As the only player to win both the US Pokémon Video Game National Championships and the Pokémon World Championships, Toler Webb knows a lot about preparing for tournaments. This year, he hopes to defend his title in Columbus after becoming Masters Division National Champion in 2015. He knows it won't be easy, but it's obvious from his accomplishments that he has the talent—and mindset—to reach the top again. We talked with Toler about this past year as National Champion and what he expects to see at this year's Nationals.
Pokemon.com: Now that you've been a National Champion for a year, what is your perspective going into this Nationals?
Knowing that I won Nationals last year it's kind of more pressure this year in a way. Last year it was a bigger deal for me to do well at Nationals because I needed to have a really good performance to get my Worlds invite. This year I could theoretically have a more subpar performance and still get a Day 1 invite. The pressure comes from knowing the sort of preparation I did last year and knowing I don't want to “lose” to my past self. It's like a ghost trial in Mario Kart—you don't want to lose to the car that raced before you, right?
Pokemon.com: Everyone wants to beat you, but you also want to make sure that you can stay at that level.
Right. I think Nationals is different every year, and it's always a very new challenge. And facing that challenge and adapting to it is never the same year-by-year, so it's just varied enough not to feel repetitive.
Pokemon.com: Going back to your Worlds qualification, you haven't qualified this year yet but you're just shy of it.
I'm at 317 Championship Points, so I need 33 more. It's a little difficult [for me] to get [Championship Points] at smaller events right now.
Pokemon.com: So, to make Worlds, you don't have to win a National Championship this year, but you still have to finish pretty well. Does that change how you prepare your team—do you just make sure you have a stable, quality team with maybe a little less upside, or do you still try to put together a team that is a little more risky that could win the tournament?
A stable, quality team could still win a championship; there's been plenty of examples of that. Going into any tournament, the goal is always to win, and if you take it any other way, you're forfeiting some of your own gain, your own improvement from the tournament itself, not only your chances of winning. The competitive integrity of the game is really helped when people want to win, so I have to ward myself off from doing something I wouldn't normally do and make an unnecessarily safe choice. With that said, this is a risky metagame, there's a lot of really weird things that can catch you off-guard in a match. Because of that, it might be better in terms of winning the tournament to make a safer team choice. I'm not sure yet, I'm still deciding.
Pokemon.com: Speaking of being caught off-guard, are there any less common Pokémon that might show up in this field that Trainers should be concerned about?
In terms of less common Pokémon that scare me, Raichu scares me, Greninja scares me. I worry about uncommon combinations of restricted Pokémon. Bronzong is pretty common, but it scares me in the sense that likely the safest choice going into Nationals is Groudon-Xerneas. Given that Bronzong is really strong against Groudon-Xerneas, you have to take a little bit of a risk using that team and have some confidence in your own playstyle you might not otherwise have to have.
Pokemon.com: One Pokémon that's pretty good against Bronzong is one you recently used to win a Regional Championship in Weavile. We've saw a big spike in Weavile usage in May, where it seemed few players were using it early in the season, but it got very popular quickly. Do you have any thoughts on Weavile after winning a tournament with it?
Weavile was very specific to the timeframe of May. In that timeframe, we saw a huge spike in Double Primal [teams using both Primal Groudon and Primal Kyogre] usage. And observing that, it might not look like Weavile beats Double Primal, but Weavile beats or helps against everything else Double Primal plays: Bronzong, Cresselia, Salamence, Thundurus, [and] Amoonguss. Anything on Double Primal that isn't the actual Primal Pokémon, Weavile handles excellently. So I went into the Athens Regionals knowing that with Weavile, I would win against almost every Double Primal that I played against. I played against one Double Primal player who is pretty good in the semifinals. Nothing against the player, but it was a pretty easy match for me because Weavile helped so much in that matchup. But then I don't know how well it's going to do at Nationals, because people have realized that Groudon-Xerneas can find so many options to handle Double Primal that maybe Double Primal isn't the team to bring to Nationals.
Pokemon.com: It seems like going into Nationals, Double Primal and Groudon-Xerneas are the two big teams that Trainers are focusing their preparation on going into this tournament. It sounds like you think that maybe the Double Primal teams will be less popular choices at the National Championships than in other recent events. What are you expecting the field to look like in Columbus?
I might be absolutely wrong in this, but I think ultimately the best team in the format is Groudon-Xerneas, just because of the sheer offensive pressure it places on opponents. It can still play defensively in spite of that, so it has more variability and more of an ability to handle different team matchups than Double Primal might. But a really exquisitely played Double Primal, as per Chuppa Cross, as I've seen him play so far this season, could certainly have potential to win the tournament.
It really comes down to the skill of the player this time around. It's not so much the team composition—I could certainly see something like Groudon-Yveltal winning Nationals—but I think ultimately the team with the highest chances of winning is Groudon-Xerneas, or maybe something that I haven't seen yet.
Pokemon.com: You've been one of the players that gets people saying, “Wow, that's something I haven't seen before.” Do you think the current format makes it harder to bring something unexpected?
I think with any good Pokémon team, there should be something innovative on the team that makes it handle things in an unexpected away. Using that, you can sort of steal games, and that's where the consistency of a lot of top players comes from. You saw Wolfe Glick run Bronzong on a Groudon-Xerneas team at Athens Regionals, which was heretofore unheard of. But it worked really well, and consistently top players bring these different choices. Those choices that are different from the norm make the team better a lot of the time, and the ones that are really good options might win the tournament.
Teams that are kind of bog standard and boring without anything that could be considered slightly unusual probably won't do as well because it's so predictable for the other player and they've already normalized how to handle each of the options that team has.
Pokemon.com: As the reigning National Champion and a former World Champion in the Senior Division, you're sort of a trendsetter for other players. How does that change how you approach your team—does being an established player that other people have an eye on make it harder for you to be surprising when you come to events?
I think any player that does well at a tournament should be wary that other players know what they're using. In years past, players like Randy Kwa have brought teams that are roughly the same for the whole season with only slight variants and have still done well. I think the most surprising part of any top player's play is usually their play itself.
I'm a player who can't play the same team at two different tournaments and feel good about it, just because I get bored. You face the same 50/50 100 times, and it gets a little bit slow. Changing a basic structure drastically or even a little can make it different enough. I think the first thing is to make sure you're enjoying yourself when you're playing, and the analysis and learning that come with playing the game are kind of second to that.
Pokemon.com: It seems like many players are trying to gain an advantage by making those little structural changes instead of throwing big curveballs with their team choice this season. How does that change competition this year compared to previous seasons?
Those big curveballs are a big deal, but I think the last time we saw a really big curveball do well was 2014 Worlds, and some Regionals and Premier Challenges outside of that. Traditionally those teams that are distinctly similar to some sort of archetype but mold it in a new way have done well. The team I used at Nationals last year was essentially just the Japanese-led Mega Gardevoir-Amoonguss archetype, and then I just threw Rain onto it. It was a commonly used archetype that I just changed slightly, and people used a lot of things like that—little differences that they felt optimized their teams.
I don't know if curveballs are impossible to throw this year, but even more so than in previous years slight optimizations might be better this year. I will say that teams that we haven't seen before, like the Rayquaza-Groudon that Enosh Shachar used at the Massachusetts Regionals recently, could take huge strides in this metagame because there are whole parts of it that haven't been optimized. Playing games in this format is so difficult that it takes more time to develop those sorts of teams.
Pokemon.com: What are you doing right now to practice for Nationals? Are you playing Battle Spot, or is it important to play in competitions right now?
I like to play against other players a lot, so random matchups are good. I just graduated from high school, and I had my wisdom teeth removed recently, so I've been pretty lazy lately. [laughs]
I try to fit in as many games as possible, meaning not as many games as I can fit into my day, but as many games as I can while still feeling good about it and still actively critically analyzing what's happening in the game. So that's not as many games as it could be.
It's hard prior to a big tournament like this because you're trying to figure out what archetype or what strategy you want to bring. Because of that, you can't practice until you've figured out what exactly it is you want to use. I've been thinking about what strategy might best suit the tournament at hand, because I don't know yet. I don't think a lot of people know yet.
Pokemon.com: One of the quirks of US Nationals is that it's one of the last National Championships. We've gotten to see a variety of other National tournaments, including all three European Nationals, as well as tournaments in Taiwan and South Korea. Have you seen anything that was particularly interesting or that might have a big impact at US Nationals?
There are all kinds of things that are interesting to me. I know in friendly banter with people from the US I have practiced with we like to joke around about how, “Oh, this team shouldn't have won that Nationals,” but quietly we're all thinking, “How bizarre…” You think from a theory perspective that something shouldn't work, but you recognize that it very well could work differently than you think because you've played the game enough to know that you've lost to thousands of things you didn't think you could possibly lose to.
With that said, the Rayquaza-Xerneas team from Italian Nationals was interesting. We've observed that a lot in Europe, so I kind of wonder whether or not that would translate to success in the US. I played against several of them at Regionals and didn't really have trouble. That said, piloted by an exceptional player, any team is scary. It sort of depends. And exceptional players can come out of nowhere. That's the hardest part of it, that's what makes consistency difficult sometimes. You can get fooled by how good someone is sometimes, how well they're able to read your options and make the most optimal play on any given turn.
Pokemon.com: Thinking forward to Worlds, you'll actually have to play against those players head-to-head. Here you can observe them, adopt what they did into your game, but the European metagame isn't as prominent at US Nationals as it'll be at Worlds. Do you pay more attention to the European game and other regions before heading into Worlds?
You have to be a student of the game, especially going to Worlds. You have to be willing to study a little bit—or a lot bit—to figure out what you're likely to see. Before 2012 Worlds, I was observing a lot of European players who were playing Rain. That's why I brought Ludicolo to take down these Rain teams. It's important to study and understand what other people are using, because if you know what everyone else is using, you can bring a team that has a good matchup against most or all of those things. While you can't predict a tournament schedule, you can predict somewhat a composition you might expect. And to practice against those types of teams so you know the matchups.
Pokemon.com: There are some people you're a little more familiar with domestically here at the US National Championships. Are there any players in particular you think will be top contenders?
The default answer is Wolfe Glick; the other default answer is Aaron Zheng. Both are very different players. Aaron is really consistent in how he plays the game, and Wolfe is consistent, too, but he plays the game so much differently than Aaron does. Fewer just solid plays and more, “How could I have not seen that coming?”
Aside from those two, Chuppa Cross has been incredible this season, and I'm really looking forward to seeing what he does at Nationals. So many of the plays he's made have been just genius. I was just watching some of the stream he was on, and I was super impressed by what he was doing and couldn't help but be happy watching him.
Everyone in the top-16 of Championship Points right now is really good. I'm really excited because Kamaal Harris is in the top-16 right now. He hasn't been super high performing for years, but he's kind of a veteran player that stands out to me.
I team-build and work with Enosh Shachar, and he's finally looking at Nationals as a tournament that he wants to win. So maybe he'll finally put his nose to the grindstone and put up a performance he can be proud of.
Thanks to Toler for his insight into the skills and mental preparation necessary for the biggest Pokémon events, and for his take on the current Pokémon video game landscape. Good luck to Toler and to everyone competing at the 2016 Pokémon Video Game National Championships.
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