Deft Decisions

In-Game Skill, Part 1: Technical and Strategic Play


I’m merely going to tell it like I see it — I think anyone who breaks the game down into percentage points between decklist, player skill, and luck doesn’t know what they’re talking about (isn’t that a great way to start an article!). Nearly anytime I see a discussion on the matter of “skill,” comments like the following are made:

“I think the game right now is 60% decklist, 30% random chance, and 10% player skill.”

The reason comments like that irk me is that they make a gross generalization on an entire world of factors. It would be like declaring that the entire fashion scene today is “50% cotton, 30% nylon, and 20% wool” — yes, you’ve made a declarative statement on the elements that make up that interest, but you left out all the complexity, all the style.

Having a powerful decklist can mean a lot, it’s true, but it can also mean nothing. Most formats have decks that fall on a spectrum of skill needed, from a minimal understanding of the game to years of experience. Luck can be an important factor, but what if you’re playing a consistent deck that doesn’t require coin flips? Also, what happens with certain matchups? Or how about when a player has a bad opening hand or finds themselves in a tricky spot?

Just for reference — and this is what I will be talking about today — by “player skill” I mean “in-game skill.” In-game skill is the ability a player has to respond to a variety of factors as a game progresses in a way that gives them the best chance of winning. It can be as simple as remembering to draw a card each turn or as complex as using a wimpy Basic Pokémon to hit a 25% chance of doing something while playing an N to rid an opponent of the cards they need to win because that’s the only chance there is of winning.

There are two important takeaways for every person who reads these words, and they are as follows:

  1. Players who discount in-game skill are more apt to point at other factors that affected their gameplay (in other words, the chance to win or lose the game was not up to them, but to external factors; in other, other words — it wasn’t their fault).
  2. In-game skill, in a sense, is the only thing we as competitive players can truly control once a tournament begins.

For the first takeaway, I know I hold a critical view of the competitive Pokémon TCG scene, but in all honesty, I hear it all the time — players who blame their loss on anything other than themselves. It isn’t easy to own up to your mistakes, but that’s what it takes to get to the next level. As long as a player blames their Prize cards, their opening hand, their opponent’s luck, etc., as the reason they performed poorly, they will never turn their attention on what they could have done differently to come out ahead.

I get the sense that many Pokémon players treat this game like recreational chess: they know how each piece functions and how to play a game, but they fail to see the sport at a deeper level. They let the game operate under the minimal requirement of moving pieces around in an appropriate fashion, and as a result they can play a game and never know it! (Note: Just for the record, there are also many players who openly admit their mistakes. It’s refreshing to hear someone openly discuss what they could have done different — those are the players I fear most!).

For the second takeaway, consider what you may do once you have your decklist completed. Since you can’t control the way a coin flips, you are left with your brains and your guts. Sometimes, a deck requires little more than sticking to a pattern (attach Grass and pass, attach Grass and Emerald Slash, power up Genesect-EX…). At other times a deck throws you into a sandbox and you are asked to create your own path to victory. No matter the case, avoiding both technical misplays and developmental misplays is the only thing left to do once you sit down across from an opponent.

So yes, today I am stepping into the murky world of in-game skill. It’s complex, it’s at times mundane, and it isn’t always fun, but it’s something I have meant to look at for a long time. This is part one in a series, and I’m going to start off by taking a basic look at two different levels of play: technical play and strategic play. The technical play portion will cover what most of us already know — how to play the game. For beginners, this is a wonderful place to start because it may help you work into the patterns of what to do with every turn. I offer some general advice on how to get into that groove. You won’t be a stellar player, but you will at least be able to get through a game without looking totally lost.

The strategic play portion is the richest part of this article. I offer common strategies that are employed to win games. I look at it from the perspective of plays that are done while thinking ahead. I offer examples of each type of in-game skill to highlight where many players deviate from what will offer the best chance at winning. I also provide elaboration on how each of these plays is a necessity to playing competitively.

Remember to click on the link in the table of contents to go directly to that part of the article.

Table of Contents

“Skill Hack”

As I was thinking about this article, I made a keen observation regarding in-game skill: it seems to be the holy grail of Pokémon TCG “skill.” Players often comment on the practice of “netdecking” (that is, copying a deck off the internet card for card) by making a bold statement that “it doesn’t matter what deck you have if you’re not good at the game.”

It’s a romantic notion, isn’t it? That even the best decklist in the world doesn’t grant one an ounce of reputable skill. As much as that idea might help us sleep at night, in many cases it just isn’t true. There are decks that have seen massive success, yet require noticeably less decision making than the other decks in the format. Consider some of those “autopilot” decks that tend to show up in nearly every format — decks that operate off a single function once all the pieces are in place. These decks, usually functioning off a “lock” of some sort, often require no more skill than it takes to announce the attack causing the lock. Accelgor DEX has been notorious in this sense.

Understand, I am not criticizing players who play those decks. To see an opportunity to play such a deck or to construct the deck in the first place — that is where the skill can be found. When it comes to the in-game skill needed to perform the strategy of the deck, though, there is a noticeable absence.

This absence can be observed in other cases too, but much less so. Virizion-EX/Genesect-EX, for instance, was arguably one of the easiest decks to play last season. Many decks are like this — they sort of play themselves. Returning to the parameters I set forth for what in-game skill is, these decks are narrow in terms of decision-making. Even here, though, a complexity is often granted in the realm of the mirror match.

These decks aside, there are many reasons to place emphasis on in-game skill.

First of all, it is absolutely required to perform well with a variety of decks. Unless you want to limit yourself to decks that perform a singular function, you will have to get better at decision making as a game progresses. Additionally, you want to give yourself the best chance to win a tournament, and if you cannot play with certain decks because of a lack of skill you may have already sacrificed that chance already.

Second, in-game skill is needed to avoid poor decisions that lead to loss. In my experience, it is easy to slide into “autopilot mode” when playtesting. I wrote about the dangers of this at one point, highlighting how the main strategy of a deck is not always the best path to follow (plus, it creates trouble when the deck doesn’t function like normally). Being able to handle bad luck and mount a comeback is a huge indicator of skill in this game.

Third, focusing on in-game skill helps one develop an awareness of strategy on a deeper level. I won’t sugarcoat the truth: many players let the cards play themselves. From deck construction to a game in progress, there’s a sizable portion of players who do little more than employ the very basic strategy of a deck. As I recently asserted, I don’t point my finger at laziness. Rather, the modern-day Pokémon TCG player is trying out numerous decks instead of just a few. With reduced attention to each deck, the main strategy is almost all a player can process (unless, of course, they have vast quantities of time at their disposal).

Fourth, by taking a look at in-game situations, one develops a foundation of skills that are easily translatable to games across the board, often no matter what deck you’re playing! I recently played a fun game against my brother, him playing my Steelix Prime deck (Steelix Prime/Blissey PL/healing cards) and me playing Luxchomp (Luxray GL LV.X/Garchomp C LV.X). The Steelix deck wins nearly every time against Luxchomp, yet I was able to win by focusing all my efforts on pulling Pokémon up from his Bench with Bright Look and trapping something that was unable to attack or retreat. Doing this took the entire game, and I gave up three or 4 Prize cards, but I came out on top in the end by decking my brother. This is a strategy capable of securing many games, but it would never be considered by a player who can only perform the basic strategy of a given deck.

Lastly, pursuing in-game skill makes the game more interesting and fun. We all love watching games in which players manage a miraculous comeback or employ an off-the-wall strategy that actually works. In order to get to that level of play it requires plenty of practice, yes, but it also necessitates a deeper understanding of the game. Being able to think many steps ahead isn’t easy, but when done right it can complete the picture of what it means to be a truly competitive player.


ash ketchum pokedex

Technical play is where in-game skill begins. In the same way an artist must first understand (and practice) the basics before exploring the world of abstract art, a competitive Pokémon TCG player must understand technically sound play before moving on to something fancy.

For the most part, this is nothing new, but I want to at least cover these fundamentals to playing the game and elaborate a little before we get into tricky gameplay. If you have a great deal of experience with the game, you might want to skip this part of the article.

Also, it’s important to note that I will be speaking about technical plays in a general sense. Yes, there are times when playing a Supporter would be a bad play, but that I will save that for later. Right now, I’m simply looking at the basic elements of playing the game. If we were to use our chess example from before, I’m looking at how to play a knight or bishop rather than how to strategize with them.

Elements Of Play

During each player’s turn, that player may do a number of things before attacking (and thereby ending their turn). I will cover these below and promote a general rule I believe will point toward technically sound play for each item. A general rule overall would be “do all you can,” as decks are designed to allow one to play cards efficiently to draw cards, set up, and attack. “Do all you can” doesn’t always work, but it’s a good place to start.

Here are the elements of play along with some general rules about them:

Draw a card.

You have no choice in this matter – you must draw a card at the beginning of every turn you take. Do not devalue the importance of drawing cards in this game. “Support Pokémon,” while hardly an element in the game currently, are Pokémon a player utilizes to draw more cards. The closest thing we have to this right now is Empoleon DEX. The moment a card like Uxie LA gets released, players will flock to it.

Play a Supporter.

A player can only play a single Supporter during their turn, yet these are some of the most important cards in the game. Your Supporter line should be catered to helping you draw as many cards as possible throughout the progression of a game. It is for this reason that cards like Cheren and Ghetsis see little play while Professor Juniper and Colress are often staples. Additionally, if you plan on playing a Supporter that will do something to the rest of your hand (discard or shuffle it into the deck, for instance), you should play everything you can before using your Supporter.

Play Trainer cards (other than Supporters).

Trainer cards function in a variety of different roles – some help a player draw more cards, some modify damage done or taken, and some can heal or even remove a Pokémon from play. I view Trainer cards as a player’s chance to put their signature on a decklist. In truth, the general rule to Trainer cards is that they are perhaps the place to go to currently if you’re trying to leverage your matchups. In the past, players would often play certain Pokémon to help make up for a weakness a deck had (these are called “techs”). Currently, Trainer cards often provide this benefit to decks (Supporters that have a Trainer-like effect such as Lysandre or Team Flare Grunt count here as well).

Attach an Energy card to one of your Pokémon in play.

There’s not a lot to say here — players can attach one Energy card per turn to one of their Pokémon in play. What I do want to mention, however, is the general rule that you don’t always want to load everything onto a single Pokémon if you can help it. Say I’m playing an Accelgor DEX deck, for instance, and I have an Accelgor and a Shelmet in play, yet I won’t be able to attack that turn because I have a Trevenant XY Active that can’t retreat. Also suppose that my opponent is playing Ninetales DRX and has a Vulpix on the Bench. If I play my Energy card to the Accelgor, there’s a good chance my opponent will evolve to Ninetales and KO my Accelgor, losing me an Energy in the process.

For this same reason, I will often spread cards out among multiple Pokémon in play. This is very game specific, so perhaps it’s not as general as I originally thought, but the principal is still quite strong. Don’t make the choice easy for your opponent, and don’t bank everything on a single Pokémon if you can help it.

Evolve your Pokémon.

Generally, you always want to evolve your Pokémon as soon as you can. I made a misplay at this year’s National Championship when I neglected to evolve a Pikachu. That single misplay nearly cost me the game! Remember, check before you attack to see if there’s anything else you can do.

Use Poké-Powers, Poké-Bodies, Abilities, etc.

I see players forget to use these things all the time. Normally, their mind is on something else when they forget, and often the Ability (or Poké-Power, etc.) isn’t a necessity. “Do all you can” is generally a good idea here. You might not think you need those extra two cards from Diving Draw, but you’d be surprised at how often those two cards can make a difference.


The time an opponent is most likely to forgot to attack is early in the game when saying “pass” is commonplace. Even 10 damage can make a huge difference by the end of the game. Take things slow when your first start a game, and always remember to “do all you can,” even when it comes to simple attacks on relatively unimpressive Pokémon.

These are the elements of what playing the Pokémon TCG means. In many ways, this can be strengthened through practice. Again, having this foundation is necessary before pursuing complex strategies or seeing the game on a deeper level. You have to know how to move a knight before you can know what to do with it.


pikachu cubone

And now we get into the real meat of this article, the idea of in-game skill through strategic play. For this section, I have come up with a list of strategic considerations I believe hallmarks superb play. Each of them are different than technical plays in that they require one to think ahead. You will note that they often go against the general advice I’ve offered up to now.

The aim here is to win the game by considering things on more than a turn-by-turn basis. As a result, some of these strategies might seem silly or petty in the moment, but they have high value for the endgame. Using our chess example, this is all about using one’s pieces strategically to think ahead and craft a victory.

For each item I will include elaboration and an example.

Playing Supporters Correctly

Before, my general advice revealed Supporters to be the cards that draw cards. While that’s still true here, we have to develop a keen sense of balance between drawing cards and hurting one’s chances at winning. With most decks still operating with Professor Juniper, N, and perhaps Colress at the heart of the Supporter line, one must consider the effects of each Supporter.

Professor Juniper

Professor Juniper, for instance, carries with it the danger of discarding important cards. We have all been there — neglecting to play a Professor Juniper because you just cannot discard the remaining cards in your hand. When that choice is made, it’s because sending those other cards to the discard pile would most certainly mean a loss.

Go Fish?

Question: You’re running a Garchomp/Altaria deck and open with a Gible Active and a Benched Swablu. Your hand is Professor Juniper, Muscle Band, Max Potion, Garchomp, Garchomp, Fighting Energy, Fighting Energy. You run two Super Rod in your deck. Do you play the Professor Juniper or not?

Answer: The knowledge that you have two Super Rod in your deck makes this choice easy – you play the Professor Juniper.

In this example, I want to note that with a single change, your decision to play Professor Juniper right away becomes more difficult. What if you only run one Super Rod? What if we replaced the Muscle Band with a Level Ball? What if your opponent has a horrendous start? What if we replaced the two Fighting Energy with two more Max Potion? What if you have a Level Ball in your hand and you run Jirachi-EX?

The truth is, one must balance all these considerations out in a short amount of time. This is where knowing your deck inside and out helps tremendously — that’s the “brains” part of play. The “guts” part of play is anticipating what your opponent is doing. If they start very slow and don’t play a Supporter, you might be able to get away with waiting a turn or two before playing the Professor Juniper. I would do this if, for instance, I only ran one Super Rod and had, like, three Garchomp in my opening hand. Even then, I might still play the Professor Juniper and take my chances with Super Rod not being in the Prize cards (especially given Gabite’s Ability to seek out Dragon-type Pokémon).


N is played both for its draw power and for its ability to disrupt. If it did nothing to the opponent, it would probably be replaced entirely by another Supporter. This is integral to understanding the power behind N, because while playing an N for your own benefit might seem automatic, there’s the issue of playing an N to disrupt your opponent.

Normally, I have a general rule about N when playing it to disarm my opponent. Provided the opponent played a Supporter on their previous turn, I won’t play an N unless it will net them less cards than they already have or unless I need it for my own benefit. I avoid playing an N when my opponent will gain more cards off it. And in the early stages of the game, if my opponent is drawing dead, I will almost never play an N unless I absolutely have to. These are just general rules, but I’ve found them to be true for the most part.

I should note, as well, that you should be observing your opponent and their course of action. If they do little to thin their deck, you might feel safe in playing an N that will net them more cards than they have already, especially if you’re in a pinch. Be aware of other things too, such as cards an opponent discards. If they play a Professor Juniper and discard two other Professor Junipers, I would play an N as soon as possible.


The one thing I want to note about Colress is that it is almost always a mistake to play it for less than, like, four cards. My reasoning is simple: while decks are currently shifting a little to smaller Bench sizes, lots of decks still play lots of Pokémon on the Bench. If you’re playing a Colress for one or two cards, it means that both players are having difficulty setting up. Unless you are in an absolute panic, waiting a turn or two will probably net you many more cards off your Colress. Unfortunately, I’ve seen many players succumb to that feeling that they need to do something and play a Colress for two, then continue having trouble setting up.

Additionally, it’s worth noting that with the commonality of N, your chances of drawing into a Supporter goes up by default since your opponent may play an N and give you the cards you need. Here, let me see if I can word this a bit differently:

Odds and N’s

Question: You run 10 Supporter cards in your deck. Not knowing your Prize cards, what are your chances of drawing into a Supporter if you don’t draw one with your opening eight cards?

Answer: Most people will do the math like this: 60 cards – 8 opening cards = 52 cards, so there’s a 1 in 5.2 chance that you’ll draw a Supporter card with each card you draw. (Note: If I did the math wrong here, please come to my rescue math people! I didn’t subtract the Prize cards because we can’t know whether or not Supporter cards are in there, right? If, for instance, I placed 42 Prize cards out, I cannot discount them and say I’ll have a 10 out of 10 chance of drawing a Supporter card, right?). This calculation doesn’t take into account the chance that an opponent plays an N, thereby giving you a new hand. This counts for something percentage-wise, right?

Of course, if you don’t run Colress in your deck, you will never have to worry about playing it for such weak draw. And just as a general bit of advice, I dislike maxing Colress out at four – it’s often not a card I want to start with, so I run two or three to avoid that issue.

Deducing Prize cards

There’s not a lot to say here with regard to playing strategically. Rather, this is purely rote memorization and commitment. I have found I can deduce my Prize cards best when I am playing a deck I’ve spent hours and hours playtesting and rebuilding. My old “Tool Drop” deck is a good example of this.

If you have yet to get a handle on deducing Prize cards, consider that this is one of the few things you can do by yourself that will make you noticeably better at the game. I’ve seen players ask about solo playtesting, and so here’s what you can do on your own that will improve your game. Grab your deck, some pen and paper, and practice!

Here’s one last thing about being able to deduce your Prize cards — once you start seeing what cannot be seen, it offers you a different picture of your deck and of the game. When I could reliably figure out my Prize cards in the span of just seconds, I felt more confident in my deck and better prepared with my strategy.

Thinning Your Deck

Just like deducing one’s Prize cards, thinning the deck is a “behind-the-scenes” strategy that contributes to stellar play. When Jason Klaczynski won the World Championship in 2006 with a deck that didn’t run any Stage 2 Pokémon (Mew ex/Manectric ex), many questioned the presence of TV Reporter over Mary’s Request. He explained the advantage of discarding unneeded cards with TV Reporter, thereby protecting himself in the later stages of a game when opponents would play Rocket’s Admin. (a card with the same effect as N).

Dropping Weight

Question: The game is getting close to the end, and you’re getting ready to play a Professor Juniper. Your hand is Professor Juniper, Ultra Ball, Professor’s Letter, a Stadium card that is already in play, Fighting Energy, Fighting Energy. How might you play this hand?

Answer: Depending on various factors, you want to do more than just play your Professor Juniper. Since I’m talking about the value of thinning one’s deck, you would be correct to assume that both Ultra Ball and Professor’s Letter give you a chance to get rid of unneeded cards from your deck, and as such you should consider doing just that.

I’m guilty of overlooking plays like this because the effect seems so trivial. With just the view of a single turn, it is trivial. Remember, though, that thinning your deck is not just a single play in a single turn. Rather, it’s a habit that should be practiced throughout the entire game, such that the effect is noticeable by the later parts of the game. If you have effectively thinned your deck, you can count on a number of cards not being there when your opponent plays an N against you with 2 Prize cards left.

Again, this is one of those very real strategic maneuvers that players tend to ignore. Then, when their opponent plays an N and they draw dead, they complain about bad luck. I’m not trying to be overly critical of players, but “getting N’d to nothing” is a common complaint that people can actually do something about.

Anticipating “Unseens”

There’s a great deal of guesswork that goes into figuring out what an opponent is playing. I’m not just talking about their deck, but the individual cards that make up their deck. If I face an opponent using Aromatisse XY, for instance, there’s a high chance my opponent plays Max Potion, and I need to be able to anticipate that. It might drastically alter the way I approach the game. “Autopilot off,” I will say. Here’s an actual example to help illustrate that. This one comes from this year’s US National Championship:

Only Hope

Question: You are playing an Yveltal-EX/Raichu XY deck that uses two Pokémon Catcher and no Lysandre. You run Dowsing Machine as your ACE SPEC and play no Sableye DEX. Your opponent is playing Aromatisse XY with a random assortment of attackers; he opens with a Landorus-EX. You know from experience that these decks tend to use Max Potion. What’s your game plan?

Answer: This is tough. While Max Potion is a given, the true question is whether or not the opponent runs a 2-2 or 3-3 line of Aromatisse XY. If you ran Lysandre, your choice becomes easier. Banking everything on Pokémon Catcher flips might sound crazy, but what’s the alternative? You figure your opponent has an answer for Yveltal-EX (he did – it was Raikou-EX), and your Raichu XY line faces certain doom from Landorus-EX.

In the end, you bank everything on trying to kill off the Aromatisse XY line through Pokémon Catcher flips. After flipping tails on the first two Catcher, you concede and go to the second game. You win it quickly after your opponent struggles to get set up and the third game doesn’t finish, giving you a tie.

With this example, the knowledge of Max Potion being present in the opponent’s deck changes one’s strategy entirely. Otherwise, things get pretty ugly – the opponent moves Energy off their heavily damaged Landorus-EX and puts it on a Raikou-EX, plays a Max Potion to heal the Landorus-EX, then nails a 1HKO against your Yveltal-EX.

There are many of these “unseen” cards in the game, such that one must understand everything an opponent can potentially play before competing on that “different level.” Many of these cards are damage modifiers like Muscle Band, Hypnotoxic Laser, Silver Bangle, and so on. The key is less a practice of rote memorization and more the ability to play a scenario out in one’s head. If your opponent opens with Landorus-EX, I can almost guarantee you they play Muscle Band and Strong Energy. If they play a Spritzee to the Bench, the picture of their deck changes a bit. Can I expect Max Potion? Yes. Is Strong Energy still in there? Perhaps this changes…

Sacrificing a Pokémon (and the Process of Making a Comeback)

One very simple indicator of player skill is whether or not a person is willing to sacrifice a Pokémon to come out ahead in the end. Again, inexperienced players play the game on autopilot, and when their primary strategy cannot be found, they give up at the lack of any other strategy. They don’t sacrifice their pawns because they’re too busy trying to make use of their knight, then find themselves trapped.

Being able to give up on a Pokémon is integral to making a comeback, but sometimes it makes sense when you’re neck and neck or even ahead. Sableye DEX gets the award for this play, in which a player uses Junk Hunt in the endgame to secure a victory by grabbing the cards necessary to win. Most of the time, though, a player sacrifices a Pokémon to buy another turn or two while positioning themselves in a more advantageous position.

Trash It

Question: You are playing a rogue deck that uses Leafeon PLF as a counter to Seismitoad-EX. Your opponent is playing Seismitoad-EX/Garbodor LTR/Dragalge FLF/Dusknoir BCR. You go first with an Eevee FFI Active and play a Trubbish LTR to the Bench. You are unable to attach a Grass Energy to Eevee FFI to evolve to Leafeon PLF. You do, however, have a Fighting Energy. Your opponent has a Seismitoad-EX Active. How might you play this?

Answer: Retreating Eevee FFI is imperative. Your Trubbish LTR won’t do you any good in this matchup, and if you lose Eevee FFI, you’ll probably be losing the game. For whatever reason, you whiffed the Grass Energy. That’s okay so long as you get it on the second turn.

Now, consider that this game has progressed past the first few turns. You’ve been able to put tremendous pressure on your opponent because you got a Leafeon PLF into play and started hitting hard. Your Leafeon PLF gets Knocked Out, however, and you have a Garbodor LTR (no Pokémon Tool attached) and two Eevee FFI on the Bench. Your opponent has all their Pokémon in play except Garbodor LTR and a Dusknoir BCR — they do, however, have a Dusclops FLF sitting on the bench. You’ve been unable to get another Leafeon PLF in play because of Item lock, but you have a Supporter in hand. How do you proceed?

Answer: You absolutely cannot send up Garbodor LTR. You might think that sacrificing your Garbodor LTR is the right play, but you’re risking getting caught in a lock that you’ll never escape from. With Dragalge FLF’s Ability, you could be one Hypnotoxic Laser away from being unable to retreat. The correct Pokémon to sacrifice here is Eevee FFI. It might seem wrong, but it’s the right play.

When it comes to making a comeback, there are no hard and fast rules. Since your choices can be extremely limited, the best advice I can give is to imagine what must happen in order for you to win. I have found myself in this situation — even with the slimmest of odds — thinking, “Well, if my opponent doesn’t have another Float Stone in their hand, I might be able to play a Pokémon Catcher and bring up the benched Garbodor LTR, buying me one more turn to get that Energy I need onto the Yveltal-EX. Then, I can Catcher up the Landorus-EX and 1HKO it…”

Often, this is the thought process that goes on behind a miraculous comeback. It’s about seeing what can possibly happen rather than dwelling on the bad luck that got you there in the first place.

Going “All-In” on a Strategy

Earlier in the article I referenced a game I played not long ago with my brother. By using a Poké-Power with a Gust of Wind effect, I managed to trap a Pokémon Active that could neither retreat nor attack; my brother decked out soon after. The most difficult thing about the game was committing myself to that main strategy. Almost every turn found me playing cards here and there only to pass moments later. It was excruciating because I just didn’t feel like I was accomplishing anything.

Don’t waffle on a strategy unless you need to. There are countless decks in which you may use a single attack all game long. Accelgor DEX-based decks, Item lock decks (particularly Seismitoad-EX), even decks based off just doing damage may do this. Then, there are decks that offer many different avenues of choice. Plasma decks, for instance, are still wonderfully versatile.

Spark Notes

When my brother finished second at the US National Championship in 2012, we used the same deck featuring Eelektrik NVI and Mewtwo-EX. What many don’t realize is our choice in the Tynamo lineup, which featured two of the NVI one that could cause Paralysis and two of the DEX one with Spark. “Spark” Tynamo was integral to our ability to defeat decks based around Vileplume UD. Since those decks normally required Twins to function properly — and Twins could only be used if one was behind in Prize cards — we would use Spark to strategically place damage without taking a Prize card. Meanwhile, the opponent often had difficulty setting up without access to Twins.

As one might guess, this strategy required the “all-in” approach. One couldn’t abandon the strategy until the time was right, and in the meantime it felt like little was being accomplished. After using Spark 10+ times, one could set up KOs or even get rid of the biggest threat — Vileplume UD. My brother tells the story about how he used Spark in one of his top cut matches 15 or so times in a row or so until his opponent simply conceded.

The issue with dedicating oneself to an offbeat strategy, as I’ve indicated, is that it feels unnatural. You may playtest a deck 25 times before facing an opportunity to pursue an unconventional strategy. If your mind is set on only that primary strategy (“autopilot”), you may miss out on an opportunity to win.

Avoiding Dead-End Plays

At the World Championships this year there was a high-profile game in which a player opted to KO a Benched Drifloon, putting them 1 Prize card away from the win. The problem as I saw it was that they had offered their opponent a perfect opportunity to play an N. Additionally, Knocking Out the benched Pokémon had little purpose, as the only other Pokémon in play were Pokémon-EX. There might have been some other factors I’m overlooking, but on the surface this looked like a dead-end play. These plays have minimal purpose and are often the result of being unclear on one’s intended strategy for winning.

The area in which I see this happen most often is Bench damage. Players will damage a Pokémon-EX on the Bench, only to 1HKO it later (and I’m not talking about 120 damage on top of 60 damage, I’m talking about 200 damage on top of 60 damage). Of course, the Bench damage has to go somewhere, but if a player were thinking ahead, they would be targeting a different Pokémon-EX and do 200 damage to the one without any damage, right?

Based on the damage counts I’ve been discussing, most would assume I’m talking about Virizion-EX/Genesect-EX decks. That is correct, but dead end plays happen in a number of different ways. Consider the following example:

Any Which Way

You’re playing a deck that uses Emolga LTR to set up Basic Pokémon. You already have two other Basic Pokémon in play, and you’re trying to use Call For Family to get the perfect setup. The problem is, your Emolga LTR is on the Bench without an Energy. You have two Energy cards in hand. Your Active Pokémon has one Retreat Cost, as does the other Pokémon on your Bench. Where do you place your Energy?

Answer: During the not-so-golden days of the “flipless” Pokémon Catcher, many players would get tangled up in cases like this. They would make the mistake of attaching an Energy to the Active Pokémon, then retreating to send up Emolga LTR. Or, they would just attach the Energy to the Active Pokémon and pass (or do some weak attack). If the Energy goes to the Active Pokémon, the opponent may use a Pokémon Catcher to bring up the other Pokémon on the Bench with a Retreat Cost, and you’re forced to go another turn without using Call For Family. The Energy card should go to Emolga LTR, since you should be able to Call For Family no matter what Pokémon you end up with Active on your next turn.

A dead-end play is simply one in which nothing was achieved. They usually help the opponent out in some way, and when followed through to the end result, they can even cost a player the game. In the example above, entire turns could be lost because of a simple misplacement of Energy cards. In the end, those one or two turns could have been the difference between losing and winning.

Setting Up KOs

While “damage spread” decks enjoyed far more success in the past, our current format still sees its own share of Bench damage, not to mention the ever-popular Dusknoir BCR. Being able to set up Knock Outs is about as basic as it gets when it comes to thinking turns ahead. Many decks in the past had the capability of taking four, five, even 6 Prize cards in a single turn! In order to get there, though, the player piloting the deck had to be conscious of the payoff over the course of the game, not just immediate rewards with each turn.

Holy Moly!

I’ve mentioned this before in another article, but I think it depicts perfectly this idea of waiting for the right moment to strike. At the World Championships in 2006, my brother played a game in which he had a horrible setup using Metanite (Metagross DS 11/Dragonite DS). He mostly piddled around, attaching Energy cards to Pokémon across the board, never getting any of his Evolutions in play. After damage built up from Desert Ruins, my brother found an out on the last turn of the game. He played a combo of cards to power up Rayquaza * and KO’d three Pokémon-ex on his opponent’s field, thereby taking 6 Prize cards and winning the game.

While I find this story humorous, my only disappointment is that my brother didn’t actively pursue this strategy. Rather, he just realized it after a full game of being frustrated with his inability to set up his deck.

Being aware of this strategy of setting up Knock Outs is integral to taking this game seriously. Thinking of chess once more, that is almost declaratively the job of a professional chess player — they must think steps ahead of their opponent.


ash ketchum walking

With this article, my aim was to introduce the surface of in-game skill to you, the reader, in an effort to continue this discussion for later articles. I plan on delivering actual in-game examples with my next article using a process I believe will help weed out extraneous factors such as randomness and enabling us to look at what plays make the most sense strategically.

In-game skill has always been talked about much but looked at rarely. It’s my goal to help make sense of this complex attribute of the game. After all, I do believe that a good decklist and luck cannot replace true skill. There is a small portion of players who continue to amaze, and so we will continue to look into what they’re doing differently.

If you liked this article, let me know by clicking “Like” below. Also, if you have suggestions for me as I delve into this deepest of subjects, send them my way via message or the Underground forums. I mentioned this on a post online, but for those who missed it: I recently moved to Greensboro and am having a lot of challenges pop up, one of which has been consistent internet. It’s part of the reason I’ve been so silent lately online. That should be fixed by the end of the week, so no more McDonald’s parking lots for me by golly! Rest assured that I read and value everyone’s feedback. Thanks as always for reading!

…and that will conclude this Unlocked Underground article.

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