At the end of the day when it’s time for everyone to go to sleep, I often play music on my phone to help my daughter calm down and get prepared to snooze. She normally doesn’t make it through more than three songs, though I’ll still seize the chance to brag on her good taste in music. Animal Collective, Death Cab for Cutie, the Beatles, soundtracks to Nintendo games … I must say, I’m very proud.
When she was younger my daughter didn’t care much for music, but she loved to hear me read to her. Yes, we have Dr. Seuss and other fine children’s books, but what really helped lull her to sleep was me reading SixPrizes articles to her. Of course, it might be the case she was bored to sleep from listening to in-depth TCG strategy, but I like to think she’s a budding TCG prodigy.
In any case, for those late-night readings I would sometimes dip into older material from years ago, a practice that gave me the idea to peek at things I had written years back and draw conclusions about the game in its current state. Is metagaming still effective? Have the rules for building rogue decks changed in any way? Are misplays more treacherous now that so many matches are streamed out to the rest of the world?
These questions have lingered in my mind for years, and so I’d like to take the opportunity to look back at ideas I used to have on the game. Naturally, I’ll draw conclusions about the game in its current state from this, but I want to take it a step further and address new patterns that have emerged. Here, consider this example, an opinion I held about the game toward the end of 2013:
“Pretty soon, games in the Pokémon TCG will not be won or lost based on the decks people are playing, but rather on a handful of cards (roughly 6 or so) that players choose to employ.”
For those that don’t remember, the format at the beginning of 2014 was comprised of mostly three decks: Darkrai-EX (with or without Garbodor DRX), Virizion-EX/Genesect-EX, and Plasma. Even after the release of XY, most people updated their decks with Muscle Band and called it a day. For some time, my prediction proved to be true. The inclusion of Garbodor could be huge, Virizion/Genesect had its own share of techs (Deoxys-EX, various Energy Switch counts, and so on), and there were numerous cards that could secure isolated matchups (Enhanced Hammer in the Plasma matchup, for instance).
But how does that rule apply to the game as we know it today? Those are the types of questions I’m looking to answer with today’s look into the past.
Before I crack into some of the concepts this game used to encompass, we had a request to share our own technique with regard to shuffling. I do a six-pile shuffle multiple times before and after each game while I get to know my opponent. During the game I’ll do simple riffle shuffles a few times.
I do want to mention one technique that proved useful. It might not be relevant now, but when Lysandre’s Trump Card was legal I made sure to do a thorough shuffle of my deck when my discard pile got shuffled back in. Since the discarding of cards is not a random process, thoroughly shuffling in that case is needed to preserve the integrity of a randomized deck.
That’s pretty much it for me! Pretty common shuffling techniques.
A Shift in How We Metagame
When I first wrote about metagaming I felt overwhelmed — it was a topic so vast I didn’t even know where to start! It combined math, psychology, pattern recognition, and other elements to the degree that it felt more like fortune-telling than logic, more art than science. Still, I managed to identify different types of metagames that exist as well as general rules for how to approach each of them.
For those that are newer to this term, “metagaming” is taking into account the “game within the game.” Rather than depending solely on one’s strategy to win, people that metagame are considering what other people might be playing at a tournament. Say your friend asks you to play a game of Pokémon and you know for a fact that they have only one deck: Greninja. You have two decks, one of which is a Grass deck and another that is Fire. If you know anything about the Pokémon TCG at all, you know which deck you should choose should you want to win. In a nutshell, that’s metagaming.
At a larger scale it becomes more difficult to determine what other competitors will be playing. From a distant view, however, I once identified the following types of metagames:
- Rock-Paper-Scissors — In which a small number of decks (2-3) run the show amidst a small number of tier 2 decks trying to compete.
- Rock-Paper-Scissor Extended — Similar to the RPS Metagame but with a greater number of decks. In this case, 4-5 decks present as strong archetypes amidst a number of tier 2/tier 3 decks.
- Static — In which one, maybe two decks have a stranglehold on the format. While we haven’t had a metagame like this for a while, Seismitoad-EX is a good example of a card that just doesn’t seem to die.
- Counter-Counter — In which an archetype stands as the best deck in the format and is easily countered by a mediocre strategy or deck that is easily countered by decks that have trouble competing with the top deck.
These are all representative of “defined metagames,” ones you can easily recognize and expect to see based on tournament results. There are undefined metagames as well, and these are based on various external factors (set releases, card rotations, etc.) or a state in which many decks offer competitive viability.
Today’s Defined Metagame
Results from State Championships so far have made one thing clear: Night March is currently the best deck in the format. At a whopping 17 State Championship wins, we should all be aware of its strength by now. This is a relatively new progression even though Night March has been around for a long time. It seems to me that Puzzle of Time (along with so many other powerful Trainer cards) is at the heart of this change; plus, the deck is certainly appealing to players that want to play at a low cost.
This is almost word for word a Counter-Counter Metagame. Night March stands atop the format as it is currently, and plenty of people have something to say about that. A quick look at some Pokémon TCG groups on Facebook reveals the following sentiments:
- “If you can’t beat Night March then join them.”
- “NM is the BDIF so either play it or play a deck to beat it …”
- “NM is BDIF, and it’s hard to argue against the numbers, but you can beat it.”
Finding a card or deck to beat Night March is not difficult. The hard part is in using a counter to Night March while still being effective against other decks. I do want to note, however, that in the short stint that Terrakion NVI was beating up on Darkrai-EX it actually saw a lot of success. While I’m not suggesting that everyone focus squarely on countering Night March, I think there’s legitimacy to using a hard counter in a Counter-Counter Metagame.
Another notion to bring up is that each new set we get seems to drastically overhaul the format. This is much different than where the game used to be (think early Diamond & Pearl sets or the barely relevant HeartGold & SoulSilver sets). With the possible exception of Flashfire, almost every set has introduced new archetypes, revived old ones, and equipped players with counters to common strategies.
As a result, this game seems to be in flux on a constant basis. I’m unsure of whether or not that’s “healthy” for the state of the game, but I’ll take it over a Static Metagame any day.
Years ago I wrote an article about “tempo,” a rarely discussed topic that I’ve always thought deserved more attention. The idea behind tempo is self-explanatory — as the state of the game progresses, you are either keeping up with your opponent or you’re not. The manner in which this unfolds depends on several factors — deck choice, tech choice, opening hand, and so on — and my aim before was to demonstrate that many of those factors are in one’s control. Let’s look at an example from years ago that I shared; hopefully it’s one many of you will remember:
“Victory Star” Victini NVI: When used in conjunction with Tynamo NVI 38, a player could paralyze the opponent’s Active Pokémon until numerous Eelektrik NVI hit the field. The 75% chance of paralysis gave Eelektrik NVI decks a way to hold off attacks until they could get a Rayquaza EX powered up.
What’s remarkable about this example of controlling tempo in a game is that Victini is a single card that greatly contributed to wins in this specific instance. I believe Ross Cawthon (among others) used this combo at a Regionals to land a top-cut finish, and it’s surprising how that one card changed the course of the game so much. There are other cards that do this, cards like Enhanced Hammer and Scramble Switch, and they always seem to gravitate toward the edge of being an automatic inclusion in every deck.
For me, my go-to “tempo changer” has always been Enhanced Hammer. While it’s not useful in every matchup, when it works it works very well. Sadly, however, Enhanced Hammer has lost some of its flavor due to Puzzle of Time being able to retrieve Special Energy from the discard pile.
Being Able to Manage Tempo is Key in Today’s Format
Part of the reason managing tempo is so important right now is that we play in a format that in a single year has changed dramatically with the release of each set. The slow, lumbering Seismitoad-EX was at one point the biggest threat in the game. Right now, the biggest threat is Night March, possibly the fastest deck one can play. When I played in Regionals I faced decks that were all over the place in terms of speed. What this means is that your deck needs to have an answer for everything from a first-turn 200 damage to a third-turn Item lock with the peril of Bursting Balloon.
One of the most obvious ways to break an opponent’s cruise to victory — at least when considering how to disrupt a Night March deck — is a “wall,” a card that Night March just can’t get around. These cards exist, though using them starts to crack into the earlier topic of metagaming. With the current “Counter-Counter Metagame,” utilizing a card like Pyroar FLF or Jolteon-EX might prove to be effective, but it could also chip away at your other matchups. Let’s consider some “walls” as well as other tempo-disrupting cards that exist in this format:
- Jolteon-EX/Glaceon-EX — The price tag for Jolteon-EX might be giving this away a little, but the card is a legitimate counter to any deck that uses only Basic Pokémon. Recently, an M Rayquaza-EX deck with Jolteon-EX in it has started to perform nicely at States; I imagine this trend to continue. Glaceon-EX (in our next set) is a wall as well, but only for Evolved Pokémon. In other words — at least for now — it’s not that good at all.
- Pyroar FLF — This is an alternative to Jolteon-EX and can get the job done against Night March, but it suffers a lot against many other archetypes and it constitutes a large portion of one’s deck. There are just too many requirements that need to be in place for this card to see resurgence.
- Safeguard — These cards completely deflect Pokémon-EX to the point that even a single copy in one’s deck can be game-changing. There’s a Carbink with this Ability (as well as a Carbink BREAK) that should be released fairly soon, and while the attacks on these Pokémon are decent at best, the Ability can definitely put this card in the spotlight.
- Energy Denial cards (Enhanced Hammer, Team Flare Grunt, etc.) — While these cards were once brutal against many archetypes, Puzzle of Time stands in direct opposition to anyone trying to eradicate Double Colorless Energy from the game. Meanwhile, yet another Carbink that will be released sometime in the future has an Ability that blocks basic Energy from being discarded from Basic Pokémon.
The last thing I want to mention regarding tempo is my belief that situations like the Victini play I mentioned earlier still exist in the game. At one point the addition of Illumise PRC to Virizion/Genesect was a very smart play. Even the addition of Skyla to one’s deck to easily connect Puzzle of Time “pieces” can be viewed from the perspective of managing tempo. When looking at the game this way it opens up multiple possibilities to greatly influence the outcome of every matchup.
Parsing Out Passivity
As I was looking around on Facebook the other week I saw a comment from someone that was clearly frustrated about the prevalence of Night March. I’m paraphrasing here, but from their point of view Night March was being played by competitors who saw a winning list, copied it down, and hoped to pull off a simple victory. In a word, the issue was one of “net-decking.”
There’s an argument to be made about how one should react to net-decking — the practice of copying verbatim a list one found online and adopting it as an effective strategy — but I think it’s helpful to look at a broader issue when confronting the game as it stands today. That issue is one of passivity.
Now, I don’t mean to pick on just people who net-deck. In all honesty, we’re all guilty of borrowing ideas. What I want to look at instead are the pockets of weakness in which each of us are capable of making a mistake. Originally, my list of problem areas in which players become passive included the following:
- Not looking at the opponent’s hand when they mulligan
- Not taking notes during a game
- Prize card deduction
- Thinking critically about whether or not to play a card
- Responding appropriately to an opponent’s strategy
- Responding appropriately to a perceived rogue deck
- Paying attention to time limits
- Considering the “7th Prize card”
- Managing matchups through accurate play-testing
Net-decking actually isn’t on that original list, yet I feel it should be. Not because I don’t condone it, but because it’s something we all do. The dangers of passivity when it comes to net-decking is the assumption that one’s list is greater than one’s skill. Admittedly, this is sometimes the case. I can’t pretend that a bad matchup can be overcome with skill every time.
Still, the passivity presented here can occur for many reasons. Perhaps a player gives up on a rogue they were trying to make work and plays something they found online instead. Maybe they’re trying to get into the game and they see a winning deck online as their best chance to succeed. It could be that they actually like the deck they’re copying. In any case, it’s not uncommon for a player to retrieve a list and think of that as the key to victory.
I want to call to mind the moment Jason Klaczynski beat Wailord-EX with his Seismitoad-EX/Garbodor LTR deck in the Nationals finals. In order to do that it appeared he had a plan, stuck to that plan, and didn’t become passive for even a second. I would argue that most players in that same situation would have floundered because they wouldn’t have considered a strategy pregame, paid attention to time limits, or thought critically about every card played.
Of all the archetypes to ever exist, Seismitoad/Garbodor is probably one of the most net-decked decks out there, and yet Jason was able to beat out many other players to arrive at the top. I’ll also note that Toad/Garbodor was generally viewed as a flailing deck at the time. The level of skill it took to perform that well with that deck is a testament to anyone who thinks passive play isn’t a great factor in results.
Revisiting My List
Almost everything I originally included regarding passive play is still relevant, but I want to touch on two things in particular — the first being note-taking as a practice and the second being time limits.
As far as note-taking is concerned, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone take notes during a competitive game. I’ve seen a couple of players make a mark on a small slip of paper to represent something (opponent played a Supporter, attached an Energy card, etc.), but as far as actual notes, I’ve never seen it. Should this surprise anyone though? At the time I wrote about passivity and note-taking, I had it in my head to start taking notes myself. I thought it would give me an advantage, and indeed I tried to develop a system of note-taking for a brief stint.
The issue, though, has to do with a few factors, and cheating is sadly one of them. Within the past few months we’ve had the displeasure of seeing a handful of players get caught cheating on camera. Ever since I started playing I developed the habit of watching my opponents like a hawk — not to intimidate in any way, but rather because it helps me pay attention to what’s going on and it gives me comfort that I won’t be cheated against. In practice, note-taking means that one’s attention is often diverted to paper rather than player.
I’ve observed players who have used a different system to account for their opponent’s actions — things like setting out beads or turning a die to a certain number. This seems like a better alternative to note-taking since it doesn’t require as much attention or effort.
My second thought here is on time limits. While it’s true the game has gotten faster in the years since I first penned my thoughts about passive play, time limits are still a huge issue that demands an active response. We have all heard the complaints from a player who lost “because of time” but refused to address the issue of an opponent playing slowly. Heck, I’ve been at fault for overlooking this as well. I summed up the issue before by saying that …
“If you find yourself moving on to the top cut, recognize that you have a very powerful tool at your disposal: the ability to concede. Even this calls skill into question, for if you can accurately predict the outcome to the game, you might be better off conceding and going to the next game. Players who know no better will continue their travels into the rabbit hole, ultimately giving themselves little chance to win.
Additionally, if you know for a fact the deck you choose for a tournament is slow to setup, you need to practice beforehand and prepare not just for the top cut rounds, but for the Swiss rounds as well. There’s nothing worse than being just a few turns away from a huge victory when time is called.”
Since I wrote that, high-level tournaments have been given the “50 minute, best of three” treatment, which only makes this issue that much more important. I was both surprised and elated to face opponents at VA Regionals who correctly conceded to me much earlier than I expected. Since I was playing Durant I expected some concessions, but it appeared many players were up to date on how to approach the issue of time.
The Mind Games That Once Were
Two things I truly miss with the Pokémon TCG: bluffing and the “psychology” that used to exist. I suppose these can be consolidated into the idea of “mind games” during a game, but still … I’m looking forward to a day when these strategic components to the game make another appearance. Here’s what I wrote about these two things way back when:
Bluffing — Power Spray was a card that created an interesting relationship between both players in a game. It opened the door for players to determine through body language, tone of voice, facial expressions, etc. whether or not a Power Spray should be played. In the seasons it was legal, players would trick their opponents into either playing Power Sprays or holding onto them.
“Psychology” — This is a word mentioned often in the poker world to describe things like bluffing, tells, “going on tilt,” and so on. If anything, players will want to make sure they don’t get “tilted” (that is, getting upset at circumstances enough to affect one’s performance). Otherwise, there isn’t a lot of psychology in the game currently. With cards like Power Spray and Team Galactic’s Wager there used to be, but things have gotten simplified over the years.
Sadly, I was reminiscing about those things when I wrote them some two years or so ago. If anything, the power of proper metagaming has replaced the notions of in-game psychology. When any deck rises to the top in a given format, it stands as a bluff as to whether players will counter that deck or not.
Consider Wailord-EX, a deck that hasn’t seen much play since it surprised players at Nationals last season. I could go to my next tournament and play that deck in the hopes that my opponent’s won’t call my bluff. Wailord-EX can be difficult to beat even when you know its strategy, so perhaps there’s some viability there.
Still, it’s world away from where the game used to be in this respect. Hopefully we’ll see a return to these strategies some time soon.
Part of the reason I wanted to write about older topics is that I feel many of them are as relevant today as the day I wrote about them, even when there are years of difference between the two. Rather than reinventing the wheel I figured I would revisit them and provide context for how the game plays out today with regard to those topics.
Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind right now is what approach players should take regarding Night March. At some point, though, I expect the Night March craze to die down and our format to return to its usual “undefined” status.
If you liked this article, let me know by “liking” it. Also, I’m in the business for article ideas right now, so be sure to shoot one my way if you get a chance. As always, thanks for reading!
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