Deckbuilding fundamentals

This article is intended to comprehensively explain the fundamentals of deck construction.  It is approximately 3,000 words in length.  Those seeking a more laconic version can find a 200-word summary at the bottom of the page.

Understanding value criteria

Generally, there are three key attributes by which decks can be measured:

  • Set-up speed
  • Momentum
  • Recovery

“Set-up speed” should be a fairly self-explanatory term: how long does it take for your deck to achieve all of the conditions necessary to execute its core strategy?  Momentum refers to how your deck operates after it has set up: once all of the parts of your deck are on the field and working as intended, how good is your deck at maintaining that?  Lastly, recovery refers to your deck’s ability to respond when your opponent manages to KO one of your Pokemon.

Applying value criteria, taught using example

Let’s explain these terms of measurement by critiquing the deck that was most popular at the 2011 world championships, “TyRam,” which is built around the combo of Typhlosion Prime and Reshiram BLW.

First off, let’s recognize the main goal and strategy behind Typhlosion/Reshiram.  Reshiram is the deck’s main attacker, with a Blue Flare attack that can do a whopping 120 damage per turn, enough to one-hit KO most Pokemon in the format, and even those with more than 120 HP can be knocked out with the help of PlusPower.  The deck aims to use Blue Flare every turn by using Typhlosion’s Afterburner to power up Reshiram with energy from the discard.  Using this strategy, the deck can often win games by taking six prizes in six turns.  Let’s examine its effectiveness as a deck.

Firstly, Typhlosion/Reshiram has good setup speed.  The deck can achieve it’s goal of attacking the opponent for 120 damage as early as the second turn of the game by attaching a fire energy from the hand on the first and second turns of the game and using a Rare Candy Typhlosion to Afterburner a fire energy into play on the second turn.  Even under non-ideal conditions, the deck has little trouble setting up by the game’s third turn.

Secondly, Typhlosion/Reshiram has excellent momentum.  With multiple Typhlosions in play, all of the energy lost by using Blue Flare can be used on the following turn, making it possible to use Blue Flare consecutively.  With multiple Typhlosions, the player can also make use of their many energy attachments (both the one attachment from the hand allowed per turn and the Afterburner attachments) to power up benched Reshirams while continuing to attack.

Thirdly, Reshiram/Typhlosion has superb recovery.  The deck’s main attacker, Reshiram, is a basic Pokemon.  This means that there is trivial effort involved with getting Reshiram into play.  When one Reshiram is KO’d, the player can simply promote another Reshiram and play another Reshiram from the hand to replace the one that was KO’d.  If the player runs out of Reshiram to play, they can resort to Revive, which grabs Reshiram directly from the discard pile, returning it to play.  Furthermore, any energy lost from play when Reshiram is KO’d can easily be recovered from the discard pile using Typhlosion’s Afterburner ability.  Typhlosion’s Afterburner, combined with the fact that Reshiram (the deck’s main attacker) is a basic Pokemon, give the deck excellent recovery and the ability to easily spring back from the setback of a lost attacker.

What cards should go into your deck?

To begin building a basic deck, we first must have an idea of what the deck’s strategy will be and how it will attempt to achieve one of the game’s three win conditions.  (Most commonly, decks will try to win by taking six prizes, although there have been decks that have been built around alternate win conditions like milling the opponent’s deck or benching them out.)  Ideally, your deck will meet all of the value criteria listed above by having a good setup speed, momentum, and recovery.

The best deck strategies tend to be those that utilize card synergy.  ”Synergy” refers to how well cards work together.  Some cards, when used in tandem, manage to become more than the sum of their parts.  A good example of this is the combination of Reshiram and Typhlosion, described in the section above.  Alone, neither Reshiram or Typhlosion would be enough to build a deck around.  A deck relying only on Typhlosion would struggle to recover from knockouts without a quick and reliable attacker, and a deck relying on Reshiram would be unable to build up momentum and quickly fizzle out without some way of getting energy onto the field faster than manual attachments.

What isn’t a strategy

Let’s clarify one thing: choosing a strategy does not mean choosing a type.  One of the most common mistakes that new players make is entering the deckbuilding process with a mindset like “I want to build a water deck,” or “I want to build a deck that uses both fire and grass Pokemon.”  Choosing a type is not a strategy, and if you focus on building a deck around a certain type, you will likely end up choosing certain cards not because they fit into a certain strategy, but simply because they belong to a certain type.

Many decks do end up focusing on a certain type, because same-type Pokemon tend to be inherently synergistic due to their ability to share the same energy pool.  One of the benefits of playing Reshiram and Typhlosion in the same deck is that you can use fire energy to attack with either Reshiram or Typhlosion.  However, many Pokemon which posses qualities which make them effective as support Pokemon fall outside of this, as they are not used to attack, thus rendering the point of energy irrelevant.

As an example, take Fliptini.  Its main purpose is to sit on the bench and provide support for attackers who have coin-flip based attacks.  Victini will ideally never be placed in the active spot; its attack is very weak and attaching energy to Victini to power its attack would be a waste of resources. Victini is not constrained by energy; it can go well into any deck that has an attacker that is reliant on coin flips.  For example, Vanilluxe NV requires coin flips for its attack.  A deck built around Vanilluxe would benefit much more from the addition of Victini than a typical fire deck.

Avoiding redundancy

One pitfall commonly associated with the approach of building a deck around a certain type is that it leads to redundant card choices.  Let us return again to the example of Typhlosion/Reshiram as a deck.  If we were simply treating the deck as a fire deck, we might consider the addition of other fire Pokemon available to us, such as Arcanine HS.

At first glance, Arcanine is not entirely worse than the cards in our deck.  It has less HP than Reshiram and does have the drawback of being forced to evolve, but it has the benefit of being able to attack for 50 or 90 damage without having to discard cards.  However, Arcanine is entirely redundant in the context of our deck.  Because our deck is structured around allowing Reshiram to attack every turn, Arcanine does not enable us to do anything that we couldn’t already do with Reshiram.  Powering up Arcanine to attack would constitute an alternate strategy that would distract us from our main objective of attacking with Reshiram.  Arcanine is a waste of space in this deck.

Consistency

Having chosen a strategy to serve as the foundation for your deck and begun the process of choosing Pokemon which fit into this strategy, it’s now time to begin deciding on the exact composition of the deck.  At this stage, we’ve chosen which Pokemon cards to use; it’s now time to decide how many of each card to play, and what trainers, supporters, and energy to fill out the rest of the slots.

The oft-asked question is: how many Pokemon, supporters/trainers, and energy should I play in my deck?  This is another optimization puzzle.  You have a strategy and a goal for your deck; the goal is now to maximize the odds that you are actually able to execute this strategy.

Consistency is the most critical component of deckbuilding, even moreso than the deck’s core strategy in many aspects.  A deck’s strategy often can be boiled down to potential: how it does when everything goes right.  However, in practice, potential is not enough to make an effective deck: the deck’s strategy can only shine when everything is going off as intended.  Consistency turns potential into repeatable results.  Consistency is what wins long tournaments.

Thickness 

One of the easiest topics to address when discussing consistency is Pokemon card count.  Playing more of the Pokemon you need, especially those that are likely to be KO’d, is one of the surest ways to ensure that those cards are there when you need them.  Cutting out the unnecessary cruft (see “avoiding redundancy” above) is a good way to clean out the space for this.  Instead of playing two redundant 2-2 evolution lines, ditch the weaker one and play a single 4-4 evolution line.  Simply put, don’t spread yourself too thin.  Decide what the focus of your deck will be and devote attention to that.

Draw power

Consider how many cards are required on the field to achieve your ideal setup.  For Typhlosion/Reshiram decks, this means having a Reshiram in the active spot with two or more Typhlosions on the bench, with at least three fire energy circulating between play and the discard pile.  Let’s count the number of cards needed to achieve this: Reshiram represents a single card, and each of the Typhlosion cards on the bench represent three cards (one Typhlosion, one Cyndaquil, and one Quilava or Rare Candy), and the three energy are another three cards.  That is a total of ten cards required to achieve your ideal setup.

Getting those ten cards can be quite a chore if you only have one new card to work with per turn  Simply getting ten cards is not enough; you need specific combinations of cards.  You need the ability to grab lots of cards from your deck, and do so as efficiently as possible.

Enter the draw supporter.  Draw supporters allow you to cut through your deck, give you access to more cards, and increase the odds of drawing the card you need.  Being able to use Cheren to draw 3 cards per turn is much better than being able to draw a single card per turn, and being able to get a completely fresh hand when you have nothing to work with is better yet.  By having Professor Juniper as part of your opening hand, you double the number of cards that you can access on your first turn.  Being able to grab multiple extra cards from your deck is a highly potent effect; this is why it is limited to once per turn.  Don’t squander that opportunity by constantly leaving yourself with hands that don’t have a draw supporter as an option.  Playing fewer than six draw supporters risks leaving you in the position of having no draw supporter in your opening hand.

Draw support can come in forms other than Pokemon, depending on the format.  In the 2011-2012 format, Cleffa HS is a basic Pokemon with a free attack that allows you to shuffle your hand into your deck and draw 6 new cards.  (It’s the same as the effect found on Professor Oak’s New Theory.)  Of course, using Cleffa’s attack has drawbacks; it takes up space on the field, it ends your turn, and it can give your opponent an easy target to kill.  It’s something that you’ll generally want to avoid as anything other than a contingency option.  If Cleffa is functionally so much worse than a straight draw supporter, why play it at all?  The answer is “searchability.”  Usually, the only way to get a draw supporter into your hand is by drawing into it.  Cleffa, on the other hand, is a basic Pokemon, meaning that you can use cards like Pokemon Communication and Pokemon Collector to search it out.  It’s not ideal, but it’ll do in a pinch when you find yourself stuck in a hole with no draw supporters.  It’s up to you to decide whether the costs of playing Cleffa in your deck outweigh the potential benefits.

Search

Usually, your deck revolves around playing specific Pokemon cards.  Sometimes, having these Pokemon cards is so important that you’ll sometimes regret that you can’t play more than four copies.  Fortunately, you can, or you can at least emulate the statistical likelihood of drawing a card that you have more than four copies of.

Let’s suppose, for the sake of example, that I am playing a deck that revolves around the strategy of using the Inferno Fandango ability of Emboar BLW 20 to attach fire energy to my Pokemon so that I can use high-cost attacks, like Reshiram’s Blue Flare.  Let’s consider that I want to devote twelve slots to my Emboar line.  I could thicken the line by playing four copies of Tepig, four Pignite, and four Emboar.  That would give me four chances of drawing each of these cards.

Let’s consider an alternate strategy: I remove one Pignite and one Emboar, and use the two slots that I freed up to play two copies of Heavy Ball.  How many chances do I have to draw into Emboar?  Answer: five.  I have three copies of Emboar, and two copies of Heavy Ball.  Even better, I now also have five chances of drawing into Pignite as well.  By playing search cards, I now have better odds of getting my Emboar onto the field, even though I am playing fewer copies.  Heavy Ball is a “wild card.”  When I need it to be a Pignite, I can trade it for a Pignite, and when I need it to be an Emboar, I can trade it for an Emboar.  By using search cards, I am making more efficient use of my deck space.

Search cards can also make “one of” cards viable.  Returning to the example of Cleffa above, it’s worth noting that most decks that ran Cleffa during the late 2011 season played single copies of Cleffa.  One copy is all you need when you have multiple cards that allow you to search it out.

“Search your deck for a Pokemon of your choice” is a very potent effect, even when it comes with conditions attached.  Search cards get you the specific cards you need when you need them, making them one of the most effective ways to ensure that your deck’s intended strategy goes off without a hitch.  Every deck plays Pokemon as part of their strategy, and search cards are always vital, regardless of the deck and format.

By the numbers

When deciding on how many Pokemon cards to play, generally the best answer is, “As few as necessary to best achieve your deck’s strategy.”  Don’t add in extra Pokemon cards if they aren’t contributing to your deck’s strategy in some way.  2011 senior division world champion Christopher Kan played a deck that played the following Pokemon cards:

  • x4 Reshiram BLW
  • x4 Cyndaquil HS
  • x1 Quilava HS
  • x4 Typhlosion Prime

That’s it.  Just 13 cards, focusing solely on Reshiram and Typhlosion.

Of course, not all decks play this few cards.  2011 (the same year that Reshiram/Typhlosion dominated the format), masters division finalist Ross Cawthon played a deck that had the following Pokemon cards:

  • x3 Oddish UD
  • x2 Gloom UD
  • x2 Vileplume UD
  • x3 Solosis BLW
  • x2 Duosion BLW
  • x2 Reuniclus BLW
  • x2 Phanpy HS
  • x2 Donphan Prime
  • x1 Chansey HS
  • x1 Blissey Prime
  • x2 Zekrom BLW
  • x1 Suicune & Entei LEGEND
  • x2 Pichu HS
  • x1 Cleffa HS

That’s a total of 23 Pokemon cards.  To the untrained eye, this might appear to be a completely random assortment of cards with no cohesive strategy binding them together.  However, they were all integral to Ross’s strategy, which he explains in his tournament report.  Not only do each of the Pokemon have a justification; even the specific counts of cards he used have specific justification.  There’s even a reason that he played 3 copies in Oddish, rather than 2.1  I’m certain that Ross pruned his deck ruthlessly, removing every card that wasn’t necessary.

Techs

“Tech” is a word used to describe cards in your deck that lie outside of your deck’s primary intended strategy while still aiming to increase your win percentage.  Usually, techs are used as “counters” to specific deck types.  For example, if you are playing a water deck that constantly loses to lightning decks, you might try adding a card designed specifically to counter lightning types, such as Terrakion NV.  Terrakion is a basic Pokemon with high-powered attacks capable of OHKOing many Pokemon with fighting weakness (most lightning types fall into this category).

There is, of course, a tradeoff.  Techs require space in your deck, and making space for techs requires removing other cards in your deck.  Because techs often work separately from your deck’s main strategy, they often detract from your ability to execute your ideal  strategy.  Playing Terrakion in your water deck might improve your odds against lightning decks, but against non-lightning decks, it will could hurt you, because playing Terrakion required you to sacrifice slots that could have gone toward improving your main strategy.

Techs are not always necessary.  If you look at the Christopher Kan deck list provided above, it includes no teched Pokemon; the deck’s focus is Typhlosion and Reshiram to the exclusion of all other Pokemon.

Considering techs is like any other optimization problem.  The ideal techs are those that have lots of benefits with low costs.  A tech that allows you to win against a popular deck will improve your win percentage more than a tech that allows you to win against unpopular decks.  Your water deck might perform poorly against lightning decks, but if nobody in your area plays lightning decks, who cares?  Don’t tech for matchups that you don’t expect; you’ll just be wasting space.  On the topic of costs, the best techs are those that don’t require a lot of extra deck space.  Mewtwo EX works nicely as a tech in a lot of decks, because it doesn’t require a specific energy type.  You can just put a single Mewtwo EX into your deck and be done with it.  However, Terrakion requires a specific energy type.  If your deck doesn’t already have fighting energy, you’ll have to carve out multiple slots in your deck to cover both Terrakion and its energy types.  Basic techs are better than evolution techs most of the time because they require less effort and space to set up, and also are easier to search for.

Testing

Consistency and techs are always at odds with each other.  You can’t add techs without hurting consistency.  When you first build a deck, you probably won’t have very much information about how well it will perform in your local metagame.  You gain that information through playtesting.  Always optimize for consistency first, then tweak your deck list from there.  As you play more games, you will learn which cards are less essential to your deck and which cards you rely more on.  You’ll ideally come up with new ways to improve your consistency, and may identify certain weaknesses in your deck that can only be repaired by techs.  Importantly, you’ll also discover which cards you can safely remove to make room for those techs.

Learning through example

One of the best ways to learn how to do something is by observing people who are better than you.  Deck building is no different, and if you want to improve as a deck builder, I recommend looking at other players’ deck lists.  Specifically, look for deck lists that have proven their merit by winning events.  (The goal is to be looking at examples of good decks.)  Even if you do not intend to mimic the strategies employed by these decks, they’re good for instruction.  What do winners’ decks do that yours doesn’t?  Don’t just look at what cards they play, consider why those cards are chosen.

TL;DR (summarizing the above)

  • A good strategy addresses three things:
    • Set-up speed – how long it takes for the deck to achieve its ideal operation
    • Momentum – how well the deck is able to maintain its ideal operation
    • Recovery – how well the deck is able to rebound when its operation is disrupted by a Pokemon being KO’d
  • Card synergy is critical to achieving these value criteria.  Nearly every metagame deck is built around some kind of synergy that allows cards used together to function as more than the sum of their parts.
  • When choosing cards to build a deck around, choose a strategy, rather than a certain type–certain Pokemon can be highly synergetic without being the same type, even moreso than Pokemon of the same type would be.
  • Consistency is of tantamount importance.  Cards that add consistency: search and draw.  Draw exponentially increases your odds of drawing the “right” cards.  Search allows you to play “extra copies” of multiple cards.  Playing thicker lines of the Pokemon you need also improves your consistency.
  • You can add certain cards (known as techs) to your deck to improve certain unfavorable matches.  However, making room for these cards requires you to remove cards that help to reliably execute your strategy.  It is up to you to determine through playtesting which tradeoffs are worth it.  When building a new deck, always optimize for consistency first, then playtest and make adjustments from there.
  1. The reason that Ross played 3 copies of Oddish is that Yanmega Prime, a very popular card that year, threatened to snipe Oddish off the bench the turn it was played.  The only way to get around this was by playing two Oddish on the same turn.  Playing only two copies of a card when you will need both copies in many matchups would leave you at a great disadvantage in any game where Oddish was one of your starting prizes, hence the need for a third Oddish. []

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