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Emvelopes #1 — New to PKMN? Fundamentals, Improvement, Resources, & More

Hello, ChannelFireball readers! It is an absolute honor for me to be writing one of the inaugural Pokemon articles on this incredible website. A little bit about me, for those who don’t know: my name is Emery Taylor, I’ve played for seven years, earned five Worlds invitations, and placed second at the North American International Championship in 2019, last year. Most of you probably know me for my Choice Band.

Today isn’t about me, though. Today, I hope to inspire you all to reevaluate your skills and preparation through three key sections. First, a collection of resources for learning the game, for any Magic or other prospective players hoping to get a basic sense of the game. Next, for the more experienced, I’ve created a guide on identifying weaknesses. This will come in useful for the final section, which breaks down the five fundamentals of the game; both what they are, and how they can be improved. In a nutshell, I hope to instill a habit of constant internal reexamination; where after you lose, or feel discouraged, you’ll have a guide to return to and a next step to work on.

Collection of Resources

I wouldn’t normally include a collection of resources on how to play the game per article, but with such a loyal collection of Magic players already subscribed to CFBPro, it seemed useful to give a short introduction to how to play the game. The vast majority of people who don’t play Pokemon seem to at least know what the cards look like but learning about the game is an entirely different task. If you’ve never even seen a Pokemon card, you’ve come to the right place. Let’s get started with the basics of the game.

Resources for Learning the Rules

I’ve listed these resources in the order I would recommend they be consumed. Each of them has a specific purpose…

Pokemon’s Quick Rundown Video: This first video is a simple rundown of the game itself – it lacks specific details, but it’ll help stick some of the key terms (Energy, Evolution, Special Conditions) in your mind.

Pokemon.com’s Introduction to the TCG Landing Page: Next, there’s a longer, module-based approach on the official Pokemon website. As long as you can get past the back of your mind telling you that it looks like a virtual homework website, this is a great next step towards learning what each card actually entails, the rules of the game, and how it can be played. This is the most comprehensive set of instructional videos and tips for learning the game.

PTCGO Tutorial Computer Practice: This is simply a link to downloading the only true way of playing Pokemon right now: the online client! When you create an account and log in, the program will recognize you as a new user and take you to a tutorial, provide you with a deck in order to battle the computer, and teach you rules of the game.

Resources for Getting Familiar with the Competitive Scene

It may be difficult at first, but the best way to get acquainted with the game is to learn about decks and their strategies. This will in turn make you more familiar with what you’re playing against when you feel prepared to play against other humans. In order to do this, you’re going to want to consume as much Pokemon media as you’re able, whether it’s reading deck guides, watching gameplay videos, or watching Twitch streams. If you’re truly new to the game, then you may be a bit confused (especially if you skipped the resources above), but don’t be afraid to ask questions, especially on live streams. Of course, it goes without being said that the articles and videos right here are a great resource for learning about the game!

You’ll also probably notice that these creators are contributors to ChannelFireball. This is nothing but a testament to the skills of the team that has been assembled and the quality of the content being created. Here are a couple of my personal favorite creators:

Azul Garcia GriegoTwitch / YouTube

Azul is a longstanding creator and elite player in the community. What makes his content so enjoyable is his constant quest to improve. In his own words, when asked if he was worried that one of his opponents was watching his stream mid-match (and therefore gaining an unfair advantage), he said “I don’t care. All I care about is that I play perfectly. My opponent is out of my control.” This quote perfectly embodies Azul’s competitive drive to improve and do everything he can control to win. This unique kind of competitive spirit is part of what makes him so fun to watch. Often, he’ll discuss his routes of play throughout and after each game, in order to decide which route was optimal. This very spirit of competition, of always trying to play perfectly, helps the viewer feel like they’re learning right alongside him. If you ever check out his stream, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll see me in his chat!

Tord Reklev / Twitch / YouTube

Although he may be new to content creation, Tord is no stranger to the Pokemon community, often being included in the greatest of all time conversations for winning three International Championships over the course of two seasons, among other impressive accomplishments. Tord encompasses the idea I mentioned in the introduction – he is always thinking about why games went the way they did, what he could have changed, and how he could get better from them. He’s also extremely welcoming and willing to try out new ideas.

Resources for Finding Tournaments

Congratulations! You’ve now learned how to play the game, consumed content on how to familiarize yourself, and learned about which strategies you want to employ. One of the most significant changes from COVID-19 is that all tournaments are online, so you can simply play from home whenever you’re feeling up to it! I’m not going to do a longer write-up on these tournaments beyond the day they take place – someone else will be covering this in greater depth soon.

There are many more than just the tournaments I’ve listed here, but the best way of learning about those is by following members of the community on Twitter, so you can get hooked into the pulse of the community.

Finally, if you’re a new player and have any questions, feel free to shoot me a message on Twitter or Facebook if you have any questions! My digital doors are open.

Identifying and Working on Weakness

Japanese author Shusaku Endo wrote “Every weakness contains within itself a strength.” These seven words are the guiding principle for improving at anything, whether it be Pokemon or any other life skill. It may sound obvious, but in order to improve at anything, with the goal of perfect performance, you first have to realize every imperfection in your ability, just as an artist must scrutinize each stroke to create a masterpiece.

Part of the key to this equation is that weaknesses are not an infection; there is no antibiotic that can eliminate them, no magic key that anyone, not even a talented coach, can give you to suddenly transform your abilities. Weaknesses, in anything, are just as much a part of your character as strengths, and while they may not be as desirable, they cannot be ignored either. Weakness is not something that can be eliminated forever, but rather something that can be modified and changed into strengths.

I’m sure you, dear reader, are familiar with the phrase, “play to your strengths.” While this does have value, you must also play to your weaknesses. Even if your sequencing is impeccable, you shouldn’t play a list you’re completely uncomfortable with, because your strengths, no matter how powerful they are, do not immediately invalidate your weaknesses.

In order to properly identify and modify weaknesses, you must first be able to do four fundamental things.

  1. Remove Assumptions

The first step to realizing your weaknesses is to remove what you’ve come to assume about the game. That list you’ve put fifty games into isn’t perfect, and just because you won a tournament doesn’t mean you don’t need to work just as hard for the next one. When we allow ourselves to become content with our assumptions, our belief in our abilities, and our feelings about the game, we begin to feel betrayed by the game itself when reality doesn’t match those expectations. I’m sure we’ve all heard some big shot player complaining about how they somehow lost to someone who played badly or otherwise didn’t deserve to win. This player’s fragile assumptions of confidence in their abilities caused them to invent reasons for losing besides the obvious reason that they refuse to see, like their deck being unprepared, or their opponent simply playing better.

I’m sure we can all imagine a time when we assumed a tech would win a given matchup, or we imagined our consistency engine would function as intended, but ultimately realized that the idea was better in theory than in practice. Nothing burns more than realizing you were completely wrong about something, but that’s okay! Simply realize your error, and work harder next time to recognize when you’re taking mental shortcuts through complicated questions.

By removing your assumptions, you are no longer complicit in your performance; you are an active participant in your own experience.

  1. Examine Your Motivation

Why are you playing Pokemon?

I ask this fundamental question because I want you to internalize those thoughts and feelings. Grasp onto them and remember them when you’re upset over a misplay or a bad meta call.

Realizing where you come up short is a humbling and painful process. It requires brutal honesty and difficult introspection. It’s a process of constantly realizing that you have, more than likely, overestimated yourself, and that a step back is required to see further growth. Having powerful, tangible motivation will help you move past speedbumps you find in the road.

When characterizing motivation, try to grasp internal rather than external motivation. When you want to play, to see success, to improve, or to be the best there ever was for yourself, you will, in turn, be more willing to put in the time and effort to actually go through with the work required to succeed. If you solely play because you feel like you should, or there won’t be another tournament like this one, or because your friends said you had to, or your followers will be disappointed if you don’t, you are automatically more likely to experience stronger feelings of anger and resentment following any failure. You will feel as though the world has pressured you into something you didn’t want to do, and in seeing failure, you will blame yourself, not realizing that you are not the one who chose to play in the first place. Win and lose for yourself, not others.

  1. Recognize and Realize You Cannot Predict Failure/Success

All of this existential thinking about why and how you play can lead to complicated feelings about success and failure itself. When you focus on what about your game needs work, sometimes it can be hard to move past that. It’s easy to get stuck in a loop like the following:

  • Think you are bad at some part of the game.
  • Expect poor performance due to lack of skill.
  • Poor tournament performance.

The downside of playing a card game, as opposed to traditional sports, is that you cannot measure your statistics in a meaningful way. Just as you can’t run the 40-yard dash or measure rotations per second to measure sequencing, you can’t calculate how optimal your play is every game or measure how well you built your deck. Realize that even though you may not see it, you will grow from failure with enough introspection and direction.

Performance, on any given day, is not a given. If we could control our sequencing, or always make a deck perfect, every single person would instantly, right? Even if certain skills are not your strength, a bad tournament performance is never guaranteed. Luck is always a factor in a game, and sometimes you have to accept poor variance as a reason for losing. This is not to say that one should use losing as a crutch, but rather, to realize that you are giving your best effort in every specific moment when you play, and that performance is not a direct measure of skill. Sometimes you overperform, and sometimes you underperform, and the end goal of all of this is to increase your average performance to a higher level, so you can see more consistent success.

  1. Put in the Time

Finally, realize that there is no shortcut to success, particularly in a fully mental pursuit like a card game. You can’t work out for two hours a day and drink protein shakes to get strong at Pokemon, but you can easily waste two hours a day playing ladder on PTCGO without truly practicing or thinking about what you’re doing. Success in Pokemon requires there to be constant effort put in, as the metagame evolves – while the rules of football may stay the same, the playbook may change week to week. Just as preparing for one game does not make you prepared for another, preparing for one tournament does not make you an expert in all tournaments. I don’t care how much your friend told you that they didn’t practice, didn’t sleep, or didn’t care about an event – if they saw success, there is more than dumb, blind luck at play.

Examining the Fundamentals

Impressionist art, like that of Van Gogh, is all about the smaller, finer strokes creating a greater overall piece. I want you to imagine that your skill in Pokemon is an impressionist painting in a museum: from 20 feet away, it is one coherent picture that portrays your abilities, both good and bad, but you cannot actually see the specific strokes that make up the greater painting. As you walk closer, the golden frame and gorgeous lighting falls away, and you are left staring face to face with the work. It is no longer a coherent image, but you can now see the specific strokes that make up the greater idea. You can see which ones are hastily made, rougher, less refined than they could be, and the ones which flow into each other like water, reflecting the elegant grace of a true masterpiece. As there is no perfect painting, there is no perfect player. I’m sure you realize that just because a painting does not have every single stroke optimized, the painting is not bad or worthless, and the same is true for your abilities. Your strokes may be rough, but they simply have some fixing up to be done.

To continue the analogy, the fine strokes you can see are the fundamentals of the game itself – the building blocks that build up the greater painting of you, the Pokemon player. In order to refine these strokes, one must know not only where they are, by identifying weaknesses, but also how they are made. As there are the fundamentals of art, there are the fundamentals of Pokemon. Nobody wins a tournament entirely because they played well, or else top players could simply pick up theme decks and succeed. Instead, they succeeded in many of the fundamentals all at once, and that allowed them to fully unlock their potential.

When looking to improve at Pokemon, it’s helpful to have something concrete to point at and work on. Although this is not an exhaustive list, here are five of the most important fundamentals to improve upon. I’ve listed them in chronological order of preparing for a tournament.

  1. Building Your Deck

One of the creators mentioned before, Azul Garcia Griego, often says that deckbuilding is the hardest part of the game, and I agree with him. What makes this particular fundamental so difficult

is that it is entirely prediction, and therefore it relies on a vast amount of knowledge from past games. For example, experienced players will know not to squeeze a four-three-two Stage Two line into a big, aggressive basic-Pokemon centered deck, probably from former experience of trying it out or playing against it, but newer players may not understand that such a build is clunky and unreliable. This is why when asked what someone should do as a newer player, most veterans will respond that they should begin working with the lists of others to get a handle of the game firs, before they start trying to brew their own crazy ideas.

This is a good approach, but realize that simply copying a deck will not teach you why certain counts are important unless you actively think about why they are included in a given deck. When building a deck, constant re-evaluation is critical to find success. Many, myself included, sometimes assume that the more experienced player is always correct, or the build of a deck is perfect without actually understanding why certain cards are needed or unnecessary. This leads to unnecessary counts of card in decks when these players try to construct decks themselves, eating up valuable space for consistency or other techs. If you’re a newer player, be patient with yourself and continue putting in the time to learn why each card has merit in a given list.

  1. Play Testing for a Given Event

Simply playing as many games as possible is not always the answer to success or growth, but it does help you understand how certain decks match up against each other, and this will help guide which deck you should play for an event. There reaches a certain level of skill in Pokemon where the players at the top of the game are not all that far apart in ability. In fact, this group may be as large as 100 players at a given tournament.

However, what tends to distinguish these players is their matchup knowledge and practice. Some of these players have put in hundreds of hours into the format, and understand that hypothetical deck X may beat two extremely popular decks, but lose to everything else (making it a poor play), while another player may realize that deck Y, which has been flying under the radar, takes down deck X, beats the other two popular decks, and takes 50-50 matchups everywhere else. One of these decks is the clearly better play for the event, but if a player does not realize that deck X loses to many decks despite favorable matchups to a few, they may be left confused and upset at a mediocre performance.

  1. Understanding the Metagame

I can hear you angrily typing now, “But Emery, I don’t have the time to invest hundreds of hours into playing for every event!” Don’t worry! I am not suggesting that success is impossible without astute devotion to the game, although there is a baseline level of practice required to maintain in-game ability and familiarity with the popular decks. It is just as important to know what to test in order to use your time most effectively, and in order to do that, you have to understand the metagame, or quite literally, the game within the game.

Unfortunately, I do not have one single concrete answer to how to read a metagame – I’ll leave this for someone else. However, something I’ve tried to do more of in quarantine is think about exploitable holes in the metagame. Again, this will be harder to do without practice in the given format, but when you understand which decks will be played, and their key weaknesses or omissions, you can find easy wins through a tournament. For example, understanding that Dragapult VMAX decks almost never played Tool Scrapper let me win an event with a Mewtwo & Mew-GX variant with only a single Stealthy Hood, to block Giratina’s Ability, which would have otherwise swung the matchup in Dragapult VMAX’s favor. The more you understand popular decks, and specifically why they lose, you can more easily calculate how to beat them in droves.

Finally, realize that sometimes the answer is staring you straight in the face. I, and many others, tend to twist ourselves into circles trying to find the perfect play for some event. A great play for a tournament might be a deck that people thought died with the previous set’s release or something that’s never been played before, but it could just as easily be an already-proven list sporting strong matchups against the most popular decks going into an event. The wheel doesn’t always need to be reinvented, but it shouldn’t be left unkempt either.

Mewtwo & Mew GXGiratinaDragapult VMAXStealthy Hood

  1. Sequencing

Remember what I was saying about getting to the top level of the game, where skill is about equal, and the other fundamentals, like matchup knowledge or metagame reading come into play? This is still true, but it does undermine the extreme amount of skill required to sequence correctly. Essentially, sequencing is like deckbuilding in that it’s all prediction, but it’s all in the moment, and must be conducted at a lively pace of play.

What makes sequencing different, however, is that you must know what to guess. Even if you’re not incredibly experienced with the game itself, after playing in a few tournaments and watching a few streams, you’ll start to realize the most popular decks, even if you’re not sure which ones to prepare for in a given tournament. Therefore, you can have some kind of guess at what you will play against and expect to see. With sequencing, the situations are often far more nuanced and require far more components, like what you assume your opponent plays (not all assumptions are bad), the order in which cards should be drawn or searched, and in what order attackers should be used.

Unfortunately, there’s not always a correct line in any given sequence, even if you’ve played a deck millions of times or grinded out 20 games every day for years. All you can do is try to see as many situations as you can, understand what the correct play is (even if you have to go back and watch the game after), and move on from there. Talking to others about your play, or streamers about theirs, will also help you get a new perspective and open up new routes of thought when you play in an actual tournament. Stay tuned for Xander Pero’s huge piece on applying math to sequencing, as well as general tips to improve your lines.

  1. Tournament Endurance

This is the simplest part of playing any game, but often the most neglected. It does not matter how much you’ve practiced or prepared if you are mentally incoherent from a number of tangible factors. Maybe you didn’t sleep enough, or didn’t eat breakfast, didn’t drink water, or stayed up way too late. Regardless, you must know what your body needs to succeed in order to maintain your mental strength through a tournament.

In addition, understand your mentality for an event. This loops back a bit to the motivation I mentioned earlier, but it should also be part of tournament endurance. If you’re in a self-defeating or effacing mentality, you’re far more likely to do poorly. Am I saying you should expect to win every match or event? No, of course not. Am I saying you need to believe that you’re able to win in order to win? Yes, I am.

Conclusion

Thank you all for working your way through this lengthy article with me. I truly do love writing about Pokemon and the opportunity to share my favorite game with an entirely new audience is incredibly exciting. As I said before, I hope I was able to instill a sense of reflection in you – one that you’ll use rethink your abilities. We all have a long way to go, whether we like it or not.

As for a parting thought on growth, I’d like to leave you with a quote from Alan Watts.

“What I am saying then is just because you don’t know how you manage to be conscious, how you manage to grow and shape your body, doesn’t mean that you’re not doing it. Equally, if you don’t know how the universe shines the stars, constellates the constellations, or galactifies the galaxies – you don’t know but that doesn’t mean that you aren’t doing it just the same way as you are breathing without knowing how you breathe.”

Be safe, everyone, and I’ll see you again soon. Best wishes.

Emery

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