A Primer on Playing

Winning tournaments is harder than ever before: attendance numbers are greater, good decklists are widespread, and our metagame is relatively limited in contrast to previous seasons of organized play. With all of these softer factors gone, what is left?

Playing the game – that’s what. At the end of the day, there is an actual battle of wits tied up with all the deck-building and metagaming, and it is the one truly essential element to success in the Pokémon Trading Card Game. However, where does one start in actually getting better at playing the game?

Today, we will be discussing in-game skill in its entirety, with most of our focus dedicated to the following areas: tactics and strategies, “tense”/time skills, probability, and judgment. This is going to be a fairly meta-analytical piece, but I am sure that this will help shed a new light on all of the intricacies that go into playing this game at a high level.

Although I intend to make this as definitive of an article on the subject as I can, it is actually a secondary goal of mine to see more substantive discussion of in-game skill than ever before, so be sure to share your unique perspectives on the forums!

Preface on “Primer”

Primer, not Grimer…

As previously mentioned, any guide to advanced playing needs to consider the foundations of in-game skill before anything else. These are all of the various elements that lead us to make the decisions we do, which can range from the best long-term plans to the worst momentary mishaps. While there is a limit to an individual’s potential in each category, simply being aware of what constitutes a good player can, in fact, lead to personal improvement, and working hard on your shortcomings can be even more useful.

Some of these topics may seem elementary at first, but I intend to go pretty far in-depth as we progress: we have a wide range of players reading this article, so a similarly wide range of subjects is needed. But despite that attitude, don’t think for a second that I am excluding myself from this: aside from helping you all become better in-game players, my secondary purpose in writing today’s article is to improve myself, and to increase my chances of winning more big titles and achievements.

Therefore, it should be clear that I am not in the business of patting myself on the back: for all intents and purposes, I am simply a player who has observed countless others, and now has a clear, distinct idea of what must be done to get better at Pokémon.

So what do we need to make ourselves better? Think about the below elements, and I’m sure the process will be much more natural.

Tactics and Strategies

pokemon-paradijs.comIn any decent game involving mental skill, tactics and strategies are not just a luxury – they’re essential. From here on out, we will define tactics as, “individual actions that achieve a strategy,” and strategy as, “the overarching plan a player uses to attain victory in a game.” In other words, tactics are the building blocks of your strategy, and the strategy is the main point of any given game, and your ultimate path to winning. No wonder they’re so important!

Since good tactics bolster a good strategy, it is pivotal to be playing right from the very start. Many players who have been in this game for a long time know that the first few turns tend to set the tone for the whole game, so it should seem natural that misplays – ill-conceived tactics – tend to hurt the most at this stage.

So even if you are not necessarily the strongest player in your area, or are just starting out, it is most important to be well-versed in all facets of your deck’s early setup. This includes knowing:

  • Which Pokémon to attach Energy to
  • What cards to search for
  • What cards to discard
  • What attacks to use
  • Contingencies in the event that your early game is going horribly wrong

And so forth. Individual tactics begin to drop off in importance by some degree as the game goes on, but your tactics at the start will make or break you, so aim for as good a try as possible.

i.usatoday.netNow this all may sound easy, but think about it: playing a 100% perfect early game is actually very challenging for 90%+ of the playing community, and many go weeks – perhaps months – without realizing some of the mistakes they make in the first few turns. This is especially relevant for new, inexperienced, and/or younger players who receive decks for the first time: they are often taught the one default strategy, and tend to dogmatically follow that strategy no matter what situation comes up.

This is good to keep in mind in the event that you want to bring one of these people into the game, because if a player learns to flexibly adjust default strategies with tactics from the start, then they’ll likely improve much faster than if their initial training was founded in rigidity.

Speaking of which, we must shake off one mammoth misconception about strategies: almost every deck has more than one of them! This may sound surprising, since usually archetype articles have a “strategy” section where they tell you to rely on one default course of action, but it is a fact that this strategy is not the extent of most decks.

Furthermore, you could have a completely different strategy than your default when it comes to matchups, often subverting your full setup if it means getting around challenging aspects, such as when an all-evolution deck is up against Celebi Prime’s Time Circle.

The Tense Skills: Memory, Focus, and Anticipation

Past the basics of strategic and tactical maneuvering, there are three core time-related skills that play nicely off of one-another: memory, focus, and anticipation. It’s safe to assume you all know what they mean, so it is in our best interest to proceed in examining how they all affect our in-game capabilities, and how to improve yourself in each area…

Memory is used for many things in our daily lives, but in the context of Pokémon, we usually have to juggle around:

  • Contents of the Prize cards
  • Known contents of each players’ deck
  • Revealed cards in the opponent’s hand
  • And so on

Your duty as a player is to keep as much of this knowledge internalized for as long as the game requires– wouldn’t it be unfortunate if you, say, caught a glimpse of an opponent’s valuable tech card thanks to his or her Pokémon Communication, and then forgot about its existence? No matter what your skill level is, keeping things like that from happening is what you need in order to succeed. Even memory established outside of game can be useful when approaching new, unfamiliar matchups.

For instance, the player entering a game with established memory of all modified-legal cards has a distinct advantage over someone who has failed to do the research, and individuals who have tested every aspect of a matchup are going to be much more likely to remember how to approach the situation than a less-tested counterpart.

There are several ways to supplement or crutch in-game memory. Consider some of the following listed below, and you should feel greater confidence when actually playing the game:

*Use mnemonic devices to remember face-down cards in the deck or prizes. For example, after playing an Alph Lithograph FOUR, and your prizes are…

[Poké Ball, Sage’s Training, Elekid, Onix, Natu, Unown HS]

…You can rearrange your prizes from left to right as, “PONESU” – “pwns you.”

*Likewise, if you are going through the deck and are counting numbers of non-prized Pokémon, it is possible to simply attach the numbers to your memory. So instead of memorizing, “3/4 Yanmega; 2/4 Magnezone,” simply memorize, “3/2 (the number of evolutions available),” or even “1/2 (the number of evolutions prizes.” Our memories have natural limits, but by taking off any undue baggage, juggling is much easier.

*Use writing utensils and notes!!! It has been said time and time again that notes are useful, but I cannot stress enough how well they can crutch a lack of memory, and while this may be less efficient than simply using the above tricks, it is the only surefire, 100% way to assure that you don’t miss anything vital. Just keep in mind that note-taking can put you at risk for a slow play penalty, so if you take extensive data, then do it quickly.

This can be achieved through various forms of shortening: words without vowels, shorthand stenography, etc. If you decide to try one of these methods, make clear to your judge that you are NOT trying to obscure the meaning; otherwise, you may be violating Section 7-of Play! Pokémon’s Tournament Rules.

However, even if you know what actions to take when in possession of a good memory, what should be done if your memory is shaky? This is where focus can come in: by staying as actively engaged with a given game as much as you can, you are more likely to commit developments to memory.

Focus has several more uses than mere activation of our memories, though: it also keeps us engaged in the match, as well as decreases the likelihood that we miss something crucial. Furthermore, it decreases the likelihood that our opponent gets away with accidentally breaking the rules…or cheating.

Thus, it is just as useful as a good memory, and illustrates why we need to consider ways to improve our focus in games and tournaments. Below, you will find pieces of advice for maintaining focus in the Pokémon Trading Card Game:

*Stay healthy. This has been mentioned many times, in many forms, throughout many articles, but I just thought it would be a good idea to remind you of its relevance.

*Whenever you find yourself fading, take a deep breath. More oxygen in your body often makes a huge difference when it comes to well-being, which in turn makes a positive impact on your mental capacities (and, more specifically, your focus). Most importantly, a deep breath gives you some time to recollect in close games

*Remind yourself of the reasons you came to the tournament. It’s challenging to stay focused on one thing for too long, but by reminding yourself of the purpose (winning, making yourself proud, etc), there is less incentive to stray off elsewhere.

In essence, memory is about keeping the past intact, and focus is all about maintaining the present. Still, neither is as difficult to master as anticipation, the process by which we predict future events. Unlike memory and focus, which can be peaked, there is not much of a practical limit when it comes to anticipation. So as long as there are new cards and formats, you always have more room to improve yourself here.

In a sense, anticipation is also the hardest of the tense skill to master, since it requires sufficient capacities of both memory and focus to work: if you do not remember what cards do, then your reactions to events will be unpredictable; and if you do not stay focused on the game at hand, then you may let something big slip, and never get to see a future.

How do you become better at anticipating in-game events?

*Once again, knowing what the cards do is crucial. For the sake of argument, let’s say that a “Kingdra Prime tech deck” user is up against a Zekrom/Shaymin/Pachirisu player, the latter knowing what only the top 50% most popular cards do. As a result, Player B’s anticipatory abilities are greatly limited, and can lead to some absurd victory scenarios for the Kingdra tech player, such as a surprise Sawk EP landing a 1HKO on a Zekrom with all your energy via Spray Splash and two heads on Five Fierce Chops.

Of course this is about as absurd as it can get, but the point is that the player who is accustomed to dealing with weirdness on a regular basis would be able to proactively adjust in the event that something bad happened.

*Past knowing what cards do, acute awareness of the logical interactions cards have with one-another sets strong players apart from weak ones. This is basically what veteran players mean when they say someone “thinks ahead”: they know how the various strengths and weaknesses in a matchup will play out, and will factor those in to assure the highest possible change of winning.

Actually improving in this area is easier said than done, but going back to our previous discussion, if you know how each individual tactic pans out in a strategy, then anticipation should come much more comfortably. So say in the Donphan/Megazone matchup, you know how each individual interaction works: Donphan with a PlusPower and Earthquake trumps Magnezone, but risks putting benched targets in range for Yanmega; Yanmega stalemates Yanmega; and Zoroark conditionally trumps Magnezone with the right amount of energy.

By connecting each of these interactions together, including those that have not yet happened, you develop a “chain” for the matchup, and can ultimately plan further into the future because of that chain. So in our above example, the “anticipation” at work would involve prudent decisions tied to the benching of Pokémon, the attachment of energy, and the conservation of in-hand resources – the chain effect.

*As a final note about anticipation, consider the game theory concept of backward induction, which perfectly conveys the process of anticipation. Here is a basic model (“game tree”) from the University of Tennessee at Martin to illustrate backward induction:

Player 1 is deciding (at X) whether or not to use a Pokémon Circulator, or to just Knock Out a relatively important active Pokémon. If he does the former, then Player 2 must decide (at X’) which of his two benched Pokémon to bring up for Circulator: either a high-HP essential that cannot get Knocked Out this turn, or a useless low-HP to try and trigger a Twins.

If Player 2 takes the second choice, then Player 1 (at X’’) has to determine whether or not it is worthwhile to Knock Out the Pokémon and trigger Twins now, or to poison and assure a KO unaccompanied by a Twins that same turn. Finally, every “Z” is the overall board control gain (or loss) each player gets. Our values for this will be:

Z1 (Circulator/Low HP/knockout): 1, 10
Z2 (Circulator/Low HP/Poison and wait for a knockout ): 2, -1
Z3 (Circulator/High HP and damage): 1, 1
Z4(No Circulator): 4, 0

The way backward induction works is we start at the lowest level, and then work our way “back” in time, figuring out the most rational choice for each decision. So if you are Player 1, then at X’’, you would not Knock Out the low-HP Pokémon, since the Twins would (for the sake of argument) assure a 100% setup, and a ton of board gain.

Then, at X’, since Player 2 assumes Player 1 will make the rational choice and “not” put himself in a losing position, he would decide to promote the high HP Pokémon as a shield.

With this chain of events anticipated, Player 1 then finally has to decide whether or not to pull the trigger on Circulator. Since we figured out that Player 2 would not even lead us into a chance to decide between having to Knock Out the low HP Pokémon, 1 is basically choosing between taking a prize on the active, or Pokémon Circulating to simply damage a wall.

Since the active is an important card (say a Magnemite), even a Twins wouldn’t change things at all, so Player 1 would simple refrain from Pokémon Circulator, and choose to Knock it Out!

There are a lot of “what-ifs” attached to this model of thinking, but it is more or less what we as players are trying to do every event: figure out what our opponents would do, and then act accordingly.


Of course, not everything goes according to plan, especially in our coin-flipping, topdecking world of Pokémon cards. This is where are next concept comes in: probability, the likelihood of an event based on the range of 0% (0) to 100% (1). This is where the true number-crunching skills of Pokémon come in – not the simple addition, subtraction, and multiplication, but the combinations and permutations tied to the exact probability of any one event occurring.

When it comes to player skill, individuals can rank in any one of the following levels of probability awareness for a given match:

Tier 4: Not aware of this aspect of the game at all. These players will simply play cards without any consideration of future implications.

(By merely reading and comprehending this article, 0% of Underground members should be at this point!)

Tier 3: Hazily aware of probabilities in card-drawing, these players know that 1-of techs are harder to draw than 4-of staples, but their awareness isn’t anything beyond that.

(This is where I am on my worst games playing – usually at league, where I don’t feel the heightened urgency to keep my probabilities straight.)

Tier 2: Moderately aware of the probabilities at work in a game. Anyone within the second tier has a distinct awareness of chances, but tends to calculate in general terms such as, “highly likely,” or “extremely unlikely.”

(This is where I am in a third of my games – usually ones where I feel less of a need to stay actively involved in number crunching. However, this is a bad habit of mine, since it’s a very subtle, almost subconscious form of underestimation of an opponent.)

Tier 1.5: Knows most probabilities, and is often juggling fairly specific totals in his or her head for prizes, topdecks, etc.

(This is where I usually hang out at in over half of my games, since the exact odds are going to give me a better outlook on assessing situations. However, since I’m stuck in the second tier more often than I ought to be, this is relatively inconsistent.)

Tier 1: Knows exact probabilities down to the last digit, and acts accordingly every time. Given the timed environment of the Pokémon card game, this is more of an ideal than a reality: few players ever scratch the surface of Tier 1, and even fewer actually achieve it. However, if you want something to strive for, then this is it.

(Although I occasionally have moments where I flirt with this level, I have never consistently been in the first tier of probability awareness. Therefore, I know that the first place I could work on if I wanted to improve at the game is this…. Time to review my old college math notes!)

Where do you typically rank on the probability awareness tier system? If you’re high up on the mark, then great; however, if you’d like to improve, then there’s no better place to start than improving your math skills – a whole other subject in itself that’d take much longer than we have time for, so go to your favorite search engine and have fun.


pokemon-paradijs.comNo matter how great your math skills are, or how keenly aware you are of the past, present, and future, it will all go to waste without good judgment: the ability to make decisions consistent with your goals. There is perhaps no better way to distinguish stronger players from weaker ones, since it is a requirement that Worlds, Nationals, and Regionals winners make a sufficient number of good choices throughout their given events.

That doesn’t mean you have to be the best at all, or even any, one playing skill – you just have to act accordingly. Luck is when preparation meets opportunity; but if you fail to act, then your preparation will never get the chance to intersect opportunity!

Naturally, judgment is the final step in our playing primer today, as good judgment requires the culmination of all other skills. However, there are some principles that hold true even if you are still improving in any or all of the six aforementioned skills:

1. Confidence in your actions goes a long way. This is not to say that you should be cocky or arrogant; just don’t second-guess yourself after having thoroughly considered all reasonable possibilities. Plus, low confidence in one situation has what I call a “road bump” effect on your process: the shaky execution of one move automatically leaves you in an undesirable mindset for the next move, so it becomes that much more difficult to adjust for the rest of the game.

2. Most individual misplays are NOT game-shattering, so do not let yourself get wound up if you make a mistake! I know it can be frustrating (and even a little emotional) to make a big blunder, but it is poor judgment to become fixated on one error, and thus increase the chances that you make another mistake. Instead, just calm down, take another one of those deep breaths, and stay in the game.

3. Similar to “2,” it is better judgment to abandon a failing strategy than to stick to it. At a City Championship event in 2004, my top eight opponent and I were playing the Blaziken RS/Ninetales EX mirror match: my approach was to swarm Ninetales , while his was to swarm Blazikens. Since Blaziken RS’s Fire Stream only does ten damage to the bench, it was a mirror strategy that definitely did not work, and essentially guaranteed that I would win by virtue of easy 1HKOs. However, had he changed his course of action, then our game would have been that much closer, and I might have lost.

4. In general, any play that is less than the optimal one is in fact a misplay, so through extension, sub-optimal moves are proportionately sub-optimal executions of judgment. Many players do not mean this in conversation, though: by “I did not misplay,” they’re typically meaning to communicate, “I did not make any patently obvious mistakes that any reasonable player would avoid.” Do not let yourself make this mistake as well, and recognize that you are striving for the perfect game – not the “I didn’t make any obvious blunders” game.

pokebeach.com…Yet when returning to our earlier topic of probability, doesn’t the definition of “good judgment” become far more ambiguous than previously thought? Going back to our backward induction models, say that there’s a chance of Player 2 being irrational, or a low probability that he has Twins. If so, then the decisions made at each point may have new values for each player, perhaps leading to new choices entirely.

Needless to say, unpredictability complicates things, so here are some suggestions on when to gamble and when not to. Keep in mind that context is critical, so different circumstances may lead us to different decisions…

  1. When you are far behind with few hopes left, risks become much more tolerable. Suddenly, that silly “flip a coin until you get tails” attack (Raichu HS’s Iron Tail) is a lot more attractive when you have no other way to KO the active!
  1. When you are far ahead, risks become much less tolerable. Who needs an Iron Tail, with only 1/16 of a chance at winning you the game this turn against a 120 HP Pokémon, when you can simply use Thunderbolt and put it within range of even the lowliest attacker?
  2. In tight moments during equally tight late games, context is everything. The decision to Iron Tail versus Thunderbolt suddenly becomes a lot harder to make when you’re up against a 150 HP Pokémon, stand a strong chance of being Knocked Out next turn, “and” have virtually no resources left in your deck to attack again.
  1. During the early game, risks become tolerable only if there is a huge payoff tied to it. A good example of this is the 2011 U.S. National finals in the Master division, where Pooka used several resources to attempt a first turn win against a 50 HP Pokémon via Zorua’s Lunge. Although he flipped tails on the attack, it was worth the risk of resources, and had few drawbacks – thus making it the right choice. Had the situation been slightly different, such as attempting to grab the resources to KO a higher HP Pokémon, then the risk might not have been worth it, and Pooka would have been better served just setting up his board more.

Judgment is the hardest “skill” to possess in Pokémon, even when situations are certain. However, the number one way to assure good judgment is to make your overall game more well-rounded, so that when your finals match comes along, you will be able to seize the win.

Final Thoughts

aperfectworld.orgThe player base is larger than ever, and with Regionals split in two, there is no better time to improve your skills to stay afloat. This Fall Battle Road tournament series should give you a good chance to prepare in a tournament environment, so that once the November Regional events do roll around, you will be prepared.

Again, if you have any thoughts about the process of in-game improvement, do not hesitate to bring it up on the Underground forums: this is a matter that needs more discussion, and the more people thinking about skill, the greater our player base will become as a whole. Thank you for your interest, and I eagerly look forward to your own individual perspectives!

If you are interested in more literature on in-game skill, then check out my “Winning the Mind Game” article. Unlike this article, it revolves primarily around the interactions between players as opposed to the individual decision-making process, so it should also prove useful in your pre-Regionals prep.

…and that will conclude this Unlocked Underground article.

After 45 days, we unlock each Underground (UG/★) article for public viewing. New articles are reserved for Underground members.

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