Traveling to a large Pokémon TCG tournament is always a fun and exciting experience. I love to visit new cities, see new sights and try different foods. But traveling isn’t always as glamorous as it may seem. In fact, more often than not, I had to sacrifice time and convenience in the interest of cost.
There are many costs that come with playing in a Pokémon tournament. You have to pay to enter the tournament, you have to buy the cards you want to play in your deck and you have to buy yourself food while you’re away from home for the weekend. These costs often add up very quickly. So naturally, I’ve always looked for areas where I can save. I play minimum rarity cards in my decks, I always pay for the basic level of entry to the event and I also will often cram into a small sedan to drive for 10+ hours with three or four friends, as opposed to spending a few hundred dollars on a plane ticket.
It comes down to what’s worth more - the time or the money. At least in the early part of my playing career, the money was always worth more. As I’ve grown, I’ve gotten on a few more flights to regional championships than maybe I would have in my early 20’s. This story today comes from a time early on in my competitive Pokémon TCG experience, where saving money was the highest priority.
The Athens, GA Regional Championship
It's December of 2016. I had just been married for a few months. My wife and I were just starting out into our adult lives after graduating from college a few weeks before our wedding. She was in grad school and focused fully on getting her master’s degree. We were in a good position financially, but we were always very conscious of every dollar we spent. The Athens regional championship was coming up in January and I really wanted to try and make it to the tournament. Traveling out of state to a Pokémon tournament was definitely a luxury, but fortunately I had just won $400 for winning a local $1k event with my Mega Rayquaza-EX deck. This was the first time I had ever actually made any money from playing Pokémon, so I set my eyes on Athens. Using some of the money I had won from the $1k event, I was able to budget and make a trip to Georgia.
January 2017 comes around. I coordinated with several of my friends, and we packed into my small Ford Focus and got underway. Traveling with a group of Pokémon players is always interesting. My friend Blaine tried to play solitaire games with his deck on top of a binder, Grant sat in the front seat next to me, already confident with the deck he had chosen for the tournament and Eddie was in the back seat trying to finalize the last few cards in his Vespiquen deck. Blaine would sometimes drop a card on the floor, and it became a mad dash to figure out where it had gone. There were hours spent talking about the Standard format, what decks we expected to be popular at the event and much sharing of Pokémon tournament memories. I really had no clue what I wanted to play. Since I was driving, I was planning to do most of my last-minute testing once we arrived in Athens.
Finally, we make it to the peach state, and shortly after we arrive at our destination. We pulled into the neighborhood where the Air Bnb was located. You see, driving isn’t the only way I would save money on Pokémon trips. I usually tried to stay with someone nearby that I knew, or cram into a cheap hotel room - sneaking a few more people in to bring the cost down. This trip though, we were using Air bnb. Air bnb was still a relatively new concept in early 2017, and I had never stayed somewhere using the service before. But my friend Blaine found us a cheap room that he said was only $20 a night. I would quickly learn the harsh reality of an old adage I’ve heard many times in my past, “you get what you pay for.”
The house was lived in by college students, and they were renting this back room of their house out to try and make a little extra money. The room couldn’t have been more than 10’x10’, and within the room was one twin mattress on the floor and a queen size air mattress. Now there were four of us, so that math doesn’t quite work out. I quickly laid claim to the twin mattress, which I deemed more than fair since I had driven the whole way from North Carolina to Georgia. I don’t quite remember how the other three managed, but I do have faint memories of waking up in the morning to Eddie curled up in the corner. There were a few jokes made at Blaine’s expense for what the room was that he had booked, but ultimately, I think we were all ok with how little it would cost us.
Now, I had the task of figuring out what I should play. I was torn between a few decks, and the decks that my friends were playing all seemed good, but my mind just kept drifting back to the Mega Rayquaza-EX deck which I had won $400 with a few weeks before. I didn’t really anticipate the meta to be favorable for that deck, but it was what I was comfortable with. So with very little time to go with anything else, I settled on M Rayquaza-EX with Jolteon-EX included, and tried to get a few hours of sleep.
It’s pretty normal for me to not get a lot of sleep the night before a tournament, though I do always recommend it. We had to get up a little extra early since in addition to being very cramped, this Air Bnb was a 20-minute walk to the convention center! We decided to walk and avoid paying the convention center parking fee. So early in the dark, foggy morning, we began our trek to the convention center.
700 players fight for victory
The event itself was the largest Pokémon tournament ever at that point with over 700 players. This was a little jarring walking into the packed convention hall. But pairings for round 1 went up, and the tournament began. This tournament actually went very well for me. I started off hot, winning round 1, round 2, round 3, and eventually I found myself sitting at 6-0. I had played in a couple of regionals, but this was my best start ever by far.
I remember thinking to myself: how did I even get here? I wasn’t even planning to go to this event until a few weeks prior. I wasn’t confident in my deck choice, I was tired, and I hadn’t even played to my highest potential. There are a few mistakes that I remember from early on in this tournament. Most embarrassingly, I decked myself out to lose game 1 in round number 5. I managed to compose myself and win games 2 and 3, but in that moment, I remember feeling very out of my league. Did I belong? Were my opponents more deserving of these wins? I got my head together, and prepared for the final rounds.
I had never made day 2 of a regional championship, and now I find myself just needing one win in the next three rounds to get there. I was nervous, but excited. Round 7 I was playing against a deck I felt like was a very good matchup for me. And things played out perfectly. My deck was firing on all cylinders and I did not miss a beat. I won in a convincing 2-0 fashion. I had done it. I was in Day 2 of the largest Pokémon tournament ever.
But there were still two more rounds to go. I managed to win in round 8, and I was the only 8-0 player in the entire tournament. It is very hard to go 9-0 at a regional championship. Few players have ever managed that feat, and I was in position to make that happen. The pairings went up, and I was devastated. I would be facing off against Dylan Bryan. Dylan was one of the top players in the game at the time, and many players considered him to be the best deck builder in the game. And the deck he built for this event? Vespiquen/Zebstrika. This matchup was abysmal for me. There was very little I could do to win, since Zebstrika can easily take a one-hit knock out on my Mega Rayquaza-EX for just one energy attachment. It was stacked against me, but I tried my best. I ended up stealing a game in game 2 by chaining Hex Maniac for the first four turns of the game, but outside of that anomaly it was a landslide in Dylan’s favor. What made this even worse, was that now Dylan and I had the same record, 8-1. This meant we were very likely to play in round 10 on day 2.
8-1 record and Top Seed after Day 1
I conclude day 1 with a record of 8-1, and the top seed heading into the second day. Amazingly, of the four players in our group, three of us had made day 2! We begin the long walk back to the Air bnb, celebrating along the way. This was my first day 2 placement, and I couldn’t be more thrilled. But I had to focus. There was something bigger on the line. Having eight wins already put me in an excellent spot to make top 8, but I still had a few rounds ahead of me. We cut our celebration short and tried to rest up for day 2.
Sunday morning felt eerily similar to the previous day. We trudged through the dark foggy morning and made our way to the venue. I remember just thinking of the $5,000 cash prize for firstt
place. When we got to the venue and saw the pairings, I was unfortunately paired against Dylan again. This time I didn’t even get a game off of him. From 8-0 to 8-2. I was deflated. Top 8 seemed so close, yet just out of reach. I would have a lot of work ahead of me if I wanted to make it in.
To be honest, the last few rounds are a bit of a blur. My deck was still working perfectly. The final rounds played out, and I had done it. I made it into the top 8. Amazingly, my friend Eddie also made top 8, and Grant had finished just outside of the cut in 10th
place. 700 players in the tournament, and three of the top 10 had ridden for hours in the car and slept in a tiny room on the floor in an old house.
Top 8 begins and I get a bit of good news. There’s an issue with my opponent’s deck. While it is very unfortunate for my opponent (I do not believe there was any ill intent) this would result in him having a game loss in top 8. This meant I was starting the set at 1-0. I only needed to win one game to advance in the tournament. And this is where things went south. After my deck had worked perfectly for two days and I never missed a beat, things just fell apart. I came up one piece short every game. Once I missed an energy to attack, and once I missed a Pokémon to increase my damage, missing out on a KO. And I watched my tournament end right before my eyes.
Still, I have to be pleased with that run. My first ever day 2 led to my first top 8. With this finish, I received $750. By being frugal, I was able to use this money to travel to more tournaments, making cash at two more regionals that season. This led to me earning an invite to my first ever world championship. This led to me getting a few sponsors, getting my first writing position and my content on YouTube and Twitch becoming more viewed than ever before. I think about this event sometimes, and I can’t help but laugh at this story. This is the tournament that catapulted my Pokémon career. And I got no sleep, I didn’t adequately test my deck, I didn’t even feel good about my deck choice and of course I slept on an old mattress in the back room of a college kid’s house.
“Trainer” Chip Richey is a Pokemon TCG Player, content creator, and commentator. He is a 2 time World Championship Qualifier, but for the last few seasons has been a voice for the game. He has casted Regional Championships and Players Cup tournaments on official Pokemon Livestreams. As a player Chip loves to build rogue decks, and also put his unique spin on popular meta decks. He creates Pokemon content on YouTube, Twitch, and is the co-host of a new Podcast “Uncommon Energy.”