The Pokémon Trading Card Game has entered its era of salutary neglect.
For those of you who haven’t spent the last three years going through Advanced Placement (AP) history classes, let me give you a bit of a refresher. The period of salutary neglect is the time after Britain had established the American colonies in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, but had virtually no policy for ruling them. The British kept their hands off the new colonies, and watched as colonial legislatures, legislative institutions, and international trade flourished across the Atlantic Ocean. A society they had created evolved into something new.
Now, it feels like The Pokémon Company International (TPCi) has done the same with our community. Sure, they’ve held the Players Cup, but aside from that, a small PTCGO update, and a new podcast, TPCi has been mostly silent. We have no real idea of what the future of competitive play looks like past the next press release, except that there will eventually be tournaments in some capacity.
But, just like the American colonies, instead of falling into chaos, the community has risen to the challenge. Sure, it’s not Regional Championships in new places with our friends all around us, but the community has created something even more impressive and never seen before: a series of tournaments that can be played in every single day of the week. Fellow author Pablo Meza created an image that illustrates this circuit perfectly, and more organizers sprout up every day, including the Atlas Collectibles Series and Hyperluxe Events. Frankly, there’s so many events that it’s impossible to compete in all of them. Every single day, these organizers run large-scale events for little to no cost, simply because they want to keep the game we all love so much alive. It is a truly noble and impressive feat to watch and experience, and one that I am truly grateful for.
Today, I’ll be writing about the new, virtual face of the Pokémon Trading Card Game: how it has changed my mentality toward playing, how the experience of being a competitive player has changed, and what the future of the digital game looks like.
Switch”: Shifting Mentalities Through Quarantine“Hunger
To understand the monumental mentality shift that happened for me through quarantine, we first need to look back on my mentality before quarantine and COVID-19. Simply, this season wasn’t incredible for me. Sure, I started off with a Top 32 finish in Atlantic City, but I lacked a follow-up Day Two finish, with my hopes being blown out by back-to-back auto-losses and poor deck choices. Everyone has off tournaments, slumps, and seasons, even the best of the best, but that didn’t help me feel any better. I’m sure some complications from my senior year in high school, like applying to colleges and classwork, added to some of the general stress, but I can’t honestly say that I felt like my lack of performance fell on anyone but myself. I had received a certain amount of ego after my finish at NAIC 2019, which contributed to a more serious lack of preparation. I playtested and found decks that were playable, sure, but I didn’t think seriously about what decks I expected to see or what was positioned well in the metagame. After a year of subpar results, when quarantine hit, it felt like a divine sign to quit, at least for a while. In fact, I planned for my last article on SixPrizes to be about burnout, because it was all I was feeling toward the game. I told Adam as much, stopped writing articles, and quit playing entirely for two months.
In this time, the Limitless Online Series was announced as the first major events of quarantine, and successfully hosted four incredible tournaments with hundreds of players, with the last two tournaments in the series reaching well over a thousand participants. I sat out the first two events, citing a general lack of motivation or interest in the format, but my itch to play was once again ignited by Rebel Clash’s release in May. On a whim, I decided to play in the third qualifier at the last minute, and threw together a Toxtricity VMAX list I was excited to play. It was a deck I had created all on my own, and regardless of my results, I told myself I would do my best and have fun. I somehow went 9-4 on May 16th, granting me my first “Day Two” finish since September 2019. I didn’t do well on the second day, finishing 119th, but it was the happiest I had felt playing Pokémon in years. I built a deck, all myself, and I saw success with it! From there, I earned a slightly better second Day Two finish at 79th place in Qualifier 4 with Toxtricity VMAX again (this time, featuring Poké Ball of all things). This new way of playing Pokémon helped me to shape my current mentality on the game.
From there on out, I decided that each deck I built had to have three things:
- Be different. Toxtricity VMAX was never a meta deck, for good reason, but its unique nature and style made me excited to put work into it, which was something I lacked when practicing with more traditional decks. To be clear, as Darkness Ablaze came out, I didn’t only stick to “rogue” decks like Toxtricity VMAX, but I liked having techs or off-the-wall options in traditional decks. Again, it added a certain element of pride and intrigue to each deck that gave me joy in playing them. This rule helped push me as a player to constantly evaluate my lists and to not be complacent in their card counts or strategy.
- Be fun. I ended up playing in Qualifier 3 because I wanted to enjoy myself playing a deck I created. This aspect is the hardest part for any player to reach, because we all define fun in Pokémon differently. I define it as playing a deck I created (or at least tweaked in a meaningful way) and still winning games against traditional meta decks. Others define fun by playing Oranguru UPR. We all have our own ways of enjoying the game.
- Win games. I enjoy different and fun decks as much as the next player, but I hate losing. Before quarantine, I had a real struggle, where winning games gave me no sensation, but losing games continued to tilt me harder than a Round 1 See Saw game in Fall Guys.
I don’t need to win every event to enjoy myself, don’t get me wrong, but I still want to win every event as much as the next player. Any fun deck I play needs to win games (or, at least, have a plan) against the major decks in the format. This way, losing doesn’t sting as badly, because the happy sensation of playing my own deck is still there, and winning actually gives me joy, if not elation, because I feel as though my meticulous planning has actually worked.
What feels like an obvious caveat to this mentality is that these are not necessarily three rules for success in Pokémon. Just because this mindset brought me success in the Limitless events, and later with Ultimate Mewtwo, does not mean that you should always try to think outside the box too much or play some rogue deck to every event. These are the guiding principles that have given me the most happiness in both success and failure at events. I’ve found that when I get complacent, copy someone else’s list, or otherwise fail to meet one of these guidelines, I feel like I’ve wasted my time afterward.
Benefits of a Fun-Focused Mindset
At some level, I hate calling it a fun-focused mindset. I’m confident many instantly connote the word “fun” with the word “casual.” The word “casual” has a stigma in Pokémon and competitive games in general—it implies something dirty, a level of disinterest in the game in question, and a certain, lower ceiling of skill. When I think of the word casual, I think of some egotistic player making an excuse after a League Cup: “How could I, a competitive player, lose to a less-skilled casual player, who has put in less time and effort than me?”
The definition casual, according to Google, is “relaxed and unconcerned.” I don’t know about you, but if you told me I could be relaxed about playing Pokémon, instead of being constantly stressed and pressured, I would do anything to feel that way. I want to be relaxed when I play Pokémon. I want to feel joy. I want to feel released from the pressure and strain from everyday life and, yet, we all too often put ourselves under this same pressure when going to events. As I say that, I’m sure you, dear reader, can imagine a time when you went to an event, even if it was just a League Challenge, where you worried about the time and money you were putting into the event, and regretted going during or afterward because of your results. It’s important to evaluate these costs, sure, but imagine if you could free yourself with them and enjoy playing Pokémon first, and winning second. That is the most beautiful thing about the mentality I find myself in now.
There are two main benefits to thinking about Pokémon like this. First, it’s far more sustainable to prioritize having fun over success. One you can control, and the other you can’t. There is always an opportunity cost to playing Pokémon, digitally or in person—you could be spending your money, time, or brainpower elsewhere, and you have to constantly evaluate if playing is what you want to do with your time. For me, when I’ve focused on enjoying the decks I’m playing and coming up with strategies for meta decks, I’ve had more fun than anything else I could have been doing in quarantine, so the opportunity cost is worthwhile to me. It’s the best use of my time. But, when I quit for two months at the beginning of quarantine, that was also the best use of my time. The alternatives to Pokémon were more appealing than actually playing at that point, but I had been forcing myself to play because I felt pressure to perform and live up to the expectations I created for myself.
I want to stress that as much I’m enjoying the game now, you should never force yourself to play Pokémon. It’s like a sport or a hobby for 99 percent of us, and forcing yourself to participate in it because of the schedule or demands of the game will invariably lead to faster quitting and breaking points. When you take the pressure away with fun and intentional breaks after large events, the game feels fresh every time you pick it up, which is something I haven’t experienced since my very first years of playing Pokémon.
The second reason is the sheer feeling of liberation. I feel free in a way I’ve never felt before, and frankly, it’s all because the tournaments are online and the stress of official events has been removed. The world is a difficult place right now, to be sure, but I feel more mentally at peace with Pokémon and my hobbies now than in any other point I can remember. I love playing, even if it’s just on random ladder, more than I ever have before.
Training Court”: The Ways Digital Play Has Changed Tournaments“
Mentalities, and approaches to the game, are great, but mean nothing without some actual legwork. There seem to be four main ways in which digital events are now different from in-person events, aside from the obvious changes in location, form of play, and social losses.
- You can play whenever you want. As I mentioned before, there is literally a tournament happening every single day of the week. It’s impossible to play in every event, and that, oddly enough, is a good thing. As much as we all joked before about going to eight League Cups a quarter and every Regional Championships we could, some brave souls actually undertook that challenge. While some players are always going to have more time to play in online events than others, it now feels okay to let events pass by, because there will always be more. This, combined with a lack of general goals, like Top 16 or Worlds invitations, means that players actually have more freedom in the events they chose to play in, because there’s less pressure to attend every single event you can. Let’s go back to the casual discussion for a brief moment. Before, when someone mentioned they were playing casually to me, I thought of that as maybe a few League Cups, a Regional or two, and NAIC, maybe—not a Worlds invite, but just playing for fun. They would lack the (albeit mediocre) rewards of playing competitively too—the deluge of packs from League Cups and Regionals, or prize money from higher finishes. Now, there’s an actual way to play casually and still see real cash and pack rewards. 300 Championship Points buys you virtually nothing when the invite requirement is 500, but finishes at these daily and larger events earns you online fame, packs galore, and cash prizes, all without a large financial investment or central goal (i.e., a Worlds Invite) in mind. This is one of the finest points of digital play, and it’s radically changed the way Pokémon is played.
- Metagames are more centralized than ever. Another thing I’ve noticed is that decklists and metagames feel even more homogenous than before. Before, with in-person events, you always had a certain number of players who were either not connected with the online sources of lists, like Limitless, or they were simply trying their own counts and takes on a deck. Now, if you’re playing in online events, it’s virtually impossible not to know about the lists that have done well in past online events, and that means that players are now even more incentivized to play lists that have done well in past online events. I took advantage of this with my Ultimate Mewtwo list—I bet that Dragapult VMAX players would continue to exclude Tool Scrapper from their lists, that ADP-GX/Zacian V players wouldn’t play Vitality Band, and that meant I could win many more games that I may not have won at in-person events.
- Open decklists are now the norm. There’s been a lot of debate on open decklists: should they exist at all? Should they exist when in-person play comes back? How would you ever provide something like that? Personally, I love open decklists. I feel that it allows players to play more optimally. Sure, some come-from-behind techs can now be played around, but even that forces players to build their decks to more consistently deal with bad matchups. Some decks, like Control, gain more or less from this aspect of the game depending on their list. Regardless, open decklists were not something that would have been achievable at in-person events easily, and now they are a norm of the game, thanks to digital play.
- Cheating, at least the way we know it, is gone. Back when we had Regionals twice a month, it sometimes felt like there were cheating allegations, stories, or videos going around every few weeks. Now, when everyone has to play on PTCGO, things are different. The only real cheating I can imagine now would be changing your list from what you’ve posted, but open decklists and screenshots heavily discourage that. Sometimes there are mishaps—choosing to go first when your opponent asks to go first in a best-of-three series, picking the wrong deck on PTCGO, maybe—but these are small issues that are easily resolved.
“Future Sight”: The Next Steps for Digital Play
All of this discussion of online play brings up the natural question: is online play better than in-person tournaments? It has its benefits: less monetary investment, available to a greater number of players, more adjustable for schedule, no cheating, open decklists, and full control by the people who seem to care most about the game: the community. If the community’s organizers decide to ban a card (hey there, ADP!) then the card can be effectively banned, leading to a new, unofficial, widely-played metagame, which would be the first of its time. TPCi no longer has full control over the game in the way they once did, because they no longer hold a monopoly on events. This is a new, exciting frontier that has never really been explored in Pokémon before.
To give some scale of the potential of a permanent, secondary circuit, I’d liken the Pokémon community now to the Super Smash Bros. community, another series of tournaments I love to watch. Just before COVID-19, a group of the largest organizers pooled their money and skills together to announce the Smash World Tour, a series of tournaments around the globe with unheard of prize money and fame. Of course, many of the events were canceled or postponed due to COVID-19, but the grand scale and funding of these events was deeply exciting to me as a potential future for Pokémon events. The greater Super Smash Bros. community also has many things deeply coveted by the Pokémon community, like massive esport organizations sponsoring players, streams viewed by tens of thousands, high-stakes (in-person) invitational events for the best in the world, all without the support of the parent company of the game, Nintendo. If players and stores continue to crowdfund events, it’s conceivable that, in time, the PTCG community could have a circuit all its own before quarantine is over.
Another question for the future of digital play is what happens when in-person events return. Although it seems impossible to imagine now, there will be a future where in-person events are the norm again, and one has to wonder what will happen to the surge of digital events that have popped up. I’m not holding my breath for in-person events until 2021 at the earliest, which would give us at least another three months for this online circuit to evolve and grow. Just as recently as yesterday, the Hegster tournament series had a 160-player League Cup style event. There’s real demand for consistent, well run tournaments through the week. The idea of a full PTCGO tournament series has been thrown around in the past, particularly after cheating allegations, but there’s never been a reason to stray from the in-person standard.
Now, an entirely online qualifying process like that of Magic Arena or Hearthstone seems completely viable, considering that there could be a season’s worth of time to play online. It would certainly be safer over the next few years, and honestly, more accessible than the traditional Regional Championship circuit. The Players Cup system was clearly imperfect as a short-term solution, but if TPCi is willing to listen to its community, create a better online client, or implement a sweeping tournament system, it would be an incredible opportunity for the Pokémon community as a whole. There is real demand from the community for something like this, and TPCi is the only company to not have a great, digital client for tournaments and ranked ladder play. Implementing something like this would be a heavy financial undertaking, but the dividends would be clear.
Just to be clear: Do I think it’s realistic that TPCi would create an entire virtual circuit when in-person events return? No. But does the prospect of one excite me? Yes.
Thanks for reading, everyone. This is not a traditional article, and any support for it means the world to me. Even though I’m enjoying Pokémon more than ever right now, there’s a hearty, vocal group of players who vehemently dislike the current Standard format, for good reason.
As for main takeaways from this article, I’d advise everyone to reevaluate their approach to the game. Are you forcing yourself to play? Are you enjoying the game when you do play? What made you love Pokémon in the first place? These questions may not lead you to all the answers, but evaluating why and how I played Pokémon has changed my entire relationship with the game.
Another takeaway is that Pokémon, whether we like it or not, is changing right now. It’s not certain that there will be any 2021 World Championships right now, as much as it saddens me to say. So, if you’re feeling up to it, enjoy the time we have now to do whatever you’ve wanted to do with Pokémon. Itching to play every second of every day? Great! You can play every night for prizes. Itching to quit for a few months? Great! There’s no better time. Regardless of what you choose, we are in a unique position unlike any other, and it’s amazing what the community is doing to come together around these events. Even if you choose not to participate in events, the community is there to surround you when you’re ready again. If anything, I’m proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish thus far, and to see what’s possible.
Finally, thank the organizers of the events whenever possible. They are undertaking a selfless and, all too often, thankless journey which is preserving the game we all love. They are the reason I’ve rekindled my love with Pokémon, and the reason I will continue into the future. Thank you to any and all who have helped lift our community up in this pandemic.
That about wraps it all up for today. If you’d like to hear more from me or have any questions, you can follow me on Twitter, shoot me a message on Facebook, drop a comment down below, or simply click the thumbs-up rating icon. Anything means a lot to me. Again, thank you for reading, and I hope you’re doing well. Be safe, friends.
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