Chill Clinton is a trading card enthusiast and investor who operates an online trading card store.
So You Want to Play Pokémon TCG?
The explosive interest in collecting Pokémon cards, brought on by a combination of the COVID-19 pandemic, supply chain difficulties, and the influence of popular creators such as Logan Paul, has brought a ton of new Pokémon fans to the hobby in recent years. But only a portion of those who collect the cards play the game, or even know how to play the game.
Today, we're going to break down some of the barriers that prevent new players from trying out the game by getting to just the essential knowledge a "trainer" needs to know in order to play their first Pokémon game.
This quickstart guide will cover:
- The Object of the Game
- Card Types and Rules Around Their Play
- How to Build a Deck
- Organization of the Pokémon Battlefield
- Starting Your First Game
- Phases of a Turn
- Special Conditions
The Object of the Game
If you're familiar with the Pokémon video games or television show, you can probably infer that the object of the game is to defeat your opponent's Pokémon. However, there are several conditions that bring some degree of structure to this.
The scoring system in Pokémon is managed through the "Prize Cards", which are six cards dealt to the side face down from your deck at the start of the game. Each time a player knocks out a Pokémon, they will collect between one and three prize cards into their hand, based on the type of Pokémon they knocked out. Cards such as V, EX, GX, or VMAX cards, which award players additional prize cards for knocking them out, will include a rule box toward the bottom of the card which will tell you how many cards to collect. If you do not see any rule box describing this, you will collect one card.
A player wins when:
- They collect all six of their prize cards.
- They knock out their opponent's active Pokémon, and the opponent has no more Pokémon on their bench to replace the knocked out active Pokémon.
- Their opponent has no more cards remaining in their deck.
Card Types and Rules Around Their Play
In the modern Pokémon trading card game, there are five different classes of cards with specific rules related to their play, and how their use impacts the game.
1. Pokémon Card
A Pokémon card can be used to do battle with other Pokémon and are the primary mechanism for ultimately winning the game. You can tell a card is a Pokémon because its title will feature the name of a Pokémon, the art will primarily feature the image of a Pokémon, and the card will include at least one attack.
Players can have up to six Pokémon in play at any time (one in the active position and up to five on the "bench"), and players can play any number of Pokémon on their turn, though Pokémon cannot be evolved the same turn they are played.
Let's look at Houndoom from SW&SH: Battle Styles to cover some specifics:
Starting in the top left corner we can see that Houndoom is a Stage 1 Pokémon, meaning that it evolves from another Pokémon: Houndour. In the game, this means that you will need to play a Houndour and wait at least one turn before you can "evolve" Houdour into Houndoom, which you will do by playing Houndoom directly on Houndour. However, we will speak more about evolving in the section that covers Phases of a Turn.
In the top right corner, you will see Houndoom's "hit points", or the amount of damage which Houndoom can absorb before being knocked out, which means it will be sent to the discard pile, and the opposing player will collect one prize card as a reward.
Beneath the illustration you can find Houndoom's Ability. Not all Pokémon have Abilities, but if a Pokémon has an Ability, they can use it once per turn before a Pokémon attacks, and can generally use that ability whether the Pokémon is in the active position or not unless the Ability says otherwise. We will talk more about the active position later.
If a Pokémon does not have an Ability, its Attacks will be listed below the illustration. Each Attack will have a cost, shown to the left of the Attack, which is the number of Energy cards you must attach to the Pokémon in order to carry out the attack. To the right of the attack, you will see the amount of damage the attack deals, and in smaller text below the Attack name, you will see details that will impact the strength, conditions, or effects of an Attack.
At the bottom of the card, you will see a Pokémon's Weakness and Resistance to the left of the frame. Most Pokémon have a Weakness but not all have a Resistance, and these factors come into play when calculating how much damage a Pokémon will receive after being attacked.
As you can see, Houndoom has a 2x Weakness against attacks from grass-type Pokémon, so if a grass-type Pokémon attacks Houndoom for 60 damage, Houndoom will actually take 120 damage. As you might imagine, Resistance is the opposite. Although Houndoom doesn't have any Resistance, if we imagine it had -30 resistance against fighting-type attacks, and it would be hit for 60 by a fighting-type Pokémon, Houndoom would only take 30 damage.
At the bottom right of the card, we can see the Pokémon's Retreat cost, which is the amount of energy which a player must discard from Houndoom in order to remove it from the active position during your turn.
2. Energy Cards
Energy cards are used to power up your Pokémons' attacks, and pay retreat costs that allow you to remove your Pokémon from the active position. There are two types of energy cards:
- Basic Energy cards, pictured above, provide either their specific type of energy or "colorless" energy (shown as a white circle with a star in the center).
- Non-Basic Energy cards provide various forms of energy and usually additional effects as well.
A player may play only one Energy card per turn under normal conditions.
3. Item Cards
You will be able to identify a Item card by looking at the top right corner of the card, where you will see the word Item. Every Item card is different and will allow the player who uses it to carry out an action that generally supports their goal of playing and powering up Pokémon. A player is permitted to play an unlimited number of Item cards on their turn before attacking.
An Item card is a sub-type of a Trainer Card, and there is also a sub-category of Item cards called Pokétools, which are items that can be attached to a Pokémon and offer it additional benefits so long as the Pokétool is attached to the Pokémon. Only one Pokétool Item card can be attached to a single Pokémon, and cannot be moved or removed from that Pokémon unless permitted by an effect or Ability.
4. Supporter Cards
Supporter cards, like Item cards, also fall under the umbrella of Trainer cards. However, they differ in how players are allowed to use them. Typically, a Supporter card offers a comparably more powerful effect than an Item card, and so there are more limitations on how players can use them in their turn.
While a player is allowed to play an unlimited number of Item cards per turn, including on the first turn, a player is only allowed to play one Supporter card per turn, and they are not allowed to play a Supporter card on the first turn of the game. However, if you go second, you are allowed to play a Supporter card on your first turn.
5. Stadium Cards
Stadium cards are a third type of Trainer card that players may play one of per turn if able. When played, Stadium cards offer effects that impact, or can be utilized, by both players. Stadium cards remain in play until replaced by a different Stadium card, which can be played by either player during their turn, or is otherwise removed (by an Item or Supporter card for example) from play.
Only one Stadium card can be in play at any time, and when either player plays a Stadium card of a different name, it automatically removes the previous Stadium card from play, and sends it to the discard pile.
How to Build a Deck
A competition-ready Pokémon deck will contain exactly 60 cards. Typically, the breakdown of card-types will be roughly 15-20 Pokémon cards, 20-25 Trainer cards (Items, Supporters, and Stadiums), and 18-20 Energy cards. Of course, there will be some room for customization, but the most important thing for beginners is to have a somewhat even distribution among the three umbrella card types with a bit more priority given to Trainer cards over Pokémon cards.
Remember that you may only have up to four cards of the same name except for Basic Energy cards, and that most successful decks play at least two, but usually three or four copies of every card that they want to feature in their deck.
If you need help building a deck, you can find decklists featuring your favorite cards on a variety of online forums, and if you don't have any cards to deck build with, you can find pre-constructed decks online, or at Target, Walmart, or Barnes & Noble.
Organization of the Pokémon Battlefield
Before I go over how to start your first game, let's review the organization of a Pokémon battlefield. If you do pick up the product listed above, or a similar pre-constructed deck product, you will receive a foldable playmat that will contain all of this information, but in case you won't be using one of these mats, let's look at it together:
Deck: This area is where a player will keep their deck while playing. Unless instructed by an effect or attack, players should not examine any of the cards in their deck, and cards still in the deck will remain in a stack, face-down.
Discard Pile: This is the area of the field where a player will place cards that are removed from battlefield by being knocked out (in the case of Pokémon cards and any Energy or Pokétool Item cards attached to a Pokémon card that is knocked out from battle), after their effects resolve (in the case of Item or Supporter cards), or if an effect requires a player to "discard" cards. These cards will remain face-up and can be viewed by either player (ex: if an opponent asks to see your discard pile, you are required to show it to them).
Bench: This is the area where a player may play and interact with Pokémon cards that are not actively battling. A player may have no more than five Pokémon on their bench at any time. A Pokémon may use Abilities from the bench unless otherwise noted in the Ability, but cannot attack. However, a player may attach Pokétool Items or Energy cards to Pokémon on their Bench. After a Pokémon retreats, it will return to the Bench, and a Pokémon on the Bench will replace the retreated Pokémon in the Active position.
Active Pokémon: This is the area of the battlefield where a player will position their Pokémon that is actively engaged in battle. A player may attach a Pokétool item and Energies to the Pokémon, use Abilities, and attack using the Pokémon in the active position. A player must always have a Pokémon in the Active position at all times, or they will lose the game. If a Pokémon is knocked out for any reason, the owner of that card must move a Pokémon from their bench to the active position before play can proceed.
Stadium Zone: The Stadium Zone is where a player will place a Stadium card, which will remain in play until removed by a player (yourself or opponent) by playing a Stadium of a different name, or otherwise removing the card using an Ability or Trainer card.
Prize Cards: To the left of your play area, you will place your six prize cards, which you will collect as you defeat your opponent's Pokémon. These will remain face down, and you are not permitted to look at them until after you have collected a prize card or cards as a result of knocking out an opposing Pokémon.
Starting Your First Game
Once you have your deck, and are comfortable with the organization of the Pokémon battlefield, find a friend, a flat surface, and get ready to play.
Step 1: Shuffle and Pick Start Player
Shuffle your deck and decide who will go first. Most players flip a coin, roll a dice, or play a game of rock-paper-scissors to decide who goes first. Remember that the player who goes first cannot attack or use Supporter cards, but may do any other actions typically allowed on a turn.
Step 2: Draw (and Mulligan)
Draw seven cards. Review your hand and make sure that you have a Basic Pokémon card in your hand, meaning that this Pokémon is not an evolved form of another Pokémon (ex: You can play a Pikachu, but not its evolved form, Raichu). You can tell if a Pokémon is "Basic" by looking in the top left of the card, where it will be labeled as such.
If you do not have a Basic Pokémon in your hand, you must take a Mulligan, where you shuffle your hand back into your deck and redraw seven cards. You must do this as many times as it takes to draw a hand that contains at least one Basic Pokémon. For every time you mulligan, your opponent may draw an additional card. However, if both players take a mulligan, neither player draws an additional card.
While players may have good reason to choose to take additional cards or not take additional cards, do not worry about hand size, because Pokémon, unlike other card games, does not place limits on a player's hand size!
Step 3: Play Pokémon to the Active Position and the Bench
Once both players have hands that contain at least one Basic Pokémon, each player will put one basic Pokémon in the Active Position face down, and up to five Basic Pokémon on their Bench, also face down. You are not required to place any Pokémon on the Bench, but remember that, if you have no Pokémon on your bench and your active Pokémon is knocked out, you will lose the game.
Step 4: Move Six Cards to the Prize Card Section
Once both players are ready to begin, they will remove the top six cards from their deck and place them in their prize card section face down.
Step 5: Flip Your Pokémon and Start the Battle
After the stage is set, you are ready to battle. Both players will simultaneously flip all Pokémon on the battlefield so that they are face up, and the player taking the first turn will draw a card and commence their turn!
Phases of a Turn
Draw Phase: At the beginning of your turn, you will draw a card. If your Pokémon is afflicted by a Special Condition that requires damage to be taken at the beginning of the turn, resolve that damage. We will address Special Conditions in the following section.
Main Phase: In this phase, you may do any of the following in any order that you would like:
- Place a Pokémon into the battlefield.
- Evolve a Pokémon that has spent at least one full turn on the battlefield. If you evolve a Pokémon, it retains all damage, Pokétools, and Energy cards its evolutionary predecessor had, but if the Pokémon is affected by any Special Conditions, those Special Conditions are removed.
- Use any number of Pokémon Abilities.
- Play any number of Item cards.
- Play one Stadium card
- Play one Supporter card
- Attach one Energy card to a Pokémon
- Retreat the Pokémon in the Active Position (You may only do this once per turn)
Attack Phase: This is where a player will declare an attack and a target (unless otherwise noted by the attack, a Pokémon must attack the Active Pokémon). Damage is then assigned to the defending Pokémon (the damage dealt is subtracted from the remaining hit points) and the turn immediately ends.
If the attack results in a knock out, you will collect the appropriate number of prize cards (one prize card unless otherwise noted on the knocked out Pokémon) and then the turn will immediately end. You may not play any cards, including collected prize cards after attacking.
Resolve Special Conditions: If your Active Pokémon is affected by a Special Condition that requires a resolve check at the end of the turn, check to see if they resolve. We will review Special Conditions in the following section.
Once you begin playing, you'll notice that some attacks inflict Special Conditions against the defending Pokémon (and in rarer cases, the Pokémon using the attack). Currently, there are five Special Conditions used in the Pokémon trading card game:
When Asleep, a Pokémon is not able to attack or retreat themselves, though a player can still use an Item card, such as Switch, to remove an Asleep Pokémon from the Active position.
At the end of each turn, flip a coin. If heads, the Pokémon is no longer Asleep, but if tails, the effect will persist into the next turn. If a Pokémon that is Asleep is returns to the Bench, it automatically wakes up.
When a Pokémon is Confused, a player must flip a coin when the Pokémon attacks. If heads, the attack is successful, but if tails, the attack fails, and the Pokémon will deal 30 damage to itself.
Confusion persists until a Pokémon retreats, becomes Asleep or Paralyzed, or the Confusion is removed by an effect from an Item, Supporter, etc.
When a Pokémon is Paralyzed, it cannot attack or retreat itself for one turn. At the start of the following turn, a Pokémon loses this Special Condition.
When a Pokémon is Burned, it receives 20 damage upon receiving this Special Condition and at the start of every turn through which this Special Condition persists.
At the end of every turn, flip a coin. If heads, the Pokémon is no longer Burned. If tails, the Special Condition persists.
When a Pokémon is Poisoned, it receives 10 damage at the end of every turn until the Pokémon retreats or has the Special Condition removed by an effect from an Item, Supporter, etc.
Hopefully I have addressed every rule and aspect of game play that you will need to know in order to have exciting Pokémon battles with your Pokémon trading cards!
Pokémon is a fun and exciting game that can be played at dynamic degrees of complexity, and can be a challenging game for people of all ages and proficiencies in table top gaming.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.