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South Africans impress at the Pokémon World Championships 2023

Earlier this month Pokémon held the World Championships 2023 which saw competitors amass in Yokohama, Japan to determine who would be the very best, like no one ever was… at least for the next year.

This incarnation of the event was special to many as it was the first time that the World Championships were held in the country that spawned the series. While Pokémon is a Japanese property, the World Championships are usually held in America with brief outings to other countries in the past, such as the UK in 2022 and Canada in 2013.

As a quick explanation of the plural in the title of the World Championships, this one event is broken up into several tournaments, each focusing on one platform. For 2023 this covered Pokémon Unite, Pokémon Go, the Video Game Championship (VGC, played in Pokémon Scarlet and Violet) and finally the focus of our story today, the Trading Card Game (TCG).

Several South African players qualified to compete in the World Championships for the TCG and, while they unfortunately didn’t make it onto the list of winners, our local players managed to impress with solid final standings on the leaderboard at the conclusion of the tournament weekend.

One of those South African players was Jonah Alter, who, according to third party tracking site PokéStats Live, finished in 96th place. Finishing as one of the top 100 players in the world is an incredible achievement, especially as the Pokémon TCG, and Pokémon in general, is experiencing a second wave of popularity that has not been seen since the early 2000s when the franchise originally exploded into the public consciousness.

We only need to look at the player attendance in recent tournaments prior to the Pokémon World Championships 2023 to see this, such as the North American International Championships held in June which brought in just shy of two thousand players.

Alter even attended some of these large tournaments abroad, such as the 1 525-player Europe International Championships.

“This season was my most memorable to date. Getting international exposure at various events throughout the season was a very rewarding experience, and achieving success therein even more so. I look forward to participating more on the global scale in the 2023 – 2024 season!” Alter tells us.

For the Pokémon World Championships 2023 Alter played Lost Zone Box, a deck that relies on powerful cards like Mirage Gate and Sableye which are only usable once a certain amount of cards are in the Lost Zone.

For those who have not played the Pokémon TCG for some time, the Lost Zone can be seen as a more permanent version of the Discard Pile. While methods exist to recover cards from the Discard Pile, none exist for the Lost Zone. Players permanently send their cards to the Lost Zone to gain access to certain affects, and variations of Lost Zone Box decks have been popular for months now.

Another player who impressed this year was Moeen Mungalee who managed to finish in 57th place, securing another spot for South Africans in the top 100.

Mungalee played Gardevoir for the tournament. This deck centres around various Pokémon cards that evolve from Ralts, as well as many Psychic-type attackers and support Pokémon. Gardevoir was heavily favoured to win the entire tournament, but it had to settle with a second place finish after being beaten by Mew.

That finals match, by the way, can be watched on YouTube along with many hours of official uploads on the official Pokémon channel.

Mungalee’s Gardevoir bucked some deck building trends by including one copy of Mirage Step Kirlia. The general consensus among Gardevoir players was to omit this card in favour of a maximum count of Refinement Kirlia. Mungalee was right on the money, however, as the second place Gardevoir deck did indeed play one of the Mirage Step Kirlia.

“I think competing in Pokémon TCG really gets me energized and I always have the never give up attitude, which has resulted in some major highlights throughout my tournament run, making comebacks and winning games I would have certainly lost without that persistence and finding intricate ways to make a comeback. My highlights lie in those games where my opponent had the upper hand and yet somehow I managed to pull the win out the hat against all odds,” Mungalee says.

Moeen Mungalee (left) and Jonah Alter (right) on the floor of the 2023 Pokémon World Championships. Image used with permission from Sheldon Kuppan.

The Pokémon TCG is split into three Divisions based on age, these being Masters (born in 2006 or earlier), Seniors (born between 2007 and 2010) and Juniors (born in 2011 or later). The Masters Division attracts the most amount of attention from both players and spectators and indeed Alter and Mungalee discussed so far are Masters players.

This doesn’t mean we should overlook the accomplishments of younger South African players such as Jack Paul who finished in 54th place in the Juniors Division.

Paul piloted a deck revolving around Arceus Vstar. This card does damage and powers up other attackers at the same time, and it was the central card in the deck that won the World Championships in 2022. A year later and Arceus Vstar is still strong, but this time it is backed up with different attackers. Paul chose Umbreon Vmax, Slaking V and Alolan Vulpix Vstar as the partners for his Arceus Vstar deck.

“Qualifying for the previous season was super easy [due to the lower points threshold], but this next season will be harder with a higher requirement. The World Championship was really fun, everyone was super kind and playing lots of different people with their different styles was super cool. I am really hoping to do well this season to qualify to got Hawaii. I already have some points so Hawaii here I come!” Paul says.

As Paul mentions, the 2024 instalment of the Pokémon World Championships will be in Hawaii, USA. Unlike Japan, this is not a new location for the event as Hawaii has hosted it twice in the past.

Our last spotlight player from South Africa is Mika Ballim who claims the highest place finish of all players from this country. Ballim finished in 13th place in the Seniors Division, which is a simply incredible achievement for any player.

Like Mungalee, Ballim played Gardevoir, but instead went without the Mirage Step Kirlia, among other changes between the two players’ lists.

“Participating in the Pokémon World Championship was an incredible journey that tested both my skills and resilience. Representing South Africa on such a global stage was an honour I’ll cherish forever,” Ballim says.

“As the next season has already begun, reality dictates that my focus has to shift to school exams. While next year’s Worlds might be uncertain, my passion for Pokémon remains unwavering. I am immensely grateful to my parents for their support throughout my journey to Worlds.”

The outstanding crop of South African players had to overcome many hurdles for this finishes, as the local competitive scene is rather small compared to some other countries. For the 2024 season South Africa has even been signalled out – by name as the only country – to not receive travel assistance.

“Note: Players in South Africa are not eligible for Travel Awards and Travel Stipends,” reads an announcement from Pokémon about the 2024 season.

Awards and Stipends are monetary prizes given to top performing players in each region which assists with the costs of travel to compete in tournaments.

If you live in South Africa and you want to give competitive Pokémon a try, the best place to start is a Pokémon League. This is an organised club of players that hosts sanctioned events to learn the game and earn points which can eventually result in a qualification to play in the World Championship. The 2024 season has just started and it is not uncommon for brand new players to earn an invite in their first year, with enough hard work.

Use the Pokémon Event Locator to find the closest Pokémon League near you. One common thread that all players share is the sense of community with all participants we spoke to today mentioning how much help and support they received from other South African players. These communities are usually born at Pokémon Leagues

Unplug Yourself, an initiative started by the distributor of the Pokémon TCG in South Africa, also routinely hosts their own events, such as Learn to Play Days. Its event schedule can be found here and several of these will be held during Comic Con Africa 2023 in September.

For the 2023 season Unplug Yourself actually sponsored two South African players to attend the World Championship in Japan, based on their performance at the Special Event (SPE) tournaments in Johannesburg and Cape Town. Mungalee was the recipient of this sponsorship for his run at the Cape Town tournament.

“Japan was a dream come true on so many fronts – the whole fairy tale run I had at the [Cape Town] SPE to cap off coming back into the game I loved so much, which made it possible to attend an event at the highest level of competing made it all the more worth it,” Mungalee adds.

Another recipient of this sponsorship was Zahir Hamid, the top finishing South African player at the Johannesburg SPE. While Hamid didn’t claim a similar top finish at the World Championships, he did have a part to play in the overall success of the South African presence. Ballim tells us that their start to the tournament was rather poor with losses in the first and second rounds, including a penalty for a mistake.

“After a pep talk from my parents and Zahir, I think I was able re-focus and won the next five rounds, making it to the top 16. I was so overcome with joy that I didn’t even relaise I was meant to collect my prizes after – I ended up doing this the following day,” Ballim continues.

As the 2024 season gets into full swing we hope to see more South Africans in Hawaii for the next World Championships. Maybe one day a local player will even claim first place in Go, Unite, VGC or the TCG.

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