Innovation in Mid-Astral Radiance Standard: Arceus VSTAR

Tate Whitesell
July 18, 2022

Last time I wrote, I introduced the new Astral Radiance format with a look at Palkia VSTAR, which I said “should be a top deck for the early days of the format at least.” If anything, that was an understatement. Shortly after that article was published, Palkia VSTAR took all 8 of the Top 8 spots at Melbourne Regionals— the first time that has happened since the modern data-collection era of the game began in 2016.

There was a lot of discussion about why this happened with this particular deck at this particular event. While Palkia VSTAR was pretty clearly the BDIF, it wasn’t necessarily more powerful relative to the format than past BDIF title-holders like Yveltal/Garbodor, Drampa-GX/Garbodor, Buzzwole-GX/Lycanroc-GX, or even the dreaded ADP, to name a few. My answer was simply that in Australia, most of the region’s skill is highly concentrated in a handful of top players, and many of those players test together. When players including Henry Brand, Kaiwen Cabbabe, Christian Hasbani, Natalie Millar, Brent Tonisson, and others all test together and agree on the same deck to play, you shouldn’t be surprised to see most of those names in Top 8. It was worth noting that at the Card Trooper $5000 tournament held in America on exactly the same weekend, zero Palkia VSTAR made Top 8.

So, with Melbourne out of the way, development of the Astral Radiance Standard metagame continued in earnest. A group of top American players, including many of the former Team DDG members, decided that Arceus VSTAR/Flying Pikachu VMAX was the Arceus VSTAR variant best-suited to handle Palkia VSTAR at the North American International Championships last month, and this paid off with Azul Garcia Griego winning the event.

However, more recently, Arceus VSTAR/Inteleon has reemerged as the top Arceus VSTAR variant in the meta. Refining of both the lists and in-game strategy with the deck has shown top players that the deck can be somewhat favored against Palkia VSTAR, while also keeping up with the rest of the meta. Although the Inteleon engine makes it flexible and adaptable, in many games, the deck aims to set up a loop with two Arceus VSTAR that can be healed with Cheren’s Care, while Pal Pad can be used to recover Cheren’s Care and drag the game out long enough that the opponent simply runs out of steam. With many decks in Standard currently unable to one-shot an Arceus VSTAR, this is a sound strategy in many matchups.

Arceus VSTAR/Inteleon has been the most-played deck in most of the recent online tournaments on Limitless, and while I enjoy the deck and think it is very good, I wanted to try to build another Arceus VSTAR deck to reliably counter it. This new deck needed a way to disrupt the Cheren’s Care loop strategy, either by one-shotting Arceus VSTAR or through some other method. The easy approach would seem to be to pair Arceus VSTAR with a Fighting-type attacker, but the existence of Dunsparce, which is still present in many Arceus VSTAR/Inteleon lists, makes this a poor solution.

After tinkering around with some Arceus VSTAR/Jolteon builds similar to the one Philip Schulz used to win Bremen Regionals, I remembered Ian Robb's champion Arceus VSTAR variant from Indianapolis Regionals earlier in the season. Ian maintained the Inteleon engine (which I like because it gives you more control over the game than Azul’s Bibarel engine or Philip’s Cinccino engine), but was still able to fit a lot of other “counter” cards such as Galarian Zapdos V, Galarian Moltres, Medicham V, and more. In particular, I was drawn to the concept of adding Medicham V back into this archetype. If I could find a way to put 40 damage onto Dunsparce, I could use Yoga Loop to KO it, and on my ensuing “extra turn” I could OHKO an opposing Arceus VSTAR with a Fighting-type attacker.

Gradually, the pieces started to fall into place. The new Pokemon Go set gave us Radiant Blastoise, whose Pump Shot Ability lets you discard a Water Energy from hand once per turn to place 2 damage counters on an opponent’s Benched Pokemon. Importantly, this Ability can be “reset” with Scoop Up Net, a card Arceus VSTAR/Inteleon already plays; and the deck also already plays Water Energy. By using Scoop Up Net to get two uses from Pump Shot, I could reliably pull off the Yoga Loop combo to KO Dunsparce in a single turn.

The next step was to find the best Fighting-type attacker. There are many options, but I elected to go with Sandaconda VMAX for a couple of reasons. As a VMAX, it has 320 HP and is therefore basically immune to being OHKOd in this format. Being able to survive any attack Palkia VSTAR can throw at it, for instance, is pretty good. Also, Sandaconda VMAX’s first attack, Sand Pulse, deals 20 damage to each of your opponent’s Benched Pokemon, which fits with some of the deck’s other pieces such as Radiant Blastoise and Medicham V. This spread damage can stack up quickly and can enable multiple-KO turns and other unexpected combos that can be difficult for opponents to play around.

This new Arceus VSTAR deck now contained lizards (the Inteleon line), snakes (Sandaconda V and VMAX), and a turtle (Radiant Blastoise), so I decided to give it the title of “Herpetology Deck,” after the study of reptiles and amphibians (something close to my heart!). Here is the list I’ve been playing:

Herpetology DeckTate Whitesell Sobble 41 Drizzile 56 Inteleon 58 Inteleon 43 Arceus V 122 Arceus VSTAR 123 Sandaconda V 108 Sandaconda VMAX 90 Galarian Zigzagoon 117 Medicham V 83 Manaphy 41 Radiant Blastoise 18 Marnie 56 Professor's Research 147 Boss's Orders 132 Raihan 152 Roxanne 150 Bird Keeper 159 Cheren's Care 134 Quick Ball 237 Scoop Up Net 165 Level Ball 129 Ultra Ball 150 Evolution Incense 163 Energy Search 161 Ordinary Rod 171 Pal Pad 172 Big Charm 158 Air Balloon 156 Training Court 169 Water Energy 93 Fighting Energy 96 Double Turbo Energy 151

I modeled the construction of this list heavily after Ian’s list from Indianapolis, copying his counts of search cards for the most part (I added an additional Ultra Ball). I also copied his counts for the Arceus VSTAR line and the two Double Turbo Energy, which are all you really need since this deck is less focused on Arceus VSTAR and the Cheren’s Care loop than straight Arceus VSTAR/Inteleon builds are.

Because the strategy of this deck is reliant on snipe damage and combos with Radiant Blastoise, I maxed out the count of Scoop Up Net. Although everyone knows Scoop Up Net is a good card, I still think its impact on Standard since its release has been slightly underrated. The card does so much for this style of deck. Radiant Blastoise and Zigzagoon can be reused multiple times per turn to hit all kinds of numbers and catch your opponent off guard. It’s not just Dunsparce that can be OHKOd unexpectedly in one turn, but any 60 HP and sometimes even 70 HP Basic your opponent puts onto the Bench can be at risk. Scoop Up Net also obviously lets you get more use out of your Drizzile and Inteleon; Inteleon CRE’s Quick Shooting can also be used multiple times per turn sometimes. Scoop Up Net is also an important pivot card in the early game when you need Arceus VSTAR to be in the Active Spot; I did also keep Ian’s Air Balloon for, e.g., Retreating Medicham V and overall having more pivot outs. Bird Keeper has also proven to be a really strong inclusion in my games; it lets you move the deck’s bulky VMAX and VSTAR Pokemon without discarding Energy, and also lets you build a hand rather than play Marnie and lose accumulated resources, which is good for these combo-reliant styles of decks.

This list has been able to beat Arceus VSTAR/Inteleon pretty reliably in my testing, but what about other decks? In particular, can this deck beat Palkia VSTAR? I was hoping that the Radiant Blastoise/Yoga Loop combos might be able to put in some work against Palkia VSTAR, another deck that typically has to put 60 HP Basics (Sobble, or Mew in the “turbo” build) into play. With Yoga Loop buying an extra turn and Prize, I might be able to set up Sandaconda VMAX to survive a Subspace Swell hit, and could also use Cheren’s Care and Pal Pad to keep an Arceus VSTAR alive for multiple turns, perhaps even buying time to set up a second Yoga Loop KO. (If Sandaconda VMAX or Arceus VSTAR hits a Palkia VSTAR for 180 or 200, it is surprisingly easy to make up the ground to 260 damage between Quick Shooting/Pump Shot/Headbutt Tantrum/Scoop Up Net, and then finish off with Yoga Loop.) The copy of Ordinary Rod I included makes these strategies possible even if your opponent decides to target down a Benched Pokemon that makes up part of your eventual combo.

Of course, we know how powerful Palkia VSTAR really is, and it’s also a more consistent deck than this one. This deck can beat Palkia VSTAR, but it isn’t favored. It did cross my mind that because this list already plays two Energy Search and a Raihan, it might not be crazy to try to fit a Raikou V and a Lightning Energy. This would allow for a way to OHKO Palkia VSTAR, perhaps twice in a game with Ordinary Rod/Pal Pad, and you could look for your remaining two Prizes elsewhere. However, as with most attempts to counter Palkia VSTAR, this is far from an autowin strategy and requires you to play very well.

As for single-Prize decks (Regigigas, Lunatone/Solrock, Malamar), you have tricks for them as well. You do have the ability to use Cheren’s Care twice in a game to deny Prizes for a couple of turns, and as with straight Arceus VSTAR/Inteleon, you can still leverage Inteleon SSH (with Raihan) as a one-Prize attacker to even out the Prize trade further. Roxanne is also a good way to disrupt decks like Regigigas in the late game. (I haven’t used Roxanne in a lot of games in my testing and it’s probably one of the most cuttable cards in the list, but in theory, it should be okay in enough games to be worth playing.) And of course, the myriad Scoop Up Net combos to stack damage on the Bench and then steal turns and Prizes with Yoga Loop is always an option available to you against low-HP Pokemon like Inkay or Manaphy.

Herpetology Deck isn’t a complete solution to this format by any means, but it does have a pretty decent matchup into Arceus VSTAR/Inteleon and is a complex, flexible deck that lets you outplay many other decks. I’ve been enjoying playing it on ladder and I would recommend giving it a try if you’re looking for some innovation in this format as we continue the long event-less stretch before Worlds.

Worlds 2022 predictions

ExCeL London Hosts the 2022 Pokémon World Championships from August 18–21

Speaking of Worlds, the 2022 World Championships are on the near horizon, after three years of delay due to COVID-19. As someone who’s always keeping tabs on the developing meta via PokeStats, I’ve started fielding some questions from interested Worlds viewers about what the top players might be considering for the biggest event of the season.

I think the two best decks heading into the event are, pretty much without question, Arceus VSTAR/Inteleon and Palkia VSTAR. However, there are plenty of other decks that can go on a deep run and potentially become the 2022 World Champion.

The Pokemon Go set has given us a new archetype and a couple of pieces that help revitalize older archetypes. The new archetype is probably one you’re familiar with if you’ve played any ladder recently— Lunatone/Solrock. This is the successor to the Malamar/Giratina decks of 2019, with a bit more consistency (due to no evolution lines) but less flexibility in its gameplan. I don’t rate this deck particularly highly and think it is worse in every way than Malamar was, but it does exist and could potentially be the best single-Prize archetype in current Standard. (I tend to think Regigigas and Malamar are a bit better.) The deck falls victim to smart gameplay including rotating attackers, leveraging one-Prize attackers, and targeting support Pokemon on the Bench, and it’s also weak to common strategies like the Cheren’s Care loop in Arceus VSTAR or Psychic Leap in Mew VMAX. However, recent innovations by top players like Stéphane Ivanoff and Alex Schemanske, adding cards like Diancie and Lucky Egg, have done a lot to improve the deck and I think it’s possible some players could bring this to Worlds.

The cards that interest me more from Pokemon Go are two of the Radiant Pokemon. I already discussed Radiant Blastoise for its role in Herpetology Deck, but it also revitalizes an archetype that was the BDIF for parts of the 2022 season: Rapid Strike Urshifu VMAX. Adding another way to spread damage around the board and enable huge Yoga Loop plays can only be good for Urshifu. It would not surprise me at all if the top players who loved Urshifu this past season (Tord Reklev and the Limitless group, or the American group featuring Justin Bokhari, Rahul Reddy, and others) went back to Urshifu for Worlds and made deep runs. The deck is extremely good in the hands of a good player and Radiant Blastoise is yet another card to make it better.

Also of note is Radiant Charizard, which Robin Schulz listed as his pick for the single best card in the Pokemon Go set. While almost any deck that uses the Inteleon engine can reasonably tech this and a Fire Energy, I think it is best in the single-Prize Inteleon Toolbox archetype (what Stéphane Ivanoff calls the Liminal Deck). This deck can reasonably use Radiant Charizard on multiple turns of the game, not just at the end of the game, making it one of the absolute best attackers in the format, a one-Prizer that can reach 280 damage for decreasing Energy investment as your opponent continues to take Prizes. Although the Liminal Deck is incredibly difficult to play optimally for a full tournament, the players at Worlds represent the best of the best, and if someone wants to take on the challenge of optimizing and playing this archetype in this format, I legitimately think it could win.

One other interesting concept that arose at NAIC last month was the Mewtwo V-UNION Stall deck played by Sander Wojcik, my teammate Brit Pybas, and their friend Mees Brenninkmeijer. The deck is not the easiest to play (as evidenced by Brit, who said he did not get enough practice and missed Day 2), but the Stall/Control master Sander was able to bring the deck all the way to Top 4, and it has been highly played in online tournaments (despite the time constraints) since then. This deck is actually very good. In many matchups, if it sets up all the way, it basically cannot lose. The problem is getting to that point in every game and also dodging matchups that can OHKO Mewtwo V-UNION (Malamar, Darkness decks, Ice Rider Calyrex VMAX— although the Bibarel build of Ice Rider struggles with Miltank). Stall/Control has not been truly top-tier for a long time now and I think this is the deck that can return this style of play to that top tier. Worlds competitors should also read the cards in Michael Catron’s Stall/Control builds he’s been posting recently; these are concepts that could be incorporated into Sander’s deck in the next iteration of Stall/Control in this format.

And as always, new Arceus VSTAR variants such as the one I covered in this article can always pop up too. Arceus VSTAR is one of the best Pokemon we’ve been given in recent formats and enables a variety of different deck styles and partner Pokemon; its flexibility will be welcomed in a tournament like Worlds that requires consistency and the ability to make complex plays and adapt game-by-game.

I think Worlds this year will be very exciting to watch. It’s been years since we’ve gotten to see all of the world’s absolute best players compete together in one room, and it feels like there are genuinely a lot of different decks (with different styles of play) that could do well.

I’ll aim to write another article here before Worlds summing up my thoughts and predictions for the tournament in more detail, and perhaps outlining another rogue deck or two. Until then, if you’d like to pick my brain about all things PTCG, you can always reach out on Twitter @twhitesell42.