This weekend's Japanese National Championships proves that competitive Pokemon plays almost like an entirely different game in the franchise's home country. While every Japanese top eight team had some common picks you might spot at other tournaments around the world, players made plenty of choices that are almost never seen anywhere else.
As an example, the grass-type Tsareena, has never placed well... except for this weekend, where it was spotted on the team belonging to Ryouta Ootsubo, the champion who took first place at the tournament.
There's a reason for that, of course. Unlike most players on the planet, who can qualify for the World Championships by collecting championship points at best-of-three tournaments, Japanese players can only qualify by placing highly in an online, best-of-one tournament called the Japan Cup. Then, the top 50 from that tournament are invited to Japanese Nationals, another (mostly) best-of-one tournament, to compete for a chance to skip the first day of Worlds competition.
While the difference between a best-of-three and a best-of-one may not seem like such a big deal to the uninitiated, it completely changes the way Pokemon is played among the pros. The element of surprise becomes much more important in a best-of-one, as the the goal is often to spring your trap before your opponent can do the same. At the same time, players must be prepared to handle the gamut of unusual teams they're sure to face.
In a best-of-three, players have time to gather information about their opponent and recover from losses due to surprise move-sets. And often times, once a player expects a particular trick, that trick won't work anymore. That's why, in a best-of-three metagame, standard teams full of highly competitive Pokemon tend to do far better than the surprises seen in a best-of-one team.
As a result, the Japanese metagame has some key differences from the rest of the globe. One example is the distinct lack of Kartana on top-eight teams at Japan Nationals, a Pokemon that serves as one of this season's best glass-cannons. While it appeared on five out of eight top-eight teams at the Madison Regional Championships, only Hikaru Amano used it this weekend. Kartana's pitifully low special defence stat, a four-times weakness to fire type attacks and the ability to easily run unexpected fire attacks on any Pokemon means that Kartana can be too risky of a pick in Japanese tournaments.
japan nats masters top 8 teams! second half in a reply pic.twitter.com/53zgyf2ZIP
— [Snubbull] Nails (@NailsOU) June 18, 2017
That is, perhaps, why champion Ryouta Ootsubo ran Tsareena in the first place. While it isn't anywhere near as strong as Kartana, Tsareena doesn't have any four-times weaknesses and has a bevy of other handy tools in its arsenal. Feint allows Tsareena to negate opposing protects, Trop Kick lowers an opponent's attack stat while doing damage and its Fightium Z item lets it deal massive damage to normal type Pokemon. Finally, its Queenly Majesty ability offers protection from an opponent's priority moves.
Ootsubo may have been crowned champion, but his team was far from the most unusual. Top-four-finisher Gouki Nakagawa takes home that superlative with such innovative choices as Choice Scarf Celesteela, Lycanroc (midday form) and Swagger Ninetails.
Celesteela is traditionally a slower, defensive Pokemon — but with the Choice Scarf item, its speed is boosted while it is locked into a single attack. Meanwhile, Lycanroc is almost never seen due to its frailty. The rock-type does have an ability that boosts its speed during a sandstorm, which Nakagawa's Gigalith happily provides, but that's usually not enough to justify its inclusion. While it's unclear why Nakagawa brought it, Lycanroc didn't do much in his streamed match against Ootsubo.
Swagger Ninetails is a much different beast. While Swagger is historically one of the most common moves in Pokemon's Video Game Championship series, a nerf to confusion and the inclusion of Tapu Fini has made it a relative non-factor this season. In the past, Swagger was used by many Pokemon to inflict confusion on opponents so they'd have a 50/50 chance of attacking themselves on any given turn.
However, since Tapu Fini's Misty Terrain blocks any status effects, Swagger has instead been used this season to double an ally's attack stat (its other effect). Regardless, even if a Pokemon does manage to get confused, the chance to hit itself has been reduced to 33 per cent. It's likely that Nakagawa used Swagger traditionally against teams without Tapu Fini and in the new way against teams that did have one.
— [Snubbull] Nails (@NailsOU) June 18, 2017
Of course, not everything was that wild. The top eight had its fair share of Tapu Koko, Arcanine and Porygon2 (though some did have unusual moves or items), which appear on anywhere from 75 to 50 per cent of top teams. The champion's core team was also based around the "double-duck" archetype of Pelipper and Golduck, which American Tommy Cooleen has used to top-eight every International Championship so far.
For those of you interested in watching, all the top-eight team details were shown on stream in Japanese. However, players have put together a translation for those who want to see all the surprise sets. To watch the top eight games, the replay can be found on Nico Nico for those who register with a free account. Alternatively, world champion Sejun Park re-streamed the matches on his Twitch channel.