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Luck, staleness, and earmuffs: what pro players want from Pokémon Sword and Shield

"There's still balance. Eventually."

It feels like Pokémon's competitive scene is in a pretty good place.

At least that's my impression. Even if I was something of an outsider at this past weekend's big European International Championships (I've a good understanding of competitive play, I think, but then I was also beaten in a casual Let's Go side tournament by an eight-year-old), the sense I got from mingling with the crowds and players, watching them cheer and shout in that uniquely rowdy-but-somehow-still-rather-polite way that Pokémon crowds can, was that it was a competition in rude health.

And yet there are plenty, inside the competitive world and out, who'll argue that Pokémon esports is often quite stale. It certainly moves much slower than others: Pokémon's only balance changes come with entirely new games or, for the first time this year, changes to the actual rules of the tournaments. Where other games like League of Legends or Counter Strike get game-changing tweaks once or twice a month, Pokémon's current way of doing things means one entirely new game once a year, at best.

With Pokémon Sword and Shield out later this year, the big move to the Nintendo Switch seems like the perfect time for a shake-up. But there's still a lingering question for players: is it enough to continue course and rely on players themselves to innovate their way through a slow, sometimes stale metagame? Or do Pokémon and Game Freak need to speed things up with actual, wholesale change in how the whole thing works? I thought I'd put it to them.

Simone Sanvito - 2017 European Champion

On staleness and Pokémon's meta:

"This year it was the first time we got three formats instead of one - they are kind of similar but also really different from each other. Even though some people didn't, I enjoyed this idea, because in 2018 we got the same rules from the beginning to the end of the format, which was like 10 months.

"In that [previous] format it became really stale really quickly, so as something that changes the environment I really enjoyed it this time. I really enjoyed having that.

"Xerneas, Geomancy and Fairy Aura [have dominated this year]. A lot of people do [have counters] but also those counters often fail because of just how good Xerneas is. It was the same in 2016 and it remains the same in these last formats."

On what he wants from Pokémon Sword and Shield:

"Maybe they should change the Fairy type a bit...

"In terms of the competitive scene, I'm hoping luck becomes less and less of a factor, but that's about it. I don't like there being this much luck in the game."

Labhaosia "Lou Lou" Cromie - European Championships commentator

On overused Pokémon and the current meta:

"Since it got Intimidate, Incineroar is everywhere. I don't mind that neccessarily, but it is a Pokémon that... it's got so many facets to it, it's got Fake Out, Intimidate, and that's a Pokémon that's really established itself.

"Throughout the rest of the season... I think over the past year Xerneas is a Pokémon that's not going away, everybody loves Xerneas, and particularly in big formats you're always going to have weather, so you're always going to have Groudon and Kyogre and Rayquaza, they're Pokémon that have always been really consistent."

On what she wants from Pokémon Sword and Shield:

"I would really like some quirky types to come into effect at the moment. We saw with X and Y there were a few new types that came into the fold and I'd like maybe some more of those to come out. Some new abilities would be cool, potentially - at the minute Intimidate is such a big thing in the competitive world where it reduces the Physical attack stat of the opposing Pokémon, if there's maybe something that does the same for Special Attack that would be really cool, and that would definitely shake things up with competitive play.

"At the moment you have to use a move, which obviously uses up a move slot in game, wheareas if it's your ability that can really change things up. So I think competitively that would be really cool, and some new typings as well, so maybe if some more obscure Pokémon could come into play that would be cool."

Markus Stadter - European Championships commentator, Top 3 at 2016 World Championships

On staleness and Pokémon's meta:

"Well of course if you want to be competitive and compete then you want to use some of those really really powerful Pokémon, but within those, there's also some variety, so for example you could use the most common one which would be Xerneas, and then the most common partner is Primal Groudon, but then there's also some other niche picks.

"For example, a team with Ho-oh and Rayquaza was doing decently in the tournament, and Ultra Necrozma - which is also a new Pokémon that just got recently added with the rule change - is also viable. So there's definitely variety in the Pokémon the trainers are using.

"With the next generation [of mainline Pokémon games], they have a look at what happened in the last season and try to switch things up, so for example with the 2013 World Championships in the semi-final, there was a very iconic match where the Japanese player was using Thunder Wave and Swagger to stop the other player's Pokémon from moving... that was pretty frustrating, at the time, because that strategy was pretty strong.

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"So for the next game they reduced the accuracy of Thunder Wave, they made Electric types immune to Thunder Wave, and they also reduced the accuracy of Swagger and they reduced the probability of Pokémon hitting themselves in Confusion. All of them are just tiny changes to the individual moves, so it's not like "oh you can't use Thunder Wave" anymore, or Paralysis is banned now, but the combination of the two moves that was pretty frustrating to play against is now not frustrating any more and hardly ever seen."

On what he wants from Pokémon Sword and Shield:

"I really like the way that Pokémon works. It's pretty simple: they have an ability, they can hold one item, they have up to four moves, and all of that stuff is set in stone essentially since the very first generation. Pokémon has the right amount of complexitiy whilst still being simple at the same time. Even the most complex teams you can have them printed out on a single piece of paper and everyone understands what they're doing.

"In specific areas where I think they could do stuff, there's some moves, like for example Protect, where you use it continuously then it might fail but it's like a chance[-based move]. Sometimes that could shake up the pace of the game significantly... but then sometimes it can feel like you had the game in the bag and then some of those more luck[-based] elements steal the wind from you, but over a bigger tournament or over best-of-three sets, that usually levels out. That's not something I don't like about the game, it's just something they could look into.

"I definitely want some more tools to play with, obviously. We've played with Sun and Moon and Ultra Sun and Moon for like three years now I believe, so just to have some new mechanics, some new Pokémon, that can switch things up a bit is always cool. New abilities. Usually they always add new Pokémon, new moves, new items and so on, and for every one of those categories I could give you an example of what I think could be cool, but in general just having more tools.

"Even though now we have so many Pokémon and so many options, there's still balance, eventually. Even if there's a strategy that's super super dominant in one tournament, and everyone is like "oh this team it's so strong," you can always come up with a hard counter for it, because let's say you absolutely need a Steel and Bug type, because that's the type combination that would do really well against that team, well, you can go through the Pokédex and be like "oh well there's Scizor" or whatever and then maybe you want to try and build a team with that even though it wasn't used before, just to counter that specific strategy. So there's nothing concrete I would want to wish for."

Any examples of those new things for Sword and Shield?

"If there was an item like Earmuffs, or something, that would block any sound-based moves, that would be kind of cool. Because there are Special Moves there are Physical Moves but there's also different move 'categories' - for example there's Safetey Goggles, and they protect you from any powder moves, like Rage Powder or Spore - but then there's also a couple sound-based moves like Perish Song, but also Hyper Voice. That could a fun thing to add in."

Kimo Nishimura - 2019 European Championships Top 8

On staleness and Pokémon's meta:

"I guess it depends on the specific argument really. If you're just going with the overall metagame, something like "Xerneas is too strong", I don't really agree. I think the most obvious example of this in my mind was back in 2016, when it was a format just like this, and Xerneas-Groudon dominated the format for the entire year. And there were teams that came out toward the end that had a pretty solid matchup against it, things like Gengar-Kyogre-Bronzong, but the amount of time it took to get there was much too long.

"So I don't think it's unfair to say things get stale, but I do think that some people just have this element of not pushing for adaptation enough. I think that people need to be more... open-minded in how they are about team building. I wouldn't say I was a great team builder by any means, but you definitely have to keep something of an open mind in approaching things like that. If Xerneas is that powerful, everyone should be targeting Xerneas.

"If you had a bad Xerneas matchup, and Xerneas was the number one Pokémon, is it really Xerneas' fault that it's beating you? You could argue that it was because it's that good, but you should be taking steps to at least combat how well it's doing against you."

On what he wants from Pokémon Sword and Shield:

"Game Freak has made a lot of good competitive changes as time as gone on, so, as long as they cut back on the needless, sort of silly RNG - there are RNG aspects that are fine, but there are also things like Rock Slide flinches. We don't really need Rock Slide flinches. They're not fun. They're only fun when you're in the audience and it's not you!

"Really as long as they maintain course, as far as their competitive mechanics go, competitive Sword and Shield should be totally fine."