On Failure and Losing: An Article About Not Getting 1st Place at Pokémon Tournaments

Most articles on SixPrizes will tell you how to succeed at the Pokémon Trading Card Game (TCG). This article will not do that. Many of the readers on SixPrizes come here in order to learn methods of success and ways to win. However, at any given tournament, only one person wins. What about the non-winners or the losers? Should we not talk about them? I think we should (and I hope you do too).

My intention for this article is to discuss the following ideas.

  1. Introduction to the topic and why I want to write about failure.
  2. Framing and analyzing ideas of failure.
  3. Why we believe certain players should fail and certain players should not.
  4. The bitterness of failure.
  5. The importance of failure, why we need to fail and how to avoid it.

As I was writing this article, lots of ideas presented themselves to me that demanded attention. I fit them in where they seemed to fit most naturally. I hope that their inclusion and placement does not retract from the overall quality of the article!

Introduction and Nationals Recap

pokemon-paradijs.comIn one way or another, we all fail at the Pokémon TCG every once and a while (some more than others). Only one person is named the City, State, Regional, and National Champion at these respective tournaments. We know the odds of failing to win at any given tournament are usually pretty high and yet we still continue to go to them.

People have different reasons for attending tournaments: visiting with friends, making new friends, trading, playing etc. I am relatively certain that the readers of Underground attend tournaments because they want to win (we can have other reasons for attending too, of course). However, it is likely that we will not win the tournaments that we attend. In fact, it is getting even more unlikely for us to win tournaments due to changes in the Pokémon TCG.

Tournaments are increasing in size (for Masters at least) and players are becoming more informed about strategies and decks due to the recent boom of online information. It is easier than ever to find excellent decklists and good advice. As a result, tournaments are becoming more difficult.

Over the years, I have grown more and more accustomed to losing in tournaments. Getting first is hard. I would not say that I have become desensitized to losing…but it has become easier. I am less bitter about losing than I used to be. This is largely due to maturity and an accumulation of wisdom.

BulbapediaThere are many ways to consider failure and losing. I have grown to evaluate myself and others in more accurate ways and form more reasonable expectations. More on this later!

I have been thinking about an article like this for a while. My recent failure at the 2012 U.S. Nationals prompted me to actually write it. For those of you that do not know, I ended up going 4-5 at Nationals. This is even more of a failure when you consider that two of my wins were the two-round byes I earned as a result of my 2nd place finish at Fall Regionals.

I ended up playing ZekEels/Terrakion instead of my Darkrai EX/Terrakion variant due to better play testing results. Thinking back upon the tournament, I probably should have stuck with Darkrai EX/Terrakion. Prior to the tournament I had some concerns with ZekEels/Terrakion that, for whatever reason, did not show up in my play testing.

However, they definitely showed their ugly heads during the tournament. These issues include problems getting early Eelektriks, keeping Eelektriks in play, donks on my low HP Pokémon, problems getting Terrakion out of the Active Spot, and problems getting the F Energy on Terrakion. Here is the list I used.

Pokémon – 15

4 Tynamo DEX 45
3 Eelektrik NVI
2 Terrakion NVI
2 Zekrom BLW
2 Mewtwo-EX NXD
1 Smeargle UD
1 Shaymin UL

Trainers – 33

4 Professor Juniper
3 Professor Oak’s New Theory
3 N
2 Random Receiver


4 Junk Arm

3 Pokémon Catcher
3 Switch
2 PlusPower
2 Eviolite

2 Dual Ball
2 Ultra Ball
1 Level Ball

1 Super Rod
1 Energy Search

Energy – 12

9 L
3 F

And here is my final Darkrai EX/Terrakion list that I should have used.

Pokémon – 9

3 Darkrai-EX DEX
2 Terrakion NVI
1 Mewtwo-EX NXD
2 Smeargle UD
1 Shaymin UL

Trainers – 39

4 Professor Juniper
3 Professor Oak’s New Theory
3 N
2 Random Receiver


4 Junk Arm
4 Dark Patch
3 Dual Ball
3 Pokémon Catcher

3 Defender
2 Super Scoop Up
2 Eviolite

2 PlusPower

1 Super Rod
1 Switch
1 Energy Switch
1 Energy Search

Energy – 12

8 D

4 F

Anyway, I do not want to elaborate much on my tournament experience simply because it would be too boring. I was never dealt a very strong opening hand and I had lots of issues with Terrakion (getting him out of the Active Spot and attaching F Energy). As a result, my opponents were always able to gain the prize advantage early on and keep the advantage throughout the game.

It is very hard to come back in this format (unless you are playing things like The Truth, Vanilluxe or Klinklang). At the end of most of my losing games, I would have 1-2 Prizes left. Had I gotten a stronger opening, those 1-2 Prizes could have been drawn before my opponent took their last 1-2 Prizes.

That is all I really want to say about my Nationals tournament. I had a fantastic time in Indianapolis and I was so very happy to see old friends and make new ones.

Framing and Analyzing Failure

daviddarling.infoI want to start this section by sharing some definitions that I will use throughout the article. You should note that I am only using these definitions in association with the Pokémon TCG (although you may be able to apply them to other aspects of your lives).

Internal Failure: The act of not meeting one or more of your own goals.

Internal Success: The act of meeting one or more of your own goals.

External Failure: The act of not meeting the expectations of Pokémon TCG community members.

External Success: The act of meeting the expectations of Pokémon TCG community members.

It is possible to observe the players that got 3rd and 4th place at a tournament and find that one has made an internal failure while one has made an internal success (even though they both made Top 4). Why is this? The player who made an internal success had a more obtainable goal than the other player. The goal of the successful player may have been to make top cut whereas the goal of the unsuccessful player may have been to win the whole event.

So, even though these players ended up in the same place overall, one considers themselves successful while one does not. In order to make more internal successes, players should perhaps form more realistic goals for themselves!

Along similar lines, it is possible to observe players that got 3rd and 4th place at a tournament and find that one has made an external failure while one made an external success. This is due to differing expectations of the Pokémon TCG community. One player may be deemed “stronger” and thus be facing higher expectations than the other. So, even though they both got Top 4, the stronger player was expected to get Top 2 or win. Again, same tournament results but different success/failure results for these players.


It is quite possible to fail internally but not externally or fail externally but not internally. For example, you might be entering a tournament with the goal of taking first place. However, other players at the tournament might expect you to only make Top 8. Thus, if you end up getting Top 4, you fail internally but not externally (in other words you have committed an external success)

I want to draw this distinction between the two ideas of failure because it is important that people realize there is a difference. Many players value their reputations within the community. Whether a player fails internally or not is largely unrelated to their reputation. A player’s reputation is largely based on his or her external failures and successes.

It is also important (and comforting) to consider that your expectations are likely higher than the community’s expectations for you. Why is this? Simply because we tend to overestimate our ability and the community tends to underestimate our ability.

Also, we have more information about ourselves than the community. We know exactly how much time we have devoted to preparation but we may not know how much time others have devoted. So, if you spend the day before a tournament play testing, you might feel reasonably prepared.

However, someone that has spent the weeks before a tournament play testing will likely have an advantage that we are not aware of. Anyway, what I am trying to get at is that we likely commit more internal failures than external failures. This implies that our reputations as players are less volatile than we might think. In fact, one strong, external success likely has the ability to outshine many external failures. A comforting notion, indeed!

The probability of committing internal and external failures is pretty interesting. The probability of internal failure is a function of your own goals, preparation, play skill, difficulty of the tournament and luck. The probability of an external failure is based on all the same things except for your own goals. What replaces this component of the function is community expectations.


Community expectations is very nifty because it is a function of previous external failures and successes. In other words, if a player has had many external successes as of late, the expectations from the community will likely be quite high. As a result, the probability of committing an external failure will increase!

Let’s look at an example of what is going on here. Say that a player has been doing very well at a string of City Championships. He or she now has many Championship Points. As a result of these successes, the community will likely expect them to perform well at some State Championships. This will cause the probability of an external failure to increase because the expectations of the community have gotten higher.

However, if this same player had done poorly at their City Championships, the expectations of the community may have decreased. In this case, the probability of an external failure may have decreased. This is all assuming that it is harder to make Top 4 vs. Top 8 at a tournament, of course. If you want to decrease the odds of committing an external failure (for whatever reason), lower the expectations of the community!

It should be noted that this is probably an overly simplistic way of analyzing things. I am essentially taking this idea of expectations of community members, bunching it all into one big lump and saying that they all expect a player to perform a certain way. However, it is likely that each player has different expectations for other players.

Therefore, even if you fail to meet the expectations of player A, you may not fail to meet the expectations of player B. Regardless of whether or not this it too simple, it is an important idea to consider.

Forming Internal Expectations/Goals and Making Them More Obtainable

dealerserviceacademy.comHow do players determine their own expectations for themselves? The process involves consideration of past tournament performance, time spent preparing, play skill and expectations of others. If you believe your tournament will be comprised of many newer, unskilled players; you will likely expect yourself to place very highly in the tournament. If you have not spend much time preparing for your tournament, you should have low expectations.

However, many players do not accurately gage these four components. I have heard many players claim they did no preparation for a tournament and then complain about their poor performance after the tournament. Weighing these components properly will be the best way to predict performance.

I really love seeing players from the past come to events. A lot of times, these players have not played in months or even years. I appreciate their honesty when they say “I’m likely going to do horribly. I’m just here to have fun!” They realize they have spent no time preparing and that their play skill has probably diminished a bit.

I believe all players should adopt this mind set going into tournaments if they have not devoted any time to preparation or are not the most skilled players. The bitterness of loss will be a lot less harsh if players can accurately form their expectations and goals.

Should You Care about External Failures or Expectations?

Yes (assuming you want to decrease the probability of internal failures). The reason why these are important ideas to consider lies within the inclination for good players to play test with other good players. I cannot emphasize enough how important of a role a strong play testing group has on tournament performance.

If a good player does not “expect much” from another player, it is unlikely that they will include them in their play testing circle. In order to get into many high level play testing circles, a player must improve their reputation within the community. Rigorous play testing will cause the probability of failure (internal and external) to decrease.

Why Many Believe Some Should Fail and Some Should Succeed

pokemon-paradijs.comI cannot count the number of times I have heard “oh, you’ll make Top 8 for sure” or “see you in the finals.” I also cannot count the number of times I have heard “he or she should not have won that tournament” or “I should have won that game.” What makes players (including myself, sometimes) say things like this? Expectations are part of it…but so is arrogance and ignorance.

There is an idea that floats around in the heads of many players (I am subject to it all the time). The idea is this: good players should always win against bad players. Here is an extension of this idea: a more skilled player should always beat a less skilled player.

Why do lots of players think this way? I believe arrogance is the proper answer. From what I can tell, these players believe they are somehow “owed” a victory when they are paired against a player they believe to be less skilled. Somehow past tournament performance and connections within the community encourage the belief that the lesser skilled player is obligated to lose.

This is completely absurd. If this were the case, there would be no reason to play anyone but players you believe to be of similar skill – the winner would already be known if you played someone not as skilled as yourself! How many games would actually be played in such a situation? Not very many.

There is also some ignorance involved in this false idea that many players have. There is an underestimation regarding the influence of luck on the outcome of games. The three determinants involved in deciding the winner of a game include preparation, play skill and luck. Luck plays a significant role in determining the victor of any given game (especially in this format where going first is so important). Its significance is vastly underrated.

As a result of this underestimation, players with more preparation and play skill believe they should always beat players with less preparation and play skill. This belief is completely unfounded because it does not consider the third vital determinant of game outcomes – luck.

The Bitterness of Failure

So bitter.

Why does losing hurt? I suppose the answer might be different for each player…but I suspect there are some similarities between you and me. These are the reasons why I feel hurt when I lose.

You should note that I do suffer from a fit of depression whenever I lose. I do not cry, wish I was dead, wish my opponent was dead, threaten to leave the game, consider flipping the table, consider selling all my cards and starting another card game, stare at/fondle my medals/trophies for support or anything like that. I will say that I do feel (at least) somewhat disappointed or sad after losing tournament games. The level of sadness depends on these following six things.

You should also note that there are probably many interactions between these six causes of bitterness.

1. Failing to meet my expectations (i.e. committing an internal failure)

I largely attribute the pain of losing to this. I generally have an idea of where I would like to finish before I enter a tournament. Whether it is 1st Place or just making top cut, I usually form some kind of expectation. Unfortunately, I fail to meet these expectations more often than I’d like.

Even if you haven’t had this kind of thing happen to you in Pokémon, I am sure everyone can relate to this pain in a non-Pokémon context; failing to get into your dream school, performing poorly on a test, not getting that promotion, etc. It sucks.

2. Failing to meet the expectations of others (i.e. committing an external failure)

You may not feel this one as much as I do (or you may feel it more). I have met a lot of wonderful players over the years and telling them that I have performed poorly at an event can sting a bit. I do care about what other players think about me and I do want them to be happy with my performance at tournaments.

3. Not getting a “big enough” payback on the time spent preparing for a tournament

pokemon-paradijs.comPrior to some events, I only play test a little bit. Losing in these types of events hurts far less than losing in ones that involve a lot more play testing.

I suppose this hurt springs from the (perhaps) incorrect belief that poor performance implies that the time devoted to play testing was wasted. I say perhaps because some people may truly believe that play testing is completely worthless if this time does not yield immediate tournament results. However, I do get a great deal of enjoyment from play testing. This joy is completely unconnected to how the following tournament goes.

Furthermore, I am confident that there are a lot of hidden benefits to play testing. What I mean is that there are quite a few benefits to play testing that cannot be easily identified. For instance, it is probably impossible to put a measurement on how much play testing improves play skill.

I am sure that every player would agree that as the amount of play testing increases, the amount of play skill also increases. It is quite possible that playing those extra ten games during a play testing session will vastly improve one’s skill even if those extra ten games do not equal a tournament victory.

pokemon-paradijs.comThis brings up a point that I do not think many players are aware of. Based on my observations, there are two components that make up a player’s level of skill: one that is permanent and one that is not. A good analogy for the permanent type of play skill is the “it is just like riding a bike” saying.

When this phrase is used to describe some habit or action, the habit or action is categorized as unforgettable (meaning once you learn to ride a bike, you will always know how to ride a bike). This component of a player’s skill allows a player to leave the game for a while and still have the ability to come back and perform relatively well in tournaments without play testing at all.

The second non-permanent component of play skill can be forgotten. If a player has not played in a while, they are likely to make more misplays than a player that has a similar level of “permanent play skill” but has also play tested more recently.

I believe that rigorous play testing can increase the size of your permanent play skill. Here lies one of those hidden benefits of play testing. It is likely that the more you play test, the higher level of permanent play skill you will have. This means that you will forget fewer strategies and make better plays in the near and distant future.

Regardless of these hidden benefits of play testing, I still expect play testing to cause better tournament performance. When these expectations are not met (surprise, surprise), I am disappointed.

4. Losing to a particularly unpleasant opponent

pokemon-paradijs.comPlaying rude players is awful. Losing to rude players is even worse. What makes an opponent unpleasant you ask? Here is a very short list of things that I find unacceptable.

i. Players that do not respond to polite conversation. If they do not provide answers for things like “how are you” or “where are you from” (and they aren’t just shy), it can make for an uncomfortable game.

ii. Players that are “rules lawyers.” These are the people that try to get wins based on silly technicalities and other things that really do not matter at all. I have had players try to get judges to give me a loss for failing to discard a Supporter, not bringing dice or coins to a game, forgetting Burn or Poison counters, and other things like this. These games are not fun.

iii. Players that play insanely quickly and expect me to do the same. I have played against people that play so quickly that I have had trouble keeping up with them (and I generally know what is going on in games). Often these players have little habits that are very irritating – shuffling loudly, nervous flipping through cards in their hand, etc. For whatever reason, some people expect their opponents to play at a pace similar to their own. These players do not conceal this belief and will sometimes, very rudely encourage their opponents to play faster.

I encourage you all to be as pleasant as possible. Pleasant players make for pleasant games!

5. Performing poorly with a decklist that your friend has done or is doing well with

I always want my friends to do well at events. However, if a friend and myself are playing the same deck (list and everything) and he or she is doing better than me, I can sometimes feel a bit irritated. I suppose this feeling is largely related to jealousy.

I do not like to admit that I feel this way sometimes because it is very juvenile…but it happens. An obvious way to avoid this from happening is to play a deck that is significantly different from all the decks of your friends (haha)!

In all seriousness, the disappointment that can result from #5 has never been a big deal for me. It has never driven a wedge between myself and a friend or caused any noticeable difference in friendships. It is usually just a little ping in the heart that goes away within a very short amount of time.

6. Failing to earn a trip to or the points necessary for Worlds

pokemon-paradijs.comYou begin to make mental plans about your trip and what you expect to do at the destination location when you get close to that invite or trip. Once those plans are crushed due to a loss in Top 16 at U.S. Nationals (or some other significant loss), your entire dream of a fantastical trip is gone (unless you decide to play in the Last Chance Qualifier, of course). This has happened to me several times over the years and it can really hurt.

As many local players like to remind me (in good humor, of course), I failed to earn a Worlds trip and invite in 2007 due to losing a game at a Battle Road to a local, non-competitive player. Had I not lost this game, it is very likely that I would have made Worlds that year. At the time I was very sad. I lost to a player that had no shot at making Worlds. I really thought he should have just scooped to me.

In fact, I thought that all players that had no shot at making Worlds should have scooped to all the players that did have shots at making Worlds. If this were the case, very few games of Pokémon would have been played that year.

Many players have this belief to some extent. The belief that others (particularly ones with no shot at an invite) should scoop games simply to increase the odds of a Worlds invite for you is ridiculous. They owe you nothing. All players play to win and have fun. The practice of scooping completely undermines why we play Pokémon.

(You should note that I am not telling you not to scoop. Nor am I saying that players should never scoop for others. I am simply saying that players should not expect others to scoop to them in order to improve their chances at making Worlds.)

Although missing out on Worlds has not had a lasting effect on my tenure as a Pokémon player, I know that some players (some of which were good friends) have quit playing as a result of wiffing on the invite. I do not wish to insult anyone by saying that this is a very silly reason for quitting the game. If everyone quit the year after they missed out on a Worlds invite, our game would soon cease to exist. Wiffing on the invite should encourage players to work harder the following year…not discourage tournament participation.

The Importance of Failure and Why We Need to Lose

pokemon-paradijs.comI had never really thought about many of the things that I am writing about in this article in great depth prior to actually writing this article. Most of the topics are things that have crossed my mind at one time or another but were never fully developed. I am very happy that I have been able to write this article and think through many of the ideas that I have thought about at some point in my life.

I have had several discussions regarding the necessity for us all to lose and have changed my mind about it a bit over the years. Why is there a necessity for us to lose tournaments? Well, let us look at the contrary – the case where there is not a necessity for us all to lose.

In this case, not everyone has to lose games. In other words, there can exist a player that can win every game he or she plays (and thus, every tournament he or she enters). If this player enters every tournament possible, then this player will win every tournament ever held. Would you really want to play Pokémon if it was impossible for you to ever win a tournament? I certainly would not.

Therefore, it is imperative that we all lose every once and a while. As a result, there is a necessity for us to lose games (I am not sure if this observation is comforting or not).

How to Avoid Frequent Failure

The necessity for losing every once and a while does not imply that we need to fail all the time. How is this so? The key is to form realistic and obtainable goals for yourself. Make top cut your goal – not first place. I do not like the saying “Aim for the stars. Even if you fail you will land in the clouds.” I prefer the saying “Aim for the clouds. If you do well enough, you’ll land in the stars.”

Your goal setting practices will have little impact on actual tournament performance. By making your goals more realistic, you are essentially reducing the chances of an internal failure.

Aside from changing the frame of failure, you can improve your chances of success by (surprise, surprise) spending more time preparing for a tournament. There really is no substitute for rigorous play testing when it comes to improving your chances of success (although reading articles on SixPrizes will certainly help too).


pokemon-paradijs.comI am a little bit worried about how this article will be received. I am sharing things that I have not shared with many people before (particularly the bits on The Bitterness of Failure). This article is very atypical and, as a result, I am afraid that some readers will find little value in what it has to say.

Most (if not all) articles related to the Pokémon TCG try to remove all discussion of emotion except for some brief bits on how happy players are when they place well at events. I hope that you find the discussions of emotion in this article to be interesting and informative. We are not robots or completely logical systems and I do not think we should always write like we are. I think it is very important to consider the more human side of Pokémon.

Finally, I would like to invite everyone to check out my new Pokémon Blog, the Celadon City Gym (CCG). I just launched the site last week and, if you like what I have to write here on SixPrizes, you will like what I have to write on CCG. Here is a link to the official Facebook page as well.

Be sure to Like CCG on Facebook in order to be informed about when I upload new articles and other interesting tidbits. I recently uploaded an interview with the 2012 U.S. National Champion, John Roberts II! So be sure to check that out. You might find it very refreshing after reading a detailed article about failure!

Thanks for reading and may all of our failures be less bitter!


P.S. I really appreciate all the kind praise that I have been given over the past few weeks. I am very happy to have been able to produce such valuable content for some of you. I look forward to hearing more and more of your feedback (both negative and positive).

…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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