How to Play… Pokemon The Trading Card Game
Remember the nineties? Britpop? Tamagotchi? The fall of the Berlin Wall? No? Well… err… neither do I but… um… probably for different reasons. Yeah. As well as these things lost to the past which occasionally rear their hoary crests through one media or another, the nineties also saw the birth of a cute little RPG/collect-em-up on the cute little Nintendo Gameboy and for some reason the world went a little bit obsessed over it, catapulting a little know yellow lightning rat and his red-cap wearing trainer to stardom. Yes, Digimon was here to stay… aha, psyche. I’m talking about Pokemon, with its tantalising lure of trying to catch ‘em all.
That was 1996, and here we are, 24 years and 20 games later, still trying to catch ‘em all, and though the technology has developed somewhat, the game has remained a handheld portable affair, albeit one that can also be played on a bigger screen too, with the advent of Pokemon: Sword and Pokemon: Shield on the Nintendo Switch. That’s all very well and good, but this is all about the boards, dice and cards, isn’t it? Fair dos, so let me take you back to good old 1996, the year that brought us Pokemon: The Trading Card Game.
Gotta Catch... at Least Some
3 years prior to this, Richard Garfield had thought ‘hey, what if we turned Dungeons and Dragons into a card game?” and Wizards of the Coast had thought “This might have legs; solid gold legs” (not actual words) and Magic: The Gathering, the first trading card game was born and lo, the geek pound/dollar was squeezed worldwide.
Whatever your feelings about the MTG phenomena (and I know a fair few who had to twelve-step their way out of this little hobby), it certainly proved that the business model worked, and Media Factory, the Japanese company who first published Pokemon: TCG wanted in. “We can totally help with that, dudes” said Wizards of the Coast (not actual words) and so the card game was born in Japan and America; and lo, a whole new younger group of geeks were willingly separated from their pocket money; parents worldwide were completely bemused, vicious battles were fought in playgrounds for shinies and, when the crime rate took on 60’s east end villain proportions, schools banned them outright. Pretty good start up, all told.
Though a fair number of youngsters in those early days of Pokemon cards saw them as collectables in the same way as Garbage Pail Kids and Panini Football Stickers, there was a fairly robust game behind it, robust enough to weather the storm of changing fashions and tastes and, like Magic The Gathering and Yu Gi Oh!, remains, at its core, pretty much the same game.
Starting Out and Going On
Now that’s the history, but considering its 25-year legacy, where to start with playing? Like with all the long-running TCGs, there’s a lot of history to deal with, cards with near legendary status or sets that have reputations that they carry before them like a bow wave. My advice? Forget about it – you can catch up when and if you feel like it; live in the now.
The best place to start is with a starter deck – each new set of cards, the most recent set in the UK being Pokemon Sword and Shield, will have two or three starter decks, each containing cards from the current and more recent set, and they have everything you need to play, including a playmat, status tokens, damage counters and a flipping coin (a coin for flipping, not a ‘flipping coin’). Each deck will have one or two Pokemon types (for instance, grass and normal or fire and fighting), the necessary energy and a mix of supporter cards.
The mix is usually 20 pokemon, made up of basics and evolutions, 20 supporter cards, items, tools, stadiums and trainers, and 20 energy, which might be one or two types, depending on the deck. There are no fancy EX, GX or V cards in here, but the decks have been designed to ‘work’, so can often be better than your first self-made deck – don’t worry, it’s a trial and error thing that I am still working on myself.
Decking it Out
When it comes to making your first deck, you won’t go far wrong at first if you stick to the starter deck format – 20:20:20. The new cards will come from booster packs, each containing one energy, eight common/uncommon cards, a reverse holo and a rare. The rare is usually a standard rare, but on a rate of about one in four packs, you will get something a bit special – either a holo, an EX/GX/V or some form of full art card. These are usually more collectible or desirable for your decks and the EX/GX/V cards are usually more powerful and stronger cards which look very nice indeed but will result in you giving up more prize cards when they get KO’d.
These are the cards that can really beef up your decks, and will, as you get more into the hobby, be the cards that you build your decks around. There are plenty of places to look at online to get tips on how to make these cards work, which can start to make things a bit more expensive as you chase up those cards online to make a deck just like the ones you’ve been looking at.
You don’t have to do that, though.
The good thing about Pokemon is that you can design decks specifically to confound those Goliath decks, either by locking up their hand (getting them to discard their cards and have only one or two cards to play with), stopping them from charging up their Pokemon or just soaking up the damage for so long that they run out of cards, and these David decks can usually be quite cheap and simple to make – I have a personal favourite deck, the Caterday deck, made up of low HP cats and trainers and NO ENERGY AT ALL – it’s silly and doesn’t always work, but when it does can be hilarious.
Pokemon, I Choose You!
It’s being able to build that sort of deck that makes Pokemon worth playing – silly animals, goofy trainers, tools and items with silly names (I’m using a frying pan… as a drying pan!). It’s fun, and that’s the point – sure, you can take it seriously and get all serious and competitive, but you’re building a deck around something called a Snorlax and filling your deck with buff padding, so quit it with being sanctimonious, okay? There are some seriously pretty cards in there that, even if you don’t get into the game much, are very nice to look at and there’s a whole magpie mythology to explore as well (I’ll leave you to explore that). Pokemon is to Magic as Mario Kart is to Gran Turismo – you may prefer one to the other, but each has its place and… well, who doesn’t love an occasional game of Mario Kart, eh?