Pokemon TCG: the budget Vintage you didn’t know existed

by: Jason Waddell

Last month while honeymooning in Japan, I decided I should extend my day-to-day Japanese cultural intake beyond eating westernized sushi, cuddling Rilakkuma pillows and marathoning episodes of Terrace House (konbanwa, btw). For the first part of the trip I thought that, perhaps, I would end my decade-long anime drought. And I don’t know if it was the plethora of Pikachu-themed vending machine, the Squirtle luggage tag or this statue of Pikachu in a Ho-Oh kimono, but something was pulling me to try the Pokemon TCG.


Scratch that. It was this cute set of sleeves I bought myself.


I had known of the card game since its inception, even dabbled in some trading, but had never actually played a single game of it.

Pokemon TCG has an official Free-To-Play digital version structured to slowly ramp you towards constructed play. You begin with underpowered starter decks against annoyingly forgiving AI opponents, then graduate on to playing Theme decks (think Magic’s retail pre-cons) against human opposition. The theme decks are surprisingly well built, and many of them require creative sequencing to properly utilize.

I started with Tropical Takedown, a five-color deck whose primary game plan is to load the graveyard with energies to fuel its main attacker.


Coming from a Magic background, Pokemon’s card economy is rather surprising. You’ll find most Tier 1 competitive decks run nothing but basic energies, and the most powerful spells in the game are given to you in the aforementioned Theme decks.


Even low power-level decks are loaded with Time Spiral effects and conditional tutors. Moreover, there’s no mana system in Pokemon, so all of these effects can be played on Turn 1. The only real restriction is that only one Supporter card can be played per turn. All told, the Theme deck ladder is quite enjoyable until you climb to high ELO, where nearly every player is queuing up with Relentless Flame, a powerful and innevitable deck with a boring, linear gameplan that is boring to play with or against.

At which point you graduate to Standard.

You can’t actually spend money within the Pokemon TCG client. Instead, in each physical Pokemon card back comes a code for a digital card pack. In practice, the way to build a deck is to buy these card codes from the secondary market for 10-25 cents a pop, then trade them through the in-game marketplace for the cards you need. I dropped about 20 euros to build a slightly stripped-down version of a Tier 1 deck. The format’s annual rotation is coming in a number of days, so I passed on trading for any of the soon-to-be-rotated cards. All told, it’s an inexpensive way to buy into a high-powered constructive format. Turns are explosive with the quality of card draw and card search at your disposal, and although luck plays a part as it does in every card game, the decks themselves require skill-intensive piloting. Often when I lose, I have the feeling that a better player would have been able to maneuver their way to victory, which is a pretty good indicator for a game.


Pokemon TCG’s biggest flaw is its card distribution. Almost the entirety of the card base is useless. I don’t mean that strictly in the sense that ‘very few of the cards are competitively viable’, but that whenever you open any given 10-card pack, from the perspective of having a functional deck-building collection, you might as well throw 8 if not all 10 of those cards in the garbage. In Magic, something like a run-of-the-mill 2/2 for 2 french vanilla creature can at least slot into a deck without being overly embarrassing. But in Pokemon, between the 9 energy types, the hundreds of evolutions and shockingly low power level of most commons relative to other cards, even as a beginner you might not be able to use anything.

My account has a couple thousand cards on it, but when the client assigns me a daily challenge pertaining to Steel Pokemon, I can’t even throw together something that feels like a deck.

This problem was further highlighted when I went to a retail prerelease yesterday. For deckbuilding materials, they give you a build-and-battle kit, consisting of two or three complete pokemon evolution lines (from a selection of 6 or so) and nearly a dozen Trainer cards, and four packs of cards. Since the contents of a random pack of cards are so useless, your deck consists almost entirely of those pre-made evolution lines, preselected Trainer cards and some basic energies. You don’t build a deck so much as you sleeve the deck that they give you.

My build-and-battle kit consisted of premade Water and Fighting evolution lines.  I pulled a Rainbow Rare fighting-type Aerodactyl GX from my packs, and while this should have been exciting, without a Unidentified Fossil in the card pool, there was no way to put it onto the battlefield.

Fortunately, the build-and-battle kits are thoughtfully constructed in a way that ensures the games themselves are fun to play, even if the diversity of cards that you play against (the same premade evolution lines over and over) is non-existent.

Pokemon TCG has fun Theme Deck and competitive Constructed format, but the nature of the card pool is not conducive to enjoyable casual or limited deckbuilding.

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