Today we’ll be looking at some of Alola’s more passive-aggressive denizens, the Brutal Star Pokémon, Mareanie and Toxapex. Their physical designs are a little bit cryptic – Mareanie looks like a sort of spikey anemone, while Toxapex… Toxapex resembles nothing so much as a cancerous uvula glued to the inside of a dilapidated sea mine, with her twelve arms locking together to form an impenetrable dome that protects against not only predators but the force of waves, tides and ocean storms. In appearance, probably the closest animal to Toxapex would be something like a sea urchin, so bristling with spikes that its real body is essentially invisible, and probably not what you’re most worried about anyway. But it’s from their place in Alola’s ecology – specifically their relationship with one particular Pokémon, Corsola – that makes it clear that they’re probably supposed to be based on the dreaded crown-of-thorns starfish, Acanthaster planci, an unusual many-armed, spiny starfish found throughout much of the Pacific ocean.
The crown-of-thorns starfish is so named for the thicket of vicious spines, like the biblical crown of thorns, that covers the upper surface of its body – it doesn’t look quite like Toxapex, but you get a similar impression of concealment and fortification. Wounds delivered by the spines can expose animals to an assortment of toxic chemicals, which in humans can cause intense pain and swelling (in Toxapex’s case, this is said to last for three days and nights). You won’t die from a run-in with a crown-of-thorns, but you might briefly wish you could. The starfish is known for preying on coral polyps, the tiny invertebrate creatures whose calcium carbonate “skeletons” make up most of the structure of coral reefs. They don’t physically break apart or demolish coral formations, but they do digest all of the living tissue in the coral, leaving it bleached white and unable to regenerate. This is actually an important difference between the real starfish and Mareanie or Toxapex, since the Pokémon do physically break off bits of Corsola, to the annoyance of Alolan traditional artisans who work with Corsola coral horn. Up until maybe ten years ago, the crown-of-thorns got a lot of flak for the progressive degradation of coral reefs in the Pacific (particularly the Great Barrier Reef near Australia, though Hawai’i’s reefs have suffered too). In fact, though, crown-of-thorns starfish are a native species throughout most of the Pacific Ocean, and an otherwise-healthy coral reef ecosystem can usually deal with them in ordinary numbers. There are even a few animals that can hunt and eat them in spite of their formidable defences, most notably a giant sea snail called the Triton’s trumpet (there are no sea snail Pokémon in Alola to eat Mareanie, but they are hunted by the triggerfish Pokémon, Bruxish, whose powerful teeth can crush Mareanie’s spines). Crown-of-thorns starfish seem to breed more quickly in areas that get a lot of fertiliser runoff from agricultural zones, which can cause abnormally large infestations. Starfish “plagues” like these are definitely bad news, and culling them is important to slowing the decline of Pacific coral reef ecosystems. However, marine scientists today tend to think the starfish are a secondary problem: rising temperatures and gradual acidification of the oceans, due to atmospheric pollution caused by human industry, could actually cause far more damage to coral reefs in the long term.
In keeping with the starfish’s dastardly reputation, the games foreground the relationship between Mareanie, Toxapex and their prey: Corsola. The game first introduces Mareanie to the player though a dialogue with a trainer whose Corsola has been attacked by one. This seems to be meant to clue the player in to one of Alola’s unusual ways of encountering specific wild Pokémon – some of them will only appear when summoned by a different wild Pokémon to a battle already in progress. Usually they come to help, but when a wild Corsola is injured in battle and calls for aid, sometimes a Mareanie will show up and immediately attack it, drawn by the “blood in the water” both metaphorical and literal (…do Corsola have blood…?). Later, while touring the Aether Paradise with Wicke, we learn that one of the Aether Foundation’s stated aims in Alola is the protection of Corsola from overhunting by Toxapex – which, mind you, we have every reason to believe is a native Alolan species. The Pokédex mentions several facts about Mareanie and Toxapex’s predation of Corsola, and Wicke quotes it as saying that Toxapex leaves “a trail of Corsola bits scattered in its wake” across the seafloor.
Wicke means this to stress the victimisation of the Corsola – but, as Hau points out, “nature’s got its cruel side.” Toxapex are brutal, but their behaviour is natural for them, and doesn’t actually seem to have rendered Corsola endangered in Alola, so why should this be a priority for the Foundation? Are we supposed to think that Corsola just deserve protection from Toxapex because they’re cute and Toxapex are ugly? Is that an oversight by the writers? Well, maybe, but I think there’s a more interesting way of reading it. The Pokédex conspicuously stops short of saying that Mareanie or Toxapex kill Corsola – they break off parts of their bodies, but it’s been well established for a long time that Corsola can regenerate, so this may be an unusually non-lethal form of predation. We could write this off as squeamishness, since the Pokédex’s willingness to describe hunting or killing realistically does fluctuate over the years, but I feel like it’s at a fairly high point right now (albeit not as high as early Generation III). Let’s say Toxapex is a scapegoat for a simplistic understanding of Pokémon ecology and conservation, and Corsola are actually more threatened by broader environmental problems (mirroring our evolving understanding of the relationship between reef corals and the crown-of-thorns starfish). In that case, Wicke’s introduction to the Aether Foundation’s work becomes a hint at one of their storyline’s themes: namely, that the Aether Foundation is benevolent(ish) but misguided, and that this stems from the irrationality of Lusamine’s desire to protect all Pokémon, everywhere, from all harm. Like many Pokémon villains’ ideologies, it comes from an arguably benign instinct (like Archie’s desire to protect marine ecosystems, or Lysandre’s dream of a utopian society), but its fundamental impossibility, and the extreme nature of her devotion, drive her to villainous acts. In this case, the instinct to protect Corsola from natural predation, firstly, is probably a waste of the Foundation’s resources, and secondly, may actually be harming innocent Pokémon who happen not to be traditionally beautiful enough to get good press. There is some chance I’m giving Game Freak too much credit here, but given the choice between “this is dumb and it makes no sense for the Aether Foundation to be doing this” and “this is a thoughtful admonition to do better than the Aether Foundation in understanding ecosystems holistically before intervening,” I’d rather choose the latter.
Toxapex is probably the first Alolan Pokémon we’ve discussed who deserves to be classified as a “wall”: she has mediocre HP, but both of her defence stats are colossal. Water/Poison is also fairly solid defensively; it doesn’t have the huge sack of resistances that Steel gets, so Toxapex isn’t quite Forretress-esque in her defensive capabilities, but she has the flexibility of being able to soak both special and physical attacks, and only three weaknesses. Low HP and high defences, for what it’s worth, also make her an excellent target for Wish (since that heals an amount based on the user’s HP). Toxapex has both a signature move and a signature ability, which together… at least attempt to define an unorthodox sort of tanking style. The signature move, Baneful Bunker, is a relative of Protect; not only does it block most attacks for a single turn, it will poison opponents that attempt to use close-range attacks on Toxapex. Useful, but not fantastic on its own; ordinary poison is generally the weakest status condition, and a Pokémon with defence like Toxapex’s would probably rather have the stacking damage of Toxic. Her ability, though, doesn’t ask for Toxic; regular poison will do. This ability, Merciless, causes all of Toxapex’s attacks against poisoned targets to automatically score critical hits. Back in generation V or earlier, when critical hits were harder to guarantee and did 100% extra damage instead of 50%, this would have been a bigger deal, and it doesn’t help that Toxapex’s attack and special attack stats barely even deserve to be called mediocre. Still, an effective 50% damage bonus (or maybe 47% on average, since a few attacks would crit even without Merciless) on all attacks against most opponents is still nothing to sniff at. Combine that with the Venoshock attack, which does double damage to poisoned targets, and Toxapex can deliver a fairly nasty sting even to quite bulky enemies. The Brutal Star Pokémon even has a passable mixed offensive movepool, with Sludge Bomb/Venoshock, Surf/Scald and Ice Beam on the special side, and Poison Jab/Gunk Shot, Liquidation and Payback on the physical side.
The reasons that this plan more or less completely falls apart (other than the aforementioned worse-than-mediocre attack stats) are that Toxapex, first of all, has better ways of poisoning opponents than Baneful Bunker, and second, has a really powerful hidden ability, Regenerator (grants 33% healing every time you switch out). Toxapex’s ludicrous defences make her a strong candidate for setting up Toxic Spikes to, hopefully, spread severe poisoning to most of your opponent’s team, while Regenerator is so strong on a wall-style Pokémon that Merciless, in a direct comparison, just doesn’t give you enough bang for your buck. Trying to make use of Toxapex’s unique skills is kind of a waste of her potential to do other more conventional things so much better. She actually reminds me, for that reason, of Darmanitan: both are undeniably very powerful Pokémon, but absolutely not because of their most unique and interesting features. Still, I suppose I’d rather a Pokémon that succeeds in spite of its signature moves than one that’s just a complete dud. So what else can we find in Toxapex’s support column?
Scald tends to be a go-to for defensive Water-types because the chance to burn opponents is useful for crippling physical attackers. Toxapex is better at physical than special attacks, and would rather spread poison than burns, but Scald does make her more threatening to Poison- and Steel-types and physical attackers generally, which is arguably more valuable than the fairly slight damage increase you’d get by picking Liquidation instead. This is doubly true if you’ve got her on Toxic Spikes duty, since Poison Pokémon can harmlessly absorb Toxic Spikes by switching into them. Assuming you aren’t going for a weird Merciless build, Toxapex is inevitably going to be very light on offensive presence, with the main threat she poses (Toxic Spikes) being indirect, long-term, and able to be mitigated by careful play. Carrying Baneful Bunker or Toxic will help, but Scald is arguably the best way to give Toxapex some immediate bite. Knock Off is useful for this too, since almost all Pokémon in competitive settings carry items and most rely fairly heavily on them; just remember that Mega Stones and Z-Crystals aren’t subject to it. Toxapex also gets Recover, an asset to almost any defensive Pokémon, though it might also be worth considering Pain Split, available from move tutors on Ultra Sun and Moon, as an alternative. Because Pain Split works by summing the user’s and target’s hit points, then splitting them equally, it can allow low-HP, high-defence Pokémon like Toxapex to heal and cause significant damage simultaneously – but it’s very situational. Toxapex is one of the toughest Pokémon with access to Haze (alongside Cofagrigus), which is maybe a bit of a weird choice but makes her unusually good at shutting down stat boost sweepers, who would normally try to exploit her poor direct offence capabilities. Light Screen is on her move list, and lets her help out her own team (as well as providing continued benefits after she switches out, which she likes to do often because of Regenerator), but I’m more hesitant to recommend it than I am for most defence/support Pokémon because it risks playing too much into her lack of offensive presence. The same, sadly, goes for Snatch (which “steals” positive status moves) and Magic Coat (which “bounces” negative ones) – while interesting, they require a great deal of skill to use effectively and can leave Toxapex a sitting duck if misplayed.
So, in summary, Mareanie and Toxapex are Pokémon whose designs aim squarely for “ugly” and nail it, with an ugly and prickly skill set to match. As Pokémon based on starfish (though of an unusual enough species not to step on Staryu and Starmie’s toes) it’s expected that they look a little bit bizarre and alien. Their links to Corsola are something of a source of consternation to me, over how far we should actually take the real-world parallels, as well as whether Game Freak has in mind the most recent views of the real starfish or only its long-standing reputation, and how seriously we should take the Aether Foundation’s efforts to understand Alolan ecology. But I suppose thinking about world-building is better than not thinking about it. As for Toxapex’s battle capabilities, it’s hard to deny that she’s good at what she does, although I might wish her signature move and ability had been more effective in creating a distinctive playstyle. So overall, if Toxapex fails, I… guess it’s for interesting reasons, which is definitely a plus? Good job, Toxapex.