NAIC 2024 Finals Were Everything Great About the Pokémon TCG

As I've mentioned before, Pokémon is a game where dramatic reversals are possible. One smart play can change everything, a few tech cards and great sequencing can open up new opportunities against different opponents. Situational awareness and resource management are huge in this game. All of this was lovingly on display last weekend as the North American International Championship (NAIC) played out. With 2677 players in the Masters division, what deck would come out on top?

Lugia VSTAR made the biggest splash in terms of numbers on Day 1. The much hyped Dragapult ex made a relatively quiet, but respectable tournament debut. Honestly, the relationship of Dragapult ex to the Japanese meta, our meta, and preparing for an event like this could be its own article that's slightly out of my skill level. Generally speaking, though, Lugia and Gardevoir ex are tried and true from recent years and picked up great new support in the newest set, Twilight Masquerade. It makes sense that they should be reasonably solid picks for a huge tournament. Raging Bolt ex is a hard hitting, fast deck that has everything that classic Good Decks do in Pokémon. It was very quickly discovered to be pretty damn good with the new Ogerpon ex.

Charizard ex's relative absence was a bit of a shock after months of outstanding performance. Many forecasted that Dragapult was simply the newer, scarier deck, rocking no Weakness and spreads damage counters (often one of the best effects in the game) that basically worked in the same shell. Before Dragapult's reveal though, I got the impression that many were simply planning around facing an army of Charizard, and Charizard players were planning their devious potential techs, like Gouging Fire ex. What actually happened by the time Top 8 rolled around was quite a shock!

At a glance, this might seem like some unhealthy symptom of a meta where Gardevoir ex has become broken or OP with the new Munkidori card in its arsenal. Let's keep in mind that Twilight Masquerade proved to be much more of a shake up set than originally anticipated, but NAIC was the first big event where its cards were legal. This means that while a lot of players had been messing around with Masquerade proxy cards for a few months, there wasn't a whole lot of tournament data to back up any playtesting hypotheses. And even that data isn't the final say of what to bring and what decks are Good, either. All that to say, basically anything was possible this weekend, and it just so happened to shake out as a good time for Gardevoir ex. Events are weird. But anyway, how about that Lost Box?

Lost Zone Box decks are wonderful little gems of game design. One fancy new tool this set is Bloodmoon Ursaluna ex, which serves as a pseudo-Radiant Charizard while still having the beloved Radiant Greninja. Another is Iron Thorns ex, which comes with a powerful ability to shut down other abilities of non-Future Rule Box Pokémon.

I had casually discussed with a few friends that these new tools would likely put Lost Box in a new level of competitive viability, but I definitely did not expect two top 8 appearances in a sea of Gardevoir. It seemed surefire that somebody's Gardevoir deck would take the event, but Andrew Hendrick had some other plans!

Without recapping the full drama of entire match (you should watch it!), it seemed all but hopeless for Lost Box heroes when Andrew found himself in THAT position. Jeez! Yes, he's holding a Buddy-Buddy Poffin in his hand to grab two Comfey, but I would have totally scooped if this were anything prior to top 8! Andrew was somehow able to make a comeback in all this, finally getting some cards in the Lost Zone and managing to power up an Iron Hands ex. Iron Hands ex has 240 HP, which means that Gardevoir ex's 190 damage + Munkidori's moving of 3 damage counters is just ten damage short. At this position, Stéphane didn't have the resources to grab a Scream Tail and go after Andrew's bench. What to do, then?

In an awesome moment of creative thinking, Stéphane opts to place Munkidori in the active spot and get a Psychic Energy onto it, allowing Munkidori to attack and inflict Confusion on Iron Hands ex. Jokes have been made about the "10,000 dollar coin flip" ($10,000 being the difference in prize money for 1st and 2nd plces), but Stephan took his chances from winning in that position from nearly 0 to 50/50. A Confused Pokémon needs to flip a coin in order to attack, otherwise, it will inflict 30 damage on itself and the opposing Pokémon will not be attacked. Simply tanking with Gardevoir ex was not an option here, as Stéphane had every reason to be certain that Andrew had the Boss's Orders in hand. Andrew had like, two cards left in deck, and I believe no Boss in the discard pile. So, it was absolutely the correct play to go for Munkidori and pray!

It's exemplary of the kind of gameplay that Pokémon can produce when things are down to the wire, and how every part of a card counts. If Munkidori weren't a Psychic type (the Munkidori ex we'll be getting in the next set is Dark type, after all), Stéphane wouldn't have been able to use Gardevoir's Psychic Embrace to attach to it and get that extra damage. With the Bravery Charm equipped, Munkidori's 110 HP grows to 160, leaving it out of range of "Amp You Very Much".

Of course, Andrew flipped heads, like a god, and took Game 1 from that far behind. It's a thrilling performance of hanging there and making a comeback, and that was just Game 1! Stéphane would make a convincing victory for Game 2, using Scream Tail to explode Iron Hands ex and close it out.

With only three minutes and some change to kick off Game 3, the winner would come down to who could take the most prizes in overtime. Andrew's deck definitely has an advantage here, being much more capable of taking multiple prizes a turn compared to Gardevoir. Wisley, Andrew turns to the 1-of Cramorant in the deck to get some quick KOs and power up Radiant Greninja in the background. Both players played excellently, but Stéphane was in much more of a bind after whiffing a KO. The crowd rightfully screamed when Prime Catcher was found from Comfey's Flower Selecting after a god-awful PokéStop spin.

So powerful was all this that even the official Pokémon accounts got in on the excitement:

Let it not be assumed that the Pokémon TCG is a mere contest of who can win the opening coin flip and have the biggest, hardest hitting monster first. I mean, it can be (and has been) that, sometimes. But the strategy that went into the Finals puts on display a deceptive kind of depth that prospective players might not realize is there. I only go out of my way to mention this because this game rocks! Metagames are rarely truly solved at almost all levels of play. I've made this point before, but you'd be surprised what you can bring to locals or TCG Live and grab a few wins with, and what tech (to use a fighting game term) can shine within an established meta deck.

NAIC is about the highest level of play we can see (until Worlds I suppose!), so if you're a newer player, don't expect to make regular giga-brain plays and clutch out your games right away. Seeing lines of play and managing your resources is something that really does take time and a lot of active thinking. If you want to see the full lists and decklist of those who made it to Day 2, they just went up on LimitlessTCG, a great resource for Pokémon tournament info. This is an awesome way to start wrapping your head around some potential decks to start with and see what's going on in the game.

I don't have a great zinger line this time, so I'll just say I hope you come to enjoy the Pokémon TCG in some way! More exciting action is coming soon from the World Championship in August. So, stay tuned! I choose you!

- James