It’s with great disappointment that I read from the Official Pokémon webpage the decision to maintain the 60-minute time limit for the Best 2-of-3 rounds of the top cut at this year’s World Championships in Hawaii. Last month, the U.S. National Championship repeated a trend that has become all too familiar in competitive Pokémon: A Sudden Death Game 3 to crown the champion. North Carolina’s Kevin Nance squared off against John Roberts II, a new player that had piloted his rogue Klinklang deck all the way to the finals. It’s unclear who went first, etc. as The Top Cut was not allowed to record the match, but the match quickly ended when Roberts’ Klinklang attacked with Gear Grind to KO a Smeargle, earning one prize, and the title of National Champion.
Now, no disrespect to Mr. Roberts, I congratulate him on his win. But is this really the way we want to crown our National and World Champions? Rewind to one year ago. Ross Cawthon and his originative Vileplume/Reuniclus/Donphan (The Truth) deck ties David Cohen’s Magnezone/Emboar deck at one game apiece in the finals of the World Championships. Hundreds of eager spectators gather around the stage, watching for what they hope will be an epic Game 3. Unfortunately, they’ll never see it. With only 60 minutes to play three games, there simply isn’t enough time to complete the series. In fact, Game 3 had not even started when 60 minutes had expired. Instead of being treated to a strategic exchange of tactics under a high pressure, winner-take-all culmination, spectators, including myself, watched Cawthon and Cohen forced to play Sudden Death, a nearly mindless format where the winner of the opening flip is typically at a tremendous advantage. Cohen became an enormous favorite by winning the flip to decide who would play first, and scored a Turn 2 Knock Out on Cawthon’s Phanpy to earn the prestigious title of World Champion. Quite anticlimactic, wouldn’t you say?
Perhaps what was a bit ironic about Cawthon losing in such a fashion was that he was only one turn away from losing Game 2 to Sami Sekkoum in Top 16, which would have tied their series at 1-1, sending them into a Sudden Death Game 3 to determine the winner. Sami had drawn three prizes in Game 2, but was one turn short of drawing his fourth prize and thus forcing a Sudden Death Game 3 under the Four Prize Rule. Sekkoum’s Yanmega/Magnezone deck would have been an overwhelming favorite in Sudden Death against Cawthon. But instead of the match being decided by ingenious deck-building, brilliant tactics, or even the luck of the draw, this match was decided by the clock, and Cawthon won the match 1-0, advancing to Top 8. Again, quite anticlimactic, wouldn’t you say? These instances are no fluke. These are only a few of the countless instances in the history of the Pokémon TCG in which time limits produced a very disappointing finish. The reality of the game is that 60 minutes is not enough time to consistently complete three-game matches.
60-minute time limits disparage the game we all love to play. By allowing players more time to complete their Best 2-of-3 series, players have more opportunities to test their skills and will rarely leave the tournament feeling short-changed or cheated. Not only do 90-minute top cuts produce a more fair and skill-based tournament, but a more enjoyable one, too, as the metagame becomes more diverse, allowing for more creativity in deck-building. While 90 minutes is not appropriate for every tournament (namely smaller events), it should be our goal to have 90-minute top cuts implemented into as many large Premier Events as possible, and 75-minute top cuts replace the outmoded 60-minute standard in smaller events.
In order to understand how flawed our 60-minute time limit system is, you first have to understand why we have Best 2-of-3 matches for the top cut in the first place. Card games are inherently filled with luck. The luck of the draw can allow a novice player to defeat the most seasoned National or World Champions. That’s not to say luck is a negative element of the game; if there was no luck in the game, the game would grow stale and few would play. But given the deep strategy of the Pokémon TCG, it is only natural players want an opportunity to win by outplaying and outthinking their opponent. When two skilled players face each other, luck becomes even more apparent, as there are less opportunities to outplay a strong opponent.
Best 2-of-3 allows more opportunities for skill to shine. It gives players more chances to show off the creativity and strategies that went behind perfecting their decklists. It also makes it very likely (though not guaranteed due to poorly-constructed Match Play rules) that each player will have an opportunity to play first at least one game. Don’t think of 2-of-3 as merely increasing the amount of skill involved, though. It’s also a way to respect the players, giving them a chance to play and enjoy more games. In events as prestigious as National and World Championships, do we really want to eliminate a player from the tournament because of one bad opening hand? Do we really want to send home a player that labored all season to earn his invite because his lone Pokémon got KO’d on the first turn?
I always find the mathematical aspect of the time limits the most palpable indication that our time limits are flawed. In a system where we allow 30 minutes plus three additional turns for one game, what sense does it make to allow only 60 minutes plus three turns for three games?
I’ve never heard someone suggest that the 30-minute time limits, which are used worldwide for Swiss, are too lengthy, yet so many tournament organizers choose to maintain 60-minute time limits for their Best 2-of-3, top cut rounds. If we wanted to be consistent, wouldn’t it make more sense to allow 90 minutes (perhaps even more since we maintain only three additional turns, not nine)? Another thing to keep in mind is that if a match goes to three games, 60 minutes allows players an average of less than 19 minutes per game. Notice I say less than 19 minutes, not 20. That’s because in a 2-of-3 match, the time continues running after Games 1 & 2, while players shuffle and set up. Players are allowed two minutes after a game to set up, and they generally use the full two minutes. This lowers the actual playing time of a three game series to 56 minutes, plus three turns. In some instances, where players mulligan frequently in Game 2 or 3, players end up with even less than 56 minutes.
At this year’s U.S. National Championship, seven of eight matches were still playing in Top 16 when time was called. In fact, not a single round of the U.S. National Championships top cut finished naturally. From Top 128 to the Finals, matches from every round were finished in plus three turns. Let me reiterate that this is no fluke. This problem is pervasive. All across the world, 2-of-3 matches are deprived of the option to finish naturally by this wrongheaded idea that 60 minutes is sufficient. We’ve seen it year after year, both in small tournaments and National and World Championships. Games are constantly decided by time expiring, and it often leaves a sour taste in the losers’ mouths. I’ve actually watched Masters Division players literally in tears as a 60-minute time limit knocked them out of the World Championship a turn away from winning a match.
One unintended consequence of 60-minute time limits is the lack of viable decks that result from it. Any slow, evolution based deck, regardless of how strong it may actually be in untimed games, becomes either significantly weaker or even completely unviable due to the fact that it performs poorly in a time-limited Game 3 or Sudden Death match. The best current examples of these are decks based around Vileplume (Undaunted), which often fall prizes behind before trying to recapture the lead. If you play Vileplume in a 60-minute 2-of-3 match and lose Game 1, you will almost always end up losing the series as you will not have enough remaining time to win two additional games. If you are fortunate enough to win Game 2, which you sometimes won’t even have enough time to finish, you will be an overwhelming underdog against any Stage 1/Basic-based deck in Game 3, whether it’s an immediate Sudden Death or 15 minutes.
To further illustrate the disadvantage these type of decks face in 60 minutes, while many Vileplume-based decks made the top cut at U.S. Nationals, not a single one got past Top 16. My Mismagius/Darkrai EX/Terrakion/Vileplume deck was eliminated in Top 32 without ever finishing more than one game per round, and the remaining three Vileplume decks were all eliminated in the following round, all three losing on time. My win in Top 64 can be credited to the fact that my opponent chose to write down the cards in my hand each time he used Smeargle’s Portrait. Although he did it in a timely manner, the precious two minutes this totaled to was enough to deny him the win in Game 2.
Don’t erroneously believe that these time limit problems are extinguished with the rotation of Vileplume. It is inevitable in Pokémon that some decks will be much slower than others, some cards will be more time-consuming than others, and we can never know what Japan is going to print next.
Earlier in the season, other decks too were weakened by time limits. Before the debut of Mewtwo EX, Gothitelle/Reuniclus was a strong deck that was weakened by the 60-minute time limit. Durant was hurt by it, too. I remember taking my Durant deck from the 75-minute Florida City Championship Marathon to the 60-minute Chicago City Championship Marathon. While Durant produces fast games, if it does not win two complete games before time expires, it will lose. A three-game series combined with a slow opponent will put Durant in a tough position, and it did not surprise me that I performed much better with Durant in the 75-minute top cut Florida Marathon than I did at the 60-minute top cut Chicago Marathon.
When players, myself included, assess which formats were the most enjoyable to play, the first criteria we often analyze is the variety of viable decks in that format. Under the 60-minute time limits, so many otherwise strong decks never have the chance to shine at tournaments. With longer time limits, a multiplicity of decks would emerge at these tournaments. The best example of this is 2006. It’s my belief that the best deck in the 2005-2006 season was a deck called “Mew Lock” or “Mynx.” It relied on an intricate combination of Mew ex, Jynx, Wobbuffet, Minun, Unown and Pow! Hand Extension to attempt to lock an opposing Pokémon active while Jynx’s Pure Power allowed Mew to knock out their benched Pokémon. However, given the 60-minute time limits of Worlds 2006, no one had the temerity to play this exceptional deck.
60 minutes is so far off from the amount of time actually needed to complete three games that special rules had to be written because there often isn’t even enough time to finish even two games. Play! Pokémon apparently recognizes the insufficient time 60 minutes provides as they implemented a rule that recognizes Game 2 as complete so long as four or more prize cards have been drawn by one player. While a good rule to have for 60-minute top cuts, it does create additional problems and further delegitimizes some wins. A player now forces a Sudden Death Game 3 if he wins Game 2 by drawing four or more prize cards. This means a player can actually win an entire series without winning one full, legitimate game. While this rule may seem unfair at first glance, consider the alternatives in a 60-minute format:
1) Eliminating the four-prize requirement so that any Game 2 prize lead is sufficient to determine a winner
If you eliminate the four prize requirement, this means after a long Game 1, the winner of Game 2 could be decided by someone who simply drew one or two prize cards before his opponent was able to set up. Sure, a player may have lost Game 1, but now he could win both Game 2 and Game 3 by drawing as little as one prize card in each, and win the series by drawing as little as two total prizes over three games.
2) Forcing a player to win a complete Game 2 (six prizes) for it to count as a win
This, of course, leads to even more unfinished games. The result of requiring players to win a full game for Game 2 to count is that instead of having a luck-based Sudden Death decide matches, Best of 3 series would often be a mere one game series. This problem was egregious at the 2011 Last Chance Qualifier, where a meager 45 minutes were allowed for each 2-of-3 series. If Game 1 completed, that player almost always won the series as there usually wasn’t enough time for the opponent to draw four prizes in a second game. Instead of trying to win Game 2, an astute Game 1 winner could do something completely different: waste enough time so that the opponent could not draw four prize cards. While purposefully wasting time without playing cards is against the rules, there is no rule against retreating between high HP Pokémon to deny your opponent prize cards. This strategy, while having no place in an untimed Pokémon game, could be used to deny someone the opportunity to finish Game 2, and allow for a 1-0 series win. 45 minutes essentially defeated the entire purpose of a Best 2-of-3 series; finishing three full games in 45 minutes is nearly impossible. This same dilemma occurs regularly under the 60-minute time limits. When matches are won in such fashion, I can’t help but think to myself, “Wouldn’t we have just been better off with a 45+3 one-game match?”
But while slowplaying and wasting time is against the rules, that’s not to say it doesn’t happen, either. The problems with 60 minutes are exacerbated by the fact that they create so many opportunities for the winner of Game 1 to stall out opponents in Game 2 by deliberately playing slow and wasting time. After all, they don’t have to win the match. They don’t even have to take a prize lead. All they need to do is prevent the opponent from drawing four prize cards. While such slowplay is more difficult to abuse in a 30-minute single game match, all it takes is a lengthy Game 1 (40 minutes or so), and the winner of Game 1 is in a position to ride the 18 or so remaining minutes before his opponent can draw four prizes, winning the series. While some judges adamantly declare, “No one is stalling on my watch!” the reality is that this is extremely difficult to enforce, and judges end up with inconsistent penalties, with overzealous judges issuing warnings and extensions that are not warranted, and passive judges overlooking genuine stalling. I can’t really fault the judges, though. After all, if someone picks up your discard once or twice during a game, how can you tell if they have a legitimate reason or if they are simply wasting time? The answer is that the judge cannot (and should not) make such subjective rulings, as it sets an even more damaging precedent.
Rather than have judges rush players and rather than rewrite or bend the rules of the game with a Four Prize Rule (or other similar ideas), the panacea is to simply extend the time limits, so that players have the ability to play and finish the match as the creators intended. If time limits were extended, there would be no need for the Four Prize Rule, and we could instead expect players to draw six prize cards (or otherwise win in a legitimate manner) in order to earn a win in Game 2.
Some judges and organizers claim extending the 2-of-3 time limits is unnecessary, arguing that most of their games do indeed finish within the 60-minute time limit. Rather than debate the most subjective aspect of this, which is, “What percent of games is acceptable to finish?” I would rather point out that it is misleading to simply count the amount of games that finish in 60 minutes for two reasons:
1) Focusing on how many matches simply finish in 60 minutes isn’t addressing the actual problem
Rather than simply focusing on how many of these matches do finish in 60 minutes, what players and judges should instead be paying attention to is how many of these matches that go to three games are finishing in 60 minutes. Whether or not 60 minutes is sufficient for two games is irrelevant; we instead need to determine if 60 minutes is sufficient for three games. After all, this is Best 2-of-3, not Best 2-of-2. (And, for the record, many 60-minute series never even finish two games.)
2) Many series, finished or unfinished, involved concessions or players rushing
While a series may indeed finish three games in 60 minutes, that isn’t to say the time limits did not have a negative effect on the series. Quite frequently, players are forced to concede games early in an effort to allow themselves adequate time to win two additional games. Not only must players concede early to save time, they often must rush their play, too. It’s almost as if forcing players to concede and/or rush in order to finish three games is a best case scenario for 60 minutes. Who wants to be rushed in a game as deep and strategic as Pokémon? Who even wants to concede in a game as unpredictable and fun as Pokémon?
While 90 minutes is ideal for legitimizing a Best 2-of-3 series, and I would like to see it at some City Championships, it is not necessary to extend the limits to 90 minutes for these smaller events. Given that there is less at stake, and the fact that City Championships are often ran by the same judges and attended by the same players over sequential days, 90 minutes might not always be practical for City Championships. However, I do strongly believe that 90-minute top cuts should be mandatory for all events that are Regional Championships and higher. This means Regionals, Nationals and Worlds. Why decide such prestigious events in a luck-filled Sudden Death?
Look at the U.S. National Championships, which is broken into three days. With the final match being played around 4 PM each of the three days, are we to believe there was not time to extend top cut matches to 90 minutes? Keep in mind previous U.S. Championships have ran as late as midnight on certain nights. Certainly, extending each of the three days barely one hour to accommodate 90-minute top cuts was a practical option. While the World Championships are held over only two days, they host less rounds and a smaller top cut than U.S. Nationals, which leaves sufficient time for 90-minute top cuts at Worlds as well.
For those of you that want to look at such time extensions from a simple, to the point, “How much longer will tournaments run?” approach, here’s a breakdown.
Maximum Top Cut: 8
Maximum Additional Time for 75-minute Top Cut: 45 minutes
Maximum Top Cut: 16
Maximum Additional Time for 75-minute Top Cut: 1 Hour
Maximum Additional Time for 90-minute Top Cut: 2 Hours
Maximum Top Cut: 32
Maximum Additional Time for 90-minute Top Cut: 2.5 Hours
National Championships (United States)
Largest Top Cut: 128
Maximum Additional Time for 90-minute Top Cut: 3.5 Hours
Largest Top Cut: 32
Maximum Additional Time for 90-minute Top Cut: 2.5 Hours
Allow me to emphasize the word maximum regarding additional time added. These time extensions are the maximum amount of time a tournament can be extended when extending top cut rounds from 60 to 75 or 90 minutes. Just because players are allowed 75 or 90 minutes to finish a 2-of-3 match doesn’t mean the players will always use all of that time to finish the round. (When you actually give players adequate time to play, they will not consistently exhaust the clock!) This is especially true of 90 minutes and in the final rounds of the tournaments, when only one or two games must be completed. With less games, the likelihood of a drawn-out Game 3 delaying the tournament decreases.
Another important thing to keep in mind is that the younger divisions, who often consist of players brought to the event by parents eager to leave, are even less affected by these time extensions. This is because younger divisions average much smaller attendance, and thus have smaller top cuts. While Masters will usually cut to Top 8 at a City Championship, Seniors and Juniors often respectively cut to Top 4 and Top 2. This means these players have their tournament extended a maximum of 30 or 15 minutes, respectively, and often less as there are so few games to be played.
Some of the larger Regional Championships across the U.S. have become two-day events and with good reason. The events were simply too large (even with 60-minute top cuts) to finish at a reasonable time when ran over one day. (For those of you that believe changing these time limits is an insurmountable task, I remind you that the call for two-day Regionals started from a determined group of players voicing their opinions on online forums like the Pokegym!) While there is ample time for 90-minute top cut rounds over any two-day Regional tournament, it is a challenge to finish 90-minute Top 16 in a one-day State Championship. Though I would like to see 90 minutes at State Championships, since these events are completed over one day, it may not be an option in every state. I would encourage organizers to start their State Championships early if it allowed for 90-minute top cuts, but I would not advocate extending a one-day event to a two-day event simply to extend from a 75-minute to a 90-minute top cut. States are kind of the awkward “in-between” tournaments, where 90-minute top cuts usually won’t fit.
Some tournament organizers claim that they wouldn’t mind extending their time limits, but their venues don’t allow it; there just isn’t enough time. To those TOs, I must remind them (I use the term “remind” loosely as most of them know this, but don’t like to admit it) that there is a myriad of places to host Pokémon tournaments, many of which are free or inexpensive. Occasionally, there may be a City Championship venue that is too convenient except that it would force a 60-minute time limit. I can accept this – a 60-minute 2-of-3 is better than having no tournament at all. However, I believe organizers should prioritize finding venues that allow sufficient time for 75 and 90-minute top cuts.
One suggested compromise involving extended time limits involves extending the time limits of the top cut, but only for some of the final rounds, perhaps the Top 8, 4, or 2, depending on the size of the tournament. While this is better than extending none of the rounds, I am not a fan of the idea overall. As an example, let’s say we have cut to the Top 64 players, and we decide that Top 64 through Top 16 will get 60 minutes to play, but Top 8 will get 75 or 90 minutes to play:
Top Cut: 64 Players
Top 64: 60 minutes
Top 32: 60 minutes
Top 16: 60 minutes
Top 8: 75 minutes
Top 4: 75 minutes
Top 2: 90 minutes
The purpose of extending time limits is to increase the likelihood of a legitimate series. But why are we only legitimizing the Top 8? Why is it okay for a player to be eliminated by an illegitimate, rushed 60-minute series in the earlier rounds, but not in the later rounds? Even with one round having less time, the slower decks will immediately be underdogs entering the top cut and face immediate elimination. Additionally, even the matches with extended time can be tainted by previous rounds having less time. Who is to say the Top 8 would even be the same eight players if extended limits were offered for the entire top cut? The effects of insufficient time limits can carry into the rounds where players are given additional time, as the winners may not have even advanced to these rounds had they played a longer match in the previous round. In such formats, the eventual winner of a tournament can be someone who scored a 1-0 win in Top 64, but would have been eliminated in the first round had his opponent had sufficient time to finish Game 2. I firmly believe time limits should be extended for all top cut rounds, not just some of them.
Good ideas and positive changes have been slow to come to the game since its first U.S. tournaments in 1999, but when we, the players, work together, they do come. Start locally by spreading the idea to other players and then collectively present the idea to your local tournament organizers. As more and more areas across the world host 75 and 90-minute top cuts, these time limits will become the norm, and it will only be a matter of time before they are implemented at National and World Championships, where they are most needed.
Already, some tournament organizers across the United States have been using extended time limits in their tournaments. In Florida, veteran organizers Heidi Craig and Randy and Ronae Curry always allow 75 minutes, and southeast Florida’s Larry Altavilla has followed in their footsteps. In North and South Carolina, the Reynolds give their players the full 90 minutes. Georgia and Arizona have also ran 75-minute top cut events. Most recently, I’ve heard that Texas events were using 75 minutes for their top cuts. I laud the efforts of these tournament organizers who put their players first. These organizers create a more enjoyable and fair tournament atmosphere for their players, and their actions have the potential to then spread to the rest of the world’s competitive areas. I strongly encourage all those organizers who still cling to 60-minute top cuts to incorporate 75 and 90-minute top cuts into their events. Your players will appreciate it. Still don’t believe me? Try it out for one tournament and ask your players what they thought.
It might take another disastrous series of Sudden Death matches at a National or World Championship before enough of us realize the need for 90-minute top cuts. But for those of you that can already see the problem, I encourage you to let your voices be heard. Share your opinions, and if you’ve had the opportunity to play in 75 or 90-minute top cuts, share your experiences with the rest of the community. The Pokegym forums are a great place to start. Together, we can give this amazing game and the players the respect they deserve.
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