Some Quick Tips For Online Pokémon Battles (or “Why Do I Keep Losing?!”)

Nintendo and The Pokémon Company like to maintain a veneer of fairness around their monsters, and push the idea that players can win with whatever Pokémon they want to use. Sure, they might encourage players to have a wide variety of types on their team, and they might hint that raising Pokémon from a low level is better than just catching them a higher one, but the main campaign is structured so that any old monster can be raised to a high enough level that they’re practically guaranteed to be viable.

The kid gloves come off when you venture into online play, however, and many a player has found that their super-awesome team, one that can rip through the Elite Four without breaking in sweat, consistently getting their collective head handed to them by the Internet. It’s a frustrating experience, and often leaves the player at a loss as to what they can do to improve.

Truly competitive Pokémon play has a high barrier to entry, one that involves tens to hundreds of hours finding, breeding, and training an optimal team of monsters that can handle any possible threat. Most of us just don’t have the time or desire to raise a perfect-IV, optimal-EV monster (much less a whole team of them)—we just want a solid team that gives us a decent chance to win on the online circuit. Luckily, there are some quick & easy steps we can take to help improve our odds.

For this discussion, I’ll use my own poorly-constructed team from Pokémon Moon as a starting point, and see how it can be improved to be a bit more successful online.

Pokémon Type
Incineroar Fire/Dark
Toucannon Normal/Flying
Vikavolt Electric/Bug
Alolan Persian Dark
Lilligant Grass
Starmie Water/Psychic

Step 1: Add a “higher-tier” Pokémon or two to your roster.

The competitive Pokémon-battling community has been around a long time, and its metagame is fairly stable and mature despite the inevitable churn that comes with every successive Pokémon generation. As such, all of the current Pokémon have been organized into several different battle tiers based on their strength, moveset, and general viability. Smogon ranks these tiers as follows:

  • Uber (strongest)
  • OverUsed (OU)
  • UnderUsed (UU)
  • RarelyUsed (RU)
  • NeverUsed (NU)
  • PU (weakest)

There’s no enforcement of these tiers in Pokémon’s online modes, so if you find your Pokémon are constantly getting crushed, it may be because they’re facing off against Pokémon from a higher tier, and are thus at a disadvantage because they’re not as strong. Switching out lower-tiered Pokémon in favor of higher-tiered ones isn’t a guarantee of success, but it helps ensure you and your opponent on at least on equal footing.

If we check the tiers of our example team from above, we see that we’ve got a lot of work to do:

Pokémon Tier
Incineroar NU
Toucannon NU
Vikavolt NU
Alolan Persian NU
Lilligant NU
Starmie UU

If you’re banking on five NU-ranked Pokémon to bring you online battle glory, you’re probably going to be disappointed. Thankfully, this particular team has some options available:

Alternate Tier
Primarina UU
Decidueye UU
Alolan Ninetales UU
Mudsdale NU

Thus, we can improve our team through a few individual switches without  any additional effort. The next question: Who goes and who stays?

Step 2: Look for glaring holes in your team’s type coverage.

Hidden among Ray Rizzo’s competitive team-building tips is this gem of a line: “I recommend having no more than two Pokémon on the same team that share a common weakness.”

While having multiple Pokémon that are weak to the same type isn’t a death knell, it leaves an easy hole for an opponent to exploit and limits the number of viable three-Pokémon teams you can build from your top six. If you don’t have a solid counter to any Pokémon that can exploit this problem, you’re just asking for trouble.

Luckily, PsyPoke has a handy type analysis tool that will quickly show you where your type weaknesses reside. If we feed our example team into the tool, we receive the following output:

Type 4x Resist 2x Resist Immune 2x Weak 4x Weak
Bug 0 1 0 3 0
Dark 0 2 0 1 0
Electric 0 2 0 2 0
Fairy 0 0 0 1 0
Fighting 0 2 0 2 0
Fire 0 2 0 2 0
Flying 0 0 0 1 0
Ghost 0 2 1 1 0
Grass 0 4 0 1 0
Ground 0 1 1 1 0
Ice 0 2 0 2 0
Poison 0 0 0 1 0
Psychic 0 1 2 0 0
Rock 0 0 0 3 0
Steel 0 3 0 0 0
Water 0 2 0 1 0

Upon examining the chart, there’s actually a lot to like about this team: They have no 4x weaknesses, they mostly stick to Rizzo’s “two or less” rule, and they’re so devastating against Grass-type Pokémon that I’m hereby christening them “The Lawn Mowers.” (While they also crush Steel types, “The Steeldrivers” was already taken.) Unfortunately, there are also lot of trouble spots here, the biggest being Rock, Bug, and Fairy types (Flying and Poison types are also minor concerns).

So what sort of switches does this analysis suggest?

  • Bringing in Decidueye for Lilligant seems like a good move, as it negates some of the Bug and Poison disadvantages while not exacerbating any major problem areas (Ghost and Dark types are already well defended against).
  • Despite its NU status, swapping Mudsdale in for our Alolan Persian seems to be a net positive, as it strengthens our position against Poison, Fairy, Bug, and even Rock types! The major cost here is an increase in our Ice vulnerability, but we still have Fire and Ice types to keep them in check. (And honestly, Incineroar can do most anything better than Alolan Persian can, so there’s no point in doubling down on Dark types.)

Just like that, we’ve come up with two potential switches that will our improve our team! But there more we can do, because the above chart has one major omission that needs to be discussed…

Step 3: Identify a Dragon-type counter, and if you can’t, find one to add to your team immediately.

Dragons are annoyingly common in online Free Battles, even when legendaries are removed from the equation. It feels like everyone and their mother has a Salamence or Dragonite in their pocket, just waiting to unleash it on their unsuspecting foes.

Here is where things get tricky: Both of our remaining alternates (Alolan Ninetales and Primarina) are Fairy-types, making them immune to Dragon-type attacks while dealing super-effective STAB damage in return. (Furthermore, the Ice/Fairy-type Alolan Ninetales is about as scary to Dragons as a non-Dragon type can be.) However, Fairy-types also open the team up to Poison-type Pokémon, especially if one of them replaces our Starmie.

After playing around with the type tool, it seems that our best bet is to leave the Starmie alone, and instead target our Toucannon for replacement. Primarina holds a slight advantage over Alolan Ninetales for this spot, as it cuts down on our Rock weakness, keeps our potential Fire weakness in check, and the one major weakness it opens up (Grass) is covered by Incineroar and Vikavolt (and kinda-sorta blocked by Decidueye). In one swoop, we’ve added a Dragon-type counter and reduced our attack surface, further improving our chances for victory.

Step 4: Take your game online, and repeat the above steps as needed.

The previous three steps improved out team in theory, but there’s only one way to see how things play out in practice: Jump to the Battle Spot and take on the world! You should get a sense of whether or not your has improved pretty quickly, and be sure to ask yourselves some questions as you go along:

  • Which team members are dominating, and which are getting owned?
  • Are there certain Pokémon that keep popping up on your opponent’s side and giving you heartburn? (For example, Aegislashes are the one non-Dragon-type that consistently gives me trouble, so countering them should be a priority.)
  • Do you find yourself saying “Gosh, a ___ would be really handy right now” a lot? If so, see if you can get your hands on a ___, whatever that may be.

Once you get a sense of how your team is performing, you can revisit the step above to see if there are further improvements.

Unfortunately, sometimes the “quick and easy” steps to building a stronger Pokémon team still aren’t enough to get the job done. Luckily, there’s no shortage of ways to improve your Pokémon team and achieve success—your only limits are your curiosity and desire. You may find yourself raising several special Pokémon to fill all the holes on your team, or even digging into the details of breeding, EV training, item usage, and so on. Ultimately, the goal is to have fun battling with Pokémon, and the only things you have to do are the things you want to do.