Getting Into Pokémon TCG Card Game Is Way Easier Than You Think

A Pokemon TCG game in full flow, cards all over a green board.

Photo: Kotaku

Do you live surrounded by Pokémon cards, perhaps in piles on every surface in your house, abandoned either by you or your kids? Have you ever thought, “Hang on, aren’t these meant to be used for something other than being disappointed they’re not Charizards?” Yes, me too. So I became determined to figure out how to get into the Pokémon Trading Card Game, and now I shall help you do the same.

I am, by no stretch of the imagination, an expert in this field. I am a beginner, still piecing together the basics for how to best craft my battle deck to cope with the widest variety of situations. Please do not be mistaken: This is not a guide for how to play PTCG, because The Pokemon Company has that well covered. This is about how best to approach the whole shebang, the best and simplest route into what can be a daunting game , and how you can get the most fun out of it.

PTCGO's Trainer Challenge screen.

Screenshot: The Pokémon Company / Kotaku

Download the Pokémon Trading Card Game Online app

I imagine there are some who would think it folly to start off with the app, rather than sitting down at a table with a starter deck and pile of counters. But I disagree. Pokémon TCG is incredibly daunting at first, and only more so when trying to deal with coins, dice, VMAX markers, a creased up paper playmat, alongside an unwieldy towering pile of cardboard. While you absolutely will not learn the intricacies of the live game through the app, to have all the complexity taken away from you, and the myriad moves and shuffles automated, makes for a far easier entry point.

To really understand the game, you will eventually need to take things into the analogue world, but for starters let’s stay digital.

The app can only run on a computer or tablet, yet not a phone, no matter the screen size. This is infuriating. But once you’ve gotten over that, you can create or log in with a Pokémon account, and then begin exploring what’s on offer. Which, as it happens, is a bunch of starter decks and some dumb-ass AI to play against, with a meticulous series of tutorials to follow. Which is brilliant.

Follow those tutorials. And play those AIs. They’re not good at the game, and you’ll likely see people online complaining about this—but it’s a good thing. Winning against an idiot is a great way to get a feel for things, even though it obviously won’t teach you to play well. The important things it will teach you, however, are where your cards go, when they go in those places, what order a game goes in, etc. This is how you’ll learn that whoever goes first can’t attack on their first move, but can load up a Pokémon with energy.

Also brilliant is that this app, somehow, will not take your money. Despite a gnawing certainty that installing it would lead me to spending even more money on this ridiculous hobby, I was astonished to discover it’s absolutely impossible. New booster packs of cards can be gained, new pre-built battle decks added, but all for in-game currency, earned by playing. Clearly The Pokémon Company could earn billions a year if it were possible to buy digital packs, or even specific cards, via the app, but very surprisingly they’re (so far) choosing not to. The only way to put anything external into the game is with those QR code cards you find in every booster pack of Pokémon cards. Which brings us to…

Some Pokémon TCG code cards

They’ve all been used, you cheeky monkey.
Photo: Kotaku

Find all those code cards

Every booster pack of Pokémon cards (and indeed every tin, collection box, etc) comes with a “code card.” This is the card with a QR code on it, and a string of letters and numbers. Chances are, if you or your offspring have been buying the packs for a while, you’ll have dozens of the things, and hopefully didn’t throw them away. Either laboriously type in—or better use a camera to scan—the codes, and each one from a pack will unlock a digital booster pack of cards to open in the app. This not only gives you the pleasure of opening a new pack, and indeed the chance to pull a great rare card, but also starts to fill up your online collection from which you can design your own battle decks. (We’ll get to that.)

Scan as many as you can find, especially if you happen to have any from real-world battle decks, as these will unlock an entire pack of 60 cards in-game for you. You could also buy code cards from online stores for incredibly low prices, if you wanted to bump up your numbers quickly.

A bunch of Fire V cards arriving to my hand in PTCGO.

Screenshot: The Pokémon Company / Kotaku

Play online against other real people

You are going to lose. You are mostly going to lose because when you start playing these online games, you’re going to encounter people with battle decks built out of ridiculously powerful V and VMAX/VSTAR cards, or people with the most astonishingly complicated evolution decks where their every card appears to cause a cascading chain of other cards to appear, while you sit there dumbfounded, until they eventually play one attack that not only clears out your entire bench of Pokémon, but also breaks your favorite mug and opens a crack in your kitchen ceiling.

But this, too, is good! As I explain to the wet-eyes of my about-to-meltdown seven-year-old, losing is the best way to learn! (No, it doesn’t work on him, either.) Yet it’s true. The more you lose at PTCG, the more you can better understand your weaknesses, and observe their strengths. It was by watching why I was being so destroyed that I began to understand what I might need to do differently. And this made me start to feel brave enough to design my own battle decks.

Pokémon TCGO's battle deck creation screen.

Screenshot: The Pokémon Company

So design your own battle decks.

There are many and various schools of thought about the best assortment of cards to make a 60-card battle deck, but I shall try to annoy all of them by suggesting at first you think 20:20:20. You’re going to want 20 Pokémon in your team, then 20 Trainer cards, and 20 Energy. Yes, person who already knows how to play and is only reading this to pick holes, that’s not ideal in competitive play, but hush up, it’s perfect when figuring it out for yourself.

My tip is pick Pokémon of one “type.” So, say, Electric, or Dark, or Psychic. That way, you only need to worry about adding one type of Energy card to your deck. Also, make sure to stick to “Standard” decks when building, because then you don’t need to worry about facing off against decks built from older sets, which most often means avoiding double-energy.

If you’ve managed to get code cards together such that you’ve pulled a bunch of nice V cards, stick ‘em in your deck, along with a few Basic (stage 0) Pokémon, and Pokémon they evolve into, titled Stage 1 and Stage 2. You’ll get it wrong at first, but I swear, working out why is so much more informative than looking up a good deck online and copying it.

Go to the online game’s Versus mode, pick the deck you’ve built in the Deck Manager, and then hit “Play!” The very most difficult thing you will now face is not pressing the big, green “Cancel” button that appears, which should obviously be red, and is so incredibly tempting to tap.

You’ll then face off against someone who most likely far better knows what they’re doing, and observe why you’re losing. Do you just never see Energy in your hand? Then tweak your deck so you have some Trainer cards that fish Energy out of either your deck or discard pile. Can you never heal? Stop wasting time with those Potions and get Pokémon Center Lady in their place. If you’re lucky enough to have a Cook card, throw him in too. You’ll also likely notice how often you wish you could just throw away your hand and start over, so grab yourself some cards that do just that. Heck, find a Marnie and do it to your opponent as well, then wait for them to click the angry-face emoji at you. As you do this, you’ll discover that more Trainer cards and fewer actual Pokémon cards is the way forward.

Play, lose, tweak, play, lose, tweak, play, lose…win! OMG you won one! And with that, you get some pretend coins, energy to unlock bonuses, and a big warm feeling inside that will make you want to keep on going.

The more you do this, the more you unlock in the app, and the more you can tweak. And at this point, you should have a fairly good idea of how to play, what decks work and why, and even be contemplating maybe getting yourself one of those unbelievably annoying Lost Zone decks, so you too can spend hours faffing with Comfey, Cramorant and Giratina while your opponent slowly dies of old age.

The box for Battle Academy, with Pikachu battling Cinderace.

Image: The Pokémon Company

Get Battle Academy, or nick its ideas

For around $20, you can get a thing called Pokémon Battle Academy. It’s a box that contains everything you need to get started playing PTCG in real life, including a solid board on which to play your cards. And depending upon which version you buy, you’ll get three starter battle decks in there. One comes with decks based around Pikachu V, Cinderace V and Eevee V. The other, older version has the somewhat more exciting mix of Charizard-GX, Raichu-GX and Mewtwo-GX.

Also in there are damage counters, coins to flip, and rather importantly, instruction manuals. And these, unlike all other instruction manuals in the universe, are really good! In fact, the whole thing is a slick enterprise, with two of the battle decks arranged in a specific order such that if you and your chum follow the instructions in your specific manuals, you’ll play out a game to the halfway point with every move correctly predicted and choreographed. (And if you’re an idiot like me, who doesn’t read the piece of paper with “READ THIS FIRST” before thinking you know better and shuffling the cards, they’re also numbered so you can put them back in the correct order.)

Once you’ve played that through once, you can go ahead and shuffle as much as you want, and then play the game proper.

I found it very interesting just how much more of an understanding I got of the whole enterprise by playing it with my own hands and tables. The app does an awful lot of hard work for you, but it means you don’t have that tactile experience of tucking your Energy card under your active Pokémon, or placing the damage counters on your monster when attacked. Let alone all the shuffling. So much shuffling. (Twice as much if you’re playing a 7-year-old who can’t and won’t learn.)

Or, if you feel like you’ve already spent far too much money on this nonsense already, you can pretty much replicate everything from the Battle Academy yourself. The board is neat, but it’s cumbersome and you’re much better off just remembering where to place all the cards yourself—that’s how it’s done in competition. Dice make much better damage counters than the discs of card, and again, in live competition they’re used anyway: 1 = 10 damage, 6 = 60. As for following the instructions, well, The Pokémon Company has a bunch of YouTube videos for just that purpose. (They’re a smidge out of date, featuring the now non-Standard EX/GX cards, rather than Vs, and still feature Fairy Energy that is now dead. RIP.)

The Pokémon Company

Of course, there are loads of unofficial videos that teach the same, and in more detail.

Or, maybe you’re so far in this hole at this point you’ll spend money on anything with a Snorlax on it (hello!), and might want to buy yourself a lovely mouse mat-like playmat, and then a couple of pre-built battle decks from stores. My boy and I have been having a good time battling with the Noivern V and Rayquaza V battle decks, and he’s getting alarmingly good, very quickly. Such decks tend to cost around $15 each.

Pokémon TCGO's battle deck selection screen.

Screenshot: The Pokémon Company / Kotaku

Don’t be afraid to tweak those battle decks

Just because they arrived from the store that way, doesn’t mean they need to stay like it. In our house we’re merrily swapping in different Trainers to see if we can improve our chances of whooping each other in battle, while working out how few Energy cards is too few Energy cards.

It’s a whole other level of the game, I’ve learned, just making these minor adjustments, working out if—say—having a Lady card in your deck, that lets you pull four Energies from the deck in one turn, is more efficient than loading up with so much Energy that you can rely on the odds of their landing in your hand. Try it out a few times, see how it works, then adjust again.

And, at that point, I think we’re all caught up. The rest is practice, experience, experimentation, and learning from defeat.

A busy PTCG game with cards and counters all over the board.

Photo: Kotaku

Where next?

If you keep plugging away with the PTCG Online app, you’ll see that there are certain decks you’ll keep on facing. Right now a lot of people are playing very powerful cards that take advantage of Lost Origin’s “Lost Zone,” which adds a whole other dimension to battles. I mentioned that damned Comfey/Cramorant/Giratina deck above, , but there are others you’ll see over and over. Hisuian Zoroark VSTAR, for instance, surrounded by Bidoofs. Or Kyurem VMAX and its cohort of Palkia. They’re difficult to beat, using very powerful moves that rely on sending cards into a new pile called the Lost Zone, from which they cannot be retrieved during a battle, and it’s very effective. That’s a whole other avenue you could head down, if you were willing to pull enough rare cards, or just buy them as singles.

But honestly, I think it’s much more interesting to try to compile your own bespoke decks that can undo their ways. For instance, there’s a lowly Miltank card that prevents all damage from V-type Pokémon, which rather ruins their best plans. Or be even cheekier: right now I’m delighted by this Water-based deck I’ve built, that relies on a mixture of Vs and the humble Horsea, evolving into a wonderful Kingdra with its Deep Sea King ability. This allows it to sit on the Bench and scoop up Energy from defeated Pokémon, and then leap into action with Aqua Burst, that does 40 damage per Energy attached. It comes out of nowhere, and surprises these smarty-pants with their achingly slow Shadow Rider Calyrex play.

And once you’re comfortable, the next step is definitely looking online to find the nearest place you can meet up for games with other people. Next month, the boy and I are doing this for the first time, venturing to a game store where a nearby Facebook group meets up once a month to trade and battle. It sounds terrifying, but we’re doing it!

Then, I’m assuming the next move is to enter the boy for the regional championships, have him clear up, and then vicariously live off his glory. Why don’t you do the same? But, you know, with your own kid.

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