Next up we have a player from the Netherlands, Mark Hartel! Although he may not be a big name in the Pokémon TCG, he has a lot of great things to say, and this might be one of our best interviews yet. Enjoy!
Congratulations on your invite to Worlds! How did you earn your points?
I made Top 4 at all five Battle Roads I went to (one of which only cut to top 2, but you still get points). Unfortunately, I lost in Top 4 every single time, but it was still a nice +50. From there I made Top 2 at one Fall Regional and Top 4 at another, which was unexpected to say the least. I remember testing with Boundaries Crossed and thinking, “Ugh, I’m never getting the hang of this,” and then I ended up there… feels good.
I ended up making the Finals at three City Championships, winning two of them, and from there I was 10 points away. I made Top 4 at one more Cities and I was in. I also made Top 16 at the European Challenge Cup.
I do need to mention that all of these were tournaments taking place in the Netherlands. Other than the ECC, events simply aren’t as big as they are in the US, and on top of that not everybody there is that great of a player. There’s also a LOT of opportunities to get points since we have so many tournaments within a reasonable traveling distance.
Still, I feel I have a reasonable grasp of the game making it this far.
For those who may not know you, can you tell us a bit about your history in the game?
This is my second season playing competitively. Before that, I played kinda casually online using Redshark (a simulator one could consider prehistorical right now, though the guy that made it recently added scans!). I think this was somewhere during DP-on and MD-on formats. I kinda knew what was good and what wasn’t, but I would probably strand way before top cut at any kind of serious tournament.
I started hitting the tournament scene around Cities last season, bringing a budget Durant deck with amazing cards like Pokemon Circulator and Claw Snag Weavile. Oddly enough, I had already been writing articles for SixPrizes long before then, since it’s much easier to write about this game and pretend to be good at it than to actually do well at a tournament. I started the day thinking I’d be pretty satisfied if I made cut, then forgot to put my prizes out Round 1, and as I lost more and more my end goal dropped. During the last round, I told myself I’d be happy if I just won one game…and I did.
From there things got better. I borrowed a Magnezone/Eelektrik deck from a friend I made there and actually bubbled my third tournament ever (5th place in a CC with a Top 4). That kinda stung. I didn’t actually end up achieving anything until I took 2nd at a Cities using Durant (now with better cards), winning the mirror three times over the course of the tournament (once in Top 4), only to end up losing to Eelektrik/Zekrom/Ho-oh LEGEND in the finals on time…yeah…
I’ve really enjoyed my time in the Pokémon season so far, meeting lots of friends along the way, both online and at tournaments.
What has been your favorite deck to use this season? What have you been using currently?
That’s a tough one. I started with Ho-Oh during Battle Roads with just 2 Mewtwo, 2 Terrakion, 3 Ho-oh and 1 Stunfisk DRX, inspired by two friends who (I feel) pretty much pioneered the deck before there was any kind of documentation on it (Joel Moore and Rachel Dillon). I always found it a little too hard to actually close out games with it though, and I also found it hard to play conservatively when you often need to Juniper hands away you’d rather not. Granted, I did not understand the deck as well as most people do now, perhaps being a little too heavy on discarding Energy or going for big Terrakion plays.
But I really wanted something more stable that I could conserve my cards with, so after 2 Battle Roads with Ho-Oh I switched to a Sableye/Darkrai deck with 2 Mewtwo, 1 Terrakion and 1 Bouffalant. Almost every Darkrai deck in my area played Hydreigon, and pretty much everything that wasn’t Darkrai was Ho-Oh or Eelektrik, so the deck carried me pretty far. I felt I had a reasonable degree of control over every game, and pretty much every game people had to pick up my Bouffalant to read it, which shows how underused that card was back then. I stuck with this kind of a deck for a long long time, though I streamlined it for Regionals by taking out the Terrakion for more of a Mewtwo/DCE focus.
There was one key point during City Championships where I was inspired by the one and only Sami Sekkoum to run a consistent Blastoise deck. Back then people were still trying to fit in things like Eviolite and Kyurem, and weren’t considering Tropical Beach a crucial card. I built a list that turned out to be extremely close to what Sami was playing, and won two tournaments in a row with the deck. Around this time Blastoise ended up getting really popular, and I left that bandwagon since I really don’t believe in playing that kind of a mirror match. I went back to Darkrai/Mewtwo for one tournament, bubbled, then played Blastoise one more time to make Top 4 to close out my invite.
At the ECC, I had a lot of trouble deciding what to run but finally decided to go with a rather weird Rayeels list. I only played 2 Switch and no Keldeo, using that space to gain such a ridiculous amount of consistency that if people were to Catcher up my Eelektriks without KOing them, they would be in a lot of trouble anyway. I did play one Energy Switch though for some funny surprise plays, and to make use of the attachment to Emolga.
I think the deck that I felt most connected with was Darkrai/Mewtwo/Bouffalant, which seemed to have amazing turn 1 and turn 2 plays almost every time.
What do you attribute your success to this season?
Testing, with actual cards. Before the end of last season (before Nationals), I called up two people (Jeroen Z and Robert L) I got along with that lived closeby and asked if they’d like to playtest. Since then, we’ve been doing it close to every week, and it’s really helped me get a rhythm going. I played quite a bit online, but the way you view the field is so much different when you’re actually using cards, shuffling, etc. And of course, once you do well at a tournament once or twice, things like playing best out of three become second nature and help so much for future tournaments. Both of my testing partners have put some great results in the book as well, especially Robert who is inches away from an invite, so I’d like to think the benefit was mutual.
Mees B has also been a big help to me through both my first and second seasons. First season I was missing so many important cards and he’s been great about letting me use his (and then not wanting them back). Other than that he’s also a ridiculously good deck builder and player, which is great for brainstorming deck ideas (MeesieMew!) and playtesting online. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone decide and make the correct plays that quickly every single time.
How do you feel about the current state of the game?
Up until the Cities format (so basically BLW-BCR and everything before that in this season) I thought it wasn’t as bad as everyone was making it out to be, if a bit stale. Variance has definitely gone up from the DP-on or MD-on days, or even before that (as far as I can make a call on that), and some Pokémon EX are strong enough to carry about anyone to victory simply by attacking over and over. Still, a lot of the time I felt that there was an advantage for anyone who understood the game on a deeper level, when it comes to getting every single detail right – when to Catcher, what to put 30 on with Night Spear or Hammerhead, where to attach Energy, etcetera etcetera. I still felt that a lot of the time, people were blaming the format for something that was partially under control.
That said, Hypnotoxic Laser and Virbank City Gym are atrocious cards that should never have been printed. There’s three individual aspects to these two cards (Poisoning through a Trainer, flipping for Sleep through a Trainer, and adding 20 to Poison damage), and the former two of these are just too broken. Flipping correctly should not let you put 90 extra damage on your opponent’s field while preventing them from attacking. While there’s still a certain skill element to them (I’ve seen people waste Lasers for no good reason, or Switching out of Poison when it wasn’t needed), there’s not a whole lot of skill on them overall.
I am still very fascinated with this game, always trying to make the best possible play in any kind of situation, especially when things look grim. I am still always on the edge of my seat even when I’m four prizes ahead, because misplays lurk around every corner. But Plasma Storm was a definite sharp turn for the worse, after the already disappointing HGSS and BLW blocks. From what I can tell, the formats before these were much more interesting, full of side effects and little tricks.
For example, when you compare a card from BLW-on to a card from the old ex-series, it’s almost like this:
BLW-on: 2 Energy: Do 40 damage, and maybe Paralyze them or something. 3 Energy. Do 100 damage.
EX-series: Pokemon Power: This Pokemon does 20 more damage if there’s a Stadium Card in play, unless your opponent’s has 2 or more Pokemon-ex in play with “Team Magma” in the name. 4 Energy: 50 damage, plus 10 more for every Pokémon with 90 or less HP, unless your opponent is wearing a red shirt.
Of course, the advantages of BLW-on can’t be overlooked: less games go to time, and more players find it easier to join tournaments and do well of them. That’s good, and I can understood why they would do that. But like a lot of things that the powers-that-be decide, I can’t help but feel a little cheated.
Thankfully, a lot of scans for the newest Japanese set look very promising and interesting. I’m not sure if it will be enough to fix the game as is, considering all the ridiculous cards we already have, but maybe if that trend continues with the X&Y generation, we’ll have a more healthy game on our hands at some point. Sadly, it will take quite a few rotations before we will truly have a more balanced game.
tl;dr: There’s still a lot of skill involved which a lot of people seem to miss, Laser/Virbank is stupid, game is more accessible now, the far future seems bright, I love Pokémon.
What are your plans now that you have your invite?
I will only be playing one Battle Road (Regionals are over here) and just relax, start testing for Nationals when we have the means for that (all scans, and a simulator that supports all of them properly, or a bunch of proxies). Not having to go to any more tournaments means I have more time to work, allowing me to save up for my trip to Vancouver. Right now, I’m still planning on going for the experience, even though I’m skeptical about whether the format will be any better than it is right now. It’s scary to pay up all that money just to go to a Pokémon tournament, so I’m not a definite “in” yet for Worlds, but the plan is there.
What do you enjoy most about the Pokémon TCG?
I enjoy theorizing about what the best play is, what gives me the best odds of coming out on top every single turn. Especially when this is not immediately obvious, I find it a really interesting way to spend my time. I’ve made it to top cut and even won tournaments that I didn’t think I played perfect in, and even though I would be satisfied with my result I will always remember the mistakes I make.
I also really love watching this game being played out by others, discussing what they’re doing with other fans. That’s why I love The Top Cut so much.
Also I love a lot of other Pokémon players. A lot of things with “Pokémon” on them are great, and it’s a lot of fun to share that passion with other people.
Do you have any hobbies besides Pokémon?
I like a lot of other games, though I’ve never been sucked into any of them as badly as Pokémon, except perhaps the Fire Emblem series. I’ve also always enjoyed writing articles, I like watching detectives, and then very occasionally I find myself outside doing something to keep myself in shape, haha. I also love teaching, which is why I spend a lot of my time helping old people how to use computers, both as a volunteer and as a job.
Is there anything else you’d like to say to our readers?
As if they want even more text to go through, sheesh…
Keep playing, keep loving the game, even when it seems to be against you at one point please be a good sport about it.
Please support The Top Cut in every way you can. In the current environment, it seems really hard to get the game to grow, and these guys are doing their best to do just that.
See you in Vancouver!
Thanks for the interview, Mark! Hopefully we’ll see you in Vancouver. It sounds like you’re having a great time with Pokémon, and we love to see that. Best of luck to you!