pokemonscreenshots.tumblr.comI wrote about the grind two months ago, so I am back with a bit of a refresher on how it is going. We have attended three Regionals this year and are fortunate enough to have cut at every one. Unfortunately, I don’t think we are doing any more Regionals this year, so we needed one good States result to make sure we have our best of four finishes to keep pushing up our Championship Points.
Unfortunately, as I mentioned in our last article, the Mid-Atlantic region was a bit of a nightmare for people on the grind this year. MD, NJ, and PA States were all scheduled the same weekend, then there were two weekends with no tournaments within a five-hour drive of us, then VA and DE took place on the same weekend. Trust me, with two kids you would rather shoot yourself in the head than drive five hours. Last year we had DE, PA, MD, and VA spread over four weekends. Now, two States were all we would get to enjoy. And we have fond, fond memories of States after last year. I always tell people that States was where we really dialed up the intensity and emerged as serious competitive Pokémon players. With only two bites at the apple, we wanted to perform well.
As a Pokédad that is invested in my kids’ success, I was happy to see that my oldest was ready to dial up the intensity as well. We stepped up our testing going into States as he was very interested in making the magic happen. Conversely, my youngest currently thinks Pokémon is very “boring.” Every deck is boring. Playing Pokémon is boring. I think some of this is a sibling rivalry response: on the one hand, he doesn’t want to play his brother. On the other hand, he doesn’t want to scoop to his brother. On the third hand, it frequently doesn’t make any sense for them to ID (e.g., ID’ing in Round 2-of a Cities tournament). This isn’t really a Pokémon problem — it’s a parenting problem and it is up to me to navigate. My youngest takes for granted how our collaborative work as a family and team and his relationship with his brother have brought him, in a manner that feels almost effortless to him, to his second consecutive Worlds invite. He almost sounds spoiled when you think about how much other kids would love to have an invite and how he stacks up points and victories and then acts casually dismissive about it in an effort to separate himself from his brother.
The State of the Junior Meta
That’s enough talk about parenting! Let’s talk about Pokémon — specifically, what is going on in the Junior meta. The Junior meta feels more different from the Masters meta than ever before. Whereas Masters are circling around Battle Compressor decks obsessively, I think your average Junior still seeks decks where there is an element of attaching and attacking. Most Juniors are put off by the complexity and non-linearity of decks such as Vespiquen/Vileplume. Similarly, the chunk of Juniors not put off by the complexity are put off for a different reason, but to articulate that, I need to tell a story about pro sports:
Masters are good. Many Masters are quite good. It reminds me of the NBA in a way: every player on every NBA team was an absolute superstar in high school and college. The NBA is the first time that they weren’t typically the best player on their team. And now they are the tenth-best player on their team. It’s the same concept in the NFL. When you are a third-round draft pick in the NFL, you were probably the best player on your team. By a mile. You absolutely dominated in high school. And all of the sudden you show up and it is a struggle just to make the team.
This is parity. It is really, really hard to be better than the next guy. So to win, you have to do one of two things: go on an insanely hot streak or take a huge risk. So in this way, Pokémon and pro sports are similar. At the highest level, to differentiate yourself requires risk-taking. Some of that risk could just be playing a meta deck and trying to run hot. If I told you that you would flip heads on every coin flip for a tournament, picking a deck to win the tournament is easy. A deck like Vespiquen/Vileplume is a high-risk, high-reward proposition: if you get the T1 lock, you frequently win. If you win the coin toss, you frequently win. It doesn’t matter if the other guy is better. That is how Masters think. This deck gives me a shot at winning every time.
Juniors think about it slightly differently. If I don’t get the lock, I probably lose. If I miss a bunch of coin flips, I probably lose. If you are the kind of Junior skilled and confident enough to play a deck like Vespi/Plume, then you would rather play a deck that gives you a 50/50 shot because you think you can outskill all of your opponents. As I reported in our last Worlds report, my son wouldn’t play Primal Groudon because he felt like there were inevitably times when he would fail to set up and he would lose — even against the likes of a theme deck. It happens.
So some of the bold deck opportunities were not really seen in our meta. We felt like the Junior meta would continue to be, going into States, Mega Manectric, Night March, Toad/Tina, and Yveltal.
Perspective on Modern Meta Deck Design
I want to briefly talk about the thing everybody talks about: how the Standard meta is all crazy. Here is the tension: draw Supporters besides Sycamore are increasingly anemic relative to cards like N and Colress. Let me give you an example: if you play a Judge or a Birch (and flip tails), the odds that you cause your own self to draw dead are super high. For example, if you played 13 outs to draw in your deck and the first card you play is that Supporter, the odds that you draw into another draw card are 61% if you draw 4 cards and 81% if you draw 7. So you have a ~33% higher chance of drawing a draw card compared to a Supporter card that draws 7. And a nearly 40% chance of drawing into a dead hand. (This is based on 58 cards left in the deck and 12 outs because you started a Pokémon and you played a draw Supporter.) And if the out is an Ultra Ball to Shaymin-EX, you basically have to throw away your entire hand or lose.
Compounding the problem of poor draw Supporters is the profusion of Item-based draw cards. Trainers’ Mail lets you look at 4 cards and not use your Supporter for turn. Acro Bike lets you look at 2 cards and not use your Supporter for turn. When my kids started playing two years ago, the best Item-based draw cards were Bicycle and Roller Skates. If Roller Skates lets you play a card to draw 1.5 cards, even Acro Bike is a significant improvement. Shaymin-EX is another draw mechanic that doesn’t use your Supporter for turn. Combined with Ultra Ball, it fuels the Item-based draw mechanism by filling your hand with new cards after depleting your hand by using Trainers’ Mail and Acro Bike.
Battle Compressor plays into the same mechanism: not only is it a card that is always playable, unlike cards such as Bicycle or Supporters, which may be unplayable and clog your hand preventing Shaymin-EX from being played, but it can thin your deck. By discarding cards such as Supporters or unnecessary Pokémon, it ensures that Trainers’ Mails, Ultra Balls, and other “burnable” cards are drawn. This dramatically improves the efficiency of decks, leads to fewer dead hands, and maximizes the effectiveness of decks.
So a perfect storm of poor Supporter-based draw, strong Item-based draw, Battle Compressors, and Shaymin-EX (which benefits from the burnable cards that Item-based draw and Battle Compressors constitute) make for an environment where explosive starts are the norm.
Now players are faced with a choice: play decks that offer an instant Item lock to counter Item-based draw or play Item-based draw decks. Either way, the result is decks focused on starts that preclude an opponent’s opportunity to counter, minimize interactivity, and attempt to deprecate the meaningful play of mid-game and late-game strategies.
Absent blazing quick Item locks, the opportunity to build faster and faster Item-based decks is too powerful to dismiss. Sadly, the counter simply encourages more explosive approaches and emphasizes strong starts, which plays into the very problem they are designed to counter. A bad first turn suddenly dooms most players.
Enough theorymon, let’s talk about Pokémon. We attended Maryland States the first week.
My oldest played … (wait for it) … NIGHT MARCH!
Here was our list:
Pokémon – 16
Trainers – 40
1 Town Map
Energy – 4
I think this is a pretty representative list. We added a 1-1 Gallade/Maxie’s line for Jolteon, then saw no Jolteon at the tournament. We added a Hammer to try and give us a chance against Toad/Tina. A Judge was our version of “the big card they didn’t expect.” In our testing, sometimes the Judge was a Xerosic and other times it was a Delinquent. I think I generally favored the Delinquent, but that is how it worked out. Other than that, I think the list is pretty boring. We cut 1 Professor Sycamore, 1 Acro Bike, and 2 Pokémon Catcher to fit those cards in. In prepping for Virginia Regionals, we put them all back in as our techs seemed useless.
I would do a deeper dive, as we spent a lot of time playing Night March over the last few months, but I think Night March lists have been talked to death.
Games were like this:
R1: ??? (Darkrai/Hypno) – WW
R2: Kyle I. (Toad/Tina) – LWL
R3: Shawn C. (Mega Latios) – WW
R4: Colby E. (Yveltal) – LWL
Note that every kid he played in Rounds 2, 3, and 4 have their Worlds invite and are the same people we played in Top 8 at prior Regionals. Juniors is just competitive like that. Toad/Tina is pretty much an auto-loss. You may recollect that in my prior report, my son lost to Kyle in Top 8 at VA Regionals. Kyle went on to take 2nd, so he is both a skilled and successful player. The final game of Round 2 came down to a coin flip. Heads discards our last Energy; tails lets us Night March for the win. And heads it was.
Colby is a top 16 NA player and his Yveltal deck ran 2 Seismitoad. We simply got quaked out of the game there.
I spent the next three weeks assuaging our sorrow about this outcome by telling my son, “If we had gone 2-2 and not played Night March, we would have been kicking ourselves now for not playing it.” We felt like we played the best deck and had some beat draws and bad matchups.
My other son played YZG. Here was his list:
Pokémon – 15
Trainers – 35
Energy – 10
Brandon Smiley very generously gave us this list to test shortly after Regionals and the only change we made was removing a Parallel City and adding a 2nd Reverse Valley because my youngest son is all offense and no subtlety. We tested a variety of lists and this was rock solid. It is fairly toolbox-ey, it is pretty easy to hit the Gallade, and it has lots of ways to win. The Unown lets you benefit from the Gallade a bit while being equally burnable when trying to hit the Maxie’s. Brandon never played this list because he felt like if you played the mirror and they ran Max Elixirs you lost, but this was the best list we played.
Let’s talk about how my youngest did:
R1: Hayden C. (Mega Manectric) – ID (They are best friends IRL — they sit next to each other in second grade and are super adorable, trust me. Certainly, this is a bad matchup for us so you can say Hayden did us a favor, but another way to look at it would be to say that Hayden did not win a match all day. ID’ing was very fair for the two of them because they love each other.)
R2: Colby E. (Yveltal) – LWT
R3: ??? (Wailord) – WW
R4: ??? (Darkrai/Hypno) – WW
T4: Kyle I. (Toad/Tina) – WW
T2: Georgia H. (Mega Manectric/Garbodor/Wobbuffet) – LWL
So this is the power of random draws and good matchups. Toad/Tina is not seen a lot in Masters due to the profusion of YZG, so Kyle gets rolled over in Top 4. Conversely, YZG gets beaten up in the finals by Mega Man, whereas if my oldest had played Mega Man with Night March, he would probably have picked up another win.
So my youngest takes 2nd at Maryland States somewhat because he only played one person in Swiss that had his Worlds invite, then he played out the matchups that got dealt to him. We take those! Favorable pairings FTW. Having said that, being eight years old and playing 11-year-olds is hard and I could not be prouder of the little guy. Let’s be clear: winning the games you are supposed to win against some of the best Juniors in the world means playing at an incredibly high level. Going 4-3 in individual games against three top players is hard. If he regains his interest, I expect him to be the next Tanner Hurley or Landon Frank in a few years. (Although he has already told me he will be bored of Pokémon by then.)
Three weeks later and we were back at it again for the last week of States. I mentioned earlier that my youngest was feeling passé about Pokémon. That is in evidence today as he decides he would rather go to a birthday party (with his BFF Hayden C.!) than follow up on his 2nd place finish.
My oldest is super ready though. After not too much testing, but testing lots of other stuff and hating it all, we settle on playing M Rayquaza/Jolteon. We started looking at this deck early after Jolteon was released, somewhat because I thought it was interesting that we have never really played a M Ray deck. Also, Jolteon seemed like a card that many juniors would be ill-prepared to face. This is consistent with our theory that we are best served by playing cards that other juniors don’t want us to play.
Our feelings coming out of MD States were something like this: we were the only people playing Night March. Literally the only Junior at the tournament playing Night March. So we assumed some people would pick it up and we wanted a good matchup, but we needed good matchups against three other decks as well: Toad/Tina, which we assumed Kyle I. would show up playing again, as he had success at MD; Yveltal, because we assumed Colby would show up; and M Man, because we assumed Georgia would show up. All these people did well at MD, so we assumed they would be happy. Georgia had attended other States as she has traveled much more that we have for tournaments because her Poké-mom is so involved, so she might switch it up, but Colby and Kyle lived near us and we knew that MD was their only other States.
Our list was a straight net-deck of Jose Marrero’s Week 2 list:
Pokémon – 16
Trainers – 36
Energy – 8
We felt like this deck put us in a winning position against Toad/Tina, Yveltal, and Night March and could outspeed Mega Manectric decks (as I discussed in our PA Regionals report). Fortunately, we never had to test that theory because I recognize that one of the trade-offs of this list compared to lists played at the beginning of the year is that, generally speaking, 4 Trainers’ Mails were cut for 4 Puzzles, making the end game stronger for this deck, but weakening the explosive starts that the deck is so well known for. I think we would have liked to fit in a 1-1 Altaria line given the amount of Mega Man in Juniors, but we never had time to test it. I suspect that the card we would have cut would have been the Aegislash. It is in the deck largely to improve the Vespi/Plume matchup, but even when my son played against a Vespi/Plume deck at Virginia, he never actually used the Aegislash.
When we got to the tournament, we heard that M Manectric and Night March would be popular and I tried to convince my son to make a last-minute Night March change, but he felt good about the deck and he played it out.
So here is M Ray/Jolteon by round:
R1: Georgia H. (Vespi/Plume) – WLW (Top 25 player that had won MD States! Nice to get the win here. She struggled to set up repeatedly.)
R2: Shawn C. (Night March) – WW (You may remember Shawn from our Cities reports. We see that guy everywhere! He placed 2nd at VA States last year. My son had the benefit of starting Jolteon both games. Can’t beat that.)
R3: Alek G. (Garchomp) – WLW
R4: Kyle I. (M Man/Garb) – ID (Kyle switched it up on us, pulling a not-uncommon Junior approach to a problem: loses in Swiss to a deck at previous tournament, next tournament he plays that deck. We didn’t see it coming.)
T4: Rohyan C. (Ho-Oh) – LWW
T2: Shawn C. (Night March) – WW
Yay! We got there! After bubbling cut at 5th in MD, my oldest got his States win for the year. This was important to us because, as I said earlier, we needed those fourth Best Finish Limit points. Maybe more to the point, it just goes to show, I give terrible meta advice from time to time. This was a hard tournament, as more than half the participants in Juniors had their Worlds invite. No easy rounds. But it was a fun tournament for us both because we had success and we could share that success with our buddy Dean Nezam, who ran the same deck and finished Swiss as the top seed. Mega Ray fan club! So for the duration of the tournament for Juniors, who wrapped up before Masters Swiss completed, we won together!
It was also fun because Dylan Dreyer, one of our first true Poké-friends, came out of retirement briefly to play a bit of Pokémon with us. It was great to see him and all of our Poké-friends. I wish I had taken a picture of my son high-fiving Russell LaParre and Chris Taporco after completing his finals run. People always talk about what a nice community Pokémon is and we really feel it. Props to Joe Grubb, the Juniors in attendance (including our buddy Jason A.), and our many other buddies as well.
Are we going to Regionals? Is Nationals our next big tournament? I have no idea. This stymies our attempts to figure out what we should start testing. No big deal. I suspect we have done what we can do to position ourselves for top 16. Like any good Pokémon player, we have given it all we have. We have done our best and have few to no regrets.