A Cyclic Psychic: The Ups and Downs of Alakazam

By Ender. Art by Magistrum.
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With the era of Black and White coming to a close and XY looming just over the horizon, it's a good time to take a step back and revisit the history of one Pokémon that has had more ups and downs in competitive battling than any other: Alakazam. Alakazam's unique tiering history and peculiar responses to the metagame changes brought about by each generation give it perhaps the most idiosyncratic usage chronology in all of competitive Pokémon. While Alakazam may no longer be the prodigious offensive powerhouse it was over a decade ago, it has still retained—or perhaps regained—its title as one of the strongest and fastest Pokémon seen in standard play. As we journey through time to examine and dissect the roles Alakazam has played since its conception in Red and Blue, we'll also explore how Alakazam's methods of employment can be used as an indicator of the overall condition of the metagame and what we can learn from this.

The beginning of our journey dates back to era of Red and Blue, where Psychic-types ran rampant and unchecked, the world of Pokémon consisted only of Kanto, and Dark- and Steel-type Pokémon were nothing but a Game Freak gameplay designer's wet dream. From this ferocious, primordial realm emerged the most unforgiving and tempestuous metagame that Pokémon has ever seen: RBY OU. This was a world where games were won and lost on luck and where a single fateful maneuver could turn an unending crusade into a cataclysmic defeat. From the depths of this chaotic maelstrom arose a solitary figure, a figure that was feared and respected above all others for its power, speed, and incomparable utility—a figure known to us as Alakazam. Alakazam played a very important role in RBY OU. Speed was key to many Pokémon's success, and a Thunder Wave from Alakazam was one of the best ways of disabusing a rogue Tauros or Starmie of the notion that it might be able to sweep your team. Additionally, if Chansey came in to try and absorb Thunder Wave, Alakazam could use its high critical hit rate, Psychic's impressive 30% chance of a Special drop, and its access to Recover to win a war of attrition against the pink archenemy of special attackers everywhere, something that can recently only be attributed to Secret Sword Keldeo and Choice Specs Kyogre. In fact, Alakazam's ridiculously high Special stat allowed it to single-handedly bring a game to a standstill when it was matched up against an opposing Chansey—a standstill it would win due to its high critical hit rate and Psychic's fantastic chance of a Special drop. Alakazam's heyday was undoubtedly in the era of RBY, where it reigned as one of the best Pokémon in the game. The fast and unrelenting nature of RBY OU allowed the frail but potent Pokémon to dominate. Priority moves were virtually nonexistent, and no other Pokémon found commonly in OU could match Alakazam's blistering Speed. It should come as no surprise that Alakazam's most favorable environment is one where hitting hard and fast is the most ideal characteristic of a usable Pokémon. The hyper-offensive nature of RBY OU gave Alakazam an environment in which it could thrive, but like the beautiful coral reefs and immeasurably diverse rainforests of Earth, these environments quickly fade into nothingness.

Several years later, the release of Gold and Silver changed the way Pokémon was played. With the advent of Steel- and Dark-type Pokémon, Psychic was no longer the dominant type, and the prevalence of Pokémon such as Tyranitar, Blissey, and Snorlax meant life became much more difficult for Alakazam, which seemed to become akin to an endemic species displaced from its natural environment, set adrift in an unfamiliar, hostile world where carving out a niche was more difficult than finding a handhold while climbing a polished marble tower. Yet Alakazam persevered, and the addition of coverage moves to its repertoire only made it better. However, the splitting of the Special stat meant Alakazam could no longer wall special attackers with ease. Its drop to BL certainly hurt, but the raw ability was still there, and Alakazam could wreak havoc with proper team support. Paired with Pokémon such as Snorlax and Machamp, Alakazam could shine once again, though it missed its autonomy and yearned for its glory days when it could dance around opponents with a sword rather than hobbling by them with a crutch. GSC OU's stall-oriented metagame was a distinct difference from RBY OU's free-for-all. Speed was no longer the name of the game; power and longevity become more important. Alakazam's frailty was ill-suited for its new environment, and it struggled to stay afloat, as its inclusion into BL suggested.

Ruby and Sapphire brought an entirely new dimension to Pokémon: double battles, abilities, strange type combinations, and most importantly, a whole new breed of monsters. ADV OU is considered by many to be one of the most balanced metagames to have ever existed, even with the release of new threats such as Salamence, Metagross, Jirachi, and Swampert. Alakazam was also given some new tricks in the form of, well, Trick. With this move, Alakazam could cripple its would-be nemesis, Blissey, by trading her a Choice Band or Macho Brace for her precious leftovers. Encore also allowed Alakazam to foil Pokémon attempting to set up on it, and access to Substitute and the elemental punches meant it was never short of options. Alakazam had become unpredictable, and unpredictability was often a precursor to success. However, it was not meant to be, as Blissey and Tyranitar walled Alakazam to hell and back, regardless of its choices. It was often passed over in favor of more versatile sweepers such as Raikou, Starmie, and the demigod of ADV, Suicune. Even though Alakazam's Special Attack was still unmatched, its ability to control the match was now nothing more than a faint echo of a bygone era. Alakazam became reminiscent of an old man, both in function and in form, as its glory days faded into the past and its unshaven mustache grew wild and unhindered. Things were not looking up for Alakazam, but the worst was yet to come.

Alakazam started its arduous journey through DPP in BL, where it had been for the previous few generations. It was outclassed as a special sweeper in OU by Pokémon such as Azelf and Heatran, and although its support movepool was phenomenal, ancillary roles were better fulfilled by dedicated supporters such as Celebi and Bronzong. Alakazam struggled to remain afloat in BL, but it eventually lost its fight and found itself in the recesses of UU. Yet not all was lost for the embattled Psychic: it still had its exceptional offensive stats, and the advent of Choice Specs allowed it to hit even harder. New coverage moves such as Grass Knot, Signal Beam, Focus Blast, and a special Shadow Ball ensured Alakazam could put a significant dent in anything, even with the loss of the elemental punches. Taunt allowed Alakazam to shut down ordinary counters, while Substitute allowed it to survive the ubiquitous priority attacks that plagued DPP. Alakazam was not a bad Pokémon, it was merely a victim of the power creep that seems to occur every generation. It just couldn't keep up with the powerful offensive threats that now reigned supreme. Choice Scarf also ensured that it could no longer use its Speed as its trump card, as now anything and everything could be faster than it at any given moment. However, just as things looked like they would never get better, something amazing happened.

It was as if a miracle had occurred. Just as Alakazam had hit rock bottom, the powers that controlled Pokémon gave it something that once again surged power and life back through its hyper-intelligent mind: Magic Guard. This one ability changed everything for Alakazam. No longer would residual damage take its toll on Alakazam's already pitiful health. No longer would Sandstorm buffets or Toxic damage threaten to call it to an even earlier grave. Life Orb recoil damage no longer hurt it. Most importantly, Magic Guard + Focus Sash turned into a nightmarish combination that skyrocketed Alakazam into the position of BW OU's most potent revenge killer. Without residual damage to wear it down, Focus Sash ensured that the only way to hurt Alakazam was to attack it directly, but you would probably die to one of its attacks in the process. If it was brought in after a kill, you know that something was going to die, and not even Pursuit could be used to deal with it accordingly. Additionally, BW gave Alakazam a way of defeating Blissey without resorting to Trick. Psyshock allowed Alakazam to target Blissey's abysmal Defense and ensure that Alakazam would never be walled by it again. The metagame's shift towards a more offensive style has also been favorable, as Alakazam was able to put its newfound prowess to good use. The changes might appear small, but they caused an enormous difference in usability. After over a decade of obscurity, Alakazam once again rose to the spotlight. Perhaps it's not as glamorous as it was in the days of Red and Blue, but it's the best Alakazam could have hoped for, and given its highly atypical history, I don't think it'll be complaining anytime soon.

Right now, we don't know what the future holds for Alakazam. The details of XY are still unclear, and until more is revealed, unsupported speculation will do nothing but foster bewilderment and disquiet. However, no matter what these upcoming months bring for Alakazam, one thing is certain: Alakazam will forever be remembered as the Pokémon that has been through the most unusual cycle of utility and potency that the world of Pokémon has ever seen.

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