Theory vs. Practice
A few notes about what's often hyped and what's overlooked in terms of playability.
04/03/2015 by Bernardo Dias
Hey guys! In my last article, I talked about the process of choosing a deck, consistency, metagame, and some other factors to take into account before a big tournament. You can check it out here. However, this article will focus on the struggle that is finding how practical an idea, concept, or just a single card is.
I think this is a reality that's often overlooked, as some cards fail to find place in the metagame due to how hard it is to get them into play, how specific a play has to be for them to be useful, etc; and, in the other hand, how some cards aren't given the deserved value of how practical and useful they can be.
Even though I don't like soccer, I think soccer strategy is a good example of how the players' technique and adaptation have a bigger impact than the initial plan.
Theory usually takes place when an idea is introduced, a combo between cards is noticed, and, more generally, a new set comes out, giving a lot of possibilities for players to explore. However, mostly due to the excitement that is brought with new cards, fancy combos, or the fact your favorite pokémon could be finally good, players tend to forget that those ideas, combos, cards may not work when the deck reaches the table. This isn't always true, and I'll explain why sometimes theory proves to be a reality as well, but most of the times, a whole lot of ideas end up being filtered upon closer examination of the combo, playtesting and adaptation to the metagame.
To be more specific, let's take an example: Gourgeist from Phantom Forces. When the set came out, most players recognised the obvious combo between Night Marchers and Battle Compressor. Then, a group of players also found the possibility of using Gourgeist as an attacker, having 200 Hp, and attacking with Night March (Celebi EX) very interesting. To some, the idea of having Night Marchers in the discard, two different energies in Gourgeist (Because the ablity requires Grass), Celebi EX, and being able to mantain this flowing was obviously inconsistent, as the puzzle needed too many pieces. But some other players tried to give it sense and... well, the playtest told them they were wrong.
That's a simple example, but it ilustrates what happens a lot when new cards come out or old combos are found. (Another one, MAggron with Victini, Mr.Mime, Bronzong, Spirit Link.. it just couldn't go right). This doesn't mean the idea itself isn't good, as many provide close to perfect gamestates (In theory, Medicham is way better than in reality), and, if the conditions were different, could stand as tier 1 or even BDIF.
Now, like I said, this isn't always the case. Remember Gothitelle? Yea, how many pieces that puzzle needed.. The difference is that most of the times the lock was set, it was game over, no matter how long it took to get there. Playing against this deck was usually a speedrace against time. Here comes another important aspect: If Virgen was a deck already, how good would Gothitelle decks be? The metagame plays a really important role on deciding how playable cards are even before they are made into a deck. Keldeo was one of the few way-outs of the deck, but even then there was flipless Catcher and Blastoise decks couldn't always set up properly without being able to use Items.
I'll just leave a disclaimer here: the practical results of a deck aren't determined only by how many pieces the combos need or how bad it is in the current meta (because metagame is an abstract term, it's always changing). Another example of this is 'The Truth', a completely unexpected and exciting deck, featuring a lot of weird Pokémon combinations and one of the first to include Tropical Beach as a stadium. What made this deck go so far was beyond common sense, but it's important to notice: The skill of the player that piloted it, the surprise and confusion caused to the ones that played against it, the fact that the deck has many possibilities and tricks that are only found out later in the game. All these factors resulted in getting to the finals at Worlds, a much deserved reward.
So, as you can see, theory isn't a bad thing! It's the product of our creativity, and we become better players when we acknowledge something may actually work instead of having no faith in said idea to start with. On the other hand, expert players detect good and bad ideas easier, because they can quickly imagine real games with those ideas in play, and having all the opposing factors as well.
So, what are these factors that determine the viability of an idea, combo, card? I'll name a few:
How many times have we heard this? Not enough, it's never enough. Related to the 'too many pieces for the puzzle' thing, consistency tells you how effectively your concept will work, almost in a numeric way. This is related to how frequently you can setup your concept, or keep it rolling (Night March, Medicham are examples)
In such a fast game, you can't manage to lose one or two turns to setup unless that means you win from there on (Gothitelle). You should be able to evaluate how fast your idea comes into play, usually the faster the better.
We're at an excellent format to describe this factor: *Insert GarboToad image*. Just kidding, but the fact we have Seismitoad EX in the format, for example, really destroys a lot of possibilities regarding combos, decks, or just the trainer line used in most archetypes. But Toad isn't everything. If your deck just autoloses to the main deck being used, it means it will struggle to do well at large events. To avoid this problem, you either have to find another idea or adapt to the metagame. However, adapting sometimes ruins the consistency that was designed alongside a new or existing idea. (For Virgen to stand as strong in this format as in the last ones, it would have to change a lot of cards and include others, which would affect the deck's so loved consistency).
This factor influences every deck, card, or combo, not just the new one that you're trying to pull out. However, there's a degree of dependance on luck. If your deck requires too many pieces at the right time to be successful, it may not hit them every time. There are decks that are simply less reliant on luck: Toad decks, for example, because they are so simple and require so few pieces to get it going (This is one of the biggest reasons why Toad is so powerful).
All these factors can be calculated before the idea comes into play. The better the player, the sooner he/she will realize how good the deck deals with each of these problems and what could be done to handle them better.
Next, we hit the field. Entering now, practice.
Practice starts when you draw the 7 cards to initiate the game. This is where the theory has to prove a point. How effectively can you go through your deck, how fast and easily can you setup your attackers or bench-sitters, how much control do you have over the opponent's actions, and how easily can you answer them. I'll take a second look into the last sentence because many ideas or concepts that are theorized don't take into account how good you can react to your opponent's moves. These and other problems should be solved by enhancing the good flow of your deck, flexible cards/effects, resource managing, and long-term point of view.
Definition of 'practical'
Actually, all the factors stated in the 'theory' section are related only to how good and effectively you can deal and react to your opponent. After all, you're playing against someone, not against yourself. How the concept reacts to different ideas and decks, that's a different and more complex story, but it all has to be taken into account when choosing the right Supporter and Item line, the correct Stadium(s), supporting Pokémon, if needed, counters and the need of them, disruptive measures, etc. This is where you become aware of what's needed or should be used to enhance the idea's general success, even if that means changing part of the idea, as long as the main core is still the same.
Example: When MManectric was released, a lot of players started pairing it with 'Black Ballista' Kyurem EX. It wasn't bad, but they soon realised Ballista was dead without MMan, and suffered a lot from Head Ringer, so other options would be better to pair with Manectric, such as Landorus EX, because it's more flexible and not so dependant on MMan. This is a true example of how practice>theory most of the times, the need for flexibility changed the initial idea without hurting the core.
Usually, this results of playtest, as that is the final step into evaluating a concept's performance. Large tournament results are even more precise, because they show not only which ideas, combos are working but they also tell us how they react to different matchups and how they shape the metagame for future tournaments.
All this talk about practice doesn't apply only to upcoming ideas and their viability. Sometimes, the term 'practical' refers to the simplest cards, methods, engines, that are often overlooked, but can be applied in a variety of already settled ideas. My friend Igor Costa (dunno if you guys know him) always showed a lot of interest in Battle Compressor, for example. Not looking at the obvious combos like Night March, Archie's or, let's say, Turbo Bolt, but rather looking at the deck-thinning option it had, discarding the cards that would be 'dead' otherwise. Cards like Battle Compressor allow you to run more techs or cards like Head Ringer, because you can avoid them being useless, and it always help trimming down the size of your deck, maximizing the utility of cards you can draw later.
So many consequences of just playing one item card! Compressor is one of those practical examples that show how you can get multiple benefits from just one card. Other cards, namely Items, could be Energy Switch (one of my long-time favorites, the simple and practical ability of moving one energy can catch your opponent off-guard and swing a match); Escape Rope (usually to stall, or lightly disrupt your opponent while helping you) or Bicycle (The ability to draw even two or three extra cards a turn may be huge).
When looking at these details while building your decklists and perfecting your ideas, make sure you get the most of them, balancing speed, consistency, bonus effects (I call 'bonus' effects things that aren't crucial to a deck's concept, but surely help, like Enhanced Hammer), flexibility, among other factors.
Back to the most general concept, how can practice surprise you while exploring ideas?
Decks like Big Basics or the old Flareon deck (Dylan Bryan pilotted it to Top16 at Worlds, in 2013), don't even have that much theory behind them. Big Basics, like the name says, used to beat for large numbers with low resources and Flareon's attempt was to counter the meta, but even when that didn't happen, the fact the Pokémon needed close to nothing to attack and would deal consistent damage while only giving away one prize was good enough for the deck to move on.
Big bro's safe with me
This logic also explains why Yveltal (the deck) is and will be, until rotated, one of the strongest: How fluid the deck runs, even when confronted with the thoughest situations. The fact that Yveltal 'baby' XY can put some pressure, wall your big birds, charge them, and usually walk around freely thanks to his big cousin Darkrai is one of the most underrated features of the deck, yet one of the strongest. Yveltal is often referenced by having no cap on Evil Ball (which is true and wins many games), but the free retreat with Darkrai, possibility to run Keldeo to avoid conditions, low energy requirements on both attacks, conservative effects (Y Cyclone), etc, are what make the bird so so good.
On the other hand, you have decks that require more setup but, in theory, offer you more way-outs of problems and solutions to win the game. Good examples of these would be Fairy and Metal decks. Their core is very simple, and even though we don't have the best items and supporters for setup decks at the moment (relatively speaking), they usually can work it out. They both have a safe zone for the opponent to play, usually the first two-three turns, where not much will happen in offensive terms. But, if any of them succeeds in setting up, you're now facing a much more difficult match, because extra care and prevision of the game will be needed. Basically, these two examples (which illustrate a lot of other set-up decks that aren't stage 2's), suffer a bit at beginning when it comes to practical terms, but will have it way easier if they manage to setup. This shows that usually, the less practical ideas have a bigger reward when they work, but it doesn't mean they are the best simply because they may not have what's needed to follow up other ideas that are more practical.
Like demonstrated with the Items issue, you can tweak or change little details to get the concept on a more practical scale. This usually means cutting down the number of resources needed to do something, don't exaggerate on 'bonus' factors, try to avoid too many techs and counters that may or not go against the main core.
A small and quick example for this, using Keldeo instead of Virizion + Rainbow in Fairy decks (when they don't run Rainbow). The price you're paying to avoid those 30 extra damage from poison are not worth it, because rainbows are still special energy that can be easily discarded and Keldeo doesn't need anything else to work besides Fair Garden and Aromatisse to work (which you always should have).
These small changes may not sound like they do a lot, but sometimes, you'll discover you got a lot more from some card you tried than what you used to get from the past experiments. This is called efficiency. Keeping it simple while keeping it flexible. Some adjusts that could be used as example:
-Reducing the number of special energy in your deck
-Avoiding Pokémon that require a lot of support and setup
-Avoid changing consistency key cards for 'bonus effect' cards
-Use attackers with low energy requirements
-Mantain your core well sustained through Items and Supporters (ex: Compressor fits well with Mega Manectric)
-Opt for flexible card choices (Igor told me that Spiritomb's attack actually saved a lot of games from him)
As for keeping yourself focused on a concept... don't try to fit everything that 'could be good' in a deck just because it sounds good. When Gengar EX came out, someone said it would be awesome to use it with Trevenant, Dragalge and maybe even Dusknoir. It sounds sweet on a theory level obviously, completely disrupt your opponent on so many levels, but when you take in account you need so many different Pokémon, different evolution lines, several float stone and still keep the game flowing nicely in the few turns and after the lock is set sounds way harder..
There are several ideas that may seem bad in practice that actually work out easily. You may argue that 1-1 Dragalge in ToadPuff isn't needed or even good, and i might or not agree with it, but if someone showed up using that line and having good results from it I wouldn't find it weird.
This is the bottomline of the practice section. All the changes you made to the original idea, created on the theory section, should reinforce how good the deck sets itself up, how easily you can achieve your objectives, how fluid are your moves and if you can adapt to problems. Sometimes it's hard to perfect a theory into a practical matter, even more when you have such annoying cards in the format like Seismitoad or Garbodor, but finding a way to enhance the flow of your deck even with all these problems into account is a true showing of your skills.
Theory usually needs practice to get the value it deserves and practice always end up finding a theory behind it. Both factors are and will always be on balance in the deckmaking and concept creation in the Pokémon TCG, and that's part of the fun.
Until next time!
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