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The lead Pokémon is a unique opportunity in competitive Pokémon. Since the lead Pokémon enters battle guaranteed to be free of harm, the lead Pokémon does not have to worry about finding opportunities to serve its purpose on a team. For this simple reason, choosing an effective lead that matches your team and play style is key to competitive Pokémon. While the importance of your lead Pokémon in the first turn or two may vary, an understanding of the nuances of the lead position and lead metagame is essential.
The most important thing to understand when creating or selecting a lead is that the position is all about tradeoffs. Since there has not been a single "best lead" since Deoxys-S was allowed in OU, players choosing a lead need to carefully consider what traits are most and least important to them in a lead role. Even before this analysis, players need to first ask themselves one important question.
This single question will dictate when you select your lead, what the lead will need to do, how much the lead should specialize on "the lead metagame" (Turns 1 and 2 of battle) versus "the full metagame" (After Turns 1 and 2, when the lead has switched out), and whether or not having a "lead role" in the traditional sense is even a good idea.
Choosing when to select a lead, while often down to personal preference, is a decision few battlers take seriously enough. New players tend too gravitate toward two different options when deciding when to pick their lead. Many decide the lead should be the first Pokémon they select, being the first Pokémon to battle. The other, significantly less common new battler school of thought is to ignore the lead role entirely, picking one of 6 Pokémon to "go first". While there are times when either of these extremes may be desired, neither case is particularly effective in general. Figuring out the lead Pokémon for your team is something that, in a general case, should be done after you have a basic understanding of your team's style and core. Usually, extremely defensive cores may not need an overspecialized "lead role" Pokémon specifically designed to go first, as the lead is less important to these teams. This doesn't mean the lead doesn't matter or should be selected without regard to other leads, but rather the lead Pokémon may sacrifice some Turn 1 effectiveness for usability in the late game. Offensive teams, on the other hand, may rely on a lead for entry hazard support. Overall, it's very rare indeed to select a lead before the second half of a given battler's team building process, as you need to know what your team expects out of the lead role before selecting it. Generally, the more offensive your team is, the more important your lead is.
Once a battler has assembled a general core, or at least has a basic understanding of their team's structure, what the lead can contribute to the team is the next question on a battler's mind. Different teams have different needs, and these priorities are entirely dependent on the other team members. Suicide leads are used by teams dependent on Stealth Rock, for example, while leads that want to gain the offensive upper hand while retaining some "full metagame" usability gravitate toward Machamp or Starmie. Battlers looking for a balance may try out Infernape, Metagross, or Empoleon; while other leads focus less on quickly gaining an immediate advantage in order to be even more useful in "the full metagame", notably Hippowdon.
Many important and prevalent tradeoffs in lead selection come to a head here. The first is reliability versus versatility. Simply put, an effective lead that does less things generally does them better and more reliably than an effective lead that tries to accomplish more things. The obvious example is Suicide Aerodactyl versus Suicide Azelf. Aerodactyl can pretty much guarantee the presence of Stealth Rock by the end of Turn 1, while Azelf cannot. Yet Azelf still sees significantly high usage due to the option of using Explosion, which Aerodactyl lacks. When picking between leads in situations like these, a firm grasp of the importance of the task you want the lead to do, and whether or not cool bonuses are worth compromising that task, will lead to smart decisions. Most notably, if you're compromising versatility in a lead for reliability, the task the lead does reliably better be pretty important to the function of the rest of your team.
The second tradeoff in general is between lead metagame versus full metagame usability. Ideally, a lead has both, and many of the very best and most common leads are great both Turn 1 and afterward. However, this is often not the case as Pokémon can only do so much with four attacks. People when attempting to make new sets will often completely misjudge this tradeoff. Time after time in the New / Creative Moveset thread as well as the C&C forums, people will post leads with several super effective attacks against common leads that work very well in getting the opponent's first Pokémon KOed. However, when all a lead does is reliably kill the opponent's first Pokémon, it needs to retain some level of usability in the full metagame in order to avoid being completely dead weight. Knowing how important it is for your lead to consider the bigger picture is a function of your lead's role and purpose as well as your style of team.
A lead specifically tailored to beat other leads, or an anti-lead, has to deal with both general design tradeoffs above more specifically. Anti-leads struggle with both versatility and full metagame usability in general, as the designer's intent is to kill or stop other leads from functioning. In general, effectiveness versus other leads is something that needs to be carefully considered in the creation of any lead, but over-metagaming always has dangers. A general rule for people desiring to use anti leads is to ensure they either serve a purpose other than a quick KO or that they have a lot more full metagame usability than most leads. A surprising number of Pokémon can KO the common suicide leads, so don't worry so much about them.
So it's come the time in your team building process to make or pick your lead. First thing is to determine some stuff about your lead. Does it need to complete a task, like laying out Stealth Rock? How mandatory is it that this task be completed? If your lead fails, will the rest of your team be able to recover from the deficit? Most of this discussion was dealt with when the importance of your lead was determined, but this stuff has to be firmed out before you can continue. Spelling out "This lead requires one layer of Spikes in nearly every battle, it would be nice to get two every other battle, and three is just a bonus" will help later on in the process by keeping you focused on what your lead needs to do versus what would be nice but isn't vital.
Once you figure that out, the next step is to look through the list of Pokémon that can provide the support you need. For a Spiker lead, looking through all of the Pokémon that can learn Spikes is the obvious start; Baton Pass leads need to look for Pokémon with Baton Pass, and Pokémon trying to gain early momentum may look in the direction of U-turn users or Pokémon with high Attack. From here you'll probably find a large handful of Pokémon that can even do what you want to accomplish that aren't bottom of the barrel NUs. Look through each Pokémon's movepool, typing, and stats in order to figure out what ways each can fulfill the design criteria you previously set. One Pokémon might be able to use Spore to guarantee those Spikes you need, while another is fast enough to use Focus Sash or Choice Scarf. This step is pretty Pokémon specific and is the first time the design tradeoffs outlined above come into play.
After that, depending on your lead's role and how much lead metagame usability you want out of it, you'll need to analyze your choices in the context of other common leads. A Spiking lead that's OHKOed by an Infernape Fake Out, for example, will need serious consideration. Consider using auxiliary moves like Taunt or powerful attacks to push past otherwise troublesome leads. Depending on the rest of your team, losing one or two lead matchups may not be a problem, especially if that lead is set-up bait for something else on your team. Once you've figured out how your options for particular leads will fare against other leads, consider, if necessary, how they will serve on your team after Turn 1. The importance of this step depends on your design criteria; for Aerodactyl-style leads it is completely unimportant, but for stuff like Metagross it may matter a lot more.
Once you've considered all of these variables with all of your options for leads, use your judgement to choose the one that best fits your team and give it a test. No amount of thinking beats an hour of play testing, and you may find out that what you got is not what you wanted. You may also find out that support you determined was absolutely necessary really was not at all, or that you needed more from your lead than you initially bargained for. Jot down and remember all of these lessons so that when you make revisions, you can make the smartest decisions.
Lead design is a bit of an art, and while it's very easy to be biased toward making a custom set with your favorite Pokémon, or using a standard set, exploring all of the options and choosing the one that's most optimal for your team will give you the edge you need to take control of many matches.
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