Pokémon, like most card games, is filled with luck. Sometimes luck is on your side, and you draw the perfect hand. Other times, luck is not so kind, and you draw an opening hand of one Squirtle and six energy cards. In a game where drawing a bad opening hand means you’ll hardly get a chance to play, it’s no surprise that the Pokémon community warmly welcomed the announcement this season that large tournaments would begin using Best 2-of-3 for Swiss rounds. Just one problem, though: They didn’t give us enough time to actually play a Best 2-of-3 series!
At just 50 minutes + 3 turns, with 2 minutes allowed for shuffling and set-up in-between games, 50+3 leaves a three-game series a measly average of just 15 minutes (plus one turn) per game! To point out how insufficient this is, remember that the universally accepted time limits for one-game matches have been 30 minutes + 3 turns for years, and many of these matches still exhaust their time limits. In 50+3, games are constantly cut off early. Just like interrupting an unfinished chess match, or game of Monopoly, or ending a baseball game abruptly in the 6th inning would be disappointing and unfun, Pokémon is no different. Low time limits suck fun out of the game.
Let’s take a look at five specific ways 50+3 flat out stinks.
#1: It ends nearly 1 in 5 matches in a tie.
It was of course no surprise to most of the Pokémon TCG community when these newly-introduced time limits proved inadequate at the recent Regional Championships, where nearly 1 in 5 games ended in a tie simply because players did not have enough time to finish their third game. If 1 in 5 games ending in a tie doesn’t seem like a lot to you, keep in mind that includes all matches, not just the ones that went to a third game. (Of matches that went to a third game, the percentage of ties is much higher, perhaps as high as 50%.) Additionally, of the games that did manage manage to finish in 50 minutes, many of these involved players rushing, or conceding what might have been a winnable game, in a desperate effort to preserve time. Even some games that were recorded as a win for one player would have been ties, but both players were so determined to avoid receiving 1 point that they formed some kind of agreement where one player conceded to the other.
Ties are boring. Ties are anticlimactic. Ties are a disappointing end to a 50-minute match. Even worse, ties award each player only 1 match point. (Wins award 3, losses award 0.) With only 1 point given to each player, ties are just barely better than a loss, which means they generally lower both players’ chances of making Top 8. At the recent Florida Regional Championship, for example, a player with a solid 8-1-5 (8 wins, 1 loss, 5 ties) record missed making Top 8. Ouch! Was it because the player didn’t play well enough to win the 5 matches he tied? Not necessarily! Perhaps he would have won all five of those games if he had enough time!
#2: It makes players play pointless partial games.
Picture this: You and your opponent have each won one game in your Best 2-of-3 match, and you start Game 3. Your opponent’s Genesect EX gets some quick KOs, and he takes an early lead. However, you play a well-timed N and begin a big comeback, knocking out the Genesect EX. You’re about to finish your great comeback and win the match, when time is called. After three turns, you’re one turn short of drawing your last prize card. The match is declared a tie.
These anti-climactic endings are all too common in 50+3. In fact, virtually any match that does not end in a 2-0 or 2-1 win means you and your opponent played some partial, incomplete game that counts for nothing. Talk about disappointing! Players play Pokémon because it’s fun. They travel across their countries and the world to play in tournaments because they want to have great matches. 50+3 deprives players of this opportunity. It deprives players of the exciting finishes that are naturally built into the Pokémon TCG.
#3: It encourages stalling.
For as long as the Pokémon TCG has existed, stalling has been an issue in competitive play. In a game where players have so many options on their turn, and such frequent access to their decks, there are unfortunately a lot of creative ways for players to waste time. 50+3 only exacerbates this problem by constantly creating situations where players have a huge incentive to play slowly.
Picture this scenario: You’re in Game 3 with your Blastoise/Black Kyurem EX/Keldeo EX deck. You bench a Squirtle Turn 1, and your opponent’s first turn involves attaching an energy to his active Virizion EX. On the second turn, you Rare Candy to evolve into Blastoise, and Deluge to your active Black Kyurem EX to attack with Black Ballista, knocking out your opponent’s active Virizion EX. Your opponent has no energy in play and his chances of winning this game are slim to none.
Just one problem, though: Since only completed games count, all your opponent has to do to ensure this match ends in a tie is make sure the game doesn’t finish. With only 10 minutes left, your opponent can adjust his strategy to send active non-EX Pokémon, instead of EX Pokémon, giving you only one prize card per turn, instead of two. He can play Ultra Ball and Level Ball and all kind of cards to search and shuffle his deck — anything to waste time. (All of these are legal and legitimate tactics.) And 10 minutes later, if you aren’t able to draw all six of your prize cards, this game too was in vain, and the match ends in a tie. Such disappointing outcomes are incredibly common in 50+3.
The same situation can (and frequently does) occur when a player wins a lengthy Game 1. If Game 1 exhausts over 20 minutes (as it often will), the winner now has no incentive to play quickly in Game 2. He or she doesn’t have to win Game 2 to win the series, but rather only not lose. Even if the the player that lost Game 1 has drawn five prize cards after 50+3 expires, if that sixth prize card isn’t drawn, he or she wins the entire match, regardless of whether or not the winner of Game 1 drew a single prize in Game 2.
Judges, who of course recognize the stalling issues posed by 50+3, are now under more pressure to rush players. Some are now enforcing previously unenforced and unpopular tempo guidelines that put stress on players. However, no matter how strictly these guidelines are enforced, and no matter how quickly a player is playing, any player’s opponent can ensure a typical game does not finish in 15 or less minutes. (Most Game 3s usually begin with even less time than this!) The time limit is simply too low.
#4: It hinders creativity and deck diversity.
With so little time to play, decks based on slower strategies are at a disadvantage. Because some decks take longer to win a game than others, losing Game 1 will often lose these decks the entire series, as they won’t have enough time to finish a second game. One example of this are Hydreigon decks, which win slowly by healing Pokémon and using Sableye’s Junk Hunt over the course of many turns. With longer time limits, players would be rewarded with even more creativity and diversity that come from the large pool of cards that is currently our modified format.
#5: It creates ethical/sportsmanship dilemmas.
Imagine this: You’re in the 11th round of a Regional Championship with a 6-2-2 record (20 points), and the rumor is you’ll need at least 28 points to make Top 8. With only three rounds left, you’ll need to win all three remaining rounds to make Top 8. Your opponent, who also has 20 points, is in the same boat. After 50 minutes, you’re in an unfinished Game 3, meaning your game will end in a tie. Both you and your opponent realize that if you tie, neither of you will have a chance of making Top 8, but if one of you concedes, the winner still has a chance of making it. Is it in the spirit of the game for one of you concede so that at least one of you maintains a chance to make Top 8? Or is it against the spirit of the game, as conceding might allow a player who didn’t actually win the match to bump out of Top 8 a player that actually did win his or her matches? If one player is to concede, how do you determine who concedes? Should it be by prize lead? What if you’re tied on prizes? Or what if you’re behind in prizes, but clearly in position to win the game?
Players who recognize a tie dooms both themselves and their opponents, but are unable to come to some agreement, sometimes even flip a coin to randomly determine the winner! (This is actually against the rules, but it’s also very difficult for judges to prevent.) As you can see, having insufficient time limits not only creates a plethora of problems, but also awkward situations that are gray areas for sportsmanship, and even problems that extend to players outside of matches being played.
To recap, 50+3 Best 2-of-3 fails because:
- It ends nearly 1 in 5 matches in a tie, punishing both players with not only an unsatisfying outcome, but only 1 of a possible 3 points, generally weakening both of their chances at making Top 8.
- It makes players play meaningless partial games, as many Game 3s (and some Game 2s) will not finish in the time limit, and thus not count as a completed game.
- It constantly creates situations that encourage stalling, which is difficult for judges to prevent.
- It weakens the competitive viability of slower decks, limiting the diversity of decks used at events.
- It creates awkward situations where sportsmanship and Spirit of the Game conflict.
Best 2-of-3 isn’t the problem; the time limit is. We shouldn’t abandon Best 2-of-3, as players enjoy opportunities to come back from a loss, but we should reserve it for multi-day events, which allow enough time for players to finish a typical three-game match.
Multi-Day Events: Replace 50+3 with 75+3, and remove 1/3 of the Swiss rounds.
75 minutes + 3 turns gives players sufficient time to finish most 3-game series, which obviously should be the objective of time limits. I used 75+3 Best 2-of-3 at the Klaczynski Open in Chicago in August and received extremely positive feedback. 85-90% of matches were able to finish properly, and players said they did not feel rushed, nor were there issues of players stalling.
One-Day Events: Retain 30+3 Best-of-1 for Swiss.
While Best 2-of-3 would be nice at all events, it isn’t practical to try to fit it into one day events. One day events should maintain the same 30+3 format we’ve used successfully for years.
Additionally, the “Four Prize Rule” should be restored into all rounds (not just top cut matches) at all events. (The Four Prize Rule states that any game in which a player has drawn at least four prizes after Time+3 expires is to be considered a complete game, with a player having less prize cards remaining than his or her opponent declared the winner.) The Four Prize Rule is another weapon that works together with longer time limits to prevent both stalling and a myriad of ties and unfinished, meaningless games.
Here’s a more detailed look at the time limits I’m proposing, and how they would be used in our current tournament structure:
Regional Championships would remain two-day events, but with 75+3 replacing 50+3 for the Best 2-of-3 Swiss rounds. These longer time limits fit easily into a two-day Regional Championship by decreasing the total amount of rounds at the event. Specifically, Regional Championships currently allow for a maximum of 15 rounds. Going from 50 to 75 minutes per round increases time limits by 33%, so we respond in kind by cutting 33% of the rounds, leaving the amount of playtime exactly the same. Though the playtime would be the same, having less rounds will end the tournament about two hours earlier, as there’s now less work for the staff to do in-between rounds. Some of this saved time can be used to give top cut matches 15 extra minutes, just to ensure these important matches are not decided by time limits. Regional Championships would now have a maximum of 10 rounds of Swiss, instead of 15.
The only potential issue with decreasing the amount of rounds at an event is it sometimes creates situations where players with exceptional records (such as 7-1, or 8-1) miss Top 8. The beauty of Regionals, though is that since it is a two-day event, we can still play enough rounds to ensure all X-1 players are guaranteed to make Top 8. Even with as many as 384 players in a division (a number no Regionals tournament has hit this season), 9 rounds is sufficient to ensure all 8-1’s make Top 8. Realistically, 7-1-1s would almost always make the cut, too. Though players at 6-2 would usually miss at the largest events, remember that the extra match time gives skilled players a greater chance at winning their matches and achieving a strong record.
While having Best 2-of-3 for Swiss rounds at all events would be nice, it isn’t practical in one-day events, like City Championships, as cutting rounds from these tournaments would not allow us enough rounds; we would end up with spectacular records like 4-1 (or even 5-1) missing Top 8. (We need those extra rounds to ensure all X-1 records make Top 8.) Besides, no one wants to stay at a card shop until midnight to crown a City Champion, and because of that, it’s appropriate to leave City Championships as they were for years: Best-of-1 Swiss, with a Top 8 cut.
State Championships are the trickiest tournament to fix, and one where opinions will differ the most. Many players don’t like States being extended to two days, but if they’re left as one day events, there isn’t enough time for Best 2-of-3 Swiss. And if there isn’t enough time for Best 2-of-3 Swiss, State Championships will be nothing more than a City Championship with better prizes, so why even call them State Championships? (Even adding a few rounds of 30+3 Swiss would cause some State Championships to go past midnight.)
Here is where you must be wondering if I’m going to propose that States be one-day or two-day events. The reality is there are other solutions to State Championships: they can be eliminated entirely, and instead replaced with more one-day City Championships and two-day Regional Championships. The Pokémon season would be simplified to: League Challenges, City Championships, Regional Championships, National Championships, World Championships. (Do we really need another type of Championship in addition to all of these, anyway?) This gives players that like one-day tournaments more one-day tournaments, and players that like two-day tournaments more two-day tournaments, a compromise that satisfies both sides.
U.S. National Championships
While smaller National Championships can mimic the Regionals format I proposed above, U.S. National Championships are unique in that they are allotted three days, which gives the event more options. If attendance remained similar to last year’s event, current proposals would have us expect 15 rounds of 50+3 Best 2-of-3 for Swiss, cutting to Top 8. Such time limits would allow the tournament to finish comfortably in two days, even though the event has been allotted three days over the past three years. It would certainly be wasteful to not make use of the three days the event runs, and in order to take advantage of these three days, we should extend round time limits for Best-of-3 Swiss from 50+3 to 75+3. 14 rounds is sufficient for this event, ensuring anyone that finishes 12-2 or better is guaranteed a spot in Top 8. Players could play seven rounds of Swiss on both Day 1 & Day 2, and Day 3 would be reserved for Top 8.
Some players suggest that instead of playing Best-of-3 for Swiss at large events, players should play Best-of-1, but with more rounds than would be played under Best 2-of-3. While Best-of-1 with more rounds offers one advantage over Best 2-of-3, which is that it allows you to play against more opponents, it also has huge downsides, the most significant being that it makes such inefficient use of time. Specifically, a Best 2-of-3 match uses about 95 minutes for one three-game round to be played to the next. (At large events, about 20 additional minutes are typically used to finish +3 turns, input all match results into the tournament software, post pairings, and seat players for the next round.)
However, in order for this same amount of games (three) to occur in a Best-of-1 with a 30+3 time limit, we will use roughly 150 minutes — nearly one hour more! The fact that the 20-minute downtime now happens after three matches instead of one adds 60 minutes of “dead time” to the event, which is 60 minutes that players aren’t playing Pokémon. Not only are players spending less time playing Pokémon, but the staff becomes overwhelmed, too, as they now have more matches to report and input, and more pairings to post. (And you can bet there’s a higher chance of computer mishaps and re-pairs, too!)
Another advantage Best 2-of-3 has over Best-of-1 with more rounds is that it does not penalize a player that loses a single unlucky game as long as he or she wins the series. Win nearly all of your matches and you’re set to make Top 8, even if all of those wins were won 2 games to 1. Compare this to playing Best-of-1, where if you’re only winning 2 out of 3 of each of your matches, you’re going to fall well short of Top 8. Best 2-of-3 decreases the variance involved in players’ records, which is a fancy way of saying players’ records will be more likely to represent their true skill level. Best 2-of-3 benefits better players, who do not have to fear taking a match loss because of one unlucky game.
Here are some specific examples of how my proposals would change the structure of premier events. High attendance is assumed at all events for these examples.
City Championships (1-day event)
Current: 8 Rounds Best-of-1 Swiss (30+3), 60/75+3 Top 8
Suggested: 8 Rounds Best-of-1 Swiss (30+3), 75+3 Top 8
City Championships remain as is. They are designed to finish earlier than larger events, and thus, their Swiss round time limits should not be increased. However, 75 minutes should be used for top cut whenever possible.
Regional Championships (2-day event)
Current: 14 Rounds Best-of-3 Swiss (50+3), 75+3 Top 8
Suggested: 9 Rounds Best-of-3 Swiss (75+3), 90+3 Top 8
Regional Championships are large two-day events that can afford allowing players to play Best 2-of-3 in Swiss. The Swiss time limits are increased from 50 minutes to 75 minutes, but the tournament stays on pace (and actually saves time) by removing roughly one-third of its Swiss rounds.
U.S. National Championships (3-day event)
Current: 15 Rounds Best-of-3 Swiss (50+3), 75+3 Top 8
Suggested: 14 Rounds Best-of-3 Swiss (75+3), 90+3 Top 8
Your voice matters! If you, like me, want to see 50+3 replaced with time limits that actually allow players to complete their matches, make sure your voice is heard! One of the best places to voice your thoughts is on the PokéGym forums, which are browsed by higher-ups on the Play! Pokémon team. You can also share these ideas with your local Premier Tournament Organizers, who communicate regularly with the Play! Pokémon team. Though we can’t know when 50+3 will be replaced, one thing is certain: if players don’t speak up, 50+3 will linger around much longer than we’d like it to.