After you’ve completed the relatively short and sweet narrative section of Pokémon Sword and Shield’s new Isle of Armor DLC, you’re introduced to the concept of Restricted Sparring. Similar to the Battle Towers that long-term investors in the series’ postgame content will be familiar with, the new system is a series of back-to-back 3v3 battles against powerful trainers. What sets this apart from its predecessors, however, is that Restricted Sparring limits you to playing with just one Pokémon type, making it the closest thing Pokémon has ever had to letting you run your own gym.
I’d played enough Pokémon in my life that, by the time Gen 5 rolled around, I was pretty confident I knew how the whole Gym thing worked. You arrive at a new town, determine what type advantage will help you progress most efficiently, and reshuffle your team accordingly. When I came to Black and White Version 2’s Electric-type leader, Elesa, I thought I could breeze through the entire thing with a couple of Ground moves. And that’s how it was going, until Elesa came out with Emolga, an electric/flying Pokémon immune to my strategy, and wiped the entire team. That crushing bait-and-switch has stayed with me for years but, rather than staying mad at Elesa, I wanted to emulate her cunning when it came to my own ‘gym’.
The first big decision was that I'd be running a Water-type gym. My initial attempt was an outright failure: my team of trusty Pelipper, Drednaw and a hastily-drafted Wailord was wiped in the first round by a scarily strong Krookodile. I brushed off this emphatic defeat, telling myself that it was merely a test run. But it was clear that, in order to properly follow in Elesa’s footsteps, this gym needed some theorycrafting.
My first step was to shore up my defences. The Water type has two disadvantages; Electric and Grass. My choice to use Pelipper was partly informed by the fact that its Flying type gave it an advantage over Grass, but that came with the caveat of a massive weakness to Electric moves. To deal with that kind of vulnerability, I wanted my other two Pokémon to hold their own on the Electric front, but that didn’t leave me with too many choices.
Ground types are immune to electric damage, but Sword and Shield’s limited Pokédex only granted me the choice of Quagsire, Seismitoad, Gastrodon and Whiscash, the latter of whom would make it into the team. Electric is also weak against Dragon, Grass and Electric, but my choices there were even more limited; the game’s only Water/Grass hybrid, Ludicolo, isn’t available in Sword; beyond Gen 4 legendary Palkia, there’s only one Water/Dragon in the entire series, a fossil Pokémon which I’d need to cobble together from two items I didn’t have. So the only viable choice was Water/Electric: after a quick fishing trip to Hullbury to collect a Lanturn, my team was complete.
Defence was only half the story, however. Water moves are only effective against a handful of other types and, while I could lean on secondary types for extra moves (namely Hurricane, Thunderbolt and Earthquake) I’d still need to cover some more bases. Pelipper was already running Steel Wing, and I could teach them the Dark-type Thief for a little more diversity. I gave both remaining Pokémon Ice-type moves to deal with their weakness to Grass, and rounded out my offensive capabilities with the Fairy-type Dazzling Gleam on Lanturn, and Rock Tomb on Whiscash.
Hey, if you're going to do something, do it right. I was pretty pleased with my efforts: the team’s combined moveset was effective against nearly every type matchup in the game, with only Normal Pokémon sneaking through unscathed. Defensively there were only five weaknesses across the entire team, with the two most glaring (Pelipper and Whiscash’s 4x weakness to Electric and Grass) covered elsewhere in the roster.
With a more cohesive team, things went a little more smoothly. The first match was tricky, but I stumbled my way through and even managed to save my first heal until the end of the second match by brute-forcing through with a Dynamaxed Pelipper. Match three was another win, although a few big hits forced me to use my second heal if I wanted to stand any chance of further success.
But that wasn’t to be: match four started out against a Stoutland, the one type matchup that I didn’t have an advantage over. They held me up for long enough that, when followed up by a Dusknoir who happened to have Thunderpunch, Pelipper couldn’t offer much resistance. Whiscash managed to finish off the Ghost-type, but this trainer’s third Pokémon was the Ice/Dragon Appletun. Even my Ice moves weren’t enough to deal with the devastating combination of Sunny Day and Solar Beam and, without Pelipper to soak up the damage, my hopes of Water-type glory dried up.
Restricted Sparring doesn’t entirely fulfil the Gym Leader fantasy: in an ideal world I’d be crafting some elaborate water maze in which to await my challengers. But it is an interesting idea that encourages you to explore Sword and Shield’s endgame in a different way, particularly if you haven’t already. Some of the game’s most powerful moves can only be found in Dynamax raids and, having been rolled over by that Appletun, I’m encouraged to delve back into the world of breeding. I doubt I’ll be challenging Nessa for her Gym Leader spot anytime soon, but Restricted Sparring has me reinvested in Pokémon’s minutiae for the first time in years.