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Theory — The Transition From Senior Division to Masters

Hey everyone, happy holidays! I’m back today to discuss a subject that isn’t talked about much but is arguably one of the biggest moments in a player’s career – the transition from the Senior Division into Masters. I’ve wanted to write this article for a while and I hope it will be helpful not only for those younger players but also for us Masters who have the privilege to mentor the upcoming generation of Pokemon TCG players. I hope you all enjoy it!

One of the main reasons I have thought about this topic is simply because I just went through it. Don’t let the speed of my facial hair growth fool you, 16 months ago I was in the final days of my career playing in the Pokemon TCG Senior Division. By anyone’s judgment, I had a very successful career as a Senior. In three years of playing, I won an International Championship, five Regional Championships, top cut five other Internationals and over 20 Regionals. While my three appearances at Worlds in Seniors didn’t go as well as I hoped (Top 16 twice and Top 32), I have nothing to complain about with the previous list of accomplishments.

You may think that I would be sad to leave a Division that brought me so much success, but that was not the case. As much as I enjoyed Seniors, I was excited to move into Masters at the beginning of the 2019-2020 season and prove myself in the most competitive Division. While I knew I wouldn’t find the same success, I did set the goal of doing well enough to finish Top 16 in North America by the end of the year. So – how did it go?

My Masters career started with the first Regional of the season in Atlantic City – which now feels like years ago. I went in with a unique deck list that I felt could beat anything and ended up making cut and losing to Azul in Top 4. My hot start to the season continued with a Top 8 finish at the second Regional, held in Knoxville. I almost pulled off the top cut “hat trick” to start the season, but I lost my win-and-in at the Richmond Regionals and finished 18th. This crazy start to my Masters career put me in an amazing position to begin the year and I went on to attend three other Regionals (Top 32 twice and Top 64). To cap off the year, I won the unofficial “Worlds” tournament online.

With these accomplishments under my belt, my transition into Masters was obviously a good one. Today, I want to answer the question: Why did I have such a successful transition? There are many things I attribute my success to, but let’s start with what I believe to be the most important point in this article.

The truth is that the process of a successful transition begins long before you age up into Masters.

Let me explain. Technically, the transition between Divisions is an immediate thing (one event you are playing in Seniors and then the next you are in Masters). While that is true, I would encourage players to consider that the transition process should start much sooner mentally and relationally.

It is common for Masters players to refer to those who have succeeded in the Senior Division as excelling in “the irrelevant division”. I know from experience that some of the younger minds have a lot to offer the game when it comes to creativity and innovation. To suggest that the Senior Division can’t produce quality thought or play is hyperbolic. That said, it would be foolish to suggest that the level of thinking, deckbuilding, strategy and gameplay in the Senior Division can come close to that which is seen among the top tier in Masters. Because of this, I would suggest that this is one of the best things a player in the Senior Division can do:

Embrace the mindset that there is always more to learn. Commit to always progressing mentally as a player.

Why wait until you enter the Master Division to learn how to think “beyond your years”? One of the decisions that I attribute much of my success to this past year is connected to my desire to never stop working to mentally improve my game. Today’s younger player has no excuse when it comes to learning from the great minds of the game. There are limitless opportunities for free coaching available to every player. Intrigued?

The decision that I referenced above was to watch every Pokemon match that has ever been streamed. Yes, you heard that correctly. I started as far back as I could find and watched any and every old Worlds, Internationals or Regionals match that was recorded. By doing this, I was essentially receiving free coaching and multiplying my game experience well beyond my years. Watching the greats like Klaczynski, Tord, Pram, Azul, Pedro and others play the game helped me gain invaluable knowledge about card interaction, mental strategy and sequencing that prepared me mentally for the transition from Seniors to Masters. In today’s day and age, this process is even easier: all the above players (minus Klaczynski) stream consistently on Twitch! As I mentioned earlier, the mental transition from Seniors to Masters begins or should I say, “can begin“, well before you technically transition. However, that’s not the only transition that should happen before you play your final Senior match.

In my experience, the best way to progress as a player is testing with those better than you. To test with those better than you, you need to have relationships with them. Most likely, these players will be older than you. This brings me to another important component of beginning the transition to Masters before you do.

Don’t wait until you age up to try and build relationships and make connections with those who are better in the game.

While I know that this is a daunting task for younger players (and even many Masters) one of the best things you can do is build relationships with players who are more experienced than you. While I don’t necessarily consider myself the Dale Carnegie of Pokemon (he wrote the classic book “How to Win Friends and Influence People” for those who don’t know), I do have a few suggestions! First off, no one likes to be friends with a person who only tries to mooch on others. In other words, you aren’t building a relationship if all you do is spam messages with “Hey, what’s the play?”. If you are a younger player, I would encourage you to approach Masters by thanking them if they have helped you in some way (through writing or their play), complimenting them if you saw something that genuinely impressed you and sharing your ideas.

Sharing your ideas is extremely important when it comes to building genuine relationships with older players. If you are serious about the game and share your thoughts, others should be able to see your talent. I can remember the first time that I was invited to join a Facebook group of Masters players (shout out to the Luxury Club). While I was the only Senior in the group, they recognized that I had something to offer the group – and I was willing to share.

In my second-to-last year of Seniors, I began to test with several friends of mine who were more experienced, knowledgeable and accomplished than I was. Alex Hill, Jon Eng and Michael Catron were three of my closest friends who helped me advance my game. As I look back, I can see how much they helped develop me as a player. I knew that they were better players than me and they believed in me enough to play games with me whenever they had the time. As time passed, I continued to build more and more relationships with older players. For the next two years, while I had a few consistent testing partners in the Senior Division (shout out to Rowan Stavenow and Lucas Xing) I made a conscious effort to try and play with older players whenever I could. This allowed me to build a network of friends so that when I aged up into Masters, I was able to test with a strong group of players and that was reflected in my placements.

If you haven’t gotten the point I will try and say it as clearly as possible: try and connect with older players as much as you can. I know that I’ve repeated this throughout the article, but I truly believe there is no better advice. While I was lucky with the players I was able to connect with, it is possible to connect with older players even if you don’t know them well. If you don’t know how to begin, I would encourage you to message recently aged-up Senior players. Since they are no longer in your Division, they are likely to be more than willing to engage with you and share their thoughts, especially if you’ve played with them before! I would also say to not be shy about messaging established players. While it might seem scary at first, almost all the well-known players are great people who are happy to give you advice. As you approach the end of your time as a Senior, continue pursuing growth mentally and relationally.

Now that I’ve given my primary advice, here are a few additional thoughts regarding some of the major differences between playing in the Senior and Masters Divisions.

Tournament Length: Senior Regional events are normally six or seven rounds of Swiss play followed by a top cut to 8. What this means is that you can’t lose more than one match if you hope to have a shot at playing on Sunday. On the other hand, Masters events are nine rounds on Saturday, followed by another five to six rounds on Sunday for all who have at least 19 match points by the end of day one (typically a 6W-2L-1T record or better). This has several implications. First, preparing your mind and body to play nine rounds of Pokemon and then an additional five-plus rounds the next day is no small thing! It is an adjustment that shouldn’t be taken lightly. While my body doesn’t require me to get much sleep, if you are generally exhausted by the end of events, you should plan accordingly.

Second, the Masters format allows you to lose twice on Saturday and still make day two. In Seniors, the second loss will often put you out of contention for top cut. The Masters format rewards players who can maintain composure and mentally rebound after not only one defeat, but two! Over the years, I have been inspired by the number of players who have advanced to Top Cut after losing two matches early in the tournament. In fact, the last Masters Regional champ started the event 2W-2L-0T! This mental and emotional stability is a huge part of excelling in the game of Pokemon.

Pressure: It’s impossible to mention the differences between the Senior and Masters Division without acknowledging the increased pressure. The pressure is, by far, the hardest hurdle to climb when moving up in divisions. The success that many players find in Seniors is simply unsustainable in a division with as many players as Masters. While consistently making Top 8 in major events is possible in Seniors, getting one or two a year is impressive in Masters. What this means is significant for those who are making the transition.

If you want to succeed while still enjoying the game in Masters, you need to adjust your expectations to a reasonable level.

For example, while my mindset going into every event is to approach it with the desire to win it, I know that I can’t reasonably expect to finish in the Top 8 every time. One of the things that I have seen over the years is that many people start thinking that “so and so” always gets a great finish. While that person may indeed be consistent, if you look at their results, you will see that even the best players in the world have a horrible tournament here and there. That’s just the game of Pokemon!

So, when it comes to pressure, I would encourage players to put pressure on themselves during the testing and preparation process and then let the chips fall as they may when it comes to tournament play. This will help you be confident in your deck and skill while understanding there are things in an event you can’t control.

One additional aspect of pressure comes with the amount of coverage that Masters gets compared to the lower divisions. Doing well in one Masters tournament will often get more media attention than winning multiple Senior events! Because of this, it’s important to try and maintain a level head. Enjoy your success but remember that it isn’t guaranteed. Each event is its own beast. This mindset keeps you from becoming prideful with success and helps you keep your cool with a bad placement.

Competition: One huge difference between Seniors and Masters is the level of competition. The average Masters player is better than the average Senior player and the good Masters are much better than the good Seniors. This difference should change how you prepare for events. I knew going into any Seniors event that within three or four rounds, if I was winning, I was likely to hit one of a handful of players. Often, those players had certain deck styles that they would consistently bring to events. What this meant was that my deck choice was largely influenced by a small handful of competitors that I was likely to face.

My experience in Masters has proved to me that perfectly metagaming a tournament is almost impossible. Because the number of players in a tournament is five to 10 times greater than in Seniors, there is no guarantee that you will hit any handful of players. This means that your task in choosing a deck is dependent on what you think the best deck is overall and not how it will fare versus a specific testing group. Because of this, I would encourage young players to constantly challenge themselves by learning to pilot different deck styles during their Junior and Senior careers. Don’t allow yourself to become a “one-trick pony” who just plays a certain type of deck. If you will develop an ability to play a wide range of deck archetypes, it will both boost your success in Seniors and prepare you to pilot the best deck available when you age up to the Masters Division.

Support: While this isn’t necessarily true for everyone, by the time you’re in Masters you often can travel by yourself. While I love being with my friends, it does make a difference when you don’t have a parent or some support person traveling with you. There is nothing like testing with the boys knowing that “Dadner” is out getting pizza for everyone so that we can maximize our time before the event or running to update my parents after every match. My advice for Masters who are aging up is to not be so quick to ditch mom or dad. Remember all that they’ve done for you in the past and that they still love getting updates – even when they can’t be at the event. Enjoy their support and company while you can!


Well, friends, that’s my best shot at trying to offer some help for those who are seeking to make a successful transition from the Senior Division to the Master Division. In short, don’t wait for the technical change, go ahead and start getting ready mentally and relationally! Be confident that you have something to offer other players and put yourself out there. Good luck and happy holidays!

Isaiah

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