With the most recent Expanded Regionals behind us, and the upcoming Unbroken Bonds expansion (and our brand new old friend Lt. Surge!) still a month or so away from release and legality, those of us looking to gather up some extra points toward their Worlds invites are left playing a Standard format that is looking more and more solved.
The format’s viable decks have boiled down to:
- “Lightning” decks
- Blacephalon, and
“Lightning Stuff” is admittedly a pretty wide umbrella. At the start of the format, the Lightning decks were primarily Pikarom and Zapdos builds, both very focused around their particular game plan. Now, these lines are a lot more blurred. You have decks running both a Zapdos presence as well as a Pikachu & Zekrom package that it can transition to. Also, the Zapdos decks shifted away from the straightforward streamlined Zapdos deck that Isaiah Williams won Melbourne with. While builds using the Ultra Beast sub-game plan also showed up at that tournament, it does appear that Zapdos decks showcasing a Plan B are now the norm opposed to the exception. This is in part due to the fact that lists and engines have gotten refined and players are now more aware of how far they can push the deck without clunking it up too much.
I want to look at my current list for what I would argue is the de facto “best deck” in the format, “Lightning Toolbox.” This is a hybrid of the Zapdos and Pikarom decks, capable of highlighting the strengths of both archetypes within one 60-card shell. I will make a case that the older, traditional Pikarom build is outdated and strictly inferior to this upgrade. On the other hand, the other Zapdos decks have evolved and taken different directions that allow them to offer strengths that this deck lacks.
Pokémon – 14
Trainers – 35
Energy – 11
This deck can play an aggressive Zapdos plan, but also gets to transition into Pikachu & Zekrom-GX. This deck can’t go for the Turn 1 Full Blitz reliably, but it gives up that line for a lot of additional versatility. Let’s look at all of the different attackers this deck supports!
The lines are all thin, but it doesn’t really matter too much as you have so many options. One thing that is important to stress with this deck is that no, you won’t always have all of your options available…and while that can be frustrating, it is extremely rare for you not to have some option available that keeps you competitive in a game.
- Against Malamar, you can leverage the Zapdos game plan. Against the “mirror” match, you can play a 1-Prize game to bait out their GX Pokémon so you don’t have to be the first to expose yourself.
- Against Zororoc, it is nice to have early attackers that are not weak to Lycanroc-GX or Lucario-GX. On the flip side, it is also nice to have powerful, impactful cards that can take over a game once the Zoroark deck does set up and make Zapdos a fairly low-impact attacker.
- Against Blacephalon, you again can play 1-Prize attackers before transitioning into your GX Pokémon when it is favorable.
- Against Stall decks, Zeraora and Full Blitz makes it really hard for them to disrupt you, while Zapdos addresses Hoopa and Jolteon-GX deals with the Vileplume BUS certain builds play.
On the topic of Zapdos giving you game against Fighting types, I’m choosing to run a copy of Weakness Policy to help combat the popularity of Fighting types used to counter your GX Pokémon. The threat of Weakness Policy does push more Zoroark decks to play a copy of Field Blower.
Aether Paradise Conservation Area
One of the debates I am still having with this deck is Aether Paradise Conservation Area opposed to a copy of Viridian Forest. Aether Paradise Conservation Area is nice because it can put your GX Pokémon out of range of OHKOs. For Zapdos, it keeps it out of range of Giratina and Zoroark, even. The card is good, but I generally hate defensive Stadium cards, especially when you run so few copies of the card. Viridian Forest is more proactive, but less impactful overall.
The last question is whether or not to run a Wobbuffet LOT. Wobbuffet can lock out opposing Tapu Koko ♢, can turn off Diancie ♢ against dedicated Fighting decks, and most importantly, turns off Ditto ♢. Since Ditto is the main way decks get out an Alolan Muk, a card which can be really annoying for this deck, Wobbuffet can be a fantastic weapon. I’m not convinced that the deck needs Wobbuffet as it is so powerful and flexible, though. As a result I’m not playing the card for now, but I can be potentially convinced otherwise.
Pokémon – 14
Trainers – 36
Energy – 10
This is a 1-Prize attacker deck that utilizes the powerful Jirachi engine to aggressively attack with Zapdos getting extra damage added in by Electropower, Choice Band, and Shrine of Punishment. One of the downsides of the deck is that you eventually start to deplete your Electropower count, and that caps your damage output. By running the Ultra Beast package, you can pivot into the Beasts on the appropriate Prize turns to get big bursts of damage without using up Electropower. Buzzwole providing a big Fighting-type burst is strong in this format, and Nihilego can copy whatever the opponent’s best attack is…even if it is a GX attacker, which is great as this deck runs no GX Pokémon and obviously can’t use GX attacks otherwise.
There are also builds that choose to run a Jolteon-GX line, ranging from 1-1 to 2-2, usually at the expense of the Ultra Beasts because you need to free up space somehow, and Jolteon gets weaker when you have less Lightning Energy to trigger Eevee’s Ability. I’m worried that the GX Pokémon detract from Zapdos’ appeal of being a 1-Prize attacker deck, though. You also have to cut Shrine of Punishment, which is a card I really love in here.
I don’t think there is a lot of variation in this deck’s approach. You have your standard Zapdos engine and have to make room for your Ultra Beasts and thus tweak your Energy to include Rainbow and a Beast Energy to make it work. Luckily, the 10 damage off of Rainbow Energy is almost never incrementally relevant on Zapdos, and doesn’t get felt much.
The flex spots, to me, involve the Zebstrika. While Jirachi does a great job of keeping the deck consistent, decks are being built with disrupting this in mind. Even a simple Absol TEU can really cramp you. Alolan Muk SUM is also a big issue. Zebstrika gives the deck some extra draw power, but also acts as a secondary engine for when you do get your Jirachi disrupted. Another potential option is Wobbuffet, as it can turn off Ditto ♢, preventing it from branching into Muk. Even now, a lot of players opting for Muk are including a Grimer too, though.
Finally, there are people (like Xander) who have explored running Lycanroc-GX or Lucario-GX in the deck. Both of these Fighting types help the “Lightning Mirror,” but I much prefer the Lucario for this role. Lycanroc is less Energy efficient, and Bloodthristy Eyes feels unnecessary since this deck already basically hits Guzma every fricking turn anyway. (Not that I am bitter about this or anything.) In order to facilitate this, you can run Viridian Forest and some Fighting Energy. Again, this prevents you from playing Shrine of Punishment, and that is a concession I’m not looking to make personally.
Of the two main approaches of Lightning decks, I prefer the Zapdos/Ultra Beasts deck to the Lightning Toolbox deck. This isn’t to say that is because I necessarily feel it is better…I just love playing a 1-Prize game plan and feel like it is the more aggression version, and that fits my playstyle more right now.
Pokémon – 17
Trainers – 27
Energy – 16
While the Lightning decks have a ton of options and directions that they can be taken, the “perfect” Blacephalon list has more or less been found. Pretty much every list that logged success in recent weeks has looked more or less the same, with only a couple of flex spots being changed one way or the other.
The important innovation to the deck is the universal inclusion of Alolan Muk. The card branches off of the Ditto ♢ that has replaced the 4th Poipole, as well as an actual copy of Alolan Grimer. I think that is a testament to the importance of the card, as generally players have been okay with relying strictly on the Ditto to get access to the disruptive Stage 1. In order to compete with the Lightning decks, it is important that Blacephalon can turn off the Jirachi draw power, as well as the other powerful Abilities found in the deck. Leaving them even a little bit more clunky can let the deck pull ahead. Malamar, a deck that Blacephalon has historically struggled against, has also embraced Jirachi as a major part of its engine, and this can help bring the matchup closer. I state that Malamar is favored, but it isn’t by a tremendous amount, and that makes the Muk valuable.
Energy Switch is a card that had popped up awhile ago in lists that has become more and more widespread in their inclusion. Being able to power up a Blacephalon in one turn when your Beast Rings are not live is pretty important and makes the deck less exploitable on Prize counts 1–2, and 5–6. I don’t think anyone would really be surprised by this card anymore.
Also fairly uniform is the pair of Marshadow. Since this deck is pretty sleek and streamlined, it can really leverage the disruption of Let Loose. This is also a deck that can also use Let Loose as additional draw power. The deck already runs Mysterious Treasure, so it is pretty easy to grab a copy of the little guy throughout the game. This helps justify the deck only playing one copy of Tapu Lele, since it is an extreme liability in most matchups now.
The main point of contention in lists for Blacephalon comes from what split of Cynthia, Lillie, and Erika’s Kindness to run. I believe the most common split has been 4 Cynthia and then a pair of both Lillie and Erika’s Kindness, but I am not sold on Erika’s Kindness quite yet. I certainly want a copy of the card in the deck, but I’m not sure how much more I like it than Lillie. The strength of Lillie on the first turn of the game is too important to overlook.
It’s also worth noting how tight this list has become…I started looking through all of the available Blacephalon lists, and almost all of them played 3 Guzma. I really wanted a 4th copy of the card, because playing 4 in Malamar has left me spoiled, and I legitimately could not find a single card to shave.
Pokémon – 21
Trainers – 31
Energy – 8
I think this is the “second best” deck in the format. (My extreme Malamar bias bumping Lightning Toolbox to two and this to three, of course!)
This is again a deck that hasn’t change a whole lot over the weeks. You have your standard 4-4 Zoroark line, backed by a 2-2 Lycanroc line, and a 2-2 Lucario line. I should clarify that the Lycanrocs are both Bloodthirsty Eyes in this list, because some players have adapted a copy of Lycanroc-GX TEU as well. I don’t hate this card, and I haven’t played with it a ton, but I don’t feel comfortable going below 2 Bloodthirsty Eyes OR adding a 3rd Lycanroc.
Beyond this, there are the standard 2 Tapu Lele-GX, and now a 1-1 Alolan Muk line (piggybacking off the Ditto ♢). Energy-wise, I’m running the obvious 4 DCE, and then 3 Fighting Energy and a Rainbow Energy over the 4th Fighting. This is to help enable Acerola. With Lucario in the deck, and needing to be reset, I think it is worth the potential downside of having to attach a Rainbow Energy.
The majority of the deck’s engine comes from 4 Nest Ball, 4 Ultra Ball, and 3 Pokémon Communication. With the Item engine, you generally want to play Lillie on the first turn, and once you get a Zoroark-GX or two out, what Supporter you play is somewhat irrelevant. You’ll hopefully be abusing your utility Supporters. The one card I am always going to play in a Zoroark deck is Mallow. I just want to reliably be able to see my DCEs on time.
Devoured Field is not a card I am particularly a big fan of in here, but the deck does need counter Stadiums. (Field Blower doesn’t touch Prism Star Stadiums, although Field Blower is necessary for potential Weakness Policies.) There is an option to play Viridian Forest over them in order to search up your Fighting Energy, too. Devoured Field does let you hit for up to 180 damage with a Choice Band, Field, and Professor Kukui.
I feel like most of these Trainers are locked in place, and my flex spots in the deck are a copy of Dumbbells and Counter Gain. Counter Gain helps you come back when behind. This is very important with Lycanroc-GX as it lets you power up its GX attack for one Energy when behind against the Lightning decks. Dumbbells is an obnoxious HP buff, and some decks are not well equipped at chewing through it. It gets really obnoxious with the Acerola loop.
I would normally shift a flex spot towards some sort of answer for the Stall decks if I were playing at a Regional, IC, or SPE. For Challenges and Cups, I opt not to. The two options I have are Oranguru UPR, or a very exciting option in the new Persian TEU! Make ‘Em Pay costs 1 Colorless, and if your opponent has 4 or more cards in hand, you get to look at their hand and discard cards from it until they have 4. Yes, you get to choose the cards they discard. This attack is actually just really, really good in general, and it’s absolutely backbreaking against the Stall decks. They can’t win past it. It is a great option to evolve off of Ditto ♢. I’d be running that card at a bigger event in this deck.
Finally I want to go over the deck I have been playing recently at local tournaments. I made Top 4 at a League Cup at the beginning of Quarter 3 with Spell Tag/Ultra Necrozma/Malamar. (I need to come up with a better…well, shorter name for this version of the deck.) A few weeks ago, I decided to drive up to a local League Challenge to try and get some finishes for the Quarter…man do I truly hate having to waste time playing in these events. Nonetheless, I made the trek, and played the same deck and started off 2-0, beating a Lightning Toolbox deck Round 1 and a Malamar deck Round 2. Round 3 I took an ID to secure one of the Top 2 spots opposed to playing it out against a Buzzwole/Weavile deck. I took 2nd on breakers by a pretty wide margin.
That weekend I drove down to a League Cup in Canton to play with the same deck. I beat a Zapdos/Ultra Beasts deck Round 1, but fell to a pair of Lightning Toolbox decks the next rounds going second and being narrowly unable to keep up. It was a bit frustrating, but the games all felt pretty close so I made a few tweaks in order to try and streamline the deck a bit more.
This past Saturday I played at a Cup a few minutes from my house at Recess Games and registered the following list:
Pokémon – 16
Trainers – 34
Energy – 10
3 Jirachi TEU & 3 Viridian Forest
The big things I want to talk about are the 3 copies of both Viridian Forest and Jirachi I am running. As long as the deck is running well, I like every matchup (besides the various Stall decks), and I see lists running 2 copies of these cards and I think that count is too low. Since I am running a list aiming to avoid using GX Pokémon in most situations, I don’t want to run Tapu Lele-GX if I don’t have to. As a result, 3 Jirachi and a Marshadow offset this.
Since Jirachi is so important, I deviate from the standard count of 4 Ultra Ball, 4 Mysterious Treasure, and 2 Nest Ball by doing a 3-3 split on Treasure and Nest Ball. Nest Ball being able to grab Jirachi is very strong. As a result of trimming a discard outlet (making it harder to get Psychic Energy into the discard pile) I’m running the 3rd Viridian Forest. This increases the odds Jirachi yields an “Energy.”
1 Adventure Bag
The other thing I want to talk about is my split on Tool cards, and the wildcard inclusion of Adventure Bag. I feel like this card is really underrated and as a result underplayed. I have a 2-2 split on Switch and Escape Board, with the Bag being the 3rd Board. One thing also worth noting about the Bag is that it can actually grab BOTH Boards, and this actually comes off somewhat frequently. When you open with a non-Jirachi starter that has a 1 Retreat Cost, you’ll often want to retreat into the Jirachi. Grabbing 2 Board lets you put one on the opener and then suit up the Jirachi itself. While yes, you can attach and retreat with your Active, you really want to attach on the first turn to a Giratina to maximize the odds you attack on the second turn because it is super important.
1 Choice Band
I’m running the Choice Band because it opens up a lot of different plays. Alongside a Beast Energy, it lets Ultra Necrozma OHKO a Pikarom for 3 Energy. Between Beast Energy, Choice Band, and the Bag to grab Choice Band, the deck has three outs to have access to a card that lets Ultra Necrozma jump from 180 damage to 210 damage. This catches Lycanroc-GX, Zeraora-GX, and Zoroark-GX, amongst others. It also lets Giratina do 160 damage…alongside Distortion Door, that lets it hit 170 damage in one turn, letting it Guzma–KO a Tapu Lele-GX. If you trigger a Spell Tag, you can put 40 damage on a Lycanroc-GX, and this 160 damage out of Giratina plays as well. This works against Jolteon-GX too. With all of the deck thinning and spamming of Stellar Wish, it is not difficult to reliably see the Choice Band.
2 Spell Tag
I started out initially at 4 Spell Tag…then went down to 3…and now I am down to 2. The big problem with Spell Tag is that you get Guzma’d around…a lot. Spell Tag doesn’t do a ton against Zoroark…you end up having to Guzma Basics, and take your GX KOs with Ultra Necrozma-GX or Marshadow-GX. You can’t even gamble on trying to do any sort of spread plan due to Acerola. The Lightning decks have so much control over what you leave Active, as well. You really only need to activate one Spell Tag in most games with these decks. (The exception being Blacephalon, where the card still really shines.) You can either run a really heavy count and try and suit up all of your Malamars with them since they get Guzma’d down aggressively, or play a thinner count and force them to eventually whiff the Guzma. In order to fit other cards, I’m on the thin count plan right now.
Spell Tag isn’t at its strongest right now, but the difference running them is the difference between being an underdog against the Lightning decks and being 50-50 to favored against them. You also only need to trigger one of them against Malamar decks, but doing so gets them crippled by Sky-Scorching Light GX.
Anyway, I played those 60 cards at my League Cup and beat an Ultra Necrozma Malamar deck Round 1, a Lightning Box deck Round 2, and a Lightning Box Round 3. I get an ID in against a Stall deck, but I don’t see how that game would have been anything less than a draw in 30 minutes anyway since I run a Marshadow. Worth noting is you can actually use Shadow Impact to place damage counters on your own Marshadow to KO it to be able to Rescue Stretcher it back in to re-use for a second shot at shuffling their hand away since the Prize you give up absolutely does not matter. Round 5 I ID with a Zororoc/Weavile deck.
My Top 8 match is against the 7th Seed Blacephalon deck. I win the die roll and win a pretty comfortable first game. Game 2 I am behind quite a bit going second and missing a Turn 2 KO, but I’m able to spend the game setting up a 3-Prize Sky-Scorching Light as he was burning through Guzmas and I Let Loose‘d on the second-to-last turn. Either he fails to see his last Guzma (he’d used both Marshadow and his Lele) and has to KO my Giratina with a Spell Tag setting up my GX win by getting 70 damage onto a Naganadel, or he passes and I jump ahead in the exchange and win that way as well. He whiffed the Guzma.
In Top 4 I played my Round 5 ID, and I lose the die roll. I whiff my Turn 2 attack, and concede after my attempt to orchestrate a sick play fall apart. He had to discard both of his Acerola early, and I was able to Guzma up a Tapu Lele-GX and put 160 on it with Choice Band using Giratina’s attack with Marshadow-GX, and hang it to Distortion Door the next turn. He had a small hand, and I needed him not to have the Pal Pad for Acerola, but he did have it, and got Acerola and I move onto Game 2. There was a pretty decent chance that I don’t get Marshadow KO’d that turn if he doesn’t have Acerola, and if not I’m able to convert it into a 4-Prize swing.
Game 2 I fall behind with a pretty poor start, and he is able to pressure my Malamars. Somehow I’m narrowly able to win a really, really close game by setting up a board where my opponent couldn’t OHKO an Ultra Necrozma-GX at the end. I had to play around Alolan Muk, Weaviles, and Lycanroc-GX. The matchup feels favorable for me if they don’t have Weavile, but Weavile makes it much harder to navigate. I made a mistake mid to late game where I Guzma–KO’d a Sneasel opposed to a Rockruff. On one hand, it locked him off of Weavile (he’d used Stretcher, and I KO’d Ditto, and I assumed he ran a 1-1 Weavile line) but it made it so that if he evolved Rockruff I’d lose a potential Giratina KO line, while Weavile will still die to Shadow Impact.
Sadly, by the time we made it to Game 3, we had 3 or so minutes left on the clock, and he went first. I knew I was extremely unfavored and took an unusual line where I went out of my way to go aggro Ultra Necrozma and use Let Loose. This gambit didn’t pay off, as I stumbled in my draws since I took greedy lines, but I think it gave me my best shot to win an accelerated game. Really close and interesting match. It was weird because I felt like I played some really good Pokémon AND some really questionable Pokémon all during the same match.
Anyway, I don’t think I’d make any changes to the deck going forward, and this is easily my favorite Malamar list at the moment, as it is favored against mirror, and Blacephalon while being 50-50 against Lightning decks, with a range of 50-50 to favorable against Zoroark decks depending on builds. For Best of One, it is also a near guaranteed draw against Stall decks.
With my Challenge and Cup finish, I’m now sitting at 338/550 Championship Points. Since I don’t plan to fly to events, I’m left with 3 Challenge finishes, 2 Cup finishes, 1 Regionals, a potential Origins SPE, and NAIC to be able to earn 212 Points. My realistic expectation is that I’d like to earn 112 Points prior to NAIC so that a T128 (which gifts 100 CP) nets my Invite. Of course, this is assuming I don’t hit any bigger finishes at events, which would be lovely, too. Wish me luck everyone!
For the record, since I’ve been trying to include the major pillars of the format, here is my take on a traditional Ultra Necrozma/Malamar deck:
Pokémon – 15
Trainers – 34
Energy – 11
Beast Ring helps a lot against Pikarom and Zororoc decks. With Jirachi, I think it is pretty easy to have access to a copy when desired. I like the Acerola in this deck, but it may be better served as the 4th Guzma.
Going forward, I really hope that Unbroken Bonds shakes things up, and in a good way. I dislike this particular format (SUM–TEU) at the moment, which is a real shame since I felt that the SUM–LOT Standard was one of the best Standard formats we have seen in a decade. I’m really, really afraid that Lt. Surge’s Strategy may prove to be a problem card, too.
Until next time!
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