Pokémon Trading Card Game – A Beginner’s Guide

Pokémon has been around for a long time. Shortly after the video games launched back in 1999, a collectible card game was introduced as a tie-in product. This game was known as the Pokémon Trading Card Game. Much like the video games, many people assumed the Pokémon TCG was a passing fad that would simply disappear once the next big thing came along.

Fast forward to 2015, and while Pokémon cards may not be the schoolyard phenomenon they once were, the Pokémon TCG has become anything but a passing fad. It has one of the largest player bases of any collectible card game (right up there with Magic: The Gathering and Yu-Gi-Oh!), a huge competitive scene and large events being run year-round. Pokémon is still going stronger than ever.

I’m no champion myself, but having been involved in this game and it’s community for over a decade, I’m no stranger either. If you’re looking for some quick tips to get involved in the competitive world of Pokémon TCG and evolve your game to the next level, look no further. We’re going to look at a few of the basics of the game from a standpoint that should hopefully help you understand some of the more technical elements, as well as how to actually get into collecting cards and playing with others.

pokemon-game-in-progress

A Pokémon game in progress, using a play mat and various counters to track health and status effects on Pokémon. (Image: Flickr user span112. Under Creative Commons license.)

What Kind of Game is Pokémon TCG?

As you may have gathered from the name, Pokémon TCG is a collectible card game styled after Game Freak and Nintendo’s Pokémon games. The connections the card game shares with the video games run deep and anyone familiar with the series will feel right at home. Players will battle with up to six Pokémon at a time, evolving, switching out and exploiting elemental weaknesses, just as they always have in the Pokémon series. There’s even a helpful cast of supporting characters who fans of the games and anime will recognize.

How It’s Played

The basic goal of the game is quite similar to that of the video game. Using your Pokémon of choice, you have to Knock Out six of your opponent’s Pokémon, claiming six Prize Cards to win the game. I’m not going to go too in-depth into the basic rules of the game, or the turn structure, so if you are completely new or need a refresher, I recommend going to Pokémon.com or playing Pokémon Trading Card Game Online. The official simulation of the card game has some great tutorials and does wonders for anyone who prefers a more hands-on approach to learning a game.

Getting To Know The Cards

In order to play the Pokémon TCG, you’re going to need to build a deck. Decks in Pokémon always contain exactly 60 cards — not a single card more or less. Your deck may include up to 4 multiples of any card of the same name. Cards used in this game can be broken down into three main categories (which each contain their own sub-categories). These three types of cards are:

  • Pokémon
  • Trainers
  • Energy

Your deck will include all three types of cards, so familiarizing yourself with them and their purpose within the game is a good first step to really understanding the game.

POKEMON

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These cards are, of course, going to be the most important aspect of the game. Some of your Pokémon will be used to mount an offense, while some will be used as support. Building a deck revolves around selecting Pokémon you believe work well together and then augmenting their strengths with cards that further their abilities. Since these cards are the lifeblood of the game, being familiar with them is a must. We’ll take a look at the important elements on a Pokémon Card, from top to bottom:

  1. Name – As previously mentioned above, you may include 4 copies of any Pokémon cards with the same name. You need to be careful in following this rule as it can be a little tricky when applied to Pokémon. Even if the two “Charizard” cards you have are completely different cards, they still both count as “Charizard” and you cannot have more than four of them combined (see an example of this in the card images below).
  2. Hit Points – Just like an RPG, A Pokémon’s Hit Points indicate how much damage it can endure before being Knocked Out. Unlike how HP typically works in an RPG however, your Pokémon’s Hit Points are never reduced. When a Pokémon takes damage, you place Damage Counters on it, indicating the amount of damage it has taken. When the amount of damage taken reaches or exceeds a Pokémon’s HP value, the Pokémon is Knocked Out. Fundamentally, it seems like the same thing as simply saying the Pokémon’s HP is being reduced, but it’s beneficial to understand that HP actually works this way as it will help you understand the way some card effects are worded.
  3. Pokémon TypeThe symbol here indicates what type your Pokémon is. Your Pokémon’s type will determine what card effects they are affected by as well as whether or not their attack damage is modified by the Defending Pokémon’s Weakness or Resistance. There is no limit on how many types of Pokémon you can use in a deck, but since each type typically relies on a specific Energy Card in order to attack, it’s usually best to limit yourself to 2 or 3.
  4. Evolution Stage – This indicates your Pokémon’s stage of Evolution and determines when it can be played. Basic Pokémon can be put in play directly from your hand. Stage 1 Pokémon must be played on top of the Basic Pokémon printed on the card and likewise, Stage 2 Pokémon need to be played on top of their corresponding Stage 1. You cannot play an Evolution on top of a Pokémon that was just put into play this turn or one that has already Evolved this turn.
  5. Abilities – An Ability is an additional card effect your Pokémon provides. When and how often this effect is applied is usually indicated in the Ability’s effect text (“If this Pokémon is your Active Pokémon”, “As long as this Pokémon is in play”, “Once per turn”, etc.)
  6. Attacks – As you’d expect, these are the attacks your Pokémon can perform. To the left of the attack’s name is the Energy Cost. This indicates what energy cards must be attached to the Pokémon in order to use that attack. Colored energy requirements in the cost must be fulfilled by the corresponding energy card of the same cost. White (or “colorless”) energy requirements in the cost can be fulfilled using any energy. (For example, an Attack with a cost of [R][C][C] can be used if you have three Fire Energy cards attached, or if you have three different Energy Cards attached, as long as one of them is a Fire Energy). To the right of the Attack’s name is the amount of damage it deals. Attacks will often provide a secondary effect to dealing damage. These effects are printed beneath the attack name and take effect when that attack is used. Keep in mind that using an attack always ends your turn, so play any cards you need to play before attacking.
  7. Weakness/Resistance – This alters the damage your Pokémon receives when attacked by certain types of Pokémon. If an attacking Pokémon’s type matches your Pokémon’s weakness, your Pokémon will receive double the amount of damage it normally would. Likewise, if the attacker’s type matches your Pokémon’s resistance, the damage is reduced by 20. Most card effects that modify damage (like Muscle Band) are applied before Weakness and Resistance, so make sure to take that into account.
  8. Retreat Cost – You can Retreat your Active Pokémon once per turn and this shows the cost of doing so. The cost will always be in colorless Energy so you can pay it with any type of energy already attached to the retreating Pokémon. Retreat Cost is paid before the Pokémon actually retreats, so any effects that may raise or lower the retreat cost of your Pokémon while it’s in the Active Position will be applied when paying the cost.

Additional Text – Some cards have additional game mechanics tied to them which are traditionally printed somewhere in the top half of the card. For example, EX Pokémon are Pokémon that are extra-powerful but, in exchange, give up two prizes when they are Knocked Out. An “Ancient Trait” is an additional card effect that is applied to the Pokémon possessing it at all times.

CharizardBaseSet4431px-CharizardLegendaryTreasures19

Alternatively, if you have a card called “Charizard-EX”, that counts as a differently-named card and you may play four of them in addition to your four non-EX Charizards.

437px-CharizardEXFlashfire12

TRAINERS

Trainer cards are called such because they’ll allow you, the player (as an in-game Pokémon Trainer), to perform various actions during your turn. These cards are incredibly important as they are often the key factor in making sure your strategy works. From drawing cards from the deck to disrupting your opponent, these cards provide a multitude of useful effects. Just like Pokémon cards, you may include up to 4 of any Trainer cards that bear the same name. (The exception being “Professor Juniper” and “Professor Sycamore” which, despite having different names, count as the same card.) Based on how they’re played, they can be broken down into four types:

432px-UltraBallFlashfire99 Items – Items are the most basic form of Trainer card. You can play as many as you like during your turn.
430px-MuscleBandXY121 Tools – Tools are Items that you can attach to your Pokémon to bestow it with various effects. Each Pokémon may only have 1 Tool attached to it and if a Pokémon already has a Tool attached, you can’t attach a new one. Tools also count as Item cards, so any effect that applies to Item cards also applies to Tools.
431px-FightingStadiumFuriousFists90 Stadiums – Stadium cards represent the area the battle is taking place and provide various effects to both players. You can play a Stadium card at any time during your turn. If there is currently a Stadium card in play when you play one, you discard it and replace it with the one you are playing. (You cannot however, play a Stadium if it has the same name as the one currently in play.)
432px-LysandreFlashfire90 Supporters – These are your most powerful Trainer cards. The effects they provide will always be incredibly beneficial. The catch is that you can only play one Supporter card each turn. It’s always a crucial decision to decide how to use your one Supporter for the turn as the effects they possess are varied and often game-changing.

 

ENERGY

Just as Trainer cards allow you to perform actions during your turn, Energy cards fuel your Pokémon’s actions. Energy cards are divided into two categories: Basic and Special. Regardless of which type you play, you can only attach one Energy card per turn, so choosing which one to attach and to which Pokémon is another critical decision you will be faced with each turn. Here are a few things you should know about each type of Energy card:

Basic – Basic Energy cards are just that. Basic. They provide a single Energy of the Type they depict. Nothing fancy. The upsides of Basic Energy are that you may include as many as you like in your deck, regardless of type. Basic Energy also typically benefit from more card effects that allow you to grab them from the deck or discard pile. WaterEnergyDiamondPearl125
Special – Special Energy cards are Energy cards that possess a secondary effect. These effects range from providing more than one Energy for paying costs, to increasing the damage of attacks. Unlike Basic Energy, you may only have up to 4 of each type of Special Energy in your deck. Any card effects that specify “Basic Energy” are not applied to these cards. While Special Energy cards often provide some great advantages, they are typically quite difficult to retrieve from the discard after being used and are far more susceptible to being removed from your Pokémon than Basic Energy cards are. 435px-DoubleColorlessEnergyLegendaryTreasures113

 

An Approach to Competitive Play

Once you believe you’ve gotten a good grasp on the game and its inner workings, you may find yourself looking to break into the world of competitive Pokémon. It can be a bit of a leap, especially if you’re coming from a point where your experience with the game is on a more basic level. However, anybody is capable of becoming a great Pokémon TCG player  — there’s just a few things you need to know before starting your journey to become the very best (“…like no one ever was!”).

The Metagame

You’ve learned how to play the game, now it’s time to learn how the game is played. The “metagame” is a term used to describe what the competitive environment is currently like. What cards are people using, and how are they using them? There are a number of ways you can acquire this information. Video streaming sites like YouTube and Twitch are wonderful assets as they have a wealth of videos with players showing off their decks as well as demonstrating them in games. The official Pokémon Twitch account (www.twitch.tv/pokemon) often streams top-level competitions, so if you want to see what the best of the best are currently playing, that’s the way to go. There are also many websites like this one with plenty of reading material on deck lists and strategies that are making their way through the tournament circuit.

It’s not necessary that you learn every single detail of every single card being played, as you will learn that yourself as you play, but you are going to want to at least be aware of what kinds of things you may be faced with, so that you can craft your own strategies around them.

Understanding Consistency

While Pokémon certainly differs from other card games in a number of ways, it is still a card game and as such there is still an element of random chance to the game. Since you’re drawing cards from a face-down deck of 60 cards, you can’t guarantee which cards you will actually be able to play during a game. Except you can! Sort of! This is where consistency cards come into play. These are cards that are incredibly important to the deckbuilding process. They are cards (usually Items and Supporters) that allow you to draw more cards, search out specific cards from your deck, and recover resources from the discard pile.

Success in the competitive environment will often revolve around a player’s ability to perform consistently. Crafting a great strategy is only one half of the deckbuilding process, as the other half is making sure your deck can pull that strategy off every game, regardless of what cards you draw. Understanding how to make your deck consistent is absolutely critical if you want to play this game competitively.

POKEMON-CARDS

It’s overwhelming knowing where to start buying your own cards. You might take one look at this selection in a store and want to run a mile. Don’t worry! I’ll explain… (Image: Flickr user Kichigai. Under Creative Commons license.)

How Do I Get the Cards I Need?

This is the next logical step. Once you know the game and what cards people are using, you’re undoubtedly going to want to know the best way of acquiring those cards. There are a few helpful tips I can offer in that regard. A good step one for most players is what I consider the Golden Rule of breaking into competitive:

Don’t buy booster packs.

Booster packs can be a great way to get some great cards and expand your collection. If you’re looking to be a competitive player, however, they can also be an enormous waste of money. In any given Pokémon TCG expansion, usually only somewhere around 30% of the set’s cards are cards that would be considered competitively viable. On top of that, if you’re a new player, a lot of the cards you’re going to need will likely be spread across several expansions. You could buy 100 packs and still wind up with less than half the cards you need to make a competitive deck. So where should you invest your hard-earned money?

Well… the short answer is ‘singles’. There are numerous websites that will sell single Pokémon cards at individual prices. These sites are great if you’ve already gotten an idea about what type of deck you’d like to play. Simply purchase the specific cards you would like to play, rather than hunting them down through packs. Some people also like to buy “play sets” (4 copies) of certain cards that are considered “staples” (useful cards with effects that can benefit any deck they’re played in), just in case they need them for future decks.

If you’re still a little uncertain of what you’d like to play or simply wish to have a pool of useful cards to draw ideas from, another decent option is Theme Decks. These pre-constructed decks are typically available anywhere Pokémon cards are sold. The decks themselves are terrible and wouldn’t stand a chance in a real game, but if you can afford to buy multiple decks, they can be a good way for a beginning player to acquire some incredibly useful Supporter, Item and Special Energy cards.

playing-with-others

Playing the physical card game requires playing with other people face-to-face, of course. There are various ways you can do this, or you can play the digital version from your own home instead.(Image: Copyright, Flickr user goddessmustard.)

Where Can I Play the Game?

As with all things in life, the key to being great at the Pokémon TCG is practice! The more games you play, the more experience you will acquire and the better you will become at building your decks and out-maneuvering your opponent! You may not have anybody immediately nearby to play the game with but there are always options! Play! Pokémon is The Pokémon Company’s official source for all things related to competitive Pokémon. Their site will help you find leagues and events in your area as well as let you track your ranking as you play in them.

Another really good tool to consider are the simulators. Pokémon Trading Card Game Online and TCG One are the two most powerful simulators out there right now. Pokémon TCG Online is the official app for playing the game and is jam-packed with cool features and a large player base. Its only downside is that players have to acquire cards in-game in order to use them. It offers plenty of opportunity to do so (Daily Challenges, Vs. Rewards, Trading) but it can take a bit of time. TCG One, on the other hand, offers none of the bells and whistles of TCG Online, but it does allow you to construct and play decks with any card you want, so it’s great for testing out new ideas without having to hunt down certain cards.

In Conclusion

Pokémon TCG is a game with a lot of great attributes. It’s a ton of fun to play and it has an enormous sea of dedicated fans out there. What makes it appeal so much to me, personally, is the way a player really puts their all into a deck. I feel like, unlike other card games like Magic and Yu-Gi-Oh!, you’re almost always going to see close to the entirety of your deck in each game of Pokémon, so every card really counts.

I hope this article inspires at least one person to try their hand at playing this game seriously, as it has provided me with some of the best experiences of my life. There are no limitations on who can play Pokémon, and it has probably the most diverse and welcoming community of any collectible card game.

So what are you waiting for? To quote the great Professor Oak himself: Your very own Pokémon legend is about to unfold! A world of dreams and adventures with Pokémon awaits! Let’s go!

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Alex Hawrylyshyn
Author: Alex Hawrylyshyn View all posts by
Alex is a programming student and fan of all things gaming. From tabletop to the electronic variety, he loves to play and learn about them all. He's been a Pokemon fan since 1999 and has competed in major events for the TCG and the video games.

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