“Everyone is Bad” – On Decision Making and Sequencing Part 1

To lots of people, the Pokemon Trading Card Game is a fun hobby. It can be a way to relax and hang out with like-minded people on the weekends, and it can be an enjoyable online game to pass the time. Chances are, if you’re reading this, you are at least somewhat competitive with regards to the PTCG. The game is fun, sure, but the goal is to win. Whether you’re playing at a League Challenge or a Regional, you’re probably trying your best to win every single match. What’s so interesting about this silly game that we play is how complex it is. Each game, we are presented with new situations as we use our carefully crafted collection of 60 cards as efficiently as possible to outmaneuver our opponent, who is attempting to do the same. Each game presents us with dozens, if not hundreds, of unique decisions that we must make in order to reach our win condition in the most optimal way possible.

Sometimes I’ll say something like “everyone is bad at this game.” This refers to the complexity of the game. No one, not even myself or players better than I, can consistently play perfect games of Pokemon. In fact, I’d say that most games of Pokemon are played imperfectly, even by pros. On top of that, there is undeniably a lot of variance (luck) in each game of Pokemon. However, even with all of this considered, we still see recurring names at the top of tournament standings. Some players are just better than others. Sometimes this can be contributed to deck-building proficiency, but the top players also have a fundamental understanding of how to play the game of Pokemon correctly. They have played enough games of Pokemon that decision making comes naturally. The goal of the game shouldn’t to play perfectly, because most of the time, you won’t. Your goal should be to minimize mistakes and do the best you can with the cards and information you have at your disposal.

There’s always a correct play, and you want to find that play as often as possible. Occasionally, the correct play is impossible to know because it depends on unrevealed contents of your opponents deck.

You should have a clear purpose in your head for every play you make. Don’t make plays for no reason. Reasons can be simple or complex. In general though, each play you make should help you towards at least one of two end goals.

  • Reaching your win condition (exploiting an opponent’s loss condition)
  • Eliminating your opponent’s win condition (avoiding your own loss condition)

Most of the time, you don’t have to worry about these two goals conflicting with each other. For example, if you’re going to find a game-wining combo off your next six cards, it’s fine to bench that Dedenne-GX that would otherwise lose you the game by your opponent’s next turn, because they won’t get another turn.

But what if you have a 50% chance of winning off said Dedenne and a 50% of losing off it? It’s tempting to pull the trigger immediately to try and end the game, but the decision actually requires a thorough analysis of the current board state. If you have a favorable board state, if you think you have better than 50% odds of winning the game even if you don’t bench the Dedenne-GX right away, hold it for a turn and see how things go. If you’re desperately trying to find a way out of a poor situation, 50% odds look pretty good, so you may as well go for it. This kind of decision isn’t always obvious, but there is always a correct option to be found with careful consideration. This example applies regardless of your exact odds.

This is an example of conflicting goals. Playing the Dedenne is going for your win condition, while holding it is avoiding a loss condition. The correct decision depends on your board state and odds of winning or losing with either option.

Reaching Your Win Condition

We all know that the basic win condition in Pokemon is to take your six Prize cards before your opponent. Every now and then a player will lose by running out of Pokemon in play or by decking out. And of course, you have weird decks like Pidgeotto Control whose win condition is to establish their endgame hand lock and deck the opponent out before time runs out. Most decks aim for the general win condition of taking six Prize Cards, but the way you go about doing this is wholly dependent of the matchup. There are often win conditions within the win condition. I’ll explain.

A great example of this is Green's Exploration / Reshiram and Charizard-GX vs. Pikachu and Zekrom-GX. If I’m the Green’s Zard player, my basic win condition is to take six Prize cards. However, when I play the matchup, I instead consider my win condition to be KOing two Tag Teams. Therefore, I usually won’t take KO’s on Pokemon that aren’t Tag Teams, because that doesn’t further my win condition of taking out two Tag Teams. Allow me to elaborate.

PikaRom’s win condition (and my loss condition) in this scenario is to take out two of my Reshizard. They will do this by OHKO’ing one of them with a GX attack and by KO’ing the second one with a 2HKO or 3HKO. However, Green’s Zard runs lots of healing, so this strategy is only viable if PikaRom successfully sticks a Reset Stamp into a bad hand for ReshiZard. Therefore, as ReshiZard, my loss condition is bricking off Reset Stamp. If I KO something like a Zeraora-GX , it allows the opponent to Stamp me to a lower hand size, thus reducing my odds of getting healing cards to deal with the likes of Raichu and Alolan Raichu-GX‘s Tandem Shock. Not only is KO’ing non-Tag Teams unhelpful to my win condition (which is KO’ing two Tag Teams), but it also plays into my loss condition (bricking off Reset Stamp). The matchup is a little bit different against the Judge version of PikaRom.

PikaRom usually attacks with Tag Teams, so this isn’t a huge issue. If they don’t attack with Tag Teams, I usually just wait and heal as needed until I have the necessary combo to take out Tag Teams on the Bench. Flare Strike with Shrine of Punishment (and Custom Catcher if needed) can take out Pikarom, while Double Blaze GX can OHKO Raichu and Alolan Raichu. Things get slightly more complicated (but not to the point of being problematic) if Pikachu and Zekrom has Choice Helmet equipped.

If I’m PikaRom in this scenario, my win condition conflicts with avoiding my loss condition. I need Pikachu and Zekrom’s Full Blitz to accelerate Energy and I need Raichu and Alolan Raichu for both of its attacks. However, these Tag Teams are also my loss condition, so it really isn’t a fun spot to be in.

Here’s another example. Shortly before Worlds, I posted a pair of linear Blacephalon-GX lists with no gust effects. Blacephalon’s win condition is to take a KO every single turn (usually with Mind Blown). Of course, the exception to this was the Burst GX turn. As long as Blacephalon was able to take a KO every turn, it should be able to beat everything. If an opponent’s deck was able to keep up with constant pressure and was still able to win a prize trade against Blacephalon, I would simply accept the loss there.

I often played these lists aggressively, drawing and using as many cards as possible each turn. This was done with Dedenne-GX, Acro Bike and the draw Supporters. The more cards I could find, the more Energy I could accelerate onto the board (by drawing into cards like Naganadel, Welder, and Beast Ring). Since Mind Blown required a steady stream of Energy, the more Energy I could accelerate, the more consistently I could take a KO every turn. Therefore, playing aggressively and drawing lots of cards directly contributed to the deck’s win condition of taking a KO every turn. The deck doesn’t care where its six Prizes are coming from because it only has one mode.

Another thing to keep in mind is that there are always exceptions. Since this game constantly presents us with new scenarios, exceptions to every rule exist. This makes it technically impossible to make a comprehensive guide to decision making (or perfect play), but I am trying to at least give solid guidelines.

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