What to play? A non time fixed analysis of decklist choosing – Part 2
Deckbuilding is often viewed as an art.
For some, I included, it can be a hobby, a nice thing to do to pass the time. It’s a puzzle were you can be creative, devise a new strategy, imagine crazy scenarios and have the constant challenge of beating the metagame. It is a bit of design and problem solving at the same time.
Not everyone likes to take some time to write down a build so it can be tested and arranged. Some players like to pick up a list to play, some like to build it and be proud of their creation. To each their own.
Regardless of the ownership of the list, choosing your pile sixty pieces of cardboard will be the number one decider of how well will you perform at a tournament. I’m writing these series of articles to help player comprehend everything that should go through your mind while in the mid of that decision. Hopefully, you’ll learn something new. If what I write is obvious to you then you’re already in the right path! This isn't about the deckbuilding itself but choosing a build to play at an event. These appeals to both of the groups of players I mentioned before.
Most of the time, matchups will determine wins and losses. You will pit one buid agains another and, while a good player may be able to turn the match around, the better build will, most likely than not, come out on top.
Of course, the possibility of missplays and the luck factor will never make that statement absolutely true but we're talking about choosing a list for a high level field, not general league play, therefore, perfect play by both players will always be assumed.
This time we'll dive into a successful list. Why it was different from the others and what were the reasons being those choices. As an example for this second part I choose:
Success Case - Jason Klaczynski, Worlds 2008
The three-time World Champion is known for playing nothing outside the box. He believes in his ability to perform well and his lists reflect that confidence. He should be a good example. Let's take a deep look at his thought process for choosing his list and how did it play out during his matches.
First, let's put ourselves into context:
The 2007-2008 metagame
The year was 2007. Diamond & Pearl came out in time to shake the format of U.S. Nationals and Worlds with its usual power-creep (like every other new generation first set) only to pale in comparison with the following sets (like every generation first set).
With the new sets, decks with no ex cards were taking an hold of the format for being just as powerful as the old ex cards.
Cards like Holon's Castform and Fearow (delta species) kept some delta decks running. The most powerful was the gigantic Flygon ex (delta species) with its own engine built in (Flygon delta) and a powerful starter, it would still hold its own despite the power-creep. It was the last warrior of the ex-era.
The first expansion of 2008 (Great Encounters) arrived and brought with it the most consistent engine Pokémon TCG has ever seen - Claydol. It made every stage 2 deck run multiple times faster, it made ridiculous set-ups possible, it even made it impossible to lose by deckout!
Of course, that wasn't the only good thing from that expansion: Darkrai lv.X was a gem for fun decks paired with Weavile and Togekiss was the core of ramp decks (Magmortar and Ho-oh both from Secret Wonders).
This new engine brought something not quite new to the format, but it was finally in its final form: the behemoth known as PLOX.
The Pokémon couple Gardevoir and Gallade was in introduced in Secret Wonders back in 2007. Although strong, they were release alongside the new king of Turn 2 decks (Banette) and the stage one tank (Magmortar). Further pushing back the rise of PLOX were the crippling cards Absol (Secret Wonders) and Cessation Crystal (Crystal Guardians) often used is T2 Banette and Turbo Blissey.
Without an engine, PLOX couldn't keep up with its contenders and locking powers wasn't as powerful in a time where there wasn't many powers in use.
Now PLOX was armed with an engine and could finally use the full potential of Team Gallatic's Wager. Soon it became the best deck in format.
The only rival was Magmortar but still wasn't that much as a threat. Counters decks like BanBliss were born to destroy PLOX. Others like Banette/Gorebiss also focused in taking Magmortar out of the picture.
The final expansion before U.S. Nationals and (Majestic Dawn) lived up to its name as answer to the prayers of the players living these dark times:
Chatot was the ultimate "escape a bad situation" card. Zero cost "Copycat" attack and no retreat. Plus, it resisted a Psychic Lock via Double Rainbow Energy and forced one (or two with DRE) prize flips from Gallade.
Lefeon Lv.X was a new way to constantly accelerate energy onto Magmortar with the benefit of running selected Eeveelutions to counter multiple archetypes. Plus, it was a hard counter to the new-comer Empoleon.
Empoleon had a solid HP and two great attacks:
- Dual Splash either sniped away some basic or added the crucial damage to score OHKO's later;
- Surf Together had an insane damage output for the time only rivaled by Gallade's Psychic Cut. However, this attack didn't lose power over time. It added perfect damage in combination with Dual Splash and left Gardevoir in just 10 hp to be quickly knocked out by:
Bronzong. The huge bell punished heavy power based decks (guess who) and the damage spread made it a perfect partner for Empoleon. Its second attack was often used via scramble energy to revenge KO Gardevoir with the help of Lake Boundary.
The format was a little more interesting. Despite the huge pool of counters available, Gino Lombardi won U.S. Nationals with PLOX that year. It was still too strong... Let's see the thought process of Jason when heading to Worlds.
Building a list of the Best Deck In Format (BDIF)
Thanks to his report written at Pojo's, we can have a closer look of his strategies and thought process while choosing his final list for the tournament.
Last time I showed an example of the step that you need to carry out before choosing said list. We have just covered the metagame and its evolution throughout the year so we know our field. Time for step 2: narrowing your options.
At this point Jason was divided between two decks. Yes, two is a recurring number when you get to your final options unless you're already confortable and confident with one deck and if there are three options left there's probably one that isn't quite as good as the others so it gets left out quickly.
I'll quote directly from his report:
"On one hand, we have Gardevoir/Gallade...
1) It's the deck I've played with all season. There's nothing more uncomfortable in the Pokemon TCG than entering the biggest tournament of the year with a deck you're inexperienced with.
2) Gardevoir/Gallade has no BAD matches. Sure, Empoleon/Bronzong has an edge on it, but by how much?
3) Many of the players who play Empoleon/Bronzong were mediocre skill level. The top players seemed to prefer Gardevoir/Gallade.
4) Empoleon may be countered by Dugtrio.
In favor of Empoleon/Bronzong...
1) It is beating the by far, most popular deck in this format: Gardevoir/Gallade. Can you really win Worlds without having an edge on the most popular deck?
2) Worlds time limit was extended to 40 minutes. Empoleon occasionally has trouble winning in 30 minutes.
In the end, I stick with my gut. I play Gardevoir/Gallade, and I play a list that I can say looking back, was absolutely perfect, given the tournament. My deck was built around two ideas:
1) Be consistent.
2) To have an edge in the mirror."
As you can see, listing the pros and cons and reflecting over them is the best way for a player to analyze his last choices and have some "proof" to support the final list. This "proof" will boost your confidence and often avoid the last minute change which can backfire.
Jason had a goal in mind. That goal is a guideline while building your list. Seems common sense right? Not quite.
The problem with most players is not knowing when to stop. We all, at least at some point, fell into our own greed and instead of establishing A goal with ended up with SEVERAL goals for a deck.
We all dream of those possibilities when we have the perfect hand, perfect setup and defy what the probabilities say but, that's just in our dreams... The old cliché "less is more" does apply in Pokémon. The more you try to do with your list, the less you'll be able to accomplish. Simple strategies work best.
Another misconception is that a simple goal makes an auto-pilot list leaving you in the hands of luck as there are no tricks in your deck to let your "ultimate Pokémon TCG skill" shine to outplay your opponent.
I wanted to tackle this matter sometime so I might as well do it now... Allow me to explain this fallacy with an example:
In game design challenges are never meant to be hard. Design hard maps and stages is easy, designing hard bosses is even easier!
The difficulty in game design comes in making thing fun.
Fun is when you feel smart and powerful when you complete a challenge. Who doesn't love an ego boost? This fantasy of having this power is part of the reason why people love videogames. If you need to be smart and skillful to win, you'll end up in frustration after failing so many times.
This is not an offense to anyone, it's just pure reality.
A more precise example:
I studied the design of some video games and one of the things I realized was the linear and simple design of the puzzles. What do I mean by linear? How is that good?
The puzzles require you to do many steps to grant you further access in your path. You'll have to figure out where to place some objects, activate switches and redirect lasers. These, along with other tasks are often used in numerous platforming and hack&slash games because they work..
The steps are easy, but are many. A college professor with 3 P.H.D.'s will feel smart by doing all the steps in such a fast pace.
We would feel smart and think it’s easy for us. An 8-year-old kid would feel smart. You see a pattern here?
A dog, if it could would the controller, would complete the puzzle as fast as 200 I.Q. professor would. Yes, I went there. The puzzles are so linear that it is impossible to make any mistakes, for each step there is only one way to act, it is always right!
Why bother calling it a puzzle then? It is a puzzle, only the simple, easy kind. The kind of puzzle that you have tons of fun playing. This is the kind that the dumbest kid on earth could solve and would feel as smart as the college professor. And both of them would have fun.
Want something to test your skills? Something that requires you to be smart? Then why are you reading this and not solving algebraic and logical problems? Oh, right, it isn't fun...
How does this apply in the Pokémon TCG world?
Decks that try to do many different things as way to "outplay" their opponent and handle each situation differently:
"Oh, you just Dragon Rushed me? Ah! You fell into my trap for I have Ambibom G and a DCE in my hand to counter your offense!"
"Oh no! You just played a card that was there for this EXACT situation and this EXACT matchup! You are smart! But I have Roseanne's that will fetch my Toxicroak G and I psychic, an automated play when Ambipom or Luxray take a prize! Take that!"
You see? Linear...
Yet, people naturally crave to do many things with their decks. With the natural fear of not being able to handle certain situations, we have seen decks running more than 20 single copies of cards and a really thin line of attackers. Example:
2 Infernape FB (RR)
1 Infernape FB lv.X (RR)
2 Luxray GL (RR)
1 Luxray GL lv.X (RR)
1 Azelf (LA)
1 Premier Ball (MD)
What's wrong with this picture? A thin line of attackers. Why? Because there's no space. Why the lack of space? Because of all the hard counters needed? Why so many when it was probably the best deck in its time? Because it can't recover fast enough. Why? A thin line of attackers...
Not only the counters SEEM smart plays, the lines they force in deck more complex, therefore, inconsistent.
2-1 lines seem smart because you already need Azelf for the techs that took your attackers place. Premier Ball is there also to replace an attacker and can search for it. The only this does, though, is increase the probability of having crucial set pieces on your prizes making you rely too much on a Pokémon which can be sprayed and is a terrible starter - oh yeah, if you lose your Azelf by starting with it or getting it sprayed, you get severely hindered.
This is just working hard, not working intelligent. This list seems to have a smart design but it is nothing more than a fragile build that will force its pilot to stress over the constant need to set up. Again, you feel smart with an inferior build just because you have a lot of options which in reality are, as I explained, just an illusion.
You are forced to make specific plays in every situation making you an automated robot reacting to your opponent's decision. Yes, overteching makes you predictable. As soon as they figure out your techs, the surprise factor wears away and they always know what you're going to do (unless you can't do it because your deck is inconsistent).
I'll stop here with a rule of thumb: be the active player your opponent has to find answers to, not the reactive player struggling to counter your opponent's moves.
I'll cover the eternal struggle between consistency and tech in the next article. For now I'll just point out what everybody knows:
+ tech = - consistency
The more things you try to do, the less you'll accomplish.
Jason’s winning PLOX list
I said a functional deck should have ONE goal. Why does Jason have two?
Consistency is the goal, i.e. execute your stategy everytime. Having an edge in the mirror is just a mindset while reaching for consistency. On the other hand, adding an hard counter tech is exactly the opposite.
Giving yourself an edge in a matchup is done by giving yourself options to work with: having a flexible list.
While hard counters are good for one situation in particular making it a mechanical reaction, flexible cards are meant for more than one purpose and never drift away from the main strategy of the deck. These are true options for you to work with, not illusions that make you feel smart.
Onto the list:
PLOX by Jason Klaczynski - 1st place Worlds 2008
4x Ralts (SW)
2x Kirlia (SW)
3x Gardevoir (SW)
1x Garevoir LV. X (SW)
2x Gallade (SW)
2x Baltoy (GE)
2x Claydol (GE)
1x Duskull (DP)
1x Dusknoir (DP)
1x Chatot (MD)
1x Jirachi ex (CG)
1x Jolteon* (PK)
Like he did in his report I'll analyze each section separately. First, the Pokémon:
Simple and consistent. The idea was to stick to what works. If you can set up more times than your opponent, you're already ahead of his hard counters.
Some staples other than the attackers line include Dusknoir for psychological pressure (can be compare to knowing your opponent plays Absol PLF)and Jirachi for extra "Psychic Lock's". Then we have Jolteon...
Jolteon is the first example of flexibility. Your opponent can gain a turn when you are just 10 damage short of a knockout. Jolteon denies that by beinga searchable pluspower. That extra damage counter is essencial in the math of PLOX's matchups:
- With Double Rainbow Energy Psychic Lock fails to KO some common basics (i.e. Chatot MD);
- With Lake Boundary in play, PLOX deals 100 to another Gardevoir with DRE and 120 to Gallade without;
- Gardevoir lv.X survives a Psychic Lock with 10HO;
- Jirachi EX's Super Psy Bolt deals only 100 damage to Gardevoir;
- Gallade needs to flip only 3 prizes to OHKO an Empoleon instead of four;
- Blissey with Holon Energy FF also forces Gallade to flip 4 prizes without Jolteon;
- An opposing Jirachi EX will for 3 prizes flips from Gallade or just 2 with Jolteon.
This is flexibility. Even for the matchup it is meant to help, it works in more than one situation. Also, it as a crucial use all other matchups, this is a good tech!
Another rule of thumb: avoid dead cards. Most of the time, hard counters are dead cards.
4x Roseanne's Research
4x Celio's Network
2x Bebe's Search
2x Team Galactic's Wager
2x Steven's Advice
There is nothing worth highlighting for the purpose of this article. It is a consistent line that focuses is setting up Claydol and Gardvoirs (the core of the deck) as fast as possible.
4x Rare Candy
2x Warp Point
2x Lake Boundary
Lake Boundary was mentioned a few times in the last section so its usefulness is pretty clear.
The main purpose of this card is to counter Crystal Beach, a card that shuts off the Double Rainbow Energy and Scramble Energy that this deck needs so much. Not only Jason ran 2 Windstorm to destroy those stadiums and the annoying Cessation Crystal, he ran these 2 stadiums so useful in many situations and still effectively countering one of the cards this archetype is afraid of.
Once again, many uses, still gets rid of the deck's weaknesses and is never a dead card. More options, more consistency, more flexibility.
4x Call Energy
3x Psychic Energy
1x Cyclone Energy
4x Double Rainbow Energy
3x Scramble Energy
I saved the energy section for last as it doesn't have anything exiting. It has the 4 Call Energy and 4 DRE to ensure maximum probability of a fast start and as a cool singleton he ran Cyclone energy to help him against Cessation Crystal and walls meant so soak up some damage.
After playing with this deck a few times (especially the mirror) I found that it could use a fourth Psychic Energy but the card that would have to be cut would have been more important than the energy.
Lastly, let's compare with another list:
The counter example
PLOX by Gino Lombardi - 3rd place Worlds 2008, 1st plase U.S. Nationals 2008
3x Ralts (SW)
1x Ralts (DF)
2x Kirlia (SW)
3x Gardevoir (SW)
1x Garevoir LV. X (SW)
2x Gallade (SW)
2x Baltoy (GE)
2x Claydol (GE)
1x Cresselia (GE)
1x Cresselia lv.X (GE)
1x Grimer (SW)
1x Muk (SW)
1x Pachirisu (GE)
1x Jirachi ex (CG)
1x Phione (MD)
3x Roseanne's Research
2x Celio's Network
2x Bebe's Search
2x Team Galactic's Wager
3x Steven's Advice
4x Rare Candy
1x Warp Point
1x Lake Boundary
1x Night Maintenance
1x Strength Charm
2x Phoebe's Stadium
3x Call Energy
5x Psychic Energy
4x Double Rainbow Energy
3x Scramble Energy
This was Gino's golden year. He won the biggest tournament of the year and made to top4 at Worlds, that is an amazing accomplishment!
In this lists there are glaring weakspots:
- a lot of bad starters;
- weaker supporter line;
- no answers so Cessation Crystal;
- only 3 Call Energy;
Thanks to the numerous techs, the deck will not have a perfect set up as often as it should. Not only that, it has a hard counter, pure dead card outside of the mirror match. To many singletons can leave your answer in the prizes and there's only one Warp point to help his Cresselia.
For a deck that relies 100% on powers due to its lack of supporters and increased number of techs, not running a counter against cessation crystal can be fatal. There are 2 Phoebe's Statium to counter Crystal Beach but only one Lake Boundary which can be very useful and doesn't let a random Breloom (SW) wreck your team. Another weakness is the lack of Dusknoir and that alone gives more space (literally) to breathe and it was essential to keep Empoleon's Surf Together at bay (no pun intended).
Still, Gino is a good player and was able to take this list very far. And it wasn’t just luck:
- Although he ran only one Warp Point, Phoebe’s Stadium is a great help towards setting up the Cresselia lv.X. Once set up, it can act almost as a permanent pluspower while healing your Pokémon. Is also great against Empoleon’s Dual Splash;
- Muk is a hard counter. But it did work. It would poison anyone carrying a DRE or an activated Scramble Energy. It is very specific but truth be told, the majority of players would be playing PLOX so having an hard counter for the mirror can be a huge advantage;
- Phione can soak a DRE charged Psychic Lock while setting up Gardevoir and Gallade. Same with Pachirisu, I guesse it is a way to compensate the lack of the fourth call energy;
- Strength Charm can be search via Telepass against many deck playing tools like Cessation Crystal. However, it may not be very effective with no counter to Cessation Crystal which stops Telepass. On the other hand, Strength Charm can be used under a Psychic Lock whereas Jolteon* can't.
But what is the point of dwelling in the past? What can we gain with these stories?
Besides the fun in knowing the history behind our beloved game and learning about diferent metagames, we can learn what works regardless of the format we're in.
The ultimate goal of these articles is to help players adapt to any format and any situation. While a player may be good with a deck, he may not be able to play a good game with a different one or adapt his list the instant a new expansion is released. In the end, this will help players detect minor errors they've been making and perfect their skil.
I'm getting ahead of myself, I'll show a pratical example with what we've learned.
Flexibility in the best decks - the present
One of the decks that has been good since its completion and, in my opinion, will never leave tier 1 until its rotation is Blastoise.
Everyone knows the deck is good, everyone has to be prepared to face one. By that you can assume taking Blastoise to a tournament is a safe bet: not hard to play and very strong.
Now that we have a strong archtype that other fear, we'll just have to assure they have a reason to fear our Blastoise deck by following the main guideline:
Be consistent and, by extention have a edge in the mirror and flexible solutions to common weaknesses.
Let's start with the Pokémon:
Standard Blastoise by João Lopes
4 Squirtle (BCR)
3 Blastoise (BCR)
2 Keldeo EX (BCR)
2 Black Kyurem EX (PLS)
1 Black Kyurem (BCR)
1 Jirachi Ex (PLB)
1 Exeggcute (PLS)
With the loss of Pokémon Catcher, Jirachi EX became a solid asset to Blastoise decks. It can turn any Ultra Ball and even Level Ball into a Tropical Beach, Rare Candy, Blastoise, Juniper, Superior Energy Retrieval and even a N! It's an incredible boost in consistency and helps in getting the crucial turn one Squirtle/Beach and turn 2 Blastoise + Attacker.
After a few draws is easy to find a Blastoise but starting with a Squirtle is more difficult. For that reason, 4 is need for maximum consistency. The extra turtle can be later discarded with the many Ultra Balls and Superior Energy Retrieval this list carries.
Speaking of discard, all the cards in this list follow the rules of thumb so no card is useless in any matchup. With that in mind, the balls and retrievals mentioned earlier will eventually cost precious resources that we can't afford to lose. Without the frequent first turn wins, we can safely run an Exeggcute to help reducing that cost.
As for the attackers, two of each are quite enough. Never a third Keldeo is needed and one usually ends up doing a pretty good joob by itself when the deck runs well. Also, the idea is to lose a non EX pokémon and two EX pokémon in most matches, with a total of four attackers it is safe to assume that a third EX will be available in the late game.
Now for the flexible edge: Black Kyurem (non-EX). A well known tech but not often used that messes with your opponent's plans by trading two prixes for one in the dragon war. Besides the obvious use, it can be used to take down a squirtle or exeggcute left active instead of putting one of the big guys in harm's way.
Outside of the mirror, some non-ex Pokémon can force Blastoise to leave an important attacker up front, the most common case being Sableye. Having this option is more profitable that one might think. It also takes down random dragons like Garchomp when Keldeo's are down and can turn a bad matchup into a 50/50 - Rayboar.
4 Professor Juniper
I usually set 14 as a minimum number for supporters but in this case, Jirachi makes balls turn into supporters so it ends up being the equivalent of much higher supporter count.
Another thing I'd like to point out is the missing fourth N. While N is a really strong supporter card, this is the not the deck that can abuse it. Instead, a couple of Colress prove to be the strongest supported from the mid-game to the late-game. The reason why Colress is often left out of lists is due to it being useless in the first turns of the game. Howver, this deck will rely on Skyla and Tropical Beach early on, by the time we're switching to other supporters, Colress is about the equivalent of a Professor Oak's New Theory or better. Still, I listed 3 N and 2 Colress and not the other way around because this deck need to set up on the first few turns and we should build the decks always focusing on the main goal.
4 Skyla is a obvious choise as this is the deck that needs it the most, most of the time your hand will be one item short of being a perfect one. For those cases, Skyla is your best bud! As for Juniper... It's Juniper, we would play 10 Junipers if we could.
Items & Stadiums: 22
4 Ultra Ball
2 Level Ball
4 Rare Candy
4 Super Energy Retrieval
3 Tropical Beach
2 Tool Scrapper
2 Energy Search
1 Scoop Up Cyclone
6 total balls, much like the 6 search supporters in Jason's deck, are here to garantee a turn 2 Blastoise. The maximized Ultra Balls grant us the 6 ways to grab Jirachi and Squirtle in the first turn while having 4 search cards (more) able to get Blastoise or the attackers on the second turn.
With Garbodor being always a threat, Tool Scrapper is a must (much like the Windstorm agains Cessation Crystal). As an added bonus, it can take out Silver Bangles on Empoleon (which is gaining popularity) and cripple the other decks by removing Float Stone.
The pair of Energy Search help the search for the one Lightning Energy needed for the ice dragons while maintaining the option to find a Water Energy for Keldeo. It can also turn Skyla into an energy in a pinch. The reason we run only too is to avoid decreasing the total count of energy in the deck as it runs out quickly.
Scoop Up Cyclone is an idea taken from a regular Blastoise player from my area. It is much better Max Potion and can be used in numerous other situations like reusing Jirachi and reatreating without wasting energy. With a consistent build, Computer Search may not be needed and this Ace Spec can potencially nullify your opponent's last turn or even more.
Besides searching for either a Water of Lighting Energy, energy seach let's us reduce the Lightning count and keep a great amount of Water Energy available.
This is a list built using the pricipals of having options while being consistent. Even in a straight-forward deck like Blastoise.
Of course, depending on your field and your ability to predict the tournament's metagame, some changes may improve certain matchups. But adapting to your field is a discussion we'll have another day...
It is easy to let ourselves be carried away by the beautiful image of our complex strategy being set up but in reality, it is best to get a simple thing done right than trying a elaborate thing and fail.
What should be common knowledge is easily forgotten as we try to have an answer ready for every different deck we face rather than ensure that we execute our strategy and win with pure consistency.
Cards that seem good in a situation may be just an hassle in another; flexibility ensures the balance between tech and consistency.
For the next part I plan to cover another factor in deck build – the tournament. From League Challenges to Worlds it is easy to spot the differences: the difficulty increases and the number of players is higher. But what if the field in tournament favors one kind of build and that then changes completely to favor a different kind the next year?
Next time, Adapt to your field - Pesadelo Prism (2012) and Straight Darkrai (2013).