Professor Sycamore and its predecessor Professor Juniper stand together as one of the strongest pairs of supporter cards printed and definitely the strongest in the current Standard format. The effect “Discard your hand and draw 7 cards” is simple to read and understand, but perhaps difficult for casual and even competitive players to fully appreciate in terms of its strength and effect on the metagame. The Pokémon Company International was well aware of this, implementing a unique rule which says you cannot use both cards together in a tournament legal deck – you may only use one or the other. This rule was only ever implemented for Professor Sycamore/Juniper, despite there being instances of other Supporter Cards with doubled up effects (such as Cheren, Tierno and Hau).
Commonly, players who under value the strength of the card will focus on the ‘cost’ to play it (discarding your hand). Perhaps it is a simple reason like not wanting to discard cards for the sake of not wasting those cards. If you’re worried about discarding resources with Professor Sycamore (which I find is often the case with players who don’t run Sycamore) think about it this way:
You’re trading cards in hand you can’t use this turn to see the resources you need right now, and discarding those cards will also increase the chances of getting what you need later (by removing the chance you’ll draw them again after playing N or Shauna). This is part of why Sycamore can smooth out setting up so much. You get more cards than N/Shauna, and remove the cards you don’t want to draw into.
There are games you might lose because in the later stages of the game you no longer have the resources remaining to win because they were discarded – but you’ll lose so many more games because you didn’t see your resources early and throughout the game because you can’t draw into them or search them out. If you’re in a losing position because you can’t reach your resources, those cards might as well be in the discard anyway. This represents an almost catch-22 of preserving resources but also reaching them on time.
So we’ve explored what the card is and why it is so good, but what effect has it had on the landscape of the game?
Lets take a look at the World Championship Decks printed by Pokémon from 2011 onward for an example of this cards presence and strength. Each year, Pokémon print 4 different ‘World Championship’ decks. These decks are either winning or high placing decks across the age divisions which demonstrate examples of different competitive decks at that years competition. With the addition of 2017s four decks, there have been 28 World Championship decks printed during the era in which Professor Sycamore and Professor Juniper have been legal and of those 28, 25 feature one of these two cards.
The decks which do not are three from the 2011 era – the first year of this card being legal. The reason I can surmise is that the game simply did not have the same pace in terms of taking prizes as it does now. 2011 was a unique year for many reasons. Older players may remember this was the year in which TPCi (The Pokémon Company International) implemented a mid-season rotation – it rotated many older sets out in the middle of the year due to the rise of some very degenerate strategies. The uniqueness of this year as it relates to Professor Juniper, is that the card was printed and added to a card pool which did not yet feature Pokémon-EX. At this point the game still revolved around evolving up Pokémon and taking prizes one by one.
In the years that followed, we saw the release of EX Pokémon: These were powerful, Basic Pokémon. They had high HP and high damage attacks which saw them outclassing their slower stage 1/2 counterparts despite the prize draw back. With many simple ways to put energy into play quickly (through cards such as Double Colourless Energy, Dark Patch, Colress Machine or Energy Setup Pokémon such as Thundurus-EX, Virizion-EX or Yveltal), Pokémon-EX quickly over took the metagame, demanding speed above all else.
Remember the point from earlier about “trading cards in hand you can’t use this turn to see the resources you need right now”? I would then posit that decks which are able to consistently play out their hand as much as possible to consistently ensure Professor Sycamore doesn’t discard vital resources, which the aforementioned “Big Basic” EX-centric decks are.
The Yveltal archetype of recent years is a good example. It is a deck which doesn’t require a complicated combination of cards, but rather simply wants to reach those cards to play immediately from your hand to execute the strategy. Play Yveltal-EX straight to the board, attach an energy, attach Choice Band, use Max Elixir, play Professor Sycamore to discard Dark energy to then accelerate into play with the regular Yveltal. When you consider that discarding cards is also important towards the strategy, then it’s very hard to go past Professor Sycamore.
This is as opposed to any Stage 2 deck for example. The classic conundrum of perhaps having a Rare Candy and Stage 2 in hand without the Basic Pokémon to use it with and only a Professor Sycamore in hand with which to draw further into your deck. Stage 2 decks are already slow (requiring at least two turns to set up) and having to discard parts of the combo to find the first part can be very debilitating. One might argue “I’ll simply choose not to use Professor Sycamore”, and use a ‘shuffle draw’ supporter such as Shauna. However we return to the initial discussion about why Professor Sycamore is worth playing – discarding those cards instead of shuffling them back in can make all the difference in ensuring you draw what you need, when you need it. Shuffling those cards back in presents a risk to you which can be just as dire as discarding those resources – you are more likely not to draw what you need with a draw supporter which is not Professor Juniper/Sycamore. This is why decks run many multiples of four of each important card – to mitigate the cost of needing to discard cards through various effects.
All of this is not to say that these ‘Big Basic EX decks’ were the only archetypes which existed, but they’ve often been the gatekeepers. A deck idea which didn’t revolve around a strong EX Pokémon had to be able to keep up, or relied some other alternative strategy such as a lock (Accelgor/Gothitelle), massive damage once set up (Blastoise/Black Kyurem-EX), deck mill (Wailord-EX) or could exploit weakness such as in the case of Stage 1 decks utilising Flareon/Vaporeon/Jolteon to hit for weakness, to name just a few viable strategies (Greninja anyone?).
For years the narrative has been the same. It has been a story dictated by decks with few or no evolving Pokémon against decks supported by “fast” trainer cards to dole out damage as quick, efficiently and consistently as possible. However last year we saw a turning point with the release of Pokémon Sun & Moon: Guardians Rising.
Garbodor, this literal trash pile, would be the card to return balance to the force. Almost overnight the metagame shifted in a way which completely shunned the style of deck which Professor Juniper/Sycamore had enabled for so many years. No longer could you play an aggressive Pokémon-EX deck with a host of items – Garbodor would immediately punish you. It forced a slower game out of the Pokémon-EX decks which, without their full turns of Item cards and Professor Sycamore, could not stand up to the archetypes which rose to compete.
A slower metagame has allowed a wider variety of decks to flourish. In todays metagame we have Basic, Stage 1 and Stage 2 archetypes seeing play in a variety of forms. The future is looking bright. Professor Sycamores last tournament legal printing was in Steam Siege and without a reprint or reprisal of its effect (the recent promo will not extend its printing date due to new rules), it looks set to rotate out of Standard format potentially this year, marking the end of its reign.
For me, it’s the light at the end of the tunnel I’ve looked to for a long time. I look forward to a metagame where discarding my hand for a new one is not a choice I have to make as often as I do now. Not just because it’s an option for me, but also because it’s not a level of speed available for my opponent as well. Decks will change – I mentioned before that lists will often run the full 4 copies of all important cards in their lists. With the removal of Professor Sycamore, players will be free to begin trimming down on those full compliments of staple cards and look more towards running thin tech lines and singleton Trainer cards that are otherwise on the fringe of playability.
I wholeheartedly believe that it will pave the way for even more ingenuity in play and deck building.