One of the best indicators of mastery is that a person makes a difficult task look extremely simple. Think for a moment of Roger Federer, considered by many to be the greatest tennis player of all time. Jimmy Connors, a former world-class tennis player, said of Federer the following:
“In an era of specialists – you’re either a clay court specialist, a grass court specialist or a hard court specialist — or you’re Roger Federer.”
Even those of you who know nothing about tennis will appreciate the clip found here in which Federer makes an extremely difficult move look effortless. As is the case with this talented athlete, some people become experts within their field of interest, mastering popular techniques and becoming well-versed in the strategies required to win.
Others, however, take a different path. Consider Pablo Picasso, whose contribution to the art world in the form of cubism crossed the boundaries of what art was thought to be.
If you are a baseball fan, you might recognize this penchant to change the “name of the game” in the form of Billy Beane, the Oakland A’s general manager who introduced the baseball world to sabermetrics, the specialized analysis of baseball through objective evidence.
When breakthroughs like these are made in given fields of interest, a popular (but unfortunate) response is usually “Well, that makes sense.” Sometimes, the response is even more critical. Picasso was often ridiculed for producing work that critics felt could have been done by a child. For Beane, sports analysts were quick to judge when things did not work out as originally planned.
If you’re getting lost in the examples here, try not to. These same principles of mastery and of thinking “outside of the box” are evident in the Pokémon TCG as well. Some players, like Jason Klaczynski, often show up at tournaments with a flawless list for a known archetype and intend to not make a misplay all day long.
Others, like Ross Cawthon, push the limits of the game by choosing an “alternate path.” His 2nd place finish at Worlds in 2011 was met with one central question:
“What in the world is he playing?”
It is my aim with this article to give you the tools and resources necessary to have players ask the same of you. Given that I have had this experience first-hand (playing Steelix at 2010 Worlds), I will tell you first that creating a competitive rogue deck is not easy – it takes work. Take a look at Ross Cawthon’s “Truth” deck that placed 2nd at the World Championship in 2010:
- Different Types of Rogues…
- General Rules For “Going Rogue”
- The 4 Steps to Building a Competitive Rogue Deck
- Preparing a Rogue Deck in Today’s Format
Pokémon – 27
2 Gloom UD
2 Pichu HS
Trainers – 22
Energy – 11
Just looking at this list is enough to induce a headache. It features 27 Pokémon cards, which was largely unheard of at the time. Not only this, you can feel the importance of every single one of those cards. It’s a complicated mashup of Poké-Powers/Bodies and Abilities that resulted in the single word that Cawthon used to describe his deck: “invincible.”
Not every rogue deck will be this complicated, that’s for sure. But it’s worth noting because it shows that the “answer” to the format might indeed require a few headaches here and there.
Before you give up hope, however, know that this article will cover a number of things, including the following:
- A working definition for “rogue decks”
- General rules to remember when building a competitive rogue deck
- The 4 steps for building a competitive rogue deck
- A breakdown of how a rogue deck might currently be constructed given today’s format
Different Types of Rogues…
There are a few different connotations that people maintain when it comes to the idea of the “rogue” deck. While the specifics can be debated, I would like to introduce here a bit of categorization for rogue decks, as well as a working definition for what rogue decks actually are.
First off, a definition. Put simply, I feel that rogue decks are decks that have not been adopted by the “mainstream” competitive Pokémon TCG scene for one of three reasons:
1. The deck is being reserved for a more opportune time or tournament. Many players spend time before a big tournament putting together a deck they think will counter the metagame. Martin Moreno’s undefeated Nationals win in 2006 with Raichu/Exeggutor typifies this strategy.
More recently, Ross Cawthon claimed second at Worlds in 2011 with his “Truth” deck, a wild conglomeration of Pokémon that had many players scratching their heads.
Other examples include: Nidoqueen/Pidgeot at 2005 Worlds, Steelix/Blissey at 2010 Worlds, Vileplume/Scizor/Mismagius/Darkrai EX at 2012 Nationals
2. The deck is overlooked because of perceived “flaws” by a community of players. Many cards, combos, and deck ideas get tossed into the “theorymon dumpster” because a successful implementation of those ideas seems far away in the minds of players.
Fabien Garnier’s surprising 5th place finish at Worlds in 2009 with Gyarados is a testament to the fact that some of these ideas are indeed powerful, game-winning combos. With the Pokémon TCG set “Platinum” giving Gyarados what it needed to run properly, it would still be half a year before Garnier brought the deck to light.
Other examples include: Beedrill/Luxray at 2009 Worlds
3. The deck simply does not exist yet, mostly for the reason that the combo will not gain much traction in competitive play.
Here, let me give you a rogue deck: Samurott BLW 32/Blastoise BCR. Synergy? Yes. Competitive? Probably not. Let’s be fair here – there are many decks in the Pokémon TCG that can be built with synergy in mind, yet they never see play.
This is usually a side effect of more powerful cards and combos acquiring dominance over a format. Looking at the Samurott/Blastoise idea, most players would readily acknowledge that it falls pretty easily to decks based around speed.
Note: It’s easy for players to throw ideas into this category without giving a deck a fair shot; be careful that you don’t do this and run the risk of missing out on a decent tournament performance! The Gyarados deck at Worlds in 2009 and Magneboar’s win at Worlds in 2011 are both examples of decks that people had written off.
It’s important now to note the difference between a rogue deck and a tech. I’ve often heard players tell me about a tech or two they’ve put in their deck to help swing some key matchups and in doing so describe that they’re “going rogue.” Essentially, techs are used to counter a bad matchup while rogue decks are used to counter a format.
General Rules For “Going Rogue”
Having played the Pokémon TCG since 2005, I have seen many rogue decks come and go. Some have been effective and led to incredible performances at the highest level of play. Others seemed misguided and led instead to frustration and mediocre performances. I am proud to say that I’ve never played a rogue deck unless I knew it had a great chance for success.
For me, deckbuilding and playing are both done logically, as though I’m working on a great math equation. There are some rules that I stick to, and they’re the ones that I feel have led to the successes shared between my brother and I. Especially with rogue decks, it’s important to have a process and stick to that process, as it helps players from straying off the course of building effective decks.
In the past, I have even switched decks minutes before a major tournament because I couldn’t answer “yes” to the single-most important question a player could be asked:
“Will this deck give you the best chance possible to win the tournament?”
My general rules for “going rogue” are listed below:
1. Don’t play a rogue deck just for the sake of playing something different.
Nine games. That’s the number of games at Nationals that will determine whether or not you move on to the top cut. If you want to show off your decent rogue deck to the world, there’s always league or the free play area.
Nine games is not very many at all, so do yourself a favor and be honest with yourself. If you’re itching to play a rogue deck, there is a chance you’re being blinded by excitement. Take a deep breath, review your testing results, and make an informed (and logical) decision.
2. When trying to “break” the format, you have to break your preconceptions about decks.
Before I was a writer for SixPrizes, I wrote articles with the notion that I would start my own blog or website for Pokémon. This never came to fruition, but it left me with plenty of material to look over! One of those projects was a lengthy article about the various strategies found in the Pokémon TCG.
While every deck indeed has a strategy that it’s trying to accomplish, I realize now that a better way to think of decks is by recognizing their characteristics rather than strategy.
We can still recognize strategies that decks are trying to perform, but by looking at the tiny details of each deck we highlight both strengths and weaknesses relevant to our own deckbuilding process.
And when I say “characteristics,” I really mean just that: every little fact that you know about an archetype, from something as mundane as retreat costs to something as specific as the number of Rare Candy in a deck list. Later in the article, I’ll give you a good example of how this looks.
3. Don’t be afraid to disagree.
In “thinking outside of the box,” you might find a great deal of opposition to your ideas. Pay no mind to what others think, focus instead on results. At the beginning of the Fall Battle Roads for the 2012-2013 season, many players openly discussed how bad they thought Ho-Oh EX was. As the tournaments went on, however, Ho-Oh decks started showing up here and there.
By the end of that round of Battle Roads, Ho-Oh EX had become one of the more sought-after cards from the Dragons Exalted set. Someone apparently wasn’t afraid to disagree with the popular notion that Ho-Oh EX was a “bad card.”
4. With the Pokémon TCG, logic > emotion.
Whatever deck list you show up with on the day of the tournament, make sure it’s crafted with logic in mind rather than emotion. Logic tells you to mind your playtesting results, correctly assess the metagame, and make sure that every card in your list is serving the correct function.
Emotion, by contrast, tells you to go with a deck because you “really like it” or you “have a good feeling about it.” Emotion might also convince you that popular archetypes will not show up in a given tournament.
And finally, emotion might convince you to run cards in your deck list that have a far better alternative. I’ve seen players run absolutely horrible techs in their deck because, in the end, they just liked the card.
Remember, if you really want to display a gimmicky card – think Slowking Prime or Golurk DRX – there’s plenty of time for that in the free play area!
5. Remember that our metagame begins where the Japanese metagame leaves off.
This is an important fact that I think many players overlook. With the current metagame, we have an inkling that Keldeo EX/Blastoise might be good. Lately though, I’ve heard many players comment that it’s not a good deck. This has all been figured out before any Boundaries Crossed cards have even shown up in a tournament.
Consider that the Japanese players have already tested out some rogues and have a clearly defined metagame. This indeed makes it more difficult for players outside of Japan to construct a decent rogue deck, since the cream has already risen to the top. However, it’s also helpful because it sets clear archetypes for players to counter.
6. Once you’ve found something that works, abuse the heck out of it!
This is perhaps one of the best bits of advice I can give to you. The reason people talk about a rogue deck “breaking” the format is because it takes total advantage of something that other decks are doing. In looking at the history of the game in the time I’ve played, it appears the most effective rogue decks do this seamlessly.
The best example I can think of for this is something I saw firsthand when my friend Jake Burt won the Southeast Regionals in 2006 with a deck he termed “Polistall.” It utilized Politoed ex to spread damage and Punch and Run, which did 40 damage and sent Politoed ex to the bench.
This isn’t incredible, but every time Politoed ex went to the bench, a Fossil card would take its place. At the time, Fossil Trainer cards did not give up a prize when knocked out, meaning they effectively created a wall behind which Politoed ex could hide.
Burt added to this nifty combo four Cursed Stone and three Desert Ruins, both of which placed damage counters on certain types of Pokémon between turns. As a final insult to injury, Dunsparce LM was used to cause Confusion to the Defending Pokémon and switch to the bench, just in case the opponent managed to put up a threat.
Hopefully you can see what I mean by the taking an idea and stretching it as far as possible. A more recent example is the “VVV” deck that featured Vanilluxe NVI, Victini NVI 14, and Vileplume UD, all in the hopes of achieving a Paralysis lock. It’s not just about a strong idea, it’s about making that idea as strong as possible.
And I like to note here that this is, for some players, a little uncomfortable. They don’t feel right in using a strategy that completely decimates another player’s deck. It isn’t something that players will openly talk about, but it exists.
If you are one of those players, reexamine why you are playing. If you’re reading this article, I can assume it’s to win, so don’t be afraid to throw an extremely annoying strategy at your playtesting partners – it might just lead to a big win!
The 4 Steps to Building a Competitive Rogue Deck
In an effort to give players a working foundation for creating competitive rogue decks, I have four steps that you absolutely must go through before discovering that mix of cards that will spell success.
Again, I will stress that developing a good rogue deck is not easy, but I feel that with the ground rules I spelled out previously and with the following steps, you might find a greater confidence in your deckbuilding.
Step 1: Have or develop a working knowledge of the format (both currently and in the past) and metagame.
In putting together any rogue deck, I often think about strategies that worked in the past. It’s easier to see a combo in the current format when it’s been done in one previously, and so I encourage players to seek out information about successful rogue decks in the past.
The PokéGym, while not one of my favorite sites to frequent, has a great deal of information if you’re looking for tournament results and reports.
Even better, try talking to players who have been in the game for a while. Most players love to recollect on formats past, so give them a chance to talk. And don’t be afraid to dig for details. If you don’t understand why nobody played Switch in formats past, it never hurts to ask!
As far as the current format is concerned, you can find tournament results on the SixPrizes forums or other sites. It will help you develop a proper assessment of what popular archetypes are being used and, even more importantly, what the deck lists for those decks look like.
Step 2: Identify the strengths and weakness of popular archetypes and of your deck.
By focusing on the characteristics of the most popular 3-4 decks in a format, a few patterns should emerge. Looking at our current format, I would identify Rayquaza EX/Eelektrik, Darkrai EX/Hydreigon, Keldeo EX/Blastoise, and Basic EX “toolboxes” as our most popular archetypes.
Remember that the nature of your rogue deck is dependent on the metagame, and in many ways we don’t create rogue decks, we discover them. Given that, you must also identify the strengths and weaknesses of your own deck too. Note that much of this can be done on paper before any deckbuilding even takes place.
Just knowing that most decks in the current format use Abilities and attack with EX Pokémon might lead me to check out Garbodor DRX and Sigilyph DRX. You’re essentially deducing until you get a few leads on what might work.
Please note that I’m not encouraging what people call theorymon unless you are truly confident in your understanding of the game. For those who may not know, the term theorymon is used to describe the mental exercise of explaining, analyzing, and imaginatively “countering” popular decks in the format without any physical playtesting.
Step 3: Playtest cards that show promise.
Our next step is the one that requires the most time and energy. In this, we playtest cards that show promise and problem solve for glaring weaknesses. It’s important to be honest with yourself so you don’t give more credit to an idea than it deserves.
Also, be prepared to give an idea the boot. If you can’t theorymon your way to a decent solution for a given weakness, then scrap the idea and start working with something else that shows promise. In preparing for Nationals this year, I abandoned three deck ideas before arriving at the Mewtwo/Eelektrik deck that got me Top 32 and my brother 2nd place.
It is important as you playtest to be as objective as possible. If your deck is producing lackluster results, identify where its weakness is and tweak it. Ask a friend for advice, or sleep on it. Just remember not to get sucked into denial.
I’ve seen many players show up on the main day of the tournament with what they thought was an excellent choice, then find out in just a few rounds how off track they truly were.
Step 4: Tweak your list for best results.
You might end up with a deck list that crushes the BDIF, yet it loses to that tier 2 deck that gained a little more popularity with the last series of tournaments. Or you end up with a deck that blows everything out of the water but has a 50/50 against the BDIF. If this is the case, start perusing over every card in the card pool until you find a possible solution, then test it out.
It’s important to continually measure your deck against the BDIF, so don’t sacrifice that matchup in your tweaking, but otherwise be open to a few changes here or there.
Remember that many matchups can be swung by the addition or subtraction of even just one card, so it’s important to keep an open mind as you look through your binder of Trainers.
(Note: the addition of three PlusPower into my Steelix deck in 2010 changed my Luxchomp matchup from a 50/50 to a near auto-win!)
Preparing a Rogue Deck in Today’s Format
To demonstrate how one may develop a rogue deck, I’ll do it for you right here! After recently purchasing a couple of packs of the new Boundaries Crossed set, I pulled a Crystal Edge Ace Spec. This card sparked my interest, but I’ll go step by step to demonstrate how one might put together a rogue deck in the current format.
I’ll focus on developing a White Kyurem EX/Emboar BLW deck, which I know is extremely risky given the presence of Blastoise/Keldeo EX. Unfortunately, I haven’t had the time to playtest some of the new cards yet, so bear with me!
Step 1: Have or develop a working knowledge of the format (both currently and in the past) and metagame.
My summation of the format is as follows: Currently, the addition of Sklya and Computer Search to the format has given a boost of power to both speed decks and setup decks. The absence of Ether is notable, keeping those Basic EX decks from dominating.
Still, speed is a huge consideration, though Stage 2 Pokémon are viable mostly for their Abilities. The new set introduces both Blastoise/Keldeo EX and Landorus EX to the scene.
According to many, Blastoise/Keldeo EX is far from perfect, while Landorus EX is suffering from Ether being cut from the set.
Step 2: Identify the strengths and weakness of popular archetypes and of your deck.
I went through and wrote down various characteristics for the following four decks: Rayeels, Darkrai EX/Hydreigon, Blastoise/Keldeo EX, and Basic EX “toolbox” decks. To give you an idea of what this looks like, check out the following notes for Darkrai/Hydreigon:
Strengths: accelerates and manipulates energy, recycles trainers, sets up fairly fast, Basic attacker with lots of HP, some spread damage, can hit for 140 damage if needs to, good lists are very consistent, great healing power, attacks with both EX and non-EX attackers…
Weaknesses: big weakness to fighting, most lists don’t run Switch, very dependent on Abilities, high retreat costs (though normally negated), has trouble without the Stage 2, normally struggles if Darkrai EX gets knocked out quickly…
I invite players to do this on a spreadsheet, mostly because it can help find patterns in the metagame. For instance, the weakness to fighting is also notable for Rayeels, while both Darkrai/Hydreigon and Blastoise/Keldeo struggle without being able to get their Stage 2 in play. From here, I can also plainly see a deck’s weaknesses.
My White Kyurem EX/Emboar deck should depend heavily on Crystal Edge since using it will allow me to knock out Darkrai EX in a single hit. Since only one Ace Spec may be played, I should consider running Recycle in my deck to use Crystal Edge over and over.
After taking a look at the current archetypes in the format, do the same for your deck. How does it match up against the format? In preparing for any big tournament, I usually create a spreadsheet that includes all of the significant decks in a given metagame, plus my rogue deck.
I’ll then compare each deck and see whether it is a 50/50, generally a winner, or generally a loser. The portion of my spreadsheet for White Kyurem EX/Emboar looked like this:
|Darkrai Hydreigon||Keldeo Blastoise||Rayquaza Eelektrik||Darkrai Mewtwo||Garbodor Terrakion||Darkrai “Hammers”||White Kyurem EX Emboar|
|White Kyurem EX Emboar||50/50||X||50/50||O||O||O||50/50|
(Note: X=usually loses, O=usually wins)
This is my way of cutting out a lot of wasted time and get to the heart of how a deck might perform. And keep in mind, this is all theoretical at this point – we haven’t playtested at all! You might do something different than a spreadsheet, but no matter the case you’ll need some kind of process to keep you from testing decks that have no chance of winning a tournament.
Also, keep in mind that I “theorymon’ed” the results above, but you don’t have to. A visit to any Pokémon TCG forum will give you enough evidence to come up with similar results.
Looking at my results above, it appears that my worst matchup – Blastoise/Keldeo EX – is due to my Emboar’s Water Weakness. Since Emboar is a central part of my deck, I will most likely lose without it (though it should be noted that my White Kyurem is capable of knocking out both Blastoise and Keldeo EX in a single hit).
That matchup might be salvageable with the help of Verizion NVI (I came up with this after looking at all the Grass cards in the card pool). If that doesn’t work, I might find something else from my list of weaknesses for Blastoise/Keldeo EX. And of course, if things aren’t looking good from the beginning, you might want to just cut your losses and move on.
Step 3: Playtest cards that show promise.
Now we get into the playtesting portion of this little experiment. If you haven’t got a deck list yet, do some research on various forums and see if you can find one. If you can’t find anything to start with, take a look at some strong lists that are similar in construction to your deck.
For White Kyurem EX/Emboar, I should be looking for a deck that uses a Stage 2 Pokémon to power up a Basic EX Pokémon. Darkrai EX/Hydreigon, then, should give me a decent start.
Here’s a working list for that:
Pokémon – 15
Trainers – 33
Energy – 12
Pokémon – 13
Trainers – 34
Energy – 13
While I know this is a really rough draft, it at least gives me a beginning. From here I can start doing the playtesting required to make further decisions, such as whether I want to continue pursuing this deck or look at the card pool for cards that might help my matchups. I might find that some cards – like Heavy Ball – can be replaced with something more effective.
This is also the time to test out other unconventional ideas and see if they’re worth a spot in the deck. When I do this, I usually look over all the cards in the cardpool and generate discussion with my brother and other members on my team.
Step 4: Tweak your list for best results.
This is also a good time to consider the metagame you will be going into. While Nationals and Worlds has a pretty generalized metagame, tournaments like States and Regionals can vary wildly in terms of popular archetypes.
For my White Kyurem EX/Emboar deck, I should consider my own metagame and work at pulling together an effective deck list that addresses any glaring weaknesses I have. My list might change significantly from the one above simply because Garbodor DRX is played quite a bit in my area. This knowledge might push me to include 1-2 Tool Scrapper to handle that specific matchup.
Knowledge of the metagame might also convince you to make some questionable decisions. For my area, I know that many people like to play “hyped” cards as soon as those cards get released. Given that, White Kyurem EX/Emboar might be a really risky play, assuming everyone starts playing Keldeo EX/Blastoise.
No matter the case, make sure you always ask yourself this one question before any tournament you want to win:
“Is this deck going to give me the best chance possible to win the tournament?”
If you can’t honestly answer “yes” to that question, you might need to readjust.
Building a competitive rogue deck is something that takes time and effort. It also takes creativity and a willingness to consider alternative options (thinking “outside of the box”). Yet the reward for pulling off a solid performance with a deck that nobody saw coming is indeed worth it.
With this article, I have described a pattern of thought that works for me. I mentioned earlier that coming up with a rogue deck is much like a math equation – it’s all about figuring out what “x” actually is. For me, writing down ideas and putting matchups into a spreadsheet helps me know what I should playtest with.
Your pattern of – your strategy – might be different. But remember that there usually is an “x” to the equation that is the Pokémon TCG. In other words, not everything has been figured out about this game!
If you have any questions, feel free to ask! I plan on supplementing this article with some playtesting results for the White Kyurem EX/Emboar deck I mentioned. Also, let me know if this article was helpful to you.
I originally planned on providing printouts for people to use, but my computer crashed somewhere in the process. If you are interested in something like that for my next article, give me a heads up.
… and that will conclude this free Underground article.
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