Studying Innovation – an Analysis of the Worlds-Winning Team Design

Although a true team report can only be written by the players who used a team at a certain event, others can still learn from observing the creators at work. With newly crowned world-champion Wolfe Glick’s team making such a splash in the VGC scene, let’s take a look at its members and the principles that we can glean from their performance.

Raichu

Raichu

The identification of Nuzzle’s true power is, perhaps, the most impressive thing about Raichu. The move originally seemed to be little more than a slightly improved Thunder Wave that could work inside of taunt or break a focus sash. However, another benefit is that Nuzzle enables a Pokémon like Raichu to gain the benefits of Assault Vest and still use a truly supportive move set.

Assault vest is an incredible option for increasing a Pokémon’s bulk, yielding possibly the greatest defensive benefits of any item. However, Pokémon which hold the Assault Vest are often heavily restricted by its requirement to run only attacks. The increased bulk would be incredibly useful when paired with supportive moves, but most support moves are non-damaging. Thus Assault vest users have always had great potential to be effective by using their extra defensive capabilities to provide support, but they don’t have many options to provide said support.

Nuzzle, then, by circumventing the way that Assault Vest impedes support, allows for a way to realize Assault Vest’s potential to provide bulk to a supportive Pokémon. There is so much that Wolfe’s Raichu can do that players believed a Raichu could never do, and so much it can do that players believed an Assault Vest Pokémon would never do. The ability to have a bulky, supportively viable Lightning Rod user allows the team’s pilot to accomplish a lot with Rayquaza and Kyogre archetypes which players previously believed was infeasible. The innovations around Raichu were, at least in part, what enabled the rest of the team to work.

Raichu was once a Pokémon that used its first few turns to buy time for its partner, then hope that it was KO’d (possibly using Volt Tackle to facilitate its own fainting) in order to allow another Pokémon to take its place and be more effective. Giving it an Assault Vest, however, enabled Raichu to use Lighting Rod to full effectiveness (since the extra bulk allowed it to keep Lightning Rod in play longer) while also allowing Raichu to play a more active and sustained part in a battle.

With increased bulk, Raichu could even use the threat of endeavor to discourage or punish the damage done to it, as well as better use the power of volt switch and fake out for positioning and momentum (a cornerstone of Wolfe’s play, and also crucial to VGC 2016). Aside from the above, Raichu could even use Endeavor from its normal HP stat to enable Water Spout KOs, or just to lower a problematic Pokémon’s HP a bit if Raichu has nothing better to do.

Volt Switch is, according to Glick and his team-building partner Markus Stadter, the change that made this team start to click with them — and for good reason. The positional advantages it affords, especially along with Hitmontop, allow for so many ways to maintain momentum.

This was most notable when Raichu and Hitmontop could cycle back and forth to provide virtually perpetual Fake out pressure. The reason that maneuver is particularly intriguing is that having two consecutive turns of Fake Out pressure made it relatively easy to work around a protecting opponent: If the opponent reacted to Fake out pressure on one turn by protecting, they would have trouble making the same play if Fake Out pressure were still present the turn after that.

Meanwhile, Glick and Stadter did not have to rely on baiting a protect, because they could still benefit from an extra turn of Fake Out pressure without this situation. Mostly, the result of this perpetual Fake Out pressure was that Glick and Stadter had more ways to work around an opponent’s Protect without necessarily being dependent on a specific prediction. Since the World Championships is rife with players who can be hard to predict, and Protect adds an element of prediction to the game that can allow opponents to escape difficult situations, having a way to work around it was invaluable for a World Championships team.

Hitmontop

Hitmontop

Hitmontop seems to be a very “Wolfe” Pokémon. It helps with momentum and position management, allowing players to think turns ahead like a chess player would (although there is more volatility inherent in Pokémon turns than chess turns). This allows the user to display their particular expertise at thinking ahead a few turns – something Glick has been practicing for a long time – and thereby gain potential advantages by managing momentum more effectively than their opponent.

Hitmontop is particularly incredible this year because momentum was crucial in VGC 2016. This season featured a host of strong restricted Pokémon that tend to abuse free turns or speed control advantages very effectively. Hitmontop, played well, can relieve enough pressure to allow its partner to set up (as with Rayquaza’s Swords Dance and Bronzong’s Trick Room), or simply slow the opposing team down enough to allow Pokémon like Kyogre to do their job.

Wide Guard allowed Hitmontop to block strong spread moves like Precipice Blades, and thereby dampen the effectiveness of Pokémon such as Groudon. However, it is possible that Wide Guard, along with Feint, is also useful in overwhelming the opponent mentally with prediction games.

The threat of Wide Guard and Feint create the potential for spread moves or Protect to end very poorly for the opponent. As a result, plays that were supposed to be relatively safe end up being more reliant on predictions. Although high-caliber players could manage this to an extent, making any opponent consider all the plays the team’s pilot could make adds a lot of stress to the match.

This strain makes it more difficult for an opponent to make correct plays or identify what Glick’s or Stadter’s exact moves would be. Meanwhile, they can focus on finding other options that may be less reliant on prediction and have more favorable risk-reward tradeoffs. The power of the moves is in making the opponent’s job more difficult even when the moves themselves are not being considered.

Then there is Intimidate, which lessened an opponent’s damage potential against Kyogre’s lower defense stat. This is crucial because Kyogre has no defensive problems in terms of possibly losing its weather and getting OHKO’d by something, unlike Groudon. Thus Kyogre, with its lack of conditional defenses, has the potential to be supported such that the opponent has very minimal damage options against it.

For that matter, Glick also had Assault Vest Raichu’s durable Lightning Rod support to circumvent Kyogre’s electric-type weakness (particularly relevant against other Kyogre). Many methods of handling Kyogre by KO, then, were ultimately removed (or at least alleviated) by these two Pokémon. This is important given that Kyogre already can be very difficult to KO, and these Pokémon augment said bulk by addressing the few ways that players had been KO’ing Kyogre.

Kyogre

Primal kyogre

It is illustrative of this defensive potential that the finals set was characterized by how difficult it was for Jonathon to eliminate Kyogre. In both games, Evans needed to attack Kyogre with a Sludge Bomb just to do 30-40% to Kyogre (and to potentially poison it), even though it nearly cost him his Gengar game one and did cost his Gengar in game two. Gengar was one of the few ways for Evans to reliably damage Kyogre, and thus he had to place Gengar in risky situations just to get that chunk of damage.

This way of supporting Kyogre allowed for a complete reinvention of how Kyogre works. This is crucial because Kyogre had, prior to Worlds, been struggling with usage rates, and was actually declining in popularity a fair amount.

Despite its decline, however, Kyogre was not defensively inconsistent (which is especially important because the world championships is sometimes considered a more defensive tournament). Due to this defensive potential, Kyogre had enough core potential that it was possible to solve many of Kyogre’s problems, and to reinvent it such that it would still be effective.

After all, declining usage rates don’t always make a Pokémon bad, but rather tend to indicate that a Pokémon is being used poorly. If a player is willing to invest in reworking a faded design, as Glick and Stadter did, then one can potentially design a team that surpasses the effectiveness of what is being currently used. Kyogre, due to its lack of defensive dependencies, was a good candidate for this. Even though there is more risk associated with working on designing a newer team, it was a slightly lower risk to work on reinventing Kyogre as opposed to other Pokémon.

In fact, Kyogre ended up being perhaps the most important part of the team. If you read my discussion of weather dependencies , then you may be aware that I believe Kyogre is the best defensively, and was hands down the most appropriate pick for worlds (in retrospect). Kyogre, unlike Groudon, does not depend on its weather to survive attacks, although it does need anything other than harsh sunlight to be functional offensively. Team pilots have to expend large amounts of resources to defend this vulnerability in Kyogre, but it’s an easier obstacle to true viability than a defensive weakness, because Kyogre can survive until positioned properly.

The Kyogre set itself is a little different. Rather than viewing Kyogre as running either Origin Pulse or Water Spout, Glick and Stadter (and Brendan Zheng, who was responsible for the idea) used both. They accepted the drawbacks of spread water moves (such as the possibility of opposing Wide Guards) because of the many advantages to having both a 100 percent accuracy option and a non-HP dependent option for spread damage. Other than that, this Kyogre focused on dealing heavy damage with water moves, and used ice beam for coverage.

The Kyogre in itself, however is not where the groundbreaking elements of the team are to be found. The most important part of Kyogre is how the team serves it, mitigating weaknesses with the partners available to it.

Gengar

Gengar

Gengar, too, is relatively instrumental in the effectiveness of Kyogre (Both finalists did use Gengar alongside Kyogre, and it was used with Rayquaza and Kyogre on two of the top 12 teams at US Nationals).

Shadow Tag provides a solid way to reduce an opponent’s options, which is instrumental for preventing the opponent from flipping momentum quite so easily. In this regard, it is generally a useful Pokémon for tournaments like the World Championships. However, Shadow Tag is also of particular interest to Kyogre. The ability can almost guarantee Kyogre is able to use water moves freely without the constant risk of Groudon switching in and changing the weather. As a result, Groudon teams lost pressure and were vulnerable to Kyogre’s offense. Meanwhile, Groudon trapped inside the field were at risk of being eliminated altogether were Kyogre able to position itself advantageously. A KO’d Groudon was often a death knell for teams that relied on its ability to dampen Kyogre’s offensive capacities.

Another point to note is that, because it was so difficult to position Groudon properly, Groudon variants that were too reliant on having Groudon dish out all of the damage could potentially struggle against timer stalling. Without Groudon’s pressure, there were a lot of ways for Glick and Stadter to control the flow of the match, which could allow them to pursue the often lower-risk win condition of a timer stall.

Meanwhile, Gengar provided a way to stop Smeargle in its tracks if it was not holding a Choice Scarf. The combination of Taunt backed by a Shadow Tag lock made Focus Sash Smeargle absolute deadweight. Thus Smeargle could easily become a hindrance to its own team, potentially allowing Glick and Stadter free reign to handle its partner. Mental Herb Smeargle could additionally be addressed by Sludge Bomb, which would often KO the Smeargle outright.

Will-o-Wisp, especially in tandem with Hitmontop’s intimidate, allowed for a better protected Kyogre, as the physical attackers expected to answer Kyogre instead had to function around lowered attack. Although one particularly threatening physical attacker, Groudon, could not be burned, it still received pressure in other ways, especially by shadow tag locking it in against a Kyogre. Gengar also threatens Xerneas (at least prior to set up) which is invaluable for a Kyogre team.

Bronzong

Bronzong

Bronzong is essential to the team, though not particularly groundbreaking. The sole universal Pokémon in top four, it provides ways to manage Xerneas even after it has set up, which is really essential in surviving a Xerneas. It’s always hard to ensure a Xerneas will never have a good chance to set up, so it is highly valuable to have better contingency plans against Xerneas. It’s a hallmark of consistency.

Bronzong does also work exceptionally well with Kyogre, as rain reduces its weaknesses to just dark and ghost types, with the scarier weaknesses to Groudon’s stabs being threats only under limited circumstances such as Gravity or unfavorable weather. The pairing of Kyogre and Bronzong is an older development in strategy, but still quite worthwhile. Although in recent months Heatproof was used as an alternative way to protect Bronzong from fire moves, using Kyogre’s Primordial Sea allows Bronzong to keep Levitate, and thereby allows it to invest in taking special attacks rather than in surviving Groudon’s Precipice Blades. Meanwhile, and most importantly, a Bronzong in rain is one of incredibly few Pokémon that are not threatened by a boosted Xerneas or a Groudon.

Safeguard is really important to discuss as well. Although not a surprise, it’s an important acknowledgment of what is necessary for consistency, and everyone in Masters top four (as well as the Seniors World Champion, Carson Confer) had Safeguard. Safeguard is perhaps more useful in general than a lot of players gave it credit for, but it is downright essential to have the option to manage sleep with Smeargle around. It does not fix all of the problems Smeargle can cause, but it blocks a large part of their utility.

As it turned out, all Smeargles were eliminated by top four. This does not necessarily mean that Smeargle was a bad choice (since it was still present outside the small sample size of top four) but rather speaks to the proper use of Smeargle adjustments (like safeguard) in the top four.

Rayquaza

Mega Rayquaza

Rayquaza, meanwhile, is interesting in its mixture of potential support to Kyogre as well as independent offensive capacity. Rayquaza’s utility lies in its ability, but also in its capacity to provide pressure offensively without relying on Kyogre. In this regard it can actually function as an alternative to Kyogre as a focal point for dealing damage, even as it also has options to support its aquatic ally.

Rayquaza actually benefits a lot from Raichu in terms of Fake out pressure, and also in Lightning Rod’s ability to prevent Thunder Wave and discourage electric types, which allows for Rayquaza to use Swords Dance and Dragon Ascent to plow through teams more easily. Endeavor can also help by putting opposing Pokémon in range of Extreme Speed or Dragon Ascent. Hitmontop can similarly be adapted from supporting Kyogre to enabling Rayquaza.

Meanwhile, the strong flying attack Rayquaza provides in Dragon Ascent is nice in terms of the team’s overall coverage, where there are a few Pokémon that would pose large problems to the team without said coverage.

Thus Rayquaza, although it does have a role in allowing Kyogre to remain effective by blocking Desolate Land, also provides strong damage options in its own right.

Air Lock is still really useful – despite the slight hindrance it provides to Kyogre’s damage compared to rain – because of its ability to lessen risk on the Kyogre side or even to cause a quick Groudon KO. It also works well with eject button and volt switch. Here, the decision to send in another Pokémon occurs after switches, so one can decide not to send in Rayquaza if the opponent does not switch to Groudon, and thereby can use rain boosted water spouts when air lock is not necessary (while simultaneously covering the opponent’s option of a Groudon switch-in). This switch option, combined with the powers of Shadow Tag and even Bronzong’s Skill Swap, caused the supposed mind games of using Rayquaza and Kyogre to be less mind games and more positional puzzles.

The other element of Rayquaza functioning independently as well as in conjunction with Kyogre is that Air Lock can add risk to the opponent’s plays even when it isn’t necessary to consider playing to it. Groudon always have more risk in switching to block a water move when Rayquaza is in the back, and this makes it even further difficult to play to Groudon against Kyogre.

Conclusion

Glick’s and Stadter’s team revolutionized the support surrounding Kyogre, allowing for a new way to play Kyogre teams that was strong enough to win worlds. All of the individual Pokémon are incredibly useful, using their greater customizability to supplement some more standard sets on the Kyogre and Rayquaza, and giving Kyogre/Rayquaza the boost it needed to have advantages against many other archetypes.

While other world championships showed the value of using what is popular (2015) or adapting to metagames (2014), the lesson this year was perhaps related more closely to elements of design and the context for innovation.

A standard product life cycle involves periods of increased sales as the product is initially developed and as it finds more reception. As time passes, mature sales rates are reached, and sometimes, as other designs emerge or the product becomes obsolete, the product declines in sales. This can be countered, however, by improvements to the design, allowing for a renewal of sales growth or just an evasion of decline.

This is analogous to Pokémon, sales being similar to Pokémon usage rates (as sales are, at their core, simply a measure of popular consumption/usage). What was most bizarre about this year, however, is that players seemed very hesitant to consider using anything that was declining.

This is sometimes a very informed decision, as it takes work to reform a fading team. However, the decision overlooks a fundamental aspect of what can be achieved in the teambuilding process, indeed neglecting some of the areas where teambuilding has the greatest potential for securing a competitive advantage.

One of the primary lessons of Glick’s and Stadter’s worlds run, then, may be that Pokémon which are not working well at a given moment are still solid options to consider for teams — they just probably require more innovative solutions. As in proper design, it makes very little sense to rule out ideas altogether. Rather, it is important to develop teams with acknowledgment of all the options, even as one refines a specific team based on specific criteria.

Hayden McTavish

Hayden McTavish has loved Pokemon and its incredible potential for story exchange ever since he discovered it at 4 years old. He learned to read playing Pokemon, and is now studying writing through that same act. He hopes that through the articles you read that you glimpse some of the inspiration that Pokemon can provide, in competition and in adventure.

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