I am a player who has always loved toolbox decks; the kind that run one or two of a solution to all manner of situations. SP decks were a beautiful thing to me last format, though I didn’t spend much time playing them as I was more interested in the fire engine, and the many interesting tools that came along with it.
SP was a solved problem – Charizard, at the time, wasn’t, so I started working on it. In the Heart Gold/Soul Silver-on (HGSS-on) format, there are even more Pokémon that can be used in “toolbox” decks, so I thought it would be a good time to write an article about how toolbox decks are designed, and how to play them in general.
Most Pokémon decks go by a simple philosophy of “bring out your main attacker, load it up, swing”, and their recovery strategy looks a lot like “build up another one on the bench, send it out when the first one drops”.
Our last two seasons have given us swarming Donphans, Jumpluffs, Kingdras, Machamps, Charizards, and all kinds of other Pokémon; but one thing was common: when players finally found optimal SP builds, they all rolled over and died. None of these decks had an advantaged matchup against SP, but why?
The answer is that SP, like all toolbox decks, uses a different philosophy. The philosophy is: “there is an efficient solution to every problem”.
Even decks that don’t rely on lightning attackers have trouble with this monster soaking up their attacks and coming back with its own.
How does an average deck deal with that? By smashing away with a main attacker, or bringing up a secondary attacker that can hit for Donphan’s water weakness or resist its fighting attacks. These decks only run one or two attackers, though, and if none of those answer a given threat, they’re going to have to dedicate a LOT of resources (possibly multiples of a main attacker) to removing it.
How does a toolbox deck deal with that? By bringing up a silver bullet to Donphan, like Umbreon UD, which flat out prevents it from doing damage with its attack, or by bringing up a sniper like Garchomp C Lv. X, Blindside Honchkrow, or Mandibuzz, to take its 60 damage attacks and take prizes by sniping around its bulk. It may also bring up an efficient water attacker with a 1 or 0 energy attack to knock out the Donphan in one or two hits.
A toolbox deck is never assumed to have “everything”; obviously you can’t put every card in the game in a single deck. What a toolbox deck builder does instead, is analyzes the metagame, looking for the main strategies, threats, and situations.
Once a list of these has been put together, the deckbuilder looks for absolute, strong answers that can be brought out quickly. These are the keywords: absolute, strong answers, that can be brought out quickly.
There are several types with boxes full of tools in the current Pokémon format, but the most obvious toolbox type is, and has been for several seasons, Darkness.
For this reason, this article’s deck design segment will focus primarily on toolbox dark; that said, Grass and Fire, and to a lesser extent Electric, Fighting, and Water have the tools and draw power to make toolbox decks work.
More Pokémon types can often help make a toolbox deck happen – LuxChomp decks are a perfect example, often running 3 types of energy, and often more than ten different Pokémon.
The first question to ask when building a toolbox deck is “what are the big threats in the current metagame”? Before you choose your main Pokémon, you have to be able to answer this question with absolute certainty – otherwise you may find yourself blindsided without a tool for a given situation, and having to fall back on thinner lines of heavy Pokémon, if any at all.
It is possible for a deck to win without a heavy attacker, again as proven by SP decks, which generally lack any Pokémon over 110 HP.
In the Heart Gold/Soul Silver-on metagame, the most basic threats any deck must be able to answer are:
- Reshiram and Zekrom: These attackers are very similar and serve the same role: hit for 120 damage. Any metagame deck at all is going to need some way of dealing with these bulky dragons, as they will be the most common attackers in the format.
- Donphan: The obvious counter to Reshiram and Zekrom, Donphan is bulky enough to take their hits, and is more or less guaranteed to start attacking on turn 2.
- Machamp: A 150-HP stage 2 that can hit for 150 damage, but needs support and 4 energy to do so. An active Machamp Prime can shift the game immensely when it hits the active spot and loads up with its Poké-Power, “Fighting Tag”.
There are plenty of other threats in this format; Blastoise, Yanmega, Magnezone, Tyranitar, Gengar, Samurott and Vileplume are just the beginning. The best toolbox decks – the ones that may well win Nationals if it goes to HGSS-on – will have answers to most or all of these Pokémon.
Let’s start by compiling some efficient answers to the top three.
PokeBeachReshiram and Zekrom are best countered by something that can one hit KO them, preferably while taking their attack. There are VERY few Pokémon in the format that can do this reliably, and even fewer who can do it for a low cost. Personally, I see four options:
- Wailord: Zekrom causes it problems, but it swallows Reshiram and Donphan easily, and is the only potentially competitive Pokémon in the format who can take a fully boosted hit from Machamp (the others being Dragonite TM and Ho-Oh LEGEND, neither of which are playable).It can also swallow up a Zekrom wounded by its own “Bolt Strike” attack. The downside – it needs to evolve, and use a massive four energy to attack or retreat.
- Zoroark: Zoroark with a Special Dark one-hit KOs Reshiram and Zekrom easily, but it doesn’t have the HP to do much in return, and using a DCE makes it fall short.
- Donphan Prime: Donphan puts itself in the top 3 by coming just short of one hit KOing a Zekrom for one energy, and being able to take a hit from almost everything in the format short of Machamp Prime or water Pokémon.
- Tyranitar Prime: It can take hits from Reshiram and Zekrom, and with just a single Special Dark, one hit KO back with “Megaton Tail”. The problem is, Megaton Tail costs four energy, AND Tyranitar is a Stage 2 Pokémon.
Donphan Prime’s biggest weakness is it only doing 60 damage for one energy, while damaging its own bench; it can attack for 90, but requires 3 fighting energy to do so, which becomes a liability if it gets knocked out.
- Water Attackers: Almost any decent water attacker can one hit KO Donphan Prime.
- Typhlosion Prime: Able to deprive Donphan of needed energy, and taking three “Earthquake” attacks, it can really slow down a fighting deck trying to put energy in play. The downside is it’s a Stage 2 Pokémon with a 3-energy attack.
- Mandibuzz and Honchkrow UD: Both are stage 1 Pokémon that resist fighting, and can use Donphan’s Earthquake to their advantage by sniping the bench for 50.
- Umbreon UD: While it only deals 10 damage to Donphan with “Moonlight Fang”, Donphan’s Poké-Body prevents it from doing ANYTHING to an Umbreon that has used Moonlight Fang. A second answer is recommended in this case, as taking twelve turns to knock something out is not generally a viable strategy. Use Umbreon to buy time, or consider multiple Special Darks or applying Poison or Burn to Donphan first.
PokeBeachMachamp Prime’s biggest weakness is that it needs a LOT of energy to do anything: a minimum of two fighting and another energy card to do a rather pitiful 60 damage, and four energy (or three and a Double Colorless Energy) to do 100 plus the number of damaged Pokémon on the bench. What counters that?
- Sigilyph BS (Battle Strength): Psycho Damage will do a base 80 damage to a loaded Machamp Prime for three colorless energy, making it very splashable. It also resists Fighting. The downside is the Machamp needs energy BEFORE you knock it out.The other downside is, this card has not been announced for North American release; given that the format lacks a serious Machamp counter, however, I suspect it will get thrown into our fall set.
- Umbreon UD again prevents any damage to itself by Machamp with Moonlight Fang.
- Wailord can soak up a fully boosted Champ Buster, and can do 100 damage to Machamp with Swallow Up if the Wailord remains undamaged.
There is one obvious commonality between these lists: there’s a Dark Pokémon on every one of them, which is why Dark has become the “go-to” toolbox deck. Looking at the other Pokémon on the threat list, one of Tyranitar, Zoroark, Mandibuzz, and Umbreon counters most of them – the bench-sniping Blastoise dodging the silver bullet and remaining a threat to this foursome.
With four Pokémon already in the deck, the sane decision is to likely accept Blastoise as a problem, understanding that it is a stage 2 that also attacks for four energy, so Tyranitar is a viable attacker against it, and can one hit KO with a special Darkness Energy.
Another option is to tech in a 1-1 Slowking, which improves the situation against Machamp Prime as well, by helping prevent both decks from drawing into the much-needed energy their main attackers require four of. Lost Removers can also be useful, to take care of Double Colourless Energy.
Trainers and Supporters for toolbox decks are much simpler, and mostly look the same from deck to deck: emphasize search above all else. 4 Bebe’s Search in the old format become 4 Pokémon Communication now, and should likely be supplemented with Junk Arm as well.
In basic-heavy toolbox decks, Dual Ball can be played, and Pokémon Collector is a must-have to match basics to evolutions in hand. Prof. Elm’s Training Method is a questionable Supporter given its ability to only fetch an evolution, but after a Collector start or a Portrait from Smeargle UD, it can fetch exactly what you need.
Stadiums should only be used if they destroy another deck’s strategy, or greatly support yours: for example an evolution-based deck before HS-on would run Broken Time-Space. A deck relying on Electric attackers might consider Ruins of Alph as a Donphan counter.
Here is a build for a Tyranitar deck using the above principles. I have tested this deck only somewhat, but feel it will do well. Note that it does not run single copies of any tools, as having them prized may disrupt matchups.
|Pokémon – 20 |
3 Larvitar UL #51
|Trainers – 27||Energy – 13|
Once you’ve filled your toolbox, it’s game time – but now you have a deck that is reactive, analytical, and generally hard to play. How do you turn that into a win every game?
The most important thing to know is your opponent’s deck, and what threats they are going to present. Going into a game blind, you have to quickly read your opponent’s first plays, and then start playing proactively.
Don’t keep responding to threats as he puts them on the board: predict his next move, and have your answer already coming out. Here are a few bullet points for how to play a toolbox deck:
- Don’t give away the first prize, but expect them to take it. Most decks are going to be running with a purely offensive mindset, while you may be stuck with the wrong tool for the job in the active spot.Starting out is a toolbox deck’s worst position, as you don’t know what to get, and you don’t know what you’re going to have active. Twins is an excellent Supporter to cover this weakness, as it will let you get the tools you need to get out of trouble.
- Make educated guesses. If you see your opponent starting Phanpy, you don’t have to see the Machop to assume Machamp is likely in the deck and that you should dig your Machamp counter out. While decks will have techs and alternate options that may force you to play reactively, try to play proactively as often as possible and look for answers to threats you see coming – once you’ve already neutralized the threats on the board, of course.
- Lock your opponent’s weak arm. Whenever you have the ability, take what your opponent lacks away from him. If your opponent is trying to bring up an evolution, start sniping, or rig his draws with Slowking. If your opponent is low on energy, use cards that remove them, or try for quick KOs on loaded Pokémon. If your opponent relies on Rare Candy, force him to devolve.While you may not have all the needed tools, always use the ones you have. If your opponent hasn’t made a play in a few turns, one key card will probably set him off. It might be a good time to take a look at his hand if you have the resources to.
- Always have a fallback. If you get caught without an answer to a given threat, you should have a general-purpose threat of your own to throw at your opponent to buy time, or even put him on the defensive.An excellent example Pokémon is Tyranitar Prime, which nothing in the format (barring Black Belt or Magnezone Prime) can knock out in one hit without weakness. Donphan Prime and Machamp are other excellent options, to give your opponent something else to think about while you dig up a more concrete answer. Sometimes, brute force even IS the answer!
PokeBeachThe point of a toolbox deck is to rely on your search power, and have a hard counter to anything you see. If you find yourself slugging it out instead, you either need to re-tool your deck for the matchup, or if you already have the counter in your deck, get off the ropes and dig it up!
One situation a toolbox deck will often encounter is too few tools for a job. An example is the above Tyranitar toolbox deck vs Donchamp. Your Donchamp counters in the deck could be Sigilyph once printed, Yanmega Prime, Mandibuzz, and Umbreon.
Even assuming you have two of these in the deck, they will be filling multiple roles, countering Donphans, sniping, and otherwise making a nuisance of themselves – so you may have some of them in the discard when you still need them.
Recovery cards like Flower Shop Lady are key in a toolbox deck, but they don’t always show up when you need them. Be prepared to use a bit of creativity to get prizes, and know that sometimes you have to give away your lead (or a piece of it) to get board position and come back.
Hand size and board position is key to a toolbox deck: if your opponent has more tools than you do, your advantage is gone.
To wrap up, I think toolbox decks in general are an excellent choice for a HGSS-on format, and just because SP is gone doesn’t mean the age of the toolbox is over. While Tyranitar will be the de facto toolbox deck, I think there will be some potential for toolbox decks based around other main attackers as well, especially Yanmega.
There’s a good chance that such a deck, if built right, will have what it takes to win US Nationals instead of the currently expected Reshiram, Zekrom, or DonChamp deck – but we’ll have to see what the top players cook up, as they have far more time to tune and test than I do. Cheers!