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Shadow Pokemon and their Place in Pokemon Go

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Article by Brian Tien

Pokemon Go has long been a game rife with controversy. From the lack of support for rural players to event-exclusive moves, it seems like our game has always been one that had some issue standing out in one way or another. We have always had an elephant (or I suppose Donphan) somewhere in the room, and we likely always will. Let’s face it; a game that had such a meteoric rise at its start was bound to out-grow itself, and we’re still feeling these growing pains today. However, one issue stands out on the current Pokemon Go landscape as an anomaly that most players don’t seem to fully know how to approach or address; the semi-recent buff to Shadow Pokemon.

The entire Gamepress Pokemon Go team agreed to largely ignore Shadow Pokemon on their release. Why? Because we believed that it would see a change in the near future. Much like the nerf to Lock-On shortly after its release, we thought that we’d see a reduction in performance for the Shadow Bonus in the coming weeks after. However, we are now several months out and it seems that the buff to Shadows is here to stay. As such, it’s finally time to bite the proverbial bullet and examine these Penumbral Pokemon and see exactly what they are, how they perform, and what the future may hold for our Rocket-influenced friends.

Shadow Pokemon Explained

Shadow Pokemon have been around since July of 2019. On their release, the effects of being a Shadow Pokemon were purely negative:

  • Shadow Pokemon are stuck with the primary charged move Frustration, which is still a useless attack in all situations
  • Shadow Pokemon cost 200% more candy/stardust to power up and teach second charged moves to on the system's release
  • Shadow Pokemon always start at a low level

In short, Shadow Pokemon were worthless despite the fact that they are substantially more powerful than normal when used by a Team Rocket member. The only real uses were to power them up as a show-off move, or simply Purify them, as purification offers the following bonuses:

  • Frustration is replaced by Return, which has limited use but can be changed via Charged TM.
  • +2 to all IVs on purification
  • The purified Pokemon is raised to Lv.25 on purification
  • Purified Pokemon cost 10% less stardust/candy on purification

...these effects also led Niantic to make Shadow Pokemon untradable shortly after their release, as a Shadow Pokemon traded to become Lucky would roll to a minimum of 12 in each IV stat, then Purification would roll each to +2 in each. Either way, purification had some very nice bonuses, but it also came with a number of its own issues:

  • Despite the +2 to all IVs, shadow Pokemon had no IV floor like eggs or raids, making high-IV specimens somewhat rare
  • The PvP system was still in its infancy, so many players didn’t yet have a good team to use for these harder fights.
  • Purification’s +2 to IVs and default to Lv.25 often made potentially great Pokemon unviable in the Great League in particular 

Because of these issues, many players simply ignored Team Rocket’s shenanigans. Even with the release of the Team Rocket leaders and Giovanni himself with his legendary shadows, Players would generally run through the quest line and then just stop. We had no real reason to hunt down and purify Pokemon, as the rewards were largely lackluster and not worth the work and investment needed to be effective at tackling this system.

Then all of that changed in February of 2020

In order to give players incentive to fight Team Rocket and to reward those willing to make the huge investment to raise a Shadow Pokemon, they were finally given a boost.

The Shadow Pokemon Boost

In the simplest terms possible, Shadow Pokemon now see a boost to their attack stats, and a drop to their defense to compensate. However, this does not affect their base stats or CP, instead being applied to them as a buff similar to weather.

In order to break it down, here are the exact changes that a Shadow Pokemon sees in performance:

Shadow Pokemon Stat Changes

Stat Change
Attack x6/5, or +20%
Defense x5/6, or about -17%

In practice, this generally raises a Shadow Pokemon’s DPS substantially while leaving their TDO roughly the same. They also dropped the 200% Stardust/Candy cost on powering up and teaching two moves to 20%. In order to add the final lair of completion to these monsters, Niantic also released a Team Rocket event with a short time-window that allowed players to make use of a normal Charged ™ in order to remove the moveset-pariah that is Frustration. With this final ingredient, Shadow Pokemon became unbound and were truly released into the Pokemon Go metagame in full force.

Purify or Power-Up

Cost vs. Reward

As stated before, Shadow Pokemon cost 20% more Stardust and Candy to power up. This is not an insignificant amount, especially when you consider how low level they tend to be when caught.

Cost to Raise a Shadow Vs. Normal Pokemon to Lv.40

Pokemon to be Raised Cost to Raise
Lv.8 Shadow Pokemon 315,138 Stardust+375 Candy
Lv.20 Normal Pokemon (hatch, raid, ect) 225,000 Stardust+248 Candy

This is definitely a large investment, especially in the case of a Pokemon that a trainer doesn’t yet have a substantial stockpile of candy for. In judging the value, players need to consider several angles: 

  • What do I need this individual Pokemon for currently, or in the near future?
  • Is this Pokemon likely to have use later in other formats (raids, pvp, rocket battles, etc)?
  • Can this Pokemon fill multiple attacking roles (such as Moltres and Weavile)?
  • Could I get more value raising 2 Pokemon to a slightly lower level instead of maxing one single shadow?
  • Is there a benefit in purifying this Pokemon?

For the last question, we generally recommend that the answer is “No”. You can always purify a Pokemon, but you can’t currently turn it back into a shadow. Though in some cases a normal Pokemon can outperform its shadow forme in some PvP formats, and in some rare cases Return is a viable move, which would make purification the generally superior option. That said, a shadow Pokemon is currently always superior to its non-shadow forme in raids. The damage boost is just that important, and the defense drop does not generally out-pace the boost enough to cause any real down-side. Just note that Shadows do appreciate dodging!

Removing Frustration and Gaining Elite Moves

Shadow Pokemon are sort of indirectly time-gated in terms of their usefulness. Unless you want to unlock a second move slot to circumnavigate it, Frustration is the single biggest block to the utility of Shadow Pokemon in the game. In order to remove it without purification, you’re going to need to wait for another special Team Rocket event, and we’re not sure how frequently they will show up currently. As of the writing of this article, we've had a total of one and it's already been months. Beyond this, many Shadow Pokemon such as Salamence and Metagross genuinely want their Elite moves to reach maximum potential, forcing players to either wait for the next Community Day revisit in December or invest an Elite TM.

Impact on PvE

As previously stated, Shadow Pokemon are strictly superior to their normal counterparts 90% of the time. While the drop in defense may make them faint before they can fire off that final charged move, most of the time their damage keeps pace with the TDO of their normal formes while keeping the DPS substantially higher. For this reason, they’re generally best used by more experienced trainers that know how to maximize the performance of an individual Pokemon. In some cases these Pokemon are so powerful that they can potentially make an easy 3-trainer minimum raid into a viable duo, and could conceivably turn an easy duo into a hard solo in some cases moving forward. 

As for purification: this is largely just the budget option. It allows players to raise Pokemon at less cost and gives them an IV boost, but that boost is not enough to even allow them to touch Shadows. That said, at one point dataminers did discover a bit of data that seemed to suggest that Purified Pokemon may deal more damage to Shadow Pokemon at some point in the future, though this is still just speculation and unlikely to have a note-worthy impact on PvE.

In short: shadows tend to dominate any raid that they are viable in. Powerful Shadows should not be purified, as even a 0% Shadow will have superior general performance when compared to a 100% normal Pokemon.

Impact on PvP

Shadows have had an interesting effect on the PvP meta, to say the least. However, we have to break it down into leagues in order to understand what this impact translates into:

Great and Ultra Leagues

These leagues have CP-caps, giving Pokemon with low attack and higher defenses an edge due to the way that CP is calculated. However, the Shadow Boost can interact with it in interesting ways due to the fact that it changes stats without changing CP. This can greatly change many matchups and make shadow Pokemon basically entirely different from their shadow formes. In theory, the best use of a Shadow Boost is in a Pokemon that gets most of its bulk from its HP, as it will minimize the loss to Defense, though many glass-cannon Pokemon go all-in and enjoy the added wins that the boost to their high attack power can bring. A good rule of thumb is that if the shadow nerf doesn’t generally reduce the number of charged attacks that a Pokemon can take in its most important matchups, then the boost is worth it. However, this isn’t the whole story. Here are a few examples of the differences that shadows can bring to the table:

  • Shadow Gardevoir is generally considered superior to its non-shadow forme in the Great League, as it’s able to use a devastatingly powerful Charm that can frequently mow down Pokemon before the low defenses that being a Shadow brings can truly matter.
  • Shadow Hypno works a bit differently than its non-shadow forme. For example: base Hypno tends to carry Shadow Ball and one coverage move (usually an elemental punch), while Shadow Hypno tends to fare better with two coverage moves so that it can attack a bit faster and work with wider coverage. While similar, these formes do depart from each other a bit. In terms of actual utility.

Another note-worthy attribute of Shadow Pokemon is the change in breakpoints (when a fast move deals higher damage per use against an opponent than it otherwise would) and bulkpoints (when a fast move deals less damage per use to your Pokemon). Because shadow Pokemon have such a radical stat-shift, they will frequently reach new breakpoints and lose several bulk-points along the way. This can shift individual matchups quite a bit, and even farther separates shadow Pokemon from their basic versions (special thanks to Nesabethan for help with this point)

A player whose goal it is to have every base covered in terms of team members made may want to make both a normal and a shadow version of a given Pokemon.

Master League

Shadow Pokemon tend to be a little less prominent here, as most Shadows don’t reach the titanic CPs needed to be a huge threat, and most really do feel the sting that the loss of defense brings with it. It’s not that shadows are unviable or bad so much as the list of shadows available tends to leave a bit to be desired. That said, Pokemon like Shadow Dragonite enjoy the boost to their already high attack, and are able to improve their offensively-oriented play-styles as a result.

Stand-Out Shadow Pokemon

While many Pokemon have very strong niches and utility, here are just a few of the stand-out examples of what this archetype of Pokemon can offer. If you're interested in finding out what Shadows are available beyond this, you can check out our shadow list:

With Meteor Mash, Metagross has long been the king Steel Type, and Shadow Metagross stands head-and-shoulders above most basic formes. With a neutral DPS that rivals Deoxys-A and some Master League utility to boot, Shadow Metagross is absolutely an overwhelmingly powerful Pokemon.

The king is dead, long live the king! Shadow Salemence is the new top neutral-DPS Pokemon, beating even Deoxys-A when it has Outrage. Move over, Rayquaza; Salamence is a winged nightmare of a dragon!

Much like the trade-off between normal Dragonite and Salamence, Dragonite gains a little TDO at the expense of a little DPS when compared to Shadow Salamence. It’s also a VERY potent Pokemon in the Master League!

Weavile still pulls double duty, in this case standing as the DPS king of Dark and Ice types. For those who were lucky enough to get a good one in its shadow run, Shadow Weavile offers great role-compression for its value!

A strong option for the Great League, Shadow Hypno is a bit more of a jack-of-all-trades than its base forme, tending to try for speed and coverage over the slow but powerful style of its basic forme.

The Water King, Swampert is another great one because it not only tops DPS charts, it also does well in PvP!

Fire and Flying Pokemon kneel, for Shadow Moltres is a horribly oppressive force of nature!

If you’ve ever fought one in the Great League, you know of its power; Shadow Gardevoir’s Charm can cut even some resistant Pokemon very deeply, often forcing a KO before a charged move can be reached.

While not the DPS king of Electric Types (Raikou and Electvite hold that title), Zapdos is massively powerful and can cause huge upsets in PvP, where it hits very hard and very fast.

The Story Implications

While many Go players don’t care about the story behind Pokemon in general, the basis of Shadows has seeped its way into this side of the series, and it is a bit troubling. Shadow Pokemon are basically Pokemon that have had their positive emotions sealed away to focus purely on their battle capabilities. They are basically incapable of being happy, and are weaponized for the use of their trainers. If Niantic wishes to expand the story of Go in the future, this will need to be addressed.

Another potential issue comes from the fact that several effects available in the main series come from the story concept of having a close bond with Pokemon, such as Mega Evolution. Based on this fact, it would make sense that Shadow Pokemon would be incapable of Mega Evolution, though we don't yet know if this feature will ever be incorporated into Go.

The Future of Shadow Pokemon

While Giovanni and his Legendary shadows are on hold until further notice, we’ve likely not seen the end of this epidemic. The most obvious future Pokemon is Shadow Lugia, considered to be the ultimate Shadow Pokemon in the spin-off game XD: Gale of Darkness. It could have a stat-change in a manner similar to Armored Mewtwo, which could make it extremely interesting. We’re also likely to see Suicune join its trio-mates in the future, and we may very well see more lesser-legendary Pokemon such as the Regi trio at some point. We’re also hopeful that previous legends such as the birds and other first-wave rocket grunts will return. That said, It is our sincere hope that large-scale Pokemon such as Mewtwo never have shadow formes released, as that throws out a bit too much power. We could also see more main-series “teams” show up at some point: wouldn’t it be fun to have an event where Team GO Magma and Team GO Aqua are both attacking, and special bonuses are given out based on which is beaten by players the most? This concept has a lot of potential, and we hope that Niantic intends to capitalize on it in the future!

Perhaps the greatest hope for Shadow Pokemon comes in the forme of a little something that our friends at Pokeminers managed to dig up a while back; reference to the existence of Shadow Eggs. This concept, if we ever see it come to fruition, would likely make leaps and bounds towards making shadows more accessible, assuming they're reasonably available and keep the normal 10-IV floor that all hatched Pokemon currently have. Of course we don't know when/if this feature will be fully implemented. 

Closing

The shadows are looming, and it seems that they’re not going anywhere. With each new Rocket wave, our raid graphs and PvP teams are changing and darkening in response, with the tell-tale purple aura spreading slowly but surely. Whether you hope to find that coveted perfect shadow to harness its power for yourself or you wish that Niantic would just shine some light on this system to make it go away, it’s obvious that these Pokemon pose a strong presence, tend to perform extremely well when used correctly, and aren’t going anywhere any time soon. Let’s just hope that Niantic manages this system well in the coming months, and makes it more a goal for players and less an unwieldy weight on the future of the meta!

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About the Author(s)

Gamepress writer with a focus on theorycrafting and gameplay optimization with a background in business management and freelance writing.  A bit of a hermit, but also an outdoors enthusiast who loves cycling and hiking. Long-time Gamepress fan who is very proud to be a part of the team.

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