Pokémon Trading Card Game

By Mekkah. Art by Kevin Garrett.
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Most old-school Smogoners say their Pokémon experience began with Pokémon Red and Blue for the Game Boy, but did they really? Think about it—wasn't there something else that got you hooked on the critters? That's right, the Pokémon Trading Card Game! Or, more likely, collecting the cards. Actually playing with them was a less common hobby, but I think lots of people reading this have fond memories of kids bringing their binders to school with their shiny cards in it. That holographic Machamp that came with the very first beginner decks, or the theme decks that came after. And, of course, the drama—the schools banning Pokémon cards after repeated reports of cards being stolen and kids being ripped off. Man, those were the times...

But actually playing? Using those attacks, Hit Points, and weaknesses? Unless you were really into it, that didn't seem to happen often. The exception is the classic Pokémon Trading Card Game for the Game Boy Color, where you follow a journey much like the normal RPGs, collecting 8 badges before challenging the Final Four. And just like the RPGs, if you know what you are doing, the in-game trainers (or players, in this case) are laughably easy. This is why I craved for competition against other humans (actually having had this privilege when I was younger), and I'm sure many others do.

This article is for those who have that same inner desire. Whether you only collected them, played on tournament level before, only played on Game Boy, or never cared about them to begin with, this article is for you. Because as you'll soon learn, you no longer need to live near someone else to play against someone smarter than a sack of sand.


I will give a quick rules refresher here. You can skip this part if you already know how to play. For more in-depth rules, there are some comprehensive resources out there, such as the PokeGym Compendium. Wikipedia gives a good rundown, as well.

At a very basic level, there are four types of cards: Basic Pokémon, Evolution cards, Energy cards, and Trainer cards. Each of those has different rulings on how they are supposed to be put in play. These will be explained as we go through the process of the game.

The game is played on a playmat that looks roughly like this:


To play, each player needs a deck. A deck always consists of exactly 60 cards. A deck cannot contain more than four copies of the same card, and has to have at least one Basic Pokémon.


At the start of a game, each player shuffles their deck, and draws seven cards. These cards are your "hand". The rest of the deck is put on the table; this is your "deck" from now on. Next to your deck is your discard pile, where, as the name implies, all discarded cards go. Then, the set-up begins. Each player picks a Basic Pokémon card from their hand to play as their Active Pokémon, and puts it face down in the middle of the playmat. This Active Pokémon will be the one that attacks and (generally) is attacked by the opponent. After that, each player can play up to five other basic Pokémon onto their Bench (your Bench is close to your side of the table). Benched Pokémon generally cannot attack or be attacked, but during the game there are several ways you can exchange the Active Pokémon for one of your Benched Pokémon and use those for attacking. You can compare it to how you have one Pokémon out at a time in the regular Pokémon games, while the rest are, well, warming the bench!

If you have no Basic Pokémon in your hand at the start, you show your opponent your hand, then shuffle the seven cards back into your deck in order to draw seven new ones. Repeat this process until you have at least one Basic Pokémon. There is a rule that states that whenever someone has to "restart" for having no Basics, their opponent can choose to draw up to two cards from their deck. However, the video game does not have this rule at all, and personally I don't use it either.

After both players are done setting up, each player takes the top six cards from their deck without looking and puts them face down on the playmat, none of them on top of another. These are your Prize Cards. Their purpose will be explained later.

Finally, a coin is flipped to determine who gets to start. This will be the first of many coins that will be flipped throughout your TCG career! After flipping, both players reveal what cards they put on the table, and the first turn begins.

Game flow

A turn always starts with drawing the top card of your deck and putting it in your hand before doing anything else. Then, you can do the following things in any order:

Putting a Basic Pokémon on your bench
Like at the start of the game, just put a Pokémon from your hand onto your bench, though face-up. You can't put have more than five Pokémon on your Bench. You can't put a Pokémon Active right away, either.
Evolving a Pokémon
Put an evolution card from your hand on the matching Pokémon (the card specifies whether a card is a basic or evolution for all these people that try to play Golbat and Rhydon as a Basic, heh). Stage 1 cards are put onto Basic Pokémon, and Stage 2 cards are put onto Stage 1 Pokémon. You cannot evolve a Pokémon you put onto your Bench during this turn, and you cannot evolve a Pokémon you already evolved this turn.
Attaching an Energy
Unlike most other things, you can only do this once per turn. Simply take an Energy card from your hand and slide it under either your Active Pokémon or one of your Benched Pokémon. On the Pokémon cards, you will see their attacks, with symbols before them indicating their Energy cost. To attack, a Pokémon needs the right type of Energy attached. Each symbol next to an attack represents an Energy card of a certain type. The white "colorless Energy" symbol means you can use any type of Energy. Usually when talking about cards, or in the Redshark program (which will be elaborated upon later), letters instead of symbols are used. The types and their matching letters are:
  • Grass (G)
  • Fire (R)
  • Water (W)
  • Lightning (L)
  • Fighting (F)
  • Psychic (P)
  • Colorless (C)
  • Dark (D)
  • Metal (M)
Playing a Trainer card
Put the Trainer from your hand onto the table. Do what it says (for example, Bill says "Draw 2 cards", so do that), then discard that Trainer.
Retreating your Active Pokémon
Look at the lower right corner of your Active Pokémon. There's an amount of colorless energies shown there: that's the amount of attached Energy you have to discard before being able to retreat.
Using a Pokémon Power
Some cards have a Pokémon Power listed on them. Sometimes these can only be used once per turn, and sometimes you can't or don't need to use them at all. Pokémon Powers can be used by Benched and Active Pokémon unless it says otherwise, and often you cannot use Pokémon Powers on a Pokémon that's affected by a Special Condition. Simply follow the instructions on the card.
Once you're satisfied with those actions, it's time to attack with your Active Pokémon. Attacking is the last thing you do in your turn, so after you attack you cannot do anything else. Just like with Trainers and Poké Powers, you just follow instructions of what the attack says. On the right side of a Pokémon's attack is stated how much damage an attack does to your opponent's Active Pokémon (also called the Defending Pokémon), if any. You use damage counters to denote how much damage they have, one counter for each 10 damage. Once a Pokémon has more damage than HP, they are Knocked Out. The Pokémon and all cards attached to it are discarded, and the opponent of the player whose Pokémon was Knocked Out gets to blindly pick one of their Prize Cards and put it into their hands. The Active Pokémon is replaced with one of the Benched Pokémon.

Once you're done executing the attack, there's a "between turns" phase (sometimes cards have effect between turns, and some Special Conditions do as well). After that, the other player's turn begins with drawing a card, et cetera.

How to win

There are three ways to win the game. You win if:

  1. Your opponent cannot send in an Active Pokémon (i.e. you Knocked Out his Active and all their Benched Pokémon)
  2. You draw all your Prize cards
  3. Your opponent has no more cards in their deck at the start of their turn

There is a lot more to it (such as the important Special Conditions), but with these instructions you should be able to play some practice games at least. Refer to the resources mentioned at the start of these instructions if you want a deeper understanding of the mechanics.

Playing Online

So here you are, equipped with the necessary knowledge to play... except you sold all your nice cards on eBay years ago for ten bucks, and there's no one willing to play with you. Not to worry, the internet is here to solve both of your problems!

The first thing you need to play over the internet is Redshark, an online Pokémon TCG simulator, hosted by PokéBeach. You will also need Hamachi to play against other people. Redshark comes with an excellent Help file, so I won't bother explaining the technical details. Just follow the steps.

Once you're all set up on the technical side of things, what you're going to need is some opponents! Here's yet another excuse to get on IRC if you haven't already. Not only is it a great place to get to know people, but you can also find several enthusiastic TCG players there. Recommended channels to visit are #smogon, #stark, and #warau.

Smogon Pokémon TCG Tournament

If the casual matches against our IRC crowd aren't enough, you should perhaps check out the first Pokémon TCG tournament to compete against the best we have to offer. This tournament's format is what we call "Neo-TR-Gym" on IRC, consisting mainly of the following sets:

The consensus among Smogon players is that Neo-TR-Gym has the most enjoyable tempo of any metagame. Even though a few mechanical additions have been made since the classic sets (Base, Jungle, and Fossil), it is very easy for beginners to get into, so start your deck building today!

I hope to see you all signing up for the tournament and flowing into the IRC channels. By all means, hit me up if you want to talk about the TCG. Do not forget to join the TCG Social Group, and perhaps join in on the discussion thread on Internet Renaissance!

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