons Potemkin can stay on top of you all the damn time in Accent Core. The first is that his sweep became special cancellable. This means that he can move towards you after knockdowns that much faster than he could in the earlier versions. The other reason is because his antiair grab drops the opponent directly in front of him in AC and AC+R. You can also blow them away with the followup for extra damage but you pretty much only ever do that in the corner in AC and +R. Most of Potemin's combos lead into this grab, and pretty much all of them do so if they're from an antiair. Potemkin Buster and his regular throw also both gained FRCs at this point, so in AC he could turn every single hit into heat grab or sweep and stay on top of you forever.
On top of his, Potemkin's standing jab is extremely fast and hits both
standers and crouchers while also having an excellent antiair hitbox.
It's like Nova's jab in Marvel 3 on crack. You can't just jump away when
waking up because he's going to keep you in blockstun and force respect
no matter what.
So what does he do now he's on top of you? He runs
Part 3: The Mixup
This is 6K, Potemkin's overhead. It combos into Hammerfall or Gigantor Bullet (the big mirror super that looks like Urien's Aegis Reflector) on hit in AC. In +R it chains to sweep.
This is 236S (Slidehead) in its later frames. The physical part of Potemkin is a low hit. You see how similar his upper body looks? It's even more similar in the startup frames.
This is his standing kick. It is also a low.
You see what I'm getting at? Potemkin can be very hard to block, particularly when you're flustered because he's heat grabbed your escape attempts beforehand and he hasn't even gone for the throw yet. Every second he's on top of you, you have to be thinking about what trick he'll pull out of the bag next while he's just waiting for you to jump, mash or DP. It's hell.
I haven't talked about his actual throw much, but let's work it into
Part 4: Space control
This should've gone before or after Movement, but what the hell. Potemkin has far reaching normals that allow him to tack on damage much like Zangief's standing MP in SF4. He can also flick away projectiles, turning them into his own with FDP, and can score knockdowns any time you whiff a slow move on the ground with Slidehead. I'll talk more about that move in a bit, but let's look at a couple of his spacing tools while we're here.
The notorious crouching Slash (2S). This move pulls the opponent towards him on both hit and blocking, making antiair hits combo into Heatgrab almost every time, and cause him to need to put even less effort into approaching with Hammerfall afterwards. If you block this, you might well be getting thrown in a second's time.
This is Potemkin Buster's whiff animation. This isn't quite the frame I want, but you see that furthest part of his shoulder? A bit further out from that is where his grab will reach you from. You have to be very careful about where you put yourself when fighting this guy.
Finally, let's talk about the really dumb stuff AC Potemkin has that puts him up there in the A+ region that he lost in +R for good reasons.
Part 5: The Really Dumb Stuff
Remember his antiair grab? Remember how I said that if you don't do the followup it plonks them down in front of him and how that was really cool? What wasn't cool was the meter gain he got from this. He gained something insane like 25 tension before bothering to do the followup. If your tension pulse hadn't been lowered from doing roman cancels of any kind, a basic combo into heatgrab such as 5S 2S 2H xx Heatgrab could very well build 50 tension. This is aggravating alone, but it combines with the next step.
When you knock someone down in Guilty Gear, you can hit them back up with any attack whose hitbox intersects with the downed body. However, the hitstun is down to a quarter of what it usually is, so they'll pop up almost immediately. Characters like I-no use this to set up airthrow resets, and Sols use it to get DP-safe meaty fireballs. Accent Core, however, introduced Ground Slams. These are a form of knockdown where you're allowed to pick them up and do a combo for no penalty. It leads to some nifty combos, particularly in +R where Slayer uses 5H in the corner then picks them up with Undertow.
In Accent Core, Slidehead (both the physical hit and the unblockable groundpound) cause Ground Slam.
Remember that 6K/Slidehead mixup? Remember him ground pounding when you hit a button full screen? These now lead to a full combo. A full combo that ends in heat grab. A full combo that ends with him gaining enough to perform a super. The super is a barrier that slowly moves forward and has enormous hitstun on hit, and massive advantage on block. There's no penalty to meter gain since its a super, not a roman cancel. If you position this super as a meaty in the right position, they have to eat the super while you go ahead and perform slidehead at the right range that the groundpound happens instead of the low hit. While they're in blockstun.
Yeah, Potemkin had an unblockable setup like he's Eddie or something. Admittedly, the truly inescapable setup only really worked in Johnny and Justice due to their wonky hitboxes on wakeup, but the simple fact that this existed was incredibly stupid. Much like Waldstein didn't need an infinite, there was no need for Potemkin to have setplay.
So that's why he's good. If you're wondering why he's so bad in Xrd, it's because a fair amount of these tools have been heavily nerfed or outright removed. It's sad, but I can understand why a sequel that's aiming to draw in new players would want to tone down such a scary brute. Plus he gained the ability to YRC Hammerfall, which means he can essentially rush at you, slow down time then react to what you're doing with Heatgrab or Potemkin Buster. But we can grumble about Xrd Potemkin some other time.
Tomorrow I think I'll talk about Examu's grapplers.
EDIT: Oh that's right. Kusoru's very first upload to Youtube is a recording of him demonstrating the setplay.