What we learned at US Nationals 2016

Pokémon Nationals are always hallmark events, where the best trainers from across the country duke it out over who is the best trainer. The result can be difficult to parse in a game as chaotic as Pokémon — but even if we can’t definitively point to “the best” players based on standings, every year still has plenty to teach players across the globe. While much of the world had already made their impact on the global community through their national competitions, the U.S. just had its chance to do so over Fourth of July weekend. Here’s what we learned.

1. Predicting the meta-game leads to success (aka: be prepared for Groudon and Xerneas)

Nats XD

Coming as no surprise to anyone, Xerneas and primal Groudon remain the overwhelming favorite for strongest restricted mons. With the former’s ability to set up using Geomancy and the latter’s ability to counter its partner, deal massive damage and control the weather, both end plenty of lives on their own. Together they form a potent duo, where one often softens opponents up for the other to finish off.

According to an article on the Pokémon website, the pair saw heavy usage and was present on more than half the teams that made day two of the tournament. Dual primals followed, with no other archetype making quite as strong a showing to come in at number three. There was plenty of variety, but what does this continued presence mean for the meta-game?

More than anything, it means success will come to those who are prepared. So far, multiple events have proven that the team most equipped to handle Groudon and Xerneas is another Groudon and Xerneas team. More specifically, the combination of Groudon, Xerneas, Mega Salamence, Mega Kangaskhan, Smeargle and a variable sixth slot has proven to perform best.

Nationals champion Chase Lybbert (RookieVGC) certainly showed its strength with the Cresselia variant (created by Conan Thompson), and runner-up Aaron Traylor (NBUnreality) made it to the finals with a slightly different variant using Bronzong and Cresselia.

However, despite two similar teams making it to the finals, many other players demonstrated the ability to check the current meta-game with other teams. Just take a look at Lybbert’s and Traylor’s Top Four opponents, Alan Schamber and Grant Weldon. Those proved that their Rayquaza/Kyogre and dual primal teams could handle Xerneas and Groudon by making it as far as they did.

Because of that, it would be wrong to say that the only good team in this format is some variant of the Big Six. Multiple other players proved that it’s possible to succeed with the unconventional — as long as it’s prepared for what the majority of players will be playing with. And since the finals was a near-mirror match, preparing for that kind of team would probably be a good idea.

2. It’s critical to take advantage of RNG

Dark Void

RNG has always been a tricky subject in Pokémon. Few have any love for the way it randomly determines whether moves connect, miss or land a critical hit. Some even wish it were eradicated form the game entirely, making Pokémon entirely skill based. However, most agree that the slight variability makes the game more dynamic and that good players can usually play around it — under the right circumstances.

Unfortunately, VGC 2016 is so RNG heavy that playing around it is next to impossible.

Nats was a rather good example of this. Whether it was everyone and their mother nailing hypnosis outside of gravity or Thompson’s improbable triple-protect, many games felt as if they were decided by the roll of the dice. And, as players know all too well, too many matches come down to whether Precipice Blades or Origin Pulse hits its target.

But why is this year so much worse than in the past? Well, it’s a complicated subject—but it likely has to do with the power available in this format. With restricted Pokémon capable of hitting so hard every turn, every turn matters far more. So, if you have the chance to shut down your opponent for multiple turns, it’s hugely advantageous to try.

In other formats, games took longer and players could often afford to take a few turns of doing nothing without all hope of victory being snatched away. It was certainly never a favorable outcome, but you could come back from it. This year, that is rarely the case.

With that being the case, using Pokémon like Smeargle has become a staple of event-winning teams. Since it typically can shut down an opponent’s turn one of three ways every turn (through sleep with Dark Void, by blocking/redirecting moves with Wide Guard/Follow Me, or nullifying status moves with Crafty Shield), it’s already an amazing option on any team.

However, because it can use Moody to outspeed anything, get perfect accuracy for Dark Void, or spend an entire game dodging attacks with an evasion boost, it’s changed the entire VGC landscape. To make matters worse, Moody’s drawback isn’t even that much of a problem. Bad boosts or drops can be made up for on other turns and still come out on top since stats rise by two and only drop by one. Sometimes players win by just stalling long enough to get the right boosts.

All this RNG often leaves many players with a bad taste in their mouth and a single question on their tongues: “did that matter?” Sometimes the answer is obvious and in other cases the answer isn’t clear.

We only know that the best players are either trying to take advantage of RNG or aggressively remove it as a factor from the game. But more than that, the real, lingering question concerning RNG is how often a player’s “best option” is to risk the game on a move that has a relatively low chance of succeeding. We saw many players faced with that conundrum at Nats with varying results — and that uncertainty is a bit unsettling.

3. There is still room to innovate

Nats innovation

Despite spending an inordinate amount of time talking about how many players use the same team and exploit RNG to their advantage, there is still hope for a diverse meta-game. Nats showed that, for all the Xerneas/Groudon teams earning top spots, teams no one ever expected to do well made it quite far.

This goes well beyond dual primals, Rayquaza/Kyogre or even Groudon/Yveltal — which European player Arash Omatti already used to win the German National. Yes, friends, there were even more wild Pokémon that saw success.

First and foremost, Gary Qian managed to use Life Orb Mewtwo and Mega Venusaur on a team with Groudon, Mega Salamence, Talonflame and Endeavor, Focus Sash Raichu. While parts may seem standard, the first two mons have hardly been seen anywhere near top cut at most events around the entire world. Despite that, Qian made an impressive run — ending up 11th in the country.

Then there was Ian Lutz, who made day two of the competition with an assault vest Lunatone. When word of his unique choice hit the internet, twitter went into a near frenzy to see it in action. Unfortunately, when its moment in the sun finally came, it spent a lot of time being fully paralyzed and doing nothing. However, it obviously had an impact, carrying Lutz to 31st.

And finally, players such as Joeseph Selmer (37th), Gerard De La Cruz (43th) and Enosh Shachar (45th) just barely missed out on day two with the new-duo on the block, Rayquaza and Xerneas. The trio all lost their last round in close sets to end a 6-3, but the team certainly shows potential. All three also made use of Scrafty, a past favorite but rarely seen team member in 2016. With a combination of intimidate, fake out and powerful knock offs and low kicks, it often surprised opponents with what it could do.

What remains to be seen, however, is whether such unconventional teams can go the distance. It’s one thing to make a good run with a dark horse, but Worlds competitors are there to win — and their teams have to reflect that.

4. TPCI cares about the future of competitive Pokémon

Weatherman Zheng

The Pokémon Company International sometimes catches flak for the way it handles their e-sport. Inconsistent prizing around the globe and an overall communication problem have made plenty of players wonder whether TPCI ever plans to take VGC as seriously as they do. After all, many players want to see the scene grow into something that elicits the same kind of attention as League of Legends or Super Smash Bros. But, they rightly recognize that VGC will never get there without more buy-in from the people running the show.

Well, I think it’s safe to say that TPCI cares and is working to grow the scene. That doesn’t mean the job is done or that there isn’t a lot more work to do, but let’s think back on the improvements we saw at Nats this year. For one, the overall production quality was far higher, with multiple, simultaneous streams and professional sets. At the same time, prizing went up and players had cash options instead of being limited to scholarships. On top of that, the travel stipends TPCI awarded continued to make the trip affordable for some of the top players (even if their announcement came a bit late).

What’s more, there were many improvements outside the actual competition that made a huge difference. For one, the Greater Columbus Convention Center was an excellent venue. It was surrounded by affordable lodging and a plethora of delicious food offerings. Even better than that, there were places to get decent food right outside the doors of the main room, making it easy for players to grab a bite in-between rounds. And when there’s no lunch break, that kind of accommodation can’t be replaced.

So, while TPCI still has plenty to do if it wants to convince players that they’re committed to improving the scene, Nats was a good step in the right direction.

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