Lightning archetypes sparked a lot of interest since their recent performance in Japan; so, naturally, I wanted to evaluate the latest contender in our Standard format. Does Lightning really live up to the hype? How should I build a Lightning deck? The first half of the article focuses on just that with my personal playtesting results. The later half of the article focuses more on the upcoming Standard format as a whole. While I cannot predict the top decks for Oceania and Collinsville yet, I still want to suggest some top decks to include for your playtesting and some general thoughts on them.
The Japanese tend to play some wild lists by Western standards. They play in a 25-minute best-of-one format that can result in some polarizing results, so it makes sense to take their results with a grain of salt. For example, of the three Zapdos decks in Top 8 of Niigata Regionals, only one ran more than four copies combined of Cynthia and Lillie. For the first round of playtesting, I wanted to evaluate whether such a draw engine made any real sense or whether these Japanese players just highrolled their way into the top tables.
Testing Session #1 — Zapdos / Jirachi vs. Pikachu & Zekrom-GX
Luckily for me, I got some early playtesting in when Kenneth Ecker brought some proxy decks to Dallas. He handed me a Zapdos / Jirachi deck with only five copies of hard draw Supporters (Cynthia and Lillie) and four copies of Volkner, on top of the existing Jirachi engine.
I only played three games, but I left extremely frustrated at the engine. With only five copies of hard draw Supporters in the deck, Jirachi’s Ability hits a Cynthia or Lillie less than 50% of the time. Against a Pikachu and Zekrom-GX deck that ran Acerola, I frequently found myself passing turn after turn, desperately switching between Jirachi, digging for any remotely reasonable play. I think I averaged around three draw-pass turns per game, between the three games.
On top of the draw engine woes, a dedicated Zapdos / Jirachi deck struggles to hit the right numbers. The Pikachu & Zekrom list would run Raikou which, at 120 HP, requires two Electropower to Knock Out with a Zapdos. That list also ran Acerola with Tapu Koko-GX to mitigate any chip damage I placed on the field with Zapdos.
In fact, I found that the Tapu Koko-GX, baby Buzzwole, and baby Nihilego tended to put in much more work than Zapdos itself. I would frequently find myself digging to set up a baby Buzzwole or baby Nihilego, but frequently missed several pieces due to the weak draw engine of Jirachi plus five hard draw Supporters.
Needless to say, I hated that build of the deck. While Zapdos does provide important early pressure for a single-Prize archetype, I feel like the Japanese builds over committed to the Jirachi and Zapdos combo. I would rather focus on a more toolbox approach with a better draw engine to hit my late game threats than such a Zapdos-centric approach. I essentially want something closer to the Buzzwole / Shrine of Punishment archetypes we saw in the past, but with the thick Buzzwole line replaced with Zapdos as the early pressure threat. I might even cut Electropower completely to fit more mid-game threats like Weavile, Trashalanche, baby Buzzwole, and baby Nihilego.
Testing Session #2 — Trying Out Pikachu & Zekrom-GX
After Zapdos / Jirachi left a bitter taste in my mouth, I moved on to test a Pikachu & Zekrom-GX-focused list. I kept many aspects of the original Zapdos / Jirachi list, including two copies of Zapdos, three Jirachi, and thick lines of Escape Board and Escape Rope. Due to the horrific results of the previous playtesting session, I added a 2-2 line of Sprint Zebstrika.
That certainly felt much more promising than my original testing with Zapdos / Shrine. I could actually hit big numbers and draw cards! Hurrah!
But the deck felt far from perfect. Notably, I found that Zapdos itself does not synergize with Pikachu & Zekrom-GX. You commit an Energy attachment that does not set up a Full Blitz and force yourself into a scenario where you need to dig for a switching effect the next turn. Against something like Zoroark / Lycanroc, I would much rather set up a Full Blitz as quickly as possible.
Zoroark / Lycanroc sets up much more consistently than before thanks to Pokémon Communication. Zoroark / Lycanroc might still miss a Dangerous Rogue KO on Pikachu & Zekrom-GX on turn two, but it almost always hits it by turn three. While Zapdos might help you snipe a Rockruff with Energy attached, it still gives Zoroark time to set up multiple Zoroark, leading to an inevitable Dangerous Rogue turn using Counter Gain. It feels like Pikachu & Zekrom-GX needs to find its Full Blitz by turn two at the latest, something Zapdos makes borderline impossible.
After this playtesting session, I would cut Zapdos completely in favor of two Raikou to help set up Full Blitz quicker. I would also cut the Jirachi engine completely. Without Zapdos, Jirachi does not gain as much value, as you aim to stick a Pikachu & Zekrom-GX in the Active for several turns rather than find switching effects every single turn.
In the Ultra Necrozma matchup, I would discover that the Sky-Scorching Light GX and Giratina combo severely punishes Jirachi. All the more reason to cut Jirachi in my opinion, but also a lesson to never bench more than one Jirachi against an Ultra Necrozma deck.
Testing Session #3 — Pikachu & Zekrom-GX vs. Charizard / Flareon-GX
I found the Charizard / Flareon list sets up fast and hits incredibly hard, typically fielding two Charizard and threatening 200+ damage by turn three. Additionally, the Flareon-GX in the list could threaten to close out games with the GX attack.
The three-Prize penalty for losing a Pikachu & Zekrom-GX reared its ugly head in this matchup, and I found myself wishing for Zapdos. But, the matchup went on to 2-2 after I adapted my playstyle. By using Full Blitz to set up Tag Bolt GX rather than a secondary attacker, I could cripple Charizard’s board before it set up too many Stage 2 Pokemon. Not only would this remove Charizard, but by removing Charizard, I slowed the rate at which my opponent could thin Energy into their discard, which in turn mitigated Flareon-GX as a threat.
So while I did momentarily consider including Zapdos back into the deck, I managed to work things out and want to try a few more games with a dedicated Pikachu & Zekrom list, as the concept of turn one or turn two Full Blitz feels much stronger than Zapdos.
Testing Session #4 — Pikachu & Zekrom-GX vs. Zoroark-GX / Lycanroc-GX
I took the same list from Session #3 and tried it against Em Taylor’s Zoroark / Lycanroc. Em won three out of four games, and I left the testing session with a bit more insight into the deck.
During this session, my list ran one copy of Zeraora-GX and two copies of Pikachu & Zekrom-GX. I found that even if I set up an early Full Blitz, it went to waste if I missed a relevant Bench sitter to attach Energy to. In two games, this happened due to prizing issues. In another, I simply did not draw into a Nest Ball or relevant Basic Pokemon.
Going forward, I added Eevee and Snorlax-GX to bolster the number of attackers in the deck. To make room for all this, I cut the last three Escape Rope from the list — holdovers from the original Jirachi build. Instead, I increased the Energy Switch count to three and committed to relying on Zeraora-GX for switching effects. I also cut a Raikou and a Choice Band as Eevee & Snorlax-GX both helps accelerate Energy and helps hit numbers that Pikachu & Zekrom-GX struggled to reach. Finally, I used some of that extra deck space to fit in two copies of Weakness Policy and one Acerola for matchups where I might need it.
Testing Session #5 — One Last Swing at Zoroark-GX / Lycanroc-GX
After updating the list yet again, I played four more games against Em Taylor’s Zoroark Lycanroc and won two out of four games. The games boiled down to hitting the turn two Full Blitz two games and whiffing it the other two games. Unfortunately, since Eevee & Snorlax-GX and Pikachu & Zekrom-GX both give up three Prizes each, you can easily lose games to Zoroark / Lycanroc if you so much as whiff a single turn.
I would test a few dozen solitaire hands on my own and find similar consistency issues. Likewise, Luke Morsa also tried my Session #5 list and told me he struggled with setting up the turn two Full Blitz as well. The Session #5 list only ran single copies of Lisia and Volkner, and focused primarily on drawing a lot of cards quickly. While the deck could draw a lot of cards quickly, it would frequently draw into either too much Energy and not enough Pokemon, too many Pokemon and not enough Energy, and so forth. The archetype clearly demands more search power than straight draw power, and I updated the list to include four copies of Volkner instead of just one.
The final version of the list feels much better and hits the turn two Full Blitz much more often than past iterations. However, it still feels a bit like a Vikavolt deck both in terms of consistency and in terms of how the deck can simply flail if it misses the turn two combo.
Based on those brief playtesting sessions, I updated my list and present the following iteration of Pikachu & Zekrom-GX:
This concludes the public portion of this article.
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