Hey there Hat Lovers,
Today’s article will be a topic that I think confuses many people (including myself). You hear a lot of players talk about the momentum of a game, saying things like “I was able to take back the momentum” or “I couldn’t stop their momentum.” But what is momentum? If you asked people this, I’m sure they could answer, but it might come out a bit rambly and unfocused. I only really got a clear idea of how to convey momentum thanks to my experience with the TCG, where the game is highly predictable turn after turn. So today’s post is short and sweet. I’m going to put forth a definition for momentum, and discuss how it can change through the game. After that, I really just want to hear back from you guys, the readers, about whether you think I’ve hit the nail on the head or if my definition needs adjustments. Here goes:
What is momentum?
Have you ever been in a game where it just feels like you’re going through the motions? Win or lose, the game has a predictable path and you’re just piloting your team down that path to its inevitable end. Essentially, have you ever been in a game where you picked your best move turn after turn which led to your win or your loss? I’d call that being caught up in the momentum of the game.
This is something that’s very easy to demonstrate in the Pokemon TCG, where you can see exactly what can possibly play out 4-5 turns in advance. In the TCG, you know that your opponent has X number of Energy cards left, and provided they fulfill the basic turn requirements (attach energy to the right Pokemon, attack), they should be able to win the game. Or perhaps you’ve got the momentum on your side and know that as long as you don’t whiff cards, you should have the game regardless of what your opponent can do.
The same can be said for VGC, where you identify a game where you just keep making the best possible play, and the winner of the game seems set quite far in advance of the actual conclusion. Identifying this future path is essential to improving your play in the future, but I’ll get to that. The first exercise that I think is really important to understand is just determining what likely scenarios play out to conclude a game, and deducing who will be the winner. Have you felt that way ever? If you lost, it would be a game where you felt like there was (almost) nothing you could do to win, turns before you actually lost your last Pokemon. If you won, it would be a game where you were set to win barring improbable luck, well before the final KO was made.
That, to me, is momentum.
How to change up the momentum of a game
With an idea of what momentum is, the next obvious question is: “how can you control it?” This is also a concept I’m sure most people are familiar with, but the realization that this ties in with the momentum of the game might be new for some. If you’re leading in momentum, I think the safest way to play is to just continue making the safest, best plays available to you. If you are en route to a victory, there’s no reason to change up your style of play. This is obviously not true if your opponent can take advantage of your predictable play and counter-predict you, but if that instance arises, I think your play either wasn’t necessarily the safest, or you perhaps never truly took the momentum in the first place.
However, if you’re lagging in momentum, if you’ve fallen into your opponents pace and are heading for a loss, then you need to avoid making the safest plays if you want to give yourself the best chance of winning. An obvious example of this type of scenario is when you make a major prediction and say “I’m so far behind here that I need to predict my opponent’s next turn such that I can punish them and take the lead.” If you have ever thought this way, then you’re able to identify situations where you’ve lost the momentum of the game. You’ve also displayed the resilience to be able to try and find a way to swing the momentum back in your favour. The last thing I’ll go over is ways to make that happen.
How to seize momentum
Your first priority in a game should be to set up board position. The reason games fall into a pattern where each of you just makes plays leading towards a decided end is because one player has taken the initiative, they’ve jumped out ahead. There are two main ways players accomplish this: Speed or Bulk.
A concept I’ve mentioned previously is speed control. Speed control involves ways of ensuring that your Pokemon are able to move before your opponents. Using naturally fast Pokemon is an aggressive way of stealing momentum, since you can be at the advantage as soon as turn 1 starts. However, another important option is to use moves that will give you the speed advantage, like Tailwind or Trick Room. If you’re guaranteed to attack first, you’ve set yourself up to be in a good position where trading piece for piece will give you a victory, since you always get to take a piece first.
Another way to establish momentum is to survive your opponent’s pressure, and fire back for the KO. If you can prevent them from being able to make those favourable trades, then despite moving second, you end up being the first to take a piece and thus take the lead in making each trade.
edit: Thanks to Enosh for pointing out that this section was missing from the discussion. I got focused on the latter half and not the former.
Ways you can swing the momentum back in your favour
I think this is probably the most important part of this article. If you can master this skill, it will mean you can come back from being behind to steal games. The methods available to you change over the course of the game, so I’ll outline three kinds of scenarios: When you’re down early on, when you’re trailing in the middle, and when you’re down late in the game.
When you’re down early on, there’s still a whole lot of game left to play so don’t get too reckless too quickly. Making safe, strong plays throughout will often reward you with a win. Strong plays such as setting up your own speed control can seize momentum back just fine.
When you’re trailing in the middle, playing things safe and capitalizing on an opponent’s misplay is the best option outright. But if your opponent isn’t one that is likely to reveal a chink in their armour, it can be good to recognize that Pokemon is a risk management game. This means there are probabilities in play at all times. While poor probabilities are never something to rely on, if you can set them up safely without dropping further behind, they present opportunities to sneak ahead. There are a few ways of doing this, but one example to watch out for is paralysis.
This aspect of paralysis seems undervalued to me. Sure, the primary purpose of moves like Thunder Wave is to slow your opponent’s Pokemon down, but the beauty of that move is that it also has a 25% full paralysis chance. Most players shy away from encouraging poor probabilities as strategies, but when the main purpose is accompanied by the chance to just steal a game, it’s hard to ignore. Paralysis being permanent means an early paralysis will give you lots of chances to come back from a poor position, and setting up an early paralysis also offers a form of speed control to try and keep up with your opponent in the meantime.
When you’re without hope at the end, there’re always chances like confusion! Confusion is a temporary status, and is thus less reliable for the long-haul, but its high probability of success (50%) makes it one of the best ways to try and shift the game in your favour immediately. Late in the game may be when you need chances like Confusion, or gutsy predictions. Indeed, when you’re back is against the wall, sometimes you need to make the most ridiculous play ever because it’s unlikely your opponent will open themselves up to that scenario. But even if you look silly, it is far better to choose a path where the probability of winning is >0%, than to lose a game 100% of the time with the expected plays.
A great example of this kind of play is to go for a double protect. Pokemon players shy away from using Protect two turns in a row because the second only has a 33% chance of success, which is entirely unreliable. But if your opponent is predictably going to target a Pokemon that just Protected previously, then as long as that 33% is greater than your chance of winning otherwise, you’re much better off going for it! Identifying scenarios that let you play against the norms of competitive play are some of the best ways to steal a game you were about to lose.
So there you have it. More than anything, I’m curious. Do you agree? Disagree? Why? This isn’t a topic that’s easy to formalize, and I haven’t seen many attempts to do so before. Yet momentum is by and large one of the most important aspects of the game to understand, and being able to manipulate momentum is one of the traits that I would say great players are capable of.
That all said, I could’ve just avoided the last 1,400 words and gone with ρ = mv
p.s. Thanks to TeamRocketElite for hosting the 2013 US Nationals battles on his youtube channel, which you can check out here: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCewsuCzl-M_SQGfvZdVqKuQ