Local Lowdown — How to Prepare for the Return of Cups and Challenges

Hello PokeBeach readers! Isaiah here, and I am happy to be bringing you all another article! Last time I talked a lot about one of my favorite cards of the new Scarlet & Violet set, Gardevoir ex, and why I thought the deck was much better than people were giving it credit for as a potential play for the Europe International Championships. To the surprise of some, Gardevoir ex variants made up about 10% of Day 2 at the event, with a seven players playing pure Gardevoir ex variants and four playing the Mewtwo V-UNION build of the deck.

Gardevoir ex ended up being pretty successful in Day 2 as well, with one of the best players in the game’s history, Tord Reklev, playing the deck. He ultimately finished in second place, succumbing in the finals to Alex Schemanske and his Arceus VSTAR / Duraludon VMAX deck that included an Alolan Vulpix VSTAR. As I predicted in my last article, Alolan Vulpix VSTAR proved to be an issue for the Gardevoir ex deck. While Tord did include a Memory Skip Ralts, it was not quite enough to finish the job.

Normally, this post-tournament article would be a bit of a recap of the event in full as we look forward to the next Regional Championships, which, at least in the United States, is not until Portland in early May. However, there is something else between now and then. At long last, after a remarkable three year hiatus, local level premier events have returned! For me, this is of one of my favorite parts of the game. I have a wonderful local community that I love getting to see regularly. The local game store in the town where I go to university will be hosting its first League Challenge very soon. Local level growth of the game has always been my biggest passion in the Pokemon TCG aside from playing the game itself, so seeing the return of one of the biggest instruments of this growth is a great feeling, and I am looking forward to going to some League Cups to support that.

In the three years since the last time League Cups and League Challenges were held, a lot has changed about the Pokemon TCG. 12 full sets and several mini-sets have been released, and the newest set at the time of the last League Cup tournament, Sword & Shield, recently rotated out of the Standard format. The bigger change, though, is the current player base. In the 2020 season, the largest Regional Championships was just 778 players. Now, in the 2023 season, we have had a remarkable eight Regional Championships with more than 1000 Masters Division players. The game experienced an incredible amount of growth over the last three years due to a variety of factors, which means that there are going to be a lot of players that have never competed in a League Cup or League Challenge before. As such, I wanted to go through and explain a little bit about what is the best way to approach each type of event and then also include a deck that I feel could be good for both League Cups and League Challenges.

League Challenges

The first event type that I want to talk about are League Challenges. These events are the more simple of the two tournaments, as the event structure is super basic. Most of the time these will be played with three to five Swiss rounds and they typically do not have a top cut, leaving the winner of the event typically to just be whoever goes undefeated in the day. More often than not, these events will be played as best-of-one games with a 30 minute timer. These events are designed to not be too time intensive and be friendly to beginner players as the first stepping stone into Premier Events that award Championship Points (CP) to qualify for the Pokemon World Championships.

Speaking of CP, these events award 10 CP to those who finish third or fourth, 12 CP to the player who gets second, and 15 CP to the winner. While this is not a lot when compared to the threshold of points you need to get to Yokohama this year, it also is not meant to be a heavy piece of the invite. With a Best Finish Limit of two, only your two best League Challenge results will be counted towards your final CP total. This means the most amount of CP that you can earn from League Challenges this season is just 30 CP. This is not a lot, but it is decent amount for any player looking to close out their invitation to the World Championships happening this August 11-13.

When it comes to preparing for a League Challenge, there are two schools of thought. One way to approach this small tournament is to simply play the most consistent deck that you can and try to make sure your deck functions every round, because you generally cannot win a League Challenge without going undefeated. This approach generally will work quite well, but its biggest issue is that it is quite easy to fall victim to a bad matchup if you are not properly accounting for your local metagame. This sort of links into the second way to look at a League Challenge, which is to build a deck to counter the local metagame. Because of the nature of League Challenges, building to beat or even just to not lose to the local meta is incredibly important.

This should probably go without explaining, but playing Mew VMAX in a location where everyone is playing Darkrai VSTAR and Drapion V probably is not a great idea. The thought process of metagaming a League Challenge is a bit of a difficult one, as if you are not intimately familiar with the local players and their habits when it comes to deck selection, you could easily end up playing the wrong deck and get completely rolled. Generally, I do not suggest the direction of trying to metagame at a store if you have never been to it before because you will almost definitely misread the meta if you do not know what people like. Additionally, playing a “counter deck” built to explicitly beat a specific archetype(s) can come with its own issues, including consistency.

In general, finding the balance between these two sides of things is ideal, but if you plan on leaning fully into one side or the other, I would say metagame at your locals and play consistent when you are traveling.

League Cups

League Cups are a whole different beast when compared to League Challenges. As the next step in the Play! Pokémon Premier Event structure, the crowd that it attracts is a bit different. A lot of the super casual players from a store that has a League Cup, will probably choose not play in this tournament largely because they can be a bit intimidating to someone not familiar with it. But I do think that these events are one of the most fun ways to play Pokemon, so if you are on the fence about attending your local League Cup, I highly encourage you to do so.

When it comes to the structure of a League Cup, I generally like to split them up into two separate types, simply referred to as small and large based on the number of players. Small League Cups generally have four or five Swiss rounds with a Top 4 or maybe barely hitting a Top 8, which requires 21 players. On the flip side, larger League Cups will have enough players for six or seven rounds with a cut to Top 8. Regardless of which size of event you are playing, you are almost definitely playing best-of-one for Swiss rounds and then a best-of-three top cut. These events are generally longer, but that is partially because of the stakes being a bit higher. The CP yield for these events is more significant, awarding 50 CP for the champion, 40 CP for second, 32 CP for third or fourth, and then, if the event has at least 24 players, 25 CP to the rest of Top 8. This last one is the most significant part, as it is the main reason for the barrier between small and large League Cups. The approach that I personally take with small and large League Cups is pretty different, which is one of the main reasons for the distinction, but I will come back to the shortly.

Another key part about the structure of League Cups is that they have a Best Finish Limit of two, much like League Challenges, which means that they can give you up to 100 CP. This is a massive chunk of points if you’re gunning for a World Championships invite. Even just two finishes in the Top 8 of two League Cups is enough to put you at 50 extra CP, which is one seventh of a World Championships invite.

When it comes to preparing for a League Cup, like I said earlier, you need to account for the expected size. Due to the best-of-one nature of the event, a lot of the strategies are similar to what I mentioned for League Challenges, but the perception is also shifted quite a bit because of the change from needing to go undefeated to now being able to take one or sometimes even two losses. This gives you way more room for potential errors, as losing a game to drawing terribly or to a random unexpected auto-loss (my friends and I like to call these “landmine” decks), is no longer enough to end your tournament its own.

At a League Cup, especially a smaller one, metagaming based on your knowledge of a local meta or perhaps expecting that everyone is going to copy the deck that did well at the most recent big event becomes a much more viable strategy and is a big part of winning a League Cup. A great example of this comes from my dad back in 2017, who recognized that many players at the first League Cup of a double-header weekend had been playing Volcanion-EX decks, so he pivoted to a M Rayquaza-EX / Salamence-EX that happened to beat specifically that deck and not much else. But since there was so many players that decided to bring the Volcanion-EX deck, he won the League Cup easily.

However, as the League Cups get larger, metagaming becomes a bit less effective. With more rounds, your deck needs to run perfectly a higher percentage during your tournament day. Additionally, with so many players, there is a higher chance of there being a hard counter to your deck in the room. At these larger League Cups, I enter with a strategy more like a Regional Championships, where I focus on my deck running well frequently during the long event and being able to beat a lot of the random decks that you would not expect. Evaluating preparing for a League Cup can be extremely difficult at times because it is sometimes hard to get a good read on how many people will be there so it can be harder to say for sure which approach that you should take, so I recommend leaving yourself open with options on the day of the event in the event you get there and it is a huge League Cup, or even if it is a tiny League Cup and you see every single player is playing Mew VMAX.

This concludes the public portion of this article.

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