Despite attracting controversy ahead of release, Pokémon Sword and Shield have, minus some quibbles, been a resounding success – becoming the fastest-selling Nintendo Switch game ever in its first week of release.
The legacy and staying power of Sword & Shield, however, will likely be determined on the competitive scene next year. It promises to be the biggest year for competitive Pokémon yet, which will climax with the 2020 Pokémon World Championships in London.
Despite the inevitable influx of new players, the arrival of a new generation of Pokémon poses new mechanics, new rules and a new evolving meta to contend with for veterans.
But are all the changes for the better? We asked Pokémon pro players James “Jamesspeed1” Baek, Aaron “Cybertron" Zheng and Paul “ralfdude90” Ruiz about the major shake-ups, concerns and hopes for the competitive scene in 2020.
The format rules for competitive Pokémon Sword & Shield, effective from 4 January 2020, were released earlier this month. While they largely follow previous rules, like only double battles and the exclusion of mythical Pokémon, notable additions like Dynamax and Gigantamax have split the community.
The rules allow for Dynamaxing and permit certain monsters to Gigantamax; an even stronger version of Dynamax which only applies to certain Pokémon and boosts stats over three turns. Only ten Pokemon from a specific list are permitted for tournaments, although this will expand as certain Gigantamax Pokémon become more common in-game.
Cybertron: “For the most part, the ruleset is pretty close to what I was expecting. I like it because I think G-max is a cool feature of the game and most of the Pokemon with G-max attacks don’t look overly strong.
“There are worries about a few G-max Pokemon being a bit broken but players doing tests are finding side effects from some really strong moves, like Snorlax’s or Grimmsnarl’s G-max attack, isn’t actually guaranteed. It’s by random chance.
"I think that will make people feel better about some of the potentially stronger G-max attacks.”
Gigantamax Charizard is allowed in tournaments (Picture: Nintendo)
The reintroduction of a battle timer, which wasn’t featured in the 2017, 2018 or 2019 season, has also proved a sticking point. The cap is at 15 minutes of “game time” for each battle, while players are entitled to seven minutes of “your time” to plan strategies.
Extended animations for Dynamax transformations and moves however could prove time-consuming in battle – sparking concern it could be exploited by players to run down the clock.
Ralfdude90:“The battle timer should be 20 minutes at the very minimum if they want to keep it, or even considering reducing “your time” a bit to make a real impact in a match. Why? Because the battle timer being that low, factoring in animations, means its easily abusable.
“The most intense battles I’ve had in my life were around 20-25 turns with a lot of turn-by-turn analysis and positioning for each side. I cannot stop thinking those amazing battles would never happen with this new timer.”
The inclusion of Dynamax, which unlike Gigantamax applies to every Pokémon, is arguably the biggest game-changer.
While it opens strategies in choosing when to deploy it for maximum effect across three turns, there’s early uncertainty around exactly how much Dynamax boosts stats and whether it could be exploited.
Jamesspeed1: “Dynamax is something I’m a little concerned about as I think it will be really strong early on, especially since we don’t truly understand everything about it and when is effective to use it.
“There’s so many options and team possibilities you can do with Dynamax, however I’m not too sure how we’re going to see this later in the game. Right now, at the beginning, it’s going to be really strong, overwhelming and pretty hectic.”
Dynamax fights could change the competitive scene drastically (Picture: Nintendo)
The ability to drastically increase stats through unique evolutions isn’t a new concept for Pokémon. Mega Evolutions in past games were a controversial inclusion in competitive circles, which saw certain Pokémon temporarily transform to a superior form.
While similar in theory, the differences in Dynamaxing have made some players more positive about the options and exciting flexibility it affords.
Cybertron:“Dynamax feels like a mechanic designed for doubles matches; the fact you can increase your stats as well as your partner’s stats is really cool for a bunch of attacks.
“The fact any Pokémon can Dynamax makes team building really interesting. In previous formats we had Mega Evolutions or Z-Crystals, where you could only really have one or two on a team, now we have a concept where you can theoretically Dynamax any Pokémon at any given point.
“A lot of people see Pokémon as just doing heavy damage and trading blows left and right, but with Dynamax you can play it offensively for big knockouts, or defensively for raising your own stats or decreasing your opponent’s stats. I think the mark of a good team will be one that’s super flexible and can pull off Dynamaxing at any given point.”
As with any turn-based system, achieving the chance to strike first is key in turning the tide of battle. A subtle change in how speed stats operate in Sword & Shield has opened new strategies when it comes to landing the first attack in a turn.
Previously a move like Tailwind, which doubles the speed of the party for three turns, would apply the stat boost for the following turn after being used. In Sword & Shield, this has been changed so it’s calculated on the same turn – meaning you can speed boost your partner and dynamically affect the attack order on the fly.
Coupled with weather effects which affect stats too, this small adjustment to the speed mechanics opens up a wealth of new strategies in combining attacks, abilities and stat boosts within a single turn.
Cybertron: “For example, you can now use the Prankster ability and Thunder Wave with Grimmsnarl to immediately slow down your opponent’s Pokémon and get a big attack against it. That’s a big change.”
Weaker berries and abilities
Berries were previously key in competitive Pokémon, with many players regularly using specific types which heal 50% health when a Pokémon falls below 25% health (or 50% if they have the Gluttony ability). The impact of these berries has been reduced to 33% in Sword & Shield, making them less vital in matches.
Some abilities, triggered upon entering a battle, have also had their effectiveness reduced. The impact of Intimidate, for example, has been negated by changed abilities like Inner Focus and Own Tempo, which now block it.
Jamesspeed1: “The move Fake Out too is kind of weaker because Dynamax Pokémon are immune to flinching, so that’s also going to be another mind game.”
Smaller pool of Pokémon
A new generation and a smaller amount of Pokemon too (Picture: Nintendo)
While developer Game Freak caused uproar by announcing Sword & Shield wouldn’t feature every Pokémon, the smaller monster pool has forced players to utilise Pokémon which previously weren't competitive favourites.
There are 400 Pokemon in Sword and Shield out of 800+ monsters in the complete Pokedex. Some players believe this could give the competitive scene the jolt it needs, after many old favourites failed to make the cut.
Cybertron: “It feels super balanced. Part of the problem with previous games is you’d have all these legendary Pokémon that were allowed and competitive play felt kind of stale, at least from the outside perspective, because you always saw those Pokémon.
“It’s not like we needed this cut in order to have the best competitive set of Pokémon because they could have easily created a banned list. But from my perspective, I was okay with it. I’m quite happy the Pokémon that made it through are pretty balanced overall.”
In many ways, Sword & Shield has streamlined the Pokémon experience. Tutorials are optional for expert players, levelling up is quicker through new items like EXP candy and there’s even a rental code feature where you can share and play with other people’s teams.
It’s an experience which is far more welcoming to new players than other recent games, which have generally applied more complex systems with each entry. The back to basics approach, coupled with the more streamlined path to assembling a formidable roster, means competitive Pokémon has never been so accessible.
Cybertron:“With every new Pokémon, it feels like there’s a new wave of players that really want to get into it but then after a month or two, they get discouraged because they see it as really time consuming and it takes a lot to get a team in-game.
“But because Sword & Shield has improved so many things now, I think 2020 might be the biggest year for competitive Pokémon yet.”
So is the future bright for competitive Pokemon?
Could 2020 be the year of competitive Pokemon? (Picture: Nintendo)
Ralfdude90: “Positive is the first word I think of when I talk about this year's season.
“It's not perfect by any means, specially the CP structure, but the new games are very well done in the competitive aspect so they will for sure have a big impact on newer players and the scene as a whole.
“I think 2020 could be a very important year for competitive Pokemon."
Jamesspeed1: “I think overall there are big concerns like Dynamax for the competitive part, but looking forward to VGC 2020, I think it’s a really exciting time and it could cause huge growth for the scene.”
Cybertron: "Less concern and more optimistic. There's so many people interested in it. This always happens [with new games] but with Sword & Shield this feels like a whole other level. This is a huge opportunity for our scene so I hope that it grows to its potential.
"I always felt like this is such a cool game, there’s so much behind it and people don’t know enough about it. Hopefully in the next couple months, the whole scene will lure people in, get more people playing and show them this is actually really cool and you should stick around.”