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The Silph League Arena

Arena Update

Mar 6, 2020: Shadow Pokémon: How Much Do They Matter?

Pokémon under the shadow of Team GO Rocket now have a 20% attack boost in PvP (and Raids) – but this buff comes at a cost, both defensively and to Stardust budgets. After this shake-up, the Arena has seen many competitors with unresolved questions, like:

  1. Which Pokémon are worth the dust investment and defense “nerf” to keep as Shadows?
  2. Will the Arena permit or ban Shadow Pokémon in tournament play?
  3. Why do some Pokémon benefit more from the “Shadow Bonus” than others?

Luckily, the Arena Meta Team – with contributions from JRE (of “Nifty or Thrifty” fame), Matt (from the indispensable PvPoke.com), and Ian (who runs some of the most advanced simulations in the ecosystem) – is on the case! Today we take a look into the ramifications of the “Shadow Bonus,” both in Open Great League and the Toxic Cup.

First, the tl;dr:

After extensive review, here are our main takeaways:

  1. Shadow vs. Non-Shadow = A Trade-Off: Shadows should rarely be considered “objectively better” forms of their species. Generally speaking, the “Shadow Bonus” usually results in a trade-off of losing as many meta-relevant matchups as the new wins you gain – but it can be useful in specific situations.
  2. Arena Cups = Generally Permitted: Relevant Shadow Pokémon in any particular meta will generally be permitted in the Arena, but their (current) accessibility, cost, influence over a meta, and other factors will be grounds for restricting specific Shadow species – similar to how other legacies or over-powered species are regularly restricted from Cups already.

After deep analysis, we do not feel that competitors must go to great lengths acquiring every possible Shadow Pokemon to be competitive in PvP. They may provide advantages in certain situations, but for the Arena’s part, we will continue designing Cup metas with a commitment not to allow inaccessible or hugely expensive Shadows to disadvantage your strategic team-building in any significant way.

With that perspective, we hope to ease the FOMO-factor (Fear Of Missing Out) a little bit! Now, buckle up! It’s time to dive in…

The Data: How Shadow Perform Compared to Non-Shadow

As we delve into how the “Shadow Bonus” affects individual Pokémon, we will be using the data collected below. Here’s a brief explanation of how to read this data:

  1. The top graph is a histogram detailing how the matchups are distributed in terms of PvPoke score (the x-axis), where blue represents normal and orange represents Shadow.
  2. The second graph plots each matchup, sorted by the normal Pokémon’s performance. As above, blue represents normal and orange represents Shadow. If the blue line is above the orange line at a particular point, the normal Pokémon performs better than the Shadow one in particular matchup, and vice versa. Additionally, on this second graph there is a Win/Loss line, depicted in green. If the orange line is above the green line and the blue line is below the green line, the Shadow Pokémon gains a win over the normal Pokémon, and vice versa for new losses.
  3. Finally, the table details new wins and losses for each Shadow Pokémon over its normal version, sorted by their PvPoke rankings of the meta.

Shadows in the Toxic Cup

Take a look at the data compiled of the top five ranked Shadow Pokémon in the Toxic Cup below.

The summary stats, such as number of wins, show an overall minimal difference in Shadow Pokémon performance in the Toxic Cup. However, as the data below indicates, individual matchups can be significantly impacted.

  • Take Golbat in the 1-1 shield matchup, for example. Shadow Golbat gains ten wins over its non-shadow counterpart, but the wins it gains were close losses to begin with (all above a score of 400). Within the top twenty ranked Pokémon in Toxic Cup, Shadow Golbat loses three new matchups that non-shadow Golbat wins (Pidgeot, Gligar, and Qwilfish) and gains no new wins. In the top forty, it’s an additional two new losses (Crustle, Celebi) and only three new wins (Swellow, Alolan Muk, and Unfezant).
  • On the other hand, Shadow Flygon with Stone Edge beats four out of the top twenty (Gliscor, Heracross, Bibarel, and Forretress) that it wouldn’t as a non-shadow Pokémon, while only losing two more (Munchlax, Lickitung), where the pure W/L says it only gains five wins.

Shadows in Great League

We see similar data in the open Great League meta.

Sableye loses 32 more matches on the whole as a Shadow Pokémon. However, its new wins include some key Pokémon, including Altaria, Skarmory, and Meganium. But this is balanced out by losses to Tropius, Lapras, and Shadow Swampert, all of which the non-Shadow version is able to beat.

Another Pokémon with big changes as a Shadow is Dragonite, which wins against Deoxys Defense, Tropius, Mantine, Sableye, and Alolan Marowak, to name a few. But again, this too is offset by key losses to Vigoroth, Mew, Lucario, Charizard, and Golbat.

In both cases, the Pokémon that benefit the most from the “Shadow Bonus” not only have critical wins balanced by in many cases equally critical losses, but also in both metas, the Pokémon that benefit the most are Pokémon that can be (or could have been) obtained from GO Rocket Grunt battles (as opposed to battles against Leaders Sierra, Arlo, Cliff, or Giovanni).

The Math Behind Shadows: A Different Approach

Why do certain Pokémon benefit more from the “Shadow Bonus” while others appear to take a step backwards?

The answer appears to be not as simple as a single parameter. None of the measures we looked at (fast move damage per turn, fast move energy per turn, charged moves damages and energies, or even the maximum Attack, Defense, and HP) correlated directly with how many wins were gained (or lost) in the open Great League meta. However, through the use of symbolic regression through genetic programming, we were able to extract a function of the fast move damage per turn, maximum Attack, and maximum Defense, that correlated well (not perfectly, as shown below, but the best we’ve found) with the data we have collected.

That function is

F + \frac{F}{A} + \frac{10}{A-D-5} + \frac{6-A}{5(A-D)} + \frac{A-D}{4}

Where F is the fast move damage per turn, A is the maximum Attack of the Pokémon, and D is the maximum Defense of the Pokémon. This function was not constructed to predict whether or not a Shadow Pokémon will be better than a non-shadow Pokémon, but rather to see which factors, in which capacity, influence the benefit gained from Shadow Pokémon the most. You may note that where the Defense stat is used, it’s always subtracted from the Attack stat. Finally, we may conclude that how well a Shadow Pokémon performs is primarily a function of its Attack and Defense stats, with some small influence from the fast move damage per turn.

Parting Words

After our analysis we feel that Shadow Pokémon are neither mandatory nor balance-breaking in competitive PvP, and should be viewed as additional options for new dimensions of team-building. Should one entirely ignore Shadow species in the meta they’re aiming to conquer? No. But focusing on the key Shadow matchups in each league or meta will likely suffice for the vast majority of competitors in the PvP ecosystem. As always, we recommend running the numbers yourself for your own specific Shadow Pokémon to see if the attack boost and defense nerf trade-off makes sense for your team! Good luck!


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