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Dan Hugar

How I learned to Compete in the Pokemon TCG

Dan Hugar, who finished T16 overall in the Player's Cup, showcases his growth path in the Pokemon TCG.

09/15/2020 by Dan Hugar

Hi all, my name is Dan Hugar. I have been playing since mid 2018, with this being my second full competitive season. I am here today to try to provide a little help or insight to those who want to grow more competitively. And there is one thing I want to make sure you know about me:

I am not a great player.

OK, I realize that’s probably not the best selling point to this article. Let me try to phrase it a little better: I am not a great player, but I have learned how to succeed. I’ve made a Regional Day 2, won a few cups this year, had 420/500 points towards my Worlds Invite when the season was cut short in March, and I just made Top 4 in North America (Top 16 globally) in the online Pokémon Player’s Cup. So how did this happen? Did I just get lucky?

To help answer this, I should also mention that I am an engineer. My career is all about problem solving. And the first step to solving a problem, is figure out exactly what the problem is. So, in the case of Pokémon, How do I consistently win?

I want to share with you what I have learned that got me from going 0-4 at locals in May of 2018, to winning my first cup in April 2019, to getting Top 16 in the Pokémon Player’s Cup last month. It’s all about understanding what it takes to win.

Let’s define the recipe for winning a tournament. From what I have picked up from observing others, reading articles, watching a ton of Youtube videos, and my own experience, you need to:

1.       Build an excellent decklist

         The deck needs to be consistent, provide enough options for the player, and have a worthwhile “payoff”

2.       Pick a deck that fits the meta well

         If everyone is playing water, don’t play a fire deck

3.       Prepare for each match-up

         What is my route to win against each deck?

4.       Play with good fundamentals

         Proper sequencing, thin unnecessary cards from your hand, etc

5.       Make good decisions in each situation

         With this board state, what is the best move that I can make to enact my gameplan?

So how do we succeed in each of these areas? That is the tricky part. No one person is great at all of these immediately; you have to grow into each of them. And to do THAT, you have to know yourself. Being able to grow and better yourself requires being honest with yourself about what you’re good at, what you’re bad at, and everything in between. I’m going to grade myself on each of these, and I would recommend you do the same.

1.       Build an excellent decklist: C-

2.       Pick a deck that fits the meta well: F

3.       Prepare for each matchup: C

4.       Play with good fundamentals: B+

5.       Make good decisions in each situation: A

This is what I mean when I say that I am not a great player: I don’t excel in all of these. I have my strengths, I have my weaknesses, and I have been successful when I addressed them appropriately. I’ll walk you through how I’ve handled each of these well, how I’ve handled them poorly, and what I recommend you think about in each area.

Building an Excellent Decklist

Deck building is not something that comes easily to me. I’m much better than when I started, but I still struggle with the right supporter counts, how to tech for certain match-ups, etc.

How I struggled: Some of my failures include being too confident in a deck that I built and sticking with it too long. For example, when I was first starting off, I tried to build a Silvally GX Type-Advantage Box. It was terrible. It was clunky, didn’t set up well, and the “payoff” wasn’t significant enough to overwhelm anyone even if it did set up. It lost, a lot. At times, I also ignored others' advice, thinking that I knew better (spoiler: I didn't).

How I succeeded: A strong deck should be consistent, be able to overpower or out maneuver an opponent, and be well situated in the meta. Since constructing decks is not my strength, I trusted others who had this skill. To be clear, there is nothing wrong with net-decking (playing the exact 60 cards someone else used to success at a recent tournament). I’ve won a cup by just taking a list from a recent large tournament and learning how to play it very effectively.

It’s also totally ok to ask for help! One of my friends Leoncio Zamora is a wizard at building turbo lists. So for one of my first expanded cups, he gave me a list he built and taught me the gist of how it worked. I won the cup. Be willing to accept help and take advice when you realize you aren’t skilled in a particular area.

Pick a Deck That Fits the Meta Well

How I struggled: I am not plugged in well with a testing group, large network of players, etc. I usually rely on publicly available knowledge like articles, videos, podcasts, etc. For me, figuring out the meta was always guesswork.

How I succeeded: This is just an area where I struggle. Knowing this is never going to be a strong point for me, I leave you with the following advice: communicate with people. Ask friends, players you have met, big players on twitter, whatever. Find a testing group if you can. Making friends and finding people to play with is fun in general, and it can benefit all of you too when trying to find the right play for a big event.

Prepare for Each Matchup

How I struggled:  Some of these areas are a little complicated, this one is not. If your opponent has practiced against your deck, and you have not practiced against theirs, they will have a big advantage. Based on my work schedule, commuting, and other life commitments, I didn’t have a ton of time to test out match-ups. So I would rely on the PTCGO ladder to see different decks. This led to me walking into lots of tournaments at a disadvantage compared to other players.

How I succeeded: Well, I practiced! Taking some time, even if it’s just a game or two before a challenge, or after a cup, to learn a match-up can help a lot. I was forced to grow from this challenge though. In order to succeed, I had to learn how to figure out a match-up between the time my opponent flipped over their starting Pokemon and my first turn. This helped me figure out how to think quickly and come up with a plan on the fly. My advice: this is another great time to ask for advice! If you do have a group of friends who play, divide and conquer! Very few people can test every deck, so test what you can, and rely on others to cover what you can’t. Also, plenty of content creators work through match-ups on a daily basis, so there are great videos, articles, and everything available to help out too.

Play with Good Fundamentals

How I struggled: While I was learning to be a better player, I often made the non-optimal choice over and over again. And I paid for it. I had the gist down at times (should I retreat before or after I play a supporter), but often I would draw into cards I didn’t want, or in the wrong order, and I couldn’t figure out why. The struggle part is pretty straightforward, but I want to spend a little more time talking about how to succeed.

How I succeeded: This is a quote that’s stuck with me: “Practice doesn’t make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect.” For example, I played Dragapult VMAX in the Pokemon Player’s Cup. The cup was spread out over multiple weeks. During weekdays, when I had a few minutes in the morning or night, I would play a couple games with my deck. I wouldn’t focus entirely on wins or losses, I would just focus on good habits. I would figure out all of my prizes when searching my deck. Then I make certain that I play Acro Bikes before I play any supporters, I play any supporters before I retreat, etc.

The big point I had to keep in mind here is what do I really need to draw? This should guide your decisions. Let’s walk through an example of how to plan optimally and what the impact can be.

The Dragapult VMAX deck I played in the Player’s Cup had no energy acceleration. It was really important that I get to attach an energy every turn. So in this example: Turn 1, going first, I don’t have any energy in my hand. After drawing for turn, I have an Acro Bike, two Quick Balls, two Mysterious Treasures, a Pokemon, and a Supporter (which I can’t play turn 1). What do I do? The only way that I can find an Energy is by drawing it off Acro Bike, so I need to maximize the chances of that happening. I would use a quick ball to get a Pokemon, discard that Pokemon with the other Quick Ball and get another Pokemon, discard that Pokemon and get another Pokemon with a mysterious treasure, then repeat to get one more Pokemon out of my deck. Now I have four less cards in my deck that I could see off the Acro Bike. You may ask, “But Dan, you took four cards out of a 46 card deck. That’s not a big difference.” And you would be right! So that means it’s time to put on your math hats kids:

For this Acro Bike, I get to see two cards. I currently have 42 cards in deck, and say nine of them are energy. For simplicity’s sake, let’s say that I have an equal chance of seeing energy in each card. nine Energy cards / 42 total cards times two (since I get to see two cards) equals about a 43% chance to draw an energy. If I did not pull the four cards out of my deck, I have a 39% chance to draw an energy. That doesn’t sound like a lot, and for this particular search, it’s not. HOWEVER, when you multiply this over dozens of decisions each game, and hundreds over the course of a tournament, that changes. Think of it this way: for every 25 decisions I make without playing “optimally”, I’ll miss the card I need one extra time. It may come up once in a single game. In a Best of Three, I may miss something three or four times, and possibly lose one game because of it. That could cause me to lose the round. But now imagine how many decisions you have to make in a nine round, Best of Three Regional. The impact just keeps growing and growing.

Here’s the take home message: my focus in those “practice” games was not to win (though that’s obviously nice), but to form good habits. By making those “optimal” decisions I repeatedly made in practice, I gave myself the best chance to succeed. So that is my recommendation here. Don’t always feel like you need to win every single game you play. Use some to practice good habits. It will help you win way more of the games that really matter.

Make Good Decisions in Each Situation

I think this is the most important one of all. Though I’m probably biased, because this is the area where I think I am strongest as a player. This topic covers a lot of material, so based on some good advice from a recent champ Kevin Krueger, I’ll break it down into three areas: Prize Trade, Board State, Resource Management. I’ll grade myself in each area too, and again, I recommend you do the same.

Prize Trade: A

How I struggled:  I had a bit of a challenge learning how to manage the prize trade early on. Many times, I would default to just taking a KO on whatever my opponent put up in the active spot. I had to learn to execute my game plan and search out the right KOs. Otherwise, I would have to take more than 6 prizes to win!

How I succeeded: I gave myself an “A” here, because this was a lesson I had to learn very rapidly, and it influenced the types of decks that I played. I had some good success early in the 2019-2020 season by picking decks that could win the prize trade by playing single prize Pokemon. In a 120+ person cup, I played a deck called “Welder and Friends” that consisted of a number of single prize Pokemon that could deal huge amounts of damage, with a couple Pokemon GX for particular situations. In top 8 of the cup, I played against a Malamar deck. Malamar also won by using single prize attackers that forced the opponent to take 6 KOs to win, while the Malamar player only needed to take a few KOs on GXs or Tag Team GXs. For this match-up, I needed to take prizes as rapidly as I could, dropping as few Pokemon GX as possible. I won this round by using my single prize Pokemon until my opponent was down to 1 prize remaining. At that point, I would put down a Tag Team (Reshiram & Charizard GX) that had 270 HP to take my last couple prizes. By playing this way, my goal was to make my opponent take 8 prizes to win the game (5 single prize attackers and one Tag Team GX). Since my opponent had to take 8 prizes to win, and I still only had to take 6, I won by controlling the prize trade. This approach will vary greatly based on match-up, type of decks, etc. But the prize trade is a key thing to keep in mind when you are putting together your plan to win a game.

Board State: A+

Let me clarify what I mean by “Board State”: you need to be able to look at the cards on the board and make the best decision possible. To do this, you need to have a knowledge of the cards, typical decklists, understand what decisions your opponent made last turn, etc. Also, when I say A+ in this category, I don’t mean I am the best or anything close to that. I just feel confident that in this particular skill, I can hang with anyone.

How I struggled: This one took a little bit of experience to master too. The biggest gap for me was learning what the heck everything did. What common decklists were, what strategies people took, what win conditions each deck went for, etc. Most of the struggles I had were getting up to speed on what it was like to be in a highly competitive game. For this, there are two things I did to get better. #1: I did my homework. Reading articles, watching videos, just doing anything I could to learn more helped me have a better idea of what my opponent could do. #2: I just played in as many competitive games (challenges, cups) as I could. Getting more comfortable in higher stakes games helped me be calm and process as quickly as possible.

How I succeeded: Each player can do a certain number of things each turn: play only one supporter, attach only one energy, retreat once, etc. You must understand exactly what those things are, what the outcome of each action will be, and act accordingly. There are two key points I want to make here. First, carefully think about what you need to do to win the game. Put a plan together and constantly reassess it as you go through the game. I’ll give an example of how this worked.

In the Player’s Cup, I played against many people playing Pikachu and Zekrom GX, which is a very tough match-up. Because Dragapult Vmax has very low overall damage output, I needed to be very careful about where to place my damage. Normally, this meant only putting damage on two Tag Team GX Pokemon, so that I can be as efficient as possible with my prizes. However, in one game, my opponent puts down a Marshadow UNB, because they need to discard their hand and didn’t want to lose it. Suddenly, my gameplan changes. Instead of needing to take out two Tag Team GX, I can take out 1 Tag Team GX, one GX or V, and that Marshadow UNB. I change my game plan and decide that I need to KO that Marshadow immediately. I am able to use Zigzagoon SWS to put 3 damage counters on it, and then KO it with Dragapult VMAX that same turn, while hitting a Boltund V. Now instead of needing to gust around the Boltund or waste damage counters, I could simply KO a Pikachu and Zekrom GX and the Boltund V to win the game. Being flexible to what your opponent does can help you win many games you wouldn’t otherwise.

Second, you ideally need to play two games at once. You want to play your game, and you also want to play your opponent’s game. The better you can predict what your opponent is going to do, the better you can put yourself in a position to counter it. This means you need to constantly pay close attention to the decisions they make (did they recently fail a deck search?), what Pokemon they play down (did they evolve that V on their bench when they could have?), and where they are placing their resources (did they attach a tool? Where did they attach energy?). Pay close attention to their discard pile too. Using this information, you can piece together their game plan. Once you understand their game plan, you can put yourself in a position to stop it. When I am locked in during a game, I am constantly trying to predict my opponent’s decision every time they take an action. “They are playing a quick ball, they haven’t played their supporter yet, so probably just getting a Dragapult V.” “They need energy to take the KO, they didn’t attach after playing their supporter, and now they are playing a quick ball. They are likely going for a Dedenne GX to try to find the energy. If they do that, I don’t need to KO two Dragapult Vmax anymore, because I can…” Always try to stay a turn or two ahead of what your opponent is doing. If you can do that, you will be in a position to win a lot more games than you lose. 

Resource Management: B+

How I struggled: When I first started playing, I did not excel at planning ahead. I didn’t have a clear concept in my mind of what I would need to win in the late game. I didn’t protect the right resources; I would either not thin out my deck enough or I would discard important cards I didn’t need to. Paying close attention to what is needed throughout your game is key to settling yourself into a winning position.

How I succeeded: I started planning ahead! Once I learned more about match-ups and even just about how to optimally play a deck, I starting thinking further ahead. I differentiated cards I needed right now between cards I needed later in the game. I asked myself; what is this card’s long-term value compared to the other cards I have in my hand? I learned what I needed to discard, what I needed to keep. This growth was not a stunning revelation, nor could I give a great example of when I discarded one card over another. This is more a mindset I developed as I gained experience.

This whole section boils down to one key point: Think critically about every decision you make. It will probably seem silly, tiring, or unnecessary at times (I definitely have shrugged and said “whatever” when making a play), but the more I made myself stop and think “is this exactly the right decision for this moment and long term,” the more successful I was with every game I played.

I think this is essentially sums up how I have been able successfully grow in the game. Be humble, be willing to learn, critically evaluate yourself, and actively try to get better. Regardless of whether you are just starting out, or you have been playing for years, I think looking critically at each of these areas will help you become a much better player.

I hope this article was helpful for you! If it was, please share it with your friends or anyone else who may want to learn or grow in the game. I’ll say it again: I am not a great player, but I know how to get better, and I know you can too. If there is any way that I can answer questions, clarify, or just help out at all, feel free to reach out to me on Facebook! Good luck as you enjoy all of the online tournaments and other excitement, and make sure you stay safe.

-Dan

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