Thursday, January 9, 2014

On the Subject of Luck

Today, we had a discussion on a German Pokemon board about how strongly luck affects the outcome of a game, generally. One guy said how he got haxxed on the WiFi ladder multiple times, and he basically just raged about the game and the great impact of luck.
Of course this topic has been dealt with multiple times in the past,  and people will have to deal with it lots of times in the future, but I wanted to share my basic thoughts and what I told him.
First of all, everybody has accepted that luck plays a factor in this game as early as he or she has started playing pokemon competitively, so there shouldn’t be any huge rage about this topic in the first place. However, the best players have learned to minimize the impacts of luck or to get the effects of luck in their favor, as can be easily seen by having a three-time world-champion in Ray Rizzo, something that couldn’t be achieved if Pokemon was just a luck-based game. This example has been overused though, and I really wanted to add some new content to it, so I thought about how to put it in simple words. I came up with one single goal that is of extreme importance: You need to outdamage your opponent.

This can be achieved by several ideas: Having attacks hit for super effective damage is generally a good way to ensure that your opponent’s Pokemon will take a lot from your attacks. While this seems to be trivial, it is always a good thing to keep in mind to have good coverage, as even the highest attack stat does not help when the base power of a move is very low.
Another concept is to outspeed your opponent. This helps to achieve the main goal- outdamaging them. Going first will have several advantages. For example, you cannot get flinched by Rock Slide or Waterfall, nor can a critical hit nullify your move for that turn. Even if you end up getting critted, you got your move off.

Being faster also puts pressure on the opponent if you are threatening with super effective attacks, as one wants to keep the opponent's damage to as little as possible. This will result in safety moves, like switching or protecting, that one can punish with the right prediction.
To come back to the initial topic, which was about the great number of crits the guy faced, it has to be noted that there might have been a different amount of attacking moves coming off. For example, if you switch a lot, this might also mean that your opponent will get off more attacking moves than you. However, a not very effective critical hit is generally inferior to a super effective hit.
Therefore, keep in mind that solely “outplaying” is not enough in Pokemon, as you need to “outdamage” your opponent in the first place. 10 turns in which you read what your opponent will do and switch cleverly may be inferior to one single turn in which heavy damage is dealt!
- Markus

On this subject in particular I also want to give my thoughts. Luck has always been extremely difficult to understand in Pokemon. Despite being extremely present, there is consistency among players in winning, as well as in losing. Certain players I have encountered simply build teams that always seem to lose to unprecedented amounts of “bad luck”, while other players never encounter nearly the same quantity or quality. As Markus already mentioned, I would like to elaborate on outspeeding and outdamaging opponents.
I have extensive practice playing with a team style known as “Perish Trap”, in which a Pokemon uses Perish Song while a partner with Shadow Tag is on the field, preventing the opposing team from subbing out of Perish Song until the counter hits 0. In theory, Perish Trap seems like the perfect strategy: it never has to worry about offensive pressure, it can kill any and every Pokemon or team with good playing, and it has multiple tricks up its sleeve that can catch opponents off guard. However, Perish Trap suffers from a fatal flaw. While extremely successful in theory, and mostly in practice, Perish Trap is an example of a team that is extremely weak to bad luck. Perish Trap never uses any moves offensively, and relies on clever prediction, switching, and team synergy to beat opponents. However, because a Perish Trap team rarely attacks, it is guaranteed to receive more attacks than it dishes out. It makes no sense for an opponent facing a Perish Trap team to do anything other than attack with their strongest Pokemon twice a turn, because if they do not they are guaranteed to lose. Because a Perish Trap team ensures that it will take much more hits than it deals out, it finds itself weakest to Critical Hits, crucial freezes, flinches, long sleeps, etc, all because in forming a team that has a rock solid defensive base, cracks appear in the areas that cannot be accounted for with playing.
Another experience I feel would be beneficial to the discussion is my result with the 2013 Worlds team I used last year. The team, consisting of Registeel/Magmar/Gliscor/Latios/Rotom-Wash/Hippowdon, was extremely defensive in every regard, and had a total of 12 EVs in Attack and Special Attack across the entire team. In theory, it was a team with no bad matchups. Extreme defensive stats and status accounted for every bulky offensive team’s threats, and with recovery and passive damage, it was a force to be reckoned with. However, I encountered the same issue that Perish Trap suffers from, though I was too stubborn to admit it at the time. Without any offensive presence on my team, my opponents were free to attack much more often than I would have liked because there was no serious threat of retaliation. In receiving many more attacks than I returned, my team found itself receiving more “bad luck” than my opponents, yet it was not really luck in the traditional sense as my own poor decision making in choosing to have a team that did not exert offensive pressure was not a random occurrence.
Lastly, I would like to touch upon the aspects of luck that I feel can be controlled regardless of your team. If a player always assumes that he will end up on the receiving end of bad luck, that player can adjust accordingly and generally will come out on top. For example, if your opponent has been asleep for one turn at the hands of your Amoongus and you have the choice between Rage Powdering to be safe or Sporing the partner to gain an even greater advantage (assuming that is what would happen), it is extremely tempting to simply go for the spore and assume that the sleeping Pokemon will remain at rest and not disrupt your plans. The safer move, however, is to assume your opponent will wake up, and by planning accordingly one can minimize the effects of luck further. Taking unnecessary risks is unhelpful in claiming victory, which is the reason we do not see Swagger used more often on Physical Pokemon, except in last resort options.
I have nowhere near a complete understanding of how luck and skill interact within this game, but I feel that we are beginning to at least partially understand more than we did before. As more ideas occur to me, I will of course share them.

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