By Aaron Zheng, contributing writer
With the release of Pokémon Scarlet and Pokémon Violet comes a new era of competitive play! In the past few weeks, Trainers have been working hard to identify the best Pokémon and strategies to use in upcoming events. The VGC 2023 season officially kicked off with the San Diego Regional Championships on January 7 and 8, so competitors have had to practice both diligently and quickly.
If you caught the action on Twitch.tv/Pokemon or if you’re wondering what Pokémon have been the first to step into the spotlight, look no further. We’ll take a glance at the overall state of competitive play in the early weeks of Pokémon Scarlet and Pokémon Violet, focusing on some key areas: Terastallization, common strategies, popular Pokémon, and the impact of open team lists on live events. You’ll be able to see the Pokémon discussed below in action yourself on Twitch.tv/Pokemon over the course of the season.
Tournaments currently use the Series 1 rule set, which allows all Pokémon in the Paldea Pokédex except for Paradox and Legendary Pokémon.
Let’s get started!
Players have explored several different ways to utilize Terastallization in the early weeks of competitive play in Pokémon Scarlet and Pokémon Violet. This new mechanic allows one Pokémon to change its type once during a battle. Unlike Dynamaxing in Pokémon Sword and Pokémon Shield, the effects of Terastallizing persist even if the Pokémon is switched out during battle.
Some Trainers prefer to Terastallize a Pokémon into a type it already has, allowing the Pokémon to deal even more damage with moves of that type. Some common examples include Fire–Tera Type Torkoal with Eruption, Ground–Tera Type Garchomp with Earthquake, Grass–Tera Type Meowscarada with Flower Trick, and Steel–Tera Type Gholdengo with Make It Rain. These Pokémon may not have much to surprise their opponents with, but their damage output can be overwhelming.
Terastallizing defensively to remove certain weaknesses is also common. Some popular picks include Water–Tera Type Amoonguss (removing its weakness to Fire), Steel–Tera Type Hydreigon (removing its weaknesses to Fairy and Dragon), and Ghost–Tera Type Garganacl (removing its weakness to Fighting). This use of Terastallization tends to generate less power but can put the opponent in a tough spot when their usual strategy against a Pokémon no longer works.
Another key element of Terastallization is a new move: Tera Blast. Tera Blast is a Normal-type move under usual circumstances, but it becomes the same type as a Pokémon’s Tera Type after that Pokémon Terastallizes. This allows Pokémon to attack using types that they normally would not have access to. Early format Tera Blast users include Flying–Tera Type Tyranitar (to counter Fighting-type Pokémon like Annihilape), Poison–Tera Type Hydreigon (to counter Fairy-type Pokémon like Sylveon), and Fire–Tera Type Sylveon (to counter Steel-type Pokémon like Gholdengo).
Finally, we’ve also seen Trainers use Terastallization for very specific interactions. For example, Ghost–Tera Type Murkrow gains immunity to the Normal-type move Fake Out, preventing a guaranteed flinch that would stop Murkrow from using a move like Tailwind immediately. The Grass Tera Type is seen on Pokémon like Armarouge and supportive Maushold, giving them an immunity to powder moves, such as Amoonguss’s Spore. Fire–Tera Type Annihilape is used to not only get rid of its weakness to Fairy-type attacks but also protect it from being burned.
I’m incredibly excited to see how the use of Terastallization evolves throughout Pokémon Scarlet and Pokémon Violet, as we’ve only just begun to scratch the surface. There are so many things Trainers have to consider related to this new mechanic, such as figuring out the optimal Tera Type for each Pokémon on their team, identifying when in the battle they want to Terastallize a Pokémon, deciding whether or not they should commit a move slot to Tera Blast, and determining whether an unusual Tera Type on a Pokémon might counter the most popular strategies and teams.
Let’s now shift our focus to common strategies that Trainers have been using in competitive play these past few weeks!
The First Popular Strategies in 2023 VGC
One of the most powerful early strategies in Pokémon Scarlet and Pokémon Violet is the newly introduced duo of Dondozo and Tatsugiri. Tatsugiri’s signature Ability, Commander, activates when the two Pokémon are on the field at the same time, raising each of Dondozo’s stats by two stages and preventing Tatsugiri from being damaged by attacks. This combination turns Dondozo into a massive offensive threat that is also incredibly difficult to KO, further exacerbated by Dondozo’s Unaware Ability, allowing it to ignore opponents’ stat increases.
Dondozo will often carry some combination of offensive attacks—such as Earthquake, Order Up, and Wave Crash—alongside defensive moves, such as Protect, Rest (plus Sleep Talk), and Substitute. Order Up makes Dondozo even more difficult to beat, as Dondozo can continue to increase one of its stats depending on Tatsugiri’s form. Dondozo can also utilize a wide variety of Tera Types, including Grass, Ground, Dragon, and Steel.
This combination has heavily influenced the early format, and players have worked hard to find counters for it. Some examples include Murkrow and Gengar, both of which get access to Haze; Lycanroc with Endeavor; Skeledirge with a Tera Type of Fairy (for immunity to Dondozo’s Order Up) and the Unaware Ability, which allows Skeledirge to match Dondozo in ignoring stat boosts; Annihilape with a Choice Scarf and the move Final Gambit; and Pokémon that can decrease Dondozo’s Attack through Intimidate or Will-O-Wisp. Dondozo and Tatsugiri will likely continue to impact the early format in Pokémon Scarlet and Pokémon Violet, so expect high-level teams to have specific counters to them.
Moving on to more-general strategies, many of the top teams currently utilize traditional speed control through Tailwind or Trick Room—and sometimes both! With so many powerful attacks and Pokémon in the format, it is very valuable to move before your opponent. Common Tailwind users include Murkrow, Hydreigon, Talonflame, and Kilowattrel, while common Trick Room users include Gothitelle, Oranguru, Farigiraf, and Armarouge.
We’ve also seen plenty of Pokémon that boost their stats to deal more damage. In addition to the aforementioned Dondozo, other common examples include Gyarados with Dragon Dance, Garchomp with Swords Dance, Sylveon holding a Throat Spray, Garganacl with Iron Defense (combined with the move Body Press), Annihilape with Bulk Up, Armarouge holding a Weakness Policy, Ceruledge with Bulk Up, and Gholdengo with Nasty Plot.
Overall, many early strategies are very proactively offensive—they use some of the strongest Pokémon and attackers in the game and force the opponent to respond to their damage output. This is a similar trend to some of the best early teams in the Pokémon Sword and Pokémon Shield era, which promoted incredibly powerful attackers—such as Gigantamax Charizard and Dynamax Durant—to quickly pick up KOs. I expect many Trainers to continue to find ways to be as proactive as possible with their teams.
Paldea Pokémon Making Waves in VGC 2023
Over one hundred Pokémon have been discovered in the Paldea region of Pokémon Scarlet and Pokémon Violet, and many have already demonstrated their potential in the opening weeks of competitive play. Here are some of the strongest new Pokémon that Trainers are putting into action right now.
Gholdengo has massive offensive capabilities that make it one of the best attackers in the game. It is primarily used for its signature attack: Make It Rain, a special Steel-type attack that hits both opposing Pokémon for heavy damage. Gholdengo typically has some way to increase its damage output, which can be done through items—such as Choice Specs or a Life Orb—or the move Nasty Plot.
Annihilape has been an early dominant force and is a substantial upgrade compared to Primeape, the Pokémon it evolves from. Some players have given their Annihilape Final Gambit and a Choice Scarf, allowing the Pokémon to pick up a quick (though costly) KO before the opposing side can even move. Other players have opted for bulkier sets, focusing on using Bulk Up to boost Annihilape’s stats. Annihilape’s signature attack, Rage Fist, deals more damage each time Annihilape is hit with an attack, making it a potent threat!
In addition to having incredible offensive coverage, Armarouge is one of the best Trick Room users introduced in Pokémon Scarlet and Pokémon Violet. It gets access to a signature move too: Armor Cannon, a Fire-type attack that deals massive amounts of damage. It is also the only Pokémon that currently has access to Expanding Force, and as such, it is often paired with Indeedee, which can set up Psychic Terrain with its Ability. Finally, Armarouge has two great Abilities of its own in Flash Fire, which gives it immunity to Fire-type attacks, and Weak Armor, which boosts its Speed and decreases its Defense when it’s hit by a physical attack.
As one of the fastest Pokémon in the format, Meowscarada brings a ton of tactical value. It also gets access to a variety of excellent attacks, as well as the Protean Ability. Its signature attack, Flower Trick, always guarantees a critical hit, allowing Meowscarada to ignore things like Intimidate and Reflect. It also has access to the moves Knock Off, Play Rough, Sucker Punch, and U-Turn. While Meowscarada is mostly used offensively, some players will occasionally run Trick Room on it to catch opposing Trainers off guard!
Maushold is one of the most threatening Pokémon in the format thanks to the combination of its incredible base Speed, its access to the Technician Ability, and its signature attack, Population Bomb. Population Bomb can hit up to 10 times in a row, but each hit can miss—and the move ends as soon as one hit misses. To optimize the move’s accuracy, many players opt for the Wide Lens item to maximize their chances of landing all 10 hits of Population Bomb. Maushold can also be used supportively: it gets access to the Friend Guard Ability, and it has multiple excellent support moves, such as Encore, Follow Me, and Helping Hand.
Key Returning Pokémon in 2023 VGC
In addition to all the newly discovered Pokémon, many old favorites have established themselves as top picks in early competitive play. Let’s take a look at which familiar faces are dominating the format right now.
Murkrow has shot up in usage in Pokémon Scarlet and Pokémon Violet for a couple of reasons. It is the only Pokémon with access to the Prankster Ability and the move Tailwind, making it one of the best Tailwind users in the game. Murkrow can also learn Haze, which removes all stat changes, making it a powerful counter to setup strategies, such as those involving Dondozo and Tatsugiri.
Garchomp has been a staple in competitive Pokémon for many years, and it returns to Pokémon Scarlet and Pokémon Violet as one of the strongest offensive options thanks to its great base Attack and Speed. It mainly utilizes attacks—such as Dragon Claw, Earthquake, and Rock Slide—and also has the potential to boost its Attack stat through Swords Dance.
Hydreigon benefits greatly from Terastallizing, which allows it to remove its weaknesses to common types, such as Fighting, Dragon, and Fairy. Using a defensive Tera Type alongside Hydreigon’s Levitate Ability makes Hydreigon a potent offensive threat with few weaknesses. It also can learn a wide variety of strong attacks, such as Dark Pulse, Draco Meteor, Earth Power, Flash Cannon, and Heat Wave, and it can even set up Tailwind.
The combination of Rage Powder and Spore makes Amoonguss one of the best supportive Pokémon in the format. Sleep is an incredibly powerful status condition in competitive Pokémon matches, so a single Spore from Amoonguss can drastically swing a battle. Amoonguss also appreciates Terastallization, which can allow it to surprise opponents and survive what would normally be a devastating supereffective attack.
Grimmsnarl was one of the most versatile support Pokémon in the Pokémon Sword and Pokémon Shield era and continues to be widely used. It now gets access to Parting Shot in Pokémon Scarlet and Pokémon Violet, making it even stronger. Grimmsnarl has an incredible variety of useful moves at its disposal, including Fake Out, Foul Play, Light Screen, Reflect, Scary Face, Spirit Break, Sucker Punch, Taunt, Thunder Wave, Trick, and that aforementioned Parting Shot.
Open Team Lists
One major rule change to pay attention to as we head into the 2023 season is the introduction of open team lists, which will be used for the entire season at live events. With this newly added rule, players will now have access to all Pokémon information provided on their opponent’s team list (Tera Types, held items, Abilities, and moves) except for the Pokémon’s stats. This has drastic implications for both teambuilding and battling.
First of all, the element of surprise will not be as valuable as it used to be, because your opponent will be aware of any uncommon moves, items, and Abilities you might be using. Second of all, Trainers will be able to make more-informed decisions when battling, as they’ll know exactly what options their opponent has available to them. One key skill that players will have to develop this year is how to absorb the information from open team lists in a short period of time without getting too overwhelmed. Finally, I think that open team lists may incentivize more aggressive and offensive teams.
Throughout competitive Pokémon history, we’ve seen several changes to the game that drastically impacted how players approached it—team preview being introduced and live tournaments switching from best-of-1 to best-of-3 are some prominent examples. Each change requires Trainers to adapt their approach to the game, so keep that in mind as you prepare for the 2023 season.
What to Expect This Season
Competitive play in Pokémon Scarlet and Pokémon Violet is evolving rapidly as we head into the 2023 VGC season. New strategies are being discovered all the time. For example, in just the past few weeks, we’ve seen high-level players utilize teams revolving around the new weather condition, snow, with the pairing of Abomasnow and Cetitan. We’ve also seen players try out strategies around some of the new moves, such as using Orthworm with Shed Tail or using Pawmot with Revival Blessing alongside the duo of Dondozo and Tatsugiri. We’ve even seen players explore unconventional ways to run popular Pokémon, such as by fielding an Annihilape holding the Weakness Policy item.
In addition, Terastallization is one of the most flexible mechanics in the history of competitive Pokémon, allowing for so many unique strategies. I expect Trainers to continue to discover new ways to use it, and I’m especially eager to see how they apply it to countering popular Pokémon and strategies.
For more Pokémon video game strategy and analysis, be sure to visit Pokemon.com/Strategy.