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Pokémon TCG Retrospective: The Sword & Shield Era
Revisit the most exciting competitive moments since the introduction of the Sword & Shield Series.
By Tord Reklev, Contributing Writer
An exciting era for the Pokémon Trading Card Game is approaching its conclusion with the launch of the final expansion of the Sword & Shield Series era, Crown Zenith. Soon, players will continue their journey with the Scarlet & Violet Series and the amazing Pokémon from the Paldea region.
Before the new journey begins, let’s look back at what has happened since the release of the first Sword & Shield expansion in February 2020. And a lot has happened—too much to cover in one article. So here I’ll focus on the biggest and most notable events of the past few years, discuss the ever-evolving metagame, and give you a reminder of some of the most memorable decks and strategies that unfolded during the Sword & Shield era.
2020 Oceania Internationals
The 2020 Oceania International Championships was the first official event where the Sword & Shield expansion was legal for play. For the first time, Pokémon-GX would coexist with the newly released Pokémon V and VMAX. This was also the first event implementing the new starting rules. One important change was that the player going first could no longer play a Supporter card on their first turn, which would help balance out the advantages of going first.
Heading into the event, Arceus & Dialga & Palkia-GX (popularly known as ADP) paired with the new Zacian V was expected to dominate; the synergy between the two cards seemed difficult to overcome. Other popular decks heading in included mostly cards from the Sun & Moon era: Pikachu & Zekrom-GX, Malamar paired with Giratina, Blacephalon, and Mewtwo & Mew-GX paired with Malamar.
At the previous World Championships, Mewtwo & Mew-GX ended up winning, but used with Welder instead of Malamar to accelerate Energy. Since Welder could no longer be played on the first turn of the game, players anticipated that to be a major blow to the deck’s engine and looked for other options in Malamar.
As expected, most of the Day Two participants in Melbourne were playing ADP, but surprisingly it did not end up winning it all. In the end, the Mewtwo & Mew-GX deck with the Welder engine was still the most successful version, carrying Nico Alabas from Germany to victory. One of the key inclusions that made this list stand out was Victini V—it provided another way of accelerating Energy in addition to Welder, and served as a strong option for Knocking Out the popular Zacian V.
A couple other decks caught everyone by surprise as well. Magcargo-GX had a great new partner in Oranguru, which turned the Crushing Charge Ability into a reliable way to accelerate Energy.
Galarian Obstagoon from Sword & Shield with its Obstruct attack proved to be an efficient counter to most of the metagame as well, walling off the many Basic Pokémon that the format centered on.
A mill deck also had multiple good performances during this event. This deck was focused on using the Supporter card Bellelba & Brycen-Man to discard the opponent’s entire deck and win without taking a single Prize card. Thanks to Cinccino and its Make Do Ability, players could draw into their Supporter cards quickly. Oranguru could recycle three cards back to the deck with its Resource Management attack, ensuring that the mill player did not deck out.
The COVID Era
After just a couple of weeks, the COVID-19 pandemic forced an abrupt end to the Pokémon tournament season. All events were canceled until further notice, making sure that the health and safety of competitors and other attendees remained the highest priority.
This forced the community to adapt, and online events started to flourish like never before. Independent sites such as LimitlessTCG.com helped keep unsanctioned events going while live Play! Pokémon events were postponed. The number of people participating in these online tournaments exceeded attendance at some of the big real-life events, and the community kept the spark going.
Some months after live events were paused, a new type of official online event was announced: the Players Cup. Throughout the COVID era, we ended up having a total of four Players Cup events.
To qualify for this event, players received a certain number of Tournament Keys they could use to enter mini events consisting of eight people in the Pokémon TCG Online. Depending on the results of these events, players could qualify for the playoffs in their geographical rating zone. From there, the best players from each zone—North America, Latin America, Europe, and Oceania— advanced to the Players Cup Global Finals.
Only 16 players total could make it to each Players Cup Global Finals, where they could duke it out in a double-elimination bracket. The Top 4 players earned a Travel Award to a future International Championships of their choice. It’s fair to say that incentives were high for prestige and prizes. It’s also important to mention that the players qualifying were allowed to switch decks between the different qualification periods.
The results from the Masters Division of each Players Cup Finals offer a nice snapshot of the overall tournament. Let’s take a look at how they played out.
Players Cup I Global Finals
The first Players Cup Finals took place in late August 2020. The seasonal rotation had just taken place, so players were working with a brand-new format from when the competition began in early June. Additionally, the Sword & Shield—Darkness Ablaze expansion had just been released, which included strong cards such as Centiskorch VMAX and Eternatus VMAX.
Centiskorch VMAX could become an immediate threat thanks to Welder, Volcanion, and, of course, its own G-Max Centiferno attack accelerating another Energy onto itself. With enough Energy attached, this Pokémon could easily run away with the game in a couple turns.
Eternatus VMAX presented the highest HP on a Pokémon card we have seen to date. Its Eternal Zone Ability increases the player’s Bench to eight, as long as they are all Darkness-type Pokémon. The extra Bench space enabled the use of multiple Crobat V, which gave the deck a solid way to draw cards. This combined with Eternatus VMAX’s own Dread End attack made for an easy-to-use attacker. That said, ADP with Zacian was still the most represented deck going into the first Global Finals, accompanied by Eternatus VMAX.
The deck that ended up dominating was Lucario & Melmetal-GX with Zacian V. Two Australian players, Natalie Millar and Matthew Burris, ended up playing the exact same deck list—which they called “The Safe”— in the finals. They showed that, thanks to Full Metal Wall-GX and Metal Goggles, it became increasingly difficult to Knock Out these high-HP Pokémon. They also made a great call and ran Bronzong with its Heatproof Ability. This served as an efficient answer to Centiskorch VMAX, a deck they would normally have trouble overcoming. It paid off massively, and Natalie Millar ended up winning it all.
Other interesting decks in this event were Inteleon VMAX paired with Frosmoth, and Galarian Obstagoon paired with Decidueye.
Players Cup II Global Finals
A dramatic metagame shift happened in the months between the first Players Cup’s Finals and the Finals of Players Cup II, which took place in December 2020. A couple new expansions, Champions Path and Sword & Shield—Vivid Voltage, had been released in the meantime. However, the most successful deck, Pikachu & Zekrom-GX, did not use many cards at all from the newest expansions despite being around since the first Players Cup. This is a fitting example of how decks can sometimes remain a bit under the radar even if they are strong. With more knowledge and time to evaluate, the first Players Cup might have looked different.
Boltund V had by this time become a popular inclusion in the Lightning-type deck, and was a great option to reach the higher damage output that was needed to deal with decks like Lucario & Melmetal-GX. It was also a good alternative to accelerate Energy on the first turn of the game, to set up for a future Full Blitz attack.
ADP with Zacian continued to be among the most-played decks, while Centiskorch VMAX, Eternatus VMAX, Lucario & Melmetal-GX, and Mewtwo & Mew-GX were also relatively common among the players.
Another notable deck that did well was Blacephalon. This deck could dish out unlimited amounts of damage with the Fireball Circus attack, but would often be vulnerable to Reset Stamp in the later stages of the game.
In the end, Zach Lesage from Canada won it all with his Pikachu & Zekrom-GX deck, which even included a couple Mewtwo & Mew-GX for added flexibility. He took top honors over Brent Tonisson of Australia, who was playing a different take on Pikachu & Zekrom-GX.
Players Cup III Global Finals
A few more months passed until the Players Cup III Global Finals took place in late April 2021, and by that time two more expansions, Shining Fates and Sword & Shield—Battle Styles, had been released. New decks entered the metagame, with the most notable one being Rapid Strike Urshifu VMAX. The card offers two powerful attacks in Gale Thrust and G-Max Rapid Flow. With the best of both worlds, Rapid Strike Urshifu VMAX could deal well with lighter-weight single-Prize Pokémon, but also stand its ground against the high-HP Pokémon. As a Fighting type, it was also a great counter against Pikachu & Zekrom-GX, which had been dominating the past few months. ADP was finally not the most represented deck any longer—Rapid Strike Urshifu VMAX had taken over.
A couple different engines to support it became popular. One version focused on using Basic Pokémon like Jirachi and Dedenne-GX to draw cards quickly, while the other version had a slower approach using Cinccino to draw cards and create a stronger board state instead.
Victini VMAX also became quite a popular deck. Its Max Victory attack proved to be an efficient way to Knock Out Pokémon V before they evolved, making the deck extra strong when going first.
With the release of Level Ball, Spiritomb became consistent enough to stand up against the other decks in the format as well. The deck could now Bench a lot of Spiritomb immediately and start to use its Building Spite Ability earlier.
In the end, we saw Azul Garcia Griego from the USA win the event with his Rapid Strike Urshifu VMAX deck in a very convincing battle against a Pikachu & Zekrom-GX deck piloted by David Daritan of Australia.
Players Cup IV Global Finals
Heading into the last Players Cup Global Finals in late July 2021, the Sword & Shield—Chilling Reign expansion had just been added to the Standard format. The set introduced multiple impactful cards like Shadow Rider Calyrex VMAX and Moltres V, and perhaps most notably Sobble and Inteleon. The combination of these cards with the older Drizzile and Inteleon that have the Shady Dealings Ability makes up what we now know as the Inteleon engine. This is arguably the strongest engine the game has ever seen, and it offers extreme control over one’s resources. And, as Rapid Strike Pokémon, they of course work great with Rapid Strike Urshifu VMAX.
Heading in, everyone’s eyes were on the new Shadow Rider Calyrex VMAX. Its great Underworld Door Ability allows both Energy acceleration and card draw in one. Its Max Geist attack also becomes stronger the more Energy the player manages to attach, making it worthwhile to set up multiple copies of the Pokémon. It became the most represented deck, but it was also the most countered deck as well, thanks to Galarian Moltres V. Players guiding Rapid Strike Urshifu VMAX, ADP, and Mewtwo & Mew-GX all took great advantage of including Galarian Moltres V in their decks.
After an exciting Finals, we saw Alex Schemanske from the USA victorious against Spiritomb, playing Rapid Strike Urshifu VMAX paired with the new Inteleon engine. Something interesting I noticed later is that the early Inteleon lists did not run Scoop Up Net at all, but instead played a heavy Inteleon line with emphasis on the Quick Shooting Inteleon. Another example of how it sometimes can take time to figure out the best ways to play with newly released cards.
Since the beginning of the COVID period, community-hosted online events had grown increasingly popular, and at this point there were multiple events happening daily. As a consequence of all these events and increasing share of information, the progression of the format moved quicker than before. Players now have a better understanding of the metagame before heading into big events in real life.
Official tournament play returned in March 2022. Trying to keep things fair, players kept their previous Championship Points from the last season, and Junior and Senior Division players remained in the same age division they were in before the COVID period.
Return to Live Competition
2022 Europe Internationals
Leading into the 2022 Europe International Championships, quite a bit of time passed since the conclusion of the final Players Cup. In between, four more expansions were released: Sword & Shield—Evolving Skies, Celebrations, Sword & Shield—Fusion Strike, and Sword & Shield—Brilliant Stars.
And from these expansions, we saw several metagame-defining decks that would go on to have huge moments in competitive play. With Sword & Shield—Fusion Strike, we got the popular Fusion Strike deck featuring Mew VMAX paired with Genesect V. In Sword & Shield—Brilliant Stars, we saw the rise of Arceus VSTAR, a card that has proved to be an excellent partner for a plethora of different Pokémon V and VMAX. The Starbirth Ability all but ensures that the player can use Trinity Nova on the second turn of the game. Full Blitz was so effective in Pikachu & Zekrom-GX decks, and Trinity Nova does the same for Arceus VSTAR. Its high HP and efficient damage output makes Arceus VSTAR tough to deal with for most decks. The Colorless typing also makes Arceus VSTAR flexible in the Energy department, meaning it could pair well with just about any Pokémon V.
These two decks were set up to be huge rivals at the 2022 Europe Internationals, which took place April 22–24. And they didn’t disappoint, as they made up most of the decks on Day Two.
With that said, the big story from EUIC was Rapid Strike Urshifu VMAX’s return to the throne. After Mew VMAX’s release, most people had put Rapid Strike Urshifu VMAX back in the binder, as it looked extremely difficult to overcome that matchup. With that in mind, some clever players paired Rapid Strike Urshifu VMAX with Galarian Moltres V and Galarian Moltres, while using the Inteleon engine to get access to them. This was enough to stand a chance against Mew VMAX, and the deck was already well positioned against Arceus VSTAR due to type advantage.
An impressive five Rapid Strike Urshifu VMAX decks ended up making Top 8 of the event, with veteran player and defending 2019 Champion Gustavo Wada from Brazil once again winning it all. He took down Frank Percic of the United States, who was playing a Whimsicott VSTAR deck.
Whimsicott VSTAR was an interesting and efficient counter deck that cropped up at the event, since the star Pokémon was one of the rare Psychic types that could hit Rapid Strike Urshifu VMAX for Weakness but wasn’t weak to the popular Darkness types. With its Trick Wind attack and heavy focus on Energy disruption, Whimsicott VSTAR almost went all the way, and unsurprisingly became a popular option after the event.
2022 North America Internationals
The 2022 North America International Championships in late June 2022 was the final major event leading up to the World Championships, and another expansion, Sword & Shield—Astral Radiance, had entered competition. Some especially important cards were released this set, with the introduction of the first Radiant Pokémon and Origin Forme Palkia VSTAR. Radiant Greninja was such a good partner for Palkia VSTAR that this paring became the most anticipated deck heading into the event.
This brought the total to three big decks in the format: Palkia VSTAR, Mew VMAX, and Arceus VSTAR. Rapid Strike Urshifu VMAX was now struggling to find footing, as the new Palkia VSTAR matchup seemed difficult to overcome, pushing the deck out of the format once again.
Another deck that saw a decent amount of play and had previously won a major event in Japan was Regigigas—which was piloted to victory by Takeru Yamano at the Japan Championships 2022. Even if it sometimes can be a little slow to set up, when Regigigas starts using its Ancient Wisdom Ability to fuel its many attackers, it is difficult to stop.
For the most part, the decks from the tournament looked as expected, with a couple of exceptions. Azul Garcia Griego ended up winning the event with Arceus VSTAR, but it was paired with quite an unusual partner: Flying Pikachu VMAX. This partner provided much-needed type advantage against Palkia VSTAR, and the protection from Basic Pokémon was also useful, especially against the Regigigas deck. Azul beat Isaiah Bradner and his Palkia VSTAR deck in the Finals.
One of the craziest counter decks in years popped up at the event and almost ended up taking it all. This was a control type of deck played by Sander Wojcik from the Netherlands. The deck was using Mewtwo V-UNION, a new mechanic exclusive to certain promo cards that few in the competitive community really took seriously. To assemble the card, you must discard all four pieces of Mewtwo V-UNION first, then play it onto the Bench. Using an impressive draw engine with Snorlax, the deck was able to consistently access all the pieces. One of Mewtwo V-UNION’s attacks heals itself for 200 damage. Decks like Palkia VSTAR and Arceus VSTAR struggle with this damage threshold, as that is in the upper limits of what they can attack for, making this deck one of the most impressive and hilarious counter decks in recent memory. Sander’s success was no laughing matter, however—this deck took him all the way to the NAIC Top 4.
2022 World Championships
After long delays, and with the event’s first setting outside of North America, the excitement for the return of Worlds was unreal. There was only a single expansion released between the North America Internationals and the 2022 World Championships in August, and that was the smaller Pokémon GO set. Despite its size, this expansion delivered several competitively relevant cards, most importantly Radiant Charizard. As far as single-Prize attackers go, it doesn’t get much better than this. Decks that focused on the Inteleon engine and other single-Prize attackers like Galarian Moltres got a solid boost with the inclusion of Radiant Charizard.
The anticipated metagame heading into the World Championships was similar to the North America Internationals, but I don’t think anyone could have predicted how dominant Arceus VSTAR paired with Flying Pikachu VMAX would end up being. In the Finals, we had Ondřej Škubal from Czechia winning against Daichi Shimada from Japan. Both players used Arceus VSTAR paired with Flying Pikachu VMAX, but Ondřej’s list used Bibarel for added consistency, while Daichi’s list had Jolteon for added disruption against the popular Inteleon engine. Consistency prevailed in the mirror match, and Ondřej became the 2022 World Champion.
2022 Latin America Internationals
The 2022 Latin America International Championships was the first major event of the 2023 Championship Series season, and with it a lot of anticipation to kick off the full season.
Before talking about the event itself, let’s set the stage for the state of the metagame ahead of São Paulo. Two new expansions were released with massive consequences for the format: Sword & Shield—Lost Origin and Sword & Shield—Silver Tempest.
In Sword & Shield—Lost Origin, the Lost Zone mechanic made a reappearance in the Pokémon TCG, and we got a strong draw engine with cards like Comfey and Colress’s Experiment. Giratina VSTAR also entered the format.
With Sword & Shield—Silver Tempest, the whole Sword & Shield era is ending on a high note with its strongest deck by far, Lugia VSTAR paired with Archeops.
One important note for the event itself is that the yearly Standard format rotation was delayed, meaning all expansions from the Sword & Shield Series were still legal for this event. That means many of the decks that were popular at Worlds would remain viable at this competition.
For the first time, the Power Rankings panelists all agreed that Lugia VSTAR would likely be the strongest deck going into the event. And, as expected, Lugia VSTAR ended up not only being the most popular deck, but its conversion rate was extreme. Over half the decks in Day Two consisted of Lugia VSTAR decks, and six of those made their way into the Top 8.
Both of the finalists played Lugia VSTAR, with relatively similar lists. They both included four Capture Energy, and the same lineup of attacking options. In the end, it was Tord Reklev of Norway (yours truly) who won the event, beating Lucas Calzà of Italy.
The Lost Zone engine also saw success, with the best-placing variants using Kyogre. With the use of some clever deck manipulation and Energy Recycler, it’s possible to guarantee 5 Energy with Kyogre’s Aqua Storm attack. With that kind of impact, Kyogre then becomes an excellent way to close out difficult games.
The most popular Arceus VSTAR variant now uses Duraludon VMAX with its Skyscraper Ability to protect itself from Lugia VSTAR, as the Lugia VSTAR deck relies on Special Energy.
Another deck that took advantage of this fact was an interesting control variant, again from Sander Wojcik. This control deck focused on using Yveltal’s Cry of Destruction attack until the Lugia VSTAR player ran out of Energy. Just like at the North America Internationals, Sander fell victim to the harsh timer rules in the top cut, which makes it difficult to close out a tournament with a control deck.
There is so much more that could and should be said about this era, these decks, strategies, events, players, and so on. I’ve barely scratched the surface here, but I hope that I have provided you with some insight into the competitive period of the Sword & Shield format, and I cannot wait to see what the future has in store for us with the Scarlet & Violet expansions releasing later this year!
Tord Reklev is a contributing writer for Pokemon.com. He is a longtime player from Norway, playing the game since he was 6 years old. In becoming Champion at the 2022 Latin America International Championships, Tord is the first player to win all four International Championships and complete the Grand Slam. Outside of the game, he is a student and enjoys playing tennis. You can find him at most big events and can follow him on Twitter at @TordReklev.