Legendary Pokémon get a bum rap in competitive play. Many casual observers and players constantly ask why legendaries are allowed in the first place. Aren’t legendaries overpowered? Don’t legendaries make battles boring?
I see sentiments like these expressed all the time on social media:
These beliefs don’t represent the full spectrum of competitive Pokémon players and fans, of course, but they are still somewhat prevalent. The negativity surrounding legendary monsters is rooted in a misunderstanding of how competitive play works, though.
Legendary Pokémon available for competitive play varies from season to season, but rosters usually don’t include monsters from the box art or creatures from events. In 2017, per the official rules, players can only use legendaries such as the four guardians of Alola, and the Ultra Beasts.
Now that everyone understands which Pokémon are in the running, let’s address the first reason people take issue with legendaries: their popularity makes them “boring.” Ironic that Pokémon designed to be rare and exciting are treated this way, no?
To be sure, there is an apparent lack of diversity in higher level play. In 2015, every team in the top eight of the World Championship had Landorus, or Heatran. In 2017, most teams include either a Tapu or an Ultra Beast. With six slots available to each player, and seemingly hundreds of monsters to choose from, that preference does seem limiting!
Then again, not all Pokémon are created equal. To start, Pokémon options are usually restricted by the season. In 2017, for example, players can only use the 300 Pokémon native to the Alola region. And if that doesn’t narrow down the pool of options, most unevolved Pokémon aren’t competitively viable. That already brings the number of choices down significantly, but then you have to remember that even some fully evolved Pokémon aren’t that useful for one reason or another, such as mediocre stats.
So, when you look at all those factors together, the number of competitively viable Pokémon is reduced from hundreds to about...50. And in 2017, at least 11 of those 50 are legendaries. Given that players are in it to win, of course people flock to the powerful options, even if some viewers may not consider it entertaining to watch.
Most legendary Pokémon have a lot going for them that, on paper, makes them seem overpowered. In Sun and Moon, for example, legends have at least a base stat total of 570 or more. Legendaries also tend to have rare type combinations (Tapu Lele’s is a Psychic Fairy, for instance), if not have some of the most potent moves and abilities in the game.
A good example of this is Landorus Therian Forme and its Intimidate ability, which drops the Attack stat of an opponent’s Pokémon every time it enters the battlefield. While it’s not a unique ability, with its great stats and excellent Ground and Flying type combination, Landorus is able to weaken its foes while also pivoting on and off the field.
Theoretically, that is. In practice, the dominance of legendary Pokémon is murky thanks to the doubles format, which puts two monsters on the field. One-on-one, it’s true that some legendaries can overpower their opponent, but that dominance is harder to pull off when you have to account for how your strategy affects two different enemies and your on-field buddy.
Despite having so much going for them, Legendary Pokémon aren’t that scary. There are plenty of ways to knock legendaries out, or render them useless. Landorus Therian forme, the scourge of many VGC seasons, will almost always lose against Weavile, a monster that might not sound very special next to a legendary. Those appearances don’t matter: Weavile is faster, meaning that it can use its super-effective ice attacks that hit Landorus for four times extra damage. This is not a unique situation. Kartana, another legendary, has such low special defense that even the physically-offensive Gyarados can use Flamethrower, a special attack, to knock it out in a single hit. For every menacing legendary, there are typically many answers.
What makes legendary Pokémon difficult is getting into a position where a player’s check can square up against its prey. In doubles, that’s easy. Not only do players have less Pokémon to hide their legendaries behind (they only bring four of six team members to any game), but there are two on the field most of the time. With those numbers, it’s far more likely that the check will have a chance to do its job.
And even if players don’t have a check, the doubles format gives them other options. One solution to a threatening legendary Pokémon is simply to attack into it with both of a player’s Pokémon. Legends tend to be strong, but not super defensive, on the whole. Those legendaries that do have bulky defenses can’t necessarily survive focused damage from two monsters. Another option for dealing with legendaries is to correctly predict a legendary’s target, use the move Protect to negate all damage, and then counter-attack with your second Pokémon. Finally, it’s worth remembering that Sun and Moon introduced Z-attacks, which are souped-up moves that are so powerful, they can heavily damage legendaries even if there’s no type advantage. We’ve seen strategies like these play out in actual tournaments already:
During second game of the finals at the Oceana International Championships, Zoe Lou was able to use her Magnezone’s Gigavolt Havoc to take out Nico Davide Cognetta’s Tapu Koko on turn one, allowing her to seize a momentum that would eventually carry her to victory.
If you think legendary Pokémon are busted, chances are you just haven’t figured out the right strategy against them.
The final issue many people have with Legendary Pokémon is that they seem necessary to win. Most top teams have at least one legendary, so it stands to reason that those who want to win need to use legendaries. Right?
Wrong. It is true that many winning teams make good use of legendary Pokémon for their power and flexibility, but that isn’t always the case. Just look at Gavin Michaels’ record in 2017: at the San Jose Regional Championships, one of the first tournaments of the season, he was able to win with Porygon2, Mimikyu, Magnezone, Hariyama, Araquanid and Drampa. Not a single legendary Pokémon in that bunch. And then, a few months later, Michaels won the Anaheim Regional Championships with almost the same team (switching out Drampa for Snorlax). While his games in San Jose were much closer, he absolutely dominated Anaheim, losing only a single game in 13 best-of-three matches. Now, Michaels is an excellent player who has been around for a long time, but his team’s strategy was a major factor influencing his victory.
Not everyone is going to be able to reproduce those results, but hopefully it’s encouraging to anyone who wants to commit to a “no legendary” stance. For the most part, good play and a well thought-out team is all anyone needs to succeed.
The most important takeaway, though, is that legendary Pokémon aren’t the enemy. Legendaries are just another tool (or friend if you’re trying to think of it in anime terms) that trainers use to win.