Inside PokémonMaxRaids, the kindest community on the internet

A little while ago, I suddenly found myself caring about Max Raid Battles in Pokémon Sword and Shield. Pokémon has a knack for this: you play, you finish the story and the afters, and for a while that’s it. But then a long weekend appears. A bit of time in lieu needs using up. You catch yourself thinking, actually, why not? Why not finish the Pokédex? Why not get into competitive training? I’ll do it – and this time I’ll mean it. And down the rabbit hole you go.

The problem is, raids are important for doing those things in Sword and Shield – and raiding is not enormously fun. For one, much the same as the raids of Pokémon Go, when it comes to actually finding a proper group and coordinating a session, most of the work is left to communities outside of the game itself, the slack picked up by fans on Twitter, or reddit, or Discord. More than that, however, raids are painfully time-consuming – when you’re in the raid itself, but more so when you’re actually trying to find something specific. (As I found out the hard way, amateurishly working through the ‘dex).

In other words then, raids might be a neat idea, designed in that typically Pokémon way to get fans playing together – but in that other typically Pokémon way, they’re no fun without the community’s help.

Enter: r/PokemonMaxRaids. At around 11,600 members, MaxRaids is on the smaller side by Pokémon subreddit standards – the main Sword and Shield one has 381,000, for instance – and on the surface it’s a fairly quiet place, too. New posts come at a rate of maybe one a day, mostly as brief, curiously jargon-heavy notes about a new raid being hosted, and on the surface, that’s about it. It’s a strange place. But there are clues, little and not-so-little breadcrumbs – a list of rules here, a 6000 word FAQ here, a Google Doc that leads to another guide-within-a-guide – and following them will lead you to the most incredible reward. The real community: a bustling, deeply inventive Discord server, designed not only to crack those built-in problems to raiding but make even the most impossibly small encounters possible.

But it’s also something else: a tolerant, respectful, deeply generous community that’s become, by gaming’s standards and those of the wider online world, borderline utopic.

PokemonMaxRaids, or just MaxRaids, began in 2019, with one of the founding moderators, Kirzi, nabbing the subreddit name within minutes of the feature’s early June reveal. The expectation, Kirzi tells me via Discord message, alongside a fellow founding mod and good friend, Salti, was that it would remain relatively low-key, like r/FestivalPlaza and r/friendsafari, other subreddits for similarly niche Pokémon features that they’d managed in the past. For a short while it did: the sub was dormant until the games launched later in November, and things didn’t take off until a few months later in February 2020.

“We got it set up and let it do its thing,” Kirzi explains, but then people wanted a Discord, which the pair were hesitant to try, given their lack of experience with it compared to moderating reddit. They decided to go ahead nonetheless, and it turns out those people were right. Since then it’s grown into a thriving, 10,000-member hub.

The server’s purpose is to be less of a looking-for-party, raid-organising kind of thing, and more of a completely bespoke system, devised in order to track down extremely rare variations of any available raid Pokémon – and then, crucially, to “host” raids for them, allowing any players in the server the chance to catch it.

These types of Pokémon, I should add, go beyond the standard, quite rare kind that I was originally after before tumbling down the well. Combining things like Gigantamax capability with a smattering of the other, most desirable traits – like having “perfect” stats, a Hidden Ability, or most of all being a shiny – the average Pokémon hosted on MaxRaids are ultra rare. Statistically, you’ve a better chance of winning the Euromillions than catching some of these naturally.

Nevertheless, here they are – and the process of hosting these raids, too, is seriously involved. It’s impossible to do it justice with just a quick explanation – the community’s own general FAQ and hosting guide are the places to go if you want to know the gritty details. But the elaborateness of it is really the point, as you’ll hopefully see, so, I will try. Very broadly speaking, it works like this:

Raids in Sword and Shield take place at ‘dens’, periodically spawning and refreshing each day, and each of these dens has a set group of Pokémon that can appear there were a raid to spawn. If you spawn a raid in a specific way however – by using a Wishing Piece at a den – then a raid not only appears, but will stay available there indefinitely, until you defeat and attempt to catch that Pokémon. If you leave it active, however, then every 24 hours the Pokémon that appears in that raid changes to another one, from that original group.

Curiously, the stats and characteristics of the Pokémon that appear on each day (but not the Pokémon species itself) is actually fixed, from the moment you lob the Wishing Piece down the den. This could be very useful for tracking down these ultra-rare Pokémon – but! To preserve the illusion of random chance, that set order of the Pokémon’s qualities is hidden from the player. The game knows almost everything about the Pokémon that may appear in the raid there today, tomorrow, and every day after, but there’s no in-game way for you to check it. Plus, even if you did know, there’s of course no natural, in-game way to skip forward in time to reach the Pokémon you want, without simply waiting until for the many dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of days to pass.

After discovering this is the way raid spawns work, the RNG community and PokémonMaxRaids team also created a solution: both a way to see this hidden list of Pokémon attributes that are set to appear there each day (which they call the “Raid seed”), and exploits for skipping forward in time to reach the one you’re after (called “frame-skipping” – not dissimilar to the “time travel” exploits some people use to advance days and get ahead in Animal Crossing).

Actually doing this, however, takes considerable time and considerable effort on behalf of the would-be host, and also requires the availability of other, supporting community members to be around to help too. The “seed checking” requires someone to be on call at all times, as it can’t be done yourself, and the checkers themselves either need access to either a “CFW’d Switch” (a hacked one, basically – “custom firmware” as the community puts it), or a bot that’s based on one, and they may need to check the seed for the host multiple times, depending on what they’re after.

All this, and the host still needs to do plenty more themselves: keep refreshing the seed until they get one that doesn’t put them too far from the target Pokémon; download something called RaidFinder, which is a custom-built piece of software that spits out the results for how far away you are; and then do the real work, manually grinding through, on average, upwards of 3,000 frames. Combined, all of this will average out to a good few hours of work, which hosts will often split over a couple of days. As Kirzi puts it, somewhat mildly: “even with the fast method of advancing frames, it’s really time consuming and tedious” – and luck of the draw can cause that overall time to vary wildly.

Once this intrepid host has done all of that – got a seed, had the seed checked, retried for a good seed, and skipped the many, many frames – they then do the actual hosting, which again takes several more hours. Hosts create a corresponding reddit post, signal the raid on Discord, and then bed in for a while, gradually adding scores of players as friends (which have to be deleted after, due to the Switch’s friends list cap), and hosting just three of them at a time, each time initiating the raid battle, ducking out, adding three more people, and going again.

Each raid takes up to ten minutes or so, but crucially each raider only has about a 3 or 4 per cent chance of catching a Gigantamax Pokémon with a regular ball, which means – hosts being the good people they are, and letting everyone keep trying until they get it – doing this quite a few times over. “Two hours is about average,” Salti says, for how long someone will tend to stay hosting once they’ve found the Pokémon and set it all up. But there are ones that go much longer: “we’ve had them go up to 18 or even 24 hours, at which point I’m personally begging them to eat and sleep and take a break.”

And yet, if you’re just passing through, all of this labour is invisible: it’s possible to just rock up on the server, take advantage of the custom alerts, and bag yourself a whole suite of impossibly rare Pokémon, unhacked and “tournament legal” – ready for official competitions and all. Without overselling it, to your average, would-be hardcore collector, it’s a revelation. But more revelatory still: all of this combined work, every step of the way, is done for absolutely nothing at all in return.

“But I just flag, before we move to growth, the critical rule that everything is built on.”

We’re still talking about the basics of PokemonMaxRaids, when it began and how it got going, when Salti politely interjects to talk about modding philosophies. It is, in a way, an example of the pair’s approach in action – and the friendly-yet-firm way in which they go about it. This is the stuff the whole community is built on: principles, philosophies, mutual respect. Everything is about laying foundations, setting tone, agreeing to rules and referring back to them.

That generosity, the hours or days spent finding and hosting raids, is a case in point: the “critical rule” Salti is citing here is the principle of “paying it forward”. Not only does nobody ask for anything in return for the lengthy act of hosting a raid – nobody is allowed to.