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The element of surprise grants an initial advantage against an ill-prepared opponent. This simple concept is applied to nearly every competitive setting, making it no surprise that such a concept exists in Pokemon. This article will explore the idea of surprise in the context of competitive Pokemon and the applications thereof, and its limitations.
Pokemon puts heavy weight onto the expectations of other players, making surprise a very powerful part of Pokemon. Surprise takes advantage of these expectations for advantages and can lead to a clean sweep or the removal of key threats on the opposing team. This is accomplished in two ways - through "inventive surprise" or "gimmicky surprise", with the former describing surprise due to new or unexpected sets that are optimal, while the latter referring to risky suboptimal sets used for a quick advantage.
Then to draw a fine line between the two, we need to clarify the concept of an "optimal" set. This is a difficult concept to swallow, as Pokemon boasts a countless number of viable strategies and teams, making it difficult to truly call a set optimal over another. Hence, we will simply claim that a Pokemon set is optimal even if the set can accomplish its purpose even without the element of surprise, and suboptimal if it requires surprise. Both types of surprises are used in the competitive environment—although players normally utilize them for different purposes.
There are players who stay ahead of the metagame to stay at the top of the game. Rather than sticking with the accepted standard, they will exploit the metagame by experimenting. While these players utilize both types of surprises, they quickly ditch teams and sets that they find that won’t last, while keeping the inventive surprise as long as they can—until the sets are no longer considered new but standard. These players look for new optimal sets and take full advantage of their inventions while the metagame adjusts around them.
Yet, calling these players reliant on surprise would be a mistake. In fact, becoming a top tier player by relying on surprises is simply impossible. A general cannot win a battle by relying on surprises alone, but can be victorious simply with a trained army and tactical intuition. Many newer players simply create a set, call it an “anti metagame” Pokemon, and then quickly proclaim it as the greatest thing ever, only to find that using it leads to huge disadvantages that they could not foresee. This means that surprise is only effective when backed up by intuition built from thousands of battles. Many beginning players believe that such surprises can overcome experienced players, but they will quickly find themselves losing in the long run.
This explains why top players do not rely on gimmicky surprise on the ladder, where players are often thinking of long term success. Players relying on gimmicky surprise will quickly find themselves losing, as their teams must work against a severe disadvantage as their sets lose their effectiveness when they face opponents over and over again. On the other hand, gimmicky surprises shine on our current tournament setting, due to Smogon's preference for the single battle, single elimination system. Gimmicky surprises are extremely effective on such a setting, as all it takes is one match to eliminate a player to advance to the next run. However, utilizing gimmicky sets still remain a heavy risk, as the success of the set relies too much on the opposing player being unprepared.
There are, however, many players who do not bother utilizing any type of surprise. These players simply learn how to use their team to the fullest extent, making changes only when a new threat arises or standards begin to change. Users of stall teams are the prime examples of this category, as stall teams aim to hinder all threats and require the player to be able to deal with anything someone else might throw at them. Many top players have used their stall teams for long stretches of time.
In the end, however, experience makes all of the difference. Surprises are often planned in advance, to take advantage of the terrain, the elements, and the opposing army—and therefore relies on solid intuition. If a player cannot catch the flow of the battle, then how are they expected to take advantage of it? While surprises are often the turning point of a match, such an act is only possible through experience.The intuition needed to utilize surprise and catch the flow of the battle overcomes any random surprise a newer player may try. Experience is still the essential building block of Pokemon, no matter how one approaches it.
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