Tunnelephant Vision

A Lesson in Avoiding Linear Thought
ash mysterious sadpokemonscreenshots.tumblr.com
Actual photo of me in Philadelphia.

Hey guys, your old friend Dustin Zimmerman here with a fun new article for you to check out. Only there’s one problem: I’m very sad right now. Why am I sad, you may be asking? It’s because I had a very poor performance (5-4-0) at the Philadelphia Regional Championships, and it’s all my fault.

Now, I’ve been playing the Pokémon Trading Card Game competitively for nine years. So I certainly have taken my fair share of losses. These failures have mostly been due to making a poor metagame call, hitting too many unfavorable matchups, or poor luck (or in one case, the accidental benching of a Pikachu).

What makes this past Regionals any different? It’s that this is the first tournament in recent memory where afterward, I blame only myself for my losses. In fact, I knew after round 3 or so that I had made a terrible decision. I hovered around the top tables looking at the decks similar to mine and was overcome with a deep feeling of embarrassment. How could I have been so wrong… so unprepared? Well, what did I do then? I played Donphan/Pyroar and a very, very awful list.

This is more than just, “Oh dang, I should have played one more of this card, or fewer that.” No, this is an overall poor judgment call rooted deep into the theory of playing Pokémon. A theory that after nine years, I should have been wise enough to catch and overcome beforehand. That theory, as I have come to refer to it, is thinking too linearly.

What does that mean? It means that even though I was fully aware of the metagame, entirely familiar with the capabilities of Donphan as a deck, and I had access to and knowledge of every card in the Standard format, I tricked myself into thinking a poorly made decklist with one single objective was good enough to play at a Regional Championships.

In my article I will discuss where I went wrong, how I should have approached the situation, and how I will be learning from my mistakes to be better prepared for tournaments in the future. Hopefully, these messages can relate to all of you and help you learn as well.



donphan problem sadpokemontime.tumblr.com

A few weeks before the tournament, Mike Newman and I had come across Donphan PLS and recognized its potential right away. We excitedly built an initial list and played a few games, soon finding out the concept was certainly worth pursuing. Given that I hadn’t tested really at all and the games I did play were against a limited pool of decks (which was a mistake in the first place), I prematurely assumed the proper way to play a Donphan deck. We had a hunch we were right and went for it. My mindset was so focused and so linear, I more or less refused to even consider other options.

What I did can all be boiled down to problem solving, and it’s really quite simple. Here was the thought process in my head (I’ve included helpful notations indicating whether I was correct or not, in hindsight):

  • Donphan can attack for significant amounts of damage and switch to another Pokémon on the Bench. This is great. ✓
  • Pokémon with Safeguard Abilities such as Suicune and Sigilyph are good. ✓
  • Pyroar is also good, in general. ✓
  • Let’s play them both together and nothing else. ✗
  • Garbodor exists, is popular, and shuts down the deck. ✓
  • The only answer to this I will need is multiple Lysandre and/or Pokémon Catcher. ✗
  • That will be good enough for me to win most games. ✗

Strangely enough, Mike did suggest another version of the deck! This was to play no Pyroar, but instead more Pokémon with Safeguard. In theory, you would beat the same decks you would otherwise with Intimidating Mane (excluding the likes of Kyurem PLF or Yveltal XY) while saving a lot of room in the deck that could contribute to consistency such as extra Supporters or gusting effects.

He was on the right track, but I feel still wrong. Although yes, Pyroar should have been removed to open up space for other inclusions, the decklist he proposed was still very linear in thought. It had the same objective. The night before, we debated on it, and blah blah I came up with some dumb reason why we should play Pyroar. We ended up playing the same 60-card list with misplaced confidence.

So there you have it. I built, briefly tested, and eventually decided to compete with a deck where my only answer to a very popular Pokémon would be to Lysandre it out and KO it. Haha, easy! I was so embarrassingly wrong. This is a very linear thought. I assumed that once this task was complete, I would always win. After all, the opponent no longer had any way of attacking most of the Pokémon in my deck. Yet unfortunately, I failed to recognize and prepare for anything that may go wrong with this plan. For reference, here are all the Pokémon we played in our deck that day:

4 Phanpy PLS
3 Donphan PLS
3 Litleo FLF 18
3 Pyroar FLF
2 Sigilyph LTR
1 Suicune PLB

So you see the problem? If Garbodor does in fact come into play with a Tool attached, my deck is almost entirely 90-110 HP Pokémon with mediocre attacks that do nothing for me. Donphan hustles to carry the entire team, but more or less just sends up punching bags to be Knocked Out in one hit. Of course, I played Rainbow and DCE so that I could attack with Pyroar and the Safeguarders, but they all take two Energy attachments. That’s a waste of two turns and two Energy for something that is to be KO’d immediately (assuming I cannot Lysandre and KO the Garbodor[s] first). And that’s another thing: the only way I even could 1HKO a Garbodor would be with a Sigilyph, a Pyroar with a Muscle Band, or a Donphan with two Strong Energy and a Muscle Band. I was asking so much of my deck to perform a task that I entirely banked on to win.

Obviously not every single person plays Garbodor, but enough do for me to have taken better precautions. In fact, I was even able to win two matches and a few individual games within matches against decks that played the stinky little guy (they accounted for 3-of my 4 losses). These are matches where I got lucky, and my flawed plan did in fact execute properly. However it is important to note that even though I did win these games, or even if I had made day 2 with the deck, that it is still inherently flawed in concept.


hawlucha ffi artwork

So what exactly did I see walking around at the top tables that had me overcome with regret and embarrassment? Well for one: the very talented Dylan Bryan. I don’t need to tell you about his Donphan deck, because he has already written a comprehensive article about it you can read here. Check it out when you’re done reading mine. His deck, of course, has a similar concept to my own, but with so much more taken into account. Here are all the Pokémon he played in his list:

4 Phanpy PLS
4 Donphan PLS
2 Sigilyph LTR
1 Zekrom LTR
1 Kyurem LTR
1 Dedenne FFI
2 Hawlucha FFI
1 Mewtwo-EX

What I want to avoid is giving an analysis on how each individual card was good or bad and what their specific purposes were within the deck (he already did that). Instead, I want to take a look at how a list such as this is inherently better, as it is built to respond to nearly all situations that could be presented. It is dynamic.

As you can see, there are traces of my original thought process in there with the two Sigilyph. And that’s of no surprise; the concept is easy to understand and Dylan is very smart. But he understood that if this plan were to fail and there was no longer a need for Pokémon with Safeguard, there would absolutely have to be an alternate plan of attack. Pokémon such as Zekrom and Kyurem could be switched into from a Spinning Turn, and regardless of any Abilities that are shut off, could take a hit and then respond with a significant attack for a single Energy attachment.

Dedenne, Hawlucha, and Mewtwo-EX are Pokémon that have nothing to do with the Donphan + cool Pokémon to bring Active = win strategy, but instead are just good overall attackers that can be used in a number of situations if so warranted. Dylan saw clearly what I overlooked: a deck has to execute more than a single linear strategy if it is intended to win.


Now let’s step away from Donphan. Let’s step away from the BCR–FFI Standard format and all the Pokémon and decks associated with it. What I am trying to get at is the bigger picture. It’s not just, “my deck should have been the same as his deck and that’s why I lost.” This is a matter of retroactively trying to understand the true form and function of literally any given Pokémon deck, so that you may take that knowledge and better prepare for the future.

The easiest way to overcome thinking too linearly is by playing a card that has the capability of overcoming the worst situation you could be presented with. These are widely referred to as “techs.” If your deck has in issue with another, perhaps the inclusion of a few copies of another card can help you win or at least not lose so badly. We all do this; even very novice players have this basic understanding of teching for their worst matchup. And that’s good! But it’s not nearly enough. With a few copies of a tech, the deck likely still has the same linear strategy. We need to go deeper.

Is your deck capable of adopting an entirely new strategy when the situation presents itself? Can you seamlessly deviate from the intended plan without falling apart mechanically and losing? In essence, are you essentially running an amalgamation of two different decks in one? Hopefully, the answer is yes. But this may, of course, vary to a degree, depending on how strong the linear plan of action already is (i.e. Inferno Fandango + Dragon Burst; Emerald Slash + Megalo Cannon). Even decks such as the ever-popular Gallade/Gardevoir, although appearing on the surface very linear, have such strength in that they can shift between Psychic Lock and Psychic Cut. Two very different attacks for different situational purposes that both evolve from Kirlia.

Hopping Around

From one pond to the next.

Without a doubt, Seismitoad-EX is an incredible card. As soon as people saw the English translations, they were making decks focused entirely on Quaking Punch. Anything to make Quaking Punch happen quicker and more often was taken into consideration, and that was it. Because people assumed (linearly) that using that attack alone could win every game. It was broken! Although as time progressed, people of course began to realize this… wasn’t true. Virizion-EX/Genesect-EX was the obvious hard counter, and there were other cards that could give Seismitoad a hard time.

So the toad players thought, “No big deal, I’ll just add in Fire-type Pokémon, maybe some Blacksmith, and Fire Energy. Problem solved.” After all, they could still function as a pure Quaking Punch deck, but have a response to the threat of Grass-type Pokémon. Right? Not quite… this was still not enough.

Between the beginning of the season and the beginning of Fall Regionals, there was an evolution. Now what is commonly seen (or at least I have seen) are 1–3 copies of Seismitoad-EX played within other popular decks thought before to exist separately: such as Yveltal-EX variants. Both decks could very well play Garbodor, and both decks already played DCE. By merging the two deck concepts into one, we have witnessed the creation of a new powerhouse deck that has been taking Regionals by storm.

Many would consider Seismitoad-EX/Yveltal-EX to be the “best deck in format” or at least the one most worth testing against when trying out new decks. This is because now when the Quaking Punch strategy is no longer optimal, you can function entirely as an Yveltal-EX deck and give no thought to Seismitoad whatsoever. Yet, you still always have that route as an option because it is still so good. This is a great example of how thinking dynamically leads to success.

So when you’re building a deck, spread it out and take a good look at it. Try and predict any possible situation you could run in to. Once you’ve figured it all out, do it again. Act like you hate your deck and you want it to lose. Think of anything that can beat it, and adjust accordingly if possible. Then, playtest over and over with several different iterations until you have a solidified and dynamic decklist.

When I had spread out my Donphan/Pyroar deck the night before Regionals, I foolishly didn’t second-guess the idea that Garbodor could actually give me more trouble than I thought. I also foolishly did not test a single game. I thought I was better than that. But I found out the hard way: everyone needs to playtest.

What does this mean for the future?

Something that I see a lot of people try to do when a new set comes out is to include all their favorite new cards into the same 60-card list. This has been especially prevalent in the last few sets, where they have been catering to specific types such as Fire, Fighting, and soon to be Psychic and Metal. People over-hype the “synergy” of these cards and immediately build a deck focused entirely around one core concept. In my experience, this has never worked exactly as planned. There always seems to be a glaring flaw in the strategy that no one thinks to address right away. This is natural.

So remember, in a few weeks when you’re building your Bronzong, Gengar-EX, or Manectric-EX decks, to not assume that they are suddenly the best decks. The first list you will make for these cards will probably not be good. Take a lesson from my mistakes, and be sure to create for yourself a highly dynamic deck before going out there and playing it in the City Championships this winter. Or else you will lose a lot of games, like I did.


ash barn light happypokemonscreenshots.tumblr.com

So there you have it. A mediocre 5-4 performance at a large tournament has placed me into this entirely new mindset of creating decklists that I hope soon not to forget ever again. In fact, look for me in the standings of Saturday’s Regional Championships in Ft. Wayne. If the words I have just written mean anything, you’ll hopefully see me playing in day 2 and maybe even top 8. I hope that any of you who read this will be overcome with a whirlwind of inspiration and that you too have great success this weekend and in weekends to come. (Hint: do not play my Donphan/Pyroar list.)

As you have probably noticed about each of my articles here on SixPrizes, they’re all just me going on and on ranting about something I don’t like. They sometimes lack the structure of a professionally written document, but I guess that’s just how I talk. I’m a pretty opinionated guy. In fact, I can almost guarantee that not all of you will agree with the opinions I have placed forth. Which makes sense, because I’m not always right!

If any of you would like to generate discussion on the topic of linear strategic thinking in accordance to deck building, please feel free to comment on this article. And if you liked it (or hated it), be sure to vote down at the bottom of the page! I genuinely appreciate all of you taking the time to read what I have to say. Good night, and good luck.

– Dustin Zimmerman

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