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William & Grayson: The brothers Pokemon

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William Trowbridge triumphantly tucks one card under another.

“This is why you run Klinklang. Most decks rely on EXes, but I just negated all that damage,” he says.

This may sound like gibberish, but it’s a sophisticated strategy in the Pokemon Trading Card Game, a game of both strategy and luck that tens of thousands of people play across the world, both casually and in formal tournaments.

William, 11, recently won the South Carolina state Pokemon TCG championship – and his 9-year-old brother, Grayson, is the North Carolina champion. The brothers attend the Metrolina Regional Scholars Academy in Charlotte.

Their mother, Leah Trowbridge, said she had her doubts at first. “I’m the Charlie Brown ‘Wah-wah-wah-wah-wah’ when they start talking about it,” she said. But after learning more about the game, she said she was impressed.

“I’d describe it as a cross between chess and poker with additional challenges.”

The basic idea: Each player acts as a “trainer” of creatures called Pokemon, and tries to defeat the opponent’s Pokemon. (The word’s the same for singular and plural). Each kind of Pokemon has special powers or moves, spelled out – along with their individual weaknesses – on the cards depicting them. (The cobalt-blue horse-like creature called Cobalion, for example, is described as strong, calm and composed, and has moves called Energy Press and Iron Breaker.)

There are also energy cards and trainer cards, which keep the game moving and can control the amounts of damage a player can apply to an opponent’s Pokemon.

The games are one-on-one, with each player using a deck of 60 cards they choose from their collection. (Leah Trowbridge said the boys – who have about 10,000 cards between them – have won packs of cards at events more often than she buys them.) In stores, packs of 10 cards go for $4 to $5.

The successful duo is not the norm.

“It’s rare to see a brother combo in the same age division that does that well,” said Jeff Reynolds, who has been organizing official Pokemon card game tournaments in the area since 2000.

Reynolds said he recalls when the brothers started playing Pokemon a couple of years ago, and he knew they were strong players from the get-go.

“They’ve really excelled right away,” he said. “They are actually, probably in the Carolinas … probably the best junior division players that we have.”

There are three divisions in Pokemon card tournaments: juniors, who are about 10 and younger; seniors, who are tweens and early teens; and masters, generally 15 and up, Reynolds said.

William said he thinks there’s an advantage to having a brother just as competitive as he is in the games.

“You’re play-testing against a person with a brain. And you get double of everything – practice, experience, prizes,” he said.

Grayson said he doesn’t think he would compete as well if his brother weren’t constantly available to practice. The brothers “play-test” their decks against each other at least every other day to practice strategies and learn about different scenarios.

William also spends a lot of time looking up websites – the site Six Prizes is his favorite – that talk about different strategies and gossip about the card decks of major players. He then relays his discoveries to Grayson.

The brothers are competitive, too.

“My kills are normally more successful because I take my time to set up,” Grayson said. That statement elicited an eye roll and “Yeah sure,” from William.

But they also respect each others’ skill. William’s favorite play is the quick-setup for a Speed Darkrai. “It does high damage really fast,” he said.

“He likes to get set up and then he’ll just sweep you,” Grayson said.

“I’m for the kill the minute I start playing,” his brother rejoined.

Though William said the game is “very simple once you have all the evolutions down,” the amount of detail, variation, conditional changing and consequence in Pokemon TCG is mind-boggling to a beginner.

The quick-setup for a Speed Darkrai is a complicated combination of all of the following (and probably more): An extra-powerful Darkrai Pokemon, Dark Cloak abilities, the Night Spear, the Pokemon Sableye, the Confuse Ray (yes, Pokemon can become befuddled), a Junk Hunt, and the probability of gaining new energy cards, like the Dark Patch or Ultra Ball or Computer Search.

The brothers, who live near Lake Wylie, initially had a hand-me-down deck from a cousin. A couple of years ago, a friend introduced them to the local league that regularly plays at Above Board Games in Fort Mill. Reynolds said there are about four or five leagues in the greater Charlotte area.

The brothers started competing in the fall of 2011. Last summer, their family traveled to Indianapolis to compete in the national tournament. Their first exposure to national talent was difficult.

“It’s pretty tough playing Pokemon,” Grayson said. “North Carolina is really different than most other places. You don’t see as many competitive decks.”

The Trowbridges will travel to Indianapolis again this summer, then go on to the world tournament in Vancouver, Canada. Players have to be invited to participate in worlds, and they have to have earned 400 points from playing in other tournaments. Grayson and William have already scored 400 points.

At the state championship games a few weeks ago, the Trowbridges faced some fierce competition.

The North Carolina tournament took place in a Cornelius game store. Grayson’s first competitor was a girl who had won the Maryland contest. (Players are not restricted by location and can compete anywhere. The brothers said they have a friend who likes to play in Canada because the games are less competitive there.)

Grayson said he knew most of the people in the competition, and had his eye on four other strong contenders. In the final rounds, one boy proved to be a particular challenge.

“I really didn’t think I was going to win. I was in the worst position I possibly could be,” Grayson said. “I somehow made a miraculous comeback. I top-decked (drew from the top) what I needed.”

“It was quite a comeback,” William agreed. He came in third place and took the top spot in the South Carolina championship in West Columbia.

In the final rounds, William played the Maryland champion again.

“She was doing massive amounts of damage,” William confessed.

“Massive,” Grayson echoed.

“She donked me in the first game (of three).” Donking is beating out your opponent after the first turn.

But then it was all over.

“The second game, she really didn’t have a chance,” William said. “I top-decked the card I needed. … It was very lucky.”

But championships aside, the brothers said making friends is the real highlight of competing.

“Most of the Pokemon players are kind and virtuous,” William said. “It’s fun. The most important thing is friends.”

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