The Wonder of Worlds: On Pokemon’s TCG World Championships

Competition: a driving ideal behind the pinnacle sporting events of modern times—the Olympics, Super Bowl, World Series, Champion’s League Final—and a whole host of other events known throughout the world. For participants and supporters of those participants alike, these events are a spectacle all their own; a unique event with their own unparalleled atmospheres. For participants in the Pokemon TCG circuit, the World Championships are no different in atmosphere: it’s unlike anything else in the game.

While the circumstances have changed over the years, and the event has gone back and forth a number of different directions, the special elements of Worlds still remain. Once upon a time, it was the only time all season with players from every corner of the planet—nowadays, that’s obviously not the case with the suite of International Championships we have, but Worlds is still usually the most diverse crowd of the year.

I’m going to write today about what Worlds has meant, in its own unique sense to me, and my perspective on what success at Worlds requires. This’ll be my first time at Worlds without a player’s invitation, but I’m super excited to staff this year’s event. It’s selfish writing, probably…but I never advertised anything else on this blog.

To me, the single most magical thing about Worlds is the tournament structure itself. While Day 1 these days demands more of a marathon performance, the second day of the event is where the eventual champion will forge a path, and the most ironic thing about Day 2 of Worlds is that it’s the shortest major tournament many players will participate in all year. 7 rounds is the traditional timing, with an occasional 8 round edition sliding in once or twice over the years (to say nothing of our last foray into D.C.—the only 9 round version of the event to date).

With most Regionals reaching 9 or 14 rounds of Swiss before Single Elimination, Worlds’ second day is truly unique in its simultaneous requirements of a player:

  • Near-flawless play: there is no room for losing match points to error.
  • Rapid play: ties are an easy way to torpedo a run. I know.
  • A capable deck choice: it only takes two bad matchups to end a Top 8 run.

Sometimes, you do stupid things: in 2012, to my first Worlds, I played a bizarre Meganium Prime/Groudon-EX/Kyogre-EX/Mewtwo-EX/etc. binder drop to a 3-4 finish. My brother Alex played the Terrakion/Eelektrik we’d played at Nationals that year to Top 8 in Juniors. The bizarre part of Worlds? I think I might’ve done worse with the Eels in Seniors, where we were dominated by anti-Darkrai rather than the Darkrai that profiled Juniors and Masters that year.

And, those factors are only what a player can actually control. So many other elements of a successful run are entirely out of a player’s hands. Especially at Worlds, there are always going to be some wild deck choices, and if an otherwise-brilliant effort at countering the room happens hit one of them during Round 1, things are going to get very rocky, very quickly. While someone can take some of these rocky variance issues at a Regional and still pull through to Top 8, that’s not something that’s going to happen in the shorter event at Worlds.

Luck, both in terms of pairings and consistency, is an essential part of every deep tournament run—the only question is the degree to which one requires it. Mitigating variance is a key part of every tournament run, too—the only question is how to balance that goal with teching for matchups. Nowhere is that balance more poignant than with Worlds’ Top 8 cut.

I firmly believe in placing oneself in a position to do well, most especially: balancing variance is both about minimizing your risk of plummeting to the ground and giving upside for things to go right. The most quintessential example, from my first year in Masters at Worlds, comes from the last time we were in D.C.—2014.

The scene? Scores of Yveltal-EX/Garbodor (yes, that Garbodor…even then), a side of resurgent Virizion/Genesect, and a ton of other things in between. The hype was with Yveltal, and thus mirror was a paramount concern for everyone. The solution our group came up with: Roller Skates. Flip a coin, if heads, draw 3. If tails…things can get awkward. It let us extend harder for Dark Patch/Lysandre plays, and generally offered the opportunity to run away with games. It wasn’t a fundamental change in strategy, but offered the opportunity to get lucky.

2014 at 4-0. Table 1 hadn’t been kind to me at Worlds until—finally—a win in 2018.

Alex Hill and Chris Derocher, my comrades in run-hot-or-die, played against each other at something like 2-5, so you can guess how that went (a post-publication edit: they only played to the same 2-6-1 record, but never actually each other). On the other hand, I started 4-0, was at 6-1, and then…this happened. The downside of the Roller Skates gamble was on display for all to see at one of the first officially streamed events ever, as Igor simply ran over my field that never actually did anything in either game. In Round 9, I hit another Yveltal mirror, played a business-as-usual Game 1, lost a tight Game 2, and watched as Worlds faded before my eyes as a 4 card deck held the 2 winning ones for the two turns of opportunity I had. Once upon a time, I estimated it at an 87% chance of winning the game given the series of things that happened, but in fairness, that is the pitfall of trying to ride high on luck. Sometimes, the coin falls the other direction.

But, the moral of that story: as a first year Master in the largest World Championship to date (and, the largest single day to end in Top 8 at Worlds ever), I was a very small probability gone wrong away from Top 8 with a deck that was…out there, to say the least. Anyone can do it. Anything can happen.

This is true of every event, to a degree, but as I’ve laid out, Worlds is particularly prone to needing a little bit of luck to get there. In 2013, I almost had the miracle run to Top 4, but in my effort to beat Gothitelle EPO/Accelgor DEX, I played weird things like Wartortle and Pokemon Center and didn’t bother with Tool Scrapper for Garbodor, so instead I took a Top 32 exit to a weird Terrakion-EX/Garbodor combo…which I’d been forewarned about a month in advance. In the end, Ian Whiton rode our side of the Top 32 bracket full of Terrakions to Top 4, playing Gothitelle after all. The days of giant Top Cuts are over, but the reality of pairings’ relevance is as salient today as ever.

Sometimes, “bad” decks get it done. While I think Buzzwole/Shrine was pretty clever last year, I do think the Banette-GX I was singularly terrible outside of the (theoretically) very, very niche (but practically very, very relevant) use of the mirror match. Banette-GX wasn’t inherently good, but it was the type of twist on a deck that gave it a critical edge at Worlds, where every single game matters more than anywhere else. The more dimensions of play available, the more well-fit a deck is for Worlds, in my experience.

While 2014 hurt a lot at the time, the events of Banette last year—4-0, tie, tie, paired to Greninja—and the circumstances that surrounded it pushed me to question a lot about the game and whatnot. The solitary, convention center catering Caesar salad on Saturday night in a corner of the hotel was a particularly bitter swallow while reflecting over it all, if I’m honest. More than ever, though, it emphasized to me that Worlds is a special league of its own: control over your own fate is never further away in the TCG than this event, and for a perfectionist, that’s a hard swallow.

The good news in that all was that it pushed me to forgo the perfectionistic stress I tied to playing in the Top 16 chase this season, and instead jump over to the judging side. It’s incredibly special to me that I’ve gone from 15th at Worlds in 2018 to solicited staff in 2019, and I can’t be any more grateful to those who have helped me add this new element to my Worlds experiences. We’re going to have a great weekend.

For all those making their first trip to Worlds, enjoy the atmosphere unlike any event you’ve attended. I recognize the irony for someone who spent a lot of energy being among the “best” in the game for years, but the measurement-against-someone else value of competition has always rung hollow to me. While Worlds has received mixed reviews for exclusivity over the years, it’s never been a source of value to me. I’m not really sure how to explain that, but I think it’s always helped me appreciate Worlds more—the only reason I’ve ever been concerned about the number of the people in the room was it spelling out how many rounds I’d have to win. I encourage, to the degree possible: appreciate where you’re at this weekend.

It boils down to this: Someone this weekend is going to have done everything right, had a deck that wins the event in some other universe where a die went the other direction, a pairing was different, or someone got a little more sleep the night before—but end up at 2-5. There is only so much anyone can do to succeed in any pursuit, and with the Pokemon TCG World Championships, it’s as true as anywhere. An entire season’s work comes down to 7 rounds, and not everyone can succeed. Be kind to yourself regardless of outcome. It isn’t worth the stress to do otherwise.

I wish the best to all this weekend: may your preparation flourish, and as many experiences be as positive as possible. In all, keep the perspective: the best in the world are gathered, and only one can win.

A wonderful time to all making the trip to DC this weekend!

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