[gal=48732]Decks in Action[/gal] It is a question that most Pokemon TCG players ask right after they learn how to play: “What deck should I use?” Deck choice is a decision many players make based solely on the cards they own, or the Pokemon and types they like most. It stands as no surprise to find players who will fit 20 different Pokemon lines in a deck (their “favorites”), only to lose to decks based around powering up a single card. The best players in the game will tell you that in building a deck, the combo potential always comes first. I would play a Probopass/Toxicroak deck if the right combo’s there, never mind the fact that both those Pokemon are pretty lame. Even more observant players will tell you, however, that one very important consideration in picking a deck to play is the tournament at which you plan to play the deck. If you want to learn to think and play like the best, this article will provide you with a little bit of groundwork for how to determine what decks you should play at what tournaments. For the purpose of this article I will term this method of decision-making "Structured Deck Analysis." I will start with an example that I remember during the 2007-2008 season. The first City Championship of this year was fast approaching, and I wanted to be as ready as possible for it. I labored for days, constantly testing a deck that I thought stood a good chance against the metagame (which at the time – for this particular location – was Empoleon, Feraligatr, Blissey, and Kricketune based decks). After many hours of testing, I finally came up with “the counter” – a Feraligatr, Milotic, Meganium deck (all delta Pokemon). For those of you who do not know the cards, my types (lightning, fire, and fighting) all stood as good counters to that particular metagame. Going into the tournament, I felt I had a good deck choice with a good build, and I expected great results. However, I completely bombed the tournament. I nearly dropped after going 0-3, but I played it out and finished 2-3 for the day. Jake Burt, an extremely well-recognized player from North Carolina, ended up winning the tournament with an Empoleon deck as I grumbled miserably to myself. Where had I gone wrong? Quick – ask yourself if this scenario sounds familiar. If so, then this article is for you! After all of that work, I had completely forgotten to take Structured Deck Analysis into account. As a result, I ended up playing a deck that was totally unsuitable for the situation. What I originally thought was a great metagame choice ended up being a total failure. After that first City Championship, I went back to what I had always practiced, and as a result I ended up winning 3 Battle Roads, 3 City Championships, 1 Regional Championship, and getting top 64 at the Nationals for that year. What is Structured Deck Analysis, and how can you use it to improve your game? Structured Deck Analysis Structured Deck Analysis, in simple terms, is basically the win percentage your deck has against other opponents in a given setting (be it League, a City Championship, or the World Championship). A lot of this is more theoretical than it is mathematical, and there are certainly players and styles that break this rule, but for the most part, you can improve a great deal by playing the right deck for the right situation. Keep in mind that this definition of Structured Deck Analysis is a fairly general concept. I am not providing a framework for when the time is right to strike with a speedy Stage 1 deck, for instance, nor am I providing opinions pertinent to the current metagame. Instead, I am giving a general guideline for how to make your deck choices more purposeful given a certain tournament setting. Lower-level Tournaments Let us first consider the “lowest” level of competition given during the season – Battle Roads and City Championships. Winning these will not net you many points, but they are still points nonetheless, and many people actively participate in these. But what kind of people, and for what reason? I can almost guarantee that you will not find players who traveled more than a few hours to get to these tournaments, meaning that the level of competition for these events is usually pretty low. There will, of course, be a few good players at your Battle Roads (and the location itself can dictate the level of competition one can expect), but for the most part, your opponents will not be world-class players. Instead, you will probably face players from nearby leagues, the “usuals” at tournaments, and a small portion of decent competitors. How should this affect your deck choice? Generally, the following is true for types of decks when pitted against low to mediocre players: Taking risks (choosing to ditch all your Stadium cards for 4 Super Scoop Up; running a questionable “tech;” dropping the Unown G’s for something else; etc.) will usually yield a positive result. If you face a mediocre player using Gengar, for example, and you dropped your Unown G’s, you still have a good chance of winning simply because they will make more mistakes than you will. Face a good player who is not running Gengar without your Unown G’s? You should be fine. The only time you will actually be in trouble is when you face a good player running a deck that hurts you based on your risks – and given the level of competition Battle Roads present, this will be rare. Running a “counter” to the metagame will generally not improve your chances of winning by much. In the example I mentioned above, my Feraligatr/Milotic/Meganium deck did not even face a good matchup until round 3 (which I still managed to lose). The reason is simple: mediocre players do not care how “brilliant” your counter deck is, since they are usually running weird stuff anyway. My City Championship deck folded entirely to the Mr. Mime/Mismagius/Rayquaza (delta) deck I faced first round. Unless you can be sure that everyone will be running a certain handful of decks, then planning a counter to what you perceive the metagame to be is not a good idea. The speed and consistency of one’s deck are fairly important here. Mediocre players are mediocre primarily because of these two issues. They ignore consistency, resulting in a clunky deck that may or may not set up correctly. An argument can be made for the opposite of this as well. Sometimes you will see mediocre players using extremely fast and consistent decks instead, going for the “cheap” win (think of the numerous “Turn 2” decks this game has seen, as well as popular choices such as Machamp, Kingdra, etc.). To strike a good balance with these factors, speed and consistency are given much importance. You do not have to concentrate so much on playing decks that you are comfortable with here. Again, you can take a little bit of a risk. If you play against a mediocre player and make a mistake, the consequence will not be near as bad as when you make a mistake against a better player. A high level of skill will generally help a player overcome in these situations. For example, if you decide to switch decks at the very last minute before the tournament, it is usually not a bad idea for these types of tournaments (unless, of course, you are incorrectly trying to “metagame” the competition). Medium-level Tournaments Moving up the ladder, we will see things start to shift with the State/Province/Territory Championships. Better players will travel farther to attend these events, and so you must prepare accordingly. Your understanding of the metagame must extend beyond your local area, and you may face tough decisions when it comes to deckbuilding. Still, we can narrow deck choices down a bit by considering the types of opponents we are most likely to face. There will still be mediocre players, but you are now more likely to sit down across from a good player (if not a world-class player). As such, our considerations change quite a bit: Taking risks now generally yields a negative result. Your deckbuilding practice must now consider a larger metagame, and what is popular in your area may be completely different than in another area. Dropping your Unown G’s, for instance, because you did not expect any Gengar decks now becomes too risky. The alert reader will note that a wide range of decks are played at Battle Roads and City Championships as well, so why the change? The answer is that, at S/P/T Championships, you are more likely to face a better player. In our previous example for Battle Roads/City Championships, dropping the Unown G’s was okay since your opponent might be mediocre anyway. Here, it is a bad idea; if you face a Gengar player (especially after Round 2 or so), they probably know what they are doing. Your risks can potentially become game-losing decisions. Running a “counter” to the metagame now becomes a very good decision! The players who will travel to these events will most likely be very familiar with the game. As such, they will likely run a deck based within or against the metagame. After Round 2 or so, you will probably start seeing a regular pattern of decks choices. This pattern is likely to correlate with one of two things: 1. Which decks were successful at the City Championships, and 2. Whether or not a set was released prior to the S/P/T Championships. If you feel that your deck can correctly answer to the metagame, then you have a serious contender on your hands. The idea of “techs” is introduced at this level of tournament. Rather than running a counter to the metagame, players will often re-imagine a popular archetype, inserting a few cards that help level bad matchups. Most notable from this past season was the inclusion of Nidoqueen into Gengar-based decks to help in matchups against SP-based decks. This is a strong idea because of two factors: 1. Your deck has already proven its worth in previous tournament settings, and 2. Your deck can compete realistically against bad matchups. Another advantage that players here have is the fact that the more you play a certain deck, the more you become comfortable with it. Alex Brosseau recently wrote an article (“Boring is Better”) in which he exemplified just this idea. Playing a Kingdra deck all year through, he performed at a world-class level. Though I do not know for sure, I can guess that his decklist changed throughout the year to pose answers to bad matchups (or at least give his deck an edge with cards from the newer sets). Speed and consistency remain an important factor here (as it does at every level of tournament). The last thing you want to do is go into a higher-end tournament with a clunky deck that will not set up when you need it to the most. Recently, with the inclusion of SP Pokemon into the format, these factors have become undeniably important. Examining your decklist to make sure it as consistent as it can be is always worth the time. Even something so small as deciding to run a different Weedle with your Beedrill list, for instance, can be game-deciding. Being comfortable with your deck becomes an important factor at this level. You will be playing against good players, and so you must avoid mistakes. If you are a bit unsure about your deck choice (“Should I play the untested counter, or should I play the deck that won me three City Championships?”), seriously consider playing what you know. Playing a counter only works if you know what you are doing. A good decklist does not always result in a winning player, and playing with something other than what one is accustomed to presents a greater risk. Do not be risky if you can help it! Upper-level Tournaments The upper-end of the tournament spectrum presents us with the Regional, National, and World Championships. Though there are different considerations to be taken at each level, I will group all of these together to keep this article at a readable size. Chances are, if you are a good player with a good deck, you will be facing great players with great decks after Round 2 at these tournaments. There will be random exceptions, of course, but you have a lot of work to do if you want to come out on top at this level. Other players will have their own “counters” to the metagame, and every archetype you play against will be consistent and fast. What’s more, even your good matchups will give you problems (if you choose to play an archetype), as players will have come up with answers to their bad matchups. The following are good pieces of advice to keep in mind when playing at this level: Risks are to be avoided at almost all costs. Unless a change to your deck is made as an answer to the metagame or a bad matchup, then forget about it. To avoid trends in the general metagame at this point will cost you prizes, games, and possibly the tournament. Counters remain a good decision, if one can be built. To seriously consider running a counter, though, you must have put in the work and hours to make sure it is in tip-top shape. Even then, your deck may fail. While this option poses risks, the end result may be very favorable. Going this route is not for the faint of heart, however. Note: Serious consideration can be made for countering the counter at this level. This usually requires a deep understanding of the metagame though, as well as “insider info” into what can be expected at these tournaments. The most recent example I have seen of this is the techs people used at Worlds to counter the Mewtwo Lv.X threat. Techs in popular archetypes also remain an important consideration. You should already know to a degree what to expect if you want to seriously compete at one of these tournaments, so adjusting your deck to reflect answers to the popular archetypes out there is a good idea. Consider looking at older sets for anything you may have overlooked that might give your deck an advantage. Many players succeed here by playing an archetype they are comfortable with and changing it slightly to suit the current metagame. The Worlds Champion in the Masters Division this year, Stephen Silvestro, did exactly this. Instead of running a complex counter to the metagame, he chose to run what he knew (a Beedrill-based deck) with a tech suited for leveling out his worst matchup. Again, speed and consistency are of the utmost importance here. Your opponent’s deck will usually set up, and so should yours. Given that nobody takes a huge lead early on, the biggest things that will separate you from your opponent are skill and deck choice. If you want to have any hope at all of performing well at these high-end tournaments, you have to be comfortable with your deck. Not only that, you have to be comfortable with how your deck performs against other decks. There are rare exceptions to this, but winners are usually very comfortable and familiar with their decks at these tournaments. They know their decks inside and out, they have prepared for the opposition, and they know how to handle their bad matchups. They know that any mistake at all can cost them the game. As a result, many players make “safe” choices for these events, knowing they will perform better with decks they are familiar with. [gal=1395].[/gal] Summing Up Many players "overthink" their deck choices when it comes to Pokemon TCG tournaments. Starting with the ideas I have presented here, you will hopefully not make that same mistake. With the Battle Roads Tournaments starting up soon, I hope this article has proven to be helpful. Making smart deck choices prior to any tournament is bound to give players an advantage, and by using the guidelines I have provided here, you will be able to make those smart decisions. Best of luck to everyone this season, and thank you for reading!