Rotation is upon us! By the time you’re reading this, all the cards prior to Sword & Shield will have rotated out of the Standard format, meaning we’re starting the new season with a smaller card pool, like every year.
I’ve been playing the Pokemon TCG competitively since 2010, so I’ve seen my fair share of rotations. The extent to which they impact the way the game is played varies from year to year; for what it’s worth, I think that this rotation will be one of the least impactful I’ve seen, since many, if not all, top tier decks will keep working with very few adjustments to make. That said, there are plenty of cards leaving the format whose absence will be felt, for better or for worse: cards which see play everywhere (Dedenne-GX), cards to build archetypes around (Arceus & Dialga & Palkia-GX), universal techs (Mew), specific techs (Marshadow), cards which most decks don’t care about but do a lot in specific archetypes (Mewtwo), unremarkable Trainers who nevertheless had a noticeable impact on the metagame (Chaotic Swell)… Sure, the typical Ice Rider list might not change a lot, but that doesn’t mean that the metagame, as a whole, will stay the same; far from it. So, how do you approach rotation? How do you adapt to a new environment?
Every rotation, players ponder these questions and I’ve noticed that many of them, especially newer ones (this is all relative; some players have played for nine months but never known a rotation, so while they’re not beginners, they don’t have any experience when it comes to this specific situation), take a wrong approach, and make similar mistakes: they don’t look at the bigger picture and miss some global changes by being too focused on specific decks. More experienced players tend to approach rotation in a more analytic way and usually find out much faster which archetypes, old and new, are worth playing.
The first post-rotation (SSH–EVS) event to reach more than 100 players (and at the time of writing, the only one) was Zach Lesage’s Late Night Series #5, which was won by 2019 World Champion Henry Brand with Dragapult VMAX / Inteleon. I can’t decently call this deck new, since I’ve seen it around a few times pre-rotation; it only plays one card from Evolving Skies, so it’s not really a deck that came around in the Evolving Skies era either. However, while the deck existed pre-rotation, it was nowhere near good enough to win a 300-plus player event. There are many reasons why this deck suddenly became better after rotation and one of the goals of this article is to explain its success. However, I won’t limit my reach to only one deck or even to one rotation. I will use examples from my experience as a long-time player to help you understand rotations in general. Hopefully this article will still be useful when the next rotation comes around! (If you’re reading this in 2022 or later, hello from the past!)
The most common question I see every year when rotation comes is “what’s a good replacement for card X in deck Y”. This could be called a micro approach: you’re used to playing a deck, most of the deck stays playable after rotation, so you change the cards you can’t use anymore, usually for something with a similar effect.
Sometimes, this approach works: instead of playing one Dedenne-GX in a Rapid Strike Urshifu VMAX deck, you can play one Crobat V. The cards are not the same, but they tend to do the same thing, so it’s not unreasonable to consider Crobat V a substitute for Dedenne-GX. Sometimes, it doesn’t work there’s no direct replacement for Mew, for example. If your deck used to play Mew, you’ll have to play something completely different instead.
But even in the cases when this approach works, it’s not always the best choice. Rotation brings big changes, which have repercussions that are not always obvious. This means that, even for the same archetype, the optimal pre-rotation list and the optimal post-rotation list may not look alike at all; there’s no guarantee you can get from one to the other just by changing each rotating card for its closest post-rotation equivalent. For example, most Blacephalon lists in the 2019-2020 season focused on Blacephalon as a main attacker, with maybe a couple of secondary attackers such as Cramorant V. Upon rotation (UPR–DAA to TEU–DAA), the deck lost a couple cards, but most importantly Fiery Flint, which was its main way to draw Energy early in the game and therefore to power up the first Fireball Circus (before Fire Crystal can be used). To replace it, players included a higher count of Fire Energy, as well as four copies of Giant Hearth (and Marshadow to remove opposing Chaotic Swell).
This worked decently, but Giant Hearth was not nearly as effective as Fiery Flint, so the deck had a much rougher early game compared to its pre-rotation incarnation (the fact that more VMAX Pokemon were seeing play and that those required seven Energy instead of the six needed to KO TAG TEAMs, didn’t help). Eventually, some players figured out that the best way to play Blacephalon was to use Reshiram & Charizard-GX in the early game and thus, this new1 variation (which had several names, the main one being Tempozard, although I think this name makes no sense) started seeing a lot of success. Adapting to the new format required taking a step back, as the issues of the deck couldn’t be solved by simply replacing Fiery Flint with other Energy or Energy-providing cards.
1 Obviously, I’m simplifying the narrative a little bit. Japanese players started playing Reshiram & Charizard-GX in Blacephalon just before rotation, mostly to deal with the new Vikavolt V, but it wasn’t the standard way to play the deck. Also, Reshizard stayed in the deck post-rotation even after Vikavolt V stopped seeing any play.
Therefore, when you’re trying to adapt your deck to rotation, I recommend trying to look at the bigger picture and not replace cards one-for-one. There are two steps in this process.
The first and simpler, step is to think about your draw engine. Can it work the same before and after rotation? Sometimes, losing a key card means you need to completely change the engine. For example, when Brigette left Standard in August 2018 (BKT–CES to SUM–CES), Zoroark-GX decks couldn’t use it as their way to set up on turn one anymore and had to figure out a new engine. Most players ended up using more Items such as Nest Ball and even Great Ball, along with straight draw Supporters such as Lillie. In the case of the current, 2021 rotation, the most important consistency cards (Professor’s Research, Marnie, Quick Ball) stay around, so no such transformation is needed. However, there are two useful consistency cards leaving the format: Dedenne-GX and Pokemon Communication. The former can mostly be replaced by Crobat V, but the latter provided a useful way to search for any Pokemon.
Many decks could run more Evolution Incense instead, since VMAX deck usually want Quick Ball to search for their Basic Pokemon and Pokemon Communication to search for their VMAX, but if you replace Pokemon Communication by Evolution Incense without making any other change, you lose some turn one consistency, because Pokemon Communication could be used to search for your Basics as well if needed, but Evolution Incense cannot. If possible, you should look for ways to counterbalance that consistency loss, for example by playing (more) Capture Energy. As for decks that can’t run Capture Energy, like Ice Rider Calyrex, they’ll probably get worse… or they’ll have to adapt in other ways, maybe by focusing more on Suicune V, which can use Capture Energy. Again, sometimes, the easiest changes to make aren’t the best and it’s worth trying to make deeper modifications to a deck to make it better suited to the new format.
The second step is to consider the other cards, those who tend to come into play in specific scenarios or matchups. Sometimes, a card that’s still in the format isn’t good or at least optimal, anymore. For example, many pre-rotation Shadow Rider lists played Path to the Peak. This card achieved multiple purposes: it would allow Shadow Rider Calyrex VMAX to hit Zamazenta V, it would counter Jirachi-GX in Rapid Strike Urshifu VMAX decks, and it could provide powerful disruption alongside Trevenant & Dusknoir-GX. However, after rotation, Trevenant & Dusknoir-GX and Jirachi-GX are both gone and while Zamazenta V isn’t, the main deck that played it, LMZ, is no more (due to Lucario & Melmetal-GX’s rotation). In addition, Shadow Rider would use Marshadow to get rid of their own Path to the Peak when they needed to use their Abilities again, but Marshadow also left the format, removing that combination. (Pumpkaboo can replace Marshadow, but you can’t have your Pumpkaboo sit on your Bench until you need to remove your Stadium, so it’s much more dangerous to rely on it.)
For these reasons, post-rotation Shadow Rider decks are not playing Path to the Peak anymore, despite the card being in the format. Maybe they’ll start doing so again at some point, for example if Zamazenta V becomes popular again, but in the meantime, there’s no reason to play it.
Conversely, it happens that a card that was never played in a deck becomes good in it due to changes in the metagame. In 2020, after rotation, many top tier decks would be very slow on turn one and only become threatening on turn two: think Eternatus VMAX and ADP / Zacian. Crushing Hammer started seeing play in many decks. Pikachu & Zekrom-GX, which was assumed to be dead after losing Thunder Mountain Prism Star and Electropower to rotation, managed to come back thanks to its Energy denial package (Crushing Hammer and Team Yell Grunt) and in fact, was arguably BDIF for half the season thanks to it. This innovation wasn’t instant: it came after players realized that Energy denial was an effective strategy against multiple decks that would otherwise have the upper hand against Pikarom. Looking at the whole format and the common matchups and not just at what seemed to fit in (what were at the time) the usual Pikarom builds, was key to finding the right way to adapt the deck.
Obviously, every year, there are decks that don’t survive rotation at all. There is no way to build a Mewtwo & Mew-GX / Welder deck without Mewtwo & Mew-GX or Welder, after all. However, more often than you’d expect, powerful archetypes manage to overcome the loss of key cards and live on after rotation under another form2. Which brings up a key question: how do you figure out if a deck is dead or if it can be resurrected? For that matter, even if a top tier deck doesn’t seem to lose much from rotation, can you be sure it will still be top tier after rotation?
2 There’s a running joke in the French community about Pikarom being able to survive anything, to the point that we’re still expecting it to live on in 2022 despite Pikarom itself being out of Standard. That said, my favorite example of that phenomenon is Yveltal-EX, which was expected to become irrelevant in the 2014 (NXD-On to BCR-On) rotation when it lost Dark Patch but survived by turning from an aggressive archetype into a defensive one.
Rotation can completely change the power rankings between decks. A deck that used to be on top may find that its advantages over other decks are not so huge anymore and a deck that didn’t do well can find itself perfectly suited to the new metagame. Therefore, the micro approach, changing your deck to suit to the new metagame, which is so popular among newer players, can be short-sighted. The best way to consider rotation is to look at the format in its globality and try to figure out what the changes mean for the metagame. Instead of thinking, “I’m going to keep playing deck A”, figure out if deck A is still really the deck you want to be playing. Maybe it’s not as good now. Maybe it’s still good, but there’s a new deck that’s even better, that never had a chance to shine before!
The perfect example of how a rotation can completely change the power of decks is the 2019 (SUM–UNB to UPR–UNM) rotation. Admittedly, the fact that rotation happened at the same time as the release of Unified Minds means the format changed in two different ways at the same time (new cards coming in, old cards coming out), but I still think it’s edifying. With the loss of sets from Sun & Moon to Crimson Invasion, the format lost some powerhouses such as Zoroark-GX, but also staples like Ultra Ball, Nest Ball, Tapu Lele-GX and Guzma. Suddenly, every deck had to rethink its engine. Losing the universal Item search cards (Quick Ball wasn’t around yet) meant that many decks couldn’t work consistently anymore. Instead of trying to make these decks work anyway, players focused on which decks could still work in the new format.
One of these answers was Mewtwo & Mew-GX. Thanks to the new Cherish Ball and Mysterious Treasure and a strong focus on Dedenne-GX, the deck could still draw well and find the Pokemon it needed at the right time, which is one of the reasons it won Worlds and kept being a powerful archetype for the rest of the season. The second-place deck, Blacephalon-GX / Naganadel, also had a solid consistency engine based on Cherish Ball, Mysterious Treasure and Ultra Space.
An even better answer, though, was Gardevoir & Sylveon-GX / Green’s Exploration. This deck wasn’t new; it used a few cards from Unified Minds, but the core of the deck was around before. It had never found success pre-rotation (outside of Japan), but suddenly, it seemed like everything in the format was favoring it. A lack of consistency cards in the format? The deck only played five Pokemon, all of which were Pokemon-GX, and it could find Cherish Ball easily thanks to Green’s Exploration. No Guzma? Green’s Exploration allowed the use of Custom Catcher, one of the few gust effects still around. Even better, the opponent couldn’t easily KO a Benched damaged Gardevoir & Sylveon-GX and then Xerneas-GX could use its GX attack to heal Gardeon and KO an opponent at the same time. Decks needed to play more Dedenne-GX? Gardeon played Power Plant to shut them down. Many players figured out that this deck would suddenly become much better than before; Gardeon became the most successful deck of day one of Worlds and did well in day two and for the rest of the 2020 season (until Sword & Shield came out).
What I really want beginners to understand here is that thinking about the specificities of the new format (such as the lack of a universal gust Supporter) and which decks could benefit from them was key to finding success in the post-rotation format. Gardeon was not the only deck to play Custom Catcher: other Green’s Exploration decks did too and Pikarom could afford to as well, thanks to a combination of Jirachi and Volkner. Other decks, such as Malamar, had to pass, because they had no reliable way of assembling a pair of Custom Catcher in hand and trying to replace Guzma with Custom Catcher simply did not work.
There was another gust effect in the format, though: Ninetales TEU and the Limitless and friends testing group built a deck that could use it to its full potential, leading to a Top 4 finish for Tord Reklev and a win in the Seniors division for Kaya Lichtleitner. Again, it was a matter of building a deck to accommodate the particularities of the format and not simply trying to fit Ninetales in a deck that couldn’t make it work.