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I Brew, You Brew, We All Brew! — Brewing Decks 101

Hello all, and welcome to my first article here. Some of you may know me for various reasons, some may not. Before I get into anything else, I should establish a bit of credibility for myself, both as a player and as a writer. Because, why would anyone listen to someone they don’t know anything about?

I’ve been a PTCG player for ten full seasons at this point, and would be entering my eleventh under normal circumstances. Throughout that time, I’ve had my fair share of accomplishments. The recent ones can be found here. The less recent ones are from my younger days as a Junior and Senior, so feel less relevant, but do include a Worlds Top 8 and a Nationals Top 8.

Now to establish myself as a credible writer. Over the past two years, I’ve put out 59 articles, adding up to roughly 150,000 words. I’d like to think that I wouldn’t have lasted long enough to write that much if I wasn’t at least somewhat competent. Now that that part is over with onto today’s article, one which I’ve been intending to write for a decent amount of time.

Brewing decks. One of the most important skills a player needs to have in order to be successful. But what all goes into it? Is it a formula? Is it innate knowledge? Today, I’m going to be breaking down my process for building successful decks, using one of my past creations to demonstrate.

The Process of Brewing

There’s a lot that goes into crafting decks in an optimal fashion. There’s also more than one way to be successful doing it. What follows is how I personally have found success. It might work for you, it might not. This process also assumes you have a nearly unlimited amount of time, which may not be realistic for everyone. It is also important to note that this process does not take into account anyone else’s work, which means that this is meant to be done with no previous information on whatever you’re building. If there’s already an established list, it will be more efficient to start with it.

Step 1

First, you need to have a clear goal with your deck. Using a Standard format example, your goal could be to beat Arceus & Dialga & Palkia-GX. Obviously that goal is a little bit narrow and wouldn’t lead to resounding success, but it’s still a goal. A much better goal would be to beat three out of four of the best four decks. If it can’t do at least that, then unless you’re exceedingly lucky with your matchups during an event, there’s little chance of success. An important part of this is to be realistic. Beating literally everything isn’t realistic.

Arceus & Dialga & Palkia GXArceus & Dialga & Palkia GX (Full Art)Arceus & Dialga & Palkia GX (Alternate Art)Arceus & Dialga & Palkia GX (Secret)

Step 2

This is arguably the most important step in the process. Build the most consistent list possible for whatever you’re attempting to create. This means no matchup specific techs and no cards that rely on coin flips, unless they’re performing a very specific function that no other card can. These cards will come later in the process. This part of the process will often determine whether a deck is worth your continued effort. Focus on draw Supporters and Item cards that will help you set up each game – you want to avoid games where you brick and can’t do anything, thus defeating the point of playing a deck in the first place.

Once you’ve reached your maximum amount of consistency, play some games with the deck. The goal at this point isn’t to win games. It’s to determine if your deck is capable of consistently executing its intended purpose. Sometimes it won’t work, even with high counts of consistency cards. This means more games to reduce variance. If you’re still not seeing success, it’s okay to scrap the deck and move on. Don’t get over-attached to a concept – I know – I personally struggle with this part sometimes.

Step 3

At this point, you should have 60 cards that are intended for consistency and consistency alone. You don’t actually need all of that consistency. Step two exists solely to prove that your deck is capable of functioning under optimal circumstances. Step three is where you start to actually build your list. You should already have a basic idea of what consistency cards are less necessary and are the first cuts for tech slots. The important thing here is choosing what cards you want to include. Some cards are going to make a bigger difference than others.

For instance, there’s been a few ADP lists popping up with four Pokemon Catcher and four Boss’s Orders. Pokemon Catcher is perfect for the gameplay of ADP, which is generally to gust up two small Pokemon-GX/Pokemon V to win the game. In other decks, Pokemon Catcher would likely be much less effective. You need to maximize the effectiveness of every single card you play in your list. The best way to gauge whether or not cards are worth including is through the following checklist:

  1. Does the tech increase your odds of beating a particular matchup?
  2. Is that matchup already favorable without the tech?
  3. Is the increased favorability worth a consistency hit?
  4. If limited on space, are there are techs than help multiple matchups?

Obviously there can be circumstances outside of these, but as a general rule I’ve found them to be quiet effective. As this point you should have 60 cards that are a somewhat healthy mix between consistency and techs.

Boss's OrdersBoss's Orders (Full Art)Boss's Orders (Secret)Pokemon Catcher

Step 4

Here’s the most time consuming step: you need to play games. Lots of them. In order to know whether you’ve optimized your deck well, you need to see it in action. Unlike in step two, your goal is to win games. This is where you truly test whether what you’ve built is going to be viable, whether your chosen techs will be effective or not. During this step, I’ve been known to keep a spreadsheet detailing what occurs during the games. Depending on the situation, I’ll keep a log of whether a tech made a difference in a matchup. As a general rule, if I find myself not using a tech or having it be a win-more card at least once every three games of the matchup it’s intended for, then it’s not good enough. That ratio might sound a bit high, but if you think about it, it’s actually pretty low. Here’s why…

In a nine round event, you will play against only nine different players. Assuming that the tech is for a deck that is 10% of the meta, you will statistically only play against it one time. In a best-of-three format there will be up to three games against the deck. If my tech isn’t helping me in at least one of the three games, then why am I even playing it? Yes, this isn’t an entirely accurate way to do this because if the deck is good and is winning more often than not, you’re more likely to face it later in the event. However, for that bit to matter, you have to make it to the later rounds in the first place.

Continuing on with step four, I’ve actually found it prudent to occasionally test with a wild card of sorts rather than a specific tech. Say I have a single spot left in my list, and two potential tech cards that are relevant for the same matchup. During testing I’ll always assume that t is the card that would be most beneficial in that situation. I then keep track of these situations. If I notice a trend towards one card being more effective, I’ll almost assuredly choose that card. The important thing about this little method is that it saves time in what is already a long process.

One more testing technique that has helped me quite a bit in the past is having a preset assumption that a coin flip will go my way only 33% of the time, with the exclusion of Special Condition flips. I do this because variance is a very real thing. I’ve decided that if I’m going to be playing cards that rely on flips, I don’t want to be entirely reliant on the flips going my way.

Minimizing luck is a vital aspect of building decks.

Determining Strong Cards

All cards are not created equal. There will always be cards that are strictly better than others. Zacian V for example. None of the other Basic Pokemon V come close to the strength of Zacian V. Zacian’s strength limits the viability of almost every other Metal-type Pokemon in this format that doesn’t fill a specific niche, like Zamazenta V. In a vacuum, cards like Copperajah VMAX and Scizor VMAX, are decent cards. In reality, they’re outclassed immediately by Zacian V, so there is little reason to play them.

I’ve been known to build decks around some of the Stage 2 cards that have unique attacks and abilities. A recent example of this was with Grimmsnarl. There’s no other card in format that does what it does in the way that it does. Was the deck good? Not particularly, but that’s because Stage 2 Pokemon are at an extreme disadvantage in the current climate. I don’t build these decks because I think they’re going to win events. I do it because the cards themselves are strong, and there’s a challenge in making them competitively viable, and it’s good practice for when it really matters.

That being said, being unique doesn’t make a card good. There are plenty of cards that do some really interesting things, but are too much of a gimmick to be pulled off. When prepping for actual events, don’t get stuck on concepts that aren’t good enough to be played.

Zamazenta VZacian VScizor VMAXCopperajah VMAX

The Process Applied

I mentioned that I would be using a deck from my past to demonstrate the process. Depending on who you are, some of this will be old news, but I’m sure for many that this will be helpful. In May 2018, my testing partner at the time, Wesley Hollenberg, and I were on a Skype call trying to crack the format following the release of Forbidden Light. A lot of things happened in this set, but chief among them was the release of Beast Ring, which obviously paired well with Buzzwole-GX. There were plenty of other cards that would play a major role in the format, but Beast Ring is where this demonstration beings.

Step 1 Applied

We had our goal already: find the most efficient use of Beast Ring. Rather than try to beat any specific matchup(s), we wanted to utilize the new Ultra Beast engine in the best possible way. For some added context, Buzzwole / Lycanroc (BuzzRoc) was already an established deck that had been dominating the format. Buzzwole / Garbodor / Carbink BREAK was also known, but had seen relatively little play or success. The community as a whole gravitated towards BuzzRoc, leaving the Garbodor variant behind entirely.

Our goal then evolved into this: Efficiently use Beast Ring in a way that almost guarantees we win the game if we execute the strategy.

Step 2 Applied

Buzzwole / Garbodor was already a deck with plenty of lists out there. So rather than build from the ground up, we borrowed a list from an event in the previous format. With new cards comes new ways to build the deck, so we needed to change a lot. It was late at night when we first built the list, and unfortunately I don’t have any record of the specific cards in the deck. However, I know that we immediately cut the 2-2 Carbink BREAK line for four Beast Ring. Carbink no longer had a purpose – Beast Ring outclassed it. We also cut Zygarde-EX because it wasn’t an Ultra Beast and no longer helped in any way.

This list ended up having far too many Supporters and Items that we ended up not needed. There were cards that were suboptimal in almost every way. We did have a 60 card list that was supposedly maximized on consistency cards though. But on to step three, where we discovered that they were the wrong cards.

Step 3 Applied

We already knew that the list we had wasn’t going to be good because we hadn’t optimized the list beyond always drawing playable hands. There were still cards like Professor Sycamore and Ultra Ball in the deck, which would make sense if you looked at literally every other deck in format. BuzzGarb was unlike every other deck in format. You couldn’t afford to be discarding cards unnecessarily. Every single card in the deck needed to be there and served a specific purpose. It took us awhile to realize what we were doing wrong. I distinctly remember the call where we went through the deck and asked, “Is this card necessary?”  – almost half of the cards weren’t.

This little interaction brings me to a rather important piece of the deck-building puzzle. When you ask if a card is necessary, the answer should almost be yes. You should always be able to provide a specific reason as to why a card is in your deck. The most common reasons will be for consistency or for a specific matchup. There are definitely others, but I don’t need to list them all out. As long as your answer to why a card is necessary isn’t, “I don’t know,” or “It’s not,” then you should be good.

Professor SycamoreProfessor SycamoreUltra BallUltra Ball (Secret)

Breaking Down the List

This is the list that Wes and I ended up playing for Madison Regionals where the deck was debuted. Every single card in this list had a specific purpose that we determined through extensive thought and testing. So many of these cards didn’t fit the preconceived notion of what a deck should look like. There were no Ultra Ball or Professor Sycamore in the list. Instead, there were Nest Ball, Mysterious Treasure, and copious amounts of shuffle-draw Supporters. We determined that the discarding effects of Ultra Ball and Professor Sycamore actively harmed the deck, unlike anything the format had seen.

I feel like I should touch on this in order to clarify something: Order Pad. You know, a card that involves coin flips? Yeah, three copies made their way into the list. Why? Because they were the most efficient way to ensure that we would find multiple Beast Ring on the turns that they mattered. Even assuming I hit one of three heads on Order Pads, that’s still an extra Beast Ring every game. It was around the same time as when we included Order Pads that we realized that there was a way to turn Order Pad into a Supporter, and thus Random Receiver found a new home in our list.

I should also break down the Energy count, because at first glance, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. There are four Beast Ring and only seven Basic Energy. We toyed with a lot of numbers for Energy, but eventually determined that in order to win the game, we would only need to successfully Beast Ring twice every game. This led to the lower Basic Energy count.

Step 4 Applied

We played hundreds of games. Maybe thousands between us. We spent so much time on this deck, trying different cards, learning what the best way to do everything was, and finding the best techs. And then I didn’t even play the deck. I broke one of my own rules the night before the event. We played maybe five games of the BuzzRoc matchup, and I was consistently destroying Wes, who was on the BuzzGarb side of things. I panicked and jumped to Greninja BREAK of all things, which I had played a total of eight games with.

Madison Regionals concluded. Wes had bubbled Top 8, and Ian Robb, who we had given the list to, made Top 4 with a very similar list. But that wasn’t the end of the deck’s growth. There are some things you can only ever learn in an event. We took that list, and with the help of my brother, Christopher, made a few minute changes that made the deck even stronger. That list ended up being used by a few players to place quite well at Mexico Regionals and the North American Internationals.

Buzzwole GXGarbodorGreninjaGreninja BREAK

Closing Thoughts

If there are three things about deck-building you take away from this, they need to be these:

  1. Every card needs to have a purpose.
  2. Don’t get hung up on inferior concepts.
  3. My strategies may work for you, but don’t be afraid to change things and add your own methods.

Growth takes time, and so does deck building. The best way for to get better at this sort of thing is to practice. Use things like Stage 2 Pokemon in order to practice optimizing lists, and if you don’t know when your list is actually optimized, my PMs are always open.

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