Pokemon and Start-ups

My son recently became a fairly serious competitive Pokemon card game player. Here is a picture of him competing at the Pokemon World Championships:


He became a serious Pokemon player in the way that most people pursue something they are passionate about. It started when his friends took a passing interest. Then I showed him how to dive deeper on a subject using the Internet: “Hey look, we can go to this local Pokemon event and learn more about Pokemon”. And down the rabbit hole we went.

Let’s talk about how Pokemon is played for a moment: You build a 60 card deck, then you randomly draw cards out of that deck. At a high level, if your cards are better than your opponents, you win.

pikachu-next-destinies-nde-39So now when parents ask me about Pokemon, I tell them that being good at Pokemon is a three step process.

  1. Get some good cards. There are many, many Pokemon cards. Most of them bad. There are many good cards. You need those. Casual Pokemon kids are collectors – they say “look at this card” They trade away the second copy of that card for a card they don’t have. Serious Pokemon players know that you can have up to four copies of a card in a Pokemon deck. If it is a good card, you want more than one.
  2. Strategy. Different cards are used at different times. Given two equally good sets of cards, better strategy probably wins.
  3. Luck. Hey, you are pulling random cards out of a pile of cards. If you pull the right card at the right time, it is pretty helpful. Given two equally skilled players and two equally good sets of cards, luck helps.

The thing that Pokemon players talk about all the time is “Guessing the Meta”. The metagame of Pokemon works something like this: Grass pokemon are easily killed by Fire Pokemon, water pokemon kill fire pokemon, grass pokemon kill water pokemon. So if you know that the popular decks right now are grass decks, you should run a fire deck. But of course, if you know that everyone knows that grass decks are popular, then running a water deck might be the play because everyone will run fire decks. And so on.

Let’s bring this all back to start-ups. First, getting a good set of cards is like picking the right market. If you pick a tiny, competitive market, it is like picking bad cards. It doesn’t matter how great your strategy is, you can only be so successful. You need a better market. Here are two cards, you tell me which is good and which is bad:



So obviously, if you put Snivy in your deck and she put Yveltal EX in hers, she is going to whip you silly.

Strategy is really about two things in Pokemon: (1) Deck construction and calling the meta and (2) in-game play. When we talk about in-game play, we are talking about execution. If you have an awesome deck and terrible in-game play, you generally lose. Now if you pick a great market and totally call the meta, then maybe your execution can be average and you can do well, but if you want to be world-class, you have to have world-class execution.

Now deck construction and calling the meta are the strategy. In Pokemon, everyone talks about Tier 1 decks, Tier 2 decks, and rogue decks. Tier 1 is a proven deck-building strategy in the current meta. The start-up corollary to that is metaphor business plans: “The X for Y” “Uber for Netflix”, “Facebook for Dogs”, etc.. Tier 2 decks are how people refer to decks that they don’t like or generally sound like a somewhat reasonable idea but never work out in practice. A “rogue deck” is when someone doesn’t follow the conventional wisdom but tries to in some way counter the meta. Rogue decks end in one of two ways: Either they properly call the counter-meta strategy or they fail and crash and burn. This probably tells you that start-ups are like rogue decks. 9 out of 10 start-ups fail. But I suspect that generally, being a start-up, you have to zig when other people zag. If you just try to run the same Tier 1 decks that everyone else is running, but you are tiny, how can you outperform them? You would need a huge execution edge. That is no good.

You need a rogue strategy. Rogue decks are the kind of thing that sound insane when you are explaining them to people, but then you start executing it and they realize how powerful it is.

Now, if you go look at Pokemon sites like SixPrizes.com, they all have deck lists to help people build better decks. Since you have nerded out this far, might as well go all the way:

Virizion/Genesect Deck List

Screen Shot 2014-10-07 at 4.28.57 PM


  • 4 Virizion EX
  • 3 Genesect EX
  • 1 Deoxys EX



  • 4 Professor Juniper
  • 4 N
  • 4 Skyla
  • 2 Shadow Triad


  • 4 Ultra Ball
  • 4 Switch
  • 3 Muscle Band
  • 2 Startling Megaphone
  • 2 Energy Switch
  • 1 Superior Energy Retrieval
  • 1 Bicycle
  • 1 Colress Machine
  • 1 Professors Letter
  • 1 G Booster


  • 1 Plasma Frigate


  • 10 Grass
  • 1 Psychic
  • 4 Plasma

No deck list would be complete without some explanation of what and why these cards are in here. This deck list is kind of bleh, but here is the idea:

Virizion EX is used to power up other Pokemon, so you want to Emerald Slash as quickly as possible to start getting all of your other Pokemon powered up. Our deck is loaded with grass energy so we can emerald slash a bunch.


Genesect EX is how you win games. The strategy is to attach your G Booster item to Genesect EX and then use all the energy you Emerald Slashed on to Genesect to kill stuff.


You have a bunch of items that help you get more energy onto your Genesect – Professor’s Letter, Colress Machine, Superior Energy Retrieval, and Energy Switch. You have a bunch of supporters to help you get these items out. You have a bunch of Ultra Balls to help you get out more Pokemon. And then you are set.

If you found this interesting, there are articles about Virizion Genesect decks all over the place on sites like ProPokemon.com. The final round of the 2014 Pokemon World Championships featured two Virizion Genesect decks battling each other. This is where great cards, great skill and luck determine success.

While talking about Pokemon has been fun and I am happy (literally delighted) to discuss Pokemon ad nauseam in the comments, my next blog post will be a deep dive on publisher margins in an RTB world and the reconfiguration of value taking place. Sign up for my email list to get more of this than anyone else.

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