How to Build a Competitive Rogue Deck

Introduction

One of the best indicators of mastery is that a person makes a difficult task look extremely simple. Think for a moment of Roger Federer, considered by many to be the greatest tennis player of all time. Jimmy Connors, a former world-class tennis player, said of Federer the following:

“In an era of specialists – you’re either a clay court specialist, a grass court specialist or a hard court specialist — or you’re Roger Federer.”

Even those of you who know nothing about tennis will appreciate the clip found here in which Federer makes an extremely difficult move look effortless. As is the case with this talented athlete, some people become experts within their field of interest, mastering popular techniques and becoming well-versed in the strategies required to win.

Picasso Self Portrait 1907

Others, however, take a different path. Consider Pablo Picasso, whose contribution to the art world in the form of cubism crossed the boundaries of what art was thought to be.

If you are a baseball fan, you might recognize this penchant to change the “name of the game” in the form of Billy Beane, the Oakland A’s general manager who introduced the baseball world to sabermetrics, the specialized analysis of baseball through objective evidence.

When breakthroughs like these are made in given fields of interest, a popular (but unfortunate) response is usually “Well, that makes sense.” Sometimes, the response is even more critical. Picasso was often ridiculed for producing work that critics felt could have been done by a child. For Beane, sports analysts were quick to judge when things did not work out as originally planned.

If you’re getting lost in the examples here, try not to. These same principles of mastery and of thinking “outside of the box” are evident in the Pokemon TCG as well. Some players, like Jason Klaczynski, often show up at tournaments with a flawless list for a known archetype and intend to not make a misplay all day long.

Others, like Ross Cawthon, push the limits of the game by choosing an “alternate path.” His 2nd place finish at Worlds in 2011 was met with one central question:

“What in the world is he playing?”

It is my aim with this article to give you the tools and resources necessary to have players ask the same of you. Given that I have had this experience first-hand (playing Steelix at 2010 Worlds), I will tell you first that creating a competitive rogue deck is not easy – it takes work. Take a look at Ross Cawthon’s “Truth” deck that placed 2nd at the World Championship in 2010:

“The Truth”

Pokémon – 27

3 Oddish UD

2 Gloom UD

2 Vileplume UD
3 Solosis BLW

2 Duosion BLW

2 Reuniclus BLW
2 Zekrom BLW
2 Phanpy HS

2 Donphan Prime
1 Chansey HS

1 Blissey Prime
1-1 Suicune & Entei Legend

2 Pichu HS

1 Cleffa HS

Trainers – 22

3 Pokemon Collector
4 Twins
4 Sage’s Training
1 Professor Oak’s New Theory
1 Copycat
2 Seeker

 

3 Pokemon Communication
3 Rare Candy

 

1 Tropical Beach

Energy – 11

4 Double Colorless
4 Rainbow
2 Fighting
1 Fire

Just looking at this list is enough to induce a headache. It features 27 Pokemon cards, which was largely unheard of at the time. Not only this, you can feel the importance of every single one of those cards. It’s a complicated mashup of Poke-Powers/Bodies and Abilities that resulted in the single word that Cawthon used to describe his deck: “invincible.”

Not every rogue deck will be this complicated, that’s for sure. But it’s worth noting because it shows that the “answer” to the format might indeed require a few headaches here and there.

Before you give up hope, however, know that this article will cover a number of things, including the following:

  • A working definition for “rogue decks”
  • General rules to remember when building a competitive rogue deck
  • The 4 steps for building a competitive rogue deck
  • A breakdown of how a rogue deck might currently be constructed given today’s format

Different Types of Rogues…

There are a few different connotations that people maintain when it comes to the idea of the “rogue” deck. While the specifics can be debated, I would like to introduce here a bit of categorization for rogue decks, as well as a working definition for what rogue decks actually are.

First off, a definition. Put simply, I feel that rogue decks are decks that have not been adopted by the “mainstream” competitive Pokemon TCG scene for one of three reasons:

1. The deck is being reserved for a more opportune time or tournament. Many players spend time before a big tournament putting together a deck they think will counter the metagame. Martin Moreno’s undefeated Nationals win in 2006 with Raichu/Exeggutor typifies this strategy.

More recently, Ross Cawthon claimed second at Worlds in 2011 with his “Truth” deck, a wild conglomeration of Pokemon that had many players scratching their heads.

Other examples include: Nidoqueen/Pidgeot at 2005 Worlds, Steelix/Blissey at 2010 Worlds, Vileplume/Scizor/Mismagius/Darkrai EX at 2012 Nationals

2. The deck is overlooked because of perceived “flaws” by a community of players. Many cards, combos, and deck ideas get tossed into the “theorymon dumpster” because a successful implementation of those ideas seems far away in the minds of players.

Fabien Garnier’s surprising 5th place finish at Worlds in 2009 with Gyarados is a testament to the fact that some of these ideas are indeed powerful, game-winning combos. With the Pokemon TCG set “Platinum” giving Gyarados what it needed to run properly, it would still be half a year before Garnier brought the deck to light.

Other examples include: Beedrill/Luxray at 2009 Worlds

3. The deck simply does not exist yet, mostly for the reason that the combo will not gain much traction in competitive play.

Here, let me give you a rogue deck: Samurott BLW 32/Blastoise BCR. Synergy? Yes. Competitive? Probably not. Let’s be fair here – there are many decks in the Pokemon TCG that can be built with synergy in mind, yet they never see play.

This is usually a side effect of more powerful cards and combos acquiring dominance over a format. Looking at the Samurott/Blastoise idea, most players would readily acknowledge that it falls pretty easily to decks based around speed.

Note: It’s easy for players to throw ideas into this category without giving a deck a fair shot; be careful that you don’t do this and run the risk of missing out on a decent tournament performance! The Gyarados deck at Worlds in 2009 and Magneboar’s win at Worlds in 2011 are both examples of decks that people had written off.

It’s important now to note the difference between a rogue deck and a tech. I’ve often heard players tell me about a tech or two they’ve put in their deck to help swing some key matchups and in doing so describe that they’re “going rogue.” Essentially, techs are used to counter a bad matchup while rogue decks are used to counter a format.

General Rules For “Going Rogue”

Having played the Pokemon TCG since 2005, I have seen many rogue decks come and go. Some have been effective and led to incredible performances at the highest level of play. Others seemed misguided and led instead to frustration and mediocre performances. I am proud to say that I’ve never played a rogue deck unless I knew it had a great chance for success.

For me, deckbuilding and playing are both done logically, as though I’m working on a great math equation. There are some rules that I stick to, and they’re the ones that I feel have led to the successes shared between my brother and I. Especially with rogue decks, it’s important to have a process and stick to that process, as it helps players from straying off the course of building effective decks.

In the past, I have even switched decks minutes before a major tournament because I couldn’t answer “yes” to the single-most important question a player could be asked:

“Will this deck give you the best chance possible to win the tournament?”

My general rules for “going rogue” are listed below:

1. Don’t play a rogue deck just for the sake of playing something different.

Nine games. That’s the number of games at Nationals that will determine whether or not you move on to the top cut. If you want to show off your decent rogue deck to the world, there’s always league or the free play area.

Nine games is not very many at all, so do yourself a favor and be honest with yourself. If you’re itching to play a rogue deck, there is a chance you’re being blinded by excitement. Take a deep breath, review your testing results, and make an informed (and logical) decision.

2. When trying to “break” the format, you have to break your preconceptions about decks.

Before I was a writer for SixPrizes, I wrote articles with the notion that I would start my own blog or website for Pokemon. This never came to fruition, but it left me with plenty of material to look over! One of those projects was a lengthy article about the various strategies found in the Pokemon TCG.

While every deck indeed has a strategy that it’s trying to accomplish, I realize now that a better way to think of decks is by recognizing their characteristics rather than strategy.

We can still recognize strategies that decks are trying to perform, but by looking at the tiny details of each deck we highlight both strengths and weaknesses relevant to our own deckbuilding process.

And when I say “characteristics,” I really mean just that: every little fact that you know about an archetype, from something as mundane as retreat costs to something as specific as the number of Rare Candy in a deck list. Later in the article, I’ll give you a good example of how this looks.

3. Don’t be afraid to disagree.

In “thinking outside of the box,” you might find a great deal of opposition to your ideas. Pay no mind to what others think, focus instead on results. At the beginning of the Fall Battle Roads for the 2012-2013 season, many players openly discussed how bad they thought Ho-Oh EX was. As the tournaments went on, however, Ho-Oh decks started showing up here and there.

By the end of that round of Battle Roads, Ho-Oh EX had become one of the more sought-after cards from the Dragons Exalted set. Someone apparently wasn’t afraid to disagree with the popular notion that Ho-Oh EX was a “bad card.”

4. With the Pokemon TCG, logic > emotion.

Aristotle, scholar of logic.

Whatever deck list you show up with on the day of the tournament, make sure it’s crafted with logic in mind rather than emotion. Logic tells you to mind your playtesting results, correctly assess the metagame, and make sure that every card in your list is serving the correct function.

Emotion, by contrast, tells you to go with a deck because you “really like it” or you “have a good feeling about it.” Emotion might also convince you that popular archetypes will not show up in a given tournament.

And finally, emotion might convince you to run cards in your deck list that have a far better alternative. I’ve seen players run absolutely horrible techs in their deck because, in the end, they just liked the card.

Remember, if you really want to display a gimmicky card – think Slowking Prime or Golurk DRX – there’s plenty of time for that in the free play area!


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