What are Checks and Counters?

By MattL. Art by Bummer.
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Definitions? This isn't language class!

You might be asking yourself, "Matt, why are you explaining things I already know? A check is an important slip you receive from your job, and a counter is like a tabletop." You are absolutely right, but it's important to know that said terms have different definitions in Pokémon. The most common mistake that I see is someone using the words check, counter, and defeat interchangeably. In fact, all three of these words have distinct meanings. "Defeat" isn't a special term in Pokémon, so its definition in the Pokémon realm is the same as the one that you'd find in a dictionary. However, I need to make the distinction between "check" and "counter." In doing so, you should also see that they have much more precise definitions than "defeat," which is a pretty general term. To define "check" and "counter," I will consider two opposing Pokémon, which I will call Pokémon A and Pokémon B.

Pokémon A checks Pokémon B if, when Pokémon A is given a free switch into Pokémon B, Pokémon A can win every time, even under the worst case scenario, without factoring in hax.

Pokémon A counters Pokémon B if Pokémon A can manually switch into Pokémon B and still win every time, even under the worst case scenario, without factoring in hax.

Mamoswine and Bisharp having fun.

I'll give examples later in this article, so if you finish reading this section and something still doesn't make sense, look at those examples, then try again at understanding this part. I should note that this article is based around singles. Sorry, Doubles players! Things work a little differently there, which I will not cover in this article. I will also refer to Pokémon A and Pokémon B as just A and B from now on for simplicity's sake.

There are some parts of those definitions that may be confusing to the unfamiliar, so now I'm going to make sure we're all on the same page. "Hax" does not mean cheats or codes used to win. "Hax" means, loosely, things that have a chance of happening but usually don't, for example, critical hits (under most circumstances), Ice Beam freezing, and Fire Blast missing. This means that we don't take into account these types of things when we analyze if one Pokémon checks or counters another. Despite this, it's unwise to declare that one Pokémon checks another when the victorious Pokémon relies on hitting Focus Blast three times in a row, or something like that. Basically, you're often okay ignoring hax unless something that doesn't have a high chance of happening must happen in order for a Pokémon to check or counter another.

There are some things, like flinching, which you would normally consider to be hax but aren't always so. For example, Jirachi has a 60% chance to flinch a slower opponent with Iron Head, so in this case, flinching is not hax because it happens over half the time. For things such as missing or secondary effects, such as a Scald burn or Special Defense drop from Seed Flare, that have a decently high chance of happening, you need to think about them when you analyze checks or counters. Even though they might fit the standard definition of hax, they happen often enough for you to expect to see them in real situations somewhat commonly. There's no official or best guideline, but in my opinion, if some form of "hax" has a 30% chance or higher of happening, you should keep it in the back of your mind because it's not a negligible occurrence.

If a Pokémon gets a "free switch" in, that means it gets to enter the field without the opponent being able to immediately make a move on it. For example, a common way that you get a free switch is after one of your Pokémon faints; your next Pokémon is allowed to enter the field without immediately being attacked. If one of your Pokémon is "manually switched" in, then your Pokémon allows the opponent to make a move without your Pokémon being able to respond in that turn. Your opponent's move doesn't have to be damaging. If your opponent uses Swords Dance as you manually switch in, your opponent still has an advantage as opposed to if you had gotten a free switch. A manual switch is exactly what it sounds like; the most common way is literally switching out during your turn instead of attacking. There is one subtlety. For example, a Ground-type switching into an Electric-type move will not be affected at all, so this counts as a free switch because the Ground-type incurred no punishment upon switching in.

Notice that there is only one difference between a manual and free switch, which is that during a manual switch you give your opponent one extra turn to use whatever move it wants as opposed to a free switch.

Important remarks

From these definitions follow significant conclusions:

  1. If A counters B, then it is always true that A checks B.
  2. Statement one implies that if A does not check B, then A cannot counter B.
  3. If A checks B, it is sometimes, but not always true that A counters B.
  4. Statement three implies that if A does not counter B, it is sometimes, but not always true that A does not check B.
  5. If A either checks or counters B, then B neither checks nor counters A.
  6. It is possible for A to neither check nor counter B, and at the same time, for B to neither check nor counter A. This is a fairly rare situation. It happens when both A and B get a safe switch into each other, but one doesn't always defeat the other.
  7. It is impossible for a Pokémon set to check or counter itself.

It is crucial that these statements make sense to you. If they don't, I highly suggest that you reread the definitions and explanatory paragraphs until you understand why they must be true.

Only Pokémon check or counter other Pokémon. I haven't explicitly stated that until now, but this is where another common misconception comes in. The following three sentences do not make sense. "Stealth Rock counters Talonflame. Lucario is countered by Earthquake. Rocky Helmet and Iron Barbs or Rough Skin counter Mega Kangaskhan." I see things like these said fairly often. Yes, Talonflame has a 4x weakness to Rock and thus loses approximately 50% of its total health upon switching in when Stealth Rock is up, and you're right, just about every common user of Earthquake can OHKO standard Lucario with it. It's also true that Mega Kangaskhan takes an enormous amount of recoil while using contact moves versus a Pokémon with Iron Barbs or Rough Skin that's holding a Rocky Helmet. However, the issue is that in these sentences, the use of the word "counter" is incorrect, and the same could go for "check" when someone uses that in an incorrect manner. Better choices for those sentences would be "cripples" and "easily defeats."

When we discuss whether something checks or counters something else, we think about a hypothetical situation in which both Pokémon are completely healthy, and after both Pokémon enter the battlefield, whether by free or manual switch, neither is allowed to switch out. Under these conditions, we think about which Pokémon wins, and from this we can determine what checks or counters what.

Because all damage is vital to our discussion, some of you might be inquiring about entry hazards. You might have heard people say "standard field conditions" before, and this is what they're referring to. Under normal circumstances, which combination of entry hazards (no entry hazards being present is an option) is most common? Despite Defog's new buff in Generation 6, the standard field condition is generally considered to be Stealth Rock up on both sides with no other entry hazards present. Obviously, other entry hazards exist, but it's important to always keep Stealth Rock in mind when discussing checks and counters.


Here's an example to give you a better idea of what checking and countering mean. I'll consider the following two Pokémon sets and walk through the analysis of which Pokémon checks or counters the other.

Mamoswine Mamoswine @ Life Orb
Ability: Thick Fat
EVs: 252 Atk / 4 Def / 252 Spe
IVs: 29 HP
Jolly Nature
- Icicle Crash
- Ice Shard
- Earthquake
- Stone Edge
Bisharp Bisharp @ Dread Plate
EVs: 124 HP / 252 Atk / 132 Spe
Adamant Nature
Ability: Defiant
- Swords Dance
- Sucker Punch
- Iron Head
- Knock Off

We begin by considering what happens if both Pokémon have a free switch into each other. It's a new turn and both Pokémon are allowed to make their move. Bisharp should use Sucker Punch, as Mamoswine is faster.

252+ Atk Dread Plate Bisharp Sucker Punch vs. 0 HP / 4 Def Mamoswine: 201-237 (55.9 - 66%) -- guaranteed 2HKO

252 Atk Life Orb Mamoswine Earthquake vs. 124 HP / 0 Def Bisharp: 424-502 (140.3 - 166.2%) -- guaranteed OHKO

Don't forget about the possibility of Stealth Rock. However, the presence or absence of Stealth Rock on either side will not change the fact that Sucker Punch is always a 2HKO and Earthquake is always an OHKO, so in this instance, it doesn't matter. You can find the damage calculator at http://Pokémonshowdown.com/damagecalc/, or by typing /calc into a chatroom on Pokémon Showdown! There's also a link to it on Smogon's home page.

From these damage calculations, we clearly see that if it's a fresh new turn, Mamoswine is the winner. Bisharp deals a nice chunk of damage with priority Sucker Punch, then Mamoswine OHKOes Bisharp with Earthquake. Therefore, Mamoswine checks Bisharp. From earlier, remember that this does not mean Mamoswine counters Bisharp, so now we want to figure out if Mamoswine counters. First, we need relevant calculations of the worst-case scenario for Mamoswine, which is that of Bisharp using Iron Head. Remember that if Mamoswine counters, it can manually switch in and always win even in this worst-case scenario. I will show one calculation with and one without Stealth Rock.

252+ Atk Bisharp Iron Head vs. 0 HP / 4 Def Mamoswine: 336-396 (93.5 - 110.3%) -- guaranteed OHKO after Stealth Rock

252+ Atk Bisharp Iron Head vs. 0 HP / 4 Def Mamoswine: 336-396 (93.5 - 110.3%) -- 62.5% chance to OHKO

Now, let's analyze the scenario. Mamoswine manually switches into an Iron Head. If Stealth Rock is up, it faints upon switching in. If Stealth Rock isn't up, Mamoswine still has a chance of being OHKOed. If Mamoswine happens to survive, it will be left with so little HP that Bisharp can finish it off with Sucker Punch on the next turn. Mamoswine has fainted, and Bisharp has cleanly won. Because Mamoswine cannot manually switch into Bisharp and win every time, Mamoswine does not counter Bisharp.

Conclusion: Mamoswine checks Bisharp, but does not counter it. This also means that Bisharp neither checks nor counters Mamoswine, as has been derived from statement five in the Important remarks section.

Set dependence

The example I just gave was really simple, quite frankly. There are lots of subtleties that can pop up during analyses of checks and counters which I will spend the remainder of this article covering. One of them is that a Pokémon's checks and counters are sometimes determined by which set it's running. Consider the following set:

Mega Aerodactyl Aerodactyl @ Aerodactylite
Ability: Rock Head
EVs: 4 HP / 252 Atk / 252 Spe
Jolly Nature
- Stone Edge
- Earthquake
- Fire Fang / Ice Fang
- Taunt

In the third moveslot, Fire Fang and Ice Fang are listed because they are both viable options. However, this choice completely changes which Pokémon counter this Mega Aerodactyl set. If we assume Stealth Rock is present, Scizor counters the set with Ice Fang but not the one with Fire Fang. On the other hand, Landorus-T counters the Fire Fang set despite failing to counter the Ice Fang set. You can follow the same guidelines and procedure I used when analyzing the Mamoswine versus Bisharp example above if you're not sure why the Pokémon I listed counter Mega Aerodactyl in these instances.

In that example, I discussed how a Pokémon's set can change which Pokémon counter it. This is not always the case. Checking another Pokémon can be tricky at times, and countering a particular Pokémon set is usually not all that easy. However, we can go a step further and see if there exists a situation in which no matter what common set a Pokémon is running, there is another Pokémon which counters it. This is called hard countering, and it's the ultimate display of one Pokémon having dominance over another in a one-on-one matchup. For example, Heatran hard counters Genesect. Every common variant of Heatran counters every common variant of Genesect. I am careful to not omit the word "common" here, because you loophole-finders out there might be tempted to inquire about Choice Specs Hidden Power Ground Genesect or Heatran without a damaging Fire-type attack, neither of which are even close to common. And as shown in the Mega Aerodactyl example, Scizor and Landorus-T counter certain standard Mega Aerodactyl sets, but neither Pokémon hard counters it.

I've talked about how changing a Pokémon's set can change which Pokémon check or counter, and by the same token, a Pokémon's set can determine whether or not it checks or counters another Pokémon. For example, Choice Scarf Haxorus checks non-Choice Scarf Latios but non-Choice Scarf Haxorus does not check Latios. A Pokémon's set encompasses everything that can be manually modified about the Pokémon and isn't just limited to its moves or items, which I've already talked about. Abilities, EVs, and nature all can affect checks and counters.

Additional comments

I said the following two paragraphs ago: "Scizor and Landorus-T counter certain standard Mega Aerodactyl sets, but neither Pokémon hard counters it." It might seem odd to some of you that I made such a general statement in the section where I explained how different sets can affect checks and counters. Shouldn't I have specified exactly which Scizor and which Landorus-T set I was talking about? That's a very good question, but I actually wasn't being sloppy or lazy in that quote. You hear people say things such as "Rotom-W counters Talonflame" all the time. Despite the statement's lack of detail, it's correct and everyone knows what the person is talking about. Why is it often okay to omit which set we're talking about? Do people not realize that checks and counters can be changed by even the slightest modifications to a Pokémon?

Actually, the reason why some sloppiness is okay at times is because of the standard set. Although in practice, the moves and other qualities of a certain Pokémon can change, there's often a move or set that's seen most often, which is the standard set. When people say "Rotom-W counters Talonflame," what they really mean is "standard Rotom-W counters standard Talonflame." Just about every Rotom-W has Hydro Pump and Talonflame doesn't have a move that can do serious damage to Rotom-W. Essentially, every common Rotom-W can counter every common Talonflame. That's why it's okay to just say "Rotom-W counters Talonflame." Of course, when the check or counter is a little more shaky, people are usually careful and think about some of the set dependencies I talked about.

The standard set is why I was okay saying Scizor countered Mega Aerodactyl that lacks Fire Fang. The best move that Scizor could use to retaliate is Bullet Punch, and essentially every Scizor has Bullet Punch, so Bullet Punch is certainly a standard move for Scizor. In Landorus-T's case, I was assuming that it carried Stone Edge. This isn't as solid of an assumption as Scizor having Bullet Punch is, but most Landorus-T have it (In fact, over two-thirds did in November 2013, as shown by the usage stats). Stone Edge is common enough for people to know what I'm talking about when I say Landorus-T can counter Mega Aerodactyl if it doesn't have Ice Fang, given that Stone Edge is definitely a standard move.

Again, the concepts of checking and countering are hypothetical to some extent. Remember that there are some fairly rare conditions under which we analyze whether a Pokémon checks or counters another; namely, we assume both Pokémon are completely healthy and we assume that once both Pokémon are on the field, neither can switch out. Clearly, this is almost never the case in an actual battle. Azumarill counters Blaziken, certainly, but that doesn't mean that Azumarill wants to keep switching into High Jump Kicks all day. In a real match, the Blaziken user could possibly switch out into something that can deal with Azumarill and save Blaziken for later. After Azumarill has taken enough damage, it no longer can switch into Blaziken repeatedly and hence cannot counter it any longer.

The definitions of "check" and "counter" might seem very exact. There are instances in which A might not be able to beat B every time, but can do so most of the time. This brings up the concept of reliability when checking or countering. Sometimes people say that Latios is a reliable check to non-Choice Scarf Haxorus to emphasize the fact that Latios always defeats Haxorus one-on-one, barring hax. It's not that uncommon to hear that one Pokémon is a "semi-reliable counter" to another, which indicates that A counters B often, but not always. You even hear that one Pokémon is an "unreliable check" to another, meaning that the first Pokémon checks the second sometimes, but not often. There are other instances in which one could say that A is not a fully reliable check or counter to B. For example, it's not uncommon that A cannot always check B if B is at full health, but A can always check B if B has taken a little bit of prior damage. All of these examples of varying reliability can be applied to both checks and counters.

Closing thoughts

Many people have some understanding of what checks and counters are, but might just have trouble quantifying it into the precise definitions that this article is based around. Some might prefer to think about checks and counters in this common, intuitive way instead of their precise definitions, so to close I'm going to present the ideas of checks and counters in a way that people normally think of them. Hopefully this will further enhance your mastery of the concept of checks and counters.

Often, you hear people describe checks and counters as the following: "Checks are things that force the opponent out, and counters are good switch-ins." If you think about it, that description is same as the definitions at the beginning, just stated more generally. Another way that you could think about checks and counters is the way that CAP, or the Create-A-Pokémon Project, describes them. Consider the following criteria, with Pokémon A and Pokémon B:

According to CAP, A is usually considered to counter B if A fulfills at least three of the above criteria, and A checks B if A only fulfills one or two. This way of thinking about checks and counters is a bit more broad and rough than by using the definitions. There are some instances in which CAP's criteria and my definitions conflict, but overall, it's definitely not a bad way to think about checks and counters. Again, I presented it because it might possibly help you better in understanding what checking and countering really mean.

I appreciate that you took the time to read this. I want you to come away with a solid understanding of this important concept. This article is the answer to the common question that is this article's title, and hopefully it was thorough, complete, and easy to understand. Because the definitions are the centerpiece of the article and they were stated so long ago, I don't find it redundant to say them again. Remember, A checks B if it can beat B every time, given a free switch into B, and A counters B if A can manually switch into B and win every time. Thank you, and I hope I've helped.

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