Breaking Down the Best

On Best Finish Limits and Barometers of “Best” in the Pokémon TCG Championship Series

I’m not sure what order you’ll be reading them in, but at this point, I’m on my 3rd post-Madison introduction to an article. As you may already know, we’re on a stretch run to the North American International Championships in a few weeks, where we’ll crown the winners of the season’s biggest event and finalize a list of 54 players to be sent off with Day 2 invitations to the 2018 World Championships. We’re pretty excited about our coverage going into it, so be sure to give that a look.

But, first, we have some other things to talk about.

With regard to those looming World Championships, it’s been an interesting year. Many feel 400 CP is too easy for Day 1, and I think most involved with the North America Top 16 chase feel their track is a bit too crazy at the moment. At the beginning of this season, one particular change was made that shook what we formerly knew as a tournament structure: the removal of best finish limits (henceforth, Regional BFL or BFL) on Regional Championships/Special Events.

What’s ensued? More players attending more Regionals than they did last year. I have another article on the agenda dealing specifically with the changes we saw year-over-year from one Regionals circuit to another, but for now, I want to specifically stick to this matter of Best Finish Limits. Last year, though, only a handful of players came close to attending every Regional Championship. This year, a trio achieved the feat, and a significant pile behind them came close to doing so.

What’s the problem—or, at least, the perceived problem? There are two tracks where the Regional BFL can have an effect.

  1. There is the more casual player, who theoretically can string together much of an invitation to the World Championships through a series of mediocre T128/T256 finishes at Regional Championships, while piling up enough League Cup points to cross the line in the end. Whether or not this is a problem is up for debate, but I can confidently state it isn’t a reality. We’ll look through the full list of players with a significant number of North American Regional Championships finishes in a few moments, but here’s a preview: nobody is throwing together a ton of small finishes to make Worlds.
  2. The Top 16 chaser. I specifically say Top 16 because this problem has not exhibited itself in Europe, Latin America, or Asia-Pacific to as great a degree (respectively, I believe that’s due to a Top 22 and a lack of overall events), but in North America, the theory goes that not having a BFL has created the travel menace 19 of us are now beholden to. If we had a BFL, we would not have this travel. Or so the theory goes.

Some ground rules here: While some yearn for the years of Cities and States, we aren’t in 2012’s Pokémon scene anymore. The PTO network is gone, Stores are the chosen approach of the Play! Pokémon program, and there’s no use in discussing situations that don’t accept those realities. In a similar vein, International Championships have become the crown jewel of the regular season tournament structure, and so I find it impossible to believe TPCi would ever limit their attendance with something like a BFL.

And, because the goal is to maximize tournament attendance across the year, a prohibitively low BFL on Regionals (say, 4) is almost certainly out of the realm of possibility too. That leaves us a fairly narrow field of real options, and as my goal is to argue within the scope of reality, I’m limiting discussion to those options.

To be entirely up front: I believe a Best Finish Limit will be a conceptual charade that will achieve nothing—if not achieving a level of backfiring corrosiveness. This piece is meant to advocate for that position.

I hate writing something that’s going to center so much around the effects of so few players (in Day 2 chasers), but unfortunately this article is going to be that. Let’s get started, though, by considering the first case, as it applies to players for more broadly.

“Problem” #1: The Casual Invitee

Now, from the top, I want to be clear: I do not aim to take a position, nor do I personally really have a position, on whether it is “right” that a player earn an invitation to the World Championships one way or another. I do strongly believe that the people crowing it’s “beneficial to good players to have more (worse) players on Day 1” are naive in their evaluation—if you told me I needed to go 4-2 against 6 of the 54 Day 2 invitees we’ll have this year or 7-2 against the field of Day 1 invitees we’ll have this year, I’m taking 6 rounds over 9 every single time. But, nevertheless, blaming (or bemoaning) people for taking advantage of the structure TPCi created is nonproductive and a bit sad.

As for the reality of the situation: as I alluded earlier, this isn’t a real problem. I present the complete list of North American players that have achieved 6 or more finishes at Regionals or Special Events this season. The current NA Top 16 is in blue:

I cut off at 6 because, in a recent poll of the people of HeyFonte, 6 and 8 were the most popular choices for a BFL should one be reenacted next year—it’s what people want to see. As we can see here, only two players have 6+ finishes without a Worlds invitation, and I don’t think any seasoned player would have any difficulty with my assertion that nearly 100% of this list would qualify as “Worlds calibre” under our last few years’ definition of the term—even one of the players sitting short of 400 CP right now, Sorina Radu, is 7/7 on finishes—hardly the mark of a systemic abuse.

Nearly everyone that would lose points to a BFL of 6 or 8 would have their Day 1 invite either way. A Best Finish Limit for Regionals has nearly zero bearing on Day 1 invitations.

As far as international players are concerned, while I don’t have objective data to use, my impression is that most areas suffer from not having enough events to make a 6 or 8 BFL matter to them. I regret that I can’t delve in as deeply as I’d like, and would welcome thoughts from anyone who potentially feels otherwise in this area.

“Problem” #2: The Day 2 Chasers

Once again, this probably is going to be fairly NA-centric—not because I want to be NA-centric, because I believe the structure should be NA-centric, or even because I only have data hard enough to be NA-centric. Instead, this is because I’m fairly sure the problem a BFL would be expected to solve is NA centric. I suppose, first, I ought to define the problem a bit more clearly.

From personal experience, I can speak to the absurdity of the current North America Top 16 grind. For many, the stretch of weekends between Latin America’s International Championship and North America’s will feature only one or two weekends that don’t involve international or domestic travel—and those will be spent playing League Cups. For most of the Masters, this has turned into a 40+ weekend commitment. This is partially a result of the sudden genesis of extra Latin America events we didn’t have any knowledge of until the season was well over halfway consumed, which leaves an even more bitter taste: the rules changed midway through the game.

I’m certainly not asking for anyone to feel sorry for any of us—it’s a privilege to be able to compete at this level, and one I’m thoroughly grateful for personally. Nevertheless, I strongly believe it’s in TPCi’s best interest to examine ways to lessen the sheer quantity of time required to perform at the game’s top level, lest they burn through “Top Players” at a high year-to-year rate.

That holds for Masters, at least. At the Junior/Senior level, I actively believe the structure TPCi has outlined is negatively impacting players—there are multiple stories of truancy letters, among other silliness, that punctuate the effect: the travel has grown out of hand. And, to reiterate, I think most of us are grateful for where we’re at in being able to pursue this—personally, I’m just a tad bitter the rules changed with the addition of copious International events nobody knew would happen and a lot drained from weeks of travel.

So, most players involved seek a way to minimize the travel commitment and/or time commitment needed to succeed at the game’s highest level. A best finish limit is oft-proposed to solve this problem. Here, I’m going to tell you why it doesn’t.

As you saw above, there’s a pretty healthy list of players sitting on heavy counts of Regional/SPE finishes, and many of those players are in the North America Top 16 for a reason. Here’s what would happen to the current North America Top 16, headed into NAIC, with Best Finish Limits of 6 or 8 Regs/SPEs in place. The current NA Top 16, as of June 3, is in blue.

BFL of 8:

BFL of 6:

In essence, nothing really changes positionally here with the implementation of a Best Finish Limit. Therefore, we’re not weeding out any of the “unworthy” in some sort of altruistic mission by implementing one. That’s a myth, at best.

However, there are some key differences, and they’re what I want to highlight for the rest of this section of the piece. For this, we’re going to consider Top 16 in two groups—those currently sitting ~1350-1400 CP and those from about 13th-20th.

For the first group, a Best Finish Limit may seem a welcome idea: they clearly attained the Day 2 with International Travel to spare, so they’d be all about limiting the grind, right? Not exactly. As it happens, I think 1400 is about where we’re going to end up cutting off this year’s Top 16, though there’s certainly much volatility in that calculation. But, certainly anyone ~1475 and above (so, currently 9/16) can definitely take the last few weeks of the season off. There’s no reason for any of them to make an appearance in Mexico: they’ve earned their spots through prior excellence.

Now, consult the Best Finish Limit of 8 table. There’s a noticeable increase in overall parity between the top and bottom halves of the table, and this checks out mathematically as well: the standard deviation of Top 16 CP is 303 for our current Top 16, but only 234 for the BFL 8 (210 for BFL 6). By BFL’ing our top-top players, we place them at greater risk of some shenanigans at NAIC placing them in jeopardy, thereby encouraging them to push out the last 3 weekends of the grind, seeking to replace as many Top 64 and 32 finishes as possible to gain a leg up going into NAIC. The best finish limit, for these players, is actually not only not helpful, but actively harmful.

Look: the first number of players are on a different planet this year compared to the rest of Top 16. There’s no reason even anything as crazy as me winning NAIC should put me ahead of Igor Costa, for example, our season’s 3 time Regional winner.

Introducing artificial parity here wouldn’t achieve anything, and it isn’t as though there’s an attendance gap here either. Consider the following, which lists the number of points a BFL of 8 would send to the void next to the number of SPEs/Regionals a player attended:

Outside of my personal Regionals performances this season, everyone is in the double-digits column for finishes. Despite almost all of being in the same general vicinity in terms of Regionals attended, the players at the top—obviously—generally have more finishes, leading to their advantage. They’ve been consistently excellent in a way that those of us in the lower echelon haven’t quite matched. There’s no reason they should be on level with the rest of Top 16 because of an artificial BFL, from a principled perspective. From a practical perspective, it only increases the travel demand to insure against NAIC chaos that increased parity would risk.

For the second half of Top 16, the story is a little different. It isn’t so much about a BFL there being negative as much as it is about it being…useless? Ryan Allred and his dreadful Day 2 luck aside, nobody outside the Top 10 is sending a significant number of points to the void. That means, in order to get to the same place a 10-20th place player currently resides with no BFL, they’d need the same amount of travel relative to their peers—even with a BFL. The best finish limit wouldn’t actually achieve anything here, because the pressure would always be to advance those Top 256/128 finishes to a higher tier, avoiding the risk of NAIC playing havoc with your chances.

Take me, for example. Sitting at 14th in those BFL-8 standings, with the prospect of 20th-15th heading to Mexico City in two weekends to improve on their 40s and 50s, with my buffer sitting at less than 100 points? It’d be a no brainer to head to Mexico myself. There would be minimal, if any, reduction in travel demand.

So, for the first half, a BFL could require more travel, and for the second half of Top 16, it probably wouldn’t achieve anything anyway. As run this year, a best finish limit would merely punish those who had truly extraordinary seasons with artificially-induced parity while leaving those who had great-but-not-stellar seasons in the same spot we are today.

But, we haven’t even gotten to the truly sinister portion of the situation yet.

I have an opinion which I wager less than 10% of our current Top 16 would disagree with: it is unequivocally easier to Top 32/16 a foreign Special Event than to Top 32/16 a North American Regional Championship. It’s simple numbers: 4-2-1 or 5-2-1 vs 7-2, plus the need to perform on Day 2 to keep Top 32/16? The lesser round count all day, every day. This is only more true next season with 19 point Day 2 cutoffs, by the way.

If I had not sworn off competing for Top 16 next year, if TPCi announced a BFL of 8, or worse 6, I would choose to prioritize attending Latin America and Asia-Pacific’s Special Events over North America Regionals. Sure, there may be a higher upfront cost, but I value my time at a certain rate as well, and you’d be surprised what miracles living within reach of Chicago or NYC can pull off for international flight prices. The time savings spent grabbing a few easier kicker finishes—while being in, due to the structure, an easier position to make Top 8—would make it an attractive strategy. Playing within my own region would be a substantial disadvantage.

As if Top 16 wasn’t already a matter of pay-to-play—as, to a degree, the hobby must be—I’ve outlined a roadmap that I’m confident any Day 1 calibre player from any continent could ride to a Day 2 invite in his or her zone next year. Find the smaller Special Events, rack up your kicker points with the occasional T8 sprinkled in, and enjoy the pass to Day 2. Admittedly, this will be true without a BFL too, and I strongly believe there should be action taken to curb Special Event attendance (not that I think any is coming). But, with a BFL, the effect will only be exaggerated, as North American (and European, too) Regionals’ offered Top 64/128/256 kicker points will be worthless next to my Timbuktu SPE Top 16.

I should address: A common refrain in casual conversation, in response to my case against BFLs, is last year—where much of this travel didn’t happen. There’s a simple, two-part answer to that:

  1. Last season did not feature a Special Event extravaganza (and, I see no reason to believe that reverts back for next year).
  2. The cat is out of the proverbial bag, now, whereas before there wasn’t an expectation that others would travel to the lengths we now see.

In Summary: The Case Against the BFL

In a bullet-pointed version:

  • For the average World Championship invitation seeker, it has no effect.
  • For the elite player, it induces artificial parity, encouraging even more late season travel to insure against NAIC hijinks. Despite attending the same number of events as our 10-20th range player—and outperforming while in attendance—the elite player will be artificially kept closer in range to the midrange player.
  • For the midrange Top 16 player, the BFL won’t have any functional use, as demonstrated by this season: the BFL would only reduce points by a paltry amount, and there’d be a need to replace T256/128/perhaps 64 to keep pace.
  • It encourages particularly well-off Westerners to ignore North American events altogether, and instead pursue a series of International Special Events and Regionals, with functionally more generous kicker points.

If there’s anything I’ve developed over the past 8 years, it’s a passion for seeing the game continue moving forward whenever possible. I strongly believe reimplementing a best finish limit would be a step in the wrong direction. But, I realize there is foolishness in shooting down the solution without offering another, so here are my current thoughts on alternatives, in brief:

  • A limitation on attendance of out-of-zone Special Events. I hate this idea at its core, but I do feel it is a possible way to solve the problem as I’ve outlined it today.
  • A removal of League Cups from the Top 16 equation. Entirely radical, yes, but as I outlined last year, League Cups aren’t something that generally differentiate Top 16ers from one another. This year as a Top 20, we all actually are a bit worse at Cups on average than last year’s class, with Jimmy Pendarvis, Joey Ruettiger, and I bringing up the back of that pack, but only Alex Schemanske, Caleb Gedemer, and Daniel Altavilla above 300 League Cup CP. This would alleviate the time demands we see of the current Top 16 chase, meaning the constant Regionals travel wouldn’t be nearly the demand it is.
  • Forging ahead as-is. I genuinely believe this would be better than playing with a BFL. Ideally, if this could be accompanied by something like making the Expanded/Standard dichotomy less jarring (say, quarterly formats), that’d be lovely, but either way, I want to underscore that I feel a Best Finish Limit would truly be a negative or non-influence with all levels of player.

The problem with forging ahead will be player burnout. I know this run has driven me to the end of my rope, and I definitely won’t chase Top 16 next year barring an incredible about-face in terms of structure—honestly, I can’t even imagine a scenario where I would. I know I’m not alone in this feeling among NA16, either.

In any event, I thank you all for reading and am eager to hear what comments await here. I’ll be back in the near future with some analysis of Regional attendance figures, with an eye to what else we can glean for future structural consideration (preview: some events had an impressive number of new players this year!), and after NAIC, I’ll pen the successor to last year’s profile of the World Championships field. Otherwise, give our site announcement on the NAIC run a glance, and all the best as you head toward NAIC.


Reader Interactions

Leave a Reply

You are logged out. Register. Log in. Legacy discussion: 0