Once again, the TCG tournament series is off and running. With the first major event of the season now in the history books, I think we’re going to find very quickly that keeping current on one format — let alone two — is going to become a full-time exercise. This past weekend began a stretch that will see a Regional every 2nd or 3rd weekend from now until Georgia on January 14/15. We’re sure to see the metagame evolve and transform like never before as near-constant large-scale tournament results are circulated throughout the community.
I and around 550 other TCG players began the year in Phoenix this past weekend. Overall, I can only say that it was a forgettable affair — both in terms of personal performance and the event itself. Of course, congratulations are in order for the weekend’s top performers, but in general, I believe most of the players aren’t sorry to be back home right now.
Today, I’d like to briefly go over my experience in Phoenix. Unlike most of my tournament discussions, there really isn’t much to take away from my experience other than general musings on Expanded as a format itself. I played Night March this weekend, and as you may have heard, it’s soon to be relegated to a very insignificant role in the format, so I won’t dwell at length on it.
Afterward, I’m going to take a bit of time to examine Karen’s impact on the format in light of what this weekend showed us about Expanded. Then, I’m going to offer a few of my initial considerations for Philadelphia. I have nothing to offer as of now on a post-Karen Standard format, as all of my energies were previously dedicated to Arizonian Expanded, so I’m going to leave that to my colleagues. Between Grant’s article on Friday and Ryan’s on the 11th, I’m confident we’ll have Standard well covered in advance of Florida.
Sand Trap: Phoenix Regionals Recap
Like I discussed in my last article, I’ve known for a while that I’d be playing Night March at this event. For one thing, my time to test started to evaporate after that piece was published, but more critically, nothing arose that encouraged alteration of that decision. While I disagree fundamentally with the “Night March is all anyone talks about” stance, I’m just as ready to be done with it as everyone else, so I’m going to forgo too much justification for the choice and point back to my last piece to cover that point.
Pokémon – 17
1 Mew FCO
Trainers – 39
Energy – 4
I’m not sure how to feel about the fact that I have this list committed to memory in a very obsessive-compulsive, alphabetic form, but I’m glad that it will soon be of significantly reduced importance. If this looks familiar, that’s because it’s one card off from my T4 Edmonton list from last spring (and ~3 off of my Madison list, and only 2-4 off my published list from May). Captivating Poké Puff is an essential inclusion in my mind, as it makes the mirror match so much more bearable — no more effortlessly-safe Sky Return on Joltik plays. Cutting the Pokémon Catcher for it wasn’t super ideal, but it was the best cut.
I don’t believe Ranger does enough in this to turn a Toad matchup, and didn’t think Jolteon would see play outside of Vileplume (where Ranger is at best a gimmick requiring insane luck), so it wasn’t worth playing. Special Charge was definitely the 61st card, but I didn’t believe it added enough to be worthwhile. In hindsight, I might try to make space for it, but I really don’t know what the cut would be.
Phoenix Regionals // 459 Masters
R1 Pyroar BREAK (2-0)
R2 Primal Groudon (2-1)
R3 Yveltal-EX/Silent Lab (1-2)
R4 Yveltal-EX/Silent Lab (0-2)
R5 Night March (2-0)
R6 Accelgor DEX/Wobbuffet PHF (0-2)
R7 Speed Darkrai-EX BKP (2-0)
R8 Darkrai-EX BKP/Giratina-EX AOR (2-1)
R9 Seismitoad-EX/Crobat PHF (0-2)
Final: 5-4-0 // 65th+ place
As I joked on Facebook during the event, I’ve played in World Championships that didn’t feature as brutal a selection of opponents as this tournament. Ross Cawthon got his revenge for Edmonton (R6), and I got a taste of Yveltal that beats Night March in the form of Israel Sosa’s and Liam Williams’ lists (R4 + R3).
I don’t regret the choice, particularly as my 2nd choice, Wailord, would have had enough trouble getting out of Round 1, let alone attaining 19-21 match points to advance. Round 9 stung, though, as coming close to making something of that day before falling out of top 64 contention at the last opportunity was disappointing. More than enough space will be dedicated internet-wide to discussing the operation of Phoenix Regionals, so I’m going to limit my commentary to this: my advice to anyone going to Regionals this year is to pack patience. Some will be better than others, but all will be long days.
If you have any other questions about my individual experience, I’d be happy to answer them. Aside from that, very briefly, I want to commentate on the top-finishing decks. Greninja and Trevenant were the obvious big winners of the weekend, while Yveltal failed to crack the top 8 at all. We saw ingenuity in the form of TJ Traquair’s Sableye/Garbodor top 8, a crazy M Diancie-EX deck making waves, and, of course, Greninja’s robust showing. I don’t believe that these specific results are anything particularly paradigm-shifting. Rather, I would say that, heading into Philly, we simply add to Greninja to the “keep-in-mind” category. In my mind, it’s unlikely that Greninja repeats these results in Philadelphia.
Three Main Takeaways
- Variety Reigns: Outside of the heavy slate of Dark, I didn’t play any archetype more than once in my 9 rounds. Even among those Dark lists, there was significant variation in all but two. Whether this is a good or bad thing is a debate that will rage forever, but it’s clear that Expanded isn’t dominated by a small group of decks — let alone a single deck. Many friends asked me this weekend to describe “the field” in Phoenix, or to name the top deck present. I answered the first question with some derivative of “everything” and largely refused to comment on the second, as there simply wasn’t a single deck dominating the day.
- Ingenuity Rewarded: We’re in uncharted waters. I’ve lost count of the number of legal sets, but pkmncards.com tells me there’s well over 3,000 legal cards. From time to time, we’re going to see innovation alter the format, but I believe the fundamental metagame is likely to remain the same in the long term. I want to caution against reading too much into one event’s results. A single player’s performance at one event is rife with variables. For example, while I applaud TJ’s run this weekend, I’m not going to stress much about beating that deck in Philadelphia. In contrast, the fact that 3/3 top 32 Greninja players made top 8 before finishing 1st/T4/T8 means Greninja is officially something to keep in mind.
- Grind On: Events this year are going to be, in a word, long. I believe this weekend’s attendance is as low as we’ll see until San Jose in December. If not for London the weekend before San Jose, I’d push that estimate back further to Athens in January (if only because the airport situation in Athens is appalling). Basically, expect large events. In a way, this is almost something to consider in your deck choice. I don’t think 20 points is going to miss top 32 at an event this year (with possible exceptions being Fort Wayne and Dallas if attendance is truly off the charts), but 19 isn’t going to be stable. A deck that takes ties isn’t necessarily going to be the worst thing ever in that environment.
With that, I’m going to move on to looking at the impact of the major change in Expanded as we move from Phoenix to Philly: Karen.
Reset: The Impact of Karen on Expanded
It’s not every season that we see a radical shake-up of a format between expansions. But, this year promises to be different in a number of ways, and Karen’s appearance on the scene is an excellent example. I’m not going to talk about Florida today because I’m the furthest thing from qualified to speak intelligently on the Standard format + Karen, but I am going to address Philadelphia because this is the ideal time for the previous introspective analysis of Phoenix to be coupled with a look ahead at the next Expanded event. In essence, this is the freshest Phoenix will be in anyone’s memory, so it makes sense to look at Philadelphia now.
Karen is going to be an existential enigma — not only does its mere existence in the card pool have a significant effect on a player’s deck selection, but the level of play it actually sees will be yet another factor to add to an Expanded player’s consideration list. I suspect predicting Karen’s level of play will be an inexact science that more than a few paragraphs on this website will be dedicated to. Certainly, the level of play of the decks it most critically affects will be a matter of importance.
Those who played when Lysandre’s Trump Card roamed the earth are somewhat familiar with the effect Karen provides. The impact of shuffling a single class of cards back into one’s deck is certainly different than shuffling every card back, but it nonetheless has a sizable impact on a game. One of my takeaways from Trump Card’s brief tenure in the game was that shuffling back Shaymin-EX for reuse was one of the more notable aspects of LTC. Of course, Karen doesn’t provide the constant resource recycle center that Lysandre’s rendition did, but I do believe consistency techs like Shaymin-EX, Jirachi-EX, and perhaps Unown AOR are likely beneficiaries of Karen’s onset.
In decks with a heavy Pokémon count, Karen means harder late games. For better or worse, Expanded has long been a battle to thin one’s deck as insulation against late-game Ns, leaving just enough resources to map out all 6 Prize cards. Karen and N to 2 in back-to-back turns is a very different dynamic than N to 2 alone.
But, for those decks, it also probably means a greater availability of a relatively full spectrum of that Pokémon count in the later game. M Rayquaza-EX might have its deck clogged slightly, but that could be offset by repeated access to techs like Jirachi and Hoopa-EX, not to mention added draw power in the form of Shaymin.
I could go on all day about the minute impacts Karen could have on individual decks, but instead, there’s the important fact that its impact is, in some ways, more pronounced for decks that it doesn’t directly aid. Virizion/Genesect isn’t likely to make much use of shuffling back its Pokémon line, but it’s certainly grateful for Night March’s forced exit of center stage.
As significant I believe Karen’s impact as a card on specific decks itself can be, that effect is dwarfed by the reality that it will fundamentally reshape the list of dominant Expanded archetypes. Night March has been, to be blunt, the embodiment of an oppressive regime for at least a year. Even when it wasn’t at the forefront of Expanded (I am still miffed at its relative non-presence this past spring), it was always on players’ minds.
Note: In the “hot take” department, I don’t believe we’ve seen the last of Night March as an entity in the game. Something that does so much damage for such minimal investment with so little drawback will probably find a way back to relevance at some point. Here’s the key: it will be a gamble. Calendar of remaining Expanded events for this year:
Quite frankly, it’s a light slate. With 3 months between San Jose and Collinsville, there will be lots of time for things to go through players’ heads, and I guarantee “Who will actually play Karen?” will be one of those things. Mystery will arise in the short turnaround between Collinsville and Portland, but in general, the lack of Expanded play (when compared to Standard) is a disappointing development that will lead to its general failure to develop as a format.
Today, we are going to answer that question in part, but no matter what the truth is, I would argue there are still going to be people playing Night March until it’s literally illegal to do so. It’ll pop up once in a while. But, its role as tyrant is over. Big, slow EXs rejoice.
Vespiquen is another notable loser in this evolution, and, unlike Night March, I believe its days as a playable archetype are over. When considering the cost of having 20+ Pokémon shuffled into the deck late game (let alone the difficulty of getting them back over there) versus Night March’s lighter hit, I don’t believe there’s much of a comparison to be made. Vespiquen/Flareon was already seeing less play in general (i.e., near zero), and I believe Karen will officially send it packing.
I’ve singled out some of the most direct losers in the coming of Karen, but quickly, I want to run through a few other decks drastically affected by the coming storm.
One of M Manectric’s pitfalls has always been difficulty dealing with the speed that Night March represented, and Vespiquen/Flareon wasn’t an easy matchup either. With those two falling out of focus, the combination of Rough Seas’ healing, the suite of attacking options available to Lightning and Water (the natural partner, though Turbo Bolt is obviously highly malleable), and the sheer linear consistency Manectric offers will probably make it a contender post-Karen. However, the rise of some sort of Zygarde concept (which Night March’s vacuum could allow) could be problematic. Additionally, 110 damage is unfortunately just shy of the 120 HP Xerneas BKT boasts, which could become a very relevant issue.
M Rayquaza-EX ?
Almost as explosive as Night March, M Rayquaza not only benefits from the vanquishment of its greatest enemy, but also from Karen’s effect in and of itself. We’ll talk more about M Rayquaza later, but I firmly believe it’s poised to be a strong contender in the months to come due to an immeasurable suite of tech options, overwhelming speed, and inherent consistency.
Somehow, someway, two Standard heavyweights, in M Rayquaza and Rainbow Road, are poised to also see success in the Expanded format. The two formats yield two very different looking decks, of course, but in general principle the same strategy is employed in each. Rainbow Road will enjoy the departure of Night March as it’ll be far more free to leave wayward EXs on its Bench without fear of instant recoil. Plus, there’s no more need to worry about the Pumpkin and Tick-fought, razor-thin Prize exchange that generally can’t be won. As an added bonus, Karen only helps its cause.
While Night March’s sending-off removes a bad matchup for many decks, Trevenant was one that would gladly have played against 14 consecutive Night March on a route to the top. Without Night March around to serve as easy prey, Trevenant loses much of its allure, but without Night March around to keep its bad matchups in check, the forest of trees might find it a bit difficult to adapt this time. All three decks I’m going to cover today have, in my mind, very competitive Trevenant matchups — a bad sign for the future.
Water Box ?
Confession: I don’t pretend to understand why this deck has seen any discussion in Expanded at all. I generally believe it’s just a sorry lot of cards that worked in a very weird XY-on format because that XY-on format lacked synergetic concepts in general. This deck allegedly beat Night March. If that’s a fact, truth of which I’m skeptical, this deck objectively gets worse (with this disappearance of a good matchup) … if that’s even possible.
Mill Concepts in General ?
If I had the benefit of more time in preparing for Phoenix, I would’ve tested Wailord more and been seriously inclined to employ it in pursuit of winning in the desert. The format isn’t well adapted to accommodate Energy denial, but Karen will offer decks those extra few turns that are often crucial in close deck-out situations. I’m not saying that Karen will regularly change the outcome of mill-strategy games, but it will have a degree of impact on an archetype where the margin for error is dangerously thin.
That’s just a quick recap of the effects I believe Karen’s cleansing the format of Night March will have. Obviously, the web of effects is even more entangled than what I’ve laid out here, but for the purposes of writing about the phenomena, these are the most affected decks. I’d now like to take a look at three decks I’m strongly considering for Philadelphia: Virizion/Genesect, Rainbow(ish) Road, and Volcanion-EX.
Constitutional: Expanded Updates for Philly
Obviously, this is a deck a lot of players will be pretty familiar with. When Plasma Blast released after Worlds 2013, this was largely regarded as the most important archetype to emerge from the set. Since its initial dominance in what was then the Modified format, it’s oscillated between being highly competitive and serving as a doormat for better ideas. The release of Fighting Fury Belt in May was the most recent factor to spark a re-emergence of Grass hype, and the deck saw mild play during Spring Regionals. We last saw Virizion/Genesect discussed on 6P in Henry Ross-Clunis’ August piece.
I now believe, between the release of Ninja Boy and the removal of Night March, this concept is one against positioned to possibly see success. One of the key factors that will dictate its survival is the prominence of Seismitoad. Rainbow Road is one of the worst conceivable matchups for Virizion/Genesect, so if it’s not kept in check by some sort of counter, Virizion probably won’t get too far. I’m not convinced that Rainbow Road is the undisputed king of the hill, though, so this still merits discussion. Here’s how I’d build it right now:
Pokémon – 11
Trainers – 35
Energy – 14
The super weird thing is probably Trevenant-EX. I like that it offers an additional, versatile attacking option, and the difference between 170 and 180 can often be pronounced. Being able to 1HKO Shaymin-EX for the base 3 Energy is helpful, but with Elixir/Energy Switch, that damage can add up extremely quickly out of nowhere. Additionally, Dark Forest might have a place as a disruption option in an Expanded format that has largely eschewed Switch and Escape Rope in favor of Float Stone.
Deoxys is in here on account of M Manectric-EX, but 110 is an oddly prevalent number itself, so Megalo Cannon being in that range can be useful. It’s obviously an ugly starter, but Ninja Boy can help mitigate that.
In the olden days of V/G, I subscribed to a heavy Ghetsis focus as a fundamental point of the list. You could easily, on turn 1, afford to do little more than attach an Energy to an Active Virizion, (Ultra Ball for Jirachi for) Ghetsis, and pass. The deck’s reliance on its own board state uniquely positioned it to abuse Ghetsis with little drawback, but with Max Elixir and a generally faster format, turn 1 can no longer be the relatively inactive affair it was before. With Night March moving out of focus, Ghetsis figures to have a reduced role in the format altogether. It certainly needs to have a reduced role here, and at this point, I don’t even see the value in one copy.
On the topic of singleton Supporters, Skyla is one that often found its way into Virizion/Genesect lists in the past. While I’d love to have it here, it falls under the same premise as Ghetsis on some level: the deck can no longer afford periods of relative inactivity, and searching the deck for a single card isn’t likely to turn a game on its head. The one caveat: searching for G Booster, or the Muscle Band, is something that could turn a game on its head. That’s the only reason I still somewhat consider Skyla.
Game-breaking Abilities, like Blastoise’s Deluge, are currently on the sidelines in this format. For that reason, Hex Maniac is currently on the sidelines of this list, but that could quickly change. If it weren’t for the obvious typing, Greninja would be enough on its own to encourage inclusion of Hex, but as it is, the typing is still relevant.
It’s going to be a bit hard to read what’s going to happen in Philadelphia in the vacuum of Night March’s disappearance from the scene. On that basis, I’m a bit hesitant to offer a full-throated endorsement of this deck as a choice, but on the other hand: you won’t find more raw consistency anywhere, and the slate of even to strong matchups is close to unparalleled as well. In a format where I wouldn’t expect to play against the same deck more than twice in 9 rounds, I definitely wouldn’t strike a deck out simply on the basis of one, semi-prominent matchup (Rainbow Road), but it does give me pause.
I’ve talked about this before, but would like to present an updated list. With Night March on the way out, I believe this deck’s strength morphs from “Xerneas does lots of damage” to “Ho-Oh enables a lot of attacking options.” But, Xerneas is still necessarily one of those options.
Pokémon – 15
Trainers – 32
Energy – 13
Basically, Trainers’ Mail makes its way out of the list in favor of slightly more base draw power and an additional Sky Field. Additionally, the Energy and Pokémon lines have been streamlined considerably.
I want to quickly call attention to Jolteon as an early-game option. Lists probably aren’t scooping to Jolteon, but I suspect they probably aren’t constructing decks with it as a primary concern in mind either. I don’t think you’ll win a game attacking with just Jolteon, but netting a few quick Prizes while mitigating an opposition’s ability to damage is well within the realm of possibility. I believe it becomes potentially particularly valuable if Seismitoad were to be a major part of the metagame. Carbink FCO 49 would be another anti-Seismitoad option, as it would prevent Crushing Hammer shenanigans from taking hold.
If Trevenant becomes a concern, Latias-EX could become a solution. Trevenant basically can’t do anything in the face of Latias unless they play Mewtwo, and if they utilize Mewtwo, they break the Item lock. With that said, I still don’t see Trevenant being an issue. It’s possible that I’ve overemphasized Yveltal-EX in here as an option, but I like its general applicability to any metagame.
By definition, the broad banner of “Rainbow Road” is going to boast a very different slate of matchups, depending on which types we’re utilizing. For that reason, it’s hard for me to evaluate its playability as an archetype, but I would say this: the universal antithesis to Rainbow Road was Night March. Night March is now history. As such, it stands to reason that the archetype at large is better poised for success now than it was in Phoenix.
Pokémon – 13
Trainers – 37
Energy – 10
It’s possible that I’m jumping the gun here a little bit, as Starmie EVO will take this concept to the next level. But, for now, I still believe it’s a very interesting archetype that could easily see success in a Night March-less format.
Victini NVI 15, previously known for tech play in RayEels of years past, can now achieve scarily high damage output with relatively little investment. A functional problem with this card has always been the need for a full Bench. It wasn’t usually finding the Pokémon that proved problematic; it was sustaining a board when nothing more could be benched that proved difficult. Sky Field is the way around that, as it allows Victini’s attack to be fulfilled while not eliminating the option of Shaymin use.
This is one of the few decks where I believe the difference between Muscle Band’s +20 and Fighting Fury Belt’s +10 is significant enough to warrant eschewing the HP buff. 180 is a number in common demand, and Muscle Band means only 2 Steam Ups are required to reach that point with V-create. Combat Blaze only requires 3 Benched, 1 Steam Up and the use of Muscle Band to 1HKO a Shaymin-EX. Xerneas BKT’s 120 can be attained with no Steam Up at all when Muscle Band is the Tool of choice. I could go on and on: I simply believe Muscle Band is the superior option in here.
Chaining attackers can be a troublesome thing, but that’s somewhat alleviated with the use of primarily non-EXs. If you’re trading with an EX-centric deck, you might miss a beat at one point in the game but you’ll still be in a position to win because of your superior Prize exchange.
One aspect of this deck that I’m particularly fond of is the ability to hit the entire spectrum of damage numbers. Theoretically, you can hit 240 with Victini alone, but you also have Entei and Volcanion-EX to offer other base-damage options. If you don’t need to stretch for that much damage, the deck doesn’t inherently require the resource investment to do so. In a way, your damage output is proportional to your resource expenditure. That’s good in a format where opposing decks vary greatly in HP and non-EX status.
Ninja Boy may be unnecessary, and it’s probably on the top of my cut list at this point. Flareon-EX may also be expendable, but I wanted an attacker that can hit for considerable damage even in the face of Garbodor. Unfortunately, every legal Basic Fire-type is weak to Water, or I’d be inclined to try something for Weakness coverage in its place.
Something I’m going to considering adding: Captivating Poké Puff/additional Target Whistle. Winning the game by Knocking Out 3 Shaymin-EX is as much a W as going through 3 M Rayquaza — it’s just way more practical. If I took this route, I’d consider backing off Victini a bit in favor of emphasizing Entei and potentially adding Pokémon Catcher. This approach might have merit in M Rayquaza-EX begins to take off in the format, which is a distinct possibility with Night March on the way out.
The other elephant in the room is obviously Greninja’s success in Phoenix. Like I said above, Greninja is definitely on my radar heading into Philly. However, I believe it’s a deck whose matchups get substantially worse when people account for it (i.e., Hex counts), which figures to happen. Moreover, as I also said above, losing to one prominent deck simply is no longer an acceptable reason for discarding a deck from consideration altogether. These events are simply too large and too variable, particularly in Expanded, to bank on any given “meta call.”
Of the decks I wrote about today, I’m most excited about this one. It’s possible that it might be a star-in-waiting with Starmie en-route, but I’d love to see this work.
That’s about all I’ve got today. I’m excited to see where things evolve from here and to finally put some time into considering the Standard format. It’s going to be a delicate balancing act all year, but hopefully it will be a rewarding one as well. As always, if you have any questions, feel free to let me know. And, furthermore, if there’s anything in particular you want to see discussed in the future, we always try to accommodate.
Best of luck on the chase for 500.
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