In the Pokémon Trading Card Game — no matter what format you’re playing in — there are always a lot of cards you can choose from when it comes to building your deck. What these cards can do and how they interact with each other forms the basis of every successful deck.
Because there are so many cards that do so many different things however, there are a lot of different varieties of decks. From decks that aim to take opponent’s prizes quickly to ones that pursue alternate win conditions, Pokémon decks can be as varied as the Pokémon contained within.
We’re going to look at some of the most popular types of deck seen in the game, starting with one that not only started it all, but still remains a force in the game to this very day.
THE BIG BASICS DECK
Big Basics is the oldest archetype of deck to see major competitive success in the metagame. It revolves around using un-evolving Basic Pokémon who have higher HP than the average evolving Pokémon and cheap attack costs. Typically, these types of Pokémon possess attacks that aren’t as powerful as evolved Pokémon, or feature major side-effects.
The idea behind Big Basics is to take advantage of their high HP and relatively minimal set-up requirements to start swinging as quickly as possible. The other cards accompanying them in the deck are typically support cards used to augment their strength or sidestep various weaknesses.
The original Big Basics deck, infamously known as Haymaker, took advantage of a few things. First, was that its attackers were capable of doing 20 and 30 damage for a single energy. This was in a format where most Pokémon’s HP were less than 100, so that was a fairly significant amount.
Second was the fact that the Pokémon typically used in Haymaker (Hitmonchan, Electabuzz, Magmar, Scyther) were all different types. This meant that they could often turn their cheap 20/30 damage attacks into cheap 40/60 damage attacks. Most Basic Pokémon who were part of an evolution line couldn’t even compare, only having anywhere from 30-50 HP and being capable of doing 10 damage.
Haymaker was also assisted by the complete lack of a Supporter system that we have today, meaning a player could easily draw through over half their deck in a single turn, leading to multiple PlusPower cards and some particularly devastating first-turn set-ups that were incredibly hard for another player to recover from.
As mentioned, the Pokémon in Haymaker were capable of running at full steam on only 1 energy card so they also had a layer of insurance against the abuse of Energy Removal cards that crippled other Pokémon in that metagame.
The dominating power of the original Big Basics decks may have been the reason Basic Pokémon in the following expansions were a little tamer. With less HP and less powerful attacks, the unevolving Basic Pokémon that followed managed to hold their own without coming across as too powerful.
The core idea of Big Basics would eventually make several comebacks throughout the game’s history however, albeit in slightly different forms each time.
The EX Ruby & Sapphire expansion saw the first real return of powerful Basic Pokémon among its new “Pokémon ex”. This time, they were counterbalanced using a new ruling that was unique to the mechanic: if a Pokémon ex was knocked out, your opponent got to take 2 prize cards, rather than the usual 1. So even though some of these ex Pokémon were Basic Pokémon and more powerful than other Basics, there was an added risk to playing them.
By this point in the game, Trainer cards had been divided into Items and the one-per-turn Supporters, so the return of Haymaker’s huge draws and fast hits wasn’t a major concern. In fact, at first, it seemed as though The Pokémon Company was still hesitant to re-introduce Big Basics back into the game, as the first batch of Basic Pokémon ex weren’t really that much more powerful than other unevolving Basics (the infamously bad Lapras ex is a good example).
As players began to embrace the “ex” mechanic however, more Basic Pokémon ex were introduced who had powerful attacks and unique abilities.
During the Platinum era, the TCG introduced a new mechanic called “Pokémon SP”. These were special Pokémon that were modelled after the Pokémon used by Gym Leaders, Team Galactic and other prominent characters from the video games. Even though these cards featured Pokémon who would normally be Stage 1 or 2 Pokémon, they were classified as Basic Pokémon and could be played as such.
Naturally, that meant that these Pokémon were a little more powerful than your average Basic Pokémon. Despite the similarity, they never quite created a re-emergence of the Big Basics deck in their metagame.
Though formidable on their own, most Pokémon SP realized their full potential only after evolving to their “LV. X” form, a sort of Stage 1 evolution for the Pokémon SP which typically featured already fully-evolved Pokémon. The decks still revolved around powerful Basic Pokémon, however, so they do have their place in the history of this deck archetype.
B/W Era Big Basics
While the HeartGold/SoulSilver expansions did their best to shift the metagame’s balance back in favor of evolutions with the addition of Pokémon Prime (extra powerful versions of a Pokémon’s final form), Black and White ushered in what would finally be a true renaissance of the Big Basics deck.
Zekrom BW and Reshiram BW were Basic Pokémon the likes of which had never been seen. They possessed HP and damage outputs that were more typical of a Stage 2 Evolution at that point in time. Clocking in at 130 HP, with a splashable, all-colorless first attack and a second attack capable of doing 120 damage for 3 energy, these Pokémon far outclassed every other unevolving Basic Pokémon in the format as well as several Stage 1 and Stage 2 Pokémon.
Almost immediately, the top decks in the format began to revolve around these two cards in some way. Zekrom would eventually prove to be the more popular of the two after receiving a reliable form of energy acceleration in Noble Victory’s Eelectrik.
The release of these two powerful cards seemed to spark a trend which saw more and more legendary Pokémon being released as extra-powerful Basic Pokémon cards. The two legendary trios of Generation 5 (Thundurus / Tornadus / Landorus and Terrakion / Virizion / Cobalion) followed suit with high HP counts and both powerful and useful attacks. During this time period it seemed like there was not a single top-level deck that didn’t incorporate at least one of these Pokémon.
The Next Destinies expansion ushered in the return of the ex mechanic in a pretty big way. This time, capitalized to “EX”, the mechanic returned just as it did before, with powerful Basic Pokémon who gave up two prizes if they were Knocked Out.
This time, however, the Pokémon EX had the likes of Zekrom and Reshiram to compete with, who were already powerful Basic Pokémon, so they had to offer something really great to be worth the risk. Turns out, something really great is exactly what they had in store. Debuting alongside the return of the EX mechanic was a card so powerful it would remain a force in the format for several entire seasons: Mewtwo-EX.
Sporting a then-unheard-of 170 HP, an easily usable two-energy attack that could do tremendous damage without limit, and the ability to attack with any type of Energy, this card was worth giving up the two prizes and then some. Because Mewtwo-EX was weak to Psychic there was a point in the metagame where the only deck capable of beating a Mewtwo-EX deck was another Mewtwo-EX deck (not-so-fondly recalled by players as the “Mewtwo Wars”).
Over the next several expansions more and more of these Pokémon EX were introduced, each sporting equally high HP and similarly devastating attacks. It’s worth noting that even though Pokémon EX were all based on legendary Pokémon at first, eventually they’d branch out into other Pokémon. These other Pokémon were typically the final evolutionary stage of certain Pokémon lines and — unlike the older “Pokémon ex”— they all counted as Basic Pokémon and didn’t require any evolving to get into play.
Later sets would even introduce non-EX Basic Pokémon that partnered well with them, such as Dark Explorers’ Sableye and XY’s Yveltal (who complemented Darkrai-EX and Yveltal-EXm, respectively). Decks revolving around these Basic Pokémon held a firm stranglehold over the format for quite some time. Not needing to wait turns to evolve Pokémon allowed them to set up quickly and low attack costs let them start hitting hard fairly early as well.
Some Pokémon EX even offset their two-prize downside by providing fantastic support Abilities. Darkrai-EX let Dark Pokémon retreat for free, Deoxys-EX allowed Plasma Pokémon to do more damage and Jirachi-EX could grab you any Supporter card you wanted from the deck. They all held the same risks, but they were able to form the backbone of such fast, powerful decks that they seemed worth the cost.
Luckily, over time, more and more cards have been introduced that counteract Pokémon EX, making the risk of playing them more of a factor. But ever since their re-introduction, the Big Basics deck has been a powerful force in the metagame and that doesn’t look to be changing anytime soon.
Next time, we’ll look at a deck archetype that has played foil to the sheer brute force of Big Basics deck for some time. Until then!