Ask The Experts: Jan Michelberger On Playing In Different Formats

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Ask The Experts is a new column where we interview respectable players and try to get their opinions on the basics of competitive Pokemon. Read on to hear their insight! 

This time, we’re talking to Jan Michelberger, known in his home Germany as Lati. Jan placed 8th in Germany’s National Championships this year, and finished 25th in the World Championships. Today, Jan will be talking with us about his experience playing in different formats! 

Chalkey Horenstein: You’ve played in many different formats. You’ve played in Team Magma practice tournaments, NB circuits, Nationals in your home country Germany, and now at the Worlds level. If you had to describe the differences in different culture’s playstyles, how would you compare these different formats?

Jan Michelberger: This is quite a tough question since the definition of “playstyle” is not that clear (for me, at least). I guess the closest thing that could describe it is the combination of how the person plays in the battle and their teambuilding: I’d say there’s no real general line in terms of how the people play since that is different for any person. I guess the main difference between countries or closed groups like Team Magma are preferences in teambuilding: There always is a certain range of Pokemon that are considered “standard” that is about equal in every part of the World but there’s always small or, in case of differences in countries somewhat big differences: for example, Japan Nationals featured Mega-Tyranitar as the second most common Mega Pokemon whereas the west seemed to use more far more Mega-Venusaur than the Japanese while hardly using Mega-Tyranitar at all. These differences most likely come from certain team archetypes that left a mark on these respective due to their proven success, which was made public through reports or blog posts: The latter is especially common in Japan and much more established than in the Western part of the World which would result in trends unique to Japan since these are the only people being able to read the sources/who care about certain exclusive or grassroots tournaments that might not even be known around here more than we do. The second point also explains some smaller things like what we came to call the “Magma meta” last year and the year before, with some of the better players of Team Magma setting trends with Pokemon that kept doing well at our tournaments, thus resulting in a short trend. (Mesprit and Swampert anybody?)

Describing the difference between the metagame on, say, PokemonShowdown and the Worlds metagame is a bit more abstract and always depending on the players who attend because it is basically combining the preferences of the “established players” with a bit of your own opinion about certain Pokemon mixed in:  of course you still need to be able to win against the most common Pokemon because most of them are common for a reason but there are Pokemon in every year that for some reason are decently common but a lot of better players think are kinda bad. A good example would be offensive Rotom-Wash or Gastrodon last year; both have offensive coverage that is walled by so many Pokemon and doesn’t really help all that much against the supposed reason that made it popular (the “rain counter”) since both don’t really appreciate Kingdra’s Draco Meteor and, in Gastrodon’s case where its main selling point against rain is supposed to be Storm Drain, doesn’t even protect the partner from Rain-boosted Muddy Water while doing mostly negligible damage in return.

The most noteable example is probably Arash’s Worlds team from last year: He has a really tough matchup against Rotom-W but he didn’t expect anyone to run it at that high of a metagame, and judging from his result and the amount of Rotom-W he faced, this call worked for him. This is where the player’s taste comes in since these views are obviously subjective and depending on experiences the players made with the respective Pokemon. Making guesses about the general consensus regarding some Pokemon or even making some of those calls in both direction on your own (the other direction being trying to predict what will be used more by better players) can be a bit of a gamble but it is in my opinion a very important part of the teambuilding process for Worlds.

Another big thing is practicing against other people and knowing that this team will be their “Worlds team”: If your current team struggles against a certain Pokemon that you’ve seen in a few Worlds teams or have an almost unwinnable matchup against a confirmed Worlds team, you are more inclined to make changes to fix that since the pool of players at Worlds is noticeably smaller than at a National level where the likelihood of playing each other would be much lower.

It was that way for me, at least, but don´t expect this to be the same for everyone. I know a good bunch of people who dismiss this kind of thinking as gambling and just try to build something solid that can fares well against the entire metagame so I guess the teambuilding process for an event like this is really dependent on the player: The only consensus there is is that you should have a good matchup against the common trends from the strongest VGC countries.

CH: What aspects of a player’s skill, such as predictions or counterteaming, change when you’re playing with a different crowd? Have you ever had to make really harsh adjustments?

JM: Since I haven’t really asked many other people about this, I can only offer my own experiences here. I can say for myself that I sometimes play differently on the ladder or in Nationals Swiss than when I know I’m up against “known players”; on the ladder, I generally try to go for the safest play possible, find a way to wrap up the game and go for that. If I´m up against someone I know who is good, I sometimes try to make plays that are somewhat risky but in turn can help me achieve victory a lot quicker. The safest play is very predictable (of course, there´s no reason to try to be fancy and predict if the opponent can’t do anything noteworthy against the safest play since anything else would just be a subpar play then) and as soon as the opponent starts predicting you to do the safest play and you do it all the time, you can fall behind very quickly.

Because of this, it is important to show a bit of variety in your way of playing while also keeping in mind to stay away from risks just for the sake of risking something (there’s no reason to stay in with your Ferrothorn against a Rotom-Heat, for example, if all you need to do to win is taking out Rotom-H to win with Ferrothorn and since your opponent knows that, there´s no reason to potentially sack your win condition just for the sake of “making a prediction” because the threat of Overheat is pretty big). The other person will most likely catch on and start giving you a hard time.  In turn, you can (and should) start adjusting to the way your opponent plays and act accordingly.

I touched the teambuilding aspect quite a bit in the first question so I don’t think I need to go into detail about it any further. Counterteaming can only become an issue if the tournament you’re playing in doesn’t enforce carrying one team until the very end and the other person has used a single team for the entire season or for a very long time: I haven’t quite followed the NPA in the last year other than which teams won but I can imagine this being a pretty big thing there, not only because it is easier for an organized group to scout than for a single person alone. The fact that you can artificially set up an almost unwinnable matchup and thus a 95% safe win for the team in one game is very big – and seeing as I was picked this season, I want to make sure to at least have 3 different teams I could fall back on. You could say that because I’m not the only one who thinks this way, counterteaming is probably a non-issue, but the risk is always there and it’s never a good idea to expose yourself to it.

What I could imagine being the more popular theme is “counter-styling,” meaning paying special attention to setting up a good matchup against the opposing player’s preferences: If, for example, Player A is known to counter Mega-Kangaskhan pretty hard, it would be in Player B’s best interest to not bring a team around it against him/her while paying more attention to have a good matchup against his/her preferred means around Kangaskhan. This way, you have an advantage over the other player while not taking the risk of losing because the opponent didn’t bring the team you wanted to counter.

CH: What is something you would go back and tell yourself if you could, regarding the difference between playing at Nationals and playing at Worlds?

JM: If you play at Nats, the pressure is on basically for the entire tournament: You play with the goal of reaching Worlds in mind and since up until Milan, tiebreakers were a very big problem you had to hope to not only be matched up against decent players but were also pressured more if you lost the first round or heard that most of your opponents are doing pretty poorly. Both scenarios basically force you to go X-1 and playing under these circumstances is never fun.  Also, the pressure during the match is bigger because you want to get as far as possible to get as many prizes as possible and every potential loss could spell the end, especially in Top Cut. You’d think that this gets better the closer you get to the paid trips but it only gets worse. Add the fact that luck is omnipresent in Pokemon to the mix, the fact that it is impossible to have a good matchup against every possible combination of Pokemon, items and moves and that gimmicks relying on surprise could easily screw you over in a Best-of-1 environment such as Day 1 of Nationals, you are on edge until you either reach your goal or you´re eliminated. This is the main reason why I (and a lot of other people) hate playing at Nationals.

Worlds was an entirely different story actually. Best-of-3 meant you were pretty much gimmick-proof which means it would be unlikely to run into sets that only work in a Best-of-1 environment. You also are not as fixated on the prizes as you would usually be: Sure, winning a free trip, a stipend or getting an invite for next year – nobody would mind that. But I for myself was not as fixated on the prizes as I was on Nationals. I mean, you reached your goal, so you might as well enjoy it, right?

Because of this, the general atmosphere between and during Swiss is just more relaxed than usual. Something that made actually playing Pokemon a lot more fun and you occasionally even have a little chat during or after the match.

The biggest difference for me was the generally higher average skill, though: In my opinion, Pokemon is the most fun when you know you are up against someone good. There;s no real gain for both parties when one is just dominating the other; I mean, if I want easy wins I could just as well stick to playing in-game, right? Playing people who are just as good or preferably better than me on the other hand usually is a nice learning experience while also providing me with the challenge I look for when I want to play this game. Worlds basically guarantees you that in almost every round; pretty much every game I had ended up being very close and the losses I had usually were valuable learning experiences. As a result, I was at the edge of my seat for the most part of the tournament but more in a positive sense.

All of these factors combined create a relaxed, yet challenging playing atmosphere that I really liked. I rarely enjoyed playing this game as much as I did at Worlds and the whole experience has motivated me to try even harder to achieve it again next year. So, to answer the actual question: I´d say to myself to look forward to playing at Worlds since it is not as horrible as playing at Nationals and that there is no reason to be nervous.

Oh, and that it can’t hurt to play a little risky from time to time.

CH: From a cultural perspective – not a competitive one – what are the differences that come to mind when playing different countries?

JM: I probably failed pretty hard in this segment because I greeted even Japanese people in the most Western manner possible. Usually I would say that you should keep cultural differences in mind and try to adjust to them (for example, not offering a handshake when you introduce yourself to a Japanese: I never stopped falling into that trap, though). But as long as you don’t overdo it and are a nice person in or general, I bet you can be forgiven.

Something important to keep in mind, though, are language barriers: Not everyone can speak English and you don’t know at what conclusion the other person might arrive about the meaning of your sentence if they either don’t have the lingual knowledge or the context is too ambiguous to arrive at only one possible conclusion. Because of that, it’s important to keep the message as simple as possible. God knows I failed with that, too, since I like to use big words and sometimes can’t think of good alternatives so I feel like I’ve been misunderstood quite a lot at the beginning of the tournament. Well, I got three Japanese players in total, though, so after somewhat of a failure at the first one, I finally knew how to go about it. I found out that simple words and using your hands to convey what you mean can help a lot here.

I initially thought that cheering a little after getting advantageous luck would be considered rude by most people (with the people from Asia in particular) so I probably was a little too apologetic when it happened even though I was happy about it on the inside since. The opposite was the case, though: The people I got didn’t mind it at all and were even very enthusiastic when they won a speed tie or got a helping flinch, miss or paralysis. On the long run, it was probably better that they were open since I could drop my façade after the first two rounds, too, then and start being more like my usual self.

At the end of the day, I can´t really say much here other than to just be yourself since there is no use in overthinking things like that as you could see from what I told. If you see that the opponent is visibly pissed about everything, though, it might be in your best interest to tone it down but you shouldn´t need me to tell you that to figure that one out, right?

CH: Unrelated question: After what is the most hilariously unexpected loss you’ve ever experienced?

I lost to so many bad things already that it’s hard to keep track. Probably one of the reasons why I don’t think I’m that great of a player. However, there´s one that sticks out: The most hilarious loss I ever had was against a guy called “F_road” on the PO ladder a year ago, though. I still remember it vividly.

I based one of my later troll teams on his idea.  I think there’s even a video of it on Nuggetbridge´s YouTube channel so if you want to see something similar in action, there you go.

F_road ran Ninetales/Audino/Muk/Staraptor/Muk/Espeon and led Audino/Staraptor. I’m not really sure what team I used but I recall that it didn’t really matter since I couldn’t do anything from Turn 1 onwards. He led Audino/Staraptor and Final Gambited one of my leads (probably the one Pokemon that was supposed to stop Trick Room since I knew that Audino gets it) and got up his Trick Room with Audino without much trouble. Then, he sent in Muk and proceeded to Simple Beam it, which in turn started racking up boosts with Stockpile and Minimize while the Audino kept on Heal Pulsing Muk. The game was pretty much over at that point since you can’t timerstall on the PO ladder like you could in actual VGC games on the cartridge, but I played on regardless, hoping for a lucky crit that could ruin his setup: Audino was gone after Turn 4 which he proceeded to replace with Espeon. If I didn’t think it was over after he Protected Espeon to stall out Trick Room, it sure was in the next round where he revealed. Psych Up. This means that he could copy his +6 Evasion, Defense and Special Defense to his Espeon so now I had to stare down not only one but two almost unbeatable Pokemon while I kept trying to fish for crits but not even hitting a single attack.

The game should be over soon, though, since his Espeon revealed Stored Power which gets stronger the more boosts you accumulate. Needless to say that my three remaining Pokemon dropped after 3 turns. I got wrecked, but I can’t say I didn’t enjoy the battle. His team was hilariously creative and I credited him for that.

CH: Anything else you’d like to add?

JM: At the end of the day, Pokemon is just a game: It shouldn’t take first priority in anybody’s life. Yeah, it can be pretty fun (and is, for the most part) but if I had to choose between a nice night out with friends or an evening with a cute girl and the alternative is sitting at home with my laptop playing Showdown, you can bet that I would drop the laptop immediately.

Life has so much more to offer than Pokemon. It would be a shame to limit yourself just for the reason of playing a game that would probably keep pairing you up with people spamming Rock Slide, T-Wave and/or Swagger as punishment for your poor decision. Same goes with family and work: They should always come first since the former has been there for you your entire life and the latter, if you’re a younger player, pays the bills. Of course we all have different definitions of happiness, but choosing a game like Pokemon that sometimes just loves to make you feel miserable over people who will, in most cases, make you happier on the long run and might teach you valuable lessons in life never sounds like a good idea in my book.

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About Author

Chalkey Horenstein is the Editor of Team Magma. In his spare time, he also writes for Retroware TV. When not playing pokemon, he works for a homeless shelter in Boston, and enjoys traveling, running, and eating as much food as possible.