An Introduction to Competitive Pokémon Battling
If you're one of the many Pokémon fans out there, chances are you've spent hours upon hours training your team, taking down gym leaders and crushing the Elite Four so many times it's gotten stale. There's no denying it - the Pokémon games, while generally stellar in quality, are more often than not far too easy for the dedicated trainers out there. So, what do you do when you've already exhausted all the challenges the game as thrown at you? How do you put your team and your skills as a trainer TRULY to the test? For many trainers, the next step on their journey to becoming a Pokémon master is to get into the realm of competitive Pokémon battling. In this article, we'll take a look into the key elements of competitive battling: what determines a Pokemon's usefulness in the competitive scene, how to get started on your journey in the competitive Pokémon realm, and an overview of how to build a team that can utterly crush your opponents.
What Makes a Pokémon Strong?
At its core, Pokémon seems simple enough - catch Pokémon, raise them to make them stronger, then pit them against your opponents and put them to the test. There are some obvious mechanics that most trainers are familiar with - type advantages and weaknesses, levels, and basic stats; but there are also a number of not-so-obvious mechanics that are key to success in the world of competitive battling. Generally, there are five key factors that have a major influence on your Pokemon's performance in battle: its stats, type/s, ability, held item, and movepool. As a trainer, we have varying degrees of control over each of these factors. In order to raise the most powerful Pokémon possible, it is imperative that we understand how each of these factors influences the Pokemon's performance in battle and how much control we have over each factor.
One of the biggest factors in a Pokemon's competitive performance is its stats. Every Pokémon has six stats that influence its ability to deal damage, take hits, and move first: HP, Attack (Atk), Defense (Def), Special Attack (SpA), Special Defense (SpD), and Speed (Spd). In-game, you can check the values of these stats on the “Summary” screen for a certain Pokémon. Each stat is more than just a single number though – there are a number of factors that influence a Pokémon’s final stats: the Pokémon’s level, base stats (BST), Individual Values (IVs), Effort Values (EVs), and nature.
If you’re unfamiliar with all of this terminology, chances are you’re very confused at this point. The truth is, the mechanics in the Pokémon game are very complex, and to be successful in the competitive scene, it’s important that you understand some of the fine details of these mechanics. Without this knowledge, you will simply be unable to raise Pokémon that can stand up to your opponents that do understand these mechanics. While the fine details of game mechanics are beyond the scope of this article, I’ll do what I can to briefly explain each element that impacts a Pokémon’s stats and the degree of control that we, as trainers, have over it.
A Pokémon’s level is probably the easiest factor to understand, and is something very familiar to any of us who have played the games in the past. Whenever your Pokémon successfully knocks out an opponent, it will earn experience. Once it accumulates enough experience, your Pokémon will level up, which raises its stats slightly and on occasion allows the Pokémon to learn new moves to use in battle. If you have two Pokémon that are identical in every way except for level, the Pokémon with the higher level will almost always emerge victorious. In the competitive scene, nearly every Pokémon you see will be level 100 – the highest level possible in the games.
Base stats (BSTs) are another element that’s fairly self-explanatory. Each Pokémon has a set value for each stat which is used as the “base” for determining each individual Pokémon’s stats. Among all the factors that influence stats, BSTs are the only one that we have zero control over. Every Charmander will have the exact same base stats, no matter how high its level or how much we train them. When team building, base stats are one of the main factors that determine what role a Pokémon can serve, which we’ll look at in more detail later in the article.
Individual Values (IVs) act as the “genetics” of Pokémon. Let’s say you’ve just caught two wild Pidgey, both at level 2 in the game. Despite them both being the same level and the same species, you might notice that one is faster in battles, or deals more damage, or is able to take hits better – this is a result of differing IVs between the two Pidgey. Each Pokémon has six IVs, one corresponding to each stat, that each contain a number between 0 to 31. Generally, these IVs are generated at random when you obtain that Pokémon, although there are ways to breed Pokémon with specific IV spreads, which is a topic I will go into in more detail in a future article. For the purposes of this article, though, the important thing to take away from IVs is that they CANNOT be changed once a Pokémon has been obtained and can potentially add between 0-31 points in each stat.
Conversely, Effort Values (EVs) act as another form of “experience” for a Pokémon. As mentioned before, Pokémon get experience upon defeating another Pokémon in battle that is used to level up. However, whenever you defeat another Pokémon, your Pokémon also receive EVs in a particular stat that further boosts its stats. This is why a Pokémon raised by a trainer is usually stronger than a wild Pokémon of the same species and level – the wild Pokémon does not have EV’s, while the trainer’s does. In the current generation of games (Pokémon X and Y), each Pokémon can have up to 510 EVs in total, with a limit of 252 EVs in one stat. For every 4 EVs in a stat, that Pokémon gets an extra point in that stat. This means that, assuming an efficient distribution of EVs, a Pokémon has up to 127 extra points worth of stats. The key difference between EVs and IVs is that we can directly influence a Pokémon’s EVs as we see fit, and, using various in-game items, redistribute EVs whenever we wish. While there are a number of methods to do this that I will describe in more detail in a future article, the simplest method you should know is to use the new “Super Training” feature in X and Y. Super Training actually boosts your Pokémon’s stats by increasing its EVs, so it is possible to fully EV-train a Pokemonly only using Super Training. Ideally, you would do this before using the Pokémon in any battles, to ensure that you don’t obtain unwanted EVs as a result of any battles you combat in.
Something else important to note about EV’s – if you are using the Exp. Share, any Pokémon that received shared EXP will also receive the EVs from that battle. While this can be an effective way of EV-training several Pokémon at once, it’s also something to watch out for to ensure that you don’t accidentally give a Pokémon EVs you don’t want it to have.
Now that we’ve discussed all the really complex stuff, we can move back to something a little simpler – a Pokémon’s nature. This can be seen in the “Summary” screen for each Pokémon. The majority of natures further amplify a Pokémon’s stats by boosting one stat by 10% and reducing another by 10%. There are also some natures that simply do nothing, but they generally aren’t used competitively. One important thing to note about natures is that, like IVs, they are set-in-stone as soon as you obtain the Pokémon. While it is possible for you to breed a desired nature onto a Pokémon, there is no way to change the nature once a Pokémon has been caught or hatched.
Pokémon types are something that many of us already know and understand – every Pokémon has one or more types which determine what type of attacks it’s weak to and what type of attacks it resists. For example, a Fire-type Pokémon will take double damage from Water attacks, as the Fire-type is weak to Water-type attacks. If you are unfamiliar with type advantages and disadvantages in Pokémon, there is a detailed type chart available on Serebii you may want to take a look at: http://www.serebii.net/xy/typechart.shtml.
A Pokemon’s type can influence more than just its weaknesses and resistances, however. One term that you will hear a lot among the competitive community is Same-Type-Attack-Bonus, or STAB. Essentially, a Pokémon that uses a move of the same type as the Pokémon will gain a damage boost of 150%. For example, if Blastoise, a Water-type Pokémon, uses Hydro Pump, a Water-type move, Hydro Pump’s power will be boosted by an extra 150%. STAB-boosted moves allow powerful attackers to have a high damage output even without taking advantage of type advantages.
Every Pokémon has an ability which gives it a sort of “passive” buff (or, in rare cases, debuff) or changes the battle conditions in some way. Oftentimes, a good (or bad) ability can be key to a Pokémon’s success in a certain role or in competitive battling in general. Along with movepool and base stats, a Pokémon’s ability is one of the main factors that determine the role a Pokémon can serve on a team. For example, Dragonite has the ability Multiscale, which halves the damage it takes when at full health. This helps it take hits much better and usually means that Dragonite will be guaranteed to survive at least one turn. That turn can then be used to use a boosting move, such as Dragon Dance, which gives Dragonite a significant boost to its offensive abilities and lets it start dishing out high amounts of damage.
Every Pokémon is able to hold one item in battle to further augment its combat abilities. There is a massive variety of items that a Pokémon can hold – some, such as the Life Orb, boost the damage the Pokémon deals with its attacks. Others, such as Leftovers, can help augment the Pokémon’s defensive abilities (in the case of Leftovers, by providing HP recovery every turn). While some other facts discussed to this point have determined what role a Pokémon can play on a team, the item is often used to complement whatever role the Pokémon is being used it, as it is one of the few factors we have complete control over and, with such a large variety of items, it is the most flexible factor in a Pokémon’s performance. When deciding what item to use on a Pokémon, it is often smart to either try to amplify one of the Pokémon’s biggest strengths (for example, the aforementioned Life Orb to boost an attacker’s offensive potential) or to mitigate one of its greatest weaknesses (for example, a Yache Berry to keep Pokémon such as Dragonite or Salamence from being taken down by super-effective Ice-type attacks in one hit).
The most important thing to remember when choosing an item is that you want your item to complement the role the Pokémon will play on your team. Generally, your item selection should not determine the role a Pokémon has, but instead help it fit into the role that it performs.
A Pokémon’s movepool is arguably one of the most important factors in determining its role and its viability in competitive battles. To give a basic definition, a Pokémon’s movepool (sometimes referred to as learnset) consists of all the possible moves that a particular Pokémon can learn. Some Pokémon, such as Gengar, have a large movepool with many great moves, which allow it to fill several different roles on a team. Others, such as Keldeo, have a very limited number of moves that they can use effectively, limiting the number of potential roles they can fill on a team.
When trying to build a good moveset for a Pokémon, it’s important to keep in mind the role you want that Pokémon to fufill and the strengths and weaknesses of that Pokémon. For offensive-minded Pokémon, it’s important to have powerful moves that take advantage of the Pokémon’s high offensive stats. You don’t want a Pokémon with high Attack but low Special Attack to have all Special moves. Conversely, for defensive-minded Pokémon, moves that help it survive longer are great options – for example, recovery moves such as Roost or Recovery, protective moves such as Protect or Substitute, or status moves such as Will-o-Wisp or Toxic.
It’s also very important that you consider the moves you already have when selecting your moves. If your Mega-Blastoise already has Water Pulse in its moveset, you don’t want to waste a second move on another Water-type move (for example, Hydro Pump). If you want to run another attacking move, a much better option is to pick a move of a different type that can still deal damage and help you deal with opposing Pokémon that Water Pulse isn’t effective against. In other words, you want to have good type coverage. This is a term that you will often see when talking about offensively-minded Pokémon. To use the aforementioned Mega-Blastoise as an example, I run Water Pulse, Dark Pulse, and Dragon Pulse on my M-Blastoise, giving it great type coverage. Looking at our type chart, we see that no type is able to resist all three of these attacks and that we have super-effective coverage on five different types. Having good move coverage is critical to ensure that no single type of Pokémon can come in and completely wall our Pokémon. With good coverage, you will more often than not have an attacking option for whatever your opponent chooses to switch in.
Aside from basic defensive and offensive moves, there are a couple of other interesting moves that you will see often used in competitive battling. Obviously, the list of moves in the Pokémon world is huge and there is no way we can cover all the competitively-viable moves in this article, but there are a couple moves worth noting:
- Stealth Rock is one of the most common moves in competitive battling and is arguably the most popular entry hazard. An entry hazard is a battle condition that has some sort of negative impact on Pokémon switching into battle. In competitive play, most players will be switching in and out constantly so entry hazards will come into play many, many times throughout a match. In the case of Stealth Rock, most Pokémon switching in will immediately lose 12.5% of their health. However, if the Pokémon switching in has a weakness to Rock-type moves, that damage will be increased accordingly (or vice versa, if the Pokémon resists Rock-type moves). For Pokémon with a 4x-weakness to Rock (for example, the Fire/Flying type Talonflame), this will take out half of their health before they can even do anything, which is a very considerable advantage for the opposing player. Stealth Rock is also notable for being the only entry hazard that affects Flying-types.
- Spikes is another common entry hazard that deals damage whenever a Pokémon switches in. In the case of Spikes, the damage dealt starts at 12.5% and increases every time the move is used up to a maximum of 25% (which occurs with three layers of Spikes). Toxic Spikes is a similar Poison-type move that inflicts poison (or toxic, with two layers) on Pokémon switching in rather than inflicting damage. Both of these moves do not affect Flying-types. Poison and Steel types are also both immune to Toxic Spikes.
- Sticky Web is the newest entry hazard added to the game. Instead of dealing damage or inflicting status, Sticky Web reduces the speed of any Pokémon switching in. This can be very useful in limiting the effectiveness of opposing Pokémon that rely on high speed, or allowing a normally slow Pokémon to outspeed Pokémon it normally couldn’t. Like Spikes, it doesn’t affect Flying-types.
- Rapid Spin is a weak damage-dealing Normal-type move that has the added effect of removing all entry hazards your opponent has placed on you. While the damage output is negligible, it can be an absolutely crucial move on some teams to prevent Pokémon weak to Stealth Rock (such as the aforementioned Talonflame) from being completely crippled by entry hazards before they can do anything. One thing to note about this move is that Ghost-types can prevent its use due to the fact that Normal-type moves have no effect on Ghost-types, a strategy generally referred to as “spinblocking.”
- Defog is another move that removes entry hazards. Unlike Rapid Spin, it is not a damage-dealing move, which means that it cannot be “spinblocked” like Rapid Spin. However, it has the side effect of also removing any entry hazards you have placed on your opponent as well. Generally, Defog is only used over Rapid Spin on teams that don’t rely on entry hazards.
- Reflect and Light Screen are fantastic team-support moves that boost your team’s defensive capabilities. In single battles, these moves will reduce the damage dealt by the opponent’s physical and special moves, respectively, by 150%.
- Wish is another great support move that can allow you to heal Pokémon that normally don’t have access to recovery moves such as Roost. This move will heal the current Pokémon for 50% of the user’s max HP one turn after being used. Due to the fact that the recovery is based on the HP of the user as opposed to the currently active Pokémon, Pokemon with high HP stats, such as Blissey or Vaporeon, are great users of this move.
- Weather inducing moves (such as Rain Dance, Sunny Day, and Sandstorm) can completely change the dynamic of the battle. The weather induced gives buffs to certain attacking types or certain Pokemon. Some Pokemon also have abilities that take advantage of the weather (for example, Kingdra can have the ability Swift Swim, which doubles its speed in rain). Some competitive players opt to build teams based around a particular weather condition, although the use of weather is much less common as it used to be due to weather changes introduced in the latest generation of games.
- Baton Pass is a move that switches out your current Pokemon with a Pokemon of your choice and passes all of your current Pokemon’s boosts and effects such as Substitute to the new Pokemon. You may often see it used in conjunction with the Speed Boost ability, which passively raises the Pokemon’s speed each turn, to give normally slow Pokemon a huge boost to their speed.
- U-Turn and Volt Switch are damage-dealing moves that also force you to switch out the current Pokemon with a Pokemon of your choosing. These moves are often a great way to give a frail Pokemon a safe switch-in, or to switch to a Pokemon better equipped to deal with the opponent while staying in control of the tempo of the game.
Building a Team
We now know the key elements of a Pokemon’s performance in battle, but just knowing what all these elements are and what they do isn’t enough. We now need to learn how to apply these factors to build powerful Pokemon, and more importantly, a powerful team. I cannot stress that last word enough. You have six Pokemon that you use during battle, and it’s important that each and every one of them has a specific purpose on the team. There is no single Pokemon that will guarantee you victory in every match – every single Pokemon has its weaknesses that, if you aren’t careful, can be exploited by your opponent. It is not enough to simply build a team of six powerful Pokemon – your Pokemon must synergize well and operate as a team to find success in the competitive world.
The first thing we need to know before starting to put together our team is the roles a Pokemon can fill on a team. Every single member of our team needs a specific purpose. Here are some of the basic roles a Pokemon can fill on a team:
- Sweeper – A sweeper is an offensively-focused Pokemon with one purpose and one purpose only: to utterly demolish anything the opponent puts in front of it. These are your primary damage-dealers, and are the kind of Pokemon that most offensive-based teams are built around. Generally, we want our sweepers to have high offensive stats – Speed and either Attack or Special Attack. Some sweepers have high stats in all three of these areas, and are commonly referred to as “Mixed” sweepers (as they use a mix of physical and special attacks). One key thing to note about sweepers is that they require varying degrees of support to sweep effectively. They are generally very frail and can’t take many hits, so it’s important that other members of your team are able to deal with any opposing Pokemon that can take advantage of your sweeper’s weaknesses before you start a sweep.
- Setup-Sweeper – You will often see some Pokemon referred to as a “setup” sweeper. These are Pokemon that use boosting moves, such as Swords Dance or Dragon Dance, to amplify their power and start a sweep. These sweepers often have better defensive stats than normal sweepers, as they must be able to survive a turn in combat to get their boost off. Because they need that turn of setup, these types of sweepers often need greater team support as the opponent can easily switch in a counter while your sweeper gets its boost.
- Revenge Killer – Pokemon considered to be “revenge killers” do exactly what you’d think they do – they come in after one of your Pokemon faints, finishes off a weak opponent, then switches back out or prepares for a sweep. Oftentimes revenge killers are Pokemon with fantastic offensive stats but terrible defenses – Pokemon that would have trouble switching in normally and need the safety that a free switch coming off a fainted Pokemon provides. The key stat here is Speed – as these Pokemon are typically very frail, it’s important that they always get the first (and final) hit. Oftentimes revenge killers hold a Choice Scarf to maximize their speed, as they will usually only need to use one move before switching out anyway. Pokemon with powerful priority moves (moves that always hit first) and good attacking stats can also make great revenge killers.
- Wall – The wall is to defensive teams as the sweeper is to offensive teams. It does exactly what it sounds like – comes in, takes hits, and refuses to go down. Good walls generally have fantastic defensive stats and a movepool that allows it to stall and wear down the opponent. As these types of Pokemon don’t typically have much offensive investment, status-inducing moves (particularly moves that inflict burn or poison) are great options to slowly wear down the enemy over time. Burns also have the side effect of further weakening opposing Pokemon that rely on physical attacks. A reliable recovery move is usually a must on a wall, ensuring that it can heal off any damage taken and allowing it to continue soaking up hits. The key thing to remember with walls is to make sure that do something other than take hits – if all your wall can do is take hits and dish out nothing in return, you are walling yourself as much as you are walling your opponent.
- Tank – The tank acts as a cross between the sweeper and the wall – a Pokemon that can dish out massive damage while being able to take a hit. Generally, good tanks have great attacking stats and good defensive capabilities, or “bulk.” As they are designed to take hits, speed is not as much of a concern as it is on your typical sweeper. A mixture of offensive and defensive moves is typically a smart choice on tanks, ensuring that they can dish out damage while remaining out for longer periods of time.
- Utility/Hazards – While “utility” Pokemon is a pretty broad term, one of the most common purposes a utility can serve is to provide entry hazard support for the team. Pokemon that can take hits while throwing out multiple entry hazards are the best at this role. Many players opt to lead with this type of Pokemon, getting entry hazards out as soon as possible. For Pokemon in this scenario, having the move Taunt is helpful to ensure that the opponent cannot do the same.
- Rapid Spin/Defog Support – Another type of “utility” Pokemon, Spinners/Defoggers primary focus is to remove entry hazards on your side of the field, helping Pokemon with a weakness to entry hazards (such as offensive Pokemon weak to Stealth Rock) do their jobs. For teams with Pokemon weak to Stealth Rock, such as Talonflame or Volcarona, a Pokemon that fulfills this role is a necessity. Some Spinners/Defoggers can also serve other roles as well – for example, Mega-Blastoise can use Rapid Spin to spin away entry hazards while taking advantage of the Mega Launcher ability to dish out a great deal of damage.
- Support – Support Pokemon are Pokemon that, while not terribly powerful individually, help make the jobs of other Pokemon considerably easier. The support they give can come in a number of forms – some may focus on putting up Reflect/Light Screen to boost your team’s defense, while others may focus on healing the team by passing Wishes and curing status ailments. Oftentimes, these are the Pokemon that will mean the difference between success and victory, as without proper support, your sweepers or walls aren’t going to be able to do their jobs as effectively. Some support Pokemon will run status-inducing moves so that they aren’t completely useless offensively, but their main focus is supporting the team and helping your other Pokemon do their jobs.
So, we now know some of the common roles a Pokemon can fill on a team. Now comes the hard part – putting together a combination of these roles that works well together. A team of six sweepers is going to have problems taking hits, while a team of six walls is going to have trouble dishing out any damage. It’s important to have a balance, to have Pokemon that complement each other and cover up each other’s weaknesses.
When you start building a team, the first thing you should ask yourself is what type of team you want to build. Your team should complement your playstyle – what works for someone else may not necessarily work for you. Are you the type of player that likes to always be on the offensive, dishing out as much damage as possible as quickly as possible? Or do you rather sit back, soak up a couple hits, and slowly wear down the opponent? Maybe you lie somewhere in the middle, taking a couple hits then launching a nasty counterattack? Understanding what types of battling strategies work well for you is important to building a team that you can use effectively.
Once you know what type of team you’d like to build, you should start looking for a couple of Pokemon to build your team around. You want to find Pokemon that fill the roles most important to the type of team you’re building. If you’re building a defensive-based team, for example, you’ll likely want a couple of solid walls to start off with. Likewise, a couple of strong sweepers might be a good foundation for an offensive team. When building your core, it’s important that your core Pokemon aren’t too similar. In the defensive-based example mentioned above, you don’t want two walls that can both take physical attacks all day but can’t take more than a couple special attacks. Similarly, you don’t want two Pokemon that rely completely on physical (or special) damage. If your core Pokemon are too similar, they can easily be countered.
Once you have your core Pokemon, you need to start looking at the strengths and weaknesses of your core and figure out what other roles complement the team you have. Does your core lack either offensive or defensive abilities? Would your team benefit considerably from the residual damage caused by entry hazards? Does your core have key weaknesses to entry hazards you need to deal with? Does your core have reliable means of recovery? Questions such as these are critical to determine what supporting roles your core needs. If your team benefits from your opponent taking lots of entry hazard damage, you may want to add a Pokemon that can reliably put up hazards. If you have an obvious weakness to Stealth Rock, a Rapid Spinner or Defogger may be needed. Ask yourself what your team needs most and find Pokemon that fill those needs.
Putting it to the Test
No matter how well you are at team-building, chances are there is some weakness you overlooked, something you could have done better. The best way to find these weaknesses is to test your team. Play a couple matches and notice common situations you find yourself in. Do you find that your opponent’s Pokemon are often surviving with very low HP? If so, you might need entry hazard support to deal that extra bit of damage you need to take them out faster. Does one particular type or Pokemon cause you issues no matter what you do? You might need to reconsider some of your moves or Pokemon to ensure you have a counter to that Pokemon. Figure out what went wrong during your battles and tweak your team to fix it. Team building is not an easy process – there is no such thing as a perfect team. As you gain experience and partake in more battles, you will find more things to tweak, more improvements to be made. It’s a constant process, and it’s important that you learn from all of your battles (especially your losses) to make yourself and your team better.
Where to Go Next?
If you’ve made it this far, then congratulations! You now understand the basics of competitive Pokemon battling, the key elements that impact a Pokemon’s performance, and how to build solid, competitive teams. But this is only the beginning – where do you go from here?
The first place I would send anybody looking into competitive Pokemon battling is to Pokemon Showdown (http://pokemonshowdown.com/). Showdown is a fantastic battle simulator that is as close as you’ll get to the real games. Building teams there is a very simple process and you can easily match up against other competitive players to test out your teams before you go through the painstaking process of raising competitive Pokemon in the actual games.
Another great resource for aspiring competitive players is Smogon (https://www.smogon.com/), one of the largest competitive Pokemon communities on the web. Some of the latest discussion on competitive Pokemon and strategies can be found there. You can also find some sample builds for various Pokemon (although, at the time of this writing, guides for Gen VI Pokemon aren’t available outside of their Forums). There are also a number of helpful resources there for players looking to get into competitive battling.
I would also recommend keeping an eye on my HubPages site, as I will be regularly uploading more detailed guides talking about specific areas of competitive Pokemon, such as IV-breeding and efficient EV-training. I will also be posting some of my own teams and a look into how I construct my own teams and the strategies I use in battle. You’re also free to get in touch with me on there or leave a comment if you have any specific questions related to competitive battling you need answered.
Thanks for reading, and best of luck on your journey to becoming the very best (like no one ever was)!