Monday, July 21, 2014

Struggles of Competitive Pokemon Playing

We've almost all played Pokemon, or at least all of us under the age of 27. Those who haven't are strange and rare... like Shiny Pokemon. It is a lot of people's classic childhood game: you get a starter Pokemon (fire is always the best - always), you go on an adventure, you may or may not bond with your collection of pixels equipped with four different moves designed to inflict animal abuse on an NPC's beloved pet, you beat the gym leaders, then you beat the elite four and then either restart the game and do it all over again or you try and complete the Pokedex and henceforth the save file becomes sacred. You can never erase a completed Pokedex save file. It is forbidden.

*whispers* it is forbidden.

It's pretty simple. The game requires a little bit of thought and strategy - mainly just not using Pokemon all of the same type because that's dumb. You're dumb if you do that. That's what gym leaders do and their entire professional career consists of being beaten by 12 year olds. Don't do that.

The game is not entirely that difficult. The biggest challenge for me was always trying to figure out the puzzles that prevented you from getting from one area to the next (like a maze of doors that locked or unlocked or the teleporting pads in Team Aqua's hideout etc) and the battles just required building up strength. The aim of the game is, in short: level up your Pokemon until they can punch things in the face harder than they can punch back. Simple and wholesome fun for kids aged 8-12. If you're losing just train more and more and more. It's an adventure! Pick it up years later when a new game comes out and it's the same thing all over again only with newer graphics and less recognisable Pokemon.

This is not at all what playing competitively is like. Playing competitively is soul-crushing and to take it seriously is to become obsessive. Pokemon is far more complicated than it seems on the surface. At its core you are playing paper scissors rock (fire, water, grass... as well as 14 other types) but there are so many special circumstances, modifiers, amendments, and so much more that may suddenly change that scissor into a rock crushing machine.

I'm here to look  cute and ruin lives!

For example: Grass is defensively weak against fire and offensively neutral so if you equip your grass Pokemon with a water move then suddenly it can fight back. If it's raining then water moves become more powerful. Moves have a "base power" which means it is X-strong but now with rain and being super effective that base power is 1.5X and the damage is doubled. Fire Pokemon is kinda screwed right? Well not if it goes first so whoever wins might depend on who is faster. They both might have the same base speed stat but then there are things called EV's (Effort Values) which are basically extras boosts to certain stats that naturally happen as you're playing. Defeating certain Pokemon contributes to something like your attack stats or your speed stats so if you have more EVs into speed you can move faster than things you might otherwise be slower than (especially if they're busy putting those extra stats into attack). So Fire Pokemon is now faster! Aha! You are going down Grass Pokemon! But wait - the Pokemon is holding a particular item that boosts its speed (but limits it to using the first move it uses) called a Choice Scarf. Aha! Fire Pokemon is screwed! But aha! Fire Pokemon isn't taking any chances and uses a priority move which means it goes first regardless of speed stats. Aha! Now fire moves are usually Special Attack but this priority move is a physical attack so uses the Attack stat, not the superior Special Attack stat. There's Special/Normal Attack/Defence so someone can be physically defensive and almost impossible to kill with physical attacks (thus certain Pokemon are completely unusable against it) but because of the paper scissors rock metaphor they are incredibly easy to kill with special attacks (or if they're great at both then they're weak at attacking or really slow. For every advantage there's a disadvantage... unless you're Mew in which case you're adorable AND awesome at everything). This means that even though this fire move is twice as powerful against this grass Pokemon the move isn't that strong because this Fire Pokemon is a special attacker, not a physical one. Furthermore the Grass Pokemon has a high physical Defence stat instead of a Special Defence stat and thus can withstand the hit and use their water move and win...

...unless they miss... or the fire move gets a critical hit which makes it cause even more damage. I forgot to mention that if you use a move with the same type as you are then it is increased by 1.5X so the grass Pokemon doesn't get this advantage on a water move. They could also have used some form of stat increase like Swords Dance that makes their attack stat 2X. There are a lot of factors going on here.

Then there's Pokemon with two types which can cause 4x weaknesses to some attacks, or immunities to some attacks that would be super effective to one of their two types. Then there's Pokemon with abilities that negate or lessen their weaknesses like Levitate, which makes Pokemon immune to ground type attacks.

Now imagine that level of complexity. All the time... times 6 (for the 6 Pokemon in your party). Only there are hundreds of different Pokemon with different strategies involved to choose from... And there are up to three different abilities that a Pokemon can have so you're not entirely sure if something is weak to ground moves or immune to them. There are a variety of different moves any given Pokemon can have. Some Pokemon can be built to be either Special Attackers or Physical Attackers or both simultaneously so you can't tell if you're prepared to defend yourself against them until you get punched in the face and see how well you survive.

My favourite thing is when casual players don't obsess over utilising this mechanic and I use an Avalugg with Curse against them. Curse lowers speed for raising Attacking/Defence. This lowered speed would hinder other Pokemon but Avalugg is literally a giant chunk of ice and is one of the slowest possible things you could ever use. It always goes last so Curse just makes it more powerful and harder to kill every turn. With the help of the item Leftovers (which heals you a little bit each turn) and the move Protect (that protects you from damage for one turn so you lose no damage but Leftovers still heals you) you can keep getting harder and harder to kill and just keep healing yourself... When faced with an Avalugg the reaction 50% of the time is give up and leave. There's a lot of joy of having your opponent quit after a few turns because they just can't deal with a literal hunk of ice. Of course it has a shockingly abysmal special defence and is actually incredibly easy to kill if you know how... But it's a new Pokemon that no one would in their right mind use (because of it's terrible weakness and ice typing) so not many people realise the proper way to deal with it. It's either an easy win or a quick defeat and you have to gamble on your opponent's knowledge of the game, Avalugg, and their team's build. They removed gambling from the single player game but it is stronger than ever in competitive matches.

There's too much complexity. It keeps going. It never stops... and the shift from one generation to another might make the same strategy completely useless in a new playing field. You have to keep developing your strategies and counter measures.

There's psychology involved too. In the normal game an NPC will not switch their Pokemon out until it faints so this gives you the chance to switch out if things are going poorly and bring in something else designed for the job and easily defeat it. A human won't let this go down. You can bring in something that is strong against something then predict that your opponent will use up a turn switching to something else to deal with the new threat. At this point you can switch out too and they're faced with the same problem as before and have to either switch back and forth (and risk getting attacked) or stand and fight. You can also attack with a move you predict to be better suited for what you think they'll switch to instead of the Pokemon they've already gotten out so when they switch in they switch in to a lot of damage. Of course this might backfire and you've wasted a turn on an ineffective move when you could be hitting the opponent with super effective moves.

Then comes strategies and team building... That's right... we're only starting (but I won't go into much detail and will leave you soon to try and process all of this).

Have you heard of status buffs and Baton Pass chains? Well... if you increase you attack stat it disappears if you switch out unless you use Baton Pass so the new Pokemon has all the increased stats and starts off super powerful. If the opposing team is doesn't have taunt/clear smog/destiny bond/roar/whirlwind (which is negatable with ingrain) then a Baton Pass chain quickly becomes unstoppable unless it's relying on an Espeon with Stored Power in which case an Aegislash can defeat it with sucker punch. 

*Deep breath*

So naturally I decided that after a few weeks of obsessing over this I needed to quit. This wasn't just something I should do but I had to do. Pokemon was consuming my time... my life. I was thinking about how to improve my team of Baton Passers or create the perfect mix of aggressive attackers with token Special/Physical walls or how to overcome Aegislash or a Baton Pass chain team or trying to utilise the ability Speed Boost and Swords Dance combo but realising Taunt screws me over so perhaps I should go for a suicide Skarmory lead with spikes and stealth rock for entry hazards and hope they don't have rapid spin and so forth and so forth until my brain felt like it was melting through my ears and I had trouble sleeping.

That's right. Pokemon caused me to lose sleep. I needed to win. But because it is basically paper scissors rock with 1000 variables instead of 3 there is no way to defeat every team. One strategy will easily defeat all sorts of teams only to have one thing screw it up and cause another team to absolutely destroy you.

Just don't do it. Just... stop. Pokemon is a good bit of fun for kids and offers you an increased complexity if you so wish to get into it more but playing it competitively is a fast tracked way to insomnia and disaster. There are people who have been obsessing over this for several years. I was tutored by someone who had been playing competitively for 7 years. I didn't understand a word he said at first but it all eventually sunk in and I saw a world of Pokemon I never did before... and it was far too big for me... These people will destroy you. This game will destroy you.

But... if that brief introduction to how complex Pokemon can get (we have only just begun to scratch the surface of strategy) was interesting to you then maybe try it out? If you saw that as an incomprehensible wall of alienating text than good. Good... you have a chance to get out of this franchise alive.

Hey kids, you want to buy some drugs?

I personally have been Pokemon-free for a while now. I attend regular Pokemon Masters Anonymous meetings. My family is saying I'm looking healthy and the twitches have nearly subsided. I hope that my Pokemon addiction won't relapse in the future but who knows... Hoenn remakes are come out soon.

You cannot escape me forever... I'm coming for you...
Art by Ken Sugimori.

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