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The world's best Pokémon TCG players on the decks, lucky draws and near-defeats that led to their World Championship wins

This year’s world champions reflect on their winning strategies.

Image credit: The Pokémon Company

A chance to carve your name in history. The Pokémon World Championships are the pedestal of the competitive calendar, creating memories which will reverberate around the community for years to come. Competitors of the TCG crave the opportunity to see their decks printed in the special yearly releases made of their decks to celebrate their achievements, alongside the pride and prizes that come with claiming the elusive crown. As the creators of the currently-broadcasting Path to the Peak have admitted, it’s the thrills of the 2019 World Championships that inspired the new TCG-focused animated series.

Despite being the first event hosted in Japan, the winners in all three TCG categories came from further afield. In the Junior division, Shao Tong Yen overcame Brazilian Gabriel Borges Torres, before Torres’ fellow countryman Gabriel Fernandez secured victory in the Senior division over Sydney de Cordior. In the Masters division, Vance Kelley defeated Tord Reklev in a tense match eventually decided in time proceedings after a thrilling 75 minutes of competition between the two competitors.

Cover image for YouTube videoVANCE KELLEY vs TORD REKLEV - Pokémon TCG Masters Finals | Pokémon Worlds 2023
Vance Kelley and Tord Reklev face off in this year's TCG Masters finals at the Pokémon World Championships

All showed skilled control over the deck no matter their age. In the Junior division, players eligible must be born in 2011 or later. Senior division was limited to players born between 2007 and 2010, while all other players born in 2006 or earlier qualified for the Masters division. It’s not like players in the Junior division are any less skilled than even the Masters - merely that the competition title ensures they have a greater chance of glory across age demographics.

Nor does it make these matches any less entertaining. Take the second game of Yen’s match in the Junior Division final. After already taking the first game, with Fernandez struggling to get their plays going after failing to make their VStar Pokémon on their second turn, Yen was in the ascendency as they were building up the number of cards in the Lost Zone necessary for their Lost Zone Box deck to strike using the powerful effect of Sableye, Lost Mine attack to put 12 damage counters on their opponent's Pokémon in any way they would like.

The Pokémon World Championships host tournaments for the card game, video games and Pokémon Go. | Image credit: The Pokémon Company

At this point, with the pressure mounting, Yen’s decision to switch the starter Pokémon Comfey from the active spot into the bench before activating its effect proved to be a mistake, as the necessary cards were not yet in the Lost Zone. It’s understandable to make a mistake under so much pressure, but fortunately they were still able to secure the win and used the strength of a Kyogre attack to secure the championships in emotional scenes.


Shao Tong Yen’s Junior Division World Championship Lost Zone Box Deck

  • 4x Comfey
  • 2x Sableye
  • 1x Cramorant
  • 1x Manaphy
  • 1x Radiant Greninja
  • 1x Kyogre
  • 1x Raikou V
  • 1x Dragonite V
  • 4x Colress’ Experiment
  • 1x Sofora
  • 4x Battle VIP Pass
  • 4x Mirage Gate
  • 4x Escape Rope
  • 4x Switch Cart
  • 3x Nest Ball
  • 2x Super Rod
  • 2x Lost Vacuum
  • 2x Recycle Energy
  • 1x Pal Pad
  • 1x Echoing Horn
  • 1x Hisuian Heavy Ball
  • 2x Forest Seal Stone
  • 2x PokéStop
  • 5x Water Energy
  • 3x Electric Energy
  • 3x Psychic Energy

“I was confident about the deck after testing it multiple times beforehand, but I hadn’t expected to win,” Yen admitted once emotions had calmed a few hours later. In perhaps a rather fitting culmination of the match, he proclaimed the favourite card in his deck was his Kyogre, the same card that won him the match with its final onslaught attack. As for next year, he knows the difficulty of competition that comes with defending a crown but it doesn’t mean he won’t try. “I’m definitely going to give it my best. I don’t know if I can achieve the same, but I hope to at least be able to get Top 32!”

The TCG matches take place over multiple days, whittling hopeful trainers down to a few finalists. | Image credit: The Pokémon Company

In the Senior division, Fernandez’ Lugia (Colorless) deck was able to overcome the formidable Arceus Giratina plays put forward by de Cordior in a 2-0 victory that relied both on skill and arriving at the right cards at the right time. After a commanding opening to Game 1, Fernandez struggled to find the cards needed to secure the victory, especially after de Cordior was able to defeat Lugia for two of the Brazilian’s prize cards by getting his Arceus V into a dominant position at the head of the attack.

Eventually running into Boss’ Orders at just the right time, Fernandez was able to defeat the once-benched Arceus low on HP to secure the game, before a more dominant second game overwhelmed de Cordior through the strength of Lugia V and the difficulty for his opponent to play around the Path to the Peak stadium card secured the victory.

A shiny Charizard is put to the ultimate testWatch on YouTube

To even reach the final, never mind going all the way, was somewhat of a surprise for Fernandez. “I started [the tournament] by losing round one!” he admitted. Turning it around from there required overcoming tough opponents on the route to the crown.

A strong mindset and a change to familiar waters was credited for the victory: “I changed my deck Friday; I was originally using a deck I didn’t really like and this was my safe, familiar choice.”


Gabriel Fernandez’ Senior Division World Championship Lugia VMax Deck

  • 3x Lugia VMax
  • 4x Lugia V
  • 4x Archeops
  • 1x Lumineon V
  • 1x Snorlax
  • 1x Drapion V
  • 1x Pumpkaboo
  • 1x Wyrdeer V
  • 1x Slaking V
  • 1x Radiant Tsareena
  • 3x Professor’s Research (Professor Albora)
  • 3x Iono
  • 3x Boss’ Orders
  • 1x Professor Burnet
  • 4x Ultra Ball
  • 2x Nest Ball
  • 4x Capturing Aroma
  • 2x Choice Belt
  • 2x Path to the Peak
  • 2x Collapsed Stadium
  • 4x Double Energy Turbo
  • 4x Jet Energy
  • 2x Gift Energy
  • 2x Theraputic Energy
  • 2x V Guard Energy

While the card never came into contention in the final match, Fernandez admitted that he may not have even reached that stage had it not been for his Slaking. Ultimately, though, in both that match and numerous matches throughout the competition, it was securing the right cards at the right time, more than anything else, that he credited for victory. “Honestly, the best card in the deck was Slaking. In Top 4 I was going to lose the match, but that made me win. In the final, I was pretty nervous but really excited. I knew it was a tough matchup but he just didn’t get the cards he needed.”

As well as taking home trophies for their performance, the top-ranking players also receive unique Pokémon cards. | Image credit: The Pokémon Company

In the Masters Division, even going into the match the narrative behind the game was enough to drum up excitement. Reklev was the fan favourite, a veteran of the game who reached Top 4 at last year’s event and was only a World Championship win away from securing a complete collection of every major title in the game. Meanwhile, Kelley was a talented but less experienced player, without a major event victory prior to reaching the Worlds final - and eventually taking the whole thing.

It was the always-competitive Mew VMax deck for Kelley against Reklev’s trusted Gardevoir setup, with very little separating the two players. Both took their time with each move to avoid misplays and work around the impenetrable boards of their opponent, showcasing a level of calm on the world stage that was a testament to their mutual talents. Kelley had a slow opening without the necessary cards or a VIP Pass in turn one to build up a strong play compared to the double VIP Pass in Reklev’s hand. Yet, despite the advantage, Reklev just fell short on the damage needed to secure the game when his Gardevoir could only inflict 270 out of the 310 HP needed to secure a KO on the VMax Mew of Kelley.

The crowd cheered as cards were revealed and activated. | Image credit: The Pokémon Company

In the end, four Stone Tablets built up in Kelley’s board was what was needed to secure the first game in spite of a rough start. The second game was similarly a grinding and long-winded affair, neither player building the advantage needed to secure a victory until the top-decked Luminion and Boss’ Orders brought the loudest roar from the crowd, as Reklev evened up the tie and brought the match to a third game with less than eight minutes remaining on the clock.

Still, at this point it was an uphill battle for Reklev. The Mew VMax deck is known for its faster, more explosive games, making a limited-turn time environment advantageous to the deck over Gardevoir. In time, three turns are played beyond the current turn being played when time runs out, unless prizes are even where the game continues until a prize is claimed. In the prize cards for this game were two Raltz crucial for the Gardevoir in Reklev’s deck - a notable slowing factor for an already-sluggish deck.

Beyond the grand stage, players of all ages and skill levels were able to do battle. | Image credit: The Pokémon Company

It was an intense affair, with Reklev able to take a lead on prize cards going into turn three after the use of Concealed Cards and other draw effects brought the cards needed to defeat Kelley’s Meloetta using the Zacian. In the end, all that was required was the top deck of all top decks; with Boss’ Orders, Kelley was able to switch out the Zacian and get the cards needed to win, to the approval and applause of everyone in the room when it happened.

“I knew I would be pretty unfavoured going into game three because of the low time, and that was kind of on me,” Reklev admitted shortly after the match. “I could have played other games faster but, you know, I want to make sure I did everything correctly, I don't want to make a mistake, and so did my opponent.

“I felt it played relatively fine overall so there was not too much to complain about Game 1. I went for like a big play to get the knockout [in Game 3] and I had three outs on the deck. but unfortunately all three outs were in like the bottom 10 or so cards.”

Cover image for YouTube videoEvent Recap | 2023 Pokémon World Championships
A recap of this year's Pokémon World Championships

It was a result without regrets for Reklev, as the tournament gave him a chance to play the Gardevoir deck he proclaimed as one of his favourites in recent years for its ability to allow him to express itself within the playstyle of the deck and the tech cards he used, such as Mirage Step.

But it was not to be, and the thrill of the match was apparent on Kelley’s face the moment we got to speak to the new world champion: “It feels kind of unreal to have won. It hasn't really set in yet, but I think it'll set in when I get to see my friends when I'm done with all the post tournament stuff. Then we'll go celebrate and have a good time.”

This year's World Championships were the first held in the game's home country of Japan. | Image credit: The Pokémon Company

Preparations for the tournament were a lot more focused and simple for Kelley, with Mew VMax being the obvious choice for the competition. “Quite frankly, it's kind of the only deck I play. I thought about changing but my friends were saying that you're a one-trick pony at this point, just stick with it, and that’s what I did.”

Experience with the deck allowed for a greater understanding about what works best in the format to both support the plays they make and counter opponents, which had an influence on the choices made. Nowhere was this more obvious than in perhaps the best of Kelley’s deck choices, Box of Disaster, which was particularly effective in neutralising some of the key strategies of Reklev’s Gardevoir deck.


Vance Kelley’s Master Division World Championship Mew VMax Deck

  • 3x Mew VMax
  • 4x Mew V
  • 4x Genesect V
  • 1x Meloetta
  • 1x Oricorio
  • 2x Elesa's Sparkle
  • 2x Boss’ Orders
  • 1x Iono
  • 1x Judge
  • 4x Ultra Ball
  • 4x Battle VIP Pass
  • 4x Cram-o-matic
  • 4x Power Tablet
  • 2x Nest Ball
  • 2x Lost Vacuum
  • 2x Rescue Carrier
  • 1x Pal Pad
  • 1x Escape Rope
  • 3x Forest Seal Stone
  • 2x Choice Belt
  • 1x Box of Disaster
  • 2x Lost City
  • 1x Path to the Peak
  • 1x Crystal Cave
  • 4x Fusion Strike Energy
  • 3x Double Turbo Energy

Time was a big factor for both players as the end of the match loomed, something that helped to give Kelley confidence as the end ticked closer. “I definitely thought time would probably favour my deck because it's a much faster deck. I was still playing normally; before time was called I wasn’t thinking anything like whether I was going to live on prizes or something like that, but the way it all ended up was a bit fortunate for me. It was a bit unfortunate for Tord and I feel bad for them. Neither of us is a super fast player, I just think because of the way my deck is that it happened to benefit me.”

All the same, it forced reconsideration of how the deck is played when entering time, without as much need to consider preserving resources when you only need to think two turns ahead.

Victory or defeat can sometimes come down to what you draw, when. | Image credit: Alicia Haddick

To claim victory requires composure, skill and confidence in your deck to pull the right card and have the right resources necessary to claim the victory. All three champions relied on the right card at the right time secured by a deep understanding of what their decks were capable of and the composure under pressure to play to the end, no matter mistakes or the looming pressure of time on proceedings. In that sense, every player deserved their crown, each player being worthy of celebrating their success.

With that, a new Pokémon season begins, as players begin the qualification process for the championships to be held next year in Hawaii. Could any of these players defend their crown, or will we see an all-new champion? We’ll just have to wait to find out.

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Alicia Haddick avatar

Alicia Haddick

Contributor

Alicia is trapped, unable to escape the addiction of trying (and failing) to be good at Yu-Gi-Oh. Whenever they do take a break from getting their butt kicked, they like to spend time watching and talking about film, anime, games, musicals and Japanese idols.

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