Hello! My name is Kevin Krueger, I’m a 28 year old medical resident from Michigan. I started playing the Pokemon Trading Card Game competitively about 4 years ago. It was my last summer off for the foreseeable future, in the middle of the very stressful grind of medical school. In one of my few months of reprieve, I was perusing old Game Boy games to play on my laptop emulator, when I came across Pokemon TCG, which I have very fond memories of from way back in my childhood.

The original game cartridge taught me the rules and introduced me to the magic of deck building. Unfortunately, having nobody in my life who owned enough cards or had a desire to actually play the game, I was stuck playing virtually against the game’s questionable AI. Nevertheless, it was enough to get me hooked! Two decades later, I was playing through the Game Boy game again and thought to myself, “you know, I bet there is a way to play this online with actual people nowadays…”. After a quick app search and PTCGO download, I was on my way.

Fast forward a couple of years – I’ve day 2’d a couple of major events and am starting to feel confident with my competitive IRL skills. With my work schedule being a bit more relaxed for once, I decided to push for my first Worlds invite. After a couple of League Cup wins in quarter 3, I was sitting at just over 300 CP with travel plans booked for EUIC and this year’s NAIC – having scored CP at every major standard event I’ve attended this year, I was very confident in my ability to get over line. Then coronavirus hit. Needless to say, I was disappointed by all the cancellations. The timing made me feel like I had just lost all the momentum I was gaining as a competitive player.

This is where the Limitless crew stepped up big time! I’ll never forget watching the initial hype video for the qualifying series – it was truly an inspiration for me, and a huge motivator to keep applying myself to improve as a player, deck builder, and meta-gamer. While obviously providing a different experience than an IRL event, these qualifier events and subsequent invitational were, for me, a worthy replacement for the missed opportunities of EUIC, NAIC, and Worlds for the 2020 season.

Qualifiers 1 & 2

Now that I’ve introduced myself, I’d like to explain some of the thought process and game play that went into my qualifier runs. Leading up to the first one, I had really been struggling to settle on a deck since the release of Sword & Shield. ADPZ had such a stranglehold on the meta, and I have always disliked playing a high volume of mirror matches, especially when the opening coin flip has such a huge influence on the outcome of the series. So my first goal was to beat the BDIF without having to play it.

The next factor in my deck choice was an interesting one. I remember the first big talking point in the community in regard to the qualifiers was how the online format would affect the meta. Immediately, people started to discount Cincinno mill due to perceived time constraints, which I knew was a huge mistake. In my experience, controlling archetypes do better in online tourneys than IRL because it is easier to keep track of your resources on PTCGO. Furthermore, they always thrive the most when they start getting written off, as people stop practicing and teching against them. So my second goal was to consistently beat Cincinno mill. Everything else I was fine taking an even to unfavorable matchup against, trusting in a relatively consistent, aggressive deck that I was very comfortable with – “Ability Zard” (decklist link).

I started 9-0 in this tournament against a heavy diet of ADPZ and a few mill decks thrown in. Obviously, there was some luck involved here – no matchup in pokemon is completely free, and ADPZ in particular can be tricky if your opponent plays optimally. However, I do think my preparation played a huge role in this start. I made a somewhat unexpected deck choice that paid off big time as far as my overall matchup spread. With some good luck against more unexpected decks in day 2 (Ultimate Mewtwo/Mew and PikaRom in particular), I was able to sneak into top 8 with a 16-4 overall record.

In top 8, I faced a very good ADPZ player who had a unique decklist with which he prioritized the Guzma & Hala to search out defensive tools like Metal Frying Pan, Big Charm, and Chaotic Swell. He won the opening coin flip, drew through his deck consistently, and made all the right plays to take down the series. I feel I played all the games optimally, but was unable to overcome his advantage of going first in games 1 and 3, combined with his very strong and well executed defensive strategy. However, even with this loss, I was in an excellent position to qualify for the invitational. With a top 8 finish to start and a long track record of success in PTCGO events, I considered myself one of the favorites to end up in the top 12 overall!

For qualifier 2 I pretty much knew I was going to stick with the same archetype. For one, it had just been massively successful for me, and is the sort of deck that doesn’t have a lot of direct counters. I did anticipate mill players adding Wobbuffet and Stealthy Hood to give them a fighting chance against me. To counter the counter, I swapped Victini V for Cramorant V to give me the option of sniping their bench with my Ninetales’ ability effectively shut off. In hindsight, this was a huge mistake. For one, mill took a big step back now that it was more of an expected archetype, and not all of them bothered to tech for Ability Zard anyway. In the week leading up to qualifier 2, Mewtwo & Mew Malamar started gaining a significant amount of hype, and Victini V is typically your best attacker in that matchup, being able to 2 hit KO their tag teams with minimal effort, sometimes not even having to hit a Welder at any point.

I struggled mightily to cope with their continual hand disruption throughout the tournament, and took several losses to the archetype on both days. However, I was matched up against enough mill, ADPZ, and Rowlet & Alolan Exeggutor of all things to make my second consecutive day 2 with a 9-4 day 1 record, ending up with a top 128 finish. My favorite part of this tournament was actually seeing a more optimized version of my archetype take down the whole event. It felt really great to have inspired such a significant meta shift with my unexpected qualifier 1 finish!

Qualifiers 3 & 4

This was enough to keep me in the top 12 of the overall standings, but I was a bit apprehensive about adapting to the introduction of Rebel Clash into the meta for qualifiers 3 and 4. Historically, I have really struggled with adapting to new formats – it usually takes me a couple of months to figure out what archetype I like best within a given card pool. My success in the first qualifiers was a huge motivator though, as I knew I needed just one more good finish to get me over the line.

I buckled down and tested a number of potential new archetypes for qualifier 3. AbilityZard was really struggling with both the late game hand disruption of PikaRom and the massive HP of Dragapult Vmax, so that was out. I tried Blacephalon with a Jirachi Prism Star/Scoop Up Net package to further swing the prize trade, but it was an inconsistent mess. PikaRom was ok, but my suboptimal lists were struggling against Dragapult and there would be too many mirror matches for my liking. A week before the event, I bit the bullet, bought some PTCGO codes, and built Dragapult. 

The simple lists other people were playing were coming up a bit short for me in my testing, so I decided the deck needed some healing to more consistently close out games. Additionally, without any energy acceleration in the list, it was very vulnerable to energy denial, which was popping up in all sorts of different archetypes as a direct counter. So I thought the sensible play was 4 Super Scoop Ups for the healing effect and general utility, along with a thin Malamar line to set up multiple attackers and resist the inevitable Crushing Hammer hits from my opponents.

It ended up working really well (decklist link)! I was able to finish day 1 with a 10-3 record, despite flipping a ton of tails on Super Scoop Up. The backup plan was often just retreating damaged Dragapults to the bench and hoping my opponents whiffed gust, but it worked out often enough to not make a big difference in the end.

On day 2, I started to hit more optimized PikaRom lists that didn’t bother running Jirachi as a pivot. This loss of a free prize is actually huge for the matchup, because it forces you to get a whole extra attack off, during which time they are often able to accumulate enough energy for a one hit KO on Dragapult Vmax – either with a Alolan Raichu & Raichu GX attack + 3 Electropowers, or a lot of energy on board with Boltund V. All 3 of my day 2 losses were to decks like this, and my only win against the archetype was basically just because Jack Old’s computer acted up, completely wasting one of his turns (and he almost beat me anyway, despite this). Thankfully, I was able to win all of my non-PikaRom rounds in day 2 and finish with a 14-6 record overall, bubbling down to a top 64 finish.

I was now tied for 3rd in overall qualifying points. In hindsight, I think it was pretty much impossible for me to miss out on top 12 at this point, but I had this nagging fear that I would somehow whiff by a point or two because I bubbled out of top 32 in the third one. But also, I wanted to keep metagaming and improving as a player, and these events had all been super fun anyway! So I decided to play in qualifier 4, going for the 4/4 day 2 streak with a weird PikaRom list that was heavily teched for mirror including Wobbuffett and Power Plant.

Despite my ample preparation, the draws just did not go my way that day, especially in the mirror. One memorable moment was my opponent benching PikaRom, attaching energy, and holding a five card hand for their first turn. I was only able to counter with a Boltund V Electrify to start setting up my own PikaRom. On their second turn, having played no supporters all game, they drop Speed Energy, triple Electropower, Thunder Mountain Prism Star, Boss’s Orders on my PikaRom to set up a 3 prize Full Blitz, then Dedechange for 6 new cards. I ended up dropping at 7-5 once I was eliminated from day 2 contention.

I nervously scanned the day 2 qualifiers for this event, looking for people that might be able to pass me for an Invitational invite. I was relieved to see that there were only a half dozen or so within reasonable striking distance, so my top 12 spot was all but assured. Indeed, I ended up tied for 6th place, so it was time to start prepping hard for the Invitational!

The Invitational

After my relatively poor performance in Qualifier 4, I knew I needed to find a new deck. In addition to my frustration with what I felt were largely luck based mirrors, I just wasn’t having as much fun with PikaRom as I usually do while playing Pokemon (an underrated consideration for choosing between different archetypes in my opinion).

Andrew Wamboldt’s top 8 Spiritomb/Ultra Beasts deck immediately caught my eye as a strong meta call. His excellent article on the Limitless website further cemented my trust in the deck as having options to consistently beat all of the “big 3” of Blacephalon, PikaRom, and Dragapult Vmax. While the rise of the new “Combo Zacian” archetype from qualifier 4 presented a significant obstacle, Spiritomb’s ability to hit for perfect 220 damage on Zacian’s makes that matchup winnable as well. So I started testing it a bunch, and quickly realized that it is very fun to play, with a high skill ceiling. My friend Luke Morsa of Celio’s Network had played a slightly different version of deck to a win-and-in in qualifier 4. His list focused on Yveltal GX and Scoop Up Nets, which seemed to be more versatile than the other versions with Blacephalon GX or Buzzwole/Pheromosa GX. Leading up to the Invitational, Luke and I started working together to optimize the archetype.

By the end of the next week, I had settled on several modifications to Luke’s list – I found the Cryogonal, while very cool and fun to play with (it can use a Hustle Belt!) was not swinging any particular matchup. I was usually beating Blacephalon just by cycling Marnie’s and waiting for them to have to bench a GX Pokemon to draw more cards, so the Cryogonal was cut for a second great ball to help set up more consistently. Nihilego was theoretically most useful against Zacian decks to copy Brave Blade for a one hit KO in the late game. However, good Zacian players that can see your deck list in this format are very likely to play around the 2 prize turn with either Jirachi Prism Star or Altered Creation GX. So Nihilego was cut for a second Escape Board, which is really nice to consistently set up pivots that help you sequence your draw supporters and Stellar Wishes optimally.

Cutting these two attackers also meant that I did not have to rely on Aurora Energy to fulfill their awkward type requirements, so I maxed out Unit Energies instead. Lastly, I was a bit worried about control popping up in an untimed format, which it typically does super well with in my experience. To counter this, I added Mind Report Mewtwo to recycle Boss’s Orders to get around Dolls. I had to cut the second Great Catcher for this, but it ended up being well worth the sacrifice. After a few games with the card, I realized that it also has immense value for boosting mid-game consistency, which can often be the Achilles heel of single prize attacking decks. The ability to convert your Quick Balls and/or Scoop Up Nets into potential draw supporters or gust is a powerful effect in virtually all matchups, so the Mewtwo ended up being a very solid addition.

On Friday night before the event, Luke messaged me one last time, noting that Azul Garcia Griego’s qualifier 4 finals list played no outs to removing Stadiums whatsoever, and that Black Market Prism Star would probably swing the matchup as a result. I tested zero games with this card in the list before the event, and thus, had never experienced or heard of any buggy interactions with Zamazenta V. But with it obviously helping so massively in what was likely to be our worst matchup, as well as being situationally useful in almost any matchup, including it was just too good to pass up.

I ended up cutting my third Switch for it, as I had found these to be significantly less useful since the addition of a second Escape Board mentioned above. With that, my list was ready, and Luke and I half joked that we were going to end up facing each other in the finals. I was very confident in my deck choice and skill with piloting it. But perhaps more importantly, I was having a blast playing the game again, so I knew I was going to have a great day regardless of the outcome!

Round 1 of the Invitational I faced AviLashan UmaShankar who was playing Dragapult Vmax – a matchup which is quite difficult and I had tested extensively.

Game 1 was a little bit strange, as we were both nervous and had some dramatic misplays. I benched Spiritombs aggressively after he left himself a zero card hand, but then he top decked a Cynthia and drew well enough to punish me with a double KO to effectively end the game. Game 2 played out more as expected, with me taking one 3 prize KO with Spiritomb, and a second with Yveltal GX, which is actually the key to winning the matchup on my side, as it can reliably 2 hit KO without any set up.

Game 3 ended up being my most exciting non-mirror match game of the tournament! I had an awkward opening hand which included Yveltal GX and Professor’s Research as my only draw supporter.  I decided to bench it and continue to develop my board, playing the Research. Having seen how the interaction with Dragapult plays out in game 2, my opponent made an astute play by using Boss’s Orders on the Yveltal and getting the first hit in on it. But I was able to respond with a cool combo that I don’t think my opponent saw coming – I attached a Hustle Belt to Yveltal, used Jynx to get it up to 150 damage (this leaves 30 HP remaining) and attacked with absorb vitality for 160 damage and a complete heal of Yveltal to swing the match in my favor!

Round 2 I faced Axel Alvarez with a very cool Lucario & Melmetal Zacian deck. Unfortunately for him, the matchup was just very strongly in my favor, and he was unable to draw well enough to compensate.

In both games, I was able to counter his damage reduction by poking with Spiritomb for exactly 40 damage on his initial attacker. This sets up for a Doom Count GX which obviously ignores any effects like Metal Frying Pan or Full Metal Wall GX. His list dedicated a lot of space to energy disruption, which doesn’t affect me much, but does limit his deck’s aggression and ability to set up multiple attackers quickly. In both games, this bought me enough time to set up several Spiritomb which do enough damage to offset both his damage reduction and Mallow & Lana heals in conjunction with Shrine of Punishment. 

Round 3 was a very interesting match against Oliver Rochin, which was streamed by the Limitless team.

Game 1, my opponent prized both of his ADP’s, and was thus unable to execute his core strategy. Game 2, he drew smoothly to pull ahead to pull ahead in the early game. I attempted a comeback by putting Black Market in play and taking a 3 prize KO with Yveltal GX on his ADP, leaving me just one KO away from winning the match. However, he was able to gust up my Dedenne to negate the Black Market effect and win the game on his next turn.

Game 3 I got a clutch turn 1 Spiritomb attack for 40 damage on his ADP. While he was able to Altered Creation GX on his second turn, I had a counter ready in the form of Yveltal GX again! Normally, he would still have a decent chance of winning in this situation, but he unfortunately prized 3 of his 4 Metal Saucers, and was therefore incapable of taking a KO on my Yveltal with one of his Zacian’s on the following turn. He almost pulled off a thrilling comeback with a clutch Mallow & Lana heal in the late game. However, I was able to Stellar Wish into a 9 card deck to pull my one-of Great Catcher to pull up Dedenne GX for game on the last turn! 

The winner’s bracket final was the next morning, and I was matched up against my friend Luke in essentially a 56 out of 60 card mirror.

I vaguely remember drawing poorly and struggling to find energies in this match. I’m also pretty sure I misplayed quite a bit – neither of us had tested the mirror match much at all, and it had actually changed quite a bit with our last minute inclusions of Black Market and the Dimension Breach Giratina that discards Special Energy. I lost 2-0, but was really excited that Luke had wrapped up a finals spot. Now I just had to take out the loser’s bracket champ to set up a rematch.

Loser’s bracket finals was against Azul with his very consistent and aggressive combo Zacian deck.

Game 1, I am fortunate enough to hit the Black Market early, which is huge. He makes the correct counter play by setting up his Zamazenta V to discard my energies and theoretically take KO’s which still allow him to draw prizes. However, due to an unforeseen bug in PTCGO’s programming, Black Market’s prize reduction effect persisted despite my Special Energy being discarded. This issue had already come up earlier in the tournament and been discussed with the head judges. Per official rules, all PTCGO rulings were final, even if they differed the rulings in the actual TCG, such as this case. Cards with known issues were banned before the event, but the Zamazenta/Black Market interaction was not known and therefore completely legal for play as programmed by PTCGO.

Unfortunately, I won game 1 in large part due to this bug. He took two Zamazenta KO’s on my Spiritombs which in all likelihood should have won him the game, however it ended up an easy win for me because he was continually blocked from taking prizes by PTCGO’s incorrect programming. Thankfully, game 2 was not affected in this way, as I was able to get off to an aggressive start, find Black Market again, and get far enough ahead in the prize trade for the Black Market bug not to matter. On to the finals!

Despite my general aversion to mirror matches, the grand finals ended up being a fascinating affair. With us being good friends, nervous with a big stage, and in uncharted waters as far as testing, misplays abounded and chaos ensued.

Luke started with a 1 game lead on account of him coming out of the winners bracket (he needed to win 2 games to take the championship, while I needed 3). First game of the finals, he starts only one Pokemon and gets donked. Next game, I get a steady start and put Black Market into play to force him to find extra resources to keep up in the prize trade. He is smart to recognize the interaction with Dimension Breach Giratina deactivating Black Market, and puts the pressure back on me to discard his energies to keep taking prizes. Eventually, he missed an energy/attack, and I was able to take the game.

Game 4, I misplayed by KO’ing his Buzzwole immediately after his Sledgehammer turn. Robin Schulz did a great job commentating here by pointing out that I should have taken out his benched Spiritomb instead, leaving him with the now very weak Buzzwole as his only attacker on board. I didn’t see this line of play and instead tried to stick him with a dead hand at some point by stacking my deck with Marnie, but he was able to keep drawing through them and take the game. 

Last game, I got off to a terrible start by whiffing energy and going down a prize. I put Black Market in play, perceiving it to be a potential comeback mechanic. In actuality, I think it did little to help me, but instead just put me at a huge risk of running out of attackers and/or switching resources to lose the game that way, which very nearly happened. Luke hit a couple of bad draws midgame and I was able to pull ahead in the prize trade. But after discarding all my Switches, Escape Boards, and Scoop Up Nets by the midgame, Luke wisely changed course and went for a deck out strategy by using his first Boss’s Order on my benched Mewtwo.

I had enough energy in deck to manually retreat the Mewtwo once over a couple of turns, as well as get the attacks off I needed for my last 2 prizes. However, I did not have enough to be able to retreat a second time if he used his last Boss’s Order in the same way. But on his last turn, he whiffed what he needed off of my Marnie, and I had a Spiritomb and Energy left to take my last prize!

At this point, I was sort of in shock. What a crazy ending to the roller coaster of emotions that started with the coronavirus pandemic! I’ve always considered myself an above average player, but I have never won anything more prestigious than a League Cup or a 90 person online tournament before. It felt like a true triumph – I had beaten out all 2000+ players that had competed in any of the qualifiers to win the championship! It was a truly spectacular experience, with memories that will last a lifetime, made even sweeter by being able to celebrate the rest of the weekend with my significant other and close family. I’ll end with one heartfelt last thank you to the Limitless team for organizing and running these events – I can’t even imagine the perseverance and dedication it took to make this a reality!