On my Journey Through a Card Game

This is something I’ve thought about writing for awhile time.  To discuss all of the sideways looks, odd replies, or other commentary I’ve gotten on “I play the Pokemon Trading Card Game competitively,” I’d be here awhile.  Not all of those strictly came with a negative connotation, and sure, it definitely isn’t exactly a normal thing you hear, but I’m here today to shed a bit more on what that sentence has meant to me since it became true in late 2010.

Why?  It’s something I’ve been thinking about penning for a time. I think I’m pretty uniquely positioned in the game at this point: started as a Senior, subscribed to SixPrizes, did alright, aged up to Masters, have done pretty well, started editing for SixPrizes, have Judged here or there, started writing for SixPrizes, have seen every active Regional Organizer in the States run an event a time or two, have seen some 30 or so states along the way, now run SixPrizes—and, fairly uniquely, have shared it all with my mom and brother along the way.

At least partially, this is a self-serving exercise by nature: I’ll be able to read this as memory. But, along the way, I hope it’s not too self-indulgent. If it is, that’s why it’s here, and not on SixPrizes.  I’m not even sure what it’ll turn out as, but I’ve been thinking about the road to this point a lot recently, and this is my way of getting that out.

I hope for some of the newer families in the game, it can be an interesting look at my own’s journey over the last few years.  I hope for my friends that look at my weekend disappearances a bit sideways, this can shed a bit of light on what it is I disappear to.  I hope for some it can be an amusing read.

I confess: while I’ve been thinking about writing this, it’s spurred on now by recent events.  Discussion of the state of the younger divisions, my own little jaunt with a misinterpretation of my questions on that subject, discussion of Regional entry fees, and the general community discourse leaves me a bit disillusioned sometimes.  Times change, and voices in the community ebb and flow over that time.  In a way, this is my way of a written record: when I come to a conversation on one of those issues, this is the perspective I’m bringing.  I’m not going anywhere anytime soon, but at the same time, I want to express some appreciation for what this game has been to me over 8 years of my life.

Alternatively, I like to write. Maybe it’s mainly that.

The Bottom Line…on Top.

So, I wrote everything below this, and then realized the odds are most people aren’t going to have the patience to read it.  And that’s okay.  Writing it was at least mostly for my own therapeutic benefit.  And, if you’re really interested in some fun details of my history, they’re there to be had.

But, like I stated earlier, while I’m not going anywhere at the moment, I know it won’t last forever, and wanted to write this while I still have the time to do it.  To express appreciation for the people that’ve made this journey what it is and continues to be.

I don’t know if I really do all of that in this.  I tried.  But, the words are what have come out—pardon the odd missing one.

If I were to summarize:

For someone who had a class size of 12 for the first part of middle and high school, which effectively turned into an island of 1 as I headed off to dual enrollment at Eastern Michigan University for my last 3 years of that piece of paper, the people in this game were where I found a home.  Writing that isn’t entirely comfortable, but I think it’s true.  My best friend are now sprinkled across the country (and, really, globe), and that’s been true of me since I got involved in this little mess that time ago.  I’m not aware of any other experience like it, and I wouldn’t have traded it for anything.  I’ve gotten to see so much of the country (and, now, globe) along the way.  I’ve gone from 13 year old SixPrizes subscriber to co-running that show.  My inbox now has people asking my opinion, which isn’t something I’m going to get my head around anytime soon.

Through my time in this game, I’ve seen life at its highest, and quite literally known the lows of losing a friend too soon.  I count myself innumerably fortunate for all of that.  I know it can’t continue forever—the weekend disappearing act from “real” life wears a bit thin at some point, and I am fairly certain this is my final year in the immediate term chasing the lunacy known as Top 16.  This thing called life just isn’t going to allow the international travel beyond what I’m looking at this year.  And that’ll be what it is.

If you want to read more of that, read on.

Beginnings

The Schemanske journey into the Pokemon TCG scene came about while I was in Denver, CO with my father visiting family. I was in a Mass somewhere in that area for a cousin’s first communion—meanwhile, back across the country, somewhere in Ohio, my brother told my mom out of the blue from the back seat of the car: “I want to play in Pokemon tournaments.”

I don’t really think any of us are sure what that spur was, but I know none of us would’ve predicted the years to date that would follow.  As my mother told the paper after Alex’s Worlds Top 8 in 2012, we don’t really do anything halfway.  If anyone knew kids of the middle school age a few years ago (or perhaps even still, as I know they continue to publish), you may or may not know of a book series by the name of The 39 Clues.  The premise of the series is unimportant, but know that its initial launch was accompanied by a contest involving various online “missions,” mini games, etc.—I wish I could find the original press release for better effect—that culminated in the Top 39 performers in the US over the original 10-book length advancing to a final round, featuring a quiz on the series.

Lo and behold, I was pretty surprised when I was one of 39 to advance, but then we got an email after the quiz…that story is on the internet still. Financially speaking, that would be the means behind our first Pokemon World Championship attendance in 2012’s Hawaii event. But, like I said, I (and we) tend to focus on things and do them to their best, rather than doing a ton of different htings.

We showed up to a League in the area that, in the day, probably was the local “hub” for Juniors/Seniors competitive play—not that it’s saying much, but when Battle Roads (the League Challenge’s spiritual successor) came around, everyone was pretty much from that or one other League. So, me and my 5 Cyndaquil HS (4 is the maximum allowed in a deck) were off to a banging start in the competitive scene.

Admittedly, one aspect of League that’s left the building in recent years is usable promo cards. Staples of the era like Claydol GE and Bebe’s Search were available just for playing League, which both incentivized us to take next steps up and simply made it easier to do so! Sadly, nowadays, we get mostly nonsense rares as League Promos. I’m sure there’s a justification in someone’s mind up in Bellevue, but when I hear nostalgia invoked for nostalgia’s sake these days, this is one of the few areas where I sympathize with the position.

Being competitive means something entirely different than it used to. Battle Roads were September and June, and only September and June.  Cities ran from late November to early January, if that.  States had 2 weekends in March.  There was a Regional in April.  Nationals was in Indianapolis, and it was in July.  Worlds was in August.

And that was the exhaustive list of tournaments. Compare that to today, when League Challenges are relegated to irrelevance by the sheer number of weekends otherwise occupied, League Cups are always on the agenda, States have gone the way of the dodo, and I was the lone American player to play in the country’s 15 Regionals last season. Nationals have become Internationals, and now International travel is a part of chasing the game’s upper tier. Simply, the “highest level” of this game is a lot more involved than it used to be.

I’m getting ahead of myself, though. Until the introduction of Championship Points in 2012, invitations for the World Championships were based on Elo, the rating system commonly associated with chess. Manipulating that system was something we didn’t really get a handle on until it was too late—in essence, for certain parts of the year (mainly Cities), the best option was to enter a tournament, win the first few games against easier opponents, then drop from the event to avoid the risk of losing when you hit “better” players. Had my brother taken the 5-0 or 5-1 drop at Nationals that year, he could’ve secured Top 40 in North America, and the Worlds invite.  Little did we know.  I don’t miss Elo.

At some point before “oops, that’s Elo,” we subscribed to SixPrizes ourselves.  I’m extensively on record with thoughts as to why paywalls aren’t evil, and back then, SixPrizes was the only game in town.  If memory serves, it was curiosity about something to do with “Gengar C”—a competitive non-entity as history goes—that got us.  And, the lists were useful: when you don’t have connections with the top, you need an idea of what’s being considered, if you’re truly serious about being successful.

This was an era when information was far less centralized.  Some, but far from all, of what we paid for then is probably something a person could get freely on YouTube today.  SixPrizes has come a long way since then, though, and none of those are in ways I think could be construed as bad.  Not that I have any bias, or anything.

Worlds I & My Senior Senior Season

My first World Championship was in 2012, and somehow I convinced myself to play Meganium Prime/Vileplume UD/Kyogre and Groudon-EX DEX—that is, total nonsense.  Between Alex, I, and my friends in Seniors at the time, Terrakion NVI/Eelektrik NVI had been our play throughout the Spring into US Nationals.  At that event, I took the deck to Top 64—back when that meant Single Elimination, and not what it does today—and lost a very disappointing match to a theoretical auto-win in Darkrai-EX DEX/Tornadus-EX DEX.  It stung, and turned me off the deck for Worlds.

Meganium was not exactly a good call, and I started a brilliant 0-4 before bringing the day back to finish in Top 64.  My brother, though had a far better experience, losing with the aforementioned Eels in Top 8.  In addition to proof that the top level was there to be had, the supply of Tropical Beach that came for us out of that experience was seriously lasting in impact given it persists in relevance to this day.

I think this is about the time I ran into Alex Hill on Pokegym. For those newer or unaware, Pokegym was the center of the TCG’s discussion for a number of years, until it was supplanted by various Facebook groups.  I was there probably longer than most because I wasn’t involved in the Facebook side until fairly late on, and this was the center of my communication in the game for a good amount of time. To say the least, I’m glad we’ve moved on from those days, even though the current reality isn’t exactly sparkling somedays.

As best I remember, that was the start of he and I’s friendship in the game, and the many years that’ve followed since. So, I guess it works out well that I did badly, he did well, and I was around to post about it on Pokegym.  And so, an era of my time in the game began.  I could write a chronicle of what we’ve engineered over the years, but I couldn’t do justice to the many other folks that’ve been involved with those creations either. So, instead, I’ll leave it there.

The younger divisions are where I started.  If I’m being truthful, I’ve stated both as a Senior and since aging up that the “equal” accomplishments matter less in Seniors—a Seniors Regional isn’t a Masters Regional.  That’s not to minimize the accomplishments, and I wish it didn’t have to be that way in discourse.  It’s simply establishing the fact that the two are not equal in magnitude.  As it personally happens, I’ve accomplished more in Masters than I ever did in Seniors, so it’s not much of a personal conflict.  I know those words won’t sit well with everyone, but I also think it’s important to be realistic in acknowledging the divisions aren’t the same thing.  Then again, in full disclosure, I was very happy to age up—for a litany of reasons.

One area where Seniors and Juniors are arguably harder than Masters came about with the elimination of Single Elimination Finals beyond Top 8 a few years ago.  Now, at Regionals, the younger divisions generally permit only a single loss to have one’s chance at a Regional win endure, where a Master can take 2.  The situations aren’t equal, but in the disparities between the two, this is the one that sees Masters as a more permissive environment.  Food for thought, and my olive branch to prove I have thought.

Even though they’re where I started, the Jr/Sr divisions of today’s age are entirely different beasts than what I played in.  I was lucky enough to miss out on the modern days of coaches and high stakes, but I also missed out on the money.  Double edged sword to say the least, and while I wouldn’t change a thing on the path that got me here, I do sometimes wonder what would’ve been if TPCi had been a few years ahead of the curve it took.

To be honest, I look at some of what I see amongst parents today and worry somewhere everything left the rails.  Parents that pressure their children over success, over lack thereof, are neither unique to Pokemon nor new to its tournaments.  The stakes, though, have only gone up in recent times—nobody can deny that.

Many like cheating in the younger divisions as a hot button issue.  When we look at the incentives to do so, the two main ones I come up with are peer acceptance and parental pressure.  To be clear, that’s not peer acceptance in approval of cheating, but in approval of results—a desire to be seen as a success.  I don’t really know where the balance lies between the two on an overall scale, but it’s something standing in the way of the game’s overall health—and, furthermore, that it’s something some figures in the game need to think about.

2013 isn’t a year I remember much about.  I continued what’s become a glorious streak of underperformance at US Nationals, was first seed—and took the first loss—at a streak of 4 Regionals, and went to Dallas’ marathon for the first time.  The parental pressure bit above?  Being in another area was a formative experience on that viewpoint.

But that aside, my favorite days in the game still happened in Dallas over the many holiday seasons spent there.  If you take one thing away from this, let it be that Christine Noah is awesome, and the community she’s played a big part in cultivating down there was special to be a part of for an annual week over the years.  My favorite week of more than a few years.

I lost in Top 32 at Worlds that year, playing Blastoise against the Terrakion-EX/Garbodor DRX deck that took quite a few spots in Seniors that year.  Unfortunately, I didn’t plan for Garbotoxin, and Tool Scrapper wasn’t in my plans.  To make matters worse, there’s a card called Pinsir NXD.  My Top 32 opponent was the only one that included it in his iteration of the list.  It, uh, is not my favorite card in history at this point.

This was also the year my brother and I shared in Seniors, playing against each other.  Let me leave it at this: it was, shall we say, uncomfortable at times.  But, we made it.

Moving onto Masters and “The” Game

Like I mentioned earlier, I was excited to age up.  Perhaps my idealistic expectations that I’d escaped the world of random bad decks that, by the way, happen to hit you for the most nonsensical of Weaknesses sometimes weren’t quite true, but I genuinely enjoy the game more.  If I were to tally the amount of times I’ve been the subject of a rulesharking attempt in Masters and the amount of times I was such in Seniors, Seniors would win—and I’ve played more Masters games by a long shot.  I don’t have a good explanation for it, but it’s my experience.  It’s ironic, too, since Seniors didn’t really have much at stake back in those days.  $500 stipends to Nationals don’t really look like much next to the current prize structure, but who knows.

My first year is also known as “the 500 CP year,” back when that number did not come with an asterisk invoked by a certain midyear point rebalancing.  Masters was 230 people, which was the biggest of the old structure by far, but nothing next to current standards.  It’s the invite I’m most proud of: a more people wear that year as a gap in their records than any other in recent history, and it required actual performance across the entire season to attain.  I finished it up at Ontario Regionals, basically one of the last chances before Nationals, with a Top 4.  In something of a humiliation, I think I’m probably one of the only people to lose a Top Cut match to a pair of Game Losses: one to a decklist error (the last I’ve made to date), and the 2nd to a sequence of play involving Skyla for Ultra Ball for Roserade DRX for N—which I played—in Game 3.  Uh…oops?

For Worlds that year, we had Alex Hill, Chris Derocher, and myself from Michigan.  Somewhere between us and Sean Foisy, an Yveltal-EX/Garbodor list with 4 Roller Skates made it out of someone’s deck box.  It tested well, and we ran with it.  I was the only one for whom this was a worthwhile choice in the end, to say the least.  If memory serves, Chris beat Alex in final standings at the hand of a bye—something like that.  I was 6-1 in a year where 7-2 would make Top 8—a pretty enviable spot: win one of two to make Top 8 as a first year Master.

Uh…then this happened.  I’ve written extensively that I believe the TCG is not a game where you can hope to win on skill alone, and while that is less true than it was in the past, I still believe in the idea of putting yourself in a position for things to go right.  I know people that look at things like the Roller Skates and have a perfect sneer for their face, pointing out that I practically asked for things like that match against Igor.  Perhaps, of all the people archetypes in the TCG, it’s this one that annoys me the most.

So, 6-2.  2 years ago, I was in Hawaii, 0-4 as a Senior.  You read about that a bit ago.  Well, little did I know that fate had an interesting twist for me: that Round 5 pairing, as a Senior, happened to be the same person I now was faced with in 2014’s 9th Round.  To say the least, the stakes were much higher.  I don’t really remember who won Games 1 and 2, but Game 3 was a practically untouchable situation.  I didn’t really see a way my opponent could pull it off, as my board setup was just too much, and I had the Energy spread perfectly around his board.

I N’d us both to 4, took my Prizes to go to 2, and game theoretically on the board.  He had Juniper off the N, into his somehow-remaining cache of Enhanced Hammers.  Fine, game no longer on board—but my 4 card deck still held Lysandre (game winning) and a Double Colorless (game winning), and I had 2 turns before he would win.  By the fact that I’m writing this, it’s likely obvious that I drew the two wrong cards in a row, and lost my pair-down.  It’s the match that, of all I’ve played, sits with me the most.  I was the only American presence within realistic Top 8 contention, and it was so close—only to be dashed by an extraordinary sequence of events.  I certainly can’t complain, as these things happen, but if there’s any game I dwell on the “what-ifs” of, it’s that one.  Andrew Estrada went on to become the youngest World Champion the Masters division had ever seen, and it was a good year.

The biggest mistake I made all year came when I got my Top 32 bag.  My brother had his 2012, and I was now the proud owner of a 2014 and a 2013, which meant one was to be willed to my lovely mother.  In the high of “I just won this,” I kept the 2014 and passed her the Vancouver one.  If anyone out there has owned both a Vancouver and a D.C. bag, they know that I took the loss on this one.

The Middle Years to the Now: 2014 to SixPrizes

Like I said, that’s the only game that really has stuck with me over the years.  A lot has transpired since then—Alex aged up to Masters, Regionals feel like they’re every other weekend, cash prizing literally changed the game, and more.  But, for much of that, I’m on record with the journey over at SixPrizes, and I generally try not to rehash myself.  I took judging for a spin at one point, but at this point, my role is still in playing.

The biggest evolution personally in that space of time was acquiring this wretched double-edged sword known as a Facebook account.  In the end, it’s worked out well being a visible name, even if I hate everything that goes into it somedays.  And, the discourse on the various groups is a sad read somedays.  I think I could probably write all day on social media in the game itself, and maybe someday I will, but I don’t think that’s a good call in the current moment.  I just wish I had any hope that people at large will ever be happy.

I think there’ll come a day when I come back to this section and revise it.  But, for now, I want to leave with some thoughts on one of the preeminent issues we have in community discourse right now and where my experience has taken me in standing on them.

Coaching.  The game has obviously changed in nature, and with the giant growth has come its share of growing pains.  I think they’ve been well-handled on the whole by those in power, but the reality is that pleasing everybody will never be possible.  One big addition to the scene is coaching.  As a current representative of the pioneer in the $-for-information era in the game, I guess it’s going to sound weird from me that coaching doesn’t personally reverberate at all.

Fundamentally, I struggle with monetizing personal interaction.  Not that it’s a novel thing, but on a personal level, it’s just not something I do well with.  At least with an article, I write my piece and the reader can take it or leave it.  With coaching, it feels different to me—far more fluid as a dynamic.  Far more of a mentor-mentee idea, but monetized.  It’s not crazy, after all, that’s all tutoring is, and that’s been life for thousands of years.

I think I struggle with the idea that I personally have anything to offer beyond what I write that can be of the value.  It just doesn’t hit a chord with me.  If I have any singular regret with my communication with people over the last few months, it’s probably the ones that ask me about coaching.  Because it’s not something I have straight in my own head yet, it’s something I struggle dealing with others on.  Something I have to think more about.


If you’ve read this far, I want to know how bored you were before you were started.  I hope you’ve enjoyed this little slice of what my mind has cooked up at the moment.  I summarized at the beginning, so I won’t go down that road again, but thanks for coming all the way.  Hopefully you found it interesting.

The future is always something of an enigma, and that’s true for me today as I write this today.  I’ll be finishing out this season in full pursuit of Top 16, with plans to be at the remaining Internationals this year, but after that it’s probably time to scale back a bit.  I would count the number of weekends I’ve spent on the game in recent memory to prove a point, but I’m not sure I want to think about the answer.  I’m fairly sure Europe will be out as a matter of class conflicts next fall, and given that means I won’t be able to ride the merry-go-round of stipends and travel awards, it makes the rest of the Top 16 chase a poor value proposition.  I’ll be here into the future, but probably not at that level.  Therefore, since I’m bad at halfway, I guess we’re going to have to cook up some interesting content ideas on 6P.

I think Pokemon is headed down an interesting road, and that top-level-chasing players are going to burnout at a decent rate.  They’ve chosen their approach, and I’m curious to see what the next few years hold.

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