Underused 201: Battling

By kokoloko. Art by Yilx.
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Hello and welcome to Underused 201: Battling. In this article we will explore how battling in UU works and how to succeed at various levels of play. I don't want to bore you with lengthy introductions, so let's get this going, shall we?

Phase 1: Team Preview

As we all know by now, BW gave us team preview, and it is our job as competitive Pokemon players to take full advantage of every mechanic we can. Let me be more specific: team preview is not there just so you can try to have a better lead matchup versus your opponent. Sure, that's nice, and you should definitely try to do that as well, but if that's all you're doing during team preview you're completely missing the bigger picture. You should be planning for the long term here. Look at your opponent's team and your own and try to determine the path of least resistance towards victory. Come up with a backup plan. Basically have a rough idea of the ways in which you can win the battle.

For example,

Your Team: Choice Scarf Darmanitan / Offensive Cofagrigus / Life Orb Shaymin / Focus Sash Spikes Froslass / Specially Defensive Rhyperior / Choice Band Snorlax
Opponent's team: Sableye / Nidoqueen / Suicune / Umbreon / Zapdos / Scrafty

Keep those teams in mind, as I will refer to them multiple times during the article.

Can you see your paths to victory here? Your team has three inherent win conditions (in this case, sweepers): Shaymin, Cofagrigus, and Darmanitan. Cofagrigus's path is blocked by Sableye, Umbreon, and the fact that it can't set up on anything if Suicune has Roar, so it's not likely it'll be winning you the game. Darmanitan's path is blocked by Suicune, but Suicune is notoriously easy to wear down via Spikes and you have a perfect counter in the form of Shaymin, which should help do this. Darmanitan also outspeeds the entire opposing team save for Zapdos if it is Choice Scarf (but that's unlikely), and is immune to Sableye's priority Will-O-Wisp. You've found your most likely win condition. Shaymin also seems to cause them a lot of trouble if you can get lucky with Special Defense drops on Umbreon, so it'll be your plan B.

Mind you, this is the minimum you should be doing. Truly great players take it one step further and try to figure out your opponent's possible win conditions, your least and most valuable Pokemon, and your opponent's least and most valuable Pokemon as well. At the highest level of play, having this information could mean the difference between a win and a loss. The more information you have before you send out your lead, the better. However, the key words here are "at the highest level of play". If you think too much during random ladder matches, you'll end up over-thinking... your opponent is probably not that good on the ladder.

You're probably thinking this is a lot of stuff to think about and that you could possibly time out. That's fair, but it'll get a lot easier with time and I guarantee your win rate will go up considerably if you do it, so it's worth it.

Phase 1 A: Picking Your Lead

Ah, here's where most of you actually start. There's a few ways you can go about this, really. On the ladder I follow very simple logic: my opponent will probably try to beat the Pokemon that team preview shows as my lead, so I'll send out something that beats that. This works out 8/10 times, which is good enough. However, in high level play, I do one of two things: either I send out the most threatening Pokemon to most of my opponent's team, as this is the most likely to give me momentum, or I send out a Pokemon that beats the most threatening Pokemon to my team. This isn't an exact science, though. Sometimes this will be completely off-base because your opponent either outwitted you or simply because you missed something, and while it will never backfire completely, it won't always put you in an advantageous position.

In this particular case (refer to the teams I listed above), you carry a Pokemon that is known to be a common dedicated lead—Froslass—and your opponent carries a Pokemon that can put a full stop to it—Sableye. This simplifies things. You can either try to gain momentum right away and lead with Darmanitan so you can U-turn out of Sableye, or you can go for the long-term and lead with Froslass just in case your opponent doesn't lead with Sableye. The latter is the correct move. Leading with Froslass carries the least amount of risk and the highest reward, as you set up Spikes on everything except Sableye, for which you have two switch-ins (Darmanitan and Shaymin). This also ensures you prevent an early-game Stealth Rock (important because your win condition is weak to it), given that your opponent's only Pokemon that learns it is Nidoqueen and you can Taunt it if you lead with Froslass.

Phase 2: Early-Game

Let's get one thing clear. There is no set amount of turns that are called "the early-game". When I say "early-game" I mean the stage of the game where players scout each other's teams and try to gauge how accurately they planned during team preview. For example, if that Nidoqueen turns out to be a physically defensive variant with Leftovers as opposed to the standard offensive variant, your victory via Darmanitan just became a little harder to achieve. Same thing if Scrafty is an Intimidate version, as this will weaken Darmanitan's Flare Blitz enough to let Umbreon Wish + Protect stall it until it dies to recoil.

These are the things you want to figure out during the early-game so that you don't get taken by surprise later on, when surprises are more costly. You won't always be able to figure everything out, by the way, especially not with a team as offensive as the one we're using in this example. Sometimes you'll just have to make assumptions and go with it... and sometimes you'll be wrong. This is why you always need a backup plan, and even then that could be foiled too because of unforeseen circumstances. Pokemon's rough, man.

You're probably wondering how exactly you go about getting this information. It's actually rather simple. You make low-risk plays and try not to sacrifice anything that isn't meant to be sacrificed (Froslass is meant to be sacrificed, but it's best if you use that sacrifice to figure out something about your opponent's team). However, this is a very particular scenario, due to the fact that because you're nearly guaranteed to have Spikes down very early, your opponent won't be so keen on letting the early-game drag on for long (their team will get worn down too much if they lets this happen). This means you'll need to figure things out as quickly as possible and try to mount an offense quickly afterwards. Once you're ready to do that, you've reached the mid-game.

Phase 3: Mid-Game

The mid-game is the stage of the game where you adapt your plan to the information you gained during the early-game and begin positioning yourself so that you can execute it. Keep in mind that your plan can change without changing your actual win condition. For example, if you discover that Scrafty is indeed an Intimidate version and Nidoqueen is indeed a physically defensive variant, you can still sweep with Darmanitan, but you'll need to weaken Nidoqueen some more and probably take Scrafty out of the picture entirely before attempting to do so. Again, Spikes will do the work for you if you play smart.

Sometimes you'll have to adapt your plan for reasons other than information you've gotten, namely untimely hax and misplays. Say you attempt to switch your Darmanitan into a Hidden Power from Zapdos or a Will-O-Wisp from Sableye but end up taking a Thunderbolt or a critical hit Foul Play instead. Obviously your primary win condition is no longer available to you at this point, so you'll need to devise a plan on how to win with your backup (Shaymin). You could go about this a couple ways; either via boosting with Cofagrigus and attacking Umbreon continuously or by sacrificing something like Snorlax to get some damage on it. The point is to get some damage to stick to it so Shaymin can take it down later. You could also just hit it on the switch with Seed Flare until you get a Special Defense drop, but you'll need to remove Zapdos first for this to work, as it switching into Seed Flare will drain its PP too quickly due to Pressure for you to be able to sweep with it later. Again, choose the path of least resistance; you should be able to think through the possible scenarios to determine which one that is.

Phase 3 A: Risk vs Reward

This is something you'll hear the great players talk about a whole lot, and for a good reason. At the highest level of play, there is no such thing as prediction, there's only uncertainty. Your win ratio increases considerably once you get a solid grasp on this concept. Basically, you need to think of every move you make, weigh it against the moves your opponent is likely to make, then consider all the possible outcomes and make the decision that carries the highest reward for the least amount of risk. This isn't always easy because of the whole "uncertainty" thing I mentioned earlier—you're never 100% sure what move your opponent is going to make, so you can never be 100% sure what move is right. Let me give you an example using the above teams:

It's turn 23. You have Shaymin at 60% out against your opponent's 50% Umbreon. Seed Flare does not OHKO, but it will 2HKO through Wish recovery if you manage to land a Special Defense drop on the first one (there is a 34% chance of this occurring, accounting for accuracy). Your opponent has nothing left to switch into Shaymin that doesn't die to Seed Flare (Zapdos is at 35%, Scrafty is at 20%, Suicune is at 100% but is sleeping, and Nidoqueen is at 40%). Umbreon has Heal Bell and there's Stealth Rock and one layer of Spikes on your opponent's side. No entry hazards on yours. Your Snorlax has enough HP to tank a single Foul Play and do about 50% back with Return and your Rhyperior is at around 65%. All your other Pokemon have fainted. What do you do?

It's hard to tell when you're not actually in that situation, but the correct play is to simply attack and try to get that Special Defense drop. Your opponent is guaranteed to Wish this turn, as it's his only hope of keeping Umbreon alive in this situation, so if you do, you put your opponent in a really bad situation, as he's forced to sacrifice a Pokemon just to bring Umbreon back at around the same health as it was before. Your biggest concern is running out of Seed Flare PP, so you need to be careful not to waste it on Zapdos (try to hit that on the switch with Hidden Power later on), but since your opponent can't go to it on this turn or he loses, you need not worry about that at the moment. This is kind of a tough situation for both players, though, as you need to rely on that Special Defense drop to get any traction going. If you don't get it, the correct play becomes going to Snorlax on the Protect (he can't risk not Protecting after the Seed Flare, he loses if he mispredicts) and firing off Returns to either get damage on Umbreon or kill something else (Suicune can tank hits, but it's sleeping and entry hazards are up, so it will lose before waking up). Either way, your priority is to weaken Umbreon while your opponent's is to keep it healthy.

By this point it's the late-game, however, so let's talk about that now.

Phase 4: Late Game

The late-game is the final phase of the game. At this point, you're typically committed to winning in a specific way and deviating from that plan could cost you the match. These deviations can come in the way of misplays (better known as "chokes") or by having a change of heart. The thing is, at this point in the game your resources are usually very limited, and if you invest some of them into trying to win one way and then mess up or change your mind, you're likely to not have enough resources to win another way.

If you find yourself in a losing position, however, there's a few things you should try to get a win out of it. The main thing is trying to take advantage of luck. Forcing your opponent to use inaccurate moves is one way of doing this. Fishing for critical hits or status via moves like Ice Beam and Thunderbolt is another. Either way, you should never give up unless there is a 0% probability that you will win (which is really unlikely). Similarly, if you find yourself in a winning position, you should try to minimize the impact of luck on the game. This means not using inaccurate moves when you don't have to, not risking critical hits if you don't need to, and not making unnecessary switches when you can simply sacrifice something to get your win condition in for free.


And after all that, we're still not at the most important part of UU battling. Having fun. That's right, it's that simple. People who take the game seriously enough to think through everything we've covered in this article tend to forget that this game is first and foremost about having fun when playing it. Taking the game seriously, playing to win, and having fun are not mutually exclusive.

I realize this turned out to be more of a guide on battling in general rather than a lesson on UU-specific battling, but I half expected this to happen. As it turns out, truly great players have talent that transcends generations and tiers—it's experience that typically makes people better at specific tiers. Knowing damage calculations and Speed tiers off the top of your head make you less likely to misplay, making you better at the specific tier. So if you want to become good at UU, you simply need to play it a lot, get that experience, and apply the concepts we've talked about. You're definitely going to find other things along the way that I didn't talk about here; there's too many advanced concepts to cover in a single article, so I also suggest logging onto IRC, where you can always have a chat with some of the game's best.

Until next time!

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