Researching the Right Path

A Grimer (Primer!) on Competitive Pokémon TCG Play

It’s that time of year again. While the thousand or so players heading to the World Championships are focused on the impact of the “August Set” and what that means for the meta, the rest of the game is looking ahead to the next year of tournament play. Among them, some have a simple, self-reflective question on their minds:

How do I get better at the TCG?

pokemonscreenshots.tumblr.comThis isn’t just a rhetorical question serving as a literary device to progress the article. This is something I’ve been asked by countless people in the past weeks and months, as a player who earned her first invitation to Worlds less than a year after she started playing. I’m not dropping that to appeal to my status as a “listen to me” diktat; rather, I firmly believe that because it was possible for me, it is absolutely possible for you too. Within this article, I’m going to discuss the things I’ve found most important in achieving my goals, and the habits which accelerated my development as a player.

Editor’s Note: For those headed to Worlds, there will be the full complement of schedule articles this week, but the order might be slightly different than in the original schedule. In the meantime, for players of all types, but especially those looking toward Worlds 2019, please enjoy this.

The first priority is, indeed, to set goals. It’s one thing to play the game because you enjoy it; in fact, if you don’t enjoy it, I would ask if you should be investing in it at all. But it isn’t enough to simply enjoy playing cards if you want to get better. You need to know what you’re aiming for at the end of the competitive year, and break that down into realistic milestone achievements. Having something to aim for gives you a way to control your growth and measure your success.

It’s significantly easier, and significantly more rewarding, if this happens through incremental goals. If you’ve never been to a formal tournament which awards Championship Points before, perhaps simply attending one should be your first goal. Your higher goal could be to place in the top four, and your stretch goal would be to win it. Or maybe you’ve attended a bunch, but never seen success. In this case, aim for top 4, with your higher goal being to win a Challenge and your stretch goal being to make Top Cut elsewhere.

For me, going into December 2017—during quarter 2—I set goals along these lines: I wanted to win a League Challenge and get Top Cut in a Cup by the end of Quarter 3. By the end of Quarter 2, and almost entirely by accident, I had not only achieved this, but surpassed it by actually winning a Cup outright. Due to the fact I set out those initial goals, I recognised I was on a trajectory far above my initial estimations, and I was able to set a ridiculous stretch goal of getting an invitation to Worlds. I didn’t expect that it was inevitable, or even probable. But it was mathematically possible, and it changed the way I would view Quarter 3 (earn 70+ CP from 2 Cups; failed) and Quarter 4 (earn 105+ CP; successful).

Following on, it’s really important to plan how you’ll achieve those goals. Despite the perception sometimes created around Championship Points, they aren’t easy to achieve—especially not as a newer player, or as someone who hasn’t invested a lot of time into the current formats and meta. If you need 50 points from a League Cup, but you haven’t playtested the deck, and you don’t understand what impact a newly released set has had on the game you last researched two months ago, then you probably aren’t going to be overwhelmed with success at the end of the day.

There’s an absolute goldmine of information about the game available via all sorts of mediums—social media, YouTube, premium article sites, free article sites, podcasts, Patreon, local casual league sessions, and plenty more. While this information will be of varying quality, in a general sense the more you take in, the more you’ll get out. Eventually, you’ll be able to recognise the quality of what you find and compare the content you consume against other sources you find. This enables you to become more critical of the things you’re being told by each of them, and then you can analyse things for yourself. Coming to your own conclusions and being engaged with the game is, therefore, a key component of success.

How you go about that is the final piece of your general approach to consider. If you subscribe only to one YouTube channel, or watch only one streamer, or read only one article site, then you probably aren’t investing enough time to see meaningful results. Likewise, if you only play the game when it comes to high level tournaments, and don’t get to know your local community over the weekly casual play sessions, and don’t engage with it outside of the events, then you probably aren’t being exposed enough to the cards and the people. You’ll only see a very narrow viewpoint of the opinions about decks, much less getting experience in how to actually play them yourself.

The game changes subtly on a daily basis as people identify tech options or perhaps reveal their latest creation to the world: being on the sharp end of that activity and watching it happen will help you pick the correct 60 for your next event. To achieve this, you can do whatever you think is best: set yourself a hard target of playing three games on TCGO per day, or watch five short videos, or spend half an hour reading the posts on Facebook groups like HeyFonte and Virbank City. Maybe you do better through passive learning; set up a group chat for casual and ongoing daily discussion with some players you know fairly well and can learn from, or follow a handful of “top 16” level players on Twitter to read their thoughts as they happen.

Like with the above: there is no bad way to do this, other than not doing it enough. These things all complement each other, and the more of them you do in combination, the quicker you’ll see the results you’re aiming for.

Organised Play

So you’ve got the right behaviours, but what do you do with them? Before you dive in and start doing things for their own sake, it’s worth understanding the structure you play within. If your goal is to earn a day 1 invitation, what threshold do you need to reach, and how should you approach it? Using the 2017/2018 season, you would have needed 400 points in North America. The season is divided in 4 Quarters, which each had a best finish limit of 100CP at local events with uncapped Regionals/SPE/Internationals.

Much derided for the ability to “just win 8 cups,” this obvious way to grind out an invite ignores a much easier route: one good Cup (Top 2), one bad Cup (T8 or below) or Challenge win, and one middling finish at a Regionals (T128 or T256 points, depending on attendance). By doing this, you’ll gain 95 points at the lowest marks of these three fields—which is a fine contribution to your total. Obviously, you’ll fall just shy of the 100, and in any case, you should be aiming higher than this, but as a minimum to achieve this is realistic.

With those things clear, it’s time to think about the more practical things about the game. Finances become a major consideration (and, unfortunately, a limitation) for a great number of players. The first thing you should do is identify a budget that you’re able to comfortably spend each month, in the knowledge that this is a hobby where you are unlikely to see most of the money you spend ever again. You may see prizes as a return on your investment, but tournament entry fees, card supplies (things like singles and sleeves), and in particular travel costs will almost certainly demand significantly more money than you’ll ever earn back in value. Even at the highest levels, this game doesn’t really support full time players. Though there are an increasing number of noteworthy exceptions, even sponsored players usually have a side hustle within a full-time profession to support their hobby. Within this reality, you’re going to have to spend money.

Be careful with your choices and you can do a lot of things with a relatively modest amount: you can buy singles only of a new set, skip pre-releases, share car trips, split hotel rooms, among many other things. If you get one max rarity card, trade it away for two copies in the more common printing. Stop spending money on sealed product that is extremely unlikely to break even with the retail price. Focus on multiple regional or SPE level events which have a better CP pay-out to attendance ratio than a league cup which would itself be so far away it requires a full tank of fuel and a hotel stay. Don’t be afraid to spend the night in an airport for a 6am flight. But more than anything, make sure your spend is realistic with your life outside the hobby and in line with achieving your goals within it.

Practicing Theory
Perhaps, though, the most practical advice I can give is also the most obvious: turn up. You don’t get better by not playing the game. Even during the off season, with no Cups and no Regionals, I’ve been attending between 2 and 4 events per week: evening and weekend casual leagues, League Challenges, and testing with my group of locals. This complements games on TCGO; the ability to drop in and play a relatively high level match against a meta deck is a hugely useful, if unscientific, way of testing your list. Attending erratically or taking months out of the game and expecting to breeze back in as though little has changed is significantly harder than maintaining your drive at a constant, consistent, and credible pace.

Once you’re doing that, it’s important not to get downhearted if your results aren’t up to scratch. You probably aren’t going to start winning immediately, and that’s okay. At my first League Challenge, which was the next city over and my first time visiting, I went 1 win to 3 losses. The next time I went there, it was 0 wins and 4 losses. Following that, 2 wins and 2 losses. The point here is that you must accept failure and learn from it. Don’t let it get you down. Use it as a learning opportunity. These results were ostensibly awful, but they helped turn me into a better player.

At the first tournament, I didn’t test in Standard format, and so had no idea what I was playing against or what I should do. At the second, I took a deck I knew fairly well, chucked in a 2/2 Espeon line in because I thought it would be useful, and had no idea how to use it… because I hadn’t tested the new build at all. At the third event, I had playtested one matchup to 50/50 success, and assumed that was representative because I beat one player with one deck half the time. I can tell you: it wasn’t representative, and I learned why nobody else seemed to like Salazzle-GX (two attachments was quite hard to achieve, and the deck struggled to get early knockouts).

Embracing losses in this way is totally positive and incredibly helpful. It would be easy to look the other way; to blame the matchups or the draws, but ultimately there was plenty about the deck within my control, and the accountability is totally on me to improve. Taking responsibility for the outcome of tournaments, even the bad ones, is a fundamentally important skill to have.

Building upon that, it’s incredibly important to make sure you know what’s relevant in the metagame. More bluntly, you need to play the right cards. This is where your engagement with the game should come into its own, but if that wasn’t clear enough, you need to be (at a minimum) reading the successful lists from Regional tournaments posted on sites like Limitless. You should already recognise the utility behind cards like Tapu Lele-GX, Ultra Ball, and the myriad other staples which comprise the core of many decks, but it’s also really important to make sure the rest of your deck is good too.

There are always a number of ‘top’ archetypes which you should be familiar with: as I write, that would be Zoroark, Buzzwole, and Malamar. If you check Limitless and see that Buzzwole won a Regional lately, then you can take one of two things away from it: Buzzwole is either really, really good, and it would be a great deck to focus your attention on and ‘master’, or everyone is going to play Buzzwole and you can be one step ahead by countering them with Malamar.

I would encourage you to focus on the former, if you’re doing this at all. Generally, for a player looking to develop in the game, metagaming like the latter example will mislead you, and you’ll talk yourself into playing something like Gardevoir—which is good, but not strictly appropriate for either your skill level or the field you’re up against. I know—it happened to me, and I finished a six round, best of 3 League Cup with 5 ties and a win. On the day, I was afraid to scoop losing Game 1s because I was convinced I would recover, then had to scramble to win Game 2 and leave Game 3 uncompleted. I should have stuck to a deck which I was more confident in playing (Zoroark/Golisopod), and that deck ended up winning the event outright. Being one step ahead of reality isn’t the best way to ensure success.

To this end, I think it’s worth accepting some assumptions—and they are assumptions, and you might be able to ignore the things I’m about to tell you, which would be wonderful. These are purely if want to get Championship Points from an event. Firstly, you probably can’t homebrew a format defining deck and play it to victory. Second, the meta decks are good for a reason, and even if you don’t strictly like the playstyle you should at least understand their general game plans in case you decide to play it yourself or get paired against it. Third, you shouldn’t go off script and bring a long forgotten archetype (such as Rainbow Road or something) just because it’s your favorite deck. And finally, there’s no shame in netdecking and playing the exact list that someone else created. If Buzzwole is good, then Buzzwole is good. Don’t overthink it.

So we’ve investigated how you should think about the game, and then we saw how you should approach the game in a practical sense. Finally, we explored how you should go about the game when you’re following the prior two conditions. I’ll leave it for you to decide what your next steps are, and I don’t want to promote any single thing or list my own personal favorite sources. This is because I truly believe the more time you invest in this game, the better your results will be. The more learning you do during your free time, outside of official or unofficial events, the better your results will be at the next tournament. The more events you go to, the more exposure you’ll get to other competitive players, and the more opportunities you’ll have to learn from them (not to mention you’re improving your odds of achieving something).

My own record proves it’s totally possible to go from a base level of literally 0—my first ever official League event was a casual session on the 5th of August 2017—to playing at the World Championships within a year. All it took was dedication and commitment, and I firmly believe that this is something everybody can do if you can set your mind to it.

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