Pokemon Championships are Broken
Alright, we need to talk about Pokemon. First off, Competitive Pokemon battling is an “esport”. It has been going on since the years of the Kanto region in Generation One. VGC, as it were more appropriately known, was erected as an international competitive circuit around 2009, thanks to wifi being introduced in the fourth generation of Pokemon. The “current meta” as we know it has arguably begun in 2014, with the introduction of Pokemon X and Y.
And though it hasn’t changed very much since then, (with the exception of Incineroar the Intimidator, the Terrain Guardians and Z-crystals) the core facets of creating a “solid” team of six for the metagame have been more or less in place since even the third generation (can you believe it?). Yeah, that’s right… I’m coming for the memes. I’m coming for ALL the memes.
Get ready, because I have a couple of complaints to make about VGC, and it ain’t gonna be pretty.
From Monster to Master
Just like any metagame, there are both overused creatures in the Pokemon world, and underused creatures as well. This is true for almost any popular esport, be it Smash Bros, Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat.
Pokemon, however, is an oddball exception, for one particular reason. There are 800+ characters to choose from. Most wild Pokemon in the core game were designed to be cute, or more cool looking, with moves that satisfy the player‘s experience of the core game. That being said, with the incredible popularity of the Pokemon franchise as a multiplayer game, nothing could stop the inevitable.
VGC is quickly finding itself on the higher end of esports — and as a metagame, Pokemon has a pretty severe balancing problem. But I’m not here to blame the memes. I’m here to blame Gamefreak. Because Plus and Minus have been abilities that have existed since Gen 3 and there has been no good reason for it to exist so we need to do something about it!
From God-tier to Garbador
While some Pokemon become more or less popular depending on the format, there are a few Pokemon that are ubiquitous to 2019, and *several* (hundreds) of unused Pokemon that will never see the light of day. This ultimately creates an environment where only few strong core teams end up dominating the format. And let me stress that this phenomenon is no minor occurrence.
Observe. In 2017, Arcanine dominates the format, utilized in over 80% of all teams, just by itself. From there, the next highest Pokemon is Tapu Koko, existing in half of all competitive teams. The next seven Pokemon are used more than interchangeably in between 20 and 30% of all teams. Big news flash, right?
Shouldn’t be. This is often celebrated in the VGC community. May the strongest ‘mon win. But let’s just try to be reasonable here. The difference between each player in Top Cut is typically just one or two Pokemon out of six, and I’m sure many in the VGC community are already aware of this. These Pokemon generally exist within a limited pool of 50. For those outside of the VGC community — yes, that is a list of 50 usable Pokemon out of the entire 800+ Pokedex.
The remaining four slots on your award-winning team *must* (and I mean, MUST) be chosen from an S-tier pool of eight or twelve options. At least four of your Pokemon must be recognized in the OU category. Otherwise, you are cutting your options dreadfully short. Hear me out though, I’m not being salty here (only a grain of salt, if any).
Upon first glance, reading this may seem discouraging. Well fear not, fellow World Champion in the making. There are still many aspects of the metagame that are pretty dang tactical and complicated with the tier system we are currently under in VGC.
A wide variety of ways to diversify your team exist, such as switching up hold items, movesets, statistical builds and choosing which “modes” you want to play against the opponent, with careful consideration of all possible team matchups in the format. This takes lots of practice, studying, and a little bit of ingenuity. Inevitably, you will be locked into a few mind-games against your opponent on all levels of play, especially in most mirror matches [two identical teams].
I’m not trying to take away from top ranking players around the world. A lot of you are 10+ year veterans, and I must respect that. We can’t pretend however that this conversation hasn’t already been had across the board.
This sort of rigid structure in a metagame limits available options, with more and more mirror matches existing higher up in the bracket as time goes on. Why can’t I play Regionals or Internats with Victreebel, or Gliscor, or Spiritomb? They’re all really good Pokemon, after all. Again, this is entirely Gamefreak’s responsibility. The reality of the situation still stands either way, and history has a way of demonstrating this.
The Masked Royal, and the Guardians of Land and Sea
Incineroar is currently standing at the top as the undisputed champion of VGC 2018 and the GS Cup as well, reigning above every single Pokemon in the game (including ALL legendary Pokemon). Incineroar didn’t get its shine immediately, though. Incineroar had existed since 2017; it wasn’t until Gamefreak released the Alolan exclusive hidden abilities in 2018 that Incineroar instantly gained an incredible surge in popularity.
In many ways, Incineroar is more important than most Overused legendary Pokemon are in the GS Cup, given Incineroar can dominate next to any set of restricted legendary cores available in the format, and possibly in the GS Cup on a team without restricted legendaries at all!
Before the days of Incineroar, though, (as early as 2011) the meta has always been set in stone by a couple of strong suits. Whenever the format allowed restricted legendaries, Groudon and Kyogre would dominate, present in more than half of all Top Cut teams, above even the canonical “gods” of the Pokemon Universe — Mewtwo, Palkia, Dialga, and Giratina!
Even in a format where restricted legendaries are banned, as demonstrated in 2017, it only takes two or three Pokemon such as Arcanine or Tapu Koko to carry an entire season.
I’ll provide a list of Pokemon that have Top-Cut in Worlds Championships since 2011. There will also be a direct link to the tweet, due to the image size being a little bit janky; I couldn’t format it to perfectly fit your screen. I’ll index it at the end of our little talk as well, uploaded in its full glory. Let me know if you catch any patterns.
I do love Incineroar as much as the next person, and I’ll be the first person to give it the share of props it deserves. I’ll have to admit though that Incineroar probably isn’t the absolute biggest “turn around” in the game that we’ve ever seen. It rests on the shoulders of prior champions of yore.
A few late bloomers in every generation do get their shine, experiencing a massive surge in popularity after one small change in the metagame. This, if anything, is evidence of how fluid the metagame can be. And in many ways, it offers a glimmer of hope for the great potential that can be displayed in many World Championships to come.
Quote from Worlds in 2013:
“One of the reasons Tornadus is actually good now is Defiant!”–VGC 2013, Masters Finals
“Yeah, Tornadus’ ‘Defiant’ giving it an attack boost, completely negating that Intimidate from Landorus, and making it just even scarier”
“Yeah. Like Conkeldurr, Tornadus is another Pokemon that was basically irrelevant last year. One thing that made him better is ‘Defiant’ which uh, gives it two levels of attack every time its stats are dropped. So it counters Intimidate really well… Intimidate’s a big part of the metagame”
Since as early as 2011, people have commented on how cemented the metagame is around a small, redundant pool of OU-tier Pokemon. Even if only in jest, it’s a meme that is as true as Arceus is god of the Pokemon World– https://youtu.be/eVnt6BRVQbU
Breaking the meta
It’s not asking too much to have a team with more than two Pokemon that aren’t on an exclusively OU bracket to win a World Championship. Innovation is a fair sport, as much as hard work and dedication to the craft.
There are those out there who would also find it quite nice to have more than a small pool of 20 Pokemon to choose from to competently earn Championship Points. Perhaps a few more Salazzles and Brelooms in the game would be a sweet change of pace. Let’s get Wide Guard – Custap Endeavor Turtonator to Worlds, if anything.
There are some possible solutions to the issue which may help to create a more balanced metagame. Most of these can be implemented as early as Pokemon Sword and Shield, so I hope Gamefreak gets on it!
Things such as balancing out the speed tier, perhaps with an item similar to Muscle Band (yet more accessible than Choice Scarf) that increases speed by 15-20% could help. If not, how about a Terrain seed or berry (not Salac berry) that has the same effect? There are so many Pokemon — like Plusle and Beautifly — that would gain more utility from this simple speed increase, whilst the likes of Primeape and Passimian gain the fighting chance they duly deserve.
While Z-Crystals power up some moves and increase speed as an added bonus, the moves themselves are very situational. Even with moves like Agility — the fact that they take an entire turn to go into effect gives them little in the way of accessibility. Some Pokemon need the speed as soon as they enter the battlefield, as a Choice Scarf (though much more restrictive) would offer such in most cases.
Weather Wars and Terrain
The weather wars are pretty pervasive in the metagame. They practically *decide* the metagame in this current season. Cloud Nine is an ability that could become more readily available, allowing for Harsh Weather to be nerfed considerably — perhaps adopted by some new mega evolutions–or Galarian variants–given mega evolution won’t likely be a part of VGC 2020.
Certain Terrain could be given more of a reasonable purpose
Grassy Terrain should nerf more ground type moves than Earthquake and Bulldoze, such as Precipice Blades, Thousand Arrows, Stomping Tantrum, and Earth Power. Misty Terrain could nerf Dragon Ascent in particular.
Psychic Terrain, while eliminating priority moves from affecting grounded Pokemon, could give certain types of Magic attacks like Magic Room and Wonder Room increased priority. It doesn’t necessarily have to be done, but I think Magic attacks deserve priority over other moves. Let me know if you agree with me, down in the comments section below.
Electric Terrain could potentially nerf Harsh Weather conditions with a 5-turn limit, but this could become an unwelcome change very quickly. Maybe Electric Terrain could instead put a cap on critical hits, similar to how Misty Terrain neutralizes status conditions.
Also, what ever happened to Splintered Stormshards? Could we possibly see more arena-changing Z-moves like this (and Genesis Supernova) in the future? Speaking of Z-moves, why is it that weather based Z-moves provide a stat increase, but not harsh weather? Just a question.
The funny thing is, these new Terrain options wouldn’t easily stop terrain wars. All it takes is an Island Guardian to switch in and reset the terrain on a Z-move and things would just start all over again. It’s an issue as all-pervasive as Incineroar.
Abilities and Hold items
Will Auras ever become more fleshed out, similar to Terrain? Many people in the VGC community are already asking for more Surge abilities, so why not offer more Aura abilities as well, while we’re at it? Surely this isn’t a steep request.
Confession: I once hypothesized that the Alola starters, if given mega evolutions, would be given Pledge-based abilities. I’ve always wanted a Grass/Fire type mega Decidueye, with an ability called “Forest Fire” which triggers a sea of fire. I know I can’t be the only one who liked the Pledge attacks.
Along with Terrain abilities, Terrain seeds are pretty underappreciated by many Pokemon, except for the likes of Lunala, Hawlucha, Driftblim, Hitmonlee, and Accelgor.
I think Terrain seeds are unbalanced in a weird way; two of them boost defense and two boost special defense. I think it would be fair to offer at least one seed which boosts speed or attack.
Free speed or attack boosts could be harmful to the metagame. Though, if the Pokemon switches out of battle, it does immediately negate this effect. If not this, could we at the very least have the elemental gems back, Gamefreak?
Berry Good Win
Lastly, a very personal request of mine is that we consider whether or not super effective damage reducing berries are viable enough in their current state. Many attacks can still OHKO with these berries in play. I personally would like to see these berries cut the amount of super effective damage down to one quarter, instead of one half, given the amount of Pokemon that have 4x weaknesses are common enough. This one is sure to be a hot debate though. I’ll leave it up to you, the reader, to decide.
Fixing the meta
All things considered, the VGC community is not the one to blame for the state of the metagame. We just work with what we’re given. We don’t create the rules. We are constantly seeking the Most Efficient Tactics Available (see what I did there?). The list above are all things that have been neglected on Gamefreak’s part, and are not the fault of the VGC community as a whole. I don’t think this being a ‘kids game’ is a fair enough excuse to justify how messy the metagame is.
There are so many hold items, Z-moves, attacks, and abilities that are dedicated specifically to double battles and the metagame itself, so there should be reasonably more effort put into fleshing out how these factors play out in the metagame. This is a decade-old sport after all, Gamefreak.
And with dynamax and gigantamax incoming, and soon a grand total of 1000+ Pokemon at the fray, a *very* balanced and well-polished metagame is going to become increasingly more important. As a whole, the metagame currently has way too many gimmicks, way too many crits, and not enough viable Pokémon.
It does seem that Gamefreak would like to improve the metagame, as there are efforts to add new items and attacks that slightly curb the more abusable mechanics of prior formats. Abilities such as Neutralizing Gas and Mirror Armor allow for certain abilities and attacks to be nerfed in their over usage. That being said, the two aforementioned abilities themselves do have a high potential for abuse — like, a Schedule One level of abuse in particular. And I’m calling it first… I think Corviknight might become the new Incineroar. But I digress; balancing these implementations could prove quite tricky.
There’s no guarantee that Gamefreak will make beneficial changes to things such as speed tier or weather, though the mechanic of dynamax does present a ton of options that could affect these sorts of things positively. Dynamaxing already effectively denies Fake Out pressure, and terrain/weather can be affected by Max Attacks, which is a pretty exciting precedent. Dynamax powers can only be used once per battle, and for three turns, so in many ways this is still a limited mechanic. But perhaps it’s better off this way.
Speed-tier also seems to be getting at least a little bit of attention, with new items such as Room Service being introduced into the game. There is still a need for items that will inherently increase speed without too many restrictions, but for now we’ll just have to wait and see what happens next.
It’s clear that competitive Pokemon can currently only function well with a small set of highly favored, incredibly powerful Pokemon in most teams. Unless this is something that the community as a whole inherently demands — including the new influx of incoming players — then Gamefreak would do well to consider what exactly the metagame needs in order to be more comprehensive, and then fix it. Otherwise, we’ll get to see Incineroar and the gang on the big screen for at least 10 more years. You can bet on it. Snorlax came, saw, conquered, devoured, and is still here today!
Don’t sleep on the chance for growth, by god. Game on, and I’ll Catch You All, Later!–Quinn