The formula that has made Pokémon one of the most successful video game franchises has remained relatively stagnant for the past 20 years, even after going through six generations of colored cartridges. But while a casual player may see little change in each new game, dedicated competitive players have seen the game transform over the years as they dig into its complex mechanics. And that esports-level play is about to change all over again with Pokémon Sun and Moon.
Over the years, competitive players have uncovered a variety of adjustments that completely alter the way they train, breed, and battle. In fact, every time a new installment is released, competitive players have to spend hours digging into the new Pokémon, items, and move adjustments that could make teams that were once viable completely obsolete.
“You have to play through each new game and then spend hours before diving into the new mechanics,” says competitive Pokémon Video Game Championship player Aaron Zheng. “Attacks change in terms of power, types change in terms of resistance, then you have all the new moves. The game changes so much.”
With Pokémon Sun and Moon hitting Nintendo 3DSs everywhere mid-November, competitive players will be glued to their screens, setting up new teams, and playing with new strategies before tournaments kick off in December. And although no one has been able to dig into the nitty gritty of new games just yet, Zheng and others are already stressing out over some possible changes that we could see in the region of Alola.
“We don’t know what else is going to be in the game,” says competitive Pokémon VGC player Toler Webb. “We don’t know the new moves, we don’t know base stats. We can’t know for sure what’ll be the best thing next year.”
But even though we don’t know the specific changes coming to Sun and Moon, it’s easy to understand how the game could change by seeing how competitive players have adjusted in the past. For reference, competitive matches see two players duke it out with four Pokémon per team, two of which can be on the battlefield per player.
“The biggest change over time has been the overall power creep, say 2016 Pokmon World Champion Wolfe Glick. “Extremely powerful Pokémon took the spotlight, and much of the format felt centered around who could protect their heavy hitters like Groudon, Kyogre, and Xerneas.”
Kyogre and Groudon’s role after the release of Alpha Sapphire and Omega Ruby accurately represent that power creep, as both Pokémon have powerful spread moves like Precipice Blades and Origin Pulse that can deal substantial damage to the opposing team as a whole rather than targeting one at a time. Compared to previous years where there was a wider range of viable Pokmon, the new strategy revolved around finding ways to protect heavy hitters like the Ruby and Sapphire legendaries.
While safeguarding big damage dealers took several different forms, using Smeargle with Dark Void was especially effective. Dark Void, with enough luck, can put both enemy Pokémon to sleep, limiting their actions and giving Kyogre and the like the chance to hit both Pokémon with one of it’s powerful spread moves.
As strategies like the combination of Smeargle and Kyogre became popular, counter strategies popped up. Moves like Taunt and Safeguard could negate the effects of Dark Void, making Smeargle virtually useless. But because of Smeargle’s popularity, players had to plan for it no matter what.
“It felt kind of silly to gameplan for a Pokémon with Dark Void,” Webb says. “Not only does your team have to beat the Smeargle team, they also have to beat every other possible team combination.
The biggest concern most competitive players have with Sun and Moon is the introduction of Z-Moves. Although we don’t know specifics, Z-Moves seem similar to Mega Evolutions, temporary transformations that give certain Pokémon stat boosts and type changes. In other words, another gameplay mechanic that threw a wrench in the engine of competitive play.
“Mega Evolutions were a unique concept, and people tried their best to mess around with Pokémon capable of doing it,” says competitive VGC player Paul Chua. “In the end, people realized Megas were really strong. It was essential to use at least one.”
Mega Evolutions became a huge part of the metagame in 2016, making a number of other strategies that relied on niche Pokémon less effective. Before their inclusion, Wolfe Glick was able to place second at the Pokémon World Championships in 2012 partly by relying on Exeggutor’s bulkiness and efficient recovery mechanism.
“Mega Evolutions did so much damage that many Pokémon that could have had niche roles on teams were suddenly not viable,” Wolfe says. “A Mega Kangaskhan’s Double Edge could [take out] 85 to 97.5% of Exeggutor’s health in one hit, and [Exeggutor] was a Pokémon that worked so well in 2012 because of its bulk.”
Mega Evolutions have been banned for the 2017 season by the Pokémon Video Game Championship, but players are worried about how Z-Moves could have a similar level of power, still preventing niche Pokémon like Exeggutor from being usable.
Even though no one has played Pokémon Sun and Moon at length, gameplay footage and the eShop demo have given insight into some new features that could affect competitive play. Type advantages are now displayed by moves during battle, making them easier to remember for new players, and status effects like paralysis and confusion are now less accurate and will be used less than previous years.
But unlike Nintendo’s relatively lackluster support of the Splatoon and Super Smash Bros., competitive communities, the Pokémon Company and Game Freak pay close attention to and actively support the competitive Pokémon scene. Their involvement has given players hope that Sun and Moon will change the direction of the competitive environment.
“Sun and Moon give us a chance to reset to a slower metagame, which in my opinion is better for competitive play,” Glick says. “Because if each attack does less damage, random elements of luck such as critical hits, flinches, and paralysis matter less.”
As soon as November 18 hits, competitive players will be dissecting all the new changes and spreading any information they find throughout the community, paving the way for new strategies to form.
The new features and mechanics that Pokémon Sun and Moon introduce could turn the competitive community upside down, but it wouldn’t take long for them to sift through the changes and build the best teams possible like they’ve done with every entry so far. In a word, it’s an exciting time to be a pro.
“Even though we’ve been playing for 10 years, it feels like we’re just beginning,” says Zheng. “Sun and Moon could be a new era for the game.”
Photos via Toler Webb, Paul Chua