This post is about a nerdy, unimportant subject: high-level competitive play of the Pokémon video games. Parts of this article will be easier to understand if you have basic, non-competitive knowledge of how the Pokémon games' battle mechanics work. If you’re looking for something serious, move on.
After an unfortunate file deletion, I’ve finally finished Pokémon Sword again. Like in most games in its series, the act of “finishing” the game’s main story is mostly just a prelude to playing modes that use a more competitive set of game rules. Naturally, I’ve continued to play past that point so that I may construct my own competitive team. That teambuilding process was quite slow in prior entries, but Sword and Shield add many new features that really make the process quick enough for me not to lose interest.
That ease of teambuilding has led me to play the game much more. I had immediately built my own team and reached the maximum rank in the game’s offline competive mode (called “Battle Tower”) after finishing the game on my old file. I’m in the process of building that team back up on the new file, but I still have my thoughts on the gameplay. These thoughts are also inspired by videos made by Pokémon “VGC” (more on that term later in the essay) Champion Wolfe Glicke, and some conversations with a friend who has a deep interest in game balancing.
I don’t think it’s fair to say mean things about a person or group without first saying genuine nice things about them. That would be unfair, and Smogon doesn’t deserve that.
Smogon University is an online competitive Pokémon community that has for the past 15 years maintained an important grassroots presence in the competitive Pokémon scene since its inception. They developed a competitive ruleset that emphasized high-skill play and de-emphasized strategies that were unfair, unskilled, and/or very difficult to play against (what would be called “degenerate tactics” in most competitive settings).
At the time of Smogon’s founding, officially-sanctioned Pokémon competitions were few and far in between. The games did not support online play, and even those tournaments that did exist covered small geographic areas in the United States, Japan, and France. On the other hand, there was a fan-made simulator called “Pokémon Netbattle” which followed Smogon’s community-made ruleset. This simulator allowed players to create teams quickly and play against other players from around the world. The grassroots ruleset quickly took hold and became the preferred way to play amongst players who had an interest in competitive Pokémon.
Even today, Smogon still maintains a web-based battle simulator called Pokémon Showdown that supports matches played either in Smogon formats, or using the official VGC format. The simulator is a great resource for people who want to play without owning the newest game or the console required to play it. It also allows players to experiment with new monsters a bit more rapidly than the main games would, which allows players to better nail down their team builds. I would say the sim is no longer necessary as of the release of Pokémon Sword and Shield and their streamlined teambuilding, but the option is still there and is free of charge. Their site also remains a good option for inspiration when teambuilding, as they curate strategies for the use of nearly every monster in the game, including strategies for the other popular competitive Pokémon format: VGC.
The Pokémon Video Game Championship
Starting in 2009, The Pokémon Company International (TPCi) would run their own world-wide competitive Pokémon Tournaments, dubbed the Play Pokémon Video Game Championship (VGC) series. These competitions would use totally different rules than the Smogon rules, generally forbidding fewer degenerate tactics and would otherwise have simpler rules.
Some years, only Pokémon obtainable in the latest games were usable. Other years, that list would grow to include imports (monsters imported from older games), and a few years even powerful “Legendary” Pokémon were permitted on a limited basis (generally, 2 per team of 6). Allowing unreasonably powerful monsters has created a few years of VGC where the same few Pokémon dominate top placements, but other VGC formats were home to a variety of team compositions featuring many unexpected monsters, most famous being the winning team for VGC2014 Worlds, in the Master division.
All of this talk of variety and surprise in team composition is to say that the VGC game is generally healthy, encourages experimentation, but most importantly rewards skilled play. Many of the most skilled players in the world find themselves consistently placing in the top cuts of their local tournaments, and several players have made it to VGC Worlds (the main tournament) on more than a few occasions.
After over a decade of VGCs, I think it’s safe to say that the format is successful at providing competitive rules under which players can fairly compete. The question for this essay is: how does it compare to Smogon’s?
The Two Formats
This is the part where knowledge of the basic mechanics of the Pokémon video games helps a lot.
The two formats are known better as “Smogon Singles OU” and “VGC Doubles”, but for the purpose of this breakdown, I’ll use the terms “OverUsed” and “OU” to refer to the rules specific to Smogon, “VGC” for the rules specific to the Video Game Championship, “Singles” for formats where each player has only one Pokémon out on the field at a time, and “Doubles” in reference to formats where each player has two monsters out on the field at a time.
OU and VGC have a few commonalities, both derived from how multiplayer “Link Battles” have worked throughout the Pokémon series. In both formats, the player is forbidden from using items out of their own inventory. Additionally, Pokémon don’t gain any experience points during the battle, meaning the competing monsters won’t gain levels (and with it, permanent power) while fighting. Finally each player can only use 1 of any specific Pokémon on their teams - one player can’t use two Pikachus, for instance.
OU is a Singles format with no level restrictions, though it is expected that the vast majority of Pokémon brought in will be Level 100, the maximum level the games allow. Each player brings in a full team of 6 Pokémon to the match, and there is no time limit. VGC is a Doubles format where every Pokémon’s level is scaled to 50, each player brings in 4 Pokémon out of the 6 on their team, and where there are time limits for each turn, each player, and the match as a whole. When time runs out in VGC, both players are told that the match will proceed for a fixed number of additional turns before a decision is made.
Smogon OU has more restricted rules than VGC. In addition to the above, the following bans are in effect:
- Dynamax is banned - Extremely powerful Pokémon (known as “Ubers”) are banned - The ability “Moody” is banned (Moody Clause) - The abilities “Arena Trap” and “Shadow Tag” are banned (Shadow Tag Clause)
- The move “Baton Pass” is banned (Baton Pass Clause) - The moves “Double Team”, and “Minimize” are banned (Evasion Clause) - The moves “Fissure”, “Guillotine”, “Horn Drill”, and “Sheer Cold” are banned (OHKO Clause)
- Only one Pokémon on either team can be asleep at once (Sleep Clause)
- Only one Pokémon on either team can be frozen at once (Freeze Clause)
- Both Freeze and Sleep Clauses are enforced by the Pokémon Showdown battle simulator
- Players are forbidden from intentionally preventing the opponent from losing (Endless Battle Clause)
Compare that extensive banlist to the banlist for VGC:
- Each year of VGC has its own list of banned Pokémon - Generally, the first VGC year for a new Pokémon game will have a more restrictive banlist than subsequent years
- No two Pokémon on the same team can hold the same item at the start of the match (Item Clause)
To put it in simple terms, Smogon’s restrictions are what professional Super Smash Bros. Melee player Rishi describes as a “deconstructive ruleset”, while VGC is what he would call a “constructive ruleset”. OU’s restrictions are reactive measures taken against degenerate tactics that emerged from earlier versions of the rulesets. VGC’s rules however are chosen at the start of a VGC year, and the banlist is usually reduced as the year goes on. Over time, elements are added to the VGC metagame, where in the OU metagame elements tend to be taken away, until a desired competitive balance is reached. Why does Smogon need to constantly take away gameplay elements, while VGC can maintain a satisfying game balance with far fewer restrictions?
VGC and Degeneracy
This section was originally going to feature a point-by-point breakdown of why each of OU’s Clauses are in place, but they can all be summarized by broadly looking over the numbers for each format.
Each turn, players have their Pokémon either use one of their 4 Moves, or switch out in place of one of their reserve Pokémon. Moves are how you deal damage, inflict negative status, and grant yourself boosts. Switching, on the other hand, is a more defensive tool. The idea of switching is that you can switch a Pokémon into a move it can easily take but that the intended target can’t. This defensive play usually puts you into a better offensive position, allowing you to make (literal) moves you couldn’t make otherwise.
Let’s run the numbers for an OU match. It’s Single-Battle format, and each player brings a full team of 6 Pokémon. At the start of the match, the players send out one Pokémon of their choosing, after seeing what Pokémon their opponent put on their teams. At this point, either player can have their Pokémon use a move, or switch into one of 5 different Pokémon they have. At any point in the battle, because each player only has 4 moves available at once, it might just be impossible to deal with certain threats, forcing a switch. Not even accounting for bans, OU already heavily favours defensive counter-play.
VGC is 4v4 Doubles. Each player sees the 6 Pokémon they have with them, then chooses 4 to bring into the battle. The battle then begins and the first two Pokémon chosen by each player are sent out to the field. That means that on the very first turn, half of the Pokémon available will already be present on the field, and all 4 Pokémon have the opportunity to either switch or make their moves. In terms of switches, each Pokémon can only be switched with one of 2 reserve Pokémon. Right out the gate, both players have twice as many offensive options and less than half as many defensive options. On top of that, VGC battles are shorter both because there are fewer monsters, but also because there are twice as many attacks per turn.
Because of the higher availability of offensive options, relying on entirely defensive play (“stall” tactics) is nearly is nearly impossible in VGC. “Walling” (a type of strategy that fully mitigates the enemy’s offenses) isn’t viable until your opponent only has one Pokémon remaining, at which point one player will already be very close to victory, and where offensive play will get the job done faster. A would-be wall in VGC usually has to face down attacks from two opposing Pokémon each turn. That means that many degenerate strategies - the kinds that need to be formally banned in OU for the format to remain competitive - don’t consistently win VGC matches.
The crux of the analysis is this: because of how the basic rules of VGC are constructed, degenerate strategies are automatically made less prominent. This analysis, however, has not accounted for an important game-changing battle mechanic introduced in Pokémon Sword and Shield: Dynamax.
Dynamax is a battle mechanic that allows a player to grow their Pokémon to enormous size for up to 3 turns. A Pokémon’s health is effectively doubled when Dynamaxed, and their attacking moves are replaced by powerful un-missable moves with excellent beneficial effects called “Max Moves”. It’s a powerful offensive tool quite unlike other gimmicks previously introduced in the series - all but 3 Pokémon (all of which are banned in both formats) can Dynamax, and it can be done at any point in the battle, once per battle.
Dynamax is excellent for obtaining and maintaining offensive momentum in a match, can be countered by itself, and provides incentive towards building more offensive sets, as Pokémon who know status-based moves will be less effective during Dynamax. It’s a low-risk, high-reward mechanic but successful counterplay usually means that a Dynamax was wasted, which puts the countered player in a much worse position than if a Dynamax was successful. Smogon banned it from OU about a month after it was released.
Because OU is a format with far more defensive options than offensive ones, it’s far easier for a would-be Dynamax sweeper to obtain prior support from other Pokémon before it boosts itself and destroys the enemy team, completely unchecked. Accumulating boosts and buffs before pulling the trigger on a sweep is a disproportionally powerful way to mitigate stall tactics in a ruleset that otherwise makes stall very easy. Dynamax brought with it a complete paradigm change emphasizing quick matches with big decisions to be made in just a few turns. It was like speed Pokémon - each turn had more weight, and mistakes were punished a lot more heavily. OU wasn’t ready for that paradigm shift, and so it wasn’t a surprise that Dynamax was banned so quickly.
Though I am normally not a fan of euphemism, there is one that springs to mind perfectly to describe the situation. Pokémon’s developer, Game Freak, gave Smogon all the rope necessary with which to hang their ruleset. By banning it, they did exactly that: retreat the format back into something that is boring to watch, more frustrating to play in, and which is far more susceptible to degeneracy. Though the claim that OU is a dying format might be controversial, the point of this essay is to make a different claim regarding the competitive gameplay of the Pokémon games.
Looking Back to the Old Days
The most telling aspect of the VGC ruleset is that it’s nearly the same as the ruleset used in an in-game area known as the “Battle Tower”, also called “Battle Fronter”, “Battle Subway”, “Battle Maison”, or “Battle Tree” depending on the game (for clarity I’ll just refer to all of these as the Battle Tower). In nearly all Pokémon games, the Battle Tower is an area unlocked after finishing the game’s main story and becoming “Champion” of the Pokémon League. When partaking in battles at the Battle Tower, the game takes on a different ruleset: you assemble a team of 3 for Single Battles, and 4 for Double Battles, you are not permitted to use bag items, and either your team’s levels are scaled to 50 or the opposing team is scaled to whichever is the highest level Pokémon on your team (later games scale your team, earlier games scale the opponents'). Just about the only difference relates to banlists, which are fixed in each Pokémon game but change depending on the VGC year.
Battle Tower serves two purposes. First, it provides an endless stream of battles where the player cannot simply overpower the opponent by using higher-level Pokémon. Second, it allows the player to practice battling using a competitive ruleset without needing to battle against their friends. It’s a practice mode for Link Battles, from which the Battle Tower rulesets are derived. The Battle Tower has existed in the Pokémon games since 2000, with the release of Pokémon Crystal. What I want to highlight is that game’s Battle Tower ruleset: 3v3 Singles with each challenger having their monsters at the same level. Where in later games the level would be scaled to 50, in Crystal opposing teams come in intervals of 10, chosen before beginning a 7-battle streak. The player’s team must be exactly at or below the level chosen. Special Legendary Pokémon are forbidden from being entered at lower levels.
This ruleset share similarities with an even earlier ruleset: L50-55 from Pokémon Stadium, itself derived from the ruleset used during the 1997 Nintendo Cup tournament held in Japan. NC ‘97 was a 3v3 Singles format where each Pokémon brought to battle was required to be between levels 50 and 55, and where the totals of the selected monsters’ levels cannot exceed 155. This meant that, for instance, an obscenely powerful Pokémon like Mewtwo was not even eligible to battle in the format, because it was available in-game only starting at Level 70.
Nintendo Cup ‘97 took place a year after the games were released, and uses a rules format that is still similar to the format used in today’s VGC. This ruleset became the basis of just about every competitive battle format used inside and outside of the games. The reasoning for choosing 3v3? Time constraints. A full 6v6 Singles battle would take too long, and would probably be too boring.
The attempt to create a competitive Pokémon ruleset for 6v6 Singles was a mistake, and Game Freak knew that from the very beginning of the series. Not only does Game Freak actually playtest their games for competitive play, it’s become clear to me that they have always done so. It really does seem that when they would add new gameplay elements such as monsters, moves, items, and abilities, or when they even add entire new mechanics to the game, Game Freak would test them thouroughly to ensure a desired level of game balance was achieved. The suggested rules in-game represent an attempt to present the mechanics in a format that allows fair, interesting competition, and the lack of an official 6v6 format like how some in-game battles are comported show that such a thing is impossible to do without creating a worse gameplay experience.
If you’re a longtime OU player, try giving VGC a chance. It might seem unusually fast-paced at first, and it might seem like the match hinges on a few early-game decisions, but once you get used to it you might find the fast pace and the lack of stall to be a welcome change. If you’re revisiting the old games with friends, try playing by Poké Cup or Battle Tower rules. Embrace the old “HM Mule” gimmick that reduced the size of your team; you might like having more restrictions on your strategy, forcing you to be more clever and creative. Despite the fact that Pokémon is an open-ended game that emphasizes player choice, I think we just might have been playing it wrong this whole time.