The Art of Psychological Warfare

By david stone, rewritten by himself and X-Trader. Art by Agous.

"Be extremely subtle, even to the point of formlessness. Be extremely mysterious, even to the point of soundlessness. Thereby you can be the director of the opponent's fate."

Battling is usually divided into three categories: luck, teams, and prediction. Because luck is mostly outside of the player's control, it is beyond the scope of this guide. The team is a combination of the preparation before the battle begins (for instance, Curse Snorlax is generally more effective than Curse Registeel or special attacking Snorlax) and how your team matches up with your opponent's (if you don't have a counter for one of their Pokemon, you're hosed). The third common category is prediction. This occurs during the battle. Will they switch to Heracross or leave in Zapdos? Do I counter that with Salamence or leave my Blissey in? "Prediction" is one of the most nuanced parts of battling, and is a major part of what would make Pokemon impossible to "solve" by a computer program.

"The supreme excellence is to subdue the armies of your enemies without even having to fight them."

This guide deals with the most overlooked—and often unused—part of prediction: psychological warfare. This primarily occurs during the battle, when it occurs at all, but a master of the mind game can use Pokemon that allow this to be more effective.

"Know thy enemy and know thyself, and your victory will not stand in doubt in 100 battles."

The first and most important part of any psychological attack on your opponent is to estimate not only their skill level, but also their estimation of yours. If you are fighting someone who is somewhat new, who believes you to be an excellent fighter, then a mere show of prediction will often cause their behavior to become erratic. In one battle I had, I couldn't damage my opponent's Pokemon at all, as long as he kept switching. However, I remained one step ahead of his switching each time, so, instead of just doing what he was doing, and continually switching until I made an error, he Exploded his Gengar as I went to Steelix. When I questioned him about this (Gengar was walling my Hariyama), he explained it was to "try and get you out of my head."

Before that point, the game was a draw. By proving both that I could stay ahead of him and that I had infinite patience to win, I made my opponent try to take action to break the stall when doing so was not beneficial.

"A military operation involves deception. Even though you are competent, appear to be incompetent. Though effective, appear to be ineffective."

If you are fighting someone who is good, but believes you to be a talentless hack, then you can use this to your advantage, as well. Such a person is far more vulnerable to sacrificial strategies, as they will not be looking ahead in the battle, for they believe you to be unable to. Many players will go for a 6-0 on you, or some other outlandish set-up, if they think it will work. "Pretend inferiority and encourage his arrogance." Surprises are this enemy's Achilles' Heel. One who believes you to be significantly worse than them is likely to be focused solely on their own strategies, even if that means allowing you to set up your own without opposition.

Ironically, if you are fighting one who is not only good, but thinks you are good as well, the most obvious move is often the best, all things being equal, once the battle gets going. They will see traps where none exist, and 'overpredict' your moves. If your enemy sucks, and has a mutual esteem of your skills, then they are easily predicted, and will either quickly lose, or begin to think you are good, leading to the first scenario.

"What is of supreme importance in war is to attack the enemy's strategy."

But how do you accomplish this? How can you make your adversary do what you want? The simplest and most immediate way is to simply talk to your enemy. This is the hardest part of fooling your opponents, and takes a lot of practice to perfect. From the responses you get, and the battle results, you can quickly determine the proper approach to deception.

For instance, say it's down to my Choice Band Heracross and some low HP Pokemon, versus a Swampert and a Choice Band Salamence at about half health, and it's Heracross out vs. Swampert. Against some people, the best response is the truth (say what move you do, they think you're lying), other times, the best response is simply "Hmm... Heracross, let's do this!" If you feel your opponent has conditioned you, your best thing might be to say nothing and flip a coin, but I do not recommend this, as it's basically saying you're not as good as them, meaning you should lose, really. The moment you assume your opponent is going to win is the moment you have lost.

However, one interesting way to fool people is to say that you are flipping a coin. "Heads I attack, tails I switch." They will then likely make the move that has the least risk, which you can take advantage of. There is no law that says you have to be honest in the chat about what moves you are making.

In the example I gave of the RBY / GSC battle, I would do things during battle such as ask trivial questions. I could easily look up the answer if I didn't already know it (and sometimes I do know it), but by asking it, I set up a sense of superiority in my nemesis. If you play the role of a newbie, that is how they will treat you. In this case, purposefully 'wrong' predictions can actually be a good thing, as it culls that same feeling that you don't know what you're doing. Then, when the time is right, attack the enemy with a strategy he didn't believe you to be capable of, and thus never defended.

"Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win."

How can your team help with this? Take Jirachi with Protect, Wish, Doom Desire, and some filler move, most likely Body Slam (60% paralysis keeps most enemies from setting up). If you use Doom Desire, Wish, and then Protect, you damage your enemy, nullify its attack, and heal yourself, all in the same turn. This creates the illusion of invincibility, regardless of the actual effectiveness of the set. This is most effective against the player who believes you to be better than he is, but with the occasional Body Slam added in to paralyze, even the veteran player can find himself feeling outclassed by the brick wall that inexorably paralyzes his team, creating fears, however unfounded they may be, of a sweep by something slow, like Ursaring or Marowak. However, I don't even need to do this. 8 PP for Doom Desire lasts surprisingly long.

This ties into what I mentioned earlier, about the player who Exploded Gengar on Steelix. My team had just enough defense between Hariyama, Starmie, and Steelix to create the illusion of invincibility with Rest, Recover, and smart switching. On the flip side, Gengar walled both Hariyama and Steelix completely, but his team was built for offense, not for stall. This does not mean my opponent could not stall, but rather, that he would not. He built the team with the assumption that he would be in fast-paced, offensive games, thanks to having Pokemon like Gengar. When the game became stall instead of offense, it was hard for him to switch mindsets from "How fast can I finish these Pokemon" to "Can he do anything to me in the long run?" Because of this, he didn't see that half of my remaining Pokemon couldn't even touch his Gengar, and thus felt the need to try a desperate tactic (Exploding Gengar, hoping to catch Hariyama or Starmie) to try to break open the game to back to the style of play he felt comfortable with.

"When torrential water tosses boulders, it is because of its momentum. When the strike of a hawk breaks the body of its prey, it is because of timing."

All of that, however, is secondary, in most battles. The single most important aspect of this piece of battling is conditioning. However, this is impossible to do without the proper foundations of a team, and a basic ability to predict your enemy. Many believe that to be victorious in battle, unpredictability is a good thing. This is, by and large, incorrect. Unpredictability alone will not win a battle, and unpredictability without a purpose is tactics without strategy—the noise before defeat. A true master of psychological warfare will be predictable as long as is needed.

Do not be misled by this statement, however. Unpredictability is good, but only to a point. You need to make your opponent think you are predictable, only to do something truly unpredictable at just the right moment. Thinking large and timing right are the real points, there. If you are unpredictable to the point of randomness, it makes your opponent harder to predict, because they have to think about more things. If they only expect you to do one thing, then that is the only thing they will defend against. You need to appear predictable, to condition them into believing you will continue to do what you've always done, when in fact, you are simply waiting for just the right moment so a completely unforeseen catastrophe can devastate their team.

Sirlin put it best when he spoke about conditioning: "And this is where Sun Tzu comes in. My use of Rose's low strong move is both a method of winning before fighting and of waiting. The low strong is an uninspiring little punch that doesn't have all that much range, but it has amazing priority to beat other attacks. It's also incredibly fast, allowing Rose to do multiple low strongs in a row with only the tiniest of gaps.

"A side effect of my low strongs is that they create a 'baseline expectation' of what I'm going to do. The sneaky roundhouse I do after the 17th low strong is pretty tricky, actually. I mean, wouldn't you expect an 18th low strong after the 17th one? (Note: I was actually even more sneaky, by doing the 18th low strong, then the low roundhouse.)"

It is far better to create an expectation of doing something than an expectation of uncertainty. This is because the uncertain opponent is unpredictable. When they know what you're going to do, you can know what they are going to do. Then you finally do one surprising move at just the right moment to guarantee a sweep. For instance, say my Heracross uses Focus Punch, but his Weezing predicts this and uses Sludge Bomb. I am clearly forced to switch here, as he can just keep using Sludge Bomb all day with no ill effects, for I am Choice Banded. He has been conditioned into believing me to be a very cautious battler, as my maxim is to predict only when prediction is needed. Now, I have a Jirachi, and Sludge Bomb is a great move to switch into. Only an idiot would leave in Heracross, and since my enemy doesn't think I'm an idiot, the thought of me leaving in Heracross never crosses his mind, so he switches to his Jirachi counter, Snorlax with Earthquake.

Heracross is tightening its focus!
Bob Dole withdrew Weezing!
Bob Dole sent out Snorlax (Lv.100 Snorlax)!
Heracross used Focus Punch!
(82% damage)
It's super effective!
Snorlax fainted!

At this point, Calm Mind Jirachi can freely clean up the remainder of his team.

Ares Chaos switched in Titania (lvl 100 Cresselia ?).
Infernape used Close Combat.
It's not very effective...
A critical hit!
Titania lost 39% of its health.
Infernape's defence was lowered.
Infernape's special defence was lowered.
Infernape lost 10% of its health.
Titania's leftovers restored its health a little!
Titania restored 6% of its health.
Castlevania switched in Gliscor (lvl 100 Gliscor ?).
Titania used Ice Beam.
It's super effective!
Gliscor lost 100% of its health.
Castlevania's Gliscor fainted.
Titania's leftovers restored its health a little!
Titania restored 6% of its health.

The opponent expected Psychic in this situation, meaning he would switch so the challenger decided to use Ice Beam expecting this switch. Since Gliscor was eliminated, Lucario (Swords Dance version) can sweep the rest of the team.

Uncredited quotes stolen from Sun Tzu's The Art of Warfare.