Heytrainer.org: Where we don't just settle for Level 100!
Hey, HeyTrainer readers! Drew Allen back again, this time with a two-part article series. I recently re-read a book called Next Level Magic by Patrick Chapin. Even with what little understanding I have of Magic, I learned a ton from it, especially in the area of building good habits. Since then I’ve been thinking of how Chapman’s ideas can apply to the Pokémon TCG.
Today, we'll start with processing & utilizing information as well as planning ahead. But first, an introductory quote from the author:
“For the purposes of this strategy guide, we are assuming that your primary goal is to win — though obviously we want to have fun with people and maybe make money. Still, when we note that the primary goal is to win, it helps us be aware of what we are really trying to do.”
– Patrick Chapin, Next Level Magic
PROCESSING & UTILIZING INFORMATION:
Focusing on your Opponent’s Play
It is critical to develop a good system of shortcuts for determining when your opponent is likely to do something that changes the board. An illogical attack is a classic example; another is when an opponent kills your second best Pokémon. Basically, whenever an opponent does something that you would not have done based on the information you have, you should stop and ask yourself what they might be planning.
Assuming your opponent is a bad player may set yourself up for a loss, and even put your opponent in an advantageous position. So say you’re playing an Expanded Yveltal/Maxie’s mirror, and you have an undamaged active Darkrai-EX with three Darkness Energy, as well as a benched Yveltal-EX with one DCE. Your opponent’s field is an active damaged Yveltal-EX with 110 damage/five Energy/a Fighting Fury Belt, a Tauros GX with Float Stone, and a Darkrai-EX of their own. It’s tied at three prizes each, and you're positioned to win, with a big hand and lots of Darkness Energy in your deck. It’s your opponents turn and suddenly they decide to bring up your benched Yveltal-EX with a Lysandre and Evil Ball instead of killing your active Darkrai-EX.
Seems odd, right? Why not take out the immediate threat in the Darkrai-EX? Situationally, this might actually be the correct play. If your opponent knows you have all of your ways to reuse N in the discard, and they have a guaranteed way of putting Gallade BKT into play the next, they’ve effectively put themselves in a position to win by saving the Darkrai-EX for a Knock Out later. However, if you figure out what they’re doing before they get a chance to play their turn out for the game, and have a Ghetsis, or a way to find and play Ghetsis, such as Computer Search or Dowsing Machine, then you may have well just stolen the game back from your opponent.
Being aware of what your opponent does is a good habit to practice. And the more focused you are, the more useful information you are processing. "Focus multiplied by time" will always be at the core of any results you get in life and in Pokémon – dependent, of course, on the shortcuts/systems you employ. In any of the above areas, more focused time spent will obviously yield better results.
Checking your Resources:
Another practice to get into when you play is checking resources every turn: cards in hand, cards in discard, Pokémon in play, Energy in play, cards in deck…
All of it. Every turn.
You need to always know every card that is in effect and how it got there. You can't just float by in a daze. Some of the most important examples of this include VS seeker counts, tech supporter counts, and Pokémon line counts.
This is mainly important for two reasons, the first of which is knowing if a play you’re planning on making is the “correct play”. I’ll use another Expanded matchup as an example: Let’s say you’re playing Seismitoad EX/Crobat and you’re up against Vespiquen/Flareon. Its pretty late in the game and your opponent has a Shaymin-EX with a Float Stone active that you can’t kill, an Eevee, and a Combee on the bench. You have 2 Golbats on the bench and 2 Crobat in hand. You can Quaking Punch the Shaymin without killing it to keep up Item Lock, but how are you supposed to know which threat to Surprise Bite? An easy way to find an answer is checking your opponent’s discard pile: If your opponent has 4 Vespiquen in the discard but only 2 Flareon, the clear play is to double Surprise Bite the Eevee to prevent a Flareon from coming out, leaving your opponent with a much less threatening board for their next turn.
The second reason to keep track of resources is for best-of-three match play. If you’ve played down to late game in your first game or two to know that your opponent isn’t playing a certain tech such as Delinquent or Ghetsis, it allows you to play out your turn differently. Knowing what resources to track of is also very important, like we talked about earlier having a good system of shortcuts lets you put your focus in the right place. For example, prioritizing your opponents’ counts of VS Seekers and Energy instead of counting how many trainers mail or draw supporters they have left is simply a better use of your time because of how vital VS and Energy are to the game. Draw Supporters and Trainers' Mails, while still relevant to keep track of situationally, are usually a much less impactful resource on your play.
Ross Cawthon is a great example of someone who’s consistently checking resources. As made abundantly clear in past tournament reports on the HeyTrainer blog, Ross is going to know every single card in your list by game three: He takes notes, checks information on the first game thoroughly, and is always doing what he can to learn more about his opponent’s situation. There are reasons why he’s one of the most accomplished Pokémon TCG players to date, and resource knowledge is one of them.
PLANNING AHEAD & VISUALIZATION:
Proactive & Reactive Play
In the Pokémon TCG, plays can be boiled down to one of two main categories: proactive and reactive. A proactive move forces your opponent to change their previously planned course of action or be put at a disadvantage, such as attaching a Tool to your Pokémon. A reactive play on the other hand brings the field back to a “neutral” state, like removing said Tool with a Tool Scrapper. In general, if you spend the whole game reacting to your opponent you’ll always be one step behind their game plan.
In his video on Some1sPC.com, Drew Kennett talks about creating a proactive board state. The specific example he uses is that he attaches a second energy to his Lurantis GX when using Sol Burst, not necessarily to Solar Blade the next turn, but to force a reactive play from his opponent. If I’m playing against Drew and I see that he has a Lurantis with two Energy and I have a benched Shaymin-EX, I’m put into a situation where I would rather attach my Fighting Fury Belt to give Shaymin-EX an extra 40 HP, rather than attach it to my active attaccker. By putting his opponent in a reactive position, Drew forces them to potentially either “waste” resources that they otherwise might have been able to use to help them win the game, or set himself up for the win if his opponents aren’t able to react accordingly.
Visualizing Aggro & Lock Decks:
Magic: the Gathering is much more descriptive in naming its deck categories – i.e. aggro, lock, mill, control, mana denial, reanimator, aggro-control etc. Pokémon has much less linear objectives, but for the most part each Pokémon deck falls into either an aggressive or controlling strategy.
When playing an aggressive strategy, visualize how many turns your opponent has before you defeat them. You want to minimize that number of turns — and thinking this way can help keep you focused, avoiding errors that give them extra turns to draw what they need and then beat you outright. Mega Rayquaza and Vespiquen are both great examples of this in standard, Mega Ray more so because from turn 1 you’re hopefully swinging for 240 damage or at least a KO. An Energy denial deck functions off of the win condition of discarding all your opponent’s Energy, either through mill like in a Houndoom-EX deck, or straight power like in a Lycanroc-GX deck. However, when you visualize the number of turns they have before they hit that win condition, you can play the game differently.
It's hard to make a generic statement on what’s right to do in terms of visualization, and usually comes down to board state. So if for instance you know all of your opponent’s Energy denial cards are in the discard except for a 2-2 Raticate EVO line, and a Rattata EVO is in play, then the worst you will deal with is a single Energy discard for the turn, giving you much more flexibility.
When playing a control deck, look at it the other way. Imagine how long your opponent is going to give you before taking six prizes to help give you an idea of how much time you have to spare before you try to take control of the game. Trevenant is a great example of a deck where you need to visualize how much time they have before you gain control, and react to what your opponent is doing so that you can put them on a “timer” by attacking with Silent Fear. Knowing whether or not you can afford to Silent Fear and hit multiple EXs on the bench without KO'ing anything, or to Tree Slam to take out an immediate threat is a skill that you need to pilot most control decks effectively. this is particularly important against matchups where they can explode against you, such as Turbo Darkrai. Visualizing if your opponent has a threat in the coming turns lets you attack according to their field: If there’s no immediate threat, Silent Fear away and you’re a turn closer to winning; if there’s an immediate threat, though, then it might be worthwhile to Lysandre/Tree Slam the threat to keep up your control.
DECKBUILDING & METAGAME FLOW :
The Cascade Effect
The basis of the cascade effect is that if a deck gets decent enough results, the information cascade will create a chain reaction of decision-making where almost everyone involved is basing their decision on the decisions of others, who in turn base their decisions on others, regardless of their own personal results. The below quote illustrates my point:
“In the early part of the Twentieth Century, the American naturalist William Beebe came upon a strange sight in the Guyana jungle. A group of army ants was moving in a huge circle. The circle was 1,200 feet in circumference, and it took each ant two and a half hours to complete the loop. The ants went around and around the circle for two days until most of them dropped dead.
“What Beebe saw was what biologists call a ‘circular mill.' The mill is created when army ants find themselves separated from their colony. Once they're lost, they obey a single rule: follow the ant in front of you. The result is the mill, which usually only breaks up when a few ants struggle off by chance and the others follow them away.” – The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki
Ant mill…could Devour possibly be a reference?
Just like the Guyanan ants, many deck builders base their actions solely off of what others before them have done. Back in 2014-2015, Jacob van Wagner won a split Standard/Expanded tournament with Seismitoad/slurpuff. People knew the deck was good and they followed in Jacob’s footsteps, with a good chunk of the meta in the coming weeks of tournaments being filled with Seismitoad/Slurpuff.
So you have a sea of Seismitoad/Slurpuff mirrors, and you’re lost in a circular mill. What’s the solution? Well, some players wander off that track and innovate. One cocky ant who wandered away from the Seismitoad/Slurpuff circle was TJ Traquair. Just after Primal Clash’s release, the first Provincials/States of the year were happening. TJ and I were both headed to Vancouver to attempt to take on a relatively defined Toad meta. TJ went into the tournament playing a Primal Kyogre deck, a new archetype that had just come out of Primal Clash. I had honestly written off this deck as bad and was playing Toad/Puff with some mirror techs along with what I would guess to be about 40% or more of the other players there. However, as set in my ways as I was, TJ swore by the deck and he ended up winning the tournament, destroying several Toad/Puffs in the process.
More confident deck builders disrupt the signal that everyone else is getting, innovate, and in turn makepublic information seem less certain. That encourages others to rely on themselves rather than just follow everyone else, effectively causing a meta-game shift. Everyone votes on what they think the best deck is for that week. People then lays out their choices, see the results, and vote again with new choices. Great name players may think of nine bad ideas for every good idea, but they are breaking the mill by wandering away from conventional wisdom.
Finding a Balance
This can lead to overconfidence: Deck builders overestimate their ability, their level of knowledge, and their decision-making prowess, in turn being more risk-averse in their deck ideas they play. This is detrimental for the overconfident deck builders themselves, since it means that they are more likely to choose poorly, but it is good for the community because overconfident people are less likely to get sucked into a negative information cascade, and in turn contribute innovative decks.
I you are one of those chronically overconfident players who makes up innovative ideas but risks killing your season with them, listen to what the rest of your buddies have to say; let yourself be brought down to Earth. Involving yourself with two or three playtesting circles can help increase the odds that you're brought down to Earth, and in turn your chances of choosing the best deck overall.
Still, mindless imitation of those around you is akin to being one of those army ants that marches in a circle until death. Basically, it is a fine line to walk between choosing what is “best in a vacuum” (knowing when to go with the crowd, i.e. Yveltal) versus what is “best in a given situation” (which often involves being that upstart who insists that they know something everyone else doesn't, i.e. Primal Kyogre).
The truth is, people who netdeck all the time would tend to improve their group's decision making by changing it up and innovating a little more, even if their ideas are usually bad or even terrible. But it is their friends/playtest partners who would benefit the most, since it would expose the group to more ideas and possibilities at the cost of individuals using “less safe” ideas. What this means is that typically, people who netdeck do better than people who innovate. This makes sense, since net decks are generally good and new strategies are generally not. However, if you want to get an edge over the netdeckers, innovation is the way; you just need to be able to generate enough ideas that you can select the best.
"When you need or want help, ask for help… but don't become dependent on others to help you. You have to be able to help yourself, but not to be afraid to ask for help when you need it."-Excerpt from Next Level Magic
Shortcuts in Deckbuilding
Most deck builders could spend more time and get better results by not building every deck from the ground-up, but can instead netdeck wisely as a jump-start to their testing.
How do you choose which netdeck is best? One important point that most lower level opponents will overlook is that, when you’re examining a new decklist, take the source into account. If you read about a new deck designed by a top player, assume that there are subtleties to the decklist; card choices made that may not be obvious. On the other hand, if the pilot or deck designer is unknown, it is much more realistic possibility to believe that the apparently suboptimal card choices are actually just suboptimal.
When building a deck from scratch, however, one of the most useful shortcuts to develop is a system of comparing whatever concept you have with any precedents that may exist. This is called Templating. Templating involves taking an existing deck archetype and rebuilding it using cards that are legal in the format you are playing. For instance, you can start with a vanilla turbo Dark skeleton, and then use that as the blueprint to help you build a Darkrai/dragons or turbo Dark deck in the format you are actually playing. Developing a system of shortcuts to help you think about deckbuilding theory is vital if you plan on making an impact on the deckbuilding community. These templating systems can include shortcuts such as borrowing energy counts from similar decks, studying decks that have successfully merged two strategies you are interested in, comparing draw consistency options, getting ideas for techs, etc. The point is the more effective your shortcuts are when building a deck, the more time you have to work on the list.
That’s all for this week. Next time we’ll delve into part two, which includes the following topics:
*Building a Team; and finally
*Jedi Mind Games