I watched tentatively from behind a thick black curtain meant to separate spectators from the arena. Less than 15 feet away my brother was finishing his third round at the 2006 Pokémon World Championships. He looked weathered and stiff, a cardboard cutout set jokingly in place of the Kevin Nance that had flown with me to California to compete with the best.
This weariness I understood. While my match was against an unknown player with a bad rogue deck (an easy win), Kevin’s round had been a disaster. A friend of mine had been watching from the beginning and told me about Kevin’s awful opening hand. Without a Supporter and any easy way to set up Kevin mostly draw-passed his way to where he was now: no Prize cards taken and his opponent on the verge of victory.
With my interest in the game quickly waning I looked down at the kitschy carpet that made up the convention hall we were crowded in. A discontent began to grow within me. While I faced an auto-win my brother was straining under the heavy burden of variance, and I wondered quietly if this signaled the end of our season. After running the same deck unsuccessfully at Nationals we persevered, knowing well the strength of Metagross DS 11/Dragonite DS. The thought that we would be shut out again from succeeding with such a strong deck was almost nauseating. I thought absently about the reason hotel carpets often looked like patterns from a mangled kaleidoscope (to conceal unsightly stains). I heard my brother audibly sigh.
My friend had to nudge me more than once to pull me back from the dark place I had gone. “Watch,” he said, eyebrows raised in the kind of expression that denoted offense. Puzzled, I looked up. My brother was no longer made of cardboard. He was animated, elbows perched on the table like he was teaching his opponent how to play the game. At first I thought some great conflict had occurred. Great, I thought, my brother got so mad he said something that’s going to get us kicked out of here …
I quickly realized the sigh that came from Kevin was not of despair but function — he was simply sitting himself up. At that moment a blaring voice rattled me: “POKÉMON PLAYERS, THAT IS TIME!” I looked away for a split second, upset at whoever chose the loudest person in the room to man the announcements. When I looked back my brother was shaking his opponent’s hand. His face showed desperation, but there was an unearthed spark there as well. The opponent looked paralyzed, eyes shifting in response to either revelation or panic.
With the Prize count at 6-1 just moments before it seemed impossible that my brother had won. While still eyeing the game I cocked my head slightly and asked my friend what had happened. “I think … Kevin won?” he said with absolutely no confidence. At that moment my brother let out a deep breath and smiled, indicating that he had managed to do what seemed impossible.
No, I won’t keep you in suspense, haha …
My brother won his game shortly after time was called. Yes, he was down 6-1 at that time, meaning that he took all 6 Prize cards with a single attack. That attack? Holy Star.
This handy (and very expensive) Rayquaza was thrown into our deck as a sort of “Hail Mary” play. While the deck’s main strategy had nothing to do with this card, it was included because of its ability to win games with a single attack. In cases where defeat seemed inevitable, one could switch gears and — given a few conditions were met — singlehandedly take the game.
Holy Star was not an easy attack to pull off. Typically, it was an attack used in the mid to late stages of the game after Dragonite DS had hit the field. Mewtwo DS was also used to move Energy on the field to Rayquaza (its Poké-Power is the same as the Shaymin UL that featured so prominently at the 2012 World Championships). So again, there were a number of pieces that had to be in place to pull off a single attack.
This leads me to an interesting aspect of the game right now, one I’d like to term the “endgame tactic” thanks in large part to Umbreon-EX. The idea is to invoke a set of conditions that results in certain victory. In other words, an endgame tactic — when successfully implemented — leads directly to the end of the game. There have been plenty of decks and techs throughout the history of the game that exemplify this idea, but it seems now more than ever this tactic seems primed to succeed.
Before we get into the cards and decks that best use an endgame strategy, let’s modify our thinking a little to better adapt to endgame philosophy.
Reconditioning the Win Condition
If I were to describe the “win conditions” for nearly any sport at a surface level it would sound like a joke: “At the conclusion of the game, if team A has more points than team B, they win!” Obviously, there’s more to any game than just what the scoreboard says when time is called. Looking at the win conditions in the Pokémon TCG would lead a person to logically put their trust in dealing high amounts of damage (to KO Pokémon and take all 6 Prize cards), outpacing their opponent (in the hopes of Knocking Out all of the opponent’s Pokémon), or decking the opponent out. In a sense, it’s almost like the dominant strategies in the game are a reflection of taking the win conditions at face value.
That might sound more simple than it is, so let’s take a real world sport and apply this same thinking. When we think of baseball the win condition is pretty simple — have more runs at the end of the game than the opposing team. How is a run scored? By hitting the baseball and eventually getting a runner to the home plate.
I know, I know, this is painfully simple. Bear with me …
So since runs are scored by hitting the ball, it would reason that hitting the ball harder would lead to more runs which would lead to a greater chance of victory. For a long time, this was how baseball was viewed. “Power hitters” were the focal point, the stars of the game. The Pokémon equivalents would be Yveltal-EX or Mewtwo-EX LTR — cards notorious for their damage output.
At some point baseball swung away from the focus on power to a renewed focus on numbers and other technical aspects of the game. Being able to get on base took precedence, leading to a shift in how the entire game was perceived. The same thing can be said of other sports, and while the same can be said of Pokémon, more often than not decks are built around both power and speed. These are the most apparent routes to success in the Pokémon TCG.
Playing with an endgame tactic then feels unnatural, and I argue it’s because of this deviation from a typical win condition. If one of the win conditions in the Pokémon TCG was getting 10 of your opponent’s Energy into the discard pile, we would naturally see decks strive to do just that. Since that isn’t a win condition, most decks aren’t built around Energy denial. Let’s consider briefly some other game-winning tactics we’ve seen over the years that don’t directly correlate with a win condition:
- Stranding an opponent’s Pokémon Active indefinitely. Doing this alone will obviously net you no Prize cards, but there have been multiple times in the history of the game where forcing an opponent’s Pokémon to stay Active was the impetus for victory. Cards like Pidgey RG, Azelf LA, Spinarak HS, and Snorlax PLS have been used to pull this off. While not a win condition itself, one can lock up a certain Pokémon until time is called and the game goes to sudden death. Forcing an opponent’s Pokémon to be active can also be used in conjunction with other things like Energy denial (Pow! Hand Extension), damage manipulation (Gothitelle EPO 47/Accelgor DEX), or damage spread (Medicham ex/Team Aqua Hideout).
- Looping attacks. When Trevenant BREAK began to see success, someone cleverly pointed out the fact that any deck running Shaymin-EX and Double Colorless Energy could just use Sky Return over and over again. Provided the Trevenant player had no way to do enough damage to KO Shaymin-EX, that strategy would lead to a win barring a late-game N.
- Prize card count. A few years ago I faced a deck that aimed to win by … giving me more Prize cards. Palkia & Dialga LEGEND had an attack called Time Control that took the top 2 cards of the opponent’s deck and made them Prize cards. My opponent’s strategy ultimately didn’t work, but it showed how much a person can deviate from those pesky win conditions.
There are other tactics players have used to wind up with a victory in hand — tactics that fall far outside of those original win conditions — but I’ll get to them later. My point here is simple: the path to victory can be a straight shot, but it can also feature many winding, intersecting roads of strategy that too many players overlook.
I, For One, Welcome Our New Eeveelution Overloads …
The Pokémon that inspired the title of this article (Umbreon-EX) both deviates from and satisfies a classic win condition in the Pokémon TCG. While it can KO a Pokémon and take Prize cards for it, Knock Out the right Pokémon and you’ll net yourself a whopping 4 Prize cards. As soon as I saw this card I imagined all the hype it would receive. Yes, taking 4 Prize cards is significant, but is it worth the effort?
Before I answer that question I want to investigate the curious yet evident pattern the card creators have decided to go with for many of the Eeveelution EXs — in a sense, many of them have endgame potential. I’m not sure if the team behind these cards just ran out of ideas with the Eeveelutions, but for some reason they came up with duds like Vaporeon-EX and Sylveon-EX then immediately switched to designing cards with huge potential like Jolteon-EX and Espeon-EX.
The most surprising thing to me about these cards is the relative ease with which they can be used. Espeon-EX’s Miraculous Shine attack, for instance, costs a single C Energy. Devolving in the past was an arduous endeavor, yet here it exists in a form that can be splashed into literally any deck at a cost of just a single card. Compare that to Omastar SS or Omastar MD and you’ll see how big a jump this is in a single card. Of course, it’s hardly a groundbreaking card when so few Evolution cards are even played nowadays.
Still, if I’m thinking about Espeon-EX and how to arrive at an “endgame” state, I might consider something like the following:
Pokémon – 13
Trainers – 35
2 Sparkling Robe
Energy – 12
Granted, this is an Expanded list with many holes — namely the threat of Garbotoxin, Item lock, and an inevitably clunky engine — but it demonstrates the type of thinking that needs to be involved with endgame mentality: rather than mounting a threat by turn two or staying ahead in Prizes the whole game through, your concern is connecting various pieces to a puzzle that your opponent cannot overcome. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.
Notice here the similarities between this kind of deck and the ever popular Gothitelle LTR/Accelgor DEX deck that has surfaced nearly every season since its inception. In both cases, the strategy takes a long time to implement. If you’re like me you’re used to running speedy, hard-hitting decks just because those represent most of the archetypes in the game. Given that, playing decks like these can be a challenge because setup can feel sluggish and it’s common to go down in Prizes before reaching an endgame state. Many players have maintained that these decks are “autopilot” and therefore less skill intensive, but I feel that’s off. Reaching an endgame state with these decks can require a string of successful, smart plays without any mishap. Besides, if a strategy works, use it!
For Standard I can see Espeon-EX being used as a tech in decks that like to spread damage. With the new release of Fates Collide I’ve been trying out a couple of attempts at getting M Alakazam-EX off the ground. Here’s what that looks like:
Pokémon – 14
Trainers – 39
4 Professor Sycamore
4 VS Seeker
Energy – 7
In this regard Espeon-EX is less integral but still a huge component to the deck, particularly when facing Evolution decks. After spreading damage and setting up KOs, Espeon-EX can devolve your opponent’s Pokémon to their demise. You’ll also notice the strange addition of Bursting Balloon to this deck. My friend Guy Bennett passed this idea along to me and I think it makes a lot of sense. I’ve been talking about Bursting Balloon with Trevenant BREAK for a while now, and I can see it continue to infuriate opponents who don’t want to attack into it. When attached to Wobbuffet you’re locking up Abilities and creating tough choices for the opponent.
There are a few things I want to try out in here, but I’m not sure how they’ll fare. The first is Crobat PHF. This seems like an obvious choice, but Crobat always takes up so much space in one’s deck and will certainly push things like Devolution Spray, Super Scoop Up, and Bursting Balloon out of the picture. The second thing I’d like to try is Puzzle of Time. Landing a heads on Super Scoop Up can be huge as can playing more than 4 Bursting Balloon in a game, and I think Puzzle of Time can be the ticket to making this happen. I’d almost skim a single count off some of the Item cards to make room for this versatile card.
Since we’re talking at least partially about Evolution Pokémon, we can bring Glaceon-EX into the discussion. This is a card that has a function, but it falls nearly in the same camp as Espeon-EX — that is, its usefulness is related to the number of Evolution decks out there. Currently, there are a handful, which might sound good, but many of these decks have answers for Glaceon-EX.
Trevenant BREAK decks, for instance, depend on Item lock and “effects” to get damage on the board. Many variants toss in an ample amount of disruption as well. Because of this, the tech Glaceon-EX (a tech because this card isn’t worth building a deck around) might never even see play. If it does, Energy denial might be your downfall. If you’re able to attack, you might be attacking into Bursting Balloon. Glaceon-EX’s attack doesn’t prevent effects either, just damage, so Trevenant BREAK can still lay down damage.
Greninja BREAK decks are more than capable of placing damage counters as well, just through Abilities instead. As promising as Glaceon-EX seems against Evolution decks, it does nothing here.
Even decks built around M Pokémon-EX have an answer for Glaceon-EX — basically, they can just shift and use the regular Pokémon-EX instead. Unless an opponent makes a bunch of huge misplays or Prizes a bunch of necessary cards, they’ll be able to get around Glaceon-EX.
I think Glaceon-EX has a place in the game, but it would be a very niche one. Pairing Garbodor BKP with Glaceon-EX sounds good against Greninja BREAK, but it would still fail against the other decks I mentioned. We’ve seen the game shift in such a way that certain cards find new potential, and this could be the case with Glaceon-EX.
Unfortunately, though, I don’t anticipate this happening. Evolution Pokémon have been neglected for a long time now (not including M Pokémon-EX), and though we have the new BREAK mechanic in place even those cards have answers for Glaceon-EX.
On to Glaceon-EX’s older, more accomplished sibling. If Glaceon-EX loses effectiveness because of the Basic-centric state of the game right now, then Jolteon-EX is primed for success. With an attack that nullifies an enormous portion of cards in the game right now, this is probably the best Eeveelution EX there is right now.
Naturally, this card has slipped into Lightning decks, but it also showed up at Washington Regionals a couple of weeks ago paired with Vileplume AOR and Regice AOR. Using Item lock and another card to “wall” against attackers, this deck also creates an endgame state against opponents that have no answer for it. Just as Pyroar FLF used to trounce many of the archetypes in its day, Jolteon-EX now fills that role. Whether as a tech in a Lightning deck or a strategic focus thrown alongside Vileplume, I have a feeling we’ll see this card a lot. Its typing against the ever-popular Yveltal-EX is also a huge plus.
Here’s the list piloted by Seth Covitz that got Top 8 at Washington Regionals:
Pokémon – 18
2 Vileplume AOR
Trainers – 33
3 Professor Juniper
4 Trainers’ Mail
Energy – 8
Note: The Pokémon.com website features only 59 cards in the list.
This is a really interesting list to me for a few reasons. First, there’s a very clear aim of getting Vileplume in play as soon as possible. While the 2-2-2 line doesn’t seem to show much devotion, the 3/1 split between Shaymin-EX and Jirachi-EX, the playset of Forest of Giant Plants, and the multiple Trainer cards all point to a clear aim of getting Vileplume on deck by the completion of turn 1.
I like how this deck can jump between Jolteon-EX and Regice to wall against a threat. If the opponent presents with only Basic Pokémon, attack with Jolteon-EX. If they get a M Pokémon-EX in play, counter with Regice. If they’re playing an Evolution deck, rely on Vileplume to make set up as hard as possible.
If anything, my critique rests on the heavy use of Item cards not meant to get Vileplume in play. The 3 Puzzle of Time is … puzzling. It makes a little more sense with the presence of Computer Search, Jirachi-EX, and Skyla, but it still seems farfetched. Additionally, the 3 VS Seeker seem problematic in a deck that aims to lock Item cards on turn 1. Nonetheless, this is a good example of another step-by-step strategy that can shut the opponent out once a few conditions are met.
With those things (and the Standard format) in mind, here’s a functioning list:
Pokémon – 19
3 Vileplume AOR
Trainers – 29
4 Professor Sycamore
Energy – 8
There are 4 extra spots in this list to mess around with. I’m fairly comfortable with the low Energy count, but this seems the most pressing for change. What you do with the Energy count will probably depend on what other Pokémon you bring into the deck.
One of the things I wanted to keep in here is the Bunnelby. It might seem insignificant, but you’d be surprised how many games it can win by decking the opponent out in the late game. Having tested against this deck, that’s curiously the way I normally lose. With the pressure that Jolteon-EX and Regice present, most decks strain to find another answer, normally burning resources to do so. It’s at this moment that a well-timed Lysandre and Bunnelby can snatch a surprise victory.
Mr. Endgame itself is a neat card that looks powerful but has difficulty finding the right moment to attack. While I still think it warrants a spot in Dark decks (given the metagame), I wouldn’t build a deck around it nor would I depend on Endgame to pull a win. Part of the problem with Endgame is that it works best against M Pokémon-EX … which normally have 200+ HP. This means you have to attack the M Pokémon-EX more than once to pull off Endgame (that or your deck needs to be some crazy damage-switching monstrosity that probably won’t go with Umbreon-EX in the first place). If you’re attacking M Pokémon-EX more than once to set up this attack, you’re still leaving the threat on the field.
Also troubling is the interaction between Umbreon-EX and the decks it will likely be in. Many Dark decks (talking Expanded here) play Archeops NVI, a natural conflict of interest. I’ll concede that Yveltal-EX decks can’t always land 1HKOs, so that might be an opening where Umbreon-EX can have an impact. Still, Endgame is ironically way less dependable than the other “endgame attacks.”
Other Endgame Tactics in Today’s Metagame
While the Eeveelutions are normally adored by almost any Pokémon fan, there are other endgame tactics that exist in the game today. I’ve touched on many of these with my recent articles, so I’ll revisit them quickly to see where they stand today.
- Death to Energy. A few months ago I highlighted a Supporter engine I felt could wipe out many decks that enjoyed low Energy counts (think Seismitoad-EX or Night March). The idea was simple: get rid of my opponent’s Energy until they couldn’t do anything. The idea actually worked really well for me until … well, until Puzzle of Time was released. With easy access to more Energy than my Supporter engine can afford to discard, this endgame tactic has lost its luster.
- The Paralysis loop. Accelgor DEX takes center stage with this endgame tactic. Paralysis has always been powerful in the Pokémon TCG, but Accelgor takes it to another level with automatic paralysis. Even with the “drawback” of shuffling Accelgor into the deck this card emerges time and time again. With Expanded this is obviously a consideration, but in Standard there isn’t anything close to Accelgor. The same can be said of all the Special Conditions — there just isn’t a reliable “loop” one can implement to create an endgame. I’ve had my eye on the Malamar promo that makes coin flips come up tails (with some sort of confusion-inducing mechanic), but so far I haven’t found anything reliable.
- Regice AOR, Pyroar FLF, Carbink FCO 50, etc. With an eye on the Standard format, Regice AOR and the aforementioned Eeveelution EXs are about as good as one can get in terms of walling. I like Carbink as well, and with the boost that Fighting Pokémon naturally get from Furious Fists it’s even more attractive. These endgame tactics are still alive, though some have fallen out of favor. Pyroar FLF, for instance, saw a huge rise in popularity shortly after its release, but since then it’s dropped off the map completely.
- Crazy, crazy combos. There have been opportunities in the game for decks with unbelievably complex strategies to work, but that isn’t the case currently. Some combos have made an appearance (Gyarados AOR 21 with Team Magma’s Secret Base comes to mind), but they usually fizzle out of the game within a set or two. Moreover, these strategies normally don’t employ endgame tactics. The Vileplume AOR/Jolteon-EX idea is complex, but it’s not outrageous.
The thing to remember about this format is that more and more combos become viable as more sets get released. Even though every year tends to bring a card rotation, Expanded still exists to provide ample opportunity to piece together a strategy that nobody saw coming. Additionally, cards once seen as unviable often resurface with the release of new sets.
This trend seems like a pretty sure thing, and I don’t anticipate some massive restructuring of the format anytime soon. I’ll probably find myself discussing the viability of Pyroar FLF in a few months because of this.
Endgame Tactics from a Historical Standpoint
Historically, endgame tactics often appear in the form of a “surprise” or “rogue” deck, though I attribute this to the tendency players have of thinking about the game from the perspective I mentioned before. Many players are more than comfortable playing decks that don’t stray too far from reaching those win conditions without complexity. This is why Night March and Yveltal decks continue to be so popular. Historically, this has always been the case.
There have, however, been many successful decks that sought an endgame situation. Many of these decks are well known (The Truth, Pyroar), so I’m going to highlight some lesser-known ones and explain why they were so effective.
Okay, so maybe this deck is well known; still, I want to be sure to mention it because it’s one of the neatest decks I’ve ever witnessed. When I started playing, this deck was whispered about as completely unbeatable. A Stadium card (Battle Frontier) was eventually released that seemed to confirm the power of this deck — it was almost as if the card creators themselves were apologizing in card form for the monstrosity they had created.
Rock Lock punished Evolution decks beyond recognition, making it so that the mere act of evolving lead to defeat. It did so with Dark Tyranitar RR 20, Dark Ampharos RR, and ATM Rock (basically Espeon-EX’s first attack in Item form). Once set up it could decimate nearly any deck out there. Dark Tyranitar spread damage to Basic Pokémon while Dark Ampharos made evolving cost an expensive 2 damage counters. Devolve everything with ATM Rock and watch the opponent struggle.
Like Espeon-EX but from a slightly different angle, this deck gave headaches to anyone trying to evolve. At the time it was one of the most powerful decks out there, especially since most of the decks in past formats were based around Evolutions.
Nidoqueen DF/Pidgeot POP2/Rhyperior DP
This nifty deck was my own creation, a frankensteinish attempt to repeat a Poké-Power over and over again. Nidoqueen allowed me to grab Pokémon from the deck, Pidgeot let me shuffle them back in, and Rhyperior was the Pokémon whose Poké-Power I wanted to activate over and over again (it discards the top 3 cards of your opponent’s deck). I also ran Celebi ex POP2 which allowed me to bring a card back from the discard pile.
The strategy was complex on the surface but functioned by simply evolving multiple Rhyperior as much as possible, shielding from damage with them, then cycling them back into the deck. It took a long while to get the deck up and running, but once it was set up there was little the opponent could do. Unfortunately, POP2 rotated out of the format before I could do anything with this deck, but it was still incredibly fun to play.
Since there have been Pokémon with an “EX/ex” after their name there have been Safeguard Pokémon. Here’s a fun fact for anyone eyeing the newest Carbink cards in Fates Collide: every Pokémon with Safeguard has that isn’t a Stage 2 has found some level of success (heck, even Dustox ex showed up at tournaments for a few months after its release). If ever there was a wall, this is it. In 2007 I was breezing through a Regionals tournament with Flygon ex LM/Delcatty PK before getting sidelined in the Top 8 by my opponent’s single Banette CG which had — you guessed it — Safeguard.
This is such a powerful Ability that mono-Safeguard decks have actually placed well in tournaments (I can’t imagine how those games must have played out). The effectiveness of Safeguard waxes and wanes, but used at the right time and it can be a huge play.
This is another well-known deck (it placed well at Worlds in 2009), but I’m not sure that most people understand the endgame tactic here. Trapinch SW had two surprisingly good attacks, one that made an opponent’s Benched Pokémon Active and another that kept the Active Pokémon from retreating. Meanwhile, Flygon LV.X had a Poké-Body that discarded cards from the opponent’s deck. With a Memory Berry Pokémon Tool card attached, a Flygon LV.X had the ability to lock something into the Active Spot while wiping away the opponent’s deck.
Important to note here is that even a card as seemingly insignificant as Trapinch SW can alter the entire way a deck functions, leading to those “Hail Mary” moments I described earlier. While most players had their eye on the Trapinch from Rising Rivals, the strategically perceptive ones dusted off the other Trapinch and put it to good use.
For me, there are few things in the Pokémon TCG more exciting than watching a complex, well thought-out strategy take form and surprise everyone in the final moments of a game. These strategies seem to be born out of a drive to explore more than just the simplest way to Knock Out Pokémon and take Prize cards, and many of them aim to create a situation the opponent cannot get out of.
I often see tournament results and wonder at the one or two decks with an offbeat strategy that made it to the top. Sometimes those decks aren’t there, causing me to question whether players are investigating these endgame tactics at all.
Hopefully you found this article resourceful and refreshing. With the introduction of the new Eeveelution EXs and a return (for most) to Standard, I expect some of the strategies I outlined in this article to make their presence known. The card pool only seems to be getting bigger as time goes on, so the strategic options are piling up as well!
As always, thanks for reading and let me know your thoughts Underground or in a friendly PM.
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