Grinding Into Gear – Memories from Nats Past and Preparing for Nats Future
The U.S. National Championship is easily my favorite tournament of the year. This may get replaced by the World Championship in the near future as I get to compete in that for the first time this year, but up until now, U.S. Nationals has been my favorite tournament to compete in.
What I enjoy most about the U.S. National Championship is the challenge it presents. It is the largest tournament of the year and to win it you have to beat out a field of more players than any other tournaments that year.
In this article I will go over my experiences at the tournament from 2012-2014 and lessons I’ve learned from those experiences as well as provide other thoughts that can hopefully give players insight on how to do well at the biggest tournament of the year.
2012 – Not Ready for the Big Time
The first Nationals that I played in was during the 2011-2012 season when Dark Explorers was the most recently released set. I played a modified Darkrai EX deck for the tournament sliding in a Chandelure NVI line to accelerate damage, allowing my Darkrai deck to hit damage numbers that Darkrai decks would become accustomed to about half a year later when they gained Hypnotoxic Laser and Virbank City Gym.
Here is the list I played at the tournament:
Pokemon – 10
3 Darkrai EX
Trainers – 38
4 Professor Juniper
4 Junk Arm
1 Skyarrow Bridge
Energy – 12
Years later, I still really like this deck and feel it was a solid play. The deck had the edge in the Darkrai mirror because it outpaced other Darkrai decks in damage, it could play around Terrakion NVI well because using Cursed Shadow to take a KO didn’t activate Retaliate, and it operated really well against the Vileplume decks in the format because of the quick pressure of Darkrai EX, and Cursed Shadow paired with Night Spear’s snipe damage could easily clear the field of Oddish, Litwick, Shelmet, Victini, etc.
I ended up missing the Top 128 cut after losing my last round of the tournament to a Litwick getting donked by a Tornadus EX. This tournament was played in an era with both single game swiss as well as first turn attacking, so sometimes you lost without getting a turn in the game. I ended up dropping three games to CMT at the tournament, which was one of the best matchups for the deck in testing. With single game Swiss, that can happen. The losses against the deck were the aforementioned donk, a game where I couldn’t hit the cards to get three Energy on a Darkrai EX to deal with a turn 2 Terrakion, and a game where I cut my opponent into his last Pokemon Catcher off his own 1-card N to give him his only out to a win.
While it was disappointing to lose those games in that manner, where I really let the tournament slip away from me was when I made a brutal misplay in one of my games. I was playing against a Zekrom BLW/Eelektrik NVI deck that had Terrakion NVI in it. This is a matchup that you win if you play it right, but if you play it wrong, it’s very easy to get punshed, and I ended up doing the latter. I had established very good control of the board and there was almost no way I could lose. However, I ended up stranding a Chandelure active when I didn’t play the Switch I had in my hand to put Smeargle active and ended up playing my Professor Oak’s New Theory without playing the Switch. I didn’t draw back into Switch again that turn and just had to sit there with a Darkrai EX with 3 Energy on my bench, which was knocked out from a Land Crush after my opponent attached another Fighting Energy to his Terrakion and used a Pokemon Catcher on it completely reversing the game advantage I had established.
I believe that I made this misplay because I had gone into the match as well as the tournament too nervous. I used to go into every tournament really nervous and it wasn’t until the later rounds before I started to settle down. I used to think going into the tournament with some nervous energy going was good, but I believe I was just making a rationalization of my nervousness to accept it as being okay for myself. If you go into a match nervous or scared your brain won’t be focusing all of its mental energy towards the task at hand which can lead to misplays.
I am not sure there is anything you can do to really deal with this well. What it took for me to stop being nervous at tournaments was to continue playing in tournaments until I felt more comfortable with my place in them and what I was doing in them. Listening to music in between rounds can help a little to ease the nerves, but for the most part I feel as though you just have to live with the nerves while you play until one day you show up to a tournament and are no longer nervous there.
How the Heck Did Klinklang Win In 2012?
Before we leave the year 2012, I think it is well worth looking at John Roberts’ breakout win with his Klinklang Tool Box deck. Here is the Klinklang list he used to win the 2012 National Championship:
Pokemon – 16
4 Klink DEX
Trainers – 33
4 Professor Oak’s New Theory
2 Random Receiver
Energy – 11
This deck is very much the predecessor of the Aromatisse decks that have been seeing play since the release of XY. I can’t speak to the history of the entire TCG, but I would guess that this strategy being considered very good started with John’s Klinklang deck. This deck was very much an alignment of recently released cards, creating a deck that had Basic EX Pokemon that could use Max Potion really well, along with Darkrai EX to give everything in the deck free retreat and unlimited mobility.
While Aromatisse decks are just considered part of the meta game now, people were highly skeptical of John’s Nationals finish and large doses of luck has often been attached to it. While luck naturally plays a role in any first place finish at a big tournament, John’s win in particular is knocked down as being luck because along his way through the Top 128 cut he avoided all of the Hammertime decks and decks playing heavy Lost Remover.
For a long time I considered John the beneficiary of some really good luck in avoiding those matchups, but looking back on the tournament more recently, it’s become clear to me how stupid of a notion that is. It wasn’t bad luck to avoid those matchups, it would have been bad luck to play against a set of decks that barely showed up to the tournament.
There are two myths about John’s National performance that should be squashed:
1. That he won with a deck out of left field.
2. He got lucky in avoiding those bad matchups.
On the first point, Klinklang should have been on everyone’s radar. If you look at the results from Spring Battle Roads that year, Klinklang came in at 5th in 1st place finishes as well as 5th in overall Top 4 finishes. While it significantly lagged behind the top 4 decks from Spring Battle Roads it still entered US Nationals as a clear 5th best deck in the format. In retrospect, why Klinklang wasn’t considered by more players for the tournament is a mystery, especially when it had good matchups against the 4 decks ahead of it.
The next myth to dispel is that John got lucky in his matchups to win the tournament. During Spring Battle Roads, Darkrai EX variants made up roughly 32.4% of the meta game. However, the Darkrai EX/Sableye DEX/Hammers variant wasn’t that popular. Even if we’re generous and say 1/3 of Darkrai decks were Hammer variants (it was actually much smaller), that would still leave only 10.8% of the meta game as being Hammertime decks. The other truly bad matchup for Klinklang was Quad Entei, which made up ~2.2% of the Battle Roads meta game. So headed into Nationals, John could expect that his very bad matchups made up 13% of the meta game.
With 13% of the meta game being bad matchups, if John ran simulations of US Nationals over and over again, he would average playing a bad matchup 1.17 times in 9 rounds.
Here is what John’s probability chart for playing his bad matchups looked like for the tournament:
|Played Against||Probability||Played Against At Least X Times|
As you can see he was more likely than not to play against a bad matchup at least once. However, it was more likely than not that he wouldn’t play a bad matchup two or more times. When you can still make top cut with two or three losses it is more than okay to take one loss during Swiss if your matchups against the rest of the field are fine. I know John took a loss to one of these bad matchups during Swiss, and he took two more losses during Swiss, most likely to the variance of single game Swiss, but that obviously wasn’t enough to keep him out of the top cut.
Unfortunately we don’t have information on the entirety of the Top 128 for that year, but we do have information on 84/128 decks that made it that year. Of these 84 decks we see just one Sableye/Hammers deck and one Quad Entei EX deck. His bad matchups made up just ~2.4% of the decks that are known from the Top 128. If we scale that number to the entirety of Top 128, here is what John’s probability chart looked like for top cut.
|Played Against||Probability||Played Against At Least X Times|
There are two numbers that matter in all of this, and that is John had a 19.64% probability of seeing one of his bad matchups in top cut and an 80.36% probability of not seeing one of his bad matchups in top cut. The probability was overwhelmingly in John’s favor not to see one of his bad matchups during cut.
While luck may have played aminor role in giving John some of his wins (he did win the National Championship on a coin flip), getting lucky in his matchups didn’t play a role in his victory. John really won Nationals because he played a deck that had good matchups against the most popular decks, survivable matchups against some of the surprise decks, and he avoided the few obscure decks that he had a bad matchup against.
The lesson to be learned here is that every deck has bad matchups, but not every deck has bad matchups that actually show up to a tournament in significant numbers. Klinklang is an example of a deck that did have bad matchups, but its bad matchups were such a small part of the meta game that they were insignificant.
2013 – Sometimes Even With Good Intentions You Have No Hope
This was a very weird year for me. I had just started a new job and had yet to receive a paycheck, so I sold off most of my good cards before the tournament to get by. I also had broken up with my girlfriend a little over a week before the tournament, even spending the hours before I left for the tournament pleading with my then ex-girlfriend to make sure that late night/early morning period wasn’t the last time I would see her.
About a week before the tournament I came up with the idea of dropping Darkrai EX and Absol PLF from the Darkrai EX/Garbodor DRX deck I had been testing and just playing a Quad Sableye deck, relying on Poison damage to take knockouts. While waiting for my ex at her apartment the Monday before the tournament, I grabbed a piece of paper and wrote out a list for the deck and I would take that list with no changes made into the tournament.
Needless to say, with things being so hectic headed into the tournament I didn’t get much testing in. My testing was literally just against some Juniors at Yeti Gaming the Tuesday before the tournament (no Masters showed up that night to test) and then some drunken games at Embassy Happy Hour on the Thursday night. Everything that was going on in my personal life left me in a poor mental state overall, but being able to go to Nationals and spend time with friends provided a good mental escape from everything going on to get me in a good enough mental state to focus well enough during the tournament.
Here is the list I played at the tournament:
Pokemon – 10
4 Sableye DEX
Trainers – 44
4 Professor Juniper
4 Ultra Ball
2 Virbank City Gym
Energy – 6
I ran out of steam in Top 128, prizing two Sableye in the third game of my Top 128 match. Prizing two Sableye left me with a tough decision to make, getting back some Hammers to prevent my opponent from re-establishing his board or get Super Rod to give me more Sableye. The only way my opponent could knockout a Sableye was with Hypnotoxic Laser, which he had one of left in his deck. He didn’t prize the last Laser and got it in hand that turn and knocked out my last Sableye, leaving me with no way to get another Sableye with both my Super Rod and Dowsing Machine sitting in the discard pile, allowing him to knockout some Garbodor and Trubbish until he won.
In the end, even if things had broken my way in my Top 128 match, I still wouldn’t have been able to win the tournament. When I got to Top 16, I would have been greeted with a Gothitelle EPO/Accelgor DEX deck which I took a brutal auto loss too and would have had my run finished there, even if I had made it through the preceding matches.
The lesson to be learned from this year is that sometimes things are out of your control. Even if you do a lot of things right, sometimes your good ideas won’t be enough to win the tournament. Sableye/Garbodor countered most of the meta game really well (Blastoise and Plasma being the big two decks), but it didn’t counter the other counter deck that showed up at the tournament and would have lost whenever it crossed its path in Top 128 (which would have been impossible to avoid since Gothitelle won the tournament).
This is less of an issue now that we have moved to more Swiss rounds and a Top 8 cut. In the new format for Nationals you can take a really bad auto loss and lose to it one or two times and still make Top 8, and with such a small cut, there might be only one of your bad matchup in the Top 8 and your probability of not playing against it will be pretty solid.
2014 – The Value of Preparation and the Sour Taste of Defeat
My local league made a really good showing at last year’s National Championship. Our individual league put more players into Day 2 of the tournament than any other league in the country. In total we put 7 players into Day 2, and we even had another player that started the tournament 6-0, but was scared that people were trying to harm him with an intentional draw so he refused to take an ID in any of the last three rounds and unfortunately missed Day 2, dropping his last three games.
Why were we able to put so many players into Day 2 of Nationals? Preparation. I believe we were all well prepared for the tournament and it showed at the tournament. In the month and a half leading up to the tournament everyone would show up to Yeti Gaming multiple times a week for hours of play testing leaving us all very entrenched in the format and ready to go for Nationals.
I have found preparation is key in doing well in these big tournaments. Since we moved to best of 3, here is a list of the decks I played at Regionals and larger tournaments, along with how much testing went into the deck and how I ended up doing with them.
Fall Regionals 2013 – Virizion EX/Genesect EX – 6-1-2 (Well Tested)
Winter Regionals 2013 – Virizion EX/Genesect EX – 6-2-1 (Well Tested)
Spring Regionals 2014 – Flygon BCR/Accelgor DEX/Dusknoir BCR – 4-1-3 (Little Testing)
Spring Regionals 2014 – Plasma Lugia EX – 4-1-3 (Little Testing)
Nationals 2014 – Landorus EX/Raichu XY/Dusknoir BCR – 6-0-3 (Well Tested)
Fall Regionals 2014 – M Heracross EX/Aromatisse XY – 5-2-2 (Little Testing)
Winter Regionals 2015 – Night March – 6-1-2 (300+ games testing)
Spring Regionals 2015 – Gengar EX/Trevenant XY – 5-1-2 (Moderate Testing)
Spring Regionals 2015 – Latios EX/Altaria DRX – 6-2-1 (Well Tested)
While I’ve done reasonably well at all of these tournaments, I have definitely done a bit better at the tournaments that my deck was well tested before hand. By well tested I mean a month or more of testing with the same deck almost exclusively. When I’ve played a well tested deck, I’ve compiled a 30-6-9 record during Day 1 of Swiss.
I think this is an overlooked factor in doing reasonably well at a tournament. By getting in such significant experience with your deck you are able to properly craft your deck to best suit it for the current meta game and you will also know your deck inside and out leading to better play as you will actually know what to do more often than not as you will have already encountered during testing some of the more difficult situations you will find yourself in during a tournament.
My State Championship performances have been far less stellar than my Regional performances (outside of that nifty run at Missouri States), and I think a large reason for my failures during that tournament series is not being properly prepared as I picked not properly tested decks to try to counter a perceived meta game.
For the last two State Championships I really wanted to play my Donphan PLS/Primal Groudon EX deck, a deck I had a lot of testing in, but I never pulled the trigger on it for fear that it wasn’t the right deck for the meta fearing playing against decks like Primal Kyogre EX and Exeggutor, decks that really weren’t big parts of the meta game. By time the time Week 4 of States rolled around, Exeggutor was the only deck I wasn’t confident I could beat with the deck, but I feared playing against Exeggutor so much that I chose a deck with a good Exeggutor matchup instead of Donphan. Only one Exeggutor deck was actually played at the tournament (finishing 2nd), so I would have easily rolled into Top 8 if I just trusted my well tested Donphan deck.
One last note on preparation and that is that I strongly dislike play testing the night before a tournament. If I am vigorously play testing to try to figure things out, that just tells me that I didn’t prepare enough for the tournament and the results won’t be good. Sometimes I will switch some cards in and out of the deck the morning of, but these considerations are generally thought about well in advance of the tournament and are just what I feel are the best cards to craft my deck for the meta game.
As Ted Mosby’s mother would say, “Nothing good happens after 2 A.M.” As you’re testing during the last minute, you could easily become the victim of bad variance. If you are testing late into the night, you may find yourself getting unlucky in the few games you are playing and if you use this information as conclusive evidence on a matchup it can lead to poor decisions if you are indeed a victim of bad variance. The amount of games you can get in during a last minute cram session just isn’t a large enough sample size to reveal the deeper interactions in some matchups.Compare that to a deck with months of testing, you may have played against a deck 40 times and with that larger sample size you can make better conclusions about matchups.
Anyhow, as noted above I played Landorus EX/Dusknoir BCR for the 2014 National Championship. Here is the list I played for the tournament:
Pokemon – 18
3 Landorus EX
Trainers – 33
4 Professor Juniper
3 Ultra Ball
Energy – 9
During Day 2 I lost to two Flygon decks played by Henry Prior and Russell LaParre and then lost to Alex Fields and his Aromatisse deck in the final round. I guess this is kind of how you would want to go out of a tournament, only losing to three really good players, but that doesn’t make losing any more palatable.
Even though I finished 39th and had a chance to possibly play in (or bubble) the cut in the last round, this tournament was still super disappointing. This deck was months in the making, had months of testing put into it, and even when your run ends late in the tournament it still hits hard when after all your work you aren’t the one hoisting the trophy at the end.
This was the first time at Nationals that I felt that I was really in it for the win. I was in it to win it every other year, but at the end of Day 1, sitting at 6-0-3 and entering Day 2 as one of the higher seeds in my pod, I think that was the first time I actually believed I could be the winner of such a big tournament.
Prepare to Play the Best and Beat the Best
If you want to win US Nationals, be prepared to beat the best because you’re definitely going to be playing against them. You’re going to get paired against players who you know are good headed into the match as well as some others that you don’t know about, but who are also really good too.
During Nationals last year I played against Rithveasna Ke, Daniel Altavilla, and Kyle Sabelhaus on the first day of the tournament. On the second day of the tournament I played against Russell LaParre, Austen Vance, Henry Prior, Brandon Cantu, and Alex Fields. That’s a lot of really good players to square off against in one tournament, but that’s what you’re going to have to beat to do well at Nationals. Nationals isn’t for the weak of mind and heart, it’s a total grind house.
I think the opportunities you get to play against the best players in the game should be cherished and look forward to. Playing against a top player will push you to your limits as a player if you want to win against them and even in defeat there is still a lot that you can learn from a good opponent when you get exposed to their approach to the game and how they build their decks.
The Haverland Maneuver
Headed into U.S. Nationals, Kyle Haverland, a second year Master, is currently ranked 7th in North America with 627 Championship Points. A lot of people might not know much about Kyle, but since we play in the same general area for larger tournaments I’ve gotten to play against Kyle a few times this season and watch him play.
I think a large contributing factor to Kyle’s success this season is the approach that he takes during large tournaments. The simplest way to describe his play is fearless. He plays fast and furious, and he doesn’t play scared. In particular he is willing to scoop games early on to give himself enough time to finish a third game and avoid a tie.
This is a very smart move, as ties generally aren’t all that valuable in these tournaments, and their value is further diminished when players in other matches decide their matches with coin flips or other means to avoid what would otherwise have been a tie.
Tying is bad. You don’t want to tie at these tournaments, they can easily keep you out of Day 2 and cut. The math is really simple here, as ties are worth only 1 point. A win is worth 3 points and a loss of course is worth 0. If we scoop a game that we don’t think we’re going to win to save time, and view our probability of winning the match as 50%, then on average in these matches we will get 1.5 points. 1.5>1, so scooping games to avoid the tie will generally yield more points in the long run.
This strategy has obviously serves Kyle very well this season, and I believe it is the right approach to take during these big tournaments and I plan on using his approach to this part of the game during Nationals this year.
Believe In Yourself
There is nothing to fear in these tournaments if you have properly prepared for the tournament. If you have done your homework on the meta game, chosen a deck that is well suited for the meta game, put in the testing to know the matchups and properly craft your deck, than there is really no reason to be scared going into the tournament. Sometimes things won’t work out, but if you’ve prepared properly, I think things will generally work out favorably for you.
Most importantly, don’t be scared to play. Don’t think about intentional draws, concessions, or any of that nonsense during this tournament. The only time you should intentionally draw is during Round 9 if it assures you Day 2, and then during Day 2 if it assures you into Top 8 (or on a larger level, if it puts you into something like Top 32 to clinch something like Top 16 in North America for Worlds).
I plan on playing as many of my rounds as possible to try to stack as many points as possible. If I start 6-0, I’m not going to start taking ID’s until the end of Day 1, I will continue playing on to stack as many points as possible and would only ID if I lost two in a row and an ID would guarantee me Day 2. If you want to make Top 8 you want to go into Day 2 with as big of a points lead as possible, so don’t take your foot off the pedal if you establish some early day success, keep on going and see how many points you can put on the board Day 1 to make Day 2 easier for yourself.
Fill Up That Bulletin Board
There has always been a lot of negativity from players towards other players in this game. If you experience some type of negativity, don’t let that discourage you as a player and instead put it on your metaphorical bulletin board (or physical if you’re really intense like Kobe Bryant) to use as motivation to fuel your success. You don’t want to be thinking about this negativity during the actual tournament too much, but it’s great before hand to push yourself to test further and further, or push your deck building further and further.
Before Nationals 2013, I was told by a local player after they found out that I was going to play Sableye/Garbodor, “I wish I could go to a tournament like Nationals and not take it seriously.” During the lead up to 2014 Nationals I was told by many players that my Landorus EX/Dusknoir BCR deck just wasn’t good enough to do well at the tournament. I didn’t let these remarks discourage me and go for a “safe” choice and do poorly as some of the players that made those statements did, but instead I used that to motivate me to play with a lot of focus to prove those people wrong.
Right now there are a lot of Fantasy Drafts going on for U.S. Nationals. I generally think these are good for the community as they give some love to some of the players having good seasons. Some of these are very poorly done, but others are executed well and provide great entertainment.
However, if you’re seeing these, you are probably seeing a lot of the same players being picked. If you’re not being picked don’t let that discourage you, instead let that get you in that Kobe mindset of “I can’t wait to eliminate all the players picked ahead of me.”
In a little over two weeks we will be crowning a new U.S. National Champion. I absolutely love the tournament and can’t wait to get in there and take another shot at becoming the National Champion. Hopefully this article is helpful in some way for all those who read it. U.S. Nationals is a very tough tournament, but that toughness will make the taste of victory all the more sweet for whoever can fight their way to become our new National Champion.