At first, second or even third glance, the competitive Pokémon scene can seem incredibly intimidating. The plethora of official and fan-made formats, the calculations, and sheer number of abilities, moves and ‘mons to learn about are honestly staggering. I came into it almost by accident, from a place where I would rather have nothing to do with the competitive side to investing a lot of time and energy into a rewarding experience with this hidden side of the game. If you are already considering engaging with higher-level play but can’t find your way in through the weeds, maybe I can offer you a path. A singular path.
When I began thinking competitively, it wasn’t with battling other players in mind. It might sound strange, but it was actually with the goal of beating the story of Pokémon Y. The A.I of the in-game trainers rarely gets to levels that would challenge a seasoned fan of the games, but like many players re-running entries in the series, I brought the challenge to rest on myself. I imposed rules about how I would play that would make it a different and more engaging experience. There are myriad ways to do this. Starting with the famed Nuzlocke, for instance, the fan community has come up with dozens of variations on this and other formulas easily available online if you’re curious.
This is something I’ve done since Sapphire – usually it means playing with a themed monotype team, whether that is Water, Flying, Dark. My path to a competitive mindset started small with this change, and in Y I started about as small as you can get: Bug Types.
Bug has always been considered one of the weakest types. Typically they have the lowest average stats of fully evolved Pokémon, very few useful moves, and a host of common weaknesses. It doesn’t help that their secondary typings often exacerbate existing weaknesses more than solving them – the common Bug/Flying actually worsens your overall defensives and results in even more Rock-type damage. Even fan favourite Scizor, with the excellent Bug/Steel typing, can’t escape an aversion to Fire–if anything, generation 6 made the type weaker by having the powerful new Fairy resist it. In-game they serve an important purpose in being early team members for fledgling trainers and showing off evolution at remarkably low levels compared to most others. They are also usually reserved for the early game Gym Leaders. What does that seem to say about their viability for an entire playthrough?
So this is where I began. It was a road I’d travelled plenty of times before in previous instalments, with other types. Bug was new and uncertain territory for me, and I knew it would be difficult. I would have to cover multiple weaknesses, often double weaknesses; I would have to try and cherry pick the few Bugs available that had higher stats as well as making the most of what the earlier game variants could offer.
In short, I realised that to beat even the main game I would have to squeeze every last drop of potential out of my Pokémon.
At this point, I dived into every resource available to me. The Smogon Dex, the bottom half of Bulbapedia pages for Pokémon that caught my attention, team builder programs, calculators and eventually battle simulators. I began to learn more and care more about team synergy. I built a core of powerful Pokémon who had the offensive coverage and more unique defensive types to pull me through against common threats, and researched strategies that would make the most of them. I learnt about the importance of support, and came to appreciate moves (and the Pokémon that could effectively deploy them) that I would have overlooked before. I began the daunting process of figuring out how to pass down egg moves. I EV trained my team specifically, something I had never done before), at first with Super Training and later with horde battles and guides. I was pretty happy with what I came up with, and my team did very well in the story. It was a lot of fun. I also came to realise what was still lacking, no matter what tweaks and substitutions I made, because of the limitations of Monotype play. I came to understand intimately all the pros and cons of my Bugs, what kind of opponents always gave them trouble, and by extension, how I could bring balance to the team if it wasn’t subject to my self-imposed play rules. In short, I began to think about my in-game team a lot like a competitive team, constantly considering what I needed to bring, what my opponents would bring, and how best to succeed in, if you like, the meta of the story.
Here’s an example of what I ended up with — even if you also tried out the Bug type for this challenge (which I’d highly recommend), you might end up with something quite different. I based my team on two Pokémon that I could maneuver into advantageous situations and sweep with. Volcarona:
Victory (Volcarona) (F) @ Sitrus Berry
Ability: Flame Body
EVs: 160 HP / 16 Def / 224 SpA / 108 Spe
IVs: 0 Atk
– Quiver Dance
– Fiery Dance
– Bug Buzz
– Giga Drain
Invincible (Heracross) (M) @ Heracronite
EVs: 252 Atk / 4 Def / 252 Spe
– Close Combat
– Bullet Seed
– Rock Blast
– Pin Missile
Volcarona’s item and EVs have gone through a number of changes along with the rest of the team, currently built with the intention of surviving even a super-effective special hit whilst boosting up with Quiver Dance. The powerful Hurricane is an option on the legendary (small ‘l’) moth, but she forces plenty of switches out to water types which a boosted Giga Drain regularly destroys. She is also incredibly versatile if I wanted to go a different way with the build. Both of these two have been mainstays since the early days of team conception and rarely steer me wrong if I’m on my game. The next most important thing — in fact possibly the most important thing, was supporting these two war-winners.
Through using Volcarona I discovered the importance of hazard removal, as Stealth Rocks are the bane of her sweeps. I tried a few ‘mons in the role including, for a long time, a 252 HP/252 SpD Forretress to use Rapid Spin and pivot Volc’ in with Volt Switch (why oh why can’t he learn U-turn?), but a recent favourite has been Armaldo, who has the same spinning capability and fair defenses whilst also bringing decent offensive presence and some handy options like Aqua Jet/Tail for those pesky Fire types. Since I realised how slow Mega Heracross was and setting up Trick Room for a Bug team is incredibly fiddly (trust me, I have tried), speed control was another thing I had to learn about and implement. Sticky Webs are readily available to Bug teams through members including Shuckle and Galvantula, who have both been great users of the hazard in otherwise opposite roles. I also discovered the Baton Pass strategy and set about making it a key part of my own through one of my all-time favourite Bugs, Scolipede:
Dauntless (Scolipede) @ Black Sludge
Ability: Speed Boost
EVs: 200 HP / 24 Atk / 44 SpD / 240 Spe
– Poison Jab
– Baton Pass
You can play around a lot with the EVs on this guy depending on how important his speed is before boosting (for setting up Substitutes, for instance), or if you would rather invest in his modest defences. The Baton Pass strategy is simple and can be very effective. If you manage to get a +2 or even 3 M-Heracross on the field (maybe snagging a Moxie boost before Mega Evolving if you are lucky) and Talonflame is nowhere in sight, you are laughing. Once you have more experience of competitive play yourself, you may find these basic strategies that seek to cover very targeted weaknesses lacking. What is important is understanding them and learning to use them together: the more you understand the more you can combine strategies with other elements and begin to shape your team to its fullest potential. To begin with I used these very mechanically — heck, to begin with my Pokémon did not have perfect IVs. Don’t worry about going from nought to the top of Battlespot or Showdown 1800s straight away. The most important thing you can do is start working through the options available to you in the best-sized chunks for you to manage. Soon enough you’ll realise if there is a gap in your knowledge or your play, and now that you know the basics you’ll be able to articulate to more experienced players what you’re doing, and they can help you as well. A sense of community happens when we feel able to enter into a dialogue with its members — don’t be afraid to take your time and do personal experiments until you can do so.
Once I found myself inside the competitive community, having moved from researching and formulating plans on my own to asking for advice from others, I didn’t want to leave. I wanted more. If the main body of the games were a log in the forest, I had lifted it up and found an entire hidden, teeming world underneath. I didn’t yet understand a lot of the exotic varieties of play I could see, but I wanted to, and I knew myself capable of doing so. By focusing on what I had found fun about the series and following that path with a singular mind to its conclusion, I had come by a roundabout but inevitable route into a deeper level of gameplay, and found another community in the process.
Perhaps this sounds banal to you: maybe you don’t like the idea of a monotype game, or you want to jump into battling others at a high-level right now, without all this faffing. This is a story about all it can be – how I ended up crossing the bristling threshold of the competitive scene. I believe that coming at it the way I did prepared me for all of the salient aspects of competitive play, including what play suits my style best and, most importantly, inspiring a desire and a willingness to experiment, to adapt, to even scrap everything and start again as I learnt what more was needed until I ended up with what works perfectly for me. There are many different avenues into the centre of this wonderful playground that might look like a fortress from outside. The one way through to the end of any of them, in my opinion, is to always retain that will to challenge yourself and experiment with how you love to play Pokémon. You’ll need a lot of love for it to weather the tests and occasional tedium of competitive battling and breeding. If you really want it though, you’ll be rewarded with even more to explore and enjoy.