Pokemon players who have delved into the competitive scene are familiar with its common formats and the ensuing turmoil surrounding discussions about which is more “competitive”.
First there’s the officially recognized format, created by Pokemon creator Nintendo, hosted by the creators and for the sake of the creator Nintendo. Official VGC (Video Game Championship) format is played with doubles on a ban list that Nintendo publishes every year for the sole purpose of making a ban list. Before VGC ’15 special and legendary Pokemon were banned from competitive play, one of the contentions most players of the other format often make to discredit the “competitiveness” of this format.
On the other hand there are players who favor the format that made Pokemon famous, the singles format. For this, players turn to Smogon for a tier list which everyone follows via agreement. In this format there is no distinction between legendary, special and ordinary Pokemon. This is often the reason many tout this to be the more “competitive” format since it allows the use of legendaries and special Pokemon like Zapdos, Volcanion, Heatran and even Mew for as long as they qualify as OU (Over Used) tier Pokemon. On the other hand the format bans certain Pokemon based on perceived superiority in competitive play. Normal Pokemon like Blaziken, Aegislash and Greninja have been called up to the Uber tier after several suspect tests for supposedly breaking the meta of the game, making their use “uncompetitive”.
But with all the griping about competition, is one format more competitive than the other? Why doesn’t Nintendo adapt Smogon’s tier system in order to allow VGC participants more freedom to use less “broken” legendaries and special Pokemon? Why does Smogon’s tier list work?
Nintendo hosts the yearly VGC for money. Duh? You have to compete using the latest Pokemon game, so yes it’s hosted for money. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing nor a non-competitive thing.
The Nintendo ban list consists of objectively marked Pokemon throughout the game. Simply put, any Pokemon considered Legendary and or Special in game is (was) prohibited from competitive play. One main distinction between these Legendary and Special Pokemon against regular Pokemon is the fact that in a single game of Pokemon you are allowed to catch them only once and they do not breed using the Pokemon Breeder.
This distinction is vital in that it’s the reason Nintendo doesn’t allow special and legendaries.
Any competitive player knows that there are two vital extra statistics to consider when team building, them being the Effort Values (EV) and Individual Values (IV), plus the variable of Natures, competitive players mix and match these stats and variables in order to maximize the potential of each Pokemon. EVs are pretty straight forward, ever since the 6th generation of Pokemon, the open secret was institutionalized in the game using the Super Training mechanic to show the EV’s gained by the Pokemon and individually increasing them through Super Training. Before this trainers had to seek specific Pokemon which gave out specific EVs and knock hundreds of them out, a laborious endeavor considering this mechanic existed as far back as the first generation.
IV’s on the other hand are a bit trickier. Through repetition, trial and error with the Pokemon breeder, Pokemon are assigned random IV’s and Natures, but through certain hold items, trainers can maintain some degree of control over how IV’s and Natures will transfer onto the Pokemon egg.
Here’s the even trickier part.
Want certain egg moves? Gotta breed from certain Pokemon in the same egg group.
Want certain hidden abilities? Gotta breed from a Pokemon with said hidden ability.
Want a shiny? Good luck.
All of this repetitiveness, trial and error and what not are part of the built in mechanics of the game. They require you to simply work within the rules of the game itself, not necessarily breaking the narrative.
But legendary, mythical and special Pokemon don’t work the same way. In a game you can only catch one Zapdos, Articuno or Moltres in the wild. There is only one Mewtwo available in the wild. And once caught, these Pokemon are incapable of breeding. But these Pokemon do have natures, EV’s and yes, even IV’s.
Many don’t realize it, but this is Game Freak’s way of regulating the uniqueness of these legendaries. While by design they are supposed to have base stats superior to normal Pokemon, they are not intended for competitive use because they were made to not be used competitively. Those that might be allowed in competitive play are nerfed through the limited IV’s and random natures. Meaning they are extra strong but more vulnerable than other Pokemon.
So what’s a competitive trainer to do in order to get a competitively viable Mewtwo?
One route trainers might take is what is known as “soft resetting”. This involves saving the game right before the Pokemon battle in which the trainer intends to catch said Pokemon, catching the said Pokemon, checking for the right nature, checking for the right IV’s and then resetting the console until desired nature and IV is achieved.
It’s a tedious task as the numbers are all 100% random and the chances of getting the right combination are slim.
While tedious and not within the confines of the game narrative, soft resetting is perfectly legal as it merely exploits the gaming function.
For the more shady trainers, third party accessories exist that can do all the Pokemon breeding in an instant. Commonly known as PowerSavers, these data re-writers are able to look into the game’s data assets and edit them with relative ease. This means the ability to change values such as natures, IV’s and even EV’s in an instant.
So you can see now where the legendary, mythical and special Pokemon benefit from this.
All a trainer has to do now is catch the Pokemon, run it through the value editor and turn it into the competitive legendary he desires. No randomness, no soft resetting, all competitive fun.
But this method is ILLEGAL. Nintendo and Gamefreak penalizes players who are caught using third party devices to manipulate game data, for good reason. Methods like this can give Pokemon moves, abilities and stats beyond those programmed by the developers giving them an unfair advantage.
This is where the difference in platforms matters between the Smogon and VGC formats.
Remember that Smogon is often played on its own battle simulator, Showdown. Teams are built by choosing your Pokemon and entering the desired values for IV, EV and nature. No catching, training, breeding or any of the in-game things involved at all.
This means everyone is at an even playing field when it comes to access to “perfect” Pokemon, or those which have 6IV and the desired natures.
This lifts the shroud of exclusivity over the legendaries, making them just as accessible as any other Pokemon.
So when Smogon implements its tier list, it does so considering a purely theoretical scenario where everyone has equal access to every Pokemon in existence. This makes sense as Smogon claims itself to exist only for the competitive battles.
Showdown imagines itself to be in a scenario where it desires to be like a game of chess where variables are minimized. It also explains the criteria for banning certain moves such as One Hit Knock Out moves, Petal Dance and the Sleep Clause. To create an atmosphere which places each turn squarely at the hands of the trainer, they claim they are for increasing competitiveness.
This puts into perspective the stringency with which Smogon as a community goes through to ensure that no single strategy is able to dominate the playing field, because in their playing field, the Pokemon are for rent and every resource is available to everyone all the time.
Take out this ability to simply generate Pokemon in seconds and you get the VGC format where trainers are forced to trade, breed and train battle ready Pokemon either themselves or through others. Allowing third party devices to mingle and mangle the game is out of the question. Encouraging the practice of soft resetting or glitch exploitation is out of the question as well. So when GameFreak hosts tournaments, they host them under the impression that their balancing mechanism is already built-in to the game through the narrative and the mechanics that help to expound on that narrative.
When The Pokemon Company decided to allow the use of one legendary Pokemon per team in VGC ‘15, they did so expecting the built in randomness discussed earlier, because it would make sense. Legendaries which are the strongest in-game Pokemon would have a reduced role compared to perfectly bred battle-ready Pokemon, except the trainers will want any advantage they can get, which meant maximizing the stats either through glitching, exploits or third party devices, which beats the purpose.
The two most dominant formats are the way they are simply because they are designed with different intentions.
Smogon is based on a simulator setting where everything is at its theoretical best, on the other hand VGC continues to push the narrative of being the official tournament where trainers test their skill not only in battling but also in Pokemon breeding and training, even if many do cheat this process (not playing by the narrative rules is cheating).
Smogon creates a chess-like environment where you can pick up the board and play in an instant as long as you remember the pieces you play with, while VGC wants and expects you to take your trusty Pikachu or Zubat which you’ve had since the first gym or at least a descendant of that Pikachu or Zubat or at least a team of Pokemon which you spent time hatching and training, to the real world league for them to enter the real world hall of fame.
So the next time someone chides the VGC format for allowing the use of overpowered legendaries or special Pokemon which are 6IV and the right nature, be reminded that it’s not supposed to and that it’s the trainers who break the system to gain the advantage.
The same can be said of other games wherein mods or unofficial versions are purported to be “more competitive” than the official game. Game design is an important matter when it comes to any video game, narrative is part of that design, so are mechanics and gameplay balance. Rarely do franchises as big as Pokemon make design decisions that they don’t rack their brains over. If it’s there, it’s there for a reason.
It doesn’t become their fault anymore if people don’t play by the designed rules. When this happens, companies can either correct it or reject it. Neither is a better move than the other.
Which one is more competitive? It depends on how you define “competitive”. Ideally, Smogon cuts to the chase and sends trainers straight to the battles, making cheesy tactics also easy to pull off. It becomes a crucible for battle strategies where only the most formidable survive. VGC tests trainers every step of the way (if done according to design) which means more effort being put on the road to the VGC Championships.
Go with Smogon if you’re after a battle of wits. Go with the official VGC if being a Pokemon master means more than just battling.
Post Script Update:
As many people pointed out, certain legendaries were already allowed to be used as early as VGC ’15 and some even earlier. In VGC ’16, two “big” legendaries were allowed.
Assuring three perfect IV’s might be a sign that they may have been intended for competitive play, however the limit and randomness were meant to serve as a crutch toward what are inherently overpowered Pokemon.
The Smogon format is currently used by console players and Showdown also has a VGC format, however, the Smogon was designed with Showdown in mind. Yes, trainers do carry over the rules of Smogon onto their consoles as the console game is the execution of the theory learned in Showdown. It’s not a declaration that one format cannot and is not used on the other platform, rather a statement of which the format is designed for.
Both Smogon and VGC update rules regularly, however Smogon’s process makes the rule changes more gradual and less surprising to trainers. It also adds to the question of what makes a good competitive game. Should it change with the times or should it be consistent for the players to be familiar with the mechanics?