How to Play the Pokémon Trading Card Game (for Dummies)
So you have the Pokémon cards and now you want to know what to do with them. In this article, I'll show you in a colorful, captivating way how to play the Trading Card Game (TCG), and I promise not to drone on and bore you!
Anyway, today you will learn the following:
- what types of cards exist,
- how each card type works,
- the rules for the game,
- how the game is played and won,
- the different symbols and what they mean, and
- what cards are allowed.
Pokémon, Energy, and Trainer Cards
In this card game, two players act as Pokémon trainers, using the creatures in their deck to battle one another. Each player has their own deck, each deck should have 60 cards, and there should be three different kinds of cards in your deck: Pokémon, Energy, and Trainers. Each is described in detail below. Energy powers attacks, trainers turn the tables, and Pokémon do battle. Each type of card is described in more detail below.
(For information about which cards a legal playing deck contains, scroll down to "Legal Deck of Pokémon Cards.")
Each card has a name, a type, and an amount of health points (HP). Players play these cards on the field and use that creature's attacks to reduce the opponent's HP. When a Pokémon's HP is reduced to 0, it is knocked out and the player who knocked it out takes a prize card into their hand. To start the game, both players place a Basic Pokémon in the active position on the playing field. There are many types of Pokémon:
Types of Pokémon
- Normal (colorless)
There are also different stages and Pokémon card types. They are:
Pokémon Stages and Card Types
- Stage 1
- Stage 2
- Lvl X
- Gym and Team Types
Each Pokémon type has specific specialties and weakness. EX, for instance, are generally stronger but the strength could cost you if knocked out opponent takes two prize cards instead of one. Legend cards require both parts to fully use and usually those can be hard to obtain.
The types of Pokémon cards are baby, basic, evolved, and secret/rare:
Introduced in Neo Genesis, baby Pokémon are a special kind of basic Pokémon which are sometimes endowed with a Poké-Power called "Baby Evolution." Baby Pokémon have low HP but their attacks have strange and sometimes powerful effects. Plus, babies with kick ability can evolve into the basic Pokémon specified on the card. When a baby evolves, that basic Pokémon counts as an evolved Pokémon (in other words, babies can evolve extra fast and have special powers).
Basic Pokémon are those that haven't evolved and can be played directly onto the bench. Each deck must have at least one basic to be considered legal.
As a Pokémon evolves, it gets stronger and gains HP and can use energy more effectively. An evolved Pokémon cannot usually be placed directly onto the field; they can only be played on their corresponding basic/unevolved Pokémon. Stage 1 Pokémon evolve from basic Pokémon, and Stage 2 Pokémon evolve from Stage 1 Pokémon: a Stage 2 Pokémon can only be played on its Stage 1 equivalent.
Secret, Rare Pokémon
Secret, Rare Pokémon cards are few and far between. These cards include Pokémon EX, X, Gold Star (cards with a gold star after the name, also known as Shiny Pokémon), Prime, Full Art, Legend, etc.
Basic, evolved, and baby cards have appeared in many sets. You can usually tell a card's evolutionary status by looking for the word that comes before or after the Pokémon's name.
Basic Energy Cards
Most attacks and retreats require energy, which comes in the form of a card, although an occasional Pokémon may have an attack that doesn't require an energy card to unlock it. There are nine different basic energy types:
- Steel/Metal (darkness and steel became basic energy types after Diamond & Pearl; before Generation IV, they were classified as physical)
- Fairy (introduced in Generation VI)
In addition, you may find:
- Colorless (the "wild card" of Pokémon energies, represented by a six-pointed star)
Note: Dragon energy does not exist, even though they are a kind of Pokémon. Instead, dragon-type Pokémon use many different energies as an attack requirement.
There are two types of energy cards: basic and special. Basic energy cards only provide one energy of the specified type, while special energy cards have additional benefits and varying capabilities. The amount of basic energy cards allowed in a playing deck is unrestricted, but there is a restriction of 4 special energy cards per deck.
Each Pokémon requires a certain type and amount of energy in order to attack. That type and amount of energy must be played along with (on top of) that Pokémon. (The exception for this rule is if the attack has a colorless energy requirement: that requirement can be met by any energy card.)
Think of colorless energy as the "wild card." Colorless energy is neither basic nor special and can be used to represent any energy. The exception to this is double colorless energy (released as the first special energy in the base set) which can only count as colorless energy but provides two energies at a time.
To list all of the special energies would take hours and waste space and lose your attention, especially if you don't even know the rules of the game yet, so I'm just going to do a basic cover. Special energies allow for special effects. For example, Rainbow Energy (pictured) can be whatever type you want. (Here's a full list of special energies and abilities.)
While Pokémon cards do the direct attacking and energy cards power those attacks (and retreats), trainers provide a supportive role by allowing a player to draw cards from their deck or use other special effects.
The four types of trainers (as of Black and White Generation V) are:
- Trainers (aka Trainer Items): Most trainer cards are item cards which are discarded after the player performs the directions described on the card; you can use as many of these as you want per turn. Their actions are usually applied to the Pokémon on the field but not to the unplayed cards in your deck.
- Trainer: Supporter Cards: These are more powerful than basic trainer items, effect the deck directly, and can only be used once per turn. For example, a supporter card might allow a player to choose and play any card of the player's choice from their deck.
- Trainer: Stadium: Stadium cards throw new affects on the field, oftentimes changing the game in odd ways. It might help for you to understand these cards if you think of them as game-changers that temporarily move the entire game to a different stadium. Unlike other trainer cards, once played, a stadium card stays on the field and affects both players until another stadium card is played or something else causes that stadium card to be discarded.
- Pokémon Tools: Often used to boost the power of basic Pokémon, these cards can turn the tables easily. They represent tools, weapons, or objects that Pokémon can carry around and use at will. The card specifies which Pokémon can use the tool and a Pokémon may not hold more than one tool at a time. Some tools can be used until that Pokémon gets knocked out, but other tools are discarded after specific conditions are met.
- Technical Machines (TMs): Like tools only instead of random effects, TMs give the Pokémon new and sometimes stronger attacks. Like tools, TMs either stay with the Pokémon until it gets knocked out or get discarded when a certain condition is met.
- Ace Spec Cards: Because of their power, only one of these cards is allowed in the player's deck. These cards give big boosts, like letting a player search her deck for any card she wants or giving certain Pokémon more attack power.
Translating a Pokémon Card
Okay, so let's break this bad boy down and see what a Pokémon card holds.
The top left of the card is usually where the creature's name is listed, maybe followed by its level (LV.#) and below, its evolutionary stage is shown.
The card type and HP or health points are usually listed here. During an attack, a Pokémon suffers losses to their HP. Once the HP hits 0, the Pokémon faints and loses the battle.
The middle of the card is where the attack capabilities are described, along with its Poké-Powers or abilities, which can be used whenever the requirements are fulfilled to play that card. Usually, these cards help toss-up the game by making the bench untouchable or healing Pokémon in between turns or even making your opponent discard. These effects can be nasty.
This area of the card is also where you'll find the energy cost needed to make the attack, the attack's effect, and what is required to use the attack. Attacks usually require energy except in cases where the energy area is a hollowed-out circle then there is no energy requirement. ("Extrasensory" attack requires two psychic energies and does 20+ damage based on hand.)
The bottom of the card is where the Pokémon is described, including its weakness, resistance, retreat cost, and any other conditions required to play the Pokémon. The card will say to which types this Pokémon is particularly resistant (strong) or weak. Weakness is played slightly differently than in the Game boy games, where if you used a weak attack it did double damage.
Now, in the TCG, if the Pokémon type (shown in top right corner) is the type that the opponent's battling card is weak against, an attack does anywhere from +10 to double damage. For example, if weakness is +20, a psychic attack originally doing 30 damage would do 50 instead. (See the attached video for another explanation.) Resistance is the opposite of weakness so it lowers the amount of damage done. The retreat cost is the cost it will take to switch your active Pokémon with one from your bench. The energy attached to the Pokémon will be discarded with its retreat.
How to Tally Damage and Health Points (HP)
When an active Pokémon attacks, the card may specify an amount of damage to be done to (HP to be subtracted from) the Pokémon being attacked. Remember, the amount of damage done by attacks is also affected by the weakness or resistance of the Pokémon being attacked.
So you don't lose track of what's going on, this damage is tallied up with damage counters. You can use anything to represent damage: coins, rocks, sticks, pieces of candy, whatever. Each piece represents -10 points of damage. After the attack, figure out how much damage was inflicted and place that many damage counters on the damaged Pokémon. When the damage adds up to the amount of HP assigned to that Pokémon, then it is knocked out of the game.
For example, a Pokémon with 120 health points is attacked and suffers -80 points of damage: pile 8 damage counters on the card. In the next round, that an additional -40 points of damage are incurred: add 4 counters. Now that card has twelve damage counters piled on it and 12 counters=120 HP, so it would be knocked out. Dice are sometimes used to indicate damage: if a Pokémon had a die with the 5 side up, it would have -50 points of damage.
Legal Deck of Pokémon Cards
You can buy a ready-made deck or build your own. If you buy one it will already conform to the rules, but if you do it yourself, you must make sure your deck fulfills the following requirements:
- Your deck must contain 60 cards exactly; no more, no less.
- You can include as many basic energy cards as you want.
- With the exception of basic energy cards, you must NOT have more than four of each card or more than four of one Pokémon (even if they are different cards. Pokémon are considered the same if they have the same name printed on the card. It doesn't matter if they have different pictures/text/set symbols). This four-card limit also applies to special energy cards and Trainers/Supporters/Stadiums.
- Novelty cards—like ones sold as "not tournament legal" or World Championship cards—are not allowed.
- Foreign cards are fun to trade and collect but you can't include them in your playing deck.
Personal Tip: To balance out your deck, try to have at least 20 energies and a good set of 15-20 Pokémon, basic and evolved. By the way, if you buy a pre-constructed deck, it should come with a play mat. These help you learn how to set up the game when you are first learning.
How to Set Up the Game: A Tour of the Stadium
- On the left side is your prize card area. You should begin with six random face-down cards that hang out here until you pull one as a reward for a knock out, for example.
- The middle of the field is where stadium cards are waiting for mystical effects to trigger.
- The front row of the field (closest to your opponent) is where your active Pokémon resides. Here is where you can pull off attacks.
- The back row (closest to you) is where your benched Pokémon hang out, waiting for their turn to shine.
- Top right is where your deck is waiting for that next big shuffle or draw.
- The middle bottom is your discard pile, also known as the lost zone, where Pokémon and other cards are lost forever. Q_Q
Like I said before, if you buy a pre-constructed deck, it should come with a play mat to make this layout easy to remember. The mat is helpful when you are first learning but later, you may not need to use it anymore.
Game Rules: Step-by-Step
If you've ever seen the show, you have an idea of how it works: in this two-person game, players pose as Pokémon trainers, using their Pokémon to battle one another. Players play Pokémon on the field and apply their attacks to reduce the opponent's HP. When a Pokémon's HP hits zero, it is "knocked out" and the player who wins that round gets to add a prize card to their hand.
Step One: Each player must have a full, legal deck. First, each player shuffles their cards and randomly draws seven. These seven cards are your "hand." Both players must then check their hand to make sure they have at least one basic Pokémon—if not, they have to "mulligan," which is when the player has to reshuffle his or her hand with their deck and draw seven new cards. The downside of a "mulligan" is that the opponent gets to draw an additional card. Mulligan repeats until both players have at least one basic Pokémon for the battle. (Remember, it should say "basic" right above the Pokémon's name.)
Step Two: (For this step, refer to the illustration of the playing stadium.) When both players have at least one basic card in their hands, they both play one basic Pokémon to their playing field, face-down in the active spot. This is their first "active" or battling Pokémon. If you have more basic Pokémon in your hand, you can place up to five face-down on your "bench." (This bench works sort of like the bench in baseball, where the next batter/battler waits their turn.)
Step Three: Players then take six cards randomly from their remaining deck and put them to the side, face-down, as prize cards (these cards are prizes you'll be able to retrieve later on when you knock out your opponent's Pokémon, for example). Note: You do not get to select prize cards, you just take the top six off your deck; this adds a gamble as those six could be rare Pokémon or the much-needed energy you'll need to attack. When you're just learning how to play the game, it might be helpful to leave these prizes face-up so you can plan and choose more wisely. The rest of your deck should be on the side, face-down in a stack.
Step Four: Flip a coin to see who goes first.
Step Five: Turn your active basic card and your benched Pokémon over, face-up, so you can see which Pokémon is battling and who's next in line. The person who won the coin toss gets to go first. Begin by taking the top card off your deck and adding it to your hand. Players may search through their hand and take several different actions during their turn, including putting new basic Pokémon on the bench, evolving a Pokémon that was played on a previous turn into a higher-level Pokémon, playing trainer cards, using non-attack abilities, retreating their active Pokémon, and using the correct energy card to unlock their active Pokémon's power.
During the first turn, evolutions cannot happen, since you must wait at least one turn after a card is played to begin evolution. Remember, only one Pokémon is active and can attack at a time and can only attack if the needed amount and type of energy is played (the card is pulled from your hand and slid under the Pokémon). Repercussions and damage can be inflicted upon the defending Pokémon (although some attacks affect the game but not the other Pokémon). (Note: you will need to be using some way of tallying up and keeping track of the damage.)
If the damage exceeds the defending Pokémon's HP and leaves them with 0 HP, it is "knocked out" (i.e. discarded along with any attached cards) and the active player takes a prize card (from their own pile) and ends their turn. During one turn, only one energy card can be played, and only one attack can be made.
Step Six: The other player's turn to do anything described above.
Discards: As you're playing, using cards, and winning battles, some cards will be discarded and put into a pile on the side, separate from your deck.
Additional Rules to Remember
- Whenever a card's text overrides the game rules, the card's words take precedence. For example, although the rules say that a player can only play one energy card per turn, several Pokémon allow additional energy to be played if that card is in play. In those cases, special exceptions are made.
- You can only set down one energy card per turn but you can put energy on benched Pokémon to prep up for future attacks.
- Trainers, like potions, can affect benched and non-benched Pokémon.
- Evolving can begin one turn after the Pokémon was played from the deck and Pokémon can only evolve to the next stage. Both benched and active Pokémon can evolve.
- Pokémon attacks can only affect the active Pokémon (unless the card states that the player chooses a Pokémon or picks a benched Pokémon). So the majority of the time, only an active Pokémon can be affected by an attack.
- When a Pokémon is knocked out, any energy cards attached to it go into the discard pile.
- When a Pokémon evolves, that evolution clears up any handicaps it might be suffering, but its damage points remain the same.
How to Win
You can win the game in several ways: if you collect all of your prize cards (initially six, but some cards can increase this number), if your opponent runs out of Pokémon on the field, or if your opponent has no more cards left to draw from their deck at the beginning of their turn.
How to win:
- Your opponent runs out of cards to draw, or
- You claim all your prize cards, or
- You knock out all your opponent's active Pokémon with no benched to bring out, or
- Your opponent concedes (they give up, in other words).
Modified vs. Unlimited Tournament Styles
Now to quickly glance over the two different tournament styles (this information is probably irrelevant to the beginner):
- Modified is the most common tournament style, run using only the latest sets in a series. These tournaments are much more expensive to keep up with as you must constantly buy new cards to play the game.
- Unlimited is rarer but run with a no-barred limit. In other words, old cards and new cards alike can be played with older Trainers following the newer rules. This is the syle most casual players prefer, as less money is needed to play.
Feel Free to Leave a Comment Below
I hope you guys enjoyed this article and hope it helps. If you want more help, you can find a hands-on tutorial at the trainer challenge, and if you have any questions, leave a comment below.
Enjoy, comment, tell me what I can fix, and stay tuned for more articles by me.