- Associated Press - Monday, May 29, 2017

LYNCHBURG, Va. (AP) - Cards lay strewn across the table in the Bradner family’s home, their glossy fronts facing upward revealing symmetrical symbols and names like Joltik, Gardevoir and Darkrai.

They thrum in the air, arcing between the fingers of mile-a-minute talking Isaiah Bradner, 13, as he shuffles the numerous stacks he has compiled in front of him.

Though he has only been playing the Pokemon Trading Card Game (TCG) competitively for a year, Isaiah, who plays in a senior division comprised of 11 to 16-year-olds, is currently ranked 10th in the world and seventh in North America, as of Monday.

“In this area, he’s probably the top one (player in the area)… I’d probably say (in) all three divisions,” says Kevin Harrison, organizer of the Lynchburg Pokemon League. “When you get to Roanoke, there are some others that are probably comparable to him that have been playing for a while.”

The seventh-grader at Paul Laurence Dunbar Middle School for Innovation first became interested in Pokemon after a friend began collecting cards. When he learned those cards where part of a game, Isaiah and his parents, Matt and Julia Bradner, saw it as a way to release his competitive energy while spending time with his pals.

The goal in every round of Pokemon TCG is to collect six prize cards, which are set aside at the beginning of a match. To take a prize card, the player must knock out the opposing cards on the table by depleting their health. Based on the health and attack points listed in the top right corner, each card is worth either one to two prize cards.

Isaiah started playing the game, and about a year later participated in his first competition in Fincastle. Since then, he has earned high finishing spots in Philadelphia, Indiana and Dallas and won a regional championship in Athens, Georgia.

He advanced to the top eight at the Latin America International Championships in Brazil last month. He played in Toronto a few weeks ago, and he will head to Anaheim, California, and compete in the World Championships this August.

“The top 16 players in North America, they get money to go to World Championships and they automatically advance to the second day of Worlds, which is a significant thing,” says Matt Bradner. “He’s already got that as well.”

Rankings in Pokemon TCG are based on championship points, which players earn by placing well in officially sanctioned league events throughout the season, says tournament organizer Marthe Honts, who also runs leagues in Fincastle and Lexington.

Those events can range from small competitions at a local league to regional meets which can see upward of a thousand players, she says.

Traveling to lots of events helps, but it’s the skill of the player that earns them a spot at the top of the Pokemon leader board.

“You could go to every event in America if you had the funds and the time, but if you don’t finish well enough, you still wouldn’t have any championship points to put you on the leader board anywhere,” Honts says. “It’s kind of a…measure of how much effort (Isaiah) has put into the game as far as time and travel commitment and also to his excellence in playing in being able to perform repeatedly at a high level.”

Winning with consistency requires an understanding of math, Isaiah’s favorite school subject, and strategy.

“I have a good mental (capacity), so I can remember things pretty easily,” he says. “When I first started doing math, it pretty much clicked. Whenever I learn the formulas and the numbers, I can just look at some problems and do the problems at a speed some people can’t.”

The same is true with Pokemon. Isaiah is constantly counting his opponents’ cards throughout the game, his father says, tracking what they have available and what they have already used and discarded, basing his moves and his risks on the information he tallies in his head.

Isaiah’s ability to think quickly on his feet makes it seem like he is thinking two or three moves ahead of you, says Harrison, who has played the seventh-grader on a few occasions.

“Sometimes he can actually narrate through, like, ‘Oh, you’re going to do this. Some opponents don’t like that as much as others,’” says Honts, whose family has traveled with Isaiah’s to tournaments out of state. “You can tell when he’s playing, that his brain is working absolutely as fast as it can. You can seem him ticking through all of those possibilities.”

In addition to the nuances in the game itself, thousands of cards are currently legal for a player to compile and play in his or her 60-card deck at a tournament, with more being introduced every year.

This means a player’s strategy must continue to evolve as the game does; the trick that worked at last month’s tournament could cause a player to lose this month.

For Isaiah, who plays what are called counter decks -decks that are created to have an advantage against and therefore defeat or counter popular decks - that means keeping up with the newest cards and how they fit into or change popular hands.

Playing this strategy has built-in risks. A player could face opponents with decks perfectly counter to his or hers or not face a single one, meaning they will play at a significant disadvantage without cards to combat their opponents’ in the most strategic way.

“One of the things I’ve always found interesting about Isaiah is there’s always some trick or nuance in his deck that catches the other player off guard,” says Harrison. “He puts something in there that will totally confuse the other player, but it works.”

Like any athlete, Isaiah trains constantly, going online with his friends from across the world to test out new decks and prepare for competitions, says his father.

“It’s great to see he has grown a reputation as being not only a really good player, but a really kind player,” Matt Bradner says. “I’ve had many parents come up to me and say ‘You’re Isaiah’s dad….my child says that they really like Isaiah because he talks to everybody.’”

When starting the season, Isaiah says he had one goal: make it to the World Championship.

Now that he has secured his spot, he has set his sights on and placing in the top 16 and may be even winning the whole thing, though he admits that some of it will come down to luck of the draw more than his playing.

Win or lose, for Isaiah, the game is all about fun and meeting new people.

“It’s an easy game to learn, but a hard game to master,” he says as he rotates and flips the cards between his fingers, “kind of like chess with cards.”

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