The Evolution Conundrum – Stage-2s In Standard
When it comes to the new Standard format, there are unfortunately a large number of complaints that have come from players, most of which are at least somewhat justified. The constraints on the format that have been placed by the strength of Arceus and Dialga and Palkia-GX / Zacian V are onerous to say the least, and those limitations have only been exacerbated by the speed of the new format and the strength of the new Pokemon VMAX. While the format-warping effect of Arceus and Dialga and Palkia-GX has been well documented to this point, there is a more specific complaint about the format that I think is worth examining, and that is the comparatively weak strength of Stage-2 Pokemon. There have been discussions on how to make Stage-2 Pokemon more competitive, with suggestions ranging from erratas of cards such as Rare Candy, to printing stronger Stage-2 Pokemon in the future. The tournament results have made it clear: Stage-2 decks perform poorly when compared with Stage-1 Pokemon and Basic Pokemon-focused decks. Those that do end up doing well tend to be more niche anti-meta decks, or else use the Stage-2 solely for support. It’s become almost trivially easy to dismiss the potential of a Stage-2 simply because it is a Stage-2, regardless of how otherwise impactful that card might be. For creative deck brewers and off-meta deck fans, this is awful; as a player who quite enjoys building and playing off-meta decks, I certainly count myself among those who lament the demise of the competitive Stage-2 deck. So, in this article, I’m going to do what I can to examine this trend, and in doing so, provide a roadmap to how Stage-2s can return to viability – and how they can be competitive even today.
The Stage-2 Collapse
Before we can solve the struggles of the Stage-2 deck, we first need to figure out why exactly it is that Stage-2 decks struggle. After all, Stage-2 Pokemon haven’t always been awful. In fact, for most of the Pokemon TCG’s history, Stage-2s have been the most dominant kind of deck to play. Even in previous eras of heavy Basic play – the SP era, for example – there were still strong Stage-2 options floating around and performing well. As recently as 2017, Stage-2 decks were performing excellently, as Pokemon such as Decidueye-GX, Metagross-GX, Vikavolt, Gardevoir-GX, and Greninja all were good options at some point or another. Since the release of Team Up, however, a Stage Two deck has not won a single Regional Championship or higher event. What’s more, most of those events haven’t had a Stage-2 deck come close to winning, hence the concerns about the viability of those decks.
The release of Tag Team Pokemon-GX marked a steep drop in the competitive viability of Stage-2 Pokemon, and Stage-2 Pokemon as the main attacker in particular. This does make sense – after all, why invest the extra resources into getting out a Stage-2, when you could instead get the same amount (or more) of HP and damage output from a Basic Pokemon? The only advantage that any Stage-2 has over Tag Team Pokemon-GX is typically that they give up less Prizes, but that advantage can be washed away by the slower speed of the Stage-2 deck. Since the Tag Team Pokemon-GX (or Stage-1) deck doesn’t have to devote spots to Rare Candy (or finding it), they can instead add in cards for greater consistency, more speed, or add in more techs for the meta. This means that non-Stage-2 decks automatically have a structural advantage over Stage-2 decks when it comes to those factors, which likewise means that they have an advantage in terms of deck strength against a varied field. In the past, this was an acceptable trade-off for Stage-2 decks, as they could lose out on some of that speed, in exchange for higher damage output and more HP. Effectively, they were slower to get going, but once they did get going, they were much more difficult to stop. However, once Tag Team Pokemon-GX were released, and that advantage was taken away, Stage-2 decks naturally found themselves struggling. What’s more is that at the same time that Stage-2 Pokemon lost their HP advantage, they also seem to have lost their advantage in damage output, as modern Stage-2 Pokemon simply seem to be weaker in that regard than the Tag Team Pokemon-GX and Pokemon VMAX they need to compete against. A 2HKO strategy against Pokemon-GX, Pokemon VMAX, and Tag Team Pokemon-GX can work well for non-GX/V decks (Arceus and Dialga and Palkia-GX notwithstanding), but the difficulty of establishing a Stage-2 attacker generally results in the 2HKO strategy falling short for Stage-2 decks. If your Pokemon gets OHKOd every turn, it can be challenging to replace it with a new attacker; when you have to replace a Stage-2 every turn, that challenge can be insurmountable. At the least, you would likely lose a turn of attacking at some point while trying to re-establish your attackers – this missed turn can fully erase the single-Prize advantage that the deck has, particularly since Stage-2 decks have a tendency to be slower to the first attack regardless.
The end result of all of this is that attacking Stage-2 Pokemon have all but been pushed out of the meta. Gone are the days when you could have a Pokemon like Gardevoir-GX as your main attacker; in the current Standard format, Stage-2 Pokemon are exclusively either support Pokemon, or they succeed by exploiting some weakness of the meta. For an attacking Stage-2 Pokemon to see success nowadays, it has to have some effect other than damage in order to win. Galarian Obstagoon and Decidueye are the best modern examples of Stage-2 attackers that can do well, though they typically do poorly if faced with a matchup that doesn’t get blocked by their damage prevention. Without those extra beneficial factors, most Stage-2 attackers fail to find their way out of even the lowest tiers of competitive Pokemon.
This concludes the public portion of this article.
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