Exploring the Pokemon TCG’s Best Finish Limits in 2019

Exactly a year ago, I was headed into a rare “off” weekend on the Pokemon TCG World Championships grind. Bookended by trips to Sao Paulo, Salt Lake City, and Toronto on one end, and Roanoke (VA), Madison, Singapore, Mexico City, Mexico City again, and Columbus, that weekend was spent somewhere in Ohio chasing some League Cups. I did call that the “off” weekend—you read correctly.

Needless to say, a busy time.

A year later, I’m coming off a recent weekend of remembering that Michigan can be sort of cold in May (and notably, I have no idea what Panama City looks like), and while I did go to to a Pokemon event this weekend, it’ll be my only one until Columbus calls in the second half of June—and, I did not play at least last weekend. It’s a different universe, and while I wrote at length about last year’s universe, I’ve been mostly quiet about this one. It’s a somewhat different world wearing red, with a lot of different challenges and upsides, but it’s been a thoroughly interesting one nevertheless.

That quietness is not changing today, as writing about the myriad perspectives encountered on the staffing side of events this year is a tall challenge that requires a lot of discussion, but I instead want to take a minute to look at some aspects of the series as we head into next season. Much of this will be better considered once all is said, done, and final for the season, but there’s enough on the table to look speculatively at a few big topics even though we aren’t done yet. In the interest of discussion, community consideration, making my flight go by faster, or any other number of things, I’m writing this now and will look to some updates in the future when we get those final numbers.

For now, though, here are the things I want to talk about. Loosely, they all revolve around one of my favorite concepts: the Best Finish Limit. First, I want to look at League Cups, their current arrangement, the impacts different elements of timing may have had this season, and what the future could look like. The other big topic I want to look at is Special Events, and the rise of American imperialism, or something like that.

Looking at League Cups

First and foremost, consider: I don’t think many of us envisioned the shift from City Championships a few seasons ago going the way it did. Some would’ve said better, some worse, some a more linear progression (vs. the Q4 removal of many sites last season), and others who know what. Last season, controversially, was the first in which an invitation to the World Championships could be earned anywhere in the world from exclusively League Cup performances. Exactly one player attained 400 CP, and he had a lot more on top of them, so that fear didn’t exactly come to reality.

This season, with the reintroduction of League Challenges’ relevance (maybe—I suspect the jury is yet out as to how many points a general Worlds invitee actually garners from Challenges this year), and the bar being raised to 550 CP for North America, it was no longer possible to earn with just Cups, or with Cups+Challenges: some level of Regionals performance is necessary this season.

We can go on and on about whether that’s “right,” but that isn’t especially relevant either. I think it is a mistake to read 550 as compensating for the added Challenge CP (else, 520 would be more logical), and instead perhaps just assume that TPCi wanted less US+CA players at Worlds. As you can see below, the US and Candada have accounted for the lion’s share for a majority of recent history, and while America does have the majority of players, we’ve seen some signs of parity beginning to emerge.

The primary effect of this year’s changes will probably be a reduction in American invites and an increase in Latin America’s share. This, good, bad, or otherwise, is probably the reality.

When the 550 bar was announced, this is the case I made:

Basically, I believed there would be a problem with players being in too deep of a pit to effectively climb out because they did not play Quarter 1 with urgency, especially when it came to the newly-legitimated Challenges. I don’t want to rehash the entire argument, but its key implications are as such:

  • Generally, we will have less players receiving invites.
  • Far more important: players would be out of “feasible” range of an invite sooner in the season than ever. This is partially a function of the high bar itself, and partially a function of the time-limited nature of much of the structure. You have to be good all season, or be really good at Regionals/etc. for a smaller chunk of the season to make up for the missing Cup/Challenge opportunities.

Let’s focus on that second bit. I think a contingent of players will make the case that this requirement is a good thing—perhaps, even too low a bar as it is. I think there’s a degree of argument to be made there, but I’m on record as not really being concerned with the “prestige” of Worlds as much as its role as the major viable achievement in Pokemon. We’ve seen a slight expansion of the incentive structure with quarter-differentiated stipends this season, but we’re still nowhere near a diverse and varied incentive structure that might be ideal (impractical, too, but ideal). Worlds is still the primary carrot at the end of the stick.

Part of the loss in North American attendance this year is an overall lack of new players. I’ve written before that the majority of entries in both the 2017 and 2018 Championship Series were comprised of players who attended only 1 or 2 Regional Championship: clearly, no eyes on Worlds. There’s no way around this; any discussion about changes related to Worlds is partially flawed because it relies on an assumption that most people care about the incentive structure—most seemingly don’t.

But, we have some evidence that 550 has actually driven Regionals entries in a different way: there are more players attending 4/5/6 /7/etc. events this year than in the past. Even in the face of overall attendance losses, repeat-event-attendees have grown in number (for TCG Masters, US+Canada). This was a trend especially strong in the start of the season that has slowed down to some degree since then. So, some degree of players do care about Worlds, and are willing to adjust their habits based on it. I don’t think that’s a surprise to anyone, but it’s important to establish.

A secondary point in favor of Regional attendance somewhat correlating with Worlds qualification is found in the year-over-year tale of spring: attendance generally falls, independent of other controlling factors, as we get closer and closer to June. This could be because everyone gets magically less inclined to play Pokemon, or there could be actual reasons. I lean toward the fading possibility of a Worlds invitation for many players as part of that calculus.

For those who do care about the Worlds carrot, but are on the fringes of qualification, the timing of this year’s CP bar was not good. Quarter 1 for Challenges was over; Quarter 1 for Cups was nearly so. There was no room to make up for a bad start, and discouragement would be a distinct possibility. The general change in trends we see before and after Roanoke could be explained by a lot of things—the challenge this year is that there are so many mitigating factors clouding data—but I think the realization that an invite was unattainable could have played into some player’s decisions to be less involved throughout the rest of the season.

I don’t know that I’m right, and honestly, I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to even lay out numbers saying I’m right at a significance level of any real use. But, it’s the best guess I have for what I see. More actual numbers to come in June.

Moving forward, I’d like to make the case for League Cups being a Best of 8 (or 6, or 10, or 7) throughout the entirety of the season, as opposed to the current Quarter system we have. This could have a few substantial upside areas I want to highlight:

  • Keeps more invite dreams alive for longer. This is beneficial for circuit interest to at least some degree, and that’s good for store owners and organizers everywhere. This eliminates situations where a bad quarter—or, more importantly (and probably more pertinently), a busy quarter—puts someone out of the running for an invite. Perhaps even more importantly, it eliminates a situation where players can look at the calendar, realize a quarter will be unnavigable, and give up before they start.
  • Allow for end-of-season runs to an invite. There’s a place for saying an invite to Worlds should demand quality showing across the entirety of a Pokemon season, but while this is a noble ideal, I think the late-season stories would be a cool element and outweigh any value held there. Reasonable minds will differ on this one.

    The material benefit here is the increased circuit interest it can generate. This can extend from Regionals to Cups to Challenges, throughout the entire ecosystems. I’m always going to argue that outweighs the immaterial principle in this case.
  • Give more players more to play for. We’re all familiar with the years where later-season Cups and Challenges were ridden with implicit pressure (if not explicit requests) to concede in favor of those seeking the Worlds invitee. This won’t do away with that, but it would keep more people “alive” for longer, minimizing the pressures and effects to some degree.
  • Minimize the week-by-week grind felt by many players. For some, playing Pokemon 40 weeks of the year sounds like a really fun idea (trust me, it sounds better on paper), but it might not be the ideal balance for a hobby. Part of the “grind” demand felt by many players is the constance of local events under this iteration of the structure. Particularly for the Top 16 types, the ability to bank up a few extra good finishes and have the ability to have some concentrated weekends off would be a radically favorable change.
  • Simplification of the structure. This is among the biggest pros. Right now, there are 3 separate four-times-a-year cycle dates to keep in mind: League Challenge BFLs, League Cup BFLs, and International Championship Stipend BFLs. This is itself confusing, but once you consider the scenario that comes into play when these scenarios start to interact with each other, it gets really ugly. There are a lot of good and necessary reasons for this date stratification, but I would like to get rid of at least the League Cup one. This would simplify the “Can I get ‘extra’ Cup finishes toward a stipend this (stipend) quarter and when can I do it?” question down to “You get your best finishes between Date #1 and Date #2 regardless of Cup ‘season.'”

    While it’s easy to figure out what counted in the past, figuring out what counts in the future is still a bit of a gymnastics trick. Maybe I’m just used to taking these questions a lot, but I think this would be an invaluable simplification to Pokemon’s overall product offering here.

There are a lot of different angles to approach here, but those are the highlight ones in my mind. There is one very predictable argument against my case that I want to take a stab at real quickly:

 "But Christopher, letting players get more finishes early means they won't show up to my Cups at the end of the season!"

There’s admittedly a real chance this becomes true for certain players that have particularly stellar runs, but in the entirety of last season, only 1 player in North America won 8 League Cups—let alone the mythical 8 Cups-in-one-Quarter that some people have liked to float over time. While I won’t argue that this effect is zero, I do think it approaches zero on the scale of League Cup attendance on the whole. Plus, getting some of the familiar faces out of the area for a few weekends might just encourage some new success, which in turn, can encourage some new faces at Cups. Even if this effect is nonzero, I’m not sure it’s nonpositive.

However, there’s another even more interesting situation at play there: if a “top” player wishes to remain in contention for Top 16 stipends to International Championships, surely they’ll need to participate in Cups to keep up on that bar. Thus, I think the reduction in attendance from players who bank finishes would actually be pretty minimal on the whole, as many will see the stipend goalpost as too tempting to pass up shooting for.

There is one more interesting question here. If this happens to League Cups, what do we do with League Challenges?

I’d argue for a similar treatment, favoring the uniformity of only the stipend quarter dates remaining on the calendar, simplifying the structure immensely. League Challenge attendance is also already fairly independent of the Worlds chase, as you can see from the following graphic:

We’re seeing the highest levels of the year over the last section of this season, which seems to imply Challenge interest has little to do with Worlds, which leads me to believe divorcing its points-earning trait from the time of year will probably not have much of an effect. Thus, for the benefit of simplicity, I’d propose moving to an annual BFL. This could create an easier 120 CP for certain players, meaning there might be a need to adjust the system/Worlds bar a bit to accommodate a few more points, but I generally hypothesize the average Worlds invitee has better ways to get CP than grinding the number of Challenges needed to get to that height.

Perhaps I’m entirely crazy on this one, but I believe this could help players and stores by maximizing earning opportunity (on both sides) at minimal cost, with the added benefit of reducing a layer of complexity in terms of date tracking. It’s a bit radical, and potentially sacrifices the “good all year!” altruistic ideal, but I think it’s at least worth thinking about.

Before I move on, I thought this day-by-day graph, while not statistically all that helpful, was pretty cool. Challenge attendance by day:

The International Incidence: Special Events

At the start of these season, TPCi instituted a Best Finish Limit of 8 on Regionals/Special Events. I argued extensively that this was at best a useless fix to the international travel, with the potential to actually worsen the issue. The argument, essentially, was that a Best Finish Limit incentivized players to seek out smaller events where less excellence would be required to earn 100+ points with a Top 8+ finish, potentially at the expense of attending larger events in Europe or North America.

Another upside was maybe that it would reduce Top 16 travel a bit. With one event left on the North American travel, there is no reduction in travel between the top ~12 players, and while the next tier of players is a little less traveled this year, that is not the population that would’ve theoretically benefited from a Best Finish Limit. Instead, that range’s drop is more likely emblematic of the players who decided to dial back after experiencing last year’s insanity (see: Sam Chen, Xander Pero, Ryan Sabelhaus, Frank Percic, yours truly, etc.).

With a few weekends left in the season, more international SPE travel has occurred this season than in any other. I can account for 9 foreign Special Events at minimum that had Americans earning Championship Points this year—an increase over the 5 last year—and that’s with a reduction in the most accessible events in Mexico City. On the weekend of May 11/12, 990 of 3060 CP available in Latin America went to 8 Americans. The Best Finish Limit is an unabridged failure at containing international travel.

But, and this is where I’m going to get radical, I’m no longer convinced this is a substantial problem. For those that want to chase the extra points, the road is there, and along with it, there are memories to be made that won’t be found anywhere else. For those that want to stick to North America, the route to Top 16 is definitely alive and well without international travel. In hindsight, that was true for me last year too. It’s possible to succeed at the highest level with a high, but not implicitly crazy, amount of involvement. For that, I’m unconvinced legislating the current status quo is necessary.

It’s a little more complicated in Juniors and Seniors, where Latin America Special Events are often free points just for showing up, but even with that in mind, there is more than ample room for Top 16ers that don’t take such a path. It may have influence on the Top 4 race in those divisions, but I’d argue that is a tangential need not remotely worth policing.

I don’t think the Best Finish Limit has worked, and would still argue it has the potential to be inherently counterproductive to the goal of limiting international travel, so I’d still at least halfheartedly advocate for its re-elimination. But further, I don’t actually know that there’s a compelling reason to police this travel. While many Americans, myself included, often have brought up the points-stealing (from Latin America players especially) point, the interactions I’ve seen between Latin America’s players and foreign “invaders” has often been quite positive. Many have seemed genuinely excited to see some of the “best” in their backyard. That’s obviously not universal, and I can definitely account for some rough scenarios last year, but the general case has seemed positive. In general, some of my favorite memories of playing the game are the foreign events I played last year, so it plays from the North American side too.

There’s a bit of risk from a traveling standpoint, as the standards aren’t quite what an American TCGer is used to at Regionals, and sometimes things almost go sideways (see: Cancun). That’s just going to be the nature of operations in places where Pokemon’s existence in general is less structured. Nevertheless, the experiences are often incomparable. I personally wouldn’t trade the times I had last year for anything else in the game.

The final option on the table, of course, is locking events to residents of a home region. I think this would be an unfortunate move, making playing difficult for people who study abroad, those who live in multiple places, and other edge cases, to solve what I contend is largely a non-problem. It’s hard to carve out smart exceptions or policies (like study abroad) while maintaining fairness, so I’d strongly advocate against such a stance.

Further, things like foreign players making exciting runs at North American Regionals, or the potential of a foreign run at the upcoming Origins Open would become a sad figure of the past. The game is continually growing in connectedness, which is largely great for players, definitely great for event staff, and overall, good for the health of the circuit. I’d hate to see this come to reality.

Thanks for reading my first bit on the Pokemon TCG scene in a bit! It’s been good to be separated from writing about the game constantly in my old capacity with SixPrizes, but I had some flight time to mitigate, and it’s always interesting to explore some stuff like this. Hope this sparked some thought one way or another. You can always find me on some of the social media sites for further discussion.

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