So, How Does Pokemon Play?
Pokemon: TCG is based around the fighting element of its digital counterpart. Two ‘trainers’ pitch their roster of pokemon against other and the winner is the first to either claim six prize cards, knock out all of their opponents pokemon or reduce their draw pile to zero. Unlike Magic or Yu Gi Oh!, players do not have hit points and victory is based around keeping your combatants on the field (for the most part) rather than using them as some kind of meat shield for your precious self.
Play begins with a coin toss. The winner decides who goes first – first place cannot attack or play trainer cards (more on that later), which means that, though they do get first chance to set up, they don’t have it all their way. Each trainer then draws seven cards from a deck of 60. Each trainer must place one pokemon in the active position (face down) up front and can place up to five pokemon on their bench (also face down), though there are certain conditions where this might be increased or decreased.
The trainer’s starting pokemon must be a ‘basic’ (there are exceptions to this rule, depending on a pokemon’s ‘abilities’) – if a trainer has no basic pokemon, they declare a ‘mulligan’ and their opponent is offered the opportunity to draw an extra card from their deck (as long as they have placed a starter pokemon) after they have placed their 6 prize cards. Once both trainers have a starter pokemon and have laid out their six prize cards, trainers shake hands (very important – this is a friendly game after all (ha)) and play begins.
A trainer’s turn has a number of phases that are possible, but always begins with a card being drawn from their deck. There are three different types of card that can be in a trainer’s deck: the first, pokemon (pokemen? Pokemons?), are not optional – these are your trained battle beasts that come in 11 different categories (probably best not to think about the implications of training often cute little critters to fight each other) and without them, you haven’t got a game; secondly, energy, which come in (currently) nine flavours and various special varieties (I say ‘currently’ as fairy type pokemon are no longer being featured in the card game – last in, first out) and are usually essential to any deck as these are used to charge up your pokemon (I say ‘usually essential’, but as outlined in part one, there are exceptions).
Finally, there are supporter cards, which can be trainers, items, tools or stadiums, incredibly useful cards but probably the least essential of the three types (it is rare to find a deck without them, but then again…). Once a card has been drawn, the trainer has a number of actions they can do in their chosen order.
First, they can attach one standard or special energy, if they have one. Almost every pokemon will have at least one attack with an energy cost going from zero upwards. Once the energy cost has been attached, the attack and its effects can be used if the pokemon is in the active position. Energy costs can be whatever, but more often than not are of a type (fire, water, grass, electric, fighting, psychic, steel, dark or fairy). There are also various special energies which will have other abilities ranging from drawing a card when attached to filling more than one energy slot.
Gotta Train em all!
Next, a trainer can play one trainer card, if they have one. These cards can allow you to draw more cards, switch pokemon, search for pokemon, increase damage, heal damage… there are plenty to choose from, but in most instances you can only play one. More versatile but less powerful are item cards – you can play as many of these as you like and, like the trainers, can do all that drawing, finding (these are the iconic pokeballs, each with different effects and conditions) and damaging malarkey.
Similar to items are tools, which attach to your pokemon and can give them special effects like reducing damage, increasing damage, removing weaknesses or reducing retreat costs. Retreat costs? Yes, you can retreat your active pokemon for one of your benched pokemon, but it will have an energy cost – you’ll have to discard charged energy from your pokemon to take it out of danger, which considering how long it can take you to charge up an attack can be about as welcome as a piranha in a paddling pool. You can attach as many tools as you like in your turn, but most pokemon can only have one tool attached to them at a time.
The last type of trainer card is the stadium. There can only be one stadium at a time and if there is one in play, a new stadium will knock it out. Okay, so energy, supporters… anything else? More pokemon, of course! In your first turn, you can only play basic pokemon if you have space on your bench, but after the first turn… that’s where your lame looking Larvitar can start looking a bit more interesting. Basic pokemon, if they’ve been out for at least one turn, can evolve into stage one pokemon, which next turn can evolve into stage twos – you need the cards in your hand, but this is what pokemon is all about. Higher stage pokemon have more hit points, more powerful attacks, more abilities and just look cooler (let’s face it – Pikachu may be the poke-poster boy, but it’s Raichu that brings the pain).
Abilities? Yes, abilities. Some abilities activate when the pokemon is in active or on the bench or even in the discard pile, and can have trainer card effects but don’t have to be drawn, which is pretty awesome. Okay, are we ready? Then the last thing you can do, if the attack is charged up, is FIGHT! Most of the time, this will be doing damage to your opponent’s active pokemon, but that might just be the start of it.
Attacks (and tools, items and trainers) can put special conditions on your/your opponent’s pokemon: a poisoned pokemon takes 10 damage between turns until cured or retreated; a confused pokemon must flip a coin before attacking and on a tails will take 30 damage; a burned pokemon will take 20 damage between turns, but on the flip of a heads (taken between turns) will not be burned; a sleeping pokemon will be unable to attack until a heads is flipped (taken between turns); and a paralysed pokemon is… well, paralysed for a turn.
Different pokemon can also be weak or resistant to each other ie. Fire is weak to water, water is weak to grass/electric – this is the scissors/paper/stone element of the game. Weak pokemon will take double damage, resistant will have damage reduced by 20 or 30. After all damage has been applied, if the pokemon is still alive, play passes to the other trainer. If damage exceeds HP, the pokemon is KO’d, you take a number of prize cards (depending on the pokemon) and your opponent puts another pokemon into the active. If there are no more pokemon to put into active, no more prize cards left or no more cards for your opponent to draw, you have won, otherwise… you play until one of those things happens.
And that’s about it – happy playing and… let’s keep things relatively friendly…