Tournament Strategy: How to Excel in the Top Cut

Hello there again Underground, I hope you had a great X-mas and happy New Year!

Today I’m going to discuss various strategies on how to consistently achieve great results in the top cut, or if you’re a European player who plays 2/3 games the entire tournament. Some ideas may be more apparent than others, but I hope that everyone can take something away from this article.

1. Choosing & Building the Right Deck for the Cut

On the tournament scene at the moment, a lot of players are neglecting the capability of a deck in best two out of three games with the recent rule changes. With the new sudden death ruling, faster, more offensive decks such as Luxchomp and donk decks have a better chance to do well in the top cut.

With only 1 Prize card needing to be taken in order for a game to count, you made have played out a solid first game in 50 minutes, only to lose Game 2 on time to a faster deck and have to go to sudden death. Decks such as Regigigas, Magnezone, Vilegar and to a lesser extent Gyarados, although perform very strongly in the late game, have a weak early game set up.

This results in faster decks with T1/T2 KO options (i.e. Luxchomp, Donphan, Machamp and Kingdra) generally doing better under these sudden death conditions.

By selecting a deck that can accommodate a speedy set up as well as hitting hard early game, you don’t run the risk of getting ejected from the tournament early due to poor luck in sudden death. This may seem a little obvious to a number of readers, but I can’t stress how much a factor speed is in today’s tournament scene.

2. Proper Time Management

clockMark A. HicksThis may seem obvious, but almost every tournament that I’ve been to I’ve heard someone ask the Judge; “how much time is left?” Wearing a watch is so beneficial to keeping track of time in a game. By knowing how much time you have left, it can influence the actions you take that turn.

For example, if you know only 5 minutes are left, taking cheap prizes to give you the game on time may be a better option than taking more turns to KO their bigger threats to you late game. This may be a no-brainer to a lot of players, but even I confess to not wearing a timepiece on numerous occasions at tournaments. As judges shouldn’t give out time if there are 10 minutes or under left of a match, it’s free information you can easily provide for yourself.

3. Know When to Concede

This point I cannot stress enough. If you’re on the first game of match and your opponent is rolling though your setup and know there’s nothing you can realistically do to stop them from winning the game, just fold as opposed to enduring the soul crushing defeat. This lets you save time for the next two games to make a comeback, and win the match.

This is not to say give up on games that can possibly be won, but to evaluate when it’s best to admit defeat. Through experience with a deck and its matchups, you tend to get a feel for when a situation is hopeless and at which point it’s time to move onto Game 2.

4. Never Give Your Opponent Free Information

Personally, I never tell anyone what I’m playing before a tournament as forces your opponent to expect the unexpected. Don’t respond to questions such as “Oh, so you’re running Gyarados today?” or “Do you run 3 or 4 Broken Time-Space” as it simply allows your opponent to gain a tactical edge over you in a match situation by anticipating how to approach the matchup.

If your opponent asks to see your hand in exchange for them folding, never show it. Some sleazy players will go back on their word and try to get a sneaky victory. This doesn’t happen all the time, but take into account that it could.

Another, less obvious idea is to make sure you shuffle your deck face down, so not to reveal any key cards from your build. Numerous times I’ve seen my opponent flip over cards that give away what he’s playing (i.e. A Magikarp tells me a player is probably playing Gyarados SF or a Cyrus’s Conspiracy would almost certainly make me expect to play an SP match).

5. Mind Games

There are a great of deal of psychological techniques that can be utilized in order to gain an edge over your opponent in top cut matches which may ultimately determine the outcomes of games.

An Opponent’s Prestige/Reputation

Through past tournament success, certain players establish a semi “celebrity” status, which may give them a predetermined edge against the competition due to their opponents being more nervous by the fact they are playing somebody of a very high skill level.

If you get paired against one of these famous names, it’s important to remember that they’re beatable and not panic into making misplays. I’ve done this on occasion before, and have since realized it a bad idea to get riled up just because I have a harder match than usual.

During discussing this article with my friend Michael Pramawat (2nd Worlds 2010), he said:

“You should take out the part about prestige; it’s how I win 80% of my games.”


When the pairings for top cut have gone up, you see that you’re against a name that you don’t recognize. More of the experienced tournament players may be relieved by this as they think they have an easy victory against a “noob”. Players such as this tend to have a lot of self confidence, and may lull themselves into a false sense of security thinking they have the easy route to the next cut match.

As a result, they are more casual about their play style, and may misplay more as a consequence of underestimating the unknown player. If you are that unknown player, take full advantage of this by reacting to your opponents every move, trying to exploit their potential misplays. I admit to underestimating players at certain times in tournaments, causing me to almost lose matches because of it.


I’m sure a great number of competitive players will agree with me that they’ve been asked to pick up their pace of play by their opponent in some point in their tournament career. Sometimes it’s not even because of the pace of play, but because your opponent wants you to believe that you are, to make you panic. Upon being told this, a lot of players tend to rush their moves, and as a consequence, misplay.

If your opponent tries this when you’re certain that your play is of a timely manner, call over a judge and ask him to monitor the pace of play.

On the flip side, if you think you’re being stalled out of a win, call the judge over to monitor the game situation instead of losing your temper with your opponent.



Uncommon, but still apparent in today’s Pokémon TCG player-base is the use of items of clothing to attract attention to themselves in some way.

The use of items such as sunglasses in the tournament hall is sometimes used to irritate their opponents during matches as opposed to reasons related to the brightness of the room light. Not being able to see your opponent’s eyes during a match can be very frustrating experience as there is a lack of visual connection with him/her.

Some other players may become intimidated by them and therefore misplay during the game. Other gimmicks include bandanas, hats, brightly colored hoodies and to a lesser extent (not really sure it even falls into the gimmick category) visual looks and body odor to distract attention away from your opponents.

In no way am I encouraging or disapproving of the use of such items, it’s merely important to be aware of the effect the may have on your psyche during a tournament game, and even more importantly in the top cut.

In the Pokémon TCG, it is not uncommon for people tend to form opinions of players based on word of mouth and other people’s feelings about them. These “gimmicks” tend to help exacerbate an opinion already held by somebody and cause them to have them to have a negative view of that specific player. This is fine so long as they aren’t your opponent. If paired against them it’s harder to concentrate on the game as your mind is wondering about personal issues you may have with them, as opposed to the game situation itself.

This may not apply to all players, but a lot of people do judge a book by its cover, contrary to the popular saying and consequently let their feelings about a person cause a lapse in their concentration in-game. Rise above it, suck it up, and focus on your match.

Faking It

When in a game winning situation, most players leap at the chance of victory to be one game up on their opponent, but may not always be the best strategic decision to make. If you know you have a substantial lead on your opponent, in terms of prizes and position, faking your victory may be a more beneficial choice in terms of the best of 3.

An example I can use to illustrate this is a personal experience I had a few weeks ago at a City Championship in the UK:

I was playing a Luxchomp mirror match best of 3 games. I took a very strong lead in the first game, taking 5 Prizes to his 2. On my turn, I had the ability to win the game by attaching a DCE to Garchomp C LV.X to “Dragon Rush” for my last prize, but instead, just used “Bright Look” with Luxray GL LV.X to disrupt his active Pokémon. Noticing that there was 50 minutes gone of a 60 minute round, I chose to fake that I had the DCE in my hand to avoid going to a Game 2, and hoped that he would take the bait, and hope he would try to make a valiant comeback.

After concluding that his hand was weak, and setup limited, I knew that I had the capability to win the game at any point and would just not attach an energy card each turn so that my opponent thought he had a chance at winning. He did indeed end up running out the clock, bringing the prize gap to 2-1 when time was called. As the first game came down to time, there was no Game 2, and I won by letting my opponent burn himself out instead of conceding and attempting to win games 2 and 3.

This tactic may be seen by some as unethical, but personally, if your opponent doesn’t know when to concede a game and chooses to play on anyway, I don’t have a problem doing it. Taking advantage of your opponents’ misplays is a key part in becoming a great Pokémon TCG player.

So, in Summary:

  • Deck selection is a key factor in consistent tournament success. The format at the moment definitely favors faster decks in match-play situations and should be used in order to take full advantage of that.
  • Effective Time Management is imperative to monitor how long games are going on for and when the best time to concede a game is.
  • Abandoning hopeless situations is very important with regard to best out of 3 games. Know when you’re done for, and hope to recover lost ground in the subsequent games.
  • Maintain an Element of Secrecy from your opponent by not revealing deck information by telling them your build structure even if you beat them. Information has a way of working its way around tournaments to other players, so by not telling the guy you just beat keep your future opponents guessing about what decklist you’re running exactly.
  • Mind Games are used in a variety of ways by your opponents in order to gain an upper hand in a match. Try not to let them annoy you and be prepared to look out for it at tournaments you attend.


6. Don’t Be Disheartened

Sometimes tournaments don’t go your way for whatever reason (poor luck, bad matchups, silly misplays), but it’s essential to remember to keep a positive frame of mind. By addressing what you did wrong in the tournament ultimately helps you grow as a player and enables you go deeper into the cut with each tournament you play in the future.

That’s it for now guys. I hoped you enjoyed the read, and can take something away from it of benefit to the next tournament you attend.

Until next time folks!

Tom H.

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