At 3 a.m. on the second day of last year's Pokemon World Championships, Australian competitive player Sam Pandelis was still finalising his team of Pokemon — even though his first battles were a handful of hours away.
Pandelis finally settled on Ninetails, Arcanine, Garchomp, Mandibuzz, Tapu Lele, and Xurkitree. Some of these Pokemon were common among attendees that year, and a few were thrown in to mix things up. Either way, Pandelis already knew the dominant strategies that he would probably be facing, and so did his best to prepare to handle them.
“No one really had an archetype like this, and I chose this core because everyone was talking about Metagross and Salamence, I had to be able to deal with that,” Pandelis tells me. “There isn’t much that match-up can do against a bulky Mandibuzz, and I still had Tapu Lele that could one-shot a Salamance. In that instance, it was a really good call to deal with what was popular.”
Pandelis worked his way to the finals of last year's tournament, before eventually falling to Japanese player Ryota Otsubo in a thrilling match-up. After another year of battling in local, regional, and national tournaments, Pandelis prepared for another shot at being the very best - and last weekend in Nashville, Tennessee, he, Ryota, and hundreds of other Pokemon trainers battled for the crown once more.
“The most important part of competitive Pokemon isn’t having the best team, it’s about understanding what to do,” Pendelis says. “There is always a way you can win it, even if you have a disadvantage in your match-up.”
That principle rings true for the Pokemon World Championships because it's true for Pokemon as a game. The fact it can be summed up so easily, of course, does not mean things are simple. This year's event had some some key changes to the rules intended to open things up and, following another year of confusing Pokemon metagame developments, versatility in battling was incredibly vital.
Some of the changes involve what's called an open National Pokedex format, meaning almost any Pokemon is viable, and opening up the possibilities for interesting team structures (last year saw a deadly Raichu-led team that swept aside all day one competition). But even with that openness, top players expected to see a lot of familiar Pocket Monsters dominate the competition.
“I’m worried about Mega Evolutions,” said 2016 Worlds runner up Jonathan Evans. “Metagross, Charizard, and Gengar are really good, Metagross has Stomping Tantrum that can beat out fire Pokemon which it’s weak against and Gengar has Shadow Tag.”
Both Metagross and Gengar have abilities and moves that make them attractive to a wide pool of players. Metagross’s Stomping Tantrum makes it an extra powerful KO machine while Gengar’s Shadow Tag ability (more on which later) prevents opponents from switching-out Pokemon, something that's vital to most strategies.
“Pokemon aren’t supposed to be able to easily beat their counters, but in most cases Stomping Tantrum means that Metagross can beat fire types,” Evans added. “It means that Metagross doesn’t have a counter anymore, although [the] meta has changed that to include Incineroar. Incineroar is really great at taking Stomping Tantrum because of Intimidate.”
Intimidate is an ability that lowers the opposing Pokemon's attack stat, making powerful moves like Stomping Tantrum easier to survive. The combination of Intimidate and Incineroar’s powerful fire moveset make it a strong counter to Metagross. The only issue is that Metagross is so powerful that players need to plan for it no matter what, which means they either have to include Incineroar or build another counter themselves for the metal beast.
“People are going to have to find creative ways to deal with Metagross,” said Wolfe Glick, 2016 Worlds champion. “Right now people are running bulkier Metagross to deal with other, speedier Metagross builds.”
Metagross started out its dominant place this year with speed-focused stats, meaning it could beat out other Pokemon and lay out a powerful attack first. Eventually players opted to use bulkier Pokemon so that Metagross couldn’t lay them out if it got the first hit. This led to trainers coupling Metagross with the Intimidate ability and bulkier stats, keeping it around longer to do more damage.
“But we won’t know exactly what people are using until we are there,” Glick added. “The meta could go back to a more dominant speedy Metagross if they are used effectively to deal multiple blows and beat bulkier ones.”
Metagross is one of the few Mega Evolutions that top players expect to see a lot of at this year's competition. It’s a powerful mainstay for teams, but it doesn't have the same influence as a certain grinning ghost who is single handedly changing the way Pokemon battles work.
“Gengar is what I expect to see most of this year,” Evans said. “If someone doesn’t know what team to run they will run a Gengar team, it’s powerful with its Shadow Tag ability [which] prevents Pokemon from switching out and sets up Z-Move KOs.”
These top players' expectations were well-founded. The two eventual finalists of the 2018 Pokemon World Championships, Emilio Forbes (USA) and Paul Ruiz (Ecuador), both used Incineroar. Forbes' strategy revolved around using a Mega Gengar to 'trap' opposing Pokemon on the field while using an ability called Perish Song that KOs everything after three turns.
Gengar’s Shadow Tag ability is the key, allowing for strategies that were previously impossible, giving players the chance to land a powerful Z-move — an especially powerful move that you can only use once per battle — on Pokemon who would normally be switched out against the creepy spectre. It removes one of the fundamental aspects of battles and locks teams into whatever Pokemon they send out first.
There is a small divide in the community over whether or not the mechanic is broken. Some believe it’s just overpowered and can be countered, while others believe the ability is completed busted. “It’s no secret that Mega Gengar and Gothitelle are used almost exclusively due to their access to Shadow Tag,” said competitor and commentator Jake Muller. “But it’s never seemed broken to me, just very good. Switching and predicting switches are very important components of battles, and the ability to lock down a large number of options can be incredibly useful.”
But to others Mega Gengar is unfair due to how limited responses to it are, “You could build teams to deal with anything else and retreat and switch out when those situations came up,” Pandelis said. “Gengar doesn’t let you do that.”
“There is still skill involved in using Gengar and in taking it out,” Pandelis added. “I think the way to deal with it is to take advantage of Pokemon who resist it, but whatever beats Gengar will probably lose to Metagross so it really limits what you can use.”
The Mega Evolutions are only part of what would be popular this year. The top players I spoke to emphasised original thinking about these popular strategies. “Pokemon has this stigma where players only use the same Pokemon in tournaments,” said competitive player and commentator Aaron Zheng. “Worlds is the place where we see exotic picks that people don’t expect, Wolfe’s 2016 team is a good example of that.”
“Sometimes, the thing about Pokemon is that the deep metagame really depends on what other people are using,” Glick added. “You could find something that's good in March, but it may not be good in April or May. People may have been saving things for Worlds.”
So it proved. Forbes and his Mega Gengar-based strategy beat a path to the finals alright, but Ruiz had come prepared with clever counters, and a hungry Snorlax. Ruiz essentially went all-out from the first game to take down that Mega Gengar, even using his onetime Z-move early in order to focus it down.
The Mega Gengar strategy, depending on who you talk to, had sometimes been thought of as unplayable. Turns out that the biggest weakness in it was Mega Gengar because, even though Ruiz had to expend enormous effort and resources to KO the monster, once it was gone Forbes didn't really have much of a Plan B.
Ruiz did, however. His Snorlax took to the field intermittently and started using a complex buff move called Belly Drum, which maximises the attack stat for a loss of HP, which can subsequently be regained through other moves. As the team members on both sides were whittled away, the Snorlax maintained its power and health. With defeat inevitable, Forbes forfeited the match.
In the second game, Forbes was in truth unlucky. He started well, made some excellent moves, then Ruiz made a next-level predictive call and managed to get through once more to the Mega Gengar. GG, and Paul Ruiz became the first Pokemon World Champion from Latin America.
“You can’t control everything, but being able to think on your feet is incredibly important,” Glick had predicted. “Very few people are going to bring a one-dimensional team to Worlds, any top player brings a team that can deal with a number of compositions. But the key will be adapting once those challenges come up.”
The combination of the open National Pokedex, and the more open qualifying system in place since 2016, has opened the Pokemon World Championship up to more strategies and players. The competition is more interesting and difficult to prepare for every single year.
The 2018 finals showed, more than anything, that what is received wisdom in competitive communities can often be more an issue of perception. Pokemon is a game of counters, and counter-counters. Every year the community finds new strategies and, until they're worked out, over-estimate the pendulum swings. Mega Gengar's Shadow Tag might be a terrifying prospect but, when the crunch moment arrived, a trainer from Ecuador had come prepared.
That's the thing about wanting to be the very best. You can get so far with solid strategies and reliable moves. But to be a master, to be the last one standing, you've got to be like no-one ever was.