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Pokémon TCG: The Story Of The 2023 World Championship Masters Final

Pokémon

Old Vs Mew

After three thrilling days of desperation draws, controversial rulings and incredibly close battles, the 2023 Pokémon World Championships have drawn to a close. Even though the event didn’t run as smoothly as organisers would have hoped, spectators from across the globe were treated a fantastic run of qualifying and top-cut matches, especially in the TCG portion.

In a stunning ‘Masters Division’ final, which lasted well over 90 minutes, Vance Kelley and his mighty Mew VMAX deck defeated Tord Reklev, a veteran of the TCG who is regarded as one of the best to ever pick up a Pikachu.

Victory netted Kelley $25,000 in prize money, as well as an exclusive ‘No. 1 Trainer’ Pokémon card and a LOT of booster packs. The entire top 8 bracket was packed with stories, as many of the most well-known players in the TCG all fought through the 170-strong field. In his semi-final, Kelley defeated Azul Garcia Griego, a popular Pokémon player and streamer (we can only dream of an Azul vs Tord final). Meanwhile, Tord defeated Michael Pramawat, who was making his 3rd appearance in the top 8 of Worlds.

Even though Tord’s Gardevoir deck was thought to be the strongest in the format, Mew VMAX and the ‘Fusion Strike’ system proved too powerful in the final moments, despite being released nearly two years ago. However, the defeat of Tord Reklev serves to immortalise a player who, before Sunday, had never reached the top 8 of a major tournament.

Contrasting Contenders

Being the most prestigious Pokémon event of the year, players cannot sign up to play the World Championship as they would any other tournament. Based on results over the course of the season, players are given either Day 1 or Day 2 invites, with the very best being allowed to skip the first day of competition and start on Day 2. Someone who did not get this privilege was Vance Kelley, who had to play 8 gruelling matches (with 6 wins or better) to make Day 2. All the while, players like Reklev could watch and observe which decks performed well, modifying their own decks in response. This, combined with the fatigue involved with playing a whole extra day, makes having a Day 2 invite a substantial advantage.

Going into the final, all eyes were on Tord Reklev, who was on the verge of making TCG history. Over the years, Tord has won all four of the TCG International Championships (North America, Europe, Oceania and, this year, Latin America). He has also won a few regionals and special events.

But he had never won the World Championship.

The closest he’d previously come was in 2019, when he lost in the semi-finals to Shintaro Ito. A victory in the final would be the sparkling jewel in the crown of his illustrious career, and the pressure was clearly on. In a promotional interview, Reklev said;

“Winning Worlds would be incredible. I can’t believe I’m so close right now. It is the only tournament really left for me. I don’t really have my hopes too high, even if I’m so close. But, it would mean everything.”

As the players shuffled their decks, commentators drew comparisons between Tord and Jason Klaczynski, the 3-time World Champion who played in the early competitive Pokémon events of the 2000’s. That was a different era, with modern tournaments being much larger and tougher than in the early days. Tord would know: when Klaczynski won his second Worlds in 2008, Tord made the top 16, in the Seniors Division (12 to 16 years old).

By comparison, Vance Kelley grew up dreaming of playing the final at Worlds. In the same interview, Kelley recalled;

“That’s something as a kid, you see the Worlds decks in the stores. You hope you can get your deck printed one day. So it’d be really amazing to win Worlds.”

While Vance had never made it into a situation like this before, he seemed calm and collected, shuffling his deck like he was preparing for a game at a local board game club (which happens to have a very high scenery budget). Perhaps the prestige of the spectacle didn’t weigh on his mind as much as it did on Tord. No matter what, this was the best Pokémon result of Vance’s life. He was also using the Mew VMAX deck which had taken him through the whole season, while Tord was using Gardevoir ex, which is still relatively new.

But the time for pondering deck selection was over. The arbiters were ready, and the eyes of the TCG World were upon them. 75 minutes were set on the clock, and the players shook hands...

Deep Into Overtime

On his first turn, Vance played quietly, noting down his prize cards on a folded sheet of paper. Meanwhile, Tord seemed energised, and immediately had the crowd gasping by drawing two copies of ‘Battle VIP Pass’ in his opening hand. This allowed him to draw 4 basic Pokémon, filling his bench with multiple copies of Raltz. Yet the power of Genesect V’s ‘Fusion Strike System’ allowed Vance to draw through more of his deck, taking cheap prizes before Tord was fully set up. Crucially, Tord attempted to draw a Reversal Energy and power up his Gardevoir, but missed with only a handful of cards remaining in his deck. From here, Vance took the initiative, and the first game of the series.

A string of mulligans (failing to draw a basic Pokémon in your opening hand) by Tord delayed the beginning of Game 2, meaning that less than half of the 75-minute match time remained when Game 2 finally began.

Typically, your opponent taking mulligans is a good thing for you, since you can start the game with extra cards in your hand. However, this can be inconvenient for Mew VMAX, since the ‘Fusion Strike System’ only allows you to draw a lot of cards when your hand is small (you can draw until your hand size is equal to the number of ‘Fusion Strike’ cards you have in play). To make matters worse for Vance, an aggressive opening strategy call seemed to backfire, and Tord was having much better luck when drawing. Nobody can blame Vance for wanting to convert his 1-0 advantage and end the final early, but Tord’s patience and experience led him to equalise the match, forcing a Game 3.

As the match clock ticked under 6 minutes, both players laid down terrible prize cards. This normally means that a game could drag on, as both players lack the key resources they need to play effectively; but there was no time left for that. Both players knew that time would run out, and would need to change their strategy in response.

In a normal tournament match, time running out caps the number of turns remaining in the game. When the clock hits ‘0’, the turn of the currently active player becomes ‘Turn 0’. From there, the opponent gets to play a turn (‘Turn 1’), the original player gets a turn (‘Turn 2’), then the opponent gets to play a final turn (‘Turn 3’). If no player has a prize card advantage after ‘Turn 3’, the game is drawn.

But this is the World Championship final. There must be a winner.

In these unique circumstances, play continues after ‘Turn 3’ until someone takes a prize, and that player becomes the champion.

Despite the special rules, the timing of ‘Turn 0’ was critical, because if the time runs out just before a player can end their turn, they effectively get one turn instead of two. ‘Turbo Tord’ played as fast as he possibly could, shuffling his deck and sifting through cards like a factory machine. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to give him an advantage, as Vance ended his turn with just seconds remaining. Tord was ‘Turn 0’, and he could now take his time.

He agonised over the position, knowing that Vance could probably KO a Pokémon with his next turn, giving Vance a huge advantage in overtime. Tord gambled on a ‘Professor’s Research’ and discarded his hand, but hit card after card in a turn that lasted longer than the whole of Game 3 up to that point. Tord was able to take a KO himself, but Vance Kelley seemed undeterred, playing out ‘Turn 1’ with only mild nervous shuffling. Vance always seemed just a little bit ahead, knocking out the Zacian V of Tord and levelling the game.

Tord took another excruciatingly long turn, upending his entire deck in an effort to KO one of Vance’s Pokémon. The VGC players were anxiously tapping their feet, praying for Tord and Vance to pack their silly shiny cardboard away, so they could get their big plastic screens out and battle on a digital school field. Tord couldn’t amass the firepower needed to take out a Pokémon V, so had to settle for a single prize Cresselia.

In response, Vance played with speed and composure. He was sure of himself, sure that he had the material required to win the game, and the whole room felt it. After using a ‘Switch Cart’ to place is Mew VMAX into position, Vance played ‘Boss’s Orders’, bringing forward Tord’s vulnerable Zacian V. Knowing that the game was over, Reklev offered a handshake, and Vance Kelley became the Pokémon TCG World Champion.

What Comes Next?

A defeat like this is always crushingly painful. Despite the $10,000 consolation prize, the title of ‘World Champion’ has far greater meaning to players like Tord. However, even with his enormous pool of experience, he is only 28, and something tells me that he is still on the path to the peak of his powers. He will get another chance to become the GOAT; or perhaps, the Skiddo? If he transitioned to playing Pokémon GO as well, he could become the Gogoat.

As for Vance, he can bask in his valiant victory for years to come. It is one thing to win Worlds, but to do so from Day 1 is an even rarer feat, which will serve as the highlight of his career, no matter what he goes on to do in Pokémon.

The Pokémon TCG, and especially the World Championships, have always been wild and unpredictable. Just ask Ondřej Škubal: in 2022, he became World Champion, but he lost the first streamed game of 2023, and was eliminated on Day 1 shortly afterwards. The skill difference between top players being so small, and the margin of error being so thin, winning a major event can come down to being in the right place at the right time.

Yet I doubt that we have seen the last of Vance Kelley or Tord Reklev on the main stage at Worlds. Only time will tell if either of them can make, or win, another final. They have already secured their invites, but for the rest of us, the entire 2024 TCG season lies ahead. With local ‘League Cups’ and club tournaments, all the way up to International events, there are many opportunities to earn ‘Play! Points’ and a Worlds invite of your own. With an underdog victory, Vance Kelley has shown us all that you don’t have to be a decorated veteran to win the greatest prize of all. Which leads us to the ultimate question...

Can you become the next Pokémon World Champion?