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John Kettler

"Changing Your Tone: How to Start and Finish City Championships Strong"

John's first article. Check it out!

11/24/2015 by John Kettler

My name is John Kettler, and I'm happy to be writing my first 60cards article. First, a bit about me: I’ve been playing Pokémon TCG since the start, and have been playing competitively since 2003. I've won two Regional Championships, four State titles, eight Worlds invites, countless City Championship, Battle Road, and League Challenge wins, and several deep finishes at Worlds and U.S. Nationals. I’ve tested with players all over the world, mentored big names, and founded the now six year-old message board, HeyTrainer.org.

I've also been around long enough to notice patterns in the way tournament seasons go. And it's during the City Championship portion of the season when we see the most movement. To that end, I want to help guide you through the process I use when making adjustments between events: things to do at the beginning that set a good precedent, how to keep your momentum up (or recover from an early stumble), and the crucial things you can do to save your season when in between events!

We’ll be addressing three basic ideas: evaluating your early performances, looking at reported results critically, and having people to talk with so that you aren’t in the dark about developments. Although the below uses mostly North American examples, the ideas herein should be applicable to anywhere in the world that runs City Championships.

1. Evaluate your first week's performance

Regardless of where you live, or the competitiveness of your tournament scene, it's always necessary to evaluate your results.  One of the bigger issues I’ve seen over the years with old and new players alike is stubbornness: they start with a deck, do miserably with it over a long time, but continue using those same decks!

That’s such a shame, because unless you only have one City Championship to go to, there is no better opportunity to bounce back from a bad showing. Whereas Regional Championships and National Championships almost always operate with different card pools from event to event, and League Challenges are too insignificant to worry about as much, City Championships are the perfect balance between importance and opportunity – specifically, the opportunity to redeem yourself. 

So how do you go about evaluating your early performance? That in itself could fill an entire article, but the basic method is to consider the decisions you made with your deck list, the reasons for your losses and wins, and the strength of not only the opponents you went up against this first tournament, but will go up against in the future.

Deck List Reasoning:

Some things, like experimental engines, will be clear to decide even off of a five or six-game sample if they’re capable of carrying you throughout later City Championships. Other choices, such as impulse decisions for the 60th card, or untested techs for matchups, are not so easy to be sure about, especially if you never played against the matchup or board scenario that inspired your strange last minute call.

Perhaps the best way to consider the merits of these decisions is to be honest with your own thought process. I’ll be the first to admit that sometimes my final two, three, or even six cards may be entirely rushed choices.  Most of the time, though, I make sure I have solid reasoning behind every last deck list decision, though occasionally a card inclusion will be arbitrary. Then, once you’re honest with how you think about decks, you can break down your decisions further. “Did I really need to run two random Acro Bikes?” “Are there any new ways for me to maximize that turn-one Maxie’s I didn’t think about?” “Did I run Stunfisk just because I think it’d be funny to win a game with it?” The thoughts are endless, but the more structured decisions you make at the beginning, the easier it is to look at the big picture later.

Losses, Wins, and Opponents:

These three points are related in that they frame the way you may view your successes and failures. Even during a hectic multi-month string of tournaments, it’s important to remember why you win and lose.

Contrary to popular belief, a bad showing at your first tournament does not automatically mean you should abandon whatever idea you had. A 3-3 record facing off against a bunch of great players each round, with most games being decided by a coin flip does way less to preclude a deck’s quality than a 5-1 Top 8 performance with a bad rogue deck that got lucky. Alternatively, the first week can be a real wakeup call even to good players who win that they are behind on the times, and need to test.

Perhaps the strongest position to be in is the insanely lucky tournament winner. Your opponents might have played poorly, or otherwise might have all been using outdated decks. Or maybe you just edged out the worst matchups because of insane luck. At any rate, this is the best position to be in because you’ve earned the maximum you can for that particular event, but head into the next event with a sobriety that several players don’t.

2. Don’t just read worldwide results – analyze them!

For the metagame across the world to advance over the two to three months we have City Championships, people collect and look at the results of what’s doing consistently well. But unlike week-to-week Regionals, which happen only a few at once, players are bombarded with tons of data points across the globe. Thus, the biggest mistake I see out of people following City Championship results is an abject failure to apply them meaningfully.

So, how do you avoid the pitfalls players make when handling results? Simple: Put it in context!

Avoid timing bias. Our worldwide playing community tends to favor decks that perform well at the outset of City Championships. At the very least, people may over-prepare for weird decks that do well early on, when in fact they weren’t very good concepts in the first place.

The best way to avoid being swept away by hype is to embrace that in the earliest tournaments of late-November and early December, you will see some weird results. After all, precious few people have a firm grasp on a new set’s interactions so soon. This means that while you should keep your mind open to interesting decks (see below), you should also take a deep breath and not worry too much if the random City tournaments during Thanksgiving break were won mostly by turbo Greninja. Once you get your first chance to play with the new information, usually all you need to do is consider if you’d actually have to make any alterations to your pre-existing game plan.

If you have no game plan at all for your first weekend of City Championships, I would recommend against letting the first results dictate what you play. Instead, look to what does well in your area, and play a deck that could handle nearly all of those top finishers. But yet again, don’t fret so much if you might go less than a perfect 50-50 against the new, un-vetted rogue deck on the block.

What works most often worldwide may not work in your home town. This is the basic idea behind metagame: what is good absolutely may not be good in context if players are aware of how to beat the top deck. The cure, then, not to over-generalize the applicability of a deck in your area vis-à-vis another. 

What will people flee to in those earliest tournaments? Night March? Crobat? Something else? You need to gather that information, but also avoid data from outside your local bubble clouding what may be the perfect fit to the puzzle that is winning in a local scene.

Learn to appreciate interesting decks while keeping the above two points in mind. When a strange deck wins early on during City Championships, it’s inevitable that people will want to copy it. As addressed above, that might not be the best idea for you, but it will happen, so respect the circumstances you’re in, and plan accordingly.

Seismitoad-EX/Giratina-EX’s victory at the Arena Cup Würzburg illustrates my point perfectly. Early this season, few people considered pairing the two together, and it worked well for Robin Schulz. However, a lot of people in the United States overestimated its strength in the metagame: they biased the time the win occurred, without considering the differences between American and European metagames, and made far too few adjustments necessary to tackle mirror matches versus older Seismitoad variants, such as Yveltal and Crobat. As a result, you had countless players using Seismitoad/Giratina to little success for the first week of American regionals. The metagame shifted in Seismitoad/Giratina’s favor for Week 3, but that’s only after people sobered up to its vulnerabilities.

So who benefitted most? The players who were aware that Seismitoad/Giratina was not the absolute best deck! Be that player, and recognize that each interesting deck to win early on is not invincible. 

3.  Construct a strong network, and stay in touch with people in it!

In both life and Pokémon testing, the best sort of networking is the stuff that happens naturally. To that end, the Pokémon equivalent of mixers and bars would be online tournaments. In these great events, you’ll run into an array of people who love playing the game online, but also bring with them a diverse set of experiences and perspectives. Pokémon League is a ton of fun too, and if you have a good one near you then I would encourage you to visit it. However, I can’t think of a whole lot of great players worldwide who do League week-to-week, quite possibly because an expansive pool of worldwide players is on average more reliable to make fewer misplays, suggest better deck ideas, and to regroup in between tournaments. 

The dominant age group in this vast network is a bunch of 18-29 year olds, so for both younger kids and older adults, it may feel difficult to break into that clique. However, don’t let that turn you away from getting to know good players personally! Though to be fair, I’m confident that middle-aged professionals have a much firmer handle on confident socializing than just about anyone in the game.

(NOTE: Networking is not the same thing as being on a team. I’ve been a team-less free agent for years, yet I have good friends all over the country thanks to this game, so don’t feel like you have to start up “team such-and-such”!)

So, what are the in-game advantages of having a good network? First, being on good terms with many players gets information from and to you quickly. Due to the nature of City Championships being local events, an amazing new deck won’t usually make it to the internet until the day after, if even then. But maybe you helped build the amazing deck! Or, more likely, you know the person who piloted it to a victory, such as several of the Landorus-EX/Crobat players during last season’s City Championships. Strange to think that such a common deck in Expanded was so rare back then!

Also, I find that my better friends in a network are often your most brutally honest advisers. Things like tunnel vision can obstruct a necessary change; however, a member of your network can be that critical voice who says, “STOP! Just think about how bad that sounds and STOP!” During the Dallas City Championship marathon last season, I ran an awful Pyroar list for the fourth tournament of the eight there were. Why? Because I had it set in my mind that this Pyroar – this new Pyroar – had all the means to beat every bad matchup it had. Unfortunately, long marathons deprive you of the time necessary to reach out to people, which in turn reduces the odds of you avoiding a disastrous deck choice. I was not so wise in that moment. Therefore, I will be sure to vet any crazy, spontaneous rogue before using it!

Finally…it’s way more fun! Don’t get so caught up in the “advantages” – it’s built to be a social game, so enjoy the social aspect. 

Conclusion

Evaluate your early performances; look at results critically; talk to people. Three simple points, right? Well, not quite: They’re all just as much skills as actually thinking through moves or building decks. And as with any other skill, it takes dedication to master the way you approach Pokémon cards. I hope today’s article gives you some food for thought, as well as a great start to your City Championship run!

-John Kettler

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