Cards on the Fence

A Test for Whether Cards are Staple-Worthy or Binder Snacks

new-logoWith Worlds just around the corner and the release of Steam Siege already in clear view, this is one of the most exciting times of the season for many Pokémon players. The scheduling for these two events this year is interesting since the format for Worlds this year will include Steam Siege, a fact that has the potential to throw many people off.

Given that, it made me think about the manner in which newly released cards are analyzed, tested, and either forgotten or adopted into competitive use. Cards like Brigette, Trainers’ Mail, and even Shaymin-EX arrived on the scene with plenty of discussion, prompting players to practice foresight and make calls on whether or not those cards would be used. Sometimes an opinion turns out true and other times it appears drastically off. I once maintained that Mewtwo-EX would not be the game-changing card many others were projecting it to be. I still remember my solid argument at the time, but can only laugh at it now.

What goes into the analysis of a card? How do we arrive at a decision to test a new card out? Are there preconceptions that blind us to a card’s effectiveness?

These are the questions I want to answer today by providing a “test” you can use to accurately gauge whether or not a card is worth the hype. I’ll be looking at some of the new cards coming out of Steam Siege as examples, then rounding things off with a few predictions and guidelines for Worlds.

First up though, let’s talk about “fence cards,” the term I’ve settled on for these types of cards.

Qualities of Fence Cards

team rocket binoculars fence 3-2pokemonscreenshots.tumblr.com
They could go one way or the other.

Within the past couple of years I’ve put work into a side project without saying much about it, a card game that shares similarities with the Pokémon TCG but still has its own look and feel. I’ve shelved it for most of this year, but I bring it up because just the initial stage of creating cards and designing mechanics helped me understand something about card games I feel many aren’t aware of — that “balance” in a game can be dangerously fragile.

When I started to piece together the strategies that would comprise my card game, a funny thing happened — I found myself developing complex mechanics as a means of eluding or distorting what appeared to me to be the optimum strategy for winning. The reason this occurred was because in its infancy my game was little more than a game of numbers, and numbers are normally dependable and simple. It’s part of the reason Haymaker decks enjoyed rampant success when the Pokémon TCG was born — even those who contend they’re “bad at math” can understand why using a Basic Pokémon with 70 HP and solid damage output made more sense than slowly evolving to a Stage 2 Pokémon to gain 20–30 HP.

Dominion, another card game I highly admire, had this same quality — when the base set came out the optimum strategy involved an easily overlooked trick that was deceiving in its simplicity. Since that first set the creators have released mechanics in what has seemed like an attempt to obscure that original winning strategy.

Behind these facades is an integral truth that many games bow down to: the numbers. Even baseball — a game that on its surface involves little arithmetic — has been analyzed and picked apart to reveal an “optimum strategy” numbers-wise (seriously, if you haven’t read or seen Moneyball, I highly recommend you do). An engaging quality about the Pokémon TCG is that “optimum strategies” as fueled by arithmetic have long been muddled by the card creators; mechanics like Abilities, Weakness/Resistance, Item lock, “metagaming,” and so on ensure that players are forever searching for the deck that will give them the best chance to win.

Still, with each new set that gets released there are cards that demand an answer as to whether or not they will be incorporated into a game-winning strategy. These “fence cards” present a direct challenge to players in the form of an oft-irritating question (Is this card good enough to be played?), and they’re often the result of an effort from the card creators to shift the game and keep things interesting (not to mention sell cards).

Take Trainers’ Mail as an example. Few cards have warranted as much discussion as this one, and though it has become a staple in most decks today, it definitely sat on the fence for a long time (the argument for it being that it speeds up setup, the argument against being that it took up four spaces in a deck and didn’t have a game-changing effect itself). On the other hand consider Roller Skates, a card that enjoyed a brief stint of success after the release of Flashfire but has since been largely abandoned.

Having a working method for deciphering these types of cards is incredibly important for a game-winning strategy, particularly after the release of a new set. Because fence cards by definition are designed to challenge what is understood as optimal without being obviously “broken,” they often face a divergence between being a staple and being binder food. This difference is crucial, and those who adapt appropriately may be rewarded handsomely.

The “PMMPT” Test

ash ketchum map hmmm 16-9pokemonscreenshots.tumblr.com
A method for determining if fence cards are good!

Arriving at a method for determining whether or not a fence card is staple-worthy can be difficult, but there are a number of factors I think can help get us there. For lack of a clever name, I’m just going with the acronym “PMMPT,” standing for the following:

> Precedence. Does history bear any context on whether or not the card in question will be effective? It pays to take this a step further and look into more than just cards that became staples (think of Lass’s Special after considering the hype that surrounded Colress when it was released). If there is a precedence, are there metagame differences that need to be considered?

> Math. Many fence cards present little more than an arithmetic problem. Consider the Shauna vs. Birch argument that captured so much attention toward the end of last year; players were split between the two cards, yet a mathematical observation quickly showed Birch offering the slight advantage. More recently, Fighting Fury Belt has stirred up discussion because of the math problem it presents (is the 40 extra HP worth it for a slightly reduced damage output?).

> Metagame. All things in context. No matter how strong a card looks, it might be worthless given the nature of a given metagame. When Puzzle of Time was released, a main concern about its use had to do with the popularity of Seismitoad-EX; since Puzzle of Time was a strong mid- to late-game card, it seemed a waste of four spaces in one’s deck if Item lock would retain its presence in the game.

> Personal Deck Choice. The consideration for some fence cards will be whether or not they should go into every deck (a staple), while for other cards the question is whether or not it should go into your deck. Puzzle of Time as it applies to is a good example of this — while not an automatic staple in every deck, there was a lot of buzz about how it might solidify Night March as the best deck in the format.

> Test. Perhaps it doesn’t need to be said, but test these cards out. Even if it’s just for a few games to realize the card is bad, it pays because it provides a gauge for whether or not future fence cards will hold potential. When Energy Pickup from Legends Awakened was released I tested it extensively for little more reason than liking it a lot. Sadly, the card proved to be a dud, but my experience with it provided a fingerprint that has stuck with me through the release of everything from Energy Exchanger to Max Elixir.

I want to break these down into further detail, but I think it’s worth noting that many fence cards will elude these rules. Take a card like Talonflame from Steam Siege — it has no historical precedent, the “math” behind it fluctuates wildly given the deck it’s played in, and our other two factors are somewhat irrelevant here (the exception being if you’re playing a Fire deck). It’s a good example of how frustrating a fence card can be.

Precedence

For each of these different factors I want to use a card from Steam Siege as an example. In the process we may establish how effective the card in question may be at Worlds, and we’ll see whether or not the PMMPT analysis holds any water. That said, let’s start with Ninja Boy.

ninja boy sts ebayWith no other context, this card is perplexing. It falls into that category of Supporters that offer a significant effect without the actual drawing of cards — I regard these cards as “broken as an Item and tame as a Supporter.” Most recently, other Supporters belonging to this category are Hex Maniac, AZ, Team Rocket’s Handiwork, and a few others. So, Ninja Boy has some decent company.

One might begin to imagine a case in which Ninja Boy proves very powerful — in what scenario would simply switching out a Basic Pokémon be game-changing? Without context this question is hard to answer, so let’s consider a historical precedent to what looks like a mediocre effect. That precedent can be found in Swoop! Teleporter, perhaps the most influential of the Rocket’s Secret Machines.

I should note that many players don’t know of this card and lack the knowledge required to bridge this connection. This is a serious disadvantage. Having a working knowledge of the history of the Pokémon TCG and its most successful archetypes/cards can be critical to one’s success, especially given the recurring mechanics that oftentimes define an entire season.


A quick aside: When Platinum was first released and the SP mechanic was brought into the fold, I dodged it as much as I could, adamant that my Regigigas LV.X deck was superior to the newcomers that were Dialga G LV.X and Palkia G LV.X; this was a serious blunder, one I could have avoided had I the sense to just accept the new “team” mechanic rather than fight against it. The precedent here — the one I ignored — was that the card creators often give serious advantages to “team Pokémon” (i.e., Team Plasma, Team Galactic, and so on).


Alright, back to Swoop! Teleporter. This is a notable card because its synergy with Jirachi DX singlehandedly gave rise not just to an archetype, but an entire template for archetypes. The scarily consistent strategy of using Jirachi DX and Swoop! Teleporter to evolve on the second turn into a disruptive, powerful Stage 1 Pokémon made cards like Medicham e, Muk e, and Hariyama e extremely competitive.

When we place Ninja Boy alongside this antiquated strategy there are some noticeable concerns. First, the game now is much faster than when Swoop! Teleporter was legal. Where getting a Stage 1 in play consistently on the second turn used to seem difficult, it’s now done on the first with ease via Wally. Second, very few decks today center around Stage 1 Pokémon, which only muddles our understanding of the potential Ninja Boy might have. Last (and most importantly), Ninja Boy being a Supporter is extremely off-putting. Had Swoop! Teleporter been a Supporter, it probably would have never seen play. This difference is crucial.

So does this mean that Ninja Boy is just a bad card? I’ll answer this question by pointing to the tremendous differences that exist between today’s metagame and the one that Swoop! Teleporter was played in. When Swoop! was around, Basic-centric decks were just not a thing. I’m not saying that they weren’t popular, I’m actually saying that — barring maybe two exceptions — they didn’t exist at all. Because of this, Swoop! never had a chance to do the thing that Ninja Boy might be able to do: provide an avenue for powering up a Basic Pokémon.

swoop teleporter crop
Basics are a bit bigger nowadays.

In this regard, there are some neat tricks Ninja Boy can pull off, though the best one exists in Expanded. Still, Standard offers Emolga-EX, a largely ignored EX that can pool together Energy while speeding off to the Bench for protection. It has type advantage against Yveltal-EX and isn’t an overly complicated maneuver to pull off — simply attach, attack, and get ready to Ninja Boy turn 2 or 3 for the Pokémon of your choice (provided it can deal with a Lightning Energy attached to it). The thought of an Emolga-EX revealing itself to be a Zygarde-EX on turn 2, then doing 200 damage is hilarious to me.

The other interesting combo to me is in -EX, a card I’ve long wanted to find a use for. Since Dragonite-EX’s Ability can move around any basic Energy, you can plop it down on the Bench, pull Energy to it, then Ninja Boy into something else.

Of course, the biggest hindrance to these combos is a deck like Night March that doesn’t really care what your Ninja Boy is bringing into play. For that reason alone I would recommend being prepared to use Ninja Boy to bring Jolteon-EX into play to put a halt to the fast Basic decks out there.

The most exciting use of Ninja Boy to me is when it’s used alongside Ho-Oh-EX from Dragons Exalted. I’ve always appreciated the “toolbox” versions of Ho-Oh-EX decks, ones that utilized Energy Switch to power up a card for a specific purpose. With Ninja Boy these variants become a different creature altogether, capable of getting four Energy on any Basic Pokémon as early as turn 1. Imagine playing a couple of Battle Compressors to get Ho-Oh-EXs and Energy in the discard, bringing one back in play, then immediately using Ninja Boy to switch to a Jolteon-EX and land a Flash Ray attack on the first turn. Or it could be a Zygarde-EX hitting for 200+ on the first turn. Or, or, or … well, you get the point.

Math

first-ticket-dragon-vault-drv-19If you’ve played this game for longer than even just a few months, I’m sure you’ve seen in-game situations that seemingly defy all logic — things that appear to be statistically improbable from a mathematical standpoint. I once had a friend flip something like 17 heads in a row while using a Speed Stadium to deck himself. With every heads the whole thing seemed more and more surreal.

The truth, however, is part math and part perception. My brother once played a game in which he prized all four copies of the same card, automatically leading to a loss. When he complained about how unlikely it was for that to happen I quipped that he wouldn’t be complaining if those four cards were in his opening hand instead. Roughly similar chances, but only one of those will stick in a person’s head.

I mention this because it’s easy to believe in the safety of numbers yet abandon them in the face of seeing a card work once or twice. First Ticket, an excellent example of a fence card, was discussed, largely dismissed, then revived when a Japanese player performed well with a single copy of it in his deck. Even though the math still wasn’t in First Ticket’s favor, players were intrigued at the sight of it doing well.

The card I want to bring into question — Greedy Dice — is actually quite similar to First Ticket. When the spoiler for it was revealed there was a lot of discussion about it with little consensus on how it would fare. Overwhelmingly, players were perturbed at the thought of an opponent nabbing another Prize card at the flip of a coin.

When we look at the numbers that surround Greedy Dice, it doesn’t look good at all. Like First Ticket, it’s a card that begs to be maxed out in one’s deck list, so we’ll consider what happens with the full playset. My math is admittedly rough here, but it won’t take much to convince you to think twice before playing this card:


Editor’s note: I’ve reached out to someone more mathematically inclined that myself to work out the numbers behind Greedy Dice. The only math I feel confident about is that when playing 4 Greedy Dice, there is a 35.66% chance of at least one being in your Prize cards, and since at most only your first 5 Prize cards will matter, that means there is a maximum 29.72% chance of a Greedy Dice being a relevant Prize card (35.66% * 5/6) but this is inconclusive. The article will be updated once we’ve confirmed further calculations.


1 Greedy Dice

6/59 * 1/6 = 1/59 … or 1.69%
6/59 * 1/5 * 5/6 = 1/59 … or 1.69%
6/59 * 1/4 * 5/6 * 4/5 = 1/59 … or 1.69%
6/59 * 1/3 * 5/6 * 4/5 * 3/4 = 1/59 … or 1.69%
6/59 * 1/2 * 5/6 * 4/5 * 3/4 * 2/3 = 1/59 … or 1.69%

6/59 represents the chance for Greedy Dice to be in your Prize cards (6 Prizes, 59-card deck because the opening hand must have 1 Basic Pokémon).

1/6, 1/5, 1/4, etc. represent the chance to draw the Greedy Dice out of the number of Prize cards remaining.

5/6, 4/5, 3/4, etc. represent the probability that we didn’t draw the Greedy Dice as the previous Prize card.

So for each Prize card drawn, the probability is the same to hit the Greedy Dice. If we draw 5 Prize cards, the chance to hit the Greedy Dice is 8.47% (1/59 * 5). Factoring in the flip, we’d expect Greedy Dice to work 4.24% of games at most. We won’t draw 5 Prizes every game.

On top of that, when Greedy Dice does work, it might not affect the outcome of the game. I’d say around 97% of the games you play, the 1 copy of Greedy Dice will be a dead card.

I’ve had to throw in the towel on more complicated scenarios. I put a handful of hours into this but am unsure about further calculations. You can view the spreadsheet I worked on and I can send you a copy to edit if you’re interested. With 4 copies of Greedy Dice, it appears about 16% of the time, one will be successful. Less than 1% of the time two will succeed. Odds trail off drastically thereafter.

Later I noticed someone on Reddit did math too, and they ended up with close to the same answer.


Want the CliffsNotes version? Greedy Dice presents one of the biggest gambles I’ve ever seen in the Pokémon TCG. In order for it to work successfully you have to come across it in your Prize cards, then flip heads in a game in which it actually makes a big difference (that is, taking an extra Prize card won’t actually matter in every game you play). Finally, one must weigh the sacrifice made for this narrow chance of an advantage — occupying four spots in a deck for something that might happen once in a tournament is an indelibly bad idea.

Now for the caveat. I would absolutely play Greedy Dice alongside a card like Rotom UD if I could switch the Prize card with a card in my hand rather than the top card of the deck — you know, if I could just slip multiple copies of Greedy Dice into my Prize cards throughout the game. If that type of control existed to tame Greedy Dice’s variance I would play it, but then so would everyone else. And that … is just something I don’t want to think about.

Metagame

The tricky matchups often hinge upon careful Shaymin management.natakesgamingcorner.tumblr.com
Trends in the meta often dictate playability.

The true foundation upon which we all play, considering the metagame/format is of massive importance when deciding whether or not a fence card will become a staple. What worked well in one format (Pokémon Collector/Roseanne’s Research) might be only a niche card in another (Winona/Brigette). Understanding the ins and outs of the game in this manner can greatly aid in determining whether a fence card card is even worth pursuing.

Captivating Poké Puff is a card that comes to mind with regard to this. Today’s format is very Basic-driven, particularly because of the continued reliance on Shaymin-EX. One of the best decks in the format (that would be Night March) can be crippled by a single Poké Puff while other decks are similarly sensitive to having Basics being sent to the bench without abandon. During the SP format this card would have been a monster by being able to clog up an opponent’s Bench with Pokémon and deny an Uxie LA Set Up.

On the other hand, though Shaymin-EX still boasts Set Up today, it’s not the only thing making decks consistent. Your Poké Puff may thwart the efforts of one Shaymin-EX, but if your opponent has an Ultra Ball, Professor Sycamore, Trainers’ Mail, etc. in hand then you’re wasting your time. And though many decks today are still Basic-driven, there’s the odd quality that lists are constantly slimmed down in Pokémon counts whenever possible. SP decks often devoted a fourth of their list (15 cards) to Basic Pokémon alone (not counting LV.X cards). Many popular decks in today’s format (with the exception of Night March) have a Pokémon total hovering around 10–12.

There are a couple of factors to consider that are specific to the metagame as well:

  1. First, most players use 2 or 3 Shaymin-EXs in their deck. While I don’t expect this to change dramatically anytime soon, over time there has been a trend for a high Shaymin-EX count (you may recall that when it was first released “2” felt like the solid number). This is important because Poké Puff loses its effectiveness when an opponent has more outs to a Shaymin-EX.
  2. The other thing to think about is the newer archetypes that will take shape after the release of Steam Siege as well as some decks that have gained traction recently. Cards like Zygarde-EX, Volcanion-EX, and M Alakazam-EX all have little fear of Captivating Poké Puff — they typically want to fill the Bench up (I’ve even seen Zygarde-EX/Regirock-EX decks that utilize Sky Field to open up the Bench even more.

For these reasons I’m not sold on Captivating Poké Puff. Like Greedy Dice it also has a degree of built-in variance that I’m not comfortable with. Its one saving grace is that it allows a peek at the opponent’s hand, something that continues to be rare in the Pokémon TCG for some reason.

Personal Deck Choice

talonflame sts 96 ebayebay.comOne’s personal deck choice may be the driving force behind why a card is seen as a fence card. I recently tried putting together a M Steelix-EX deck (because, you know, it’s Steelix) and found myself drooling over Fairy Drop. Oh, and the new Clawitzer. And even Reverse Valley. By themselves, each of these cards seem mediocre, but the sum being better than the parts puts them all on the fence for me. This is a case where the specific deck being played bolsters a card’s potential.

We’ve all seen cards like these — from Donphan PLS being propped up on the fence because of Strong Energy to an Illumise PRC buzzing its way into Virizion-EX/Genesect-EX decks — that seem puny when standing alone but gain traction when placed in the right place at the right time. For me, the Steam Siege card that best captures this idea is Talonflame.

When Talonflame was first revealed it too garnered much discussion, mostly on the basis that it too features a lot of variance and can be incredibly powerful if pulled off successfully. At first glance it’s splashable in every deck with a massively consistent first attack that costs a single Colorless Energy. If this card was actually a Basic Pokémon it would be one of the best cards in the game in large part because of Talonflame BREAK, a card capable of capturing the advantages that Fire Pokémon have while pumping out a very reasonable amount of damage. It’s not though, and as such it won’t be seen in every deck.

Still, I can see this card being paired nicely with Volcanion-EX and Charizard-EX, or just in any Fire deck. This alternative is intriguing to me because it maintains the power Talonflame has without bumping up against the main strategy of a deck. Unlike Greedy Dice, Talonflame isn’t riddled with variance. It can also be a strong metaplay since it presents a Fire Pokémon that isn’t weak to Water.

Here’s the list I’ve been working on lately:

Pokémon – 17

2 Fletchling XY

1 Fletchinder FLF

4 Talonflame STS

2 Talonflame BREAK

2 Volcanion-EX

2 Charizard-EX XY121

1 Entei AOR 14

3 Shaymin-EX ROS

Trainers – 31

4 Professor Sycamore
3 N

2 Blacksmith
1 Lysandre
1 Fisherman

 

4 VS Seeker
4 Ultra Ball

3 Battle Compressor

2 Rare Candy
2 Fighting Fury Belt

1 Muscle Band
1 Escape Rope
1 Super Rod

 

2 Scorched Earth

Energy – 12

7 Fire

2 Burning

3 Double Colorless

I’m not completely convinced of this list, but it’s definitely fun to play (especially when you open with a Talonflame).

World Predictions and Guidance

Something I’ve always stressed when it comes to defining a metagame is that when the sea is rocky you want a sturdy ship — that is, when a big change to the game occurs (in this case the release of a new set) you want to fall on a deck that has proven to be dependable. That’s not to say that you should dive in headfirst with a deck that everyone’s aiming to beat; it’s just a reflection that having a proven deck in untested waters is a solid, safe bet.

I predict that Worlds will bring surprises that will impress but won’t steal the whole event. Looking back at Nationals, we had a couple of surprises but still ended up with Yveltal-EX, Seismitoad-EX, and Night March performing strong. These cards (especially Yveltal with the release of its new BREAK counterpart) are still good, and the rift seems clear between Night March’s damage output and decks designed to thwart those Marchers.

Perhaps the one card I’m expecting great things out of is Zygarde-EX, a powerhouse that has every bit of support a card could want. Its pairing with Vileplume AOR recently showed up, and I’m anticipating great things from it at some point. Russell LaParre’s most recent article gets into this beast of a deck quite a bit.

Conclusion

Hopefully this article provided you with something you can use for more than just the next month. I’m always amazed at the hype that surrounds new cards when they’re released, the projections players make that are either accurate or wayyy off, and what happens to those cards in the long run. Using the test I provided here I think we can hone in on whether or not a card will become a staple or be thrown into a binder. If you have anything to add to the discussion please do so in the forums! I always like hearing from readers.

Also, if you’re on your way to Worlds I wish you the best of luck. With a larger attendance, no Last Chance Qualifier, and a newly released set, this year should be interesting to say the least.

Thanks as always for reading!


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