And You Thought Astral Radiance Had It Bad…
It has been said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing multiple times and expecting different results. Now, far be it from me to cast aspersions on the corporate behemoth that is The Pokemon Company, but I’m detecting a theme that may suggest that someone in the high-ups may have lost contact with the every-day TCG collector/player. Last year, Astral Radiance was released in August and possessed quite a few decent cards that have made their way to the lofty heights of the championship meta – I’m looking at you, Palkia VSTAR. The celebrations of its arrival had hardly ended, however, before the arrival of the Pokemon Go! set and, all of a sudden, Astral Radiance was dropped like it was no longer hot. Why? Charizard. Or to be accurate, Radiant Charizard and a new Stage 2 Charizard. Forget all the potential of Palkia and Dialga, they’re not Charizard, one of the most beloved - and controversially over-rated – Pokemon ever. And thus, Astral Radiance was somewhat eclipsed, to put it mildly.
Now, The Pokemon Company wouldn’t do this twice, would they? Would they?
Obsidian Flames is the third set from Scarlet and Violet and is the first set to be released in the west and Japan at the same time (the Japanese set is called Ruler of the Black Flame), though the two sets are not quite the same. The Japanese set contains 141 cards, 108 standard and 33 special rares, whereas the western set contains 230, 197 standard and 33 special rares. The reason for this difference is that Obsidian flames is not just Obsidian Flames. It also contains cards that were left over from Triplet Beat, Snow Hazard and Clay Burst and not included in Paldea Evolved, plus the cards from the ex Special and ex Starter sets. Quite a lot of catch up; quite a lot of ‘did we really need that card?’
Let’s Get This Over With…
So it is clear that the poster boy for this set is Tera Charizard and truth be told… it is almost entirely justified. Obsidian Flames sees the arrival of different ‘typed’ Pokemon – for example, a Pokemon that is usually water might be shifted to fire – and Tera Charizard, for the first time in a long time, is a darkness type, not a fire type. That fear of water-based meta decks? Yeah, that’s not so scary now.
So we have a Charizard ex that is not weak to water – is it any good? Potentially, yes. As Pokemon slooooooowly returns to a format where stage 2 Pokemon are viable again, this card is not bad at all. First off, it has an ability that allows you to search for three basic fire energy and attach them to your Pokemon in any way you like when they evolve - energy acceleration is always decent. Then its attack, for two fire energy, does 180 plus 30 for every prize card your opponent has taken, and with it being a darkness type, that is more than enough to take down a Mew VMAX or Gardevoir ex. Of course, being a darkness type does mean that grass-type pokemon might be viable again… Torterra deck on standby, sir. Pokemon have also leaned quite heavily into the Charizard theme here and there are no less than four different Charizard exs you can pull from this set – standard, full art, gold and the Special Art Rare (the oven-ready Charizard, as I like to think of it, because it looks like it is wrapped in tin foil).
The other Tera Pokemon ex aren’t quite as front-and-centre as Charizard, but do have their own potential. Tyranitar ex is now a lightning type, though it still uses fighting energy (the type may have changed but the song remains the same). For one fighting energy and two cards from the top of your deck it will do 120 damage, and for two fighting energy it will do 150 damage, plus 100 if any of the bench are damaged (wait a mo, isn’t there a Lucario that damages itself when it charges up? Hmmm?) – could be a nice Palkia killer and has enough oomph to take down a Chien-Pao. Vespiquen ex also gets a Tera, here a psychic type, which for three grass does 200 to active and puts three damage counters on every other damaged Pokemon on your opponent’s bench. Yeah, I like that. Dragonite ex also gets a tera but is still a dragon type, needs a water and lightning to do its big attack and can do 140 plus 140 on a coin flip or not attack next time. A bit too uncertain for my liking, but this is coming from the guy who wanted to make a Wugtrio deck…
There is also a Tera Greedent ex, still normal type but with a good draw attack that allows you to take the top three cards or dump them for another three, and Tera Eiscue ex, normally water type, now fire, which is nice to look at but as daft as a goldfish that is weak to water. Oh hi, Chi-Yu, we were just talking about you…
The Other Big Hitters
Because this set contains all the exs from the Starter and Special ex sets AND Ruler of the Black Flame, there are quite a lot of ex cards in this set, fifteen in fact.
Many of them, because they come from the Starters and Special sets, are not exactly going to set the world on fire – there are new Miraidon and Koraidon ex cards that aren’t quite as good as the base set ones (though the Miraidon has free retreat and energy acceleration and Koraidon has spread damage), there’s a no-nonsense Victini ex card and a Houndstone that ain’t nothing but a Houndstone… cryin’ all the time… actually, it’s a beefier version of the base set card that now does 160 plus ten for each psychic Pokemon in your discard pile (with Mewtwo V-Union counting, controversially, as four separate Pokemon, this could be interesting). Pawmot and Decidueye get Stage 2 exs too, and both have bench-snipe potential – Pawmot can discard two lightning energy from itself and do 220 damage anywhere, which could be good if tricky to set up, and Decidueye has an ability that gives it free switch and a one grass two colourless attack that does 130 to active and 30 to bench. You know what? These might not be bad. There is also Toedscruel ex, which has an ability that protects all your benched Pokemon that have energy attached to them and a two-grass energy attack that does 80 plus 40 for each benched Pokemon that has grass attached to it. My Torterra deck definitely needs this.
There are also some interesting exs that are new to everyone and might be good. Like United Wings. If we get some more birds, POKEMON! Ahem, sorry about that. Yes, these are ‘the ones you should not sleep on but the jury is still out on them’. Catchy, eh?
First up is Absol ex, that has possible late game potential and pairs nicely with Charizard (or a nice Zinfandel… one for the parents there. Please drink responsibly). The first attack for one darkness energy allows you to look at the top three cards of either player’s deck and rearrange them - great for stacking your deck or trolling your desperate, handless opponent after a nasty Iona-ing incident. The second for two dark and one colourless is Cursed Slug (all slugs are cursed with being slugs), which does 100 damage, but 120 more if your opponent has three or less cards in hand – great for trolling your opponent after a nasty Iona-ing incident (BTW, Iona is a card that makes both players shuffle their hand into their deck and draw as many cards as the have price cards remaining. You’re welcome). Potential? With dark patch? Yeah, I’ll bite.
New kid Revavroom gets its first ex and it’s an odd one. It might be good but… not yet. It has an attack that does 170 for two metal and a colourless and takes 30 less next turn. Meh. But it also has an ability that allows you to attach up to four tools to it. That could be very interesting indeed. Now this all very much depends on what tools get released in the next lot of sets, but a lot can happen in two years – for instance, who would have thought Mew VMAX would have done so well? Apart from everyone…
Another new kid getting their first ex is Glimmora, the poisonous flying blue flower Pokemon – look, the last ex we looked at was literally a drooling engine, so all bets are off. This does 140 poison for two fighting energy, but it’s ability… not nice. Whilst in active, it reduces your opponent’s bench to three. There is also a Sunrock and Lunatone pairing in this set that turns off stadium effects for that player, so, I dunno, drop Path to the Peak and watch chaos ensue? Especially on those fighting-weak electric decks that need all those bench spaces to work…
And finally, an oldie but potentially a goodie. Pidgeot has returned in the form of… Pidgeot ex! Back in the day, Pidgeot had an ability that allowed you to search out any card from your deck, once a turn – and here it is again, only a bit more durable. It also has an attack that does 120 and removes stadiums (great for getting rid of Path to the Peak) for two energy and free retreat, which is always handy for thinking space. It is still a stage two, though, but still… lots of potential.
Nothing But Nerf…
Now this is traditionally the point in the review where I say ‘that’s the big boys, but it’s not all about the big boys’. Well. Erm. This is going to be tricky.
Obsidian has no Special Energy; only one item card; two stadiums; two tools and only five out of seven new supporters, and one of the reprints just makes no sense at all as it is an insult to the trees that died to make it.
There are also only nine holo rares; to put this into context, Paldea Evolved had 23.
Pokemon, I love you, but sometimes you make it so gosh darn hard.
There are some cards of interest though. For a start, we see the return of the baby-mon – Cleffa and Bonsly! Bonsly was last seen in Diamond and Pearl, over 15 years ago, whereas Cleffa appeared more recently in Unbroken Bonds, but is has been a while for both. They both have a zero-retreat cost, are weak as and have a free attack. Bonsly does 10 damage and confuse, which is not all that but free, but Cleffa allows you to draw up to seven cards. Not bad at all, but very Judge/Iona-able. There is also a very beautiful Cleffa Art Rare, which means a slim win for Cleffa.
With regards to the other Pokemon, the uncommons and commons are a bit so-so, but there are a couple that could be interesting – Seismitoad and Kingambit. Both are stage 2, which is still tricky but doable, and but Seismatoad has an ability that increases your opponent’s attack cost by one energy IF it is in the active slot. That’s annoying, isn’t it, Lost Box? It also has an attack that does 120 for two water energy but will do 100 more if used again. Very specific but possible. Kingambit has a one metal energy attack that will KO any active Pokemon that has four or more damage counters on it. Again, totally specific but possibly utterly devastating.
There are also a couple of potentially interesting holo rares. The Entei reduces attacks to all Pokemon by 20 whilst in active (always with the active, Obsidian Flames!) and needs three energy to charge up but will do 60 plus 20 for each fire energy attached – this could work very well with Dark Charizard and the baby Charizard from Pokemon Go that doubles fire energy (reader, it does work pretty well). Togekiss has free retreat and also has an ability that allows you to draw up to eight cards after you attack – it is a stage 2 and weak to Iona/Judge though. Toxtricity appeals to my love of jank as it can do 50 plus 30 for each different type on your deck for just a lightning and colourless – I am tempted to put this in a Ho-oh/Grafaiai deck just for fun. And then there is the new Scizor, which also stacks quite nicely. For one metal energy it does ten damage, plus 50 for every one of your opponent’s Pokemon that has an ability. And a lot of decks have abilities. Like Mew VMAX and Gardevoir. Mmmm. There are also the ‘is that design on Porpoise?’ Pokemons, Finizen and Palafin (Palafin is a dolphin with hands and kinda reminds me of the Pathetic Sharks from Viz). Palafin has two attacks, one for one water energy that does 30 to active, 30 to bench, and one for two water energy that does 210 damage but only if it moved from the bench on your turn. I can see people falling over themselves to make this work, but… I don’t know? Maybe?
There are a couple of interesting Supporter cards, though they have been restricted – I think that Pokemon have learned their lesson from when they threw so many broken cards at Mew VMAX. It’s taken a while though.
Geeta is the only holo rare Supporter and allows you to attach two basic energy from your deck to one of your Pokemon. Which is great. Only problem is that on that turn you can’t attack. Awkward. Compare this to Elisa’s Sparkle, which attaches two Fusion Strike energy to two Pokemon and doesn’t stop attacks. Specific but better. Ryme is also a decent card that could be better. It allows you to draw three cards, then switch out your opponent’s Pokemon, but they get to choose the new active. If YOU could choose, this would become a bigger staple than Boss’s Orders, but would be too powerful. Finally, Poppy allows you to move up to two energy from one Pokemon to another. This could be great for rescuing energy from Pokemon that are about to go down, but it could have been more than one energy. The nerf on these cards is rael.
Arven and Team Star Grunt also get reprints as one of the best and worst Supporter cards from Scarlet and Violet so far (I’ll let you decide which), and there are Ortega, which allows you to put a card from your opponent’s hand on the bottom of their deck and draw another card… say what? And Brassius, which allows you to draw shuffle your cards into your hand and draw that number of cards plus one – basically what you had before you played Brassius. Is it me? Ah well, still better than Riley.
As said, there is only one item card, but it is nerfed to whatsit. Letter of Encouragement allows you to search your deck for three basic energy cards and put them in them in your hand, but only if your active Pokemon was knocked out last turn. It’s basically Professor’s Letter, but not as good. The thing is… do we need this? Tera Charizard gets stronger the more cards you have knocked out, but it accelerates its own energy; Chien Pao can get energy, it just needs to get it back from the discard pile afterwards. I’m sorry, but I just don’t see any point to this card, but please, prove me wrong.
The two tools are a bit more interesting and could find their way into some cheeky rogue decks. Patrol Cap stops your opponent from discarding cards from your deck when it is attached to your active Pokemon, which will be nice for shutting down all those Wugtrio decks out there (see? More sarcasm – this is on you, Pokemon) or just protecting your precious deck from milling. Vengeful Punch puts four damage tokens on your opponent’s active Pokemon if the defending Pokemon is KO’d, which could be potentially devasting if paired up with Lycanroc from Paldea Evolved (it already does 100 knockback damage as part of its second attack – 140 would be bonkers) or the Stunfisk from this that does 50 knockback damage if it has a tool attached to it. Or the Glimmora from the last set, which has a 50/50 chance of not giving up a prize card when KO’d. You only need to know one thing – where it is.
Which brings me to the two stadiums in this set – Town Store and Pokemon League Headquarters. Town Store allows players to search their deck for a tool on their turn – great for the above play but also for Oinkologne ex decks that need Full Face Guard… could also go in my Wailord deck… hmmm. Then there is Pokemon League Headquarters, which makes the attacks of basic Pokemon for both players cost one more energy. This is specifically for annoying players who put Sableye in their Lost Box decks and… that’s about it. And that’s about it.
Cash Or Pass?
Obsidian Flames has issues. Don’t get me wrong – there are some very decent cards in here with a lot of potential and a potentially game-changing card, but the ‘one set plus leftovers’ means that there are problems. Problems that appeared in previous sets but are amplified tenfold here, or at least two-and-a-half-fold.
It’s first problem is that it is the victim of good intentions on the part of Pokemon. Getting the same set in the UK at the same time as Japan is pretty cool and indeed a first, but it is not quite the same set, and suffers in the same way that Crown Zenith suffered for me – we didn’t get VSTAR Universe, we got the cards from VSTAR Universe in lesser frequency and a load of landfill. This is not as bad as that, but we do get at least one broken evolution line (Froakie and Frogadier but no Greninja ex) because they want to release Greninja ex as a Battle Deck exclusive. There are less full art cards because of this, less illustration arts, less… cool stuff, bro. It also means that the rare pull rates are completely topsy turvy, which was present in Paldea Evolved but here sticks out like a polar bear in a coal field – I have pulled a full playset of Scizor, a holo rare, and only opened 14 packs; I am yet to pull a single Vengeful Punch, an uncommon. Please understand, I love the fact that the non-holo rares have gone and each pack guarantees a holo, but only having nine holo rares in a set is just ridiculous.
Next, it leans too heavily into its poster boy, though the Charizard is undeniably a very good card and has meta-changing potential – I am enjoying playing it on PTCGL so much that I am tempted to build it IRL. Look at me – embracing the meta! With there being four Charizards, it does have a quite high pull rate, but it will still be a not cheap card to buy as a single, and it does mean the other cards suffer – there are some good exs in there but, as said before, they’re not Charizard. And there should be more to Pokemon than just Charizard.
But the biggest, most heinous issue that Obsidian Flames has is that it has been released too close to Pokemon 151, a set so hyped that you had to employ a psychic just to get a pre-order of the six-pack bundle. Even Pokemon themselves have realised that it has been released too close. Case in point: the Elite Trainer Box, which has a very, very nice Charmander promo, usually has unique flipping and damage dice. Here, the flipping dice is different, but the damage dice are the same as Paldea Evolved. Now this may be what they do now, only time and the next set will tell, but it looks like an afterthought to me.
I want to go with a positive though. A new set is a new set and this will definitely shake up the meta and also cement the fact that stage 2s are back. It is a shame that it will be the abandoned middle-child that writes a damning autobiography about its treatment by Pokemon in ten years’ time; it is a pity it wasn’t out in time for Worlds and that Worlds was won by a three-year-old deck – Charizard could have been king. But in a way, maybe it is a king.
Hail to the king, baby.