Your Lead Pokémon
Okay. You're building a new team, and you want to know how to give yourself an significant edge over your opponent from the moment those first Poké Balls are tossed out. You might want to get him on his heels early so you can lure out the perfect Pokémon for one of yours to set up against. Or maybe you may want to lead a Pokémon that is virtually impervious to the attacks of other popular lead Pokémon. Then these Pokémon begin to attract specific opening counters, slow or fast, durable or designed for hit-and-runs.
Before you know it, it becomes a game within a game, a round of rock-paper-scissors that can directly affect the entire outcome of the battle. Let's take a look at some of the most popular options available to you.
We all know that, of the quantitative aspects of Pokémon, Speed is arguably the most important. The mere threat of severely injuring an important component of your opponent's team is more than enough to have him switching out to take whatever blow your fast Pokémon is about to deal. This concept of drawing first blood can be more than just a small victory—it can set the tone for the whole battle.
Where do I begin? 135 base Atk, 100 base Spe, and Intimidate made this Pokémon the most popular lead of 2005. It is still a fine choice today, though you should expect to be met with enough Regice, Metagross, and Swampert to make the use of this beast as your first Pokémon somewhat not as worth it as it used to be. However, a free Intimidate right off the bat virtually ensures you won't have to switch any of your Pokémon into a strong physical blow, should you be compelled to switch and not deal out damage to whatever Pokémon your opponent decides is best to face Salamence in Round 1, and that's still worth something.
While being two very different Pokémon, Choice Band Salamence and Dragon Dance Salamence are, in my opinion, equally good at leading. Obviously, if your DD Salamence isn't met with a bulky Water-type lead or something like Regice, it isn't in your best interests to Dragon Dance as your first move, because you can be sure that Salamence counter is forthcoming. However, your opponent won't know which version of Salamence you're leading with, and this can be an advantage for you. You can opt to switch out your DD Salamence and not use it again until you're convinced you can get that vital Dragon Dance and sweep, having given your opponent the impression that you didn't like your match up in the beginning for your "CB" Salamence.
And I don't have to go into why CB Salamence is an excellent lead—you can predict what Pokémon your opponent will switch in and hurt it bad, or predict even further to get yourself an even more favorable matchup, like so:
Jumpman16 vs some dude. Begin! Jumpman16 sent out I'd switch dude (Lv.100 Salamence)! some dude sent out Zapdos (Lv.100 Zapdos)! I'd switch dude's Intimidate cuts Zapdos's Attack! chaos has started watching. chaos: you know what jump Begin Turn #1 Jumpman16 withdrew I'd switch dude! Jumpman16 sent out SnorlaXBOX (Lv.100 Snorlax)! --------------------------------- some dude withdrew Zapdos! some dude sent out Swampert (Lv.100 Swampert)! --------------------------------- End of turn #1 Jumpman16's SnorlaXBOX: 501 HP some dude's Swampert: 100% HP chaos: if anything i'm fat kenan really skarm has started watching. Begin Turn #2 some dude withdrew Swampert! some dude sent out Skarmory (Lv.100 Skarmory)! --------------------------------- SnorlaXBOX used Fire Blast! (62% damage) It's super effective! --------------------------------- Skarmory's Leftovers restored its HP a little! End of turn #2 Jumpman16's SnorlaXBOX: 501 HP some dude's Skarmory: 44% HP
You may notice something a little fishy about this log, and I admit—I've never used a Fire Blast Snorlax in my life. The concept rings true though, and you can clearly see how CB Salamence as a starter can quickly gain control of the whole battle. Zapdos, tying in base Speed with Salamence and therefore wary of firing off a "too slow" Hidden Power Ice (or perhaps not having HP Ice at all), retreated in favor of Swampert, ultimately setting up Snorlax to put a big molten dent in the steel bird. It's severely weakened to the point where my CB Salamence's Rock Slide will indeed 2HKO it. Skarmory, likely my opponent's main or even lone true physical wall, can't switch safely into my Salamence now, and this is directly because of the upper hand I gained by leading off with it.
Another fine Flying-type who poses multiple threats all at once. In the past, leading Zapdos would just be asking for Blissey to come in. Now, with XD's impact on the game, Zapdos can Baton Pass an Agility and/or a Substitute, or just "dry pass" to the appropriate Pokémon if you predict your opponent will go to a special sponge like Blissey or Snorlax. (This, of course, enables you to "switch" with the knowledge of what Pokémon your opponent has swapped in to deal with your Zapdos, if any, and act accordingly.) Of course, its speed and great overall stats allow it to do whatever it wants, without having to worry about being trapped by Dugtrio.
Not as widely used anymore thanks to the advent of CB Salamence, but still a force to be reckoned with. Besides warding off the first two popular fast starters I've mentioned better than any other Pokémon can, it allows you to find out very early if your opponent has a reliable Rock-type resist like Swampert, which some battlers forget to account for with Aerodactyl's decline in popularity.
As annoying as ever, Gengar's movepool is so wide that if you're not leading with something like Metagross (or Aerodactyl), it can hurt whatever Pokémon you send in pretty bad. The threat of physical, special, and indirect damage all at once is tough to deal with no matter what Pokémon you have.
With Hidden Power Ice and just enough SpA to ward off CB Salamence, this thing can lead somewhat effectively by getting behind a Substitute and being its usual annoying self, be it with Leech Seed or an eventual Endeavor.
This Pokémon is much like CB Salamence in that it has great Attack and Speed, plus Intimidate. It's a little easier for Skarmory to wall Tauros since it doesn't boast a 120 Base Power super effective special attack running off of 110 base SpA, but it's still a force to be reckoned with. It's nice to be able to head off Salamence and Zapdos leads as well, in addition to the bulky Waters and...actually, there really isn't a lead Pokémon that should be staying in against Tauros, is there?
Don't forget about this monster. In the right hands this thing will slowly wear you down, with or without Magneton. Slaking forces tough opening decisions much like Salamence, but with a lot more punch considering its higher Attack and a better physical movepool.
Jolteon offers little more than Speed over Zapdos now that the latter has Baton Pass and Agility as well, but it can still Substitute + Baton Pass with the best of them. The main reason to use Jolteon now would be to counter the popular Zapdos leads straight up, and even so, 394 Speed is still nothing to sneeze at even if there are better leads.
Forget the fact that you can't bring this bug in very safely anytime after the opening round. The threat of definitely passing Speed and possibly Attack just by Substituting a few times is the #1 reason all teams "must" have a phazer handy, lest they will have been doomed since Round 1. A must for any serious Baton Pass team.
Speed isn't everything, and you should keep this in mind when choosing an effective starter.
Of course I'm not a Dugtrio fan, but it really has no business leading if you want to use it. Dugtrio and its Arena Trap work best with the element of surprise, and leading off with it is the opposite way to go, even if you may pick off the occasional Metagross lead with no HP or Def EVs (that's a tall order by itself). Keep this Pokémon under wraps and bring it out when you're sure you can OHKO the Pokémon you're trapping.
Poor Raikou always gets the shaft. This thing just lures Blissey and Snorlax in, though, and like Dugtrio, should be brought in later in more favorable conditions, where the special walls have been taken out of play. There's nothing Raikou is going to do in the opening round, though, besides bring out the special wall—assuming your opponent didn't lead with Snorlax, Metagross, Regice, or Aerodactyl—so choose a better starter and relegate Raikou to cleanup duty. Unlike special Pokémon like Regice or Porygon2, it's too precious to mess around with early, since it has sweeping potential those Pokémon do not.
You may think this Pokémon is similar to Gengar, both sharing high Speed, SpA, a good movepool and frailty, but there are a few key reasons why Alakazam shouldn't be a lead. One, it doesn't have the physical options that Gengar boasts that make Blissey and Snorlax think twice about switching in. Two, heads-up, what does it ward off? Salamence, and that's about it. Third, though its movepool is decent, it doesn't have moves like Hypnosis or Will-O-Wisp to pose a multidimensional threat. It can get off a quick Trick + Choice Band, but you're actually more likely these days to be met with Snorlax as you are the obvious Blissey even if you do get a favorable starting matchup.
Even though it is my third-favorite Pokémon of all time, Starmie's in the same vein as Alakazam, really. What Pokémon besides Salamence are you really going to scare off? And what do you do when Snorlax or Blissey come in to ruin your fun? Starmie has better things to do, and quite frankly, it should only be leading in a Battle Tower or Stadium Mode Format.
Since this article features lead Pokémon, I am purposely refraining from discussing the roles of the Pokémon I bring up outside of their initial impact in the game. However, I should note that as far as Alakazam and Starmie are concerned, the fact that they do have better things to do does factor into my assessment that they are not good leads. If you are using them as lead Pokémon, then you are obviously not using them in the ways I feel they are most effective, regardless of the rest of your team.
Starmie is best as a Rapid Spin user, not as a special sweeper, and even if you wanted to use the latter, it all the more means it shouldn't be leading. Whether other versions of Starmie—ones that include combinations of Thunder Wave, Confuse Ray, and Light Screen/Reflect—do Starmie the justice it deserves is up for debate, but regardless these are sets you certainly don't want to start out your battle with.
Alakazam is best as a Calm Mind user with Encore, in my opinion, and it's not really a good idea to start out the battle with either of those threats. Trickbanding is a pretty sweet idea, but will be counterproductive if your opponent switches in a Snorlax or a Metagross, which is a pretty common scenario.
So to wrap up this line of thinking, just remember that if you're using a Pokémon, use it to the best of its abilities. Think of lead Alakazam and Starmie as the move Fake Out—even if a Pokémon might make a great initial splash, you may be at a clear disadvantage once that splash has settled, so it's usually best to go with another move over Fake Out, one that'll serve you well in later rounds. (This, by the way, is why I won't discuss CB Medicham at all, since Fake Out is its only saving grace being a mid-speed starter, and even then it is likely Intimidated by Salamence anyway.)
The desire to put a big dent in your opponent's lead Pokémon doesn't have to have the threat of speed behind it, of course. Several Pokémon are great leads simply because they counter popular fast leads without compromising their own movesets too much, which is as important as having a great lead in the first place.
Go away, Salamence. Not a thing Salamence can do to this bulky Water's Ice Beam, and it's durable enough to fire off a risk-free Hypnosis at Snorlax and Metagross unlike Gengar, who really shouldn't be risking that heads-up. A fine Pokémon for any stage of the game, and certainly makes a good lead.
Yeah, Intimidate this, Salamence. Even in spite of Meteor Mash likely striking the forthcoming Skarmory or bulky Water, Metagross makes a great lead with or without CB, one who cannot be OHKOed—or threatened, really—except by Dugtrio or [insert Fire-type,] and if you think it's a good idea to lead with either then I guess you're reading the right article! Also, much like with Salamence, you can safely bluff CB when really you're sporting Agility, and therefore have a chance at a mid- to late-game sweep.
Another bulky Water that can double as a lead without altering its moveset much. The threat of Curse and Ice Beam is enough of a threat to make this a fine way to start out a battle, with instant offense and defense at your discretion. With the right EV spread, the only thing that really comes close to threatening even a 2HKO is a Grass attack, and you should be able to sniff those out from a mile away.
Regice was already an obvious choice to head off Salamence leads, but the surge in Zapdos usage puts this Pokémon all the more in vogue. Trainers must now ask themselves if it's worth it to lead with either Salamence or Zapdos with the knowledge that if their opponent has elected to lead off with Regice, they're just going to have to switch out. While Regice is obvious Blissey/Snorlax bait, this does not detract from the myriad of good leads it stacks up well against, and prediction would be in your favor should you choose to take advantage of either special wall possibly coming in on Turn 2.
Besides ensuring that Ninjask Baton Pass teams will have a hard time beating you, Porygon2 is a great Boltbeamer who deserves mention with all the Salamence and Zapdos leads running around.
Snorlax is ideal for heading off Zapdos and Regice leads, and can sport Fire Blast as I indicated earlier to give Skarmory a nice surprise. Starting the match off with a nice parlysis-induced Body Slam is never a bad thing too, no matter what "counter" your opponent may bring in.
Venusaur is a durable leading option that can Sleep Powder any common leads it doesn't have serious trouble with, Pokémon like Salamence and Regice. Zapdos isn't going to do much with Hidden Power Ice, but beware it tossing up a Substitute and Baton Passing to something like Salamence or Skarmory. A reliable Sleep Powder is the main reason to lead with this Pokémon.
While there are slower Pokémon that are clearly good counters to a few of the fast opening threats, they still shouldn't start the battle off for you, and I'll tell you why.
Sure, it'll make your opponent recall Salamence faster than you can say "super effective," but then what? Your Ice Beam either meets the designated special sponge, or your Calm Mind is rendered useless in the same scenario. If you honestly have no other options than to lead with a Pokémon that you're sure won't take too heavy a blow from most opening threats that you won't just switch Snorlax or Skarmory into anyway, it can be okay I guess, but generally, reacting to your opponent's aggression isn't exactly the best policy. Leading with a Sleep Talk variant may suffice if your team has no better leads (and/or is a stall team).
Not really a good idea. This Pokémon should only be brought in to ward off physical attacks when you suspect them. Don't try to predict a Metagross or non-Fire Blast Snorlax lead, because in the long run, it's just not smart Pokémon, especially given how poorly Skarmory stacks up against many of the recommended leads. (Logic dictates that it would be even less smart to lead Magneton in spite of its Magnet Pull, of course, so I'm not even going to say any more about that.)
What do you plan on accomplishing besides Thunder Waving an enemy Blissey or Snorlax? Don't bother—Blissey is meant to react to special threats and cure status. (Even if you have a Calm Mind Blissey you'll just get walled much like Raikou would.) Don't jeopardize its health by sticking it in the first slot.
If I left out anything, chances are it doesn't really belong as a lead in the competitive metagame, sorry! If you stick to the leads I have suggested and understand the reasoning behind those I have both promoted and discouraged the use of, you will find your battles will play out a little easier from the very beginning.