A beginner’s guide to understanding Pokémon VGC

Whether it’s random curiosity or you’re riding the waves of nostalgia after getting a taste from Pokémon Go, you’ve decided to check out the official Pokémon competition. Smart choice — VGC (or video game championship) is a fun esport with a lot of potential. It may not demand the same attention as League of Legends or even Super Smash Bros., but the scene is growing.

So step on up, friend — let me pull back the curtain and tell you everything you need to know to understand.

The basics: double up

Before we get into it, I’m going to assume you have a cursory knowledge of how Pokémon functions as a game. You know that there are hundreds of monsters to choose from across multiple generations, and many of them evolve into stronger forms as they level up.

You also know that each Pokémon has at least one of eighteen “types” that make up a web of interactions such as, for example, water beating fire. And while we’re at it, you’re also aware that each Pokémon’s four attacks have a type of their own and usually involve either the Pokémon’s physical (attack vs. defense) or special (special attack vs. special defense) statistics.

Great! With a strong foundation like yours, you’ll be a savvy observer in no time.

Now, the first thing you’ll likely notice about VGC is that, unlike most of the rest of the game, matches are double battles (that means each side uses two Pokémon at a time instead of the usual one). Why is it this way when most players and fans are used to singles?

Well, there are a few reasons. The biggest one, from an organizational standpoint, is time. Singles matches can take half an hour to an hour, and VGC matches are often best of three. At large events, can you imagine all nine rounds taking an hour and a half each? Yeah, no thanks. Doubles games, on the other hand, can be over in as few as five minutes and have a fifteen-minute cap. That keeps things moving along.

Another reason VGC uses the doubles format is because it opens up a lot more possibilities. There are many attacks, abilities and strategies that only work when you have two Pokémon on the field, so the doubles format immediately gives players more options.

At the same time, while singles is certainly full of its own complex nuances, doubles has far more interactions. Instead of only having one target to pick from for their one attacking Pokémon, players have two sets of four moves at their disposal to use against two targets. And with the ability of either player to switch out, there are a lot more potential moves for players to make. This requires players have a very keen understanding of the current meta-game (we’ll get to that later) so they can predict what their opponent will do.

With that said, the last very basic fact to understand about VGC is that each season is a little bit different. Since new Pokémon games don’t come out every year, The Pokémon Company International (which organizes the competition) shakes up which Pokémon are allowed in official competition. When new games do come out, they often limit it just to Pokémon from that new game. But in the years in between releases, they have to get a little more creative.

VGC 16 example

For example, this year’s format allows players to bring up to two very powerful legendary Pokémon that are usually banned. That decision has resulted in very fast paced play this year, because every team has two Pokémon that hit like a dump truck full of C4. As for VGC 2017, many anticipate that the format will be limited to the Sun & Moon Pokédex (a list of the mons native to the new game).

So there you go — the absolute basic amount of information you need to know to understand this game: players play doubles and the rules about which Pokémon you can use change every year. That being said, there’s a lot more to look at if you want to take your knowledge to the next level.

Get ready for a lot more words.

Building the squad

The next thing that’s important to for beginners to understand is how players decided to bring the six Pokémon on their team. I mean, with more than 700 options, there’s a lot that goes into the decision.

Team building usually starts with what players call a “core.” As you can imagine, that core is the focal point of their team. Usually that core is a pair of mons, though it can be a trio. But no matter the amount of Pokémon in a core, its members always complement each other’s weaknesses.

Groudon and Xern

A good example from 2016 is the Primal Groudon and Xerneas core. As a fairy type, Xerneas is weak to steel and poison types while also being resisted by fire. Groudon resists all three types and can hit them for super effective damage with its powerful ground type attacks. Conversely, as a ground/fire type, Primal Groudon is very weak to water attacks — and with Primal Kyogre as a viable option this year, it’s often in danger of being knocked out by a single move.

Under normal circumstances Xerneas wouldn’t be that great of a partner (it doesn’t resist water type attacks), but it gets an amazing move called Geomancy that doubles its special attack, special defense and speed stats. Since Kyogre uses special attacks, that boost to special defense lets it take on Kyogre with ease — and its boosted speed and special attack let Xerneas knock it out so Primal Groudon can do damage unchecked.

That’s just one example of many, but you get the picture. A core is the foundation upon which a player’s plans rest, and its members are what will likely lead them to victory. However, a core is not a full team of six. So how do players fill out the rest of their team?

Well, that’s where it gets tricky. Usually a lot of that answer depends on what else is currently popular, since players want to be able to handle the most commonly brought Pokémon. But a good rule of thumb is to support your core with “type coverage” — or the ability to handle a diverse array of the 18 different types. The more types you can handle, the more flexible your team is. That’s why you often see a wide variety of types on most teams.

In addition to type coverage, players also fill the rest of their team out with Pokémon that have specific abilities or moves that support their team. Commonly coveted abilities are “intimidate” (to weaken physical attackers) or “prankster” (to get non-attacking moves off with priority).

As for moves, ones that let the player get their attacks off first are almost always used. Tailwind speeds your team up, icy wind slows opponents down and trick room flips the script entirely, making Pokémon attack in order of slowest to fastest.

Those are just a few examples of the many options, but all the choices boil down to what gives their core the best chance of success and what gives them the most answers to popular threats. If a team is built with that in mind, it’ll probably do pretty well in capable hands.

Granted, the subject is still far more complicated than one can explain in a single section of a single article. Many of the best teams have multiples cores, for example, or can function under tailwind or trick room. If you want to learn a bit more, here’s a more in-depth look. But if you just need the most basic understanding, you’ve got the fundamentals.

Before the battle
Photo by Doug Morisoli
Photo by Doug Morisoli

Once players have their team figured out and get their hands on the Pokémon (we’ll gloss over that here in favor of keeping this behemoth of an article from getting any longer), it’s time to duke it out. But hold on — there are a few more things that need explaining first! After all, how can you properly appreciate a battle if you don’t know how players got there in the first place?

That being said, Pokémon VGC events are usually organized into two sections: The Swiss rounds and top-cut. In Swiss rounds, all of the potentially hundreds of competitors play a number of best of three matches that depends on overall attendance (usually 9 for major events such as Nationals and Worlds). Players are matched up randomly to start, but are subsequently paired off based on their record.

As you can imagine, those with the best records advance to the second part of the tournament. More often than not, it requires going undefeated or losing only a single set — but there are other milestones players shoot for. For example, at both Nationals and Worlds this year, all players with two losses or better advance to the second day of competition. Also, on day two, all players with two losses or better advance to top cut.

Alternatively, various amounts of points are given out at different thresholds (top 16, top 32, top 64, etc.) depending on attendance. And, since qualifying for Worlds requires a certain number of points, many players set minimum goals for themselves so they stay on pace for an invite.

After the Swiss rounds are finished, the tournament changes to an elimination bracket. Traditionally, and at smaller events, this only involves the top eight players from Swiss. However, at larger events that number has grown to 16 or more. Regardless of the size, players are then seeded against each other based on their Swiss record and play a best of three set to determine who advances. This continues for however many rounds it takes to get down to two players, at which point a winner is decided between them.

Game time

team preview

Now that you have a decent understanding of everything that leads up to the moment of truth itself, it’s finally time to breakdown what you’re actually seeing as two players square off.

The first thing players do when starting a battle is take a look at their opponent’s team. This is their opportunity to pick which Pokémon they’re going to bring into battle. And yes, that implication is correct — players don’t get to use all six every battle. Players bring six overall, pick four for each game and have to lead with two.

This versatility is what forces teams to be so flexible. In many cases, players leave certain mons behind when their opponent has a counter, meaning they need something solid to occupy its spot. Sometimes that can even happen with a member of your core, if an opponent has a very hard counter. To that end, players often have a number of “modes” to their team that operate differently against certain matchups.

Also, while it may not be the most interesting portion of the battle to watch, it’s arguably the most important. Starting off turn one in an advantageous position by correctly predicting your opponent’s lead can give players a huge amount of momentum. If you predict what they have in the back, too, that momentum can become insurmountable as you play circles around them.

However, because picking what Pokémon to bring is such a crucial skill, it can lead to some mind games at the top level. Sometimes players attempt to counter their opponent’s counter, or bluff the counter and lead with the expected play. As you can imagine, the process of knowing what to bring is very nuanced.

precipice-blades

Either way, once each player selects their team, the game is on. Players are faced off against their opponents and immediately ask themselves one question: “what is my best play?”

As simple as it sounds, this is a loaded question that can mean a lot of different things. To beginners, it often means: “what is the best thing I can do with my two Pokémon against my opponent’s two Pokémon.” It doesn’t factor in what an opponent might do, which is simply because newer players don’t have the experience to make predictions or keep track of all the possible outcomes of a turn.

To intermediate players, it often means: “what is my opponent going to do and how can I punish them?” This mindset often results in a mixture of relatively safe plays and risky ones. That is because, as intermediates start to understand the game better, they become confident enough to make predictions. Sometimes — even many times, those predictions pay off and they catch an opponent off-guard. But occasionally, these players get a little overzealous and put themselves in a tough spot with a bad play.

To the top players, the question means: “I know what my opponent is going to do — so what is my win condition?” It sounds a little cocky, what with the assumption that they know what an opponent will do. Yet, all the same, they’re not wrong. Many of these top players know each other and have played against each other multiple times. That means they know a person’s decision making process — whether they’re aggressive or cautious. They also know how players of different skill levels tend to play and can adjust accordingly. And finally, they almost always know the optimal play for their opponent to make at any given time.

Those are a lot of variables to consider, but the best players can distill it down into the most important essence of playing a game of VGC: the “win condition.”

A win condition is basically the recognition of the circumstance that guarantees (or nearly guarantees) your win. It sounds and is pretty straightforward, but acting on your win condition often requires strategies that seem counterintuitive to a new player.

Sometimes it can involve letting one of your Pokémon go down when a switch could preserve them, just to keep a more important mon from taking damage. Other times it can mean doing something as crazy as inflicting your own Pokémon with paralysis so it is the fastest on the field under trick room. It could be any number of plays that might seem crazy in the moment — but the best players realize their win conditions and act on them no matter what.

Many newer players focus on the present, treating Pokémon like a game of rock-paper-scissor instead of chess. Playing the long-game is what leads players to consistent victories.

That’s basically all that can be explained in a surface look like this — but it’s more than enough to help newcomers such as yourself understand what is going on and why it’s happening. The only subject left to talk about would be trying to delve into the specific plays a player might make in any given match, but that requires an understanding of any year’s given meta-game that there just isn’t space for in an article like this.

However, since I did promise at least some talk about the meta-game, here’s the spiel. The meta-game is the summation of the most popular Pokémon, their different configurations, the ways they work together and all their potential move options in any given situation. This changes as certain trends emerge, with people often attempting to directly counter the most common teams. If you’d like to read more about this year’s meta-game leading into Worlds, you can do so here.

Otherwise (assuming you read this entire behemoth), you now know everything you need to be able to follow a game of Pokémon VGC. Happy viewing!

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