The Endless Road — The Current State of Standard and Musings on Expanded

How much Pokemon is too much Pokemon? I’m obsessed enough with the game — or dedicated, to put a more positive spin on it — that a few days after coming back home from the Oceania International Championship, I was competing again in the Special Event in Cannes. Sure, this one is far closer to home, but it’s still an eight hour drive from Paris, where I live. I do get one weekend of rest coming up (although I’ll attend a League Challenge) and then I’ll be travelling overseas again to play Expanded in Toronto. I guess this is what it must be like to be an American player.

On the bright side, this forces me to keep up with both the Standard and Expanded metagames, which is good news for you readers! The last couple of weeks have been exciting from a competitive point of view as we’ve seen decks rise and — seemingly — fall. That’s why, in this article, I’ll explore the changes happening to Standard, Blacephalon-GX, Charizard, Vileplume, and more, and what they mean for the future of the format. I’ll also talk a little bit about Expanded in preparation for the two North American Regionals coming up.

1. Blacephalon-GX and Pikachu and Zekrom-GX

This isn’t the first time I made this comparison, but it bears repeating: Blacephalon-GX and Pikachu and Zekrom-GX play similar roles. Both cards were the most hyped of their respective sets. Both make for fast and aggressive decks that can win games even against unfavored matchups through sheer speed. Both laugh at the notion of a damage ceiling. Both rely on high counts of basic Energy — that may seem like a coincidence, but it also means that they generally beat stall decks since those don’t have enough to stop them. Both generally have a linear game plan: Pikachu and Zekrom-GX does have more options at its disposal, with some versions being able to use Zapdos for their first few Prizes before switching to bigger attackers, but the aggressive version that Jose Marrero brought to a Top 4 finish at the Oceania International Championship is entirely focused on using Full Blitz, then Tag Bolt GX.

We now have two decks that use Basic Pokemon-GX to Prize race their opponent. Note that this is different from Lost March, which also goes for OHKOs but uses one-Prize, low-HP Pokemon; or from Zoroark-GX decks, which have a lower average damage output but benefit from a consistent draw engine; or from Malamar decks that can play the Prize race but can also use non-GX attackers and come back from a Prize deficit thanks to Ultra Necrozma-GX‘s Sky-Scorching Light GX. Nothing is more similar than Blacephalon-GX and Pikachu and Zekrom-GX in the current metagame.

It stands to reason that if these decks are trying to accomplish the same simple game plan, one must be better at it than the other. Indeed, I’ve argued that Pikachu and Zekrom-GX is a better version of Blacephalon-GX, and I mostly stand by it.

Why did Blacephalon-GX win the Collinsville Regional Championship and get Top 8 in Cannes?

The reason is that, although both decks do the same thing, they demand different answers. Take Zoroark-GX / Lycanroc-GX, for example. I explained last week how I built a version of the deck that beat Pikachu and Zekrom-GX: with Lucario-GX, basic Fighting Energy, and Viridian Forest. This version was good enough to reach the finals in Melbourne. However, this version of the deck is terrible at playing against Blacephalon-GX because it can’t OHKO it, except once with Dangerous Rogue GX.

On the other hand, there are ways to build Zoroark-GX to better deal with Blacephalon-GX: Weavile is a solid attacker, and Professor Kukui and Devoured Field can allow Zoroark-GX to reach the 180 damage required to OHKO a Blacephalon-GX. However, a version of the deck that includes these cards will do much worse against Pikachu and Zekrom-GX. And since it’s impossible to fit all these cards together in the same list, a Zoroark-GX player has to make a choice. Because of Pikachu and Zekrom-GX’s success in Oceania and Blacephalon-GX’s lack thereof, most players geared their lists towards beating the former.

It’s not only Zoroark-GX — Malamar / Ultra Necrozma-GX decks, for example, have mostly removed Dawn Wings Necrozma-GX from their lists. This card is great against Blacephalon-GX, as Moon’s Eclipse GX is the perfect amount of damage required to KO a Blacephalon-GX, and it forces the opponent to use Guzma instead of a draw Supporter. This potentially prevents them from finding their Beast Ring in time, and sets them back in the Prize race. As anecdotal evidence, I played Malamar in Cannes. My list used Tapu Koko and Acerola to improve the mirror match and the Zapdos matchup, and two Marshadow-GX to fight Pikachu and Zekrom-GX and Zoroark-GX decks. However, these cards were useless against Blacephalon-GX and, although I can’t claim this was the only reason, I did lose a series to Joël Nguyen, who reached Top 8 with Blacephalon-GX.

The takeaway is that there’s a tradeoff between beating Blacephalon-GX and beating Pikachu and Zekrom-GX. Now that Zach Lesage proved that Blacephalon-GX is still a contender in the metagame, I expect more players to take the deck seriously and Blacephalon-GX to fall down, although it will always threaten to come back.

Pikachu and Zekrom-GX, on the other hand, will only benefit from players tweaking their lists to beat Blacephalon-GX. Don’t forget that Gustavo Wada ended up winning the Cannes Special Event with it as well! In my opinion, Pikachu and Zekrom-GX is still the deck to beat. It’s simply powerful, versatile, and most decks need to focus heavily on it (Zoroark-GX / Lycanroc-GX / Lucario-GX, for example) to have a favorable matchup.

This concludes the public portion of this article.

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