“Like No One Ever Was:” the Theory Behind Pokemon’s Very Best

Editor’s Note: In today’s article, Phinn lays out specific skills that help make a successful Pokemon player. It’s worth noting that an invaluable resource for improving those very skills can be found in private coaching. A good Coach can examine your deck list or play out a practice game with you, and offer particular pointers on ironing out weaknesses in each – they focus on YOUR needs, rather than the wider audience of our written articles. I myself have been coached on multiple occasions by Phinn himself and by others; I am most definitely better for it, and I encourage all levels of subscribers (or non-subscribers) to consider our Coaching services.  In the meantime, enjoy the article! -Andy

Hey guys, Phinn again. Recently I have been thinking more about the deeper mechanics of this game. I’m talking about what it takes to make a player like Jason Klaczynski or Ross Cawthon. The question of what makes a player great. I’ve theorized about what it takes for about five years. Throughout these years, I think I have finally developed an answer. I’m not talking about the trivial info that anyone will tell you, like “good players just practice a lot,” or “good players just run hot and use good lists.” With this piece, I go into depth about what I think creates the best players. I answer the question of:

What makes a great player great?

In the process of answering this question, I also give insight on which areas to focus on and how to improve your own play. The first step to becoming great is learning from the greatest.

(There’s also a list at the very end for the paid subscribers. Love you guys.)

First, I just want to say that I’m not trying to qualify myself as one of the greats, or even call myself a good player. If you want to know my accomplishments, you can check out my profile. I’m confident in my ability, but I’m not using this article to talk about myself. I’m just trying to answer the question above in the most detail possible. However, I do refer to some of my accomplishments, just to give examples.

I also refer to a number of the most skilled players in the game along this piece. Normally I think it’s good etiquette to tell the players before I put them in a piece, but there are just too many to message. I only say good things about these players, so I would hope they don’t take offense to any of it. Anyway, onto the article….

I think in general there are five qualities that make a player. In order of importance, they are:

  1. In-game decision making/Overall judgment
  2. Time management
  3. Deck choice/meta-gaming
  4. Deck building
  5. Sociability/Team

You may disagree with the order of these. I’ll explain why each of these qualities is more or less important than the others. Remember that this piece is simply my opinion. You are free to completely disagree with everything I have to say here.

I’m going to explain this list in backwards order, saving the most important quality as the last thing I cover. So first up, we have your team!


When I started playing, I would only run ideas and test theories on my own, or with Michael Perez. This method didn’t get me very far because, well, we were both really bad at this game. Having a good network of players to run ideas by, and to test with, is huge in becoming a better player. I think new players should do everything they can to make strong relationships with good players.

However, teams don’t only benefit new players. Teams are helpful for even the most experienced of players. Ross Cawthon is the head of a team called X-Files. They are known by most of the community to be the strongest team out there. While Ross is one of the top three best players in the World, he still uses a team of talented individuals to help him with deck lists, testing, and deck choice.

I also have a team – in fact, multiple. My primary team is a group called Otterchops. Don’t ask me why we went with such a silly name; I can’t remember. Nathian Beck and I started our team back at Nationals in 2015. We have members such as Daniel Altavilla, Josh Fernando, and Jeremiah Williams. People come and go occasionally. We did have Chris Collins, Caleb Gedemer, and Colter Decker at a time as well.
(On a side note, please do not ask to join our team. I love all of you and wish you the best, but we are very selective with who we want to join.)
I also want to give Team 4N4Life a shout-out because they have helped and supported me a lot through my career in the game. Although I don’t do as much testing or discussion with these guys, I consider them family.

Almost every high level player has a team. We all need people to play the game with. After all, it is a two-player game. It is important to have the humility to understand that you don’t know everything there is to know about the game. It is crucial to have smart people around you to help improve the play of all involved. You can always benefit from another’s opinion, even in cases where they no idea what they are doing. Sometimes I just ask my dad to look at my deck and pick a random card to cut. Most of the time he picks something crucial and it doesn’t work out. Although, occasionally he makes a good cut and helps me to perfect the list.

That’s not to say that you should spend all of your time with inexperienced players. In fact, I notice when two really strong players make a connection, huge results are usually the outcome. The Martinez/Garcia brothers are a good example of this. Two years ago, Jason Martinez, Patrick Martinez, and Mark Garcia, were all at the top of their divisions. Mark won two Regionals in the 2016 season, and Patrick Martinez won Worlds in 2015. I don’t know much about Jason, and I have only met him once. However, Kian Amini tells me that he’s just as a good as the other two. These guys did so well because they were all very strong players, working with each other to maximize the effectiveness of their testing. Not-so-coincidentally they are also super friendly.

Have you ever noticed how many top players are extremely friendly people? Chase Maloney might be the nicest person I have ever met. Jason K lets complete strangers use his rare and expensive decks. I never see Dylan Bryan without a smile on his face. It is not a coincidence that many of the best players are also the most sociable. Humans gain a lot from working with each other. I believe we need friends and many connections to thrive in this game.

My team and I have collaborated on many decks and done well with them together. If it wasn’t for Jeffrey Cheng (one of my oldest teammates), I would not have known about Donphan in 2015. Our team worked together to make what I still consider to be the best list for 2015 Worlds. Jeffrey got second place in Seniors with it, Colter got 3rd, and I scored 24th in Masters. (For the record, I would have been 8th seed if I didn’t hit an auto-loss in my last round. Who even plays Toad/Aromatisse in 2015?!? Ugh, still salty.)

That said, being sociable is simply just not as important as the rest of the qualities. If you have a good team, but your deck list is awful, you play poorly and you don’t know how to manage time, you’re still getting dead last. However, having a team is very important because it will help you to improve all of the other four qualities. A team is like the pre-work out before you go to the gym….Bad simile? Alright nevermind.

Deck Building

This one is not higher up on the list, only because decent deck builders are not as hard to find as the other qualities. You can find a fair number of strong deck builders, but it’s pretty hard to find someone that can play at the exact speed they need to be playing, all the time, while making the correct plays. Even some of the best players in the game have trouble managing time. Choosing a deck based on the meta is also more important than the list itself because even if you play the perfect Virizion/Mewtwo list at your next Regionals, you’re still going to get stomped because the deck is awful now.

While it may be easier to find good deck builders, there are only a very select few  that can build a perfect deck. In my opinion, my best quality is my ability to build strong lists. That’s why Connor Pederson got second this year at Worlds with my deck list, and I’m able to consistently make top cut at tournaments. (I said I wasn’t going to talk about myself though….sorry.)

With the new way media circulated through Facebook, websites, and articles, lists are less important. I’ve never played at a time when most good lists weren’t available to the public, but I’m told that before Six Prizes came along, there was next to nothing. In 2016 the list-sharing has gotten huge. Now that Pokemon.com posts every list that makes Top 8, nobody’s deck is safe for more than one tournament. This means it is more important than ever to be a good innovator.

The list circulation makes new ideas the most important part of deck building. Anybody can find a solid list online now, meaning that if you want a great deck that surprises people, you need to do something special.

These players, who can come up with new ideas to fit new meta, do very well in most cases. The game’s best deck builders often see great finishes. This is because of how important your list is in our current format. Some may not remember a time when lists were secondary to play, but in my opinion your list trumps how strong you are as a player in terms of importance.

“Wait, then why did you put decision making as more important???”

For the same reason: decent lists are always available to the public. It’s more important to be a an excellent player with a good list, than an excellent deck builder with good play.

Rarely will you find a player that does well consistently with bad lists. I don’t want to give any specific  examples because I would essentially be calling people out as bad deck builders but trust me, there are so people out there with really bad lists that manage to make cut.
I don’t know how, man… I really don’t know how.

The majority of the time, though, this is not the case. More than likely, the list that wins a tournament has at least 58 of the perfect cards for that build. The other two spots could be seen as play style choice.

I will say, however, that card choice can be more important than skill and decision making at times. At Utah Regionals last year, I managed to beat Mark Garcia in the Finals because I had teched one card for the mirror match. It was Virizion/Genesect mirror and I played two Tool Scrappers, and I won the game by playing my second copy to get rid of his G-Booster. I bring this up because once you have high-level players facing each other, it is more important to have a list that has an advantage in the matchup. Mark is a better player than me now, and he was during that Regionals. If both players don’t make mistakes, you can’t rely on outplaying them; you are then forced to rely on your list and luck.

Another thing I want to note about play-style techs is that play-style choice is completely a legitimate reason to play different cards in your list. I used to advocate not using cards for your play style and instead adapting to different lists that are better for your meta. I still support that idea to a degree, but now there are legitimate play style choices in Expanded. An example could be playing a Sableye instead of a second Lysandre, because you can Junk Hunt for VS Seeker. Or maybe playing a second Gallade as a mirror tech instead of an Enhanced Hammer. Things like this are up to the builder’s play style and meta predictions. I think that in different formats there have been times where play style was less of a legitimate reason to play a certain card, but now that Expanded has the gigantic card pool that we’re working with, I think there is something to be said for play style card choices.

The humility to admit that a card (or cards) should be changed in your list is a big part of being a good deck builder. Too often, players will think they know better than everyone and play either a silly card, or  a bad count of a staple card. Sometimes players will be attached to a certain count or cards as well. “every deck needs 4 VS Seeker” is probably the most common example I hear, and it’s bogus! Sure, VS Seeker is incredibly strong, but making a rule like this only limits what you can do with your lists. When you are deck building, it’s important to be open to any new ideas. You should never immediately discount an idea before giving it a little bit of thought.

With that being said, you have to know when an idea is going to work or not. I’m all for humility and working with others, but if you know for sure that a card or count is GOOD, then by all means do it. Did all of my friends tell me that Toad Bats with five Water energy is dumb? Of course they did. But that’s only because they didn’t test it. If they did, they would have known how strong it is. I knew that it was the way to go, and I stuck with it. (I’m doing a really bad job of not talking about myself.)

However, this was not always the case. Two seasons ago, Chris Collins was the only person I talked with about decks. It took me four Cities missing Top Cut for me to realize that Chris Collins was right about Bulky Yveltal. I was so in love with Yveltal/Lasers that I wouldn’t let him convince me that Bulky was the way to go. It’s important to give others’ ideas a try, because people often know what they’re talking about when they are passionate about an idea. This goes back to why a team is important; if you have a group of bad players that keep suggesting dumb decks or cards or counts, maybe you need a new team.

Overall, being good at deck building, or knowing someone that can give you lists a very important in making a great player. The only reason why this is lower on the tier list is because others can easily give you their lists.

Now we get into some of the harder attributes….


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