Hey there Hat Lovers,
Today’s article is going to take a good hard look at the current upset about Smeargle. I have a hypothesis that I will state outright, here and now: Smeargle is not the problem, Xerneas is. I’m going to look back over the years, back to VGC 2010 and up to VGC 2016. We’ll look at the status of Dark Void bans, and frequency of Smeargle usage. I wasn’t playing in 2010, and 2011 didn’t have Smeargle in the format, so my experience with Smeargle starts around VGC 2012/2013.
My hypothesis is that Xerneas is the problem with this format, not Smeargle, and not Dark Void. How can I test this hypothesis? Well, luckily many previous formats did not ban Dark Void, including VGC 2010. So if Dark Void itself is a major issue, we’d expect Dark Void to have posed problems and annoyances in VGC 2010; again, VGC 2010 was fairly similar to this format, with highly notable exceptions like Sand (and Hail) being viable, and in-between games in a Best-of-3 you could switch your team’s items around. This meant you could put Lum Berry or even Chesto Berry where it needed to be for the matchup.
VGC through the years
- Dark Void was not banned in the first offficial VGC circuit in 2009, and Smeargle saw reasonable success. 2009 data and information sharing was sparse and VGC was in its infancy.
- Dark Void was not banned in 2010, and cover legendaries were centralizing forces in the metagame.
- Smeargle was not in the format in 2011.
- Dark Void was banned in 2012, and in 2013.
- Moody Smeargle was introduced in generation 5 (VGC 2012, 2013).
- Dark Void was not banned in 2014, or in 2015.
- Xerneas was introduced in generation 6 (VGC 2016).
Data from VGC 2009 is a bit harder to come by, and threads reporting results aren’t too descriptive. When I asked, Duy mentioned that teams with Smeargle had won the first two Regionals, and took 2nd place at US Nationals (thanks Duy!) So that’s pretty successful, even with item swapping in the format. Others (like Cybertron) can’t remember Smeargle making much of an impact. It’s certainly information to keep in mind, but VGC was also in its infancy in 2009, being the first year with a World Championships. Information sharing was nowhere near as prevalent as today, and while Smeargle may have been successful in 2009, I don’t get the sense that it was overwhelming; please correct me if I’m wrong. Players were able to counter Smeargle, and it was solid, but it wasn’t broken. I’m a little uncomfortable interpreting 2009 results, so I won’t include them in further sections. But it’s good to keep in mind that 2009 existed.
VGC 2010 is probably the most comparable format to the current one, where cover legendaries (e.g. Kyogre/Groudon) were rampant and centralizing. For this reason, I’ve also reached out to a few players from the community for their perspectives on Smeargle usage back in 2010, especially compared to now.
In VGC 2011, Smeargle wasn’t in the format so no data can be collected from that year.
In VGC 2012 and 2013, Dark Void was banned, but Smeargle was allowed. Notably, this is also the generation that Moody was introduced in, so if Moody itself is a major issue with Smeargle, we’d expect Moody Smeargle to have been an issue with this format.
In VGC 2014 and 2015, Dark Void was not banned, and Moody Smeargle existed. If the combination of Moody and Dark Void together was a problem, we’d expect VGC 2014 and 2015 to have major issues with Smeargle.
In VGC 2016, we received a new ruleset with cover legendaries aplenty, and still with Moody Smeargle and Dark Void. This is the generation that, thus far, has drawn the most frustration out of players from Smeargle and Dark Void.
So, without looking at any data yet, how will we interpret our results? What are our expectations? I’m going to outline a flowchart of possible hypotheses/interpretations. The idea being that if #1 is the accepted explanation, then we end our conversation there. But if #1 is rejected as an explanation, we move on to #2. If #2 is rejected, we move on to #3, etc…
- If Dark Void on Smeargle itself is an issue, we would expect that any format where Dark Void was allowed would be a format that Smeargle thrived in.
- If Moody on Smeargle was an issue, we would expect that any format where Moody was allowed would be a format that Smeargle thrived in.
- If the combination of Moody + Dark Void were a major issue, we would expect that any format where Moody and Dark Void were allowed would be a format that Smeargle thrived in.
- If we do not find Smeargle has thrived in any of these scenarios, then a new variable introduced in VGC 2016 is the likely cause of the increased Smeargle usage in VGC 2016.
It is no secret that the most common and overwhelming lead combination that Smeargle participates in in VGC 2016 is the infamous Xerneas/Smeargle lead; if you disagree please propose a Smeargle lead combination that is equally common and/or threatening. I’ll head off Kang/Smeargle because I do not think this is as common as Xerneas/Smeargle. If you have a way to demonstrate that Kang/Smeargle is just as common feel free. However, in all the tournament reports I’ve read, and the games I’ve played, I’ve almost never run into Kang/Smeargle. Therefore, if we reach #4 in our interpretation chain, then I would propose that the issue is not inherently with Smeargle, but rather with the combination of Xerneas/Smeargle. I’ll leave it there for now.
Testing #1: Dark Void is the issue
The first hypothesis up for debate is that Dark Void itself: is the biggest issue with Smeargle, and that if we banned Dark Void, Smeargle would cease to be useful. This statement pre-supposes two things: (1) that any format where Dark Void is available, Smeargle is successful and thus highly prevalent. (2) that we would see a decrease in Smeargle usage in response to it being banned.
In VGC 2010, Dark Void was allowed and cover legendaries like Groudon, Kyogre, Giratina, Lugia, Dialga etc… were major forces of the metagame. I never played in 2010, so I reached out to some folks that had and asked for their impression of Smeargle in VGC 2010. Paraphrasing here:
- Tony (Chinese dood): Smeargle wasn’t very common in 2010, but it was something you still planned for just in case.
- Aaron (Cybertron): I don’t remember too many at a high level, [for many reasons].
- Alex (Evan Falco): Smeargle wasn’t very common, but people still tech’ed for it.
- Duy (Duy): It was still something you had to prepare for, but a lot of people were prepared for it.
The concensus amongst these players is that Smeargle was not a highly successful Pokemon in 2010. It was, however, something in the backs of people’s minds when team-building, and players were sure to have a plan for dealing with it. Notably, 2010 allowed players to swap their items around, and so you could move a Lum Berry to your lead Pokemon if you were facing a Smeargle in Best-of-3 play. So this format isn’t a perfect comparison, but you’d nonetheless have expected Smeargle to dominate Best-of-1 play. Yet none of these players recall facing Smeargle really.
Dark Void was effectively banned for 2011-2013, so we cannot draw data from these years. In VGC 2014, Smeargle + Kangaskhan picked up some steam as the infamous “Khan Artist” duo. But this duo was not highly successful, despite being prevalent. Indeed, US Nationals 2014’s had only two Smeargle players in the 46 teams that advanced to day 2. In US Nationals 2015, we again only saw one team with Smeargle in day two of Masters, out of 37 teams.
Hypothesis #1 – Rejected. Smeargle is not always successful when Dark Void is in the format.
Testing #2: Moody is the issue
Hypothesis number two posits that the issue with Smeargle is instead in its staple ability Moody. Moody Smeargle was introduced in VGC 2012, when Dark Void was banned from play. This conveniently gives us two years of data (2012-2013) where Moody was around in the absence of Dark Void. If Moody were successful on its own (for reasons like +Evasion when using Follow Me), then we would expect Smeargle to have been successful in either of these two years.
Again, Smeargle was a non-entity in VGC 2012 and 2013. Its previous usage level was already low in 2010, so effectively Smeargle did not get better in response to Moody being released. Dark Void was of course banned in these formats, but as was mentioned, it wasn’t overbearing in 2010. We cannot attribute Smeargle’s lack of use in 2012-2013 as solely due to Dark Void’s absence, but it certainly didn’t do Smeargle any favours.
In VGC 2014 and 2015, Moody Smeargle was allowed, and we indeed saw an increase in Smeargle usage. However, as was covered in testing hypothesis #1, Smeargle was hardly a presence at either US Nationals 2014 or US Nationals 2015. The same can be said for Worlds in both years; only two Smeargle were used at Worlds 2014, and three were used at Worlds 2015 with little success.
Hypothesis #2 – Rejected. Smeargle is not always successful when Moody is in the format.
Testing #3: Moody + Dark Void is the issue
This hypothesis proposes that Smeargle is only an issue thanks to the combination of Moody’s random boosts, and the ability to take advantage of those boosts to Dark Void at opportune times. I don’t dispute that Smeargle benefits greatly from Moody, and Dark Void as a threat benefits greatly from Moody. Thanks to Moody, you can use Dark Void far more effectively whenever you get a +Speed, +Accuracy, or even +Evasion boost (though Follow Me benefits more from +Evasion). Random defence boosts can also be used to decide if Smeargle will survive to Dark Void when otherwise it wouldn’t have.
There are two years where Moody and Dark Void were both available: VGC 2014 and VGC 2015. I’ve covered the results from these years twice now in the previous sections. Smeargle gained some infamy, particularly with “Khan Artist,” but it was not highly successful.
Hypothesis #3 – Rejected. Smeargle is not always successful when it has both Moody and Dark Void.
Testing #4: A new variable introduced in VGC 2016 is responsible for Smeargle’s rampant success
We have thus far rejected each previous hypothesis. Smeargle alone is not successful; if it were, we would have seen it be successful in previous formats due to one or both of Dark Void or Moody. The fact that Smeargle is as successful as it is right now must then be attributed to some other variable. Smeargle has had the tools it uses in VGC 2016 for more than two years now, so something in VGC 2016 has brought about this extreme change in viability.
While it’s difficult to attribute any specific force as the reason for Smeargle’s success in VGC 2016, one thing that can be said is that Smeargle is currently far more successful than it has ever been in previous years. The most reasonable interpretation for this is that some variable introduced in VGC 2016, not directly related to Smeargle, has promoted its usage.
Hypothesis #4 – not rejected. We accept the null hypothesis that some variable introduced in VGC 2016 is responsible for Smeargle’s high level of usage and success.
Delving into this newly introduced variable
What we have derived from the above arguments is that Smeargle itself is not the reason that Smeargle is successful this format. Rather, Smeargle is riding the coattails of some other Pokemon that is dominating the metagame.
The best place to look for this overbearing Pokemon is on teams that Smeargle is included on. It’s no secret to anyone which team I’m referring to here; indeed, is Smeargle actually successful on any other team variant? It’s the big six of VGC 2016:
This team (commonly referred to as the “Showdown Special”) is a clear front-runner for the most dominating team of the format. Many players arrived at this team early in the format; Max took it to the first Premier Challenge in BC, and indeed either Max or Mark has taken at least Top 4 in every Premier Challenge in BC they’ve played at by using this team. Max has won three so far with the team. The team won an 87-Masters Regionals in Europe on February 6th. At Virginia Regionals, 3/4 Top 4 players used this exact team, while the other Top 4 player substituted Cresselia over Salamence. Extending down to Virginia’s Top 8, we see a couple more variants, one with Cresselia over Talonflame.
So it stands to reason that one of these Pokemon is the reason for Smeargle’s overhwelming success. I’ll cut to the chase and eliminate Kangaskhan, Salamence, and Talonflame. All of them have been in previous formats with Smeargle and it never let Smeargle see any great success.
That means that Smeargle is riding the coattails of either Primal Groudon or Xerneas. To distinguish between these two, I think one way we can assess which is responsible is by asking what common leads involving Smeargle are. Other methods are strange to investigate, since both P-Groudon and Xerneas are brought to almost every game.
What is the most common lead involving Smeargle?
Xerneas + Smeargle
It would be no stretch to say that Xerneas + Smeargle is the most common lead of VGC 2016. And with saying that, I think we can resolve that Smeargle is riding Xerneas’ coattails to fame. In no previous format was a Pokemon capable of bringing Smeargle out of obscurity and niche use. The combination of Xerneas and Smeargle is simply so strong that it’s worth including Smeargle on the big six.
So why is this lead so threatening? The reason, of course, is that Xerneas can use Geomancy with a Power Herb to get to +2 +2 +2 in one turn. To help Xerneas accomplish this task, Smeargle can use either Fake Out or Follow Me to disrupt the opponent; if the opponent leads two Pokemon slower than Smeargle (like a scrub), then Smeargle can also try Dark Void.
Indeed, Smeargle holds the unique niche of being the only Pokemon in existence with the combination of both Fake Out and Follow Me! This versatile move combo lets Smeargle either flinch an opposing threat to Xerneas, or draw attacks away from Xerneas. In either scenario , this allows Xerneas to get off a Geomancy. The two moves in combination are extremely versatile, and in my opinion, are the strongest reason to give a serious look at banning Smeargle. Oregon Regionals 2014 winner Alex Stempe put it as: “Smeargle is made for cover legendaries.”
What then (if anything), should we do about this metagame-restrictive combination?
As we went through in previous formats, this combination of Smeargle’s moves has never been a problem before. So… is it not true that Xerneas is also to blame?
Before discussing a ban proposal, we first have to decide when it’s appropriate to ban something. What conditions make it okay to ban a move, item, or Pokemon? We have a ban list already, containing distribution-restricted Pokemon like Mew etc… but this list also contains Deoxys which is available in ORAS. The distribution-Pokemon bans make sense, since not all players will have equal access to these Pokemon. Deoxys used to be a distribution-only Pokemon, so I think it’s largely a holdover from previous generations. Either that, or they just aren’t taking any chances on un-banning it.
So bans can be implemented to either level the playing field in fairness to access Pokemon, or to remove unwanted factors from the game (e.g. Lysandre’s Trump Card in TCG). In this sense, it’s reasonable to propose and discuss a ban on some element of Xerneas + Smeargle, if the two present unwanted factors in the game. One unwanted factor that Pokemon takes very seriously is over-centralization (see the Pokemon TCG bans for examples). Pokemon wants to promote formats that are diverse, not ones where playing one type of deck or team is the only way players can win tournaments.
As such, in considering banning something, AlphaZealot has even stated that Play! Pokemon would be watching the results of regionals closely. Thus, they are looking to see the level of success that these two have, and perhaps will also look at games to confirm the cause of their success.
We don’t need to ban Dark Void
In the past, Dark Void has been banned, but upon bringing it back, it didn’t really have much effect on the metagame or tournament results. As I’ve mentioned, Dark Void has never let Smeargle be all that successful, though certainly it has allowed it to be annoying. But not for one minute do I think that banning Dark Void will prevent the combination of Xerneas + Smeargle from overwhelming the metagame. Smeargle’s niche in this format is not being the sole user of Dark Void, but rather the only Pokemon that can use both Fake Out and Follow Me.
If we leave Xerneas as it is, and we leave Smeargle with both Fake Out and Follow Me, I am confident that Xerneas + Smeargle will continue to wreck opposing teams, though perhaps a little toned back. The issue we have at hand is that Xerneas is so strong that as long as it can set up, it will win you the game. So at the crux of this format’s problem is that Xerneas has too easy a time setting up Geomancy.
Then what can be done?
I am strongly against banning things for the sake of removing “annoyances.” When we see results as consistently overwhelming as the results the big six have put up thus far this year, my interest is piqued. If we wish to achieve a more balanced metagame by banning something, I think it would be far more constructive to ban the item Power Herb.
Power Herb in VGC 2016 is used solely for setting up Geomancy. And, we’ve kind of established that Xerneas is the reason Smeargle is so successful. If we took away Xerneas’ ability to get a Geomancy up in only one turn, I think Smeargle usage would drastically decline, and so would Xerneas usage. With the decline of these two Pokemon, new Restricted partners for P-Groudon would open up. Opposing teams that have difficulty with Xerneas would be given a breath of new life. All in all, I think the format would be far more diverse, and would feel far less punishing for those instances where one turn changes everything.
But let’s not get too hasty
While I do think that Power Herb Geomancy is the problem with the format (not Smeargle), I also don’t see an immediate need to ban Power Herb. We’re still in the infancy of VGC 2016, and Max and I have both discussed how we feel like the big six is just the new CHALK. It’s the team that feels as refined as a late-metagame team. Meanwhile, other archetypes are still stumbling around the new format, like trying to play M-Metagross in early VGC 2015.
I’m not convinced that the format can’t right itself if we just allow it to develop. Even if Regionals are curb-stomped by the big six, I think we still need to give things a chance to fix themselves. If no improvement in metagame diversity is made by the end of Midseason Showdowns, I think I would be convinced that a ban would probably be in the metagame’s best interest. If, after establishing its dominance at Winter Regionals, folks still couldn’t answer it by the end of MSS’, then we probably have an issue worth dealing with.
And I for one, think that banning Power Herb is far more constructive an approach. I don’t think a Dark Void ban would solve the major issues with Xerneas + Smeargle. I also would strive to leave no bans in the game to be as welcoming as possible to new players, and to be as free and open to team-building as we can be. It also instills a confidence in the player base that their strategy can’t be up-ended the next day on a whim. Avoiding bans is incredibly positive, and we should try our very best to avoid banning anything if we can.
So with all that said, I hope folks can at least see where I’m coming from here. I’ve never been a supporter of banning Dark Void. I think banning Dark Void would remove RNG aspects from the game, and I can understand why that’s appealing. But the issue we’re having right now is not Dark Void, it’s Xerneas + Smeargle. And indeed, it’s not even Dark Void on Smeargle that warrants Smeargle’s inclusion. So I don’t see how banning Dark Void is supposed to change that!
Something else players have mentioned is how VGC 2016 feels so punishing for that one turn of less-than-optimal play. You’ll hear Cybertron say time and time again on Road to Ranked that it feels like you need to make the best move on every single turn to win in VGC 2016. I blame +2 +2 +2 Xerneas for much of that; Primals are also a big reason for this sentiment.
I don’t want to ban anything. I really don’t. But if the results are staring everyone in the face, I think AlphaZealot and the rest of the Play! Pokemon crew will need to sit down and have a real good think about how best to neuter the Xerneas + Smeargle combo.
I for one, think the least intrusive way to do this is to ban Power Herb.