If you had an idea in March for a Pokémon team that was so good, you thought it could win the World Championships in August, what would you do? Would you use it to sweep up some trophies on your way to the ultimate title? Or would you sit on it for months, scared out of your mind that someone else would use it before you, in the hope that you could blindside the competition?
My name is Aaron Traylor, my Twitter handle is @TBFUnreality, and I recently placed 12th at the Pokémon World Championships in Washington DC in the VGC 2019 Ultra format. It was an insane weekend– I played 20 hours of Pokémon split between Friday and Saturday. I’m here to tell you about the tournament and the team that I ran, which was made with Markus Stadter, Wolfe Glick, and Brendan Zheng, as well as the decisions that led to our team choice throughout the season.
A Story About Snorlax
I was preparing for the European International Championships in Berlin, the first large-scale tournament of the Worlds metagame, and I wanted to build an interesting team, so I turned to my friend, Brendan Zheng, for advice and help. He was hot off of one of the best seasons of his life, having just finished Top 16 at the World Championships 2018 with an excellent team. Brendan revealed that he had been thinking about Snorlax for some time, and intended to use its natural bulk, setup potential with Belly Drum, and infinite recovery with Recycle to take on the restricted Pokémon that dominate the format. Fighting-type Pokémon are nearly non-existent in the Ultra Series, and without super effective moves, even restricted Pokémon struggle to challenge Snorlax’s nearly infinite health pool.
After dominant seasons in 2017 and 2018, Snorlax silently disappeared in the 2019 metagames. Snorlax went from being a pivotal member of a world champion’s team to a scattering of Premier Challenge and Midseason Showdown finishes in 4 months. By the end of VGC 2018, Snorlax was on 11% of teams, and by the end of VGC 2019 Ultra Series, Snorlax was on just 0.4% of teams (source: Global Link stats). Perhaps players were deterred in the Sun Series by Knock Off Incineroar’s popularity, which threatens Snorlax’s infinite recovery, or maybe they were distracted by supporting newly available restricted Pokémon and ignored the proven elements of the 2017 and 2018 metagames. I could write an entire novel about identifying successful infrequently used Pokémon– but that’s outside the scope of this article. Snorlax’s powerful stats and proven Generation 7 success drew us in.
The more I thought about Snorlax, the more excited I was about using it at Berlin or at the very least future North American tournaments. However, there was a catch: Brendan’s last and only chance to qualify to the World Championships would be the North American International Championships in June, a full three months after our conversation. Brendan was extremely busy with school on account of being a gigantic nerd, and couldn’t make it to Regional tournaments or even local Premier Challenges due to his studies. With only one Championship Point to his name, Brendan would need to reach the finals in Columbus if he wanted a shot at the World Championships title. He asked me to keep his idea quiet until then.
In my experience, fully developing and using a team at a medium- or large-scale tournament (Regionals and up) as soon as possible is a vastly better idea, largely because a lot of ideas in Pokémon teambuilding just don’t pan out. Pokémon tend to be better in your head than in practice games. What’s more, there are good odds your concept won’t succeed when the larger tournament comes– the metagame may have shifted and your secret team’s largest successes may be versus outdated team compositions. Your team may have unfixable problems versus Pokémon you didn’t consider. Players outside your testing circle may play around it in a way you didn’t expect, it might not be as good as you thought, or someone else may have planned and executed the same idea sooner. Most teams that succeed at International or World Championships are either pocket pick teams that players have been developing all season or smart metagame calls that were made in the one to two weeks before the tournament.
I’m completely against hiding tournament-winning concepts for extended periods of time, but there would be only one shot for Brendan to get his invite. I knew that if anyone could Hail Mary their way into a one-tournament World Championships invitation, it was Brendan, and Snorlax would be a big leg up in helping him get there.
Teambuilding in Pokémon is about having principles and then choosing which of your principles to betray as the tournament approaches.
We saved Snorlax for the North American International Championships.
As the season developed, I became more and more incredulous that Snorlax had not been on any significant teams. I started to believe that there was a concerted effort from private teambuilders to keep it out of results. When the top cut teams from Madison Regionals in early May were posted, Brendan and I celebrated– Snorlax had dodged championship points at every Regional, thus successfully flying completely under the radar.
Mid-May, we recruited Wolfe Glick and Eduardo Cunha and worked towards a team that Brendan, Wolfe, and I could use to win the North American International Championships (Eduardo wasn’t able to attend). We thought about the best Pokémon to complement Snorlax’s strengths and played constant best of three sets versus each other, not only to evaluate the concept against strong players but also to keep our ideas secret.
Snorlax struggled to succeed in these games, no matter which partner Pokémon we paired it with. Snorlax’s threatening setup potential is gatekept behind a turn of setup with Belly Drum, Stockpile, or Curse, and it’s challenging to get time to use those moves when restricted Pokémon control the pace of battle with their powerful moves. Snorlax was strong enough to survive even the strongest attacks from Xerneas, Primal Kyogre, Primal Groudon, and Rayquaza: however, its partner Pokémon often weren’t. Even with full defensive boosts and a maxed out Attack, Snorlax could struggle to win games if it was left alone versus several opposing Pokémon, thanks to critical hits, burns, freezes, et cetera. Finally, all of the common resources players chose to counter Xerneas — for example, Haze, Clear Smog, and Roar — can be used similarly to stop Snorlax’s setup.
Ultimately, we couldn’t make Snorlax work in time for Columbus, and we pivoted away eight days before the tournament. Brendan ended up bowing out of the tournament– he had other commitments, and because we didn’t make a solid call with enough notice, he didn’t think it would be worth cancelling on them.
Wolfe won the tournament– it was understandable that Brendan bowed out, but ironic because he would have had a team capable of the finish he needed. I made Day 2 as well, but I scraped in at 6–3. Our Mega Rayquaza / Primal Kyogre team was a successful anti-metagame call, but it was imbalanced in its matchups. We were extremely successful against Xerneas / Primal Groudon compositions, at the cost of Lunala and Mega Rayquaza / Primal Kyogre teams being challenging to face. Overall, our team felt rushed. We spent too much time (almost a month!) trying and failing to make Snorlax work, and I felt that our final team and my preparation suffered due to the short amount of time we had left before the tournament.
Because we gave up on Snorlax in Columbus, there would be no recorded uses of it placing at any tournament across the entire world in the Ultra Series before the World Championships (source: vgcstats.com).
It had been a headache to conceal, fret over, build, and ultimately fall short with Snorlax. Sunday in Columbus, I finally dropped the months-long secrecy and approached my friend, Rajan Bal, and asked (potentially aggressively) if him and his friends in the Smogon teambuilding group were concealing Snorlax for the World Championships. I knew that these guys were huge Snorlax fans from the 2017 and 2018 seasons and had used diverse and innovative movesets. In 2017, they also made a secret Hail Mary call for the World Championships with Snorlax, similar to what we had tried to pull for Columbus. If anyone had even considered putting Snorlax on a team, it was Rajan and his friends. When I told Rajan that I thought there was an international conspiracy keeping Snorlax from results until the World Championships, he looked taken aback (rightfully so), and mentioned that him and Enosh Shachar, who had walked up, had also been considering it but had run into similar issues and likewise couldn’t make it work. I walked away feeling like the book on Snorlax in 2019 had closed.
After Wolfe won in Columbus, we started teambuilding for the World Championships immediately. As always, my goal was to execute something novel while being strong against the most popular metagame options. We expected the most popular teams to have (unordered):
- Xerneas / Incineroar / Amoonguss in general
- Tapu Koko holding Fairium or Electrium Z
- Bulky Swords Dance Mega Rayquaza holding a 50% recovery berry
- Xerneas / Primal Groudon (Paul Chua’s team)
- Mega Kangaskhan / Tornadus / Xerneas / Primal Groudon or Primal Kyogre (5–8th place at Columbus)
- Mega Rayquaza / Primal Kyogre (Raghav Malaviya / Kimo Nishimura / Collin Heier / Jonathan Evans’s team, we knew no one would take ours)
- Mega Rayquaza / Xerneas (Jean Paul’s team)
- Mega Rayquaza / Lunala (ladder heroes unite)
- Xerneas / Lunala (Kareem Mukkakit’s team, although I doubted any Masters would run an exact copy)
The World Championships requires more than a smart anti-metagame take, as top teams tend to be more diverse than at an International Championships. A team as imbalanced in its matchups as our Columbus team wouldn’t cut it. We had to be able to make game plans versus anything.
I didn’t want to use a Xerneas / Primal Groudon team, because it had a target on its back that I thought it could not overcome. I also thought that Mega Rayquaza / Kyogre compositions had been played out– I wanted to create something novel, and I couldn’t see any interesting directions for the team moving forward. We delved into the realm of strange Rayquaza partners, testing Rayquaza/Necrozma-Dusk-Mane and Rayquaza/Solgaleo before settling on Rayquaza/Lunala. Throughout our playtesting, Wolfe insisted on having a positive matchup versus Incineroar, Xerneas, and Amoonguss together– Markus eventually theorized that Rayquaza, Tapu Fini, Incineroar, and Stakataka together could defeat any Xerneas team.
Snorlax’s final chapter
Wolfe then realized that Snorlax and Kasib Berry Lunala could give our team a Lunala matchup as well as outs versus Primal Kyogre teams that could not snowball their damage well, and the team was complete. Why did Snorlax work here and not on our prior teams? Snorlax setup was no longer the primary goal compared to the Mega Rayquaza or Stakataka setup, but it could assist either game plan and in the worst case fire off powerful Returns without boosting its Attack. After losing to us without Snorlax in game 1, opponents could be blindsided by a setup game plan in game 2. This gave our team the consistency that our other Snorlax teams lacked.
In our practice circle, I rarely came up with the tournament-winning ideas — I became proficient on a number of popular teams and then faced down our best ideas over and over. I tried to be a reality check as to how the games would go versus the best opponents, and which battle strategies were likely to work as a tournament progressed. Of the 70 practice games that were played with our team before the tournament, I piloted it in 12. It was my goal coming out of 2016 to enter tournaments with as many matches playing against my team as playing with my team to understand my opponents’ perspectives better, but I didn’t realize how far I would take that philosophy.
Rayquaza @ Figy Berry
Ability: Air Lock
EVs: 132 HP / 116 Atk / 4 Def / 92 SpD / 164 Spe
- Dragon Ascent
- Extreme Speed
- Swords Dance
This Rayquaza always survives minimal investment Modest Primal Kyogre Ice Beam in strong winds, and it always outspeeds Nihilego. It should also knock out opposing Incineroar with a +1 Dragon Ascent if they haven’t invested heavily in Defense.
Tapu Fini @ Waterium Z
Ability: Misty Surge
EVs: 252 HP / 20 Def / 220 SpA / 12 SpD / 4 Spe
- Hydro Pump
These EVs allow Tapu Fini to knock out all but the bulkiest Assault Vest Incineroar in one shot with its Z-move, which also does about 2/3rds of Primal Groudon’s health through Protect.
Stakataka @ Life Orb
Ability: Beast Boost
EVs: 252 HP / 252 Atk / 4 SpD
IVs: 0 Spe
- Gyro Ball
- Rock Slide
- Trick Room
Stakataka is Defense-boosting because we didn’t want to cut stat points to get the Attack boosts, which ended up being the correct decision because of the amount of Low Kick Mega Kangaskhan. This Stakataka takes down opposing Mega Rayquaza and Mega Kangaskhan in one shot with Gyro Ball, and takes down Incineroar with two Rock Slides through Intimidate.
Lunala @ Kasib Berry
Ability: Shadow Shield
EVs: 148 HP / 84 Def / 252 SpA / 4 SpD / 20 Spe
- Trick Room
- Moongeist Beam
This Lunala can always survive other Lunala’s Z-Move and set Trick Room, and then threatens a knockout after a partner Pokémon breaks the opposing Lunala’s Shadow Shield. In fact, it always survives Malicious Moonsault from other Incineroar after the Incineroar is Intimidated.
Incineroar @ Assault Vest
EVs: 244 HP / 4 Atk / 140 Def / 4 SpA / 116 SpD
IVs: 9 Spe
- Fake Out
- Knock Off
Double Dark-type move Incineroar had incredible utility– we never missed Flare Blitz. The EVs help it survive Primal Groudon’s Precipice Blades and Jolly Choice Band Mega Rayquaza’s Dragon Ascent, even if they had not been Intimidated.
Snorlax @ Iapapa Berry
EVs: 196 HP / 4 Atk / 252 Def / 36 SpD / 20 Spe
- Belly Drum
The Speed EVs are because, in spite of it all, I expected to see other Snorlax and wanted to outspeed them :P
I nicknamed these Pokémon after my incredible labmates and friends at Brown.
The strength of this team is that its movesets require careful thought to plan against and play around. Coming up with flowcharts with this team felt inorganic: success with this team is about testing different strategies over the course of the set and taking necessary knockouts.
- Versus Xerneas/Groudon: Use Stakataka to take out Xerneas or Tapu Fini to take out Groudon, whichever happens first
- Versus Rayquaza/Kyogre: Use Rayquaza’s ability to disable Kyogre and then set up Snorlax or even Stakataka in Trick Room
- Versus Lunala: Use our Lunala to gain a Trick Room advantage, or threaten their partner Pokémon by setting up Snorlax in Lunala’s face
Snorlax’s Last Ride
I found out on Day 1 that my hypothesis in Columbus was right, and that a group of Smogon players had brought Snorlax to Washington D.C: there ended up being nine players who brought it in Day 1, and five in Day 2. It was pretty exciting that we all had the same secret call. According to Alex Underhill, they took a more serious look at Snorlax partly because of my conversation with Rajan, so my paranoia ended up being a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Round 1: Tadashi Maegawa Win (1–0)
Round 2: James Evans Win (2–0)
Round 3: Sébastien Biagé Win (3–0)
Round 4: Jens Arne Mækinen Win (4–0)
Round 5: Cedric deRouchie Win (5–0)
Round 6: Arata Nakada Loss (5–1)
Round 7: Lorenzo Lax Loss (5–2)
Round 8: David Partington Win (6–2)
Round 9: Bridger Snow Win (7–2)
Round 1: Zheyuan Huang Loss (0–1)
Round 2: Takaaki Hiragata Win (1–1)
Round 3: René Alvarenga Win (2–1)
Round 4: Michele Gavelli Loss (2–2)
Round 5: Takuro Terada Win (3–2)
Round 6: Flavio del Pidio Win (4–2)
Round 7: Emilio Forbes Win (5–2, seeded 12th/18 into cut)
Top 16: Meaghan Rattle Loss (knocked out. Final record: 12–5, 24–15)
It quickly became apparent throughout the course of the tournament that our matchups and win conditions were not as reliable as we had thought: Mega Kangaskhan with Low Kick and Bite swept our team, Xerneas paired with Primal Groudon forced Tapu Fini, Rayquaza, and Stakataka to switch around, consistently threatened by the opponent’s Precipice Blades and Moonblast. We found out about Dragon Claw Primal Groudon mid-tournament, which upended Mega Rayquaza’s typical advantages versus it. The best case scenario for beating Primal Kyogre was using Swords Dance with Mega Rayquaza, surviving an Ice Beam, and knocking it out with Dragon Ascent– if that plan failed, our Pokémon had to survive huge amounts of Water-type damage. The Lunala teams that our team was designed to beat either partnered with Xerneas, necessitating a Stakataka-centric game plan, or with powerful Fighting-type Pokémon support, causing major problems for our team’s backbone. Many opponents had Knock Off Incineroar, Snorlax’s old nemesis, which I thought was the correct move choice but didn’t expect to be so popular.
To adapt, I had to consistently outplay my opponents, abuse the outlandishness of our Incineroar, Stakataka, Lunala, and Tapu Fini sets, abuse opponents’ general lack of experience versus those sets as well as versus Snorlax, and get the prerequisite luck that accompanies any World Championships finish. Performing using this team was draining and the length of the tournament didn’t help.
Snorlax ended up being “pretty good” — not the superstar that we had expected it to be, but a worthwhile member of the team. I don’t know if another Pokémon in its place would be more effective, as its setup pressure and neutral/natural bulk are exactly what this team needs. In the end, I ended up being the only player to reach Top Cut with Snorlax, which was unfortunate because everyone else running it was my friend but also because I thought it was a better call than it ended up being.
To answer my question from earlier — is it worthwhile to conceal a team for a major tournament or develop it earlier? — my answer is mixed. Of course, we didn’t win the World Championships. If we had tested Snorlax earlier in the season, we would have realized its issues earlier, and potentially had both more time and a better team for the North American International Championships. Ultimately, it didn’t end up being the unstoppable weapon we had imagined it to be. However, I got to run a Pokémon with cool and varied game plans that threw opponents off their own strategies in dangerous ways. If I could go back in time to March and talk to Brendan and myself, I think I would tell our past selves that keeping it secret for months wasn’t the correct call.
Do you think it’s better to achieve total mastery in a format with one team, pushing your play and knowledge as far as it can go, or to have experience with lots of different teams, gaining a total picture of the format? Both viewpoints have merit. In 2016, when I placed 2nd at US Nationals and Top 8 at the World Championships, I would have readily answered the former, but this year, I pushed the latter philosophy as far as I think is reasonable to go. Being able to pick up a team in a new archetype built the Sunday before and top cut with it from Day 1 isn’t something I had the skill or confidence to do before this season, despite my past results. It took a lot of failure and practice for me to get to the point in my Pokémon career I am at now, and this is one of my favorite tournament finishes for this reason. I hope you try our team out and appreciate precisely how challenging it was to play 17 rounds with this team over two days.
I don’t think I’ll ever rest until I’m the Pokémon World Champion, but this result feels pretty good, too.
Thank you Brendan, Wolfe, and Markus for working with me and accompanying me on this crazy journey. Also thank you to Aaron Zheng, Jake Magier, Cedric Bernier, and Edward Fan for always being there for me and for cheering me on to my finish. Finally, thank you to everyone who supported me through the weekend– there are too many of you to name but know that I am grateful for your friendship from the bottom of my heart.