When it comes to Pokémon TCG articles, the category currently most overlooked is the tournament report. This hasn’t always been the case. In fact, in the years of my competitive infancy with Pokémon, players would encourage me to write a report after a solid performance. This often happened on PokéGym, a forum that is largely defunct now because of social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. During those days some seven or eight years ago I would go to a tournament and — provided I performed well enough — see fellow players congratulate me and remark that they “couldn’t wait to see the tournament report.”
Presently, this is no longer the case. The tournament report as a means to communicate a captured “moment” or “memory” has sadly become displaced, superseded by talks of strategy and countless decklists. The effect is reminiscent of how technology — in its glowing promise for efficiency — turns serious world problems into a bumbling meme, or how it compresses would-be conversations into bite-size emoticons. More is said in a shorter span, but something gets lost.
My wife sends me a frowny face in a text and though I understand the meaning, I’ve yet to recognize the context. There’s a story there, and it has near equal importance, right? I would do wrong to say “Sorry you’re sad” without asking the greater question: “What’s wrong?”
In parallel terms, there exists a context to the decklists we post, to the matchups we discuss, and to the collective “Theorymon’ing” we all undertake. That context is often felt but rarely discussed. It lives on in the sound of the alarm that goes off in the morning of a tournament. Or perhaps it’s in the music that spills from your car speakers as you and your friends make the long trek to another state to play Pokémon. It could even be in something as simple and earnest as a handshake after you lose a game to an opponent who shared your interest a TV series. Whatever it is, there are pieces to this game that aren’t captured in a 60-card list, pieces I believe have value.
Allow me a chance to make my case.
Late Nights, Early Mornings
A little under a year ago I found myself in a hospital room with my wife, crying inconsolably at the news that we would have to terminate the pregnancy of our first son. My wife clenched my hand as though she were falling, and for several minutes I recognized and welcomed the feeling that I might pass out. I wanted nothing more than to climb into an unseen black hole and disappear from the pain I felt — from the pain we felt. Instead, I whispered reassurance to my wife and prayed. As I did so I kept my eyes open, stuck to the engrossing sterility of the hospital floor.
Eventually, the tests that were initially done that caused us such panic came back completely different. “A false positive,” the doctor declared, citing statistics that discrepancies like this happen 5% of the time. Still, my wife had complications that resulted in her needing to be on bed rest for the remainder of the pregnancy. We quietly cancelled our plans to go to Nationals, and I reserved most of my playtesting for the odd hours that fell out from having one child and planning for another.
On September 14th, Ezra Holden Nance was born a week overdue, nearly scoring a 10 on the APGAR screening test (only because, we were told, the doctor that delivered Ezra “never gives a 10”). At that moment though, I could have cared less what number he got — he was alive and he looked healthy!
Months passed and I made soft attempts every now and then to break out of the routine and play in a tournament, but the pieces didn’t come together for make that happen. Having children is a bewildering mix of equal parts revelation, frustration, and adoration. Imagine meeting the love of your life the same night you’re supposed to study for your finals. Now imagine that being every day and you’ll be close to what it’s like.
Still, I practiced. In the early morning hours while I monitored my sleeping son, I practiced. While everyone but me slept and I served as the watchman, I practiced. Even with Ezra in my arms, I contorted my arms uncomfortably to tap my iPad every now and then, so I could practice.
To make things easier on me I stuck primarily with a deck so simple it would be effective even if I were half awake while playing it — Durant NVI. And yes, let me clarify for anyone who doesn’t believe me — I actually did fall asleep a few times while playing PTCGO. When that happened I would wake up hours later and look briefly at the screen in dismay, wondering what was more annoying for my opponent — the fact that I was playing Durant or the fact that I timed out.
The other factor that drew to me Durant was my actual card collection — or rather, the lack thereof. Over the years I’ve sold off many of my cards, partly to pay bills and partly to collect code cards for PTCGO. The idea was simple: sell my physical cards while collecting everything I needed digitally. By doing this I could put together any deck I wanted after testing it furiously online. Sounds easy, right?
The truth is, if you’re not actively collecting and investing in your collection of cards, it will dictate what you end up playing at a tournament. No matter the intention, you will find yourself a week before the tournament trying desperately to convince yourself that [insert crappy deck here] is the right play, which just happens to be the only deck you have all the cards for.
Here’s a spoiler: I performed poorly at the Virginia Winter Regionals. And at the very core of the maelstrom that became one of my worst performances to date is the simple truth that I just didn’t have cards to build anything other than Durant. I was that person one week before Regionals, twiddling my thumbs and telling myself repeatedly that I had a winning strategy.
My time would have been better spent asking a friend to loan me a deck.
Out of the House
As my family and I inched our way through the indecisive winter that at times oppressed us with its cold and at other times surprised us with its warmth, a semblance of balance began to form. Of course, this feeling was like a Rube Goldberg machine, delicate to the domino. If any one of us caught a cold, it would make its way through each of us until the first person that got it was ready for a relapse. At other times it was the cold that chipped away at us, cornering us indoors and making terms like “cabin fever” relevant. In a fit of desperation at one point I drove in the snow to drop mail off at the post office. I couldn’t get into the parking lot where my destination was, so I parked across the street and walked it. Something inside me gleamed like a wild man and kept me warm in the dangerous cold.
We talked at length about getting back to Pokémon. Through the Fall Regionals schedule I was indisposed, but the closer we got to Winter Regionals the more sense it made to attend. Bored to death with being stuck inside and wanting badly to get back into the game, we made the plans. Before I knew it I was in the convention center, walking up to a table to get my deck checked.
After extensively convincing myself I had made the right choice and borrowing a Jirachi-EX from someone, I was ready with the following list:
Pokémon – 8
Trainers – 44
3 Head Ringer
Energy – 8
With that out of the way, let me cover what some may find as the most peculiar inclusion here: Sableye DEX. When I started playing Durant again after the Lysandre’s Trump Card ban I was struck by the raw power Durant had when the opponent couldn’t “get things going” (normally because of a mixture of Head Ringer, Crushing Hammer, Enhanced Hammer, and Pokémon Catcher). When this would happen Durant would start wreaking havoc and the opponent would concede before they knew what hit them. This wasn’t always the case though, which forced the inclusion of Sableye DEX.
There are notes I want to make about this deck, but I have to preface it by saying that while I did put all my eggs in one basket with this deck — which ultimately messed me up — at one point (circa Fall Regionals) I think Durant was very strong. Soon after that Entei/Charizard and Zoroark became popular while decks like Seismitoad/Giratina faded away, completely changing the effectiveness of this deck. An important takeaway here is that even if you like to playtest with a very low number of different decks, at least have two you would gladly play at a tournament. If you lock yourself into playing one deck, you could find yourself in a world of trouble when that deck gets nudged back into a lower tier.
Adding Sableye gave me a way to shift the theme of the game from deck destruction — and if we’re being honest, “speed” — to disruption. It was like a switch I could flip, going straight from discarding cards to slowly breaking down the opponent’s offense. When at last Sableye had done its job I would bring Durant back out and get rid of my opponent’s remaining cards. Normally I woud use Sableye in this manner — piece by piece disassembling my opponent’s strategy through Crushing Hammer, Pokémon Catcher, VS Seeker (for cards like Team Flare Grunt), and so on.
The other thing of note here is Hex Maniac, a card that if played just right could lead to some unexpected wins. As an example, the matchup against Archie/Stoise (Blastoise PLB/Keldeo-EX) can swing in Durant’s favor by using Sableye to repeatedly bring back (and play) Hex Maniac late in the game while cycling Crushing Hammers. Get something with a heavy Retreat Cost Active (Blastoise, for instance), then keep playing Hex Maniac while gathering Crushing Hammers. Piece by piece, you can remove Energy from the opponent’s field while delaying Deluge and Rush In.
I came to appreciate Sableye’s place in the deck and was reminded of older decks that had these dichotomous personalities — decks like Gengar SF/Machamp SF, Flareon-ex/Ariados UF, and “Mynx” (Mew-ex, Jynx UF, etc.) that could switch between two or more strategies from one turn to the next depending on the situation. Much like Mynx, opting to use Sableye normally meant a drastic reduction in the speed of the game while I tried to turn my Item cards into the greater offense.
Mistakes in Hindsight
Psychologically speaking, I can direct any person to the faults in judgement I had leading up to Winter Regionals; that is, I can now. Make use of what I’m revealing here so you don’t make the same mistakes! Let’s look at my list of justifications for why I played Durant:
>> From a resources standpoint, I only had the cards for Durant. Like I mentioned earlier, this is one of the biggest reasons I chose to play Durant. My daughter went to bed the other night hungry because she refused to eat the turkey sandwich I made for her. Why? Because she wanted the donuts we had instead, or apple sauce in a pouch, or fruit snacks. When you give yourself more choices, you’re more likely to pick what you want rather than settle for what you have.
This is as true for the little child as it is for us. When we get older we become more mature, though most of that is developing a prefrontal cortex capable of overriding impulse with reasoning. Still, we have those deeper feelings about a thing — what some may say “going with your gut,” which is literal truth, as there do exist neurotransmitters in our stomach that effect our mood (check it out here). My point here is give yourself more choices in real life and you’ll be more inclined to choose what you want to play rather than what you have to.
>> My testing results indicated success, though I should have had my suspicions. Winning is wonderful, isn’t it? It’s just a really, really, really nice thing … such to the point that we often ignore the games we lose (as well as the reasons we lose them). But there’s an interesting thing that gets glossed over in all of this bias we carry, and it shows up in our 50/50 matchups. In short, it’s like a variant of the gambler’s fallacy in which we tend to view our matchups more favorable than they are unless it’s a near auto-loss. Let me demonstrate.
In testing with Durant, I fared very well against Vespiquen/Flareon decks, or so I thought. In an effort to feel good about that matchup I ignored the games in which my opponent steamrolled me by attacking with just a Flareon all game through. This would happen once out of roughly every four games, a 75/25 in my favor. That sounds promising until we recognize that any person playing that deck at a tournament will more than likely employ that same game-winning technique, downgrading my 75/25 closer to a 25/75, if that.
Meanwhile, matchups that fall in that 25/75 to 40/60 win percentage category get bumped up as well. If you’ve played the Pokémon TCG for any meaningful amount of time you know how this works. You’ll recognize some “unbelievable set of circumstances” that led to your loss and harp on that, or you’ll get a terrible opening hand and quickly go to the next game (without accounting for that as a loss). Hypothetically, it would be like playing 10 games and winning 4 of them while losing 6. If any one of those 6 losses happened because of really bad luck or something you deemed “unfair,” then you scrap it and go to the next one.
>> With two weeks left before the tournament, I “made up my mind” on what I would play. And in fact, I made up my mind a lot longer before that, but didn’t verbalize it to anyone until two weeks prior. There’s an interesting idea out there called the “end of history illusion” that posits that human beings are largely incapable of imagining themselves in a future context. Instead, we tend to think of ourselves in this present moment as the most mature we’ll ever be.
At a granular level, this is what I did when I made up my mind on playing Durant. I had trouble even conceiving of any other option at the time and I felt my decision was solid, mature. In a sense, I had sealed my fate weeks before the tournament even took place.
>> I admittedly wanted to do well with Durant. This is the one mistake I don’t quite regret, though I was sorely missing the mark if I was trying to give myself the best chance to win the tournament. Additionally, other people at the tournament wanted my deck to succeed. Think about that! People wanting Durant to do well?!
For some of us, we have creative little rogue decks we entertain every now and then, and the temptation to play that deck in the hopes of an impressive performance can be strong. Years ago, just before Nationals in 2011, I changed my mind about the deck I wanted to play. With a chorus of groans from my friends, I quickly assembled the Donphan Prime/Yanmega Prime deck that landed my brother in the top cut. My previous choice? Yanmega Prime/Serperior BLW 6/Sunflora HS/Vileplume UD … a mess of a deck I absolutely loved that sometimes had awful starts.
Now, I have to give a disclaimer. In the past I have encouraged players to rally behind a deck they’re excited about building and develop that into a possible rogue choice that could sweep a tournament. I’m not stepping away from that at all, but you have to consider the warning flags. With Durant there were multiple issues along the way, all of which I chose to ignore. If you’re planning on “going rogue,” be prepared to look at the state of things objectively.
>> I ignored advice. Leading up to the tournament, I definitely had some friends voice their suspicions about running Durant, all of which I ignored. In the realm of self-justification, this sounds a lot like self-serving bias. If someone said something I didn’t agree with, I would simply ignore it. When I was told something I wanted to hear, I paid extra attention to that. The end effect was a complete lack of objectivity. I no longer listened to what was best — I already knew it!
I ended up playing against the same deck for both of these rounds, so I’m going to cover them together primarily because each match went the same way. Strategically, I pressured my opponent with a mix of Head Ringer, Crushing Hammer, and Team Flare Grunt. In each match I resorted to using Sableye to keep my opponent from ever using Turbo Bolt. In the case my opponent was able to get Tool cards on his Pokémon I wiped that away with Tool Scrapper or Xerosic.
In each match I got to a point where my opponent couldn’t do much of anything — with his Energy depleted and no easy way to Turbo Bolt, three of four of those games ended with my opponent conceding to me.
What I found interesting, however, is the difference in how both players responded to my deck. In the first round my opponent played very carefully, tip-toeing as much as possible around having to bench additional Pokémon or play too many cards. While this was the winning strategy, it didn’t lead to success. Still, if there was a way for my opponent to win, that would have been it.
The second opponent, however, opened up in the first game by benching a Hoopa-EX, grabbing three Manectric-EXs, tossing them all on the Bench, then dropping a Shaymin-EX for draw power. This overreach ultimately led to a win for me, as I was able to Catcher around things while placing Head Ringers where they needed to go and keeping Energy off the field. Without those Pokémon to Catcher up, the story might have been different.
Same deck, different approaches, but in the end I gained the upper hand.
The surprise to me in all of this was that I thought of M Manectric-EX as a difficult matchup, but it really wasn’t. The Manectric-EX/Crobat PHF deck I’ve seen is much harder to face, but I essentially got lucky to face the one version of M Manectric-EX that I don’t mind facing.
Leading up to this tournament I viewed any deck with Seismitoad-EX as a near auto-win. Between Jirachi, Team Flare Grunt, Xerosic, Head Ringer, and even the occasional Confusion brought on by Sableye, I thought I had this matchup in the bag. Of course, my opponent in this round didn’t play a typical Seismitoad-EX deck, which can’t quite be accounted for through practice on PTCGO.
At this point I want to take a detour and discuss the ramifications of playtesting through PTCGO against total strangers. As I mentioned before, my schedule and responsibilities left me with the single choice of playing “whenever I found the time.” I never played against people I knew, and for the most part decklists represented online were uniform. A Seismitoad-EX deck, for instance, usually showed up the same way each time I faced it. The issue with this is clear: Even just a few cards worth of variation could be devastating to my strategy. We will see this with later matches.
Back to the game …
For the first game I went first and managed to get a Head Ringer on my opponent’s Seismitoad-EX — a really powerful play. My opponent dug deep to land a heads on a Super Scoop Up, then pull off a first turn Quaking Punch, resetting my hope for an easy win. In the long run, however, I was able to deplete each of my opponent’s Double Colorless Energy. While he had Crobat to lean on a little, it was clear I had this game wrapped up, so he conceded.
Game 2 found me doing very little with a bad start. This one went on for a little while, but I soon opted for the third game.
In the third game I managed to pull off my same strategy of Energy denial, but I didn’t have the two or three turns needed to seal the victory. With time called, we ended this in a tie.
Once more, the pitfalls of PTCGO play caught up with me. While a match can get lengthy online, this luxury isn’t available to those playing competitively. Time restraints have always been an issue for tournaments like this, and what would have been two wins out of three online instead became a tie.
For me, this is the round that broke me. We all have unlucky matches, and while I can make an argument for why Seismitoad/Crobat is not as good a matchup as I once thought, in the end it was my bad luck compared to my opponent’s good luck that got me.
In the deeper parts of Game 1, after I had cleared out all of my opponent’s DCEs and had only Crobat left to worry about, I needed to hit an Energy off a six-card N. This didn’t happen, which meant that my opponent was able to play a Professor Juniper for the rest of his deck and capture a Golbat, a Crobat, and a Super Scoop Up (which he flipped heads on) to secure his last 2 Prize cards. Otherwise, an Energy would have allowed me discard at least one of those cards to secure victory.
I should note that this happened after my opponent used a Ghetsis on his first turn going first to clear everything out of my hand (I ended up with a single Durant in play). I topdecked an N to get out of that precarious situation (the tiny, yet drastic bit of luck I had in that game), so ending the game on such a sour note really agitated me.
In the second game I had equally bad luck with a troubling start, so rather than cover that I want to look at where I was mood-wise.
A surprising pattern has emerged over the past few years of playing in Regionals: normally I lose one or two of the first three rounds, then “win out” to capture a spot in the second day of play. I’ve done this twice at both Philadelphia Regionals and Virginia Regionals. For this tournament, however, I actually won the first two rounds, which is a great sign.
Could it be that I got my hopes too high? Does losing so early in the tournament inspire a carefree attitude that actually produces better play?
When I lost my first two rounds in those other Regionals tournaments, it forced me to think about the possibility that I would be finding something else to do for the rest of the day. In a word, I relaxed and — in an effort to feel better about the whole thing — told myself that it was okay if I continued to do poorly. While this might have made me feel better, it’s hard to attach that to a difference in strategy in the long run. However, when you factor in an opponent who’s going through the same thing, I think this is where individual plays start breaking down a little. For anyone who’s done poorly in a tournament, you’ve probably seen this firsthand with the opponent (or you yourself) not really caring one way or the other about how the game finishes.
Meanwhile, winning can have different effects depending on the person. I’ve seen some players get really nervous when they win three rounds in a row, fearful that they will bottom out suddenly and inexplicably. “I just want to keep winning,” is what I hear. Other players take this as a good sign and ride that wave of confidence.
In the end, I think it’s important to learn to relax whatever the case may be, but don’t confuse “relaxing” with careless play.
So this was an interesting matchup in that I had a reference for how to deal with Stage 1 Energy accelerators from my testing against Bronzong PHF decks, normally an easy matchup. The problem in this case, however, is that my opponent used non-EX attackers that could attack for a relatively low Energy count. Additionally, this deck was much less clunky than the Bronzong decks I had faced before. Within a few turns my opponent had two Eelektrik NVI up, powering up anything he needed. Oh yeah, he also ran Keldeo-EX, which suffocated my hopes of trapping something in the Active Spot.
I don’t want to dig too much into this matchup because it’s really, really bad for me, but I do want to call out two things that could have swung things in my favor. First of all, the Hex Maniac I managed to squeeze into my deck replaced a single Silent Lab that could have given me a late-game out against the threat of Keldeo-EX. Without that option, however, I was left scrambling for options, which leads me to my second point:
It was very possible for me to have won at least Game 1 against my opponent by getting a Head Ringer on the Keldeo-EX, making it Active via Catcher or Lysandre, then trap it (provided my opponent didn’t have Energy on it or I could land a heads or two on Crushing Hammer). With the Keldeo-EX Active, my opponent couldn’t have retreated unless he manually attached two Energy to the Keldeo-EX. If I was careful enough, I could have built my strategy around getting Sableye to keep Energy off the Keldeo-EX at that point.
That this thought only occurred to me after the game proved two things: 1. I was too hung up on attaching my previous Bronzong matchup experience to this round to notice a very possible way to win, and 2. Once more, a lack of representation for this deck on PTCGO through me off; rather than going into this round with a clear strategy, I fumbled a lot and never seemed to gain any ground.
This was a matchup I was glad to face, especially after facing what seemed on the surface like a clear auto-loss. I might have lost only once to a M Rayquaza-EX deck in previous testing, so I was more than happy to see my opponent flip over a Rayquaza-EX on his first turn going first …
… then … he played a Computer Search …
… for a Ghetsis …
Once more, my opponent stripped my hand of everything valuable with a single card. I was left with 1 Durant and 1 Sableye in play. After getting everything in play and leaving me with nothing, I had to depend on another topdeck. I draw a Trainers’ Mail, then play it:
First card … Metal Energy …
Second card … Sableye …
Third card … Prism Energy …
Fourth card … Professor Sycamore!
Thanks to that topdeck I win the first match easily after my onslaught of Energy-denying cards. And though my opponent pulled off a first turn Ghetsis in the second game, I had insurance in hand in the form of an N.
Rounds 7, 8, and 9: Archie/Stoise and Vespiquen/Flareon (2)
I want to look at these three rounds together because, in essence, this was what knocked me out of the tournament. It wasn’t that I had not won against these decks before, it was my own pride — my refusal to acknowledge a very serious flaw in how I expected Durant to perform at this tournament.
Even when I piece together all those reasons I played Durant earlier in this article, I’m still left with the strange sense that I was just stubborn, that I thought I knew something nobody else did. In years past this has been true — I’ve put together a number of rogue or “strong tier 2” decks that have performed well at all levels of competitive play, but for this tournament I was way off base.
I lost in two of these rounds and squeaked out a tie in a third, and in each case I realized that PTCGO play is just not the same as what occurs in real life, or at least against real people that share the competitive spirit. This of course leads me to a troubling question: Could I have done anything differently? The answer is “yes,” most obviously in the deck choice I made.
In case there’s any worry about how things panned out, I actually had a great time at this tournament — I got a chance to meet friends I had not seen in a long time, I got to play my annoying ant deck one last time, and though I didn’t “win” by making it to the second day, I did “win” by having an opportunity to spend time with my family.
We explored Richmond some, we went to a Children’s Museum where my daughter got to paint cups shaped to look like animals, slide down slides, ride a merry-go-round, and watch a jazz band play (she could pick out every instrument!). We spent some time at a few shops where I found some awesome video game calendars for three bucks apiece. In a word, we were a family.
Later that day there was talk of snow, and we chose to stay at the hotel and risk getting snowed in. Sure enough, at around 10 PM or so, I peeked out the window and saw a blanket of white already on the ground. With Naomi barely awake in my arms and a Bon Iver song softly taking her to dream land, I looked at the window and considered the whole tournament a huge success.
That then is my last lesson from this tournament report: put yourself in “win-win” situations whenever you are able. I might not have won at Pokémon this time around, but I definitely won at being a father and husband. This is a rich community that offers so many chances to win outside of the competitive scope. Jump at those chances.
We got snowed in badly, such that I found myself driving back home at a whopping 25 MPH behind three snow plows the next day. We passed many accidents, and there was the subtle hint of disconnection that exists with every winter storm. At one point we stopped to fill up on gas at a place that seemed straight from a novel: the little convenience store inside was connected to an old-timey restaurant replete with bored waitresses. The lady at the counter said maybe three words to me and coughed out a couple more as I bought some nearly-expired granola bars and avoided the puddle that had started to form in the entrance way.
Still, the snow and ice was resplendent, and as we hurried back home as best we could everything seemed to melt away. A three-and-a-half hour trip up took seven hours back, and by the time we returned there was hardly any snow left on the ground. Both my children were asleep and my wife asked me if I had fun.
“Of course,” I said, really meaning it.
“Even if you didn’t do well?”
“Mhm. I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world,” I answered, giving her a quick smile before getting the kids out. “Sure, I would have liked to have won, or at least done better, but losing with you guys will always be better than winning alone.”
…and that will conclude this Unlocked Underground article.
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