Pokémon NAIC: Lessons from the North American International Championship

The final International Championship of the season took place from June 30th until July 2nd in Ohio. The North American International Championships (NAIC, to shorten) gathered thousands of players all around the world to play Pokémon VGC, Pokémon TCG and Pokémon GO. It was the biggest tournament ever, with almost 2000 players in the TCG Masters Division and it clearly showed that the game is more alive than ever. What ended up winning the event and what can we learn from that?

Japan was on the horizon

So, the first thing that you need to know about the importance of that event is not that, of course, everyone wanted to do as well as possible to win such a big tournament. But it was not just about money or prizes: more things were at stake. This was the last tournament before the celebration of the 2023 edition of the World Championships (Japan) and many players knew that this was their last shot to try to get the remaining points they needed to get their invite.

Also, some of the top players in the circuit tried to show their best performance since, even if they had already secured their place in Yokohama, they were all fighting for a top position in the ranks. In case you didn’t know, top players of the season receive a stipend (financial reward) for being the best of the best and, believe me, it is not little money that we are discussing here.

Oh, and there is one last thing. The format that was played at NAIC included cards from the newest set, Paldea Evolved… which is the format that we are going to have at the Worlds. Everyone really wanted to know what the top decks were going to be so that they could start anticipating the metagame. So… what happened there?

The expected meta … and the return of the king

Paldea Evolved is a set that came with some really good cards that were immediately added to the top strategies in the format. The set, while good, rather than adding new archetypes to the game, reinforced some of the most powerful decks. So, in the end, life continued just as it has been for the past 3 months. I was honestly not anticipating any major surprises.

Some of the top decks in the previous format have clearly been Gardevoir ex and Lost Box variants. With the cards of Paldea Evolved (Reversal Energy, Jet Energy, Artazon City and Iono) I was expecting these two decks to see a lot of play. And they definitely did. They were both the most popular strategies in Day 1 by far and I completely understand the players that opted to pick them. If something works, why are you going to bother changing it?

None of the new decks had what you would call a massive success. Sure, there were a couple of Chien-Pao builds, some players decided to try to disrupt the metagame with Ting-Lu and there were some daring ones that went all in with the brand new United Wings strategy (you need to accept the almost autoloss against Lost Box but you know you are basically able to win against the rest).

However, to me, there was a very clear winner: Arceus Umbreon. I think I have already written a lot about Arceus, rightfully so. When it was revealed, everyone understood that we were seeing a card that has the potential to define a new era and, so far, it has done so. The versatility of Arceus allows it to be paired up with all sorts of attackers that, depending on the metagame, will be rotating. The latest Arceus build features two very powerful VMAX Pokémon: Umbreon and Duraludon. With Umbreon, you have access to a lot of gusting effects (moving a Pokémon from the bench of your opponent to the active position) and you stop all decks that rely on special energies with Duraludon. It is a very, very solid deck that can definitely win against anything especially if they go first. And the best thing? That it has an amazing match up against Gardevoir and Lost Box.

Arceus Duraludon by Ian Robb

Pokémon (18)

4 Arceus V BRS
3 Arceus VSTAR BRS
2 Duraludon V CRZ
2 Duraludon VMAX CRZ
2 Umbreon V EVS
2 Umbreon VMAX EVS
1 Lumineon V BRS
1 Radiant Alakazam SIT
1 Spiritomb PAL

Energy (14)

4 Double Turbo Energy BRS
4 Darkness Energ
4 Metal Energy
2 Fighting Energy

Trainer (28)

4 Iono PAL
3 Boss's Orders PAL
2 Adventurer's Discovery FST
2 Professor's Research SVI
1 Judge SVI
1 Raihan CRZ
4 Ultra Ball SVI
4 Nest Ball SVI
1 Switch SVI
1 Escape Rope BST
1 Choice Belt PAL
3 Lost City LOR
1 Path to the Peak CRE

If you look at the stats, you will immediately see that it was the deck that got the most placements in top 8. The only real weakness the deck might have is Chien Pao, but this one was, by far, one of the less popular decks in terms of usage.

Arceus VSTAR already won the last edition of the World Championships at London. and I am pretty convinced that it has a very strong chance of defending this title once again. The deck has not gained a lot of new cards but the consistency of Iono coupled with the arrival of Spiritomb (that facilitates the Mew VMAX match up) is more than enough for Arceus to keep shining as the king it is. Arceus VSTAR has not always been the best choice… but it has never truly left. You can check some of the top decklists in this link.

An unexpected deck wins the trophy

In the end, American player Ian Robb faced Cyrus Davis from Canada. Arceus Umbreon versus Rapid Strike. Rapid Strike, just to provide you with some background, is a bit of a niche deck that can spread a lot of damage counters around. This is ideal to beat strategies that rely on small attackers like Lost Box but it might struggle having a consistent set up. In theory, it was one of the few decks that had a decent match up against Arceus because it could KO Arceus before it could evolve, thanks to the fighting type of Rapid Strike Urshifu VMAX.

The fight was pretty intense. Urshifu took the lead in the first game but Arceus was able to tie the series in game two. It all came down to a very nerve-wrecking game three and everyone was holding their breath anticipating a fierce competition. It never happened. Cyrus set his field; Ian played Arceus V and passed… there was nothing else on the bench. That was the dream for Cyrus, who only had to attach an energy and declare an attack. The weakness mechanic, once again, proved to be too much.

I honestly have to say that I had imagined a lot of possible scenarios but none included Urshifu winning. Not because it is a bad deck per se but, as I explained, it is not a popular choice and has some awkward match ups across the board. Also, not to forget that it is quite challenging to play because you need to have a very clear, long-term gameplan against every deck and know exactly where to place your damage counters and why. If you play your cards right, you might even be able to take 4 or 6 prizes in one single turn. Here you can see the winning decklist:

Pokémon (17)

3 Inteleon V FST
3 Inteleon VMAX FST
2 Rapid Strike Urshifu V BST
2 Rapid Strike Urshifu VMAX BST
2 Remoraid BST
2 Octillery BST
1 Medicham V EVS
1 Radiant Alakazam SIT
1 Lumineon V BRS

Energy (10)

6 Water Energy 3
4 Rapid Strike Energy BST

Trainer (33)

3 Iono PAL
2 Irida ASR
2 Melony CRE
2 Professor's Research SVI
1 Korrina's Focus BST
1 Cheryl BST
1 Klara CRE
4 Ultra Ball SVI
3 Battle VIP Pass FST
2 Nest Ball SVI
2 Energy Retrieval SVI
1 Energy Search SVI
1 Hisuian Heavy Ball ASR
1 Echoing Horn CRE
1 Escape Rope BST
3 Forest Seal Stone SIT
3 Tower of Waters BST

What can we expect in Japan?

It is going to be a bit difficult to exactly predict what will happen in Japan. Seeing these results, I have the hunch that people are still going to be playing Gardevoir and Lost Box but  perhaps we will see other decks that can counter Arceus. Maybe Lugia with a 1/1 line of Single Strike Urshifu becomes relevant once again. I am not sure if people are actually going to consider switching to Urshifhu Inteleon just because it is not as consistent in absolute terms.

The problem is that, at the end of the day, there is a decision to be made. You can’t counter everything and I don’t think there is a deck out there that is able to consistently defeat Lost Box, Arceus Duraludon, Inteleon and Gardevoir at the same time. But, there is still time to test and I am sure we will see a lot of creative options in the end. Depending on my testing, I might even choose a random, funny deck and call it a day.

NAIC has definitely been a rollercoaster of emotions and now, it is about using these results to try to come up with the best strategy. What I like about this meta is that there are a lot of great options and that there is not one clear tier S deck that is absolutely dominating, so I am really excited to play one of the most diverse Worlds of the past couple of years. 

Autor: Elena (Gaia Storm)

Elena has been playing Pokémon Trading Card Game since 2011 and has never stopped. With her partner, she runs Gaia Storm, one of the largest Pokémon TCG Youtube channels in the world. She has a problem remembering the names of all the Pokémon but tends to open the most broken Pokémon packs.