A Casual Stroll Through Competitive Pokemon – Part One: Choosing Your Team

Lately I’ve been doing themed weekends, and I kind of like that. Weekends are notoriously low viewership times – people have better stuff to do on their Saturdays and Sundays than sit and read blogs, and that’s cool. But for those who do read, I like to do something a little more interesting. So while two-part posts will not be around every single weekend, it’s something I’m enjoying and you can expect to see it more in the future.

Now another thing I’ve been doing lately is experimenting with competitive Pokemon. I’ve watched competitive and semi-competitive battles on Youtube for over a year now, but I’ve never had the motivation to participate. Mostly because playing competitive battles on your actual game cartridge requires some serious Pokemon breeding, a time investment that I find boring and pointless. However, there’s a site perfect for folks like me who want the challenge without the timesink: Pokemon Showdown.

Showdown is a battle simulator that allows you to create your own teams online and then battle with other players. The simulator is current to sixth gen, and although the graphics certainly don’t compare to the real game, it allows people to play competitive matches without having to worry about all the breeding nonsense.

So why would someone want to play competitive just for fun? Well, Pokemon battles in the games are generally simple. You switch in to a Pokemon with type advantage, use your strongest attack, and laugh as the AI uses Growl over and over again. For those who like a challenge, the desire to battle someone who knows what they are doing can get pretty strong. That’s what competitive is for: it requires you to choose your moves carefully, to put some thought into your decisions, and it pits you against someone else who is using that same level of strategy and care. If that sounds like something you’d be interested in, you can check out Pokemon Showdown here. And if you need some advice about how to get involved in the action, that’s what this post is for!

Today, we’re going to focus on building a team. Tomorrow, we’ll talk about how to use that team in battle.

There are two main methods of competitive battling: the fan-made Smogon tier system, and the Gamefreak-approved VGC (Video Game Championships). The former is a format for single battles, and the latter for double battles. My experience is with Smogon, so that’s what I’m going to be talking about in these posts.

Smogon uses tiers to decide what Pokemon are usable during battle. Tiers reflect how often a Pokemon is used. The four main tiers are OU (overused), UU (underused), RU (rarely used), and NU (never used). The more frequently that players as a general rule rely on a particular Pokemon, the higher tier that Pokemon will be in. You can use Pokemon from lower tiers in higher ones (for example, you can use an RU Pokemon in UU) but you can’t bring a high-tier Pokemon into a lower tier (so no OU Pokemon in UU). The first thing you’ll want to do is choose what tier to compete in. I recommend OU for beginners – there are less restrictions to worry about and you can use pretty much any Pokemon.

“Hey, whoa, you just said restrictions. What kind of restrictions are there?” Great question! In Smogon, certain abilities or moves are not allowed because they are considered “uncompetitive.” That’s a fancy way of saying that these particular strategies are too strong or frustrating to be involved in competitive battling. You how in Omega Ruby every single Mightyena you ever fight just uses Swagger over and over again? Remember how annoying that was? Yeah, nobody wants to see that in competitive. Other forbidden things include moves that knock out the opponent in one hit (Sheer Cold and Fissure, for example), putting more than one Pokemon to sleep at a time, using more than one of the same Pokemon, and raising evasion so that attacks will no longer hit you.

I highly recommend that when building a team, you use Smogon’s official website to make sure you’re aware of all the rules and restrictions. The rules for OU and the Pokemon that are specifically considered OU can be found here.

So how do you go about building a team? There are a ton of methods and people have different ideas about what makes the most effective team. But this post isn’t for folks who are expect competitive players – this is for folks just trying to break in and have some fun enjoying battles on a higher level. Before we go too in-depth about teambuilding, let’s talk about some terms and concepts that you’ll want to be familiar with.

Meta: This term refers to the way that the typical person uses a certain Pokemon. For example: when you see Smeargle, it’s going to have a move that puts you to sleep and then a combination of entry hazards such as stealth rock, spikes, toxic spikes, or sticky webs. Does that mean that someone can’t use Smeargle a different way? Absolutely not. But the meta is important because, like it or not, it’s the most common usage of each Pokemon. Even if you don’t want to play according to it, you need to be ready for it.

EV: If you don’t know much about breeding and training Pokemon, then the idea of an EV is a foreign concept. EV stands for Effort Values, and these are invisible points you get whenever you defeat another Pokemon. The higher your effort values, the higher the stat they are invested in. These are important because whenever you design a Pokemon for your team, you’ll have to decide where to put the effort values it has available. Every Pokemon can have up to 508 EVs invested. Typically, you’ll have two stats with 252 EVs (that’s the highest one stat can have), and then another stat with the last 4.

Hazards: Hazards are a special kind of move that don’t have effects when you first use them; rather, they have effects when you switch a new Pokemon in. These moves include stealth rocks, sticky webs, spikes, and toxic spikes. Because switching is so important in competitive matches, hazards are a great way to control how often the other team can switch. Of course, there are ways to get rid of hazards, primarily the moves Rapid Spin and Defog. Whether you like entry hazards or not, they are part of the meta, so you need to be prepared to deal with them. A Pokemon that sets entry hazards is generally called a “hazard-setter,” or something more specific like a “stealth-rocker.” Pokemon that get rid of entry hazards are generally called “spinners” or “defoggers,” depending on which move they use to do it.

Roles: Pokemon have a number of different roles they can fill in your team. I’ve already talked about hazard-setters and spinners, but here are some other common roles. Sweepers are Pokemon whose role is to knock out multiple Pokemon on the other team. They basically “clean up” at the end of the manage. Generally, a sweeper relies on a set-up move like Swords Dance, Dragon Dance, Calm Mind, or Bulk Up to accomplish their goal. Sweepers can be fast or bulky. Walls are Pokemon that are capable of taking a ton of punishment. They generally have reliable means of recovery, meaning they can switch in, take damage, and then heal it off, slowing down the opponent’s momentum and putting control in your hands. Conversely, wallbreakers are Pokemon with incredible power that are capable of quickly defeating walls in order to stop them from stalling the game. They have high attacking stats and powerful moves capable of defeating even powerful walls in one blow. Of course, they tend to be pretty fragile. Finally, you’ll probably see the term scarfer, which refers to Pokemon that function well when using a specific item: the choice scarf. This item increases the Pokemon’s speed by 1.5, but locks them into one move; once you use your move, you can’t choose a different one until you switch out. This speed increase allows scarfers to come in and quickly attack the enemy, or switch out with a move like U-Turn or Volt Switch to deal some chip damage and gain momentum. You’ll sometimes see the term revenge-killer associated with scarfers – this refers to the specific role of coming in after the opponent has knocked out one of your Pokemon and knocking theirs out in turn.

Okay, so now that you know about meta, EVs, hazards, and the roles on Pokemon teams, let’s talk about how to actually build a team. There are three main types of teams: offensive teams rely primarily on wallbreakers, sweepers, and scarfers to quickly overwhelm and defeat the opponent. Defensive teams put more focus on their walls and hazard-setters, creating a very long game and slowly whittling down other teams over time. Balanced teams use all the roles in order to defend when needed and attack when the time is right. For the purpose of this post, I’m going to explain my method for making a balanced team.

This step may seem a bit obvious, but I felt like someone might skip it if I don’t point it out. You need to decide whether you’re building this team for OU, UU, RU, or NU, because your tier will decide what Pokemon you can and cannot choose, not to mention restrict certain moves or abilities.

Now that you know your tier, look through the Pokemon available in that tier. How in the world are you supposed to create a good team of six from so many different options? Here’s how: just pick one. Surely to goodness out of all the Pokemon in your tier you’ll see one that is one of your favorite Pokemon. Or maybe it’s one you never see used and you’re thinking “wow, I bet this thing is underrated.” Whatever reason you choose it for, just pick one Pokemon and add it to your team. From there, figure out which role it’s going to play. Is the Pokemon fast with high attack? Consider a scarfer or sweeper role. Does it have incredible defenses and access to moves like Wish or Recover? Then chances are you’ve got a good wall on your hands. If you’re using the Smogon website (which I highly recommend you do), you’ll be able to click on the Pokemon and see a breakdown of how it performs in the meta, from suggested moves to suggested EV spreads. Choose your role and moves, set your EVs, and then move on to the next step.

Every single Pokemon has weaknesses. That’s the nature of the game. The rock-paper-scissors mechanics of all the Pokemon types means that no matter what Pokemon you pick, there’s something out there that has some way to mess it up. So you need to choose a second Pokemon that covers the weak points of your first one. Is your first choice a Fire type? That means that rock, ground, and water are serious problems for you. Good thing all three of those types are weak to Grass! You can choose a complimentary Pokemon on your own, or you can look at the suggested teammates section on your first Pokemon’s Smogon page to see what pairs well with them. Once you’ve chosen this partner, find its role, choose its moves, spread its EVs, and bang, you’ve got two of your six Pokemon.

Alright, so you’ve got your first two Pokemon decided. Chances are, your second Pokemon doesn’t cover every weakness of your first, or maybe it does but now you’ve got some problems with your second Pokemon. In the earlier example, the fire type you chose was complimented pretty well by grass. But what are grass type’s weaknesses? Well there’s fire, bug, and ice, all resisted by your first Pokemon. But then you have flying and poison, meaning there are two more types that are problematic for your team. In this situation, a nice rock or steel type would help you out. It’s going to be impossible to cover every possible weakness – there are eighteen different types, after all – but you want to make sure that you’ve got a good set of resistances. Having done so, look at your role options, move pool, and EV spread, then you’ll have your third Pokemon.

While typing of your Pokemon always needs to be a concern, there comes a point where your focus needs to shift to filling every needed role. Generally on a balanced team, you’re going to want a physical wall, a special wall, a physical wallbreaker, and a special wallbreaker. Your last two roles can be negotiated between hazard-setters, sweepers, spinners, and scarfers. One thing to keep in mind is that some Pokemon can fill multiple roles  at once – you may have a wall that functions as a spinner, a hazard-setter than can then set up and sweep, etc. Either way, you need to see what roles you have after choosing your first three Pokemon and then start balancing your team out. It’s a bit tougher to search roles rather than typing, so this is when Smogon’s guide of what Pokemon pair well with your choices will really come in handy.

At this point you should have four Pokemon with four different types and roles, but you’re still going to be missing something. If you’re like me, you might neglect hazards. Or maybe you only like special attackers and don’t really have any physical strength on your team. No matter what, you’re going to have a few roles that your team is missing. So it’s time to cover another one. Remember, at this point you should have a wall and a wallbreaker for both the physical and special stats, so if you’re not there yet then you definitely want to fill one of those roles.

At this point, you have five Pokemon. So your team should be balanced and without flaw, right? Wrong. You’ve got a weakness and it’s a big one. Maybe you have a critical role you still haven’t filled after five Pokemon (again, for me this is pretty much always a spinner or hazard-setter). Maybe there’s a certain type that has an advantage over multiple members of your team and you don’t have a good counter. Maybe you’re missing an important form of coverage that hits well-known walls in your tier. Whatever the case, you’re missing something, and this is your last chance to cover it before your team hits the battlefield.

Now once you have your team “done,” you get to play. Go out there, try out some battles, see how you compare against other teams. Inevitably, you’re going to encounter aspects of the meta that you are not ready for. Maybe there’s a sweeper that always gives you trouble. Maybe a certain wall that your wallbreakers are having particular trouble getting around. Maybe you thought you could get by okay without stealth rocks or a spinner and now hazards are giving you problems. Experimentation with the team will teach you weaknesses that you had no idea existed. That’s when you go back and adjust. You may even have to replace a whole Pokemon in your team for one that has better synergy. It may mean changing someone’s role, or changing a certain move on their set. But the best way to learn in competitive is to lose, so be open-minded to potential improvements.

That’s a lot to register, but remember, the best way to learn is by doing. Your first team won’t be perfect, but once you get the hang of it you’ll be able to find your own tricks and techniques for building a better one. The best thing to keep in mind is this: have fun! These battles aren’t life and death, so if someone gets the best of you, just say “good game” and be ready to give them a better match the next time around. Tomorrow, I’ll be talking about the actual battling part of competitive battling, so be sure to come back and check it out!

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