It’s Wednesday afternoon at Above Board Games in Baxter Village in Fort Mill. I’m waiting on the baddest creature trainer in these parts.
I’m head and shoulders taller, and won’t say how much heavier. I have more than a decade on him. But with five dozen sleeved Pokemon cards in his hands, I’m told, this kid isn’t someone to agitate.
I peruse cards for sale. They go by names like Junk Arm, Butterfree and Wigglytuff. I’m not losing to anything called Wigglytuff.
In walks Bruce Sawyer, 13. He’s competed in four national and several state tournaments. He’s fresh off two city tournament wins in one weekend. He’s more than halfway to the season point total needed for his first world championship event.
In his division, he’s ranked No. 8 in the world. By the time our battle tale prints, he’ll be No. 2. His game plan is simple and direct.
“Hit hard and hit fast,” says the Springfield Middle School student. “Win the game before they can get anything set up.”
We barely exchange greetings before he’s at the table “power shuffling.” Everything the kid does is warp speed. He smiles fast, rolls eyes at his sisters fast. The kid speaks in lightning streaks, a little auctioneer apprentice rambling off abilities, damage points, multi-level something-or-the-other, power ups and downs.
My kid cousins once had the video game, but I’ve never played the card version. A middle school friend was big into “Magic: The Gathering,” so I learned to play. Pokemon can’t be that different, right?
“Not really,” says store owner Ryan Jackson. “Other than being a collectible card game, that’s about where the similarities end.”
Above Board hosts regular leagues and tournaments for both games, drawing 20 or more players on a good night. Mom Julie Sawyer, who wrote fitness columns for Lake Wylie Pilot, admits to thinking her son wasn’t any good at it when he’d come home having won maybe half his games. Then she realized there are a half dozen area players who compete on the national level.
“They have a special thing here,” she said.
Bruce runs down the rules, and we’re under way. No basic creatures, so I’m reshuffling. Now there aren’t any energy cards, then no trainers. Three moves in and I’m beaten. I’m beginning to see the value in power shuffling.
I reshuffle as Bruce re-explains the game. You have your Pokemon creatures, which have varying strength and weakness used to attack one another. Energy cards allow the Pokemon to attack. Then there’s a slew of special effects cards, basically just to throw the whole game upside down in most every way imaginable.
I’m feeling as dumb as kids his age think their parents are. But I’m a quicker learner than he anticipates. In game two I get a Pokemon out front early and another on my bench. I have a handful of cards to blow up his special tricks and he has as many reasons why I shouldn’t. They sound good. I mostly listen.
I’ve got a monster in my hand, but Sawyer repeatedly insists I can’t use it. Something about the creature having to evolve for several more turns. Now I’m suspicious. He’s playing some card most every hand to discard his lot and shuffle in a new set. He’s playing right into my hands.
Games end in three ways: Knock off enough of the other guy’s monsters until you draw all six prize cards. That ain’t happening. I can wipe all his creatures off the table with attacks – again, ain’t happening. Or the first player to run out of cards, loses.
I’ll bleed him out. Every trick card that tells him to discard and draw, I’m playing it. It’s taking forever having to decipher the paragraph on each card explaining how to use it. He’s pretty much coaching me as we go. He’s pretty much used to lesser competition.
“You definitely learned a lot faster than most people who’ve never played,” he’ll later admit.
It’s boggling watching Sawyer battle. He runs commentary on every play he makes, pumping up his monsters and dwindling mine. He shows me how to switch my out-front Pokemon with bench ones. Then he knocks them out anyway. He’s more animated than the cards themselves.
It’s hypnotic, his expertise on the myriad interaction between cards. If the folks we elected to tackle the national budget knew economics the way Sawyer does Pokemon play, we’d be talking about a fiscal freeway.
He’s knocked out one of mine when he shows me a combination that’ll slay one of his. I pick up two prize cards. I have the same combination of cards next turn. I lop off another for two more prize cards. So much for power shuffling. We’re half an hour or so in with two prize cards left, apiece.
Unfortunately, it’s his turn. Sawyer powers up his fighting monster and lays into me. I’m toast. Two last prize cards and it’s goodnight to the good guys. I came close, but Sawyer doesn’t mind close.
Last year’s national championship had about 2,000 players. Sawyer once travelled as far as San Diego for a sudden death, last chance qualifier for worlds. Players bring home scholarships from major events. Pokemon, at its highest level, isn’t some passing interest. And dominating wins certainly aren’t taken for granted.
There’s also the matter of keeping up with the cards. Sawyer is part coach, part general manager of the 60 cards he’ll need to work in unison at a given tournament. New cards generally play better than old ones. They come out quarterly. So staying at the top takes deep pockets, or winning results and the booster pack prizes they bring.
“There is some pressure to win sometimes,” Sawyer says.
Sawyer gains neither points nor prize packs for offing me. Yet he seems to enjoy himself. I leave like the sitcom dad having arguing with his better half – lots of words, can’t really remember any of it making sense and, at the end, a definitive loss.
Sawyer power shuffles his cards back into the box.
Another tournament waits. Another title, another shot at becoming the best in the world, or perhaps proving that he’s all but there already.
On Your Marks Scoreboard
Competition: Pokemon card game ace Bruce Sawyer of Fort Mill
Contest: One battle against Sawyer at Above Board Games in Baxter
Score: In true tournament fashion, we play best of three. Sawyer wins two straight. Final score: Sawyer 2, Marks 0.