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This Pokémon shouldn’t even be alive — but it might be a new competitive threat

What hath science wrought? Destruction, maybe

A fossil Pokemon in Sword and Shield. Game Freak via Polygon

The first thing competitive Pokémon players try to do after a new game’s release is suss out the best new monsters. In some cases, it’s easy to see that a Pokémon is useful. In others, a creature dismissed for being an affront to nature in Pokémon Sword and Shield surprises players when they figure out it has one of the strongest attacks in franchise history.

This generation, that honor goes to Dracovish, one of Sword and Shield’s monstrous fossil Pokémon. Players can create it by jamming together the pieces of a fossilized fish and a fossilized drake, which are two things that aren’t supposed to go together. Right when the game came out, many mocked Dracovish and its fossil family for bodies that would make Frankenstein blush.

But after a week of celebrating Pokémon like Dragapault or Corviknight, players like 2016 Pokémon video game world champion Wolfe Glick started singing Dracovish’s praises. This is all thanks to Dracovish’s signature move, Fishious Rend, which doubles its already solid attack power if it moves before its target.

Glick has proven its raw power in multiple battle videos, knocking out Pokémon that resist its Water type attack or when the harsh sunlight weakens its strength. And while it hasn’t seen the same dominant usage on top teams as well-known all-stars like Excadrill and Tyranitar, it’s still ahead of most other new Pokémon.

However, talk of the destruction wrought by Galar’s greatest abomination belies much deeper discussions happening in the competitive community. There are other strong new Pokémon, new tools like Dynamaxing, and even huge changes to one of the franchise’s fundamental mechanics.

To get the scoop on all this and more, Polygon spoke with three competitive players with long histories of excellence in Pokémon’s official competitive format, the Video Game Championship, also known as the VGC: Kimo Nishimura, Tommy Cooleen and Ashton Cox.

Galar region staples

There are far more new Pokémon than just Dracovish. For instance, experts are all pointing toward Dragapult, a Dragon/Ghost-type monster which is seeing a lot of play in the early days of competitive. As the Galar region’s pseudo-legendary, it has a much higher stats than most other Pokémon, which helps it hit harder and faster.

It also has an excellent offensive-type combination in Dragon and Ghost, since both types are only weak against two other types each. One of Dragapault’s abilities, Clear Body, is also super useful since it stops its stats from being lowered by an opponent. Finally, it has a super diverse movepool that lets players run the Pokémon in many different ways.

That diversity is the reason Nishimura, Cooleen and Cox didn’t agree on the best way to use Dragapault. Nishimura and Cooleen both mentioned the strong physical attacking set, but acknowledge the potential of running status moves like Will-o-wisp, which inflicts burn and cuts physical damage dealt in half.

Meanwhile, Cox thinks the best plan is to double down on boosting the Pokémon’s already outrageous speed. While Dragapault is already the fastest Pokémon in the game, there are rare circumstances where they it can be outsped. Using certain items like Choice Scarf to avoid that risk may seem unnecessary to some, but Cox said he thinks it’s a valid idea.

Two Pokemon face off in the battlefield. Game Freak

Players are also undecided about Corviknight, which has an excellent Steel/Flying typing and a good ability in Mirror Armor, but poor stats to back them up. Fortunately, the Galar region doesn’t have access to many good Electric or Fire types, meaning this regional bird may yet be a major player in VGC 2020.

Otherwise, there are a few other faces to round out the Galar region, but none have emerged as clearly. Grimmsnarl has seen solid usage as the only Pokémon with the Prankster ability and decent offensive stats. That allows it to use support moves with priority and hit hard once that’s done. At the moment, the most popular set uses defense boosting moves like Light Screen and Reflect alongside Thunder Wave, which cuts speed stats in half.

Finally, there’s one monster that could have huge potential under the right circumstances: Grookey’s final evolution, Rillaboom. Following in the footsteps of Incineroar, this starter has access to the much-coveted combination of Fake Out, U-turn, and solid offensive stats. This combination was used constantly on Incineroar during the past few VGC seasons because of its excellent synergy.

Fake Out can guarantee its target will flinch (unless it is Dynamaxed or has a special ability), but only on the first turn a Pokémon is on a field. Meanwhile, U-Turn does damage and lets the Pokémon switch out mid turn, ideally after everyone else has already attacked. This positions that Pokémon so it can come back in and land another Fake Out, but it also helps switch in a new monster without taking any damage.

A gorilla Pokemon bangs on its drums. Game Freak

And while its ability to set Grassy Terrain once it hits the field isn’t quite as useful as Incineroar’s Intimidate, it can still be a useful tool for slower, bulky teams. The only problem is that it’s currently impossible to get a Rillaboom with Grassy Surge, which is the only ability that makes it truly viable — but there’s always a chance Game Freak might hold an event down the line that makes the build possible.

Maximum Pokémon power

While new Pokémon tend to capture hearts, new mechanics are what occupy most competitive players’ minds. In Sword and Shield, Dynamax has replaced Mega Evolution and Z-Moves, combining elements of both in a way that many have agreed is the best of both worlds.

Dynamax doubles a Pokémon’s health and turns their attacks into powerful Max Moves. Unlike Mega Evolution, any Pokémon can Dynamax, and unlike Z-Moves it doesn’t require an item. This makes it a very flexible too, but it comes at a cost. This mechanic only lasts three turns instead of the whole game, and doesn’t have quite as much power as Z-Moves.

Dynamaxing shifts the focus of competitive Pokémon’s new mechanic from raw power to board positioning for the first time in a few years. That means the game is now less about overpowering your opponent and more about making sure you have the right Pokémon in the right spot at the right time. Essentially it’s more like chess, with players trying to trap each other into disadvantageous situations.

“Megas and Z-moves were undoubtedly pure offensive buffs,” Nishimura said. “There were megas that were designed to be defensive, and they were never, ever as popular in any format, let alone VGC, when compared to the offensive ones.”

Two dynamax Pokemon face off in the battlefield. Game Freak

Now, when a Pokémon Dynamaxes, the HP boost almost ensures it can survive long enough to make use of a Max Move’s side effect. Each type has a single effect that either boosts a stat, lowers an opponent’s stat, sets weather or sets a terrain. At the same time, Cooleen said he is concerned this synergy could lead to snowballed victories by Dynamaxing the right Pokémon.

“Early in a format, I like to say that people are trying to hold their teams together with duct tape,” Cooleen said. “So with that in mind, a lot of times teams will run into a particular Pokémon that wants to Dyanamx and just won’t have an answer to it.”

At the moment, he sees Dynamaxing used in a one-dimensional way since players don’t fully understand the potential yet. For example, a popular Dynamax Pokémon is Braviary, which can use Max Moves that increase Speed and Attack — two valuable stats. With time, players will get a better understanding of what works best when it comes to Dynamaxing.

Finally, Dynamaxing has also drastically changed the way staple strategies work in VGC. For example, Fake Out was unquestionably one of the best moves in the game for its ability to guarantee a Pokémon flinches and wastes its turn. But now, once a Pokémon has Dynamaxed, it cannot be flinched.

As a result, players have been forced back to inflicting statuses like burn and paralysis to mitigate the threat of Max Moves. These had previously fallen off the face of the Earth in terms of usage thanks to the prevalence of Misty Terrain, which makes almost all Pokémon immune to status effects. But now that Tapu Fini, the primary Misty Terrain setter, is gone, these moves are back with a vengeance.

It’s also important to mention Gigantamax Pokémon, a similar mechanic exclusive to a handful of Pokémon that can only be found in the game’s new raids. The only difference is these Pokémon undergo visual changes similar to Mega Evolution and gain a unique G-Max Move, but that’s more significant than it sounds. While most of those unique moves aren’t very good, some come with effects that have many players concerned.

As it stands, only a handful of Gigantamax Pokémon are usable, and only Snorlax could present a serious problem for the health of the format. Its unique move, G-Max Replenish, does big damage and has a chance to restore the health restoring berry items Snorlax is infamous for holding in most battles. This makes the already bulky Pokémon even harder to deal with, especially if it has maximized its Attack with moves like Belly Drum first. Snorlax has been public enemy number one before, and there’s a chance its Gigantamax form could signal its return to prominence.

Gotta go fast

While giant Pokémon make for a much flashier headliner in a new Pokémon game, there’s actually a far more crucial change hiding underneath. Instead of the game setting each Pokémon’s turn order in stone after everyone locks their moves in, it can now change dynamically.

This allows players to use moves like Tailwind, which doubles a team’s Speed, to get immediate benefit and surprise opponents with a burst of offense. Abilities that give Pokémon speed boosts in certain weathers also take advantage of this, meaning players must pay much more respect to what their opponents can do on any given turn. Before, it took a turn for these effects to kick in, giving everyone time to prepare.

Cooleen called this the biggest change to competitive Pokémon since the series introduced the physical/special split for moves back in Diamond and Pearl.

Old Pokémon do learn new tricks

A trainer attempts to capture a dynamax Pokemon. Game Freak

Despite the handful of strong new Pokémon, Nishimura, Cooleen and Cox all said most of the game’s prominent threats are from older generations. Pokémon like Gyarados, Tyranitar, Rotom and Excadrill are longstanding favorites that have only gotten better in this new environment.

For some, that’s because the restricted Pokédex makes them the better options with competition gone, but others simply gained access to new moves. Gyarados, for example, now has access to Power Whip, a powerful Grass type attack that helps it hit the bulky water types that otherwise stand in its way. Meanwhile, Rotom now learns Helping Hand, a move that boosts the damage of its partner on the turn it uses the move. These utility moves open up new avenues for these old faces.

Other new Pokémon benefit massively from the Dynamax mechanic. Excadrill is the perfect example. As a Steel and Ground type, its two primary Max Moves raise either the team’s Defense of Special Defense, making it even harder to KO. In addition, by running a Rock attack, it can change the weather to Sand, triggering its Sand Rush ability and gaining a huge speed boost. Before, it needed a Pokémon like Tyranitar to set up that boost properly.

Assessing the VGC 2020 circuit

Leon, the Pokemon Sword and Shield champion, boasts. Game Freak

With Pokémon Sword and Shield, the barrier for entry for competitive play has never been lower. Players can now change a Pokémon’s nature with an item instead of having to breed for the right one, which streamlines the breeding process and can save players an hour or more per each team of six. Max Raid Battles have also breathed some much-needed excitement back into the community. As a result, Nishimura, Cooleen and Cox expect a huge boost in attendance similar to what VGC saw after the release of Pokémon X & Y.

The community has already capitalized on this by creating resources new players can use to get involved. Sites like Trainer Tower have created numerous databases that can help players understand competitive better, or even rent expertly constructed competitive teams. Meanwhile, the newly launched subreddit /r/VGC has given the community a new platform to congregate and discuss competitive Pokémon outside of Twitter, which is where most players have gathered over the past few years.

The first European regional takes place in Bochum, Germany on Jan 11-12, while the first US regional is in Dallas on Jan 18-19. Nishimura, Cooleen and Cox all expect massive turnout, and already have high expectations for certain players.

Nishimura thinks Glick will be interesting to watch, as he described the former champ’s teams as a good representation of how players should play Pokémon. But all three players think Nick “Nails” Navarre will be biggest threat once the season officially starts. Nails proved himself as one of the most competent and creative team builders back in 2017, when the previous Pokémon generation was new. Regardless of who comes out on top, it’s never been a more exciting time for competitive Pokémon.

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