Remember what I said about trying to write up Honedge, Doublade and Aegislash quickly before that break I just had in Rome? Yeah, that was a lie. I do that sometimes. Really it’s quite amazing that any of you believe a single word I’ve ever written. Oh well. On with the show.
So, the first thing to talk about with regard to Honedge is that magic swords are cool.
The thing about swords is that, compared to a lot of the other close-combat weapons available in the ancient world like spears and clubs, or ranged weapons like slings, they take a great deal of skill to make and use a lot of metal, therefore being very expensive (metalworking itself has associations with magic in some cultures). For this reason swords, particularly large swords, are very often elite weapons in the civilisations that use them, the classic examples being the two-handed longswords of Mediaeval European knights and the distinctive katana of Japanese samurai – Aegislash’s association with the high Kalosian nobility is a natural extension of that theme. Swords are also adapted more to personal combat than to co-ordinated formations; contrast again the spear and related polearms, which can be devastating weapons when used in large numbers even by inexperienced foot soldiers, but are difficult to use effectively one-on-one and tend to leave their wielders quite vulnerable (even if your name is Oberyn Martell). They are traditionally the weapons of heroes who perform daring solo feats, not common infantry who rely on strength of numbers. As a result of these tendencies, swords of all types carry a certain mystique that other weapons lack and are probably the most likely weapons in myth or folktale to possess magical powers, important histories and names, the paramount example being King Arthur’s legendary blade, Excalibur. Aegislash’s power to “detect the innate qualities of leadership” and connection with royalty seem like a reference to the ‘sword in the stone’ that Arthur pulled out to prove his lineage and right to the throne of England (which may or may not be Excalibur – usually he’s given Excalibur by the Lady of the Lake after the first sword is broken, but accounts vary, as always in myth). Modern fiction follows suit, with swords like Glamdring and Andúril in Tolkien, or Ice and Longclaw in Martin; their allure is so strong that powerful ‘magic swords’ can even appear in futuristic settings, like the lightsabres of Star Wars. Less often, though by no means rarely, these magic swords have an intelligence of their own – either full-blown human cognition and communicative abilities, or a simpler sort of bestial awareness that may come with the power to influence the wielder’s emotions. Samurai katana are particularly prone to the latter, and Honedge follows suit… but Honedge is also something much more sinister: a cursed sword.
Though one would imagine it makes a powerful weapon in the hands of a skilled swordsman, the Ghost-type Honedge offsets this with a nasty habit of sapping its wielder’s spiritual essence through the blue ribbon attached to its hilt. I confess I’m not sure of any precise mythical antecedents to a vampiric sword, although I feel as though one must exist. As Aegislash, this Pokémon’s patronage of nobility and royalty is underwritten by its sinister mind-control powers: it helps to select the rulers, and also manipulates them for its own inscrutable purposes. Aegislash can identify strong leaders with its freaky Ghost-type spirit-sight or whatever, ensure their accession to the highest levels of power, then control them and run everything from behind the scenes. This supposedly happened to several generations of the Kalosian monarchy, which rather does make one wonder what Aegislash’s overall influence on the region’s history has been – especially considering that the royal family is remembered in a somewhat ambivalent light be the modern people of Kalos. Like many Ghost Pokémon, Aegislash are thought to be the spirits of the dead, returned for some reason or other, which doesn’t give much of a hint as to whether their intentions are benign or malevolent. Are they working tirelessly behind the scenes to bring justice to a kingdom they remember loving in life, or trying to sabotage a regime that once oppressed them? Or are there some on each of those sides? There’s got to be a cool story in that somewhere…
Probably my one real complaint about the way these Pokémon are designed is that I can’t help but think Doublade and Aegislash would have made more sense as branched evolutions from Honedge rather than sequential forms. One sword becoming two swords makes sense, and one sword adding a shield makes sense, but why add a second sword only to take it away and replace it with a shield? Now that I look at it closely, Doublade does seem to have a small, narrow buckler floating behind it (Bulbapedia takes the entire arrangement to be a reference to the structure of a European coat of arms) – so does that mean the shield ‘evolves’ and the second sword just vanishes entirely? I don’t think I’m quite following. Two swords worn together are part of the iconography of a samurai starting from the end of the 16th century, but these aren’t normally matched swords – there’s supposed to be one long katana and one shorter secondary blade, called a wakizashi – so I’m not sure Doublade really works as a reference to that. It’s also a little weird that Aegislash seems to have lost its elaborate scabbard (which, of course, is the most important part of Excalibur, containing the enchantment that protects its bearer from bleeding wounds), but that also draws more attention to its fancy golden blade, and having the scabbard floating around in battle like it does for Honedge and Doublade would have cluttered up his model, so I’m sort of okay with that. Probably the best reason I can think of for having a single evolutionary line instead of a split one is that making Doublade and Aegislash into split evolutions would have made Aegislash’s ability a little bit strange and pointless, and the cool ability seems (to some extent anyway) to have been the whole point… so let’s talk about that stuff.
Preliminaries out of the way first. As the game’s first Ghost/Steel dual-type, Aegislash boasts a very powerful defensive profile with three immunities and nine resistances – although its four weaknesses are all common and important ones (Fire, Ground, Ghost and Dark) and its HP is not great, so don’t get overconfident. It also enjoys a small but very effective offensive movepool, including the Musketeer Quartet’s signature Fighting-type attack, Sacred Sword, which I believe still makes for an irresistible combination with Ghost attacks. The fact that there aren’t really any good Ghost attacks is a problem, but Aegislash is slow enough to benefit from Shadow Sneak’s priority and powerful enough to do significant damage even with a sub-par attack like Shadow Claw. Iron Head rounds things out nicely and punishes Fairies for existing (it also gets Gyro Ball, but isn’t quite slow enough for that to make sense). Head Smash looks kind of cool on paper and is the strongest attack it gets by a significant margin, but that recoil is seriously painful and, again, Aegislash’s HP stat just isn’t very good, so unless your team is really scared of some specific Flying-type, just leave it. The really great thing about Aegislash is that it can also pick a nice set-up move to take advantage of all those resistances and the scariness of its attacks – Swords Dance (obviously) or Autotomise (which is basically Agility for Steel-types), or, hell, even both if you’re comfortable relying on your Ghost/Fighting coverage. Basically, the movepool is all there for Aegislash to be an extraordinarily frightening sweeper – but what about the stats? Well, that’s where the ability comes in.
Aegislash’s ability is Stance Change, and its thing is that it can use this ability to convert instantaneously between two forms. In its default defensive or ‘shield’ form, it holds its shield in front of itself, while in its offensive or ‘blade’ form, it holds the shield off to one side. Aegislash’s hit points and speed are the same in both forms, but its attack and special attack are extremely high and its defence and special defence very low in its offensive form, and vice versa in its defensive form. Switching from one form to the other is easy: just use a damaging attack to enter blade form and its signature move, King’s Shield, to enter shield form – or just switch Aegislash out; it always enters play in shield form. Of course, King’s Shield is an awesome technique anyway, so if you aren’t also stuffing his moveset with set-up moves, it’s certainly deserving of inclusion. It mostly functions like Protect, but with the added advantage of significantly reducing the attack power of any Pokémon using an attack that would make physical contact with Aegislash – i.e. attacks like Flare Blitz or Crunch, but not ‘ranged’ physical attacks like Earthquake (which, sadly, is probably the most important attack you’d want to protect Aegislash from). Unlike Protect, though, King’s Shield does not block status moves like Will’o’Wisp. Against a Pokémon with access to support techniques that could be dangerous to Aegislash, you might be better off switching out. Overall, Stance Change is a similar sort of concept to Darmanitan’s Zen Mode, but infinitely more effective because of its highly flexible nature. Because Aegislash always enters play in shield form (and has a truckload of Steel-type resistances), it’s a very easy Pokémon to switch in. It also won’t change to blade form until the moment before it attacks – meaning that, if it’s slower than the opponent (and it usually will be), Aegislash can take an incoming attack on its almighty shield form defences and then strike back with its devastating blade form attack power on the very same turn. Effectively, its attack and special attack stats are always high (well… unless you’re using a really weird Sleep Talk Aegislash for some reason, but let’s not go there). Its defence and special defence take a little more finesse; King’s Shield has priority, so it’s not hard to switch back to shield form in time to absorb an attack, but it’s also a very predictable move, and using it too consistently will give your opponent lots of opportunities to switch, set up, or cripple Aegislash with status effects. This would be bad.
Finally, it’s probably worth mentioning that Aegislash’s blade form has high special attack too, so although he doesn’t have the movepool for a pure special attacking set, mixed sets with Shadow Ball actually work really well too, as long as you’re not trying for Swords Dance. It’s the strongest Ghost attack Aegislash gets, and will mess with attempts to counter it using physical walls like Hippowdon, especially since a lot of people are probably going to be expecting Aegislash to be a physical attacker. Come to think of it, there’s really not much that does safely stop this thing, although stuff with Earthquake tends to be a decent bet since Aegislash can’t just wreck you with King’s Shield. Malamar is an absolute nightmare for Aegislash, because she can outrun it and reverse its Swords Dances with Topsy Turvy, and actually benefits from striking a King’s Shield with Night Slash thanks to Contrary. Mandibuzz also stops it in its tracks, which is one of the top reasons people are actually using Mandibuzz now – anything that can reliably stop Aegislash really is that valuable. This is one of those Pokémon that you just need to have a plan for, well before battle actually begins, and ideally that plan should cover Autotomise, Swords Dance, physical attacks and Shadow Ball. No pressure.
A living sword is a bit of a weird choice for a design, but artificial Pokémon are certainly nothing new – in their overall aesthetic, Honedge, Doublade and Aegislash actually remind me of the other ancient Ghost-type constructs, Golett and Golurk, but they’re also very different in temperament to these loyal servitors. They’re the kind of Pokémon that make me want to tell a story (that’s a good thing). As for Aegislash’s battle skills, well, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Stance Change, excellent type coverage and a choice of set-up moves mean this thing will decide the outcome of a lot of matches. I’m almost tempted to say it’s all a bit too much, actually… but then I remember Darmanitan, who was awesome in spite of Zen Mode rather than because of it, and suddenly I’m sort of okay with Aegislash kicking butt. Certainly it’s no Speed Boost Blaziken or fourth-generation Garchomp, and I think that may be all I can ask for.