How to Play the Pokémon TCG in 2500 Words or Less

PokéCommunity user ddrox introduces us to the basics of the Pokémon Trading Card Game.

Every Pokémon fan knows of the Pokémon Trading Card Game (TCG). It is incredibly fun to play, and it seems to be somewhat growing on PokéCommunity now, so read up and join the fun! It serves as a fabulous way to meet new friends, learn from others, and generally hang out.

Here, I will cover the cards, rules and play of the TCG, as well as show you a little bit about building a deck and tell you how and where to start playing!

Initial credit: Adapted from and updated from 2013. A lot of this text was taken directly from that article.


Let’s start with the types of cards. We have three of them:

Pokémon: These are the creatures you fight with. While the other two types are technically not needed (they almost always are), you cannot play without a Pokémon card in your deck. Pokémon have different stages as well as more powerful versions: Basic, Stage 1, Stage 2, Restored, EX, BREAK, and Mega Evolution.

Energy: These give your Pokémon the necessary power to use their attacks. They’re separated into Basic Energy and Special Energy. Special Energy have added effects, such as counting as two energy or granting the Pokémon bonus damage.

Trainer: These are not limited to only people, but are separated into smaller categories: Item, Supporter, Stadium, and Tools. Trainers have a wide variety of effects. Items can be played as often as you like, Tools are attached to Pokémon, Stadiums affect both players and have persistent effects, and Supporters are limited to one per turn. Pretty much just follow the directions on the card.

With all these, you have to construct a sixty card deck.

You may only have four of any card with the same name in a deck, with the exception of Basic Energy which have no such limitation. Note that EX and M are both considered part of the name, therefore you can include four Ampharos, four Ampharos EX, and four M-Ampharos EX.

Last note is that text on a card almost always overrules text in the rules.

I’ll get back to building a deck later, but let’s learn how the game works first. I mean, we need somewhere to start, right?

Setting Up the Game

Source: KungFuIndustries

That is what the playing field looks like. There are a couple fancy words that will be explained below, but it’s a start.

To start, place your deck on your right (the game is biased against lefties because Nintendo). Shuffle your deck and draw seven cards. Next, choose one Basic Pokémon from your hand as your Active Pokémon. Place this card face down on the active spot. You may play additional Basic Pokémon onto your Bench (again, face down), but that is not required. Once that is done, you take the top 6 cards of your deck and place them on your left face down without looking. These are your Prize Cards.

If a player does not have Basic Pokemon to begin with, they shuffle their hand back into their deck and draw again, while the opposing player draws another card after setting their Prize Cards. If both players do not have Basics, they both shuffle and draw again, with no bonus to either.

The Discard Pile is where things go when they are played or knocked out or in any other way discarded. The Lost Zone hasn’t been a thing in six years, so ignore it.

Once the cards are set up, both players flip over all their Pokémon and flip a coin to see who goes first.


Playing the Game

A turn begins by drawing a card from the top of your deck. You MUST draw a card, and if you cannot do so because there are no cards left to draw you lose. Afterwards, you can do the following in any order:
• Play a Basic Pokémon to your Bench (until you have 5 on the Bench)
• Play an Item card
• Play a Stadium
• Play a Supporter (once per turn)
• Attach a Tool card
• Evolve a Pokemon (as many as you like, but one Pokemon can only evolve once per turn, and it cannot evolve the same turn it was played or on the first turn)
• Attach an Energy card from your hand to a Pokemon (once per turn)
• Use an Ability
• Retreat the Active Pokemon (once per turn; Energy must be discarded according to Retreat Cost)

The final action of your turn will typically be attacking (exception: the player who goes first cannot attack on their first turn). Before attacking, you ensure you have sufficient Energy to do so.

If the attack cost (the little circles next to the attack) contains three symbols, the Pokémon generally must have three energy attached to it to make this attack. This energy is not discarded (unless the attack or something else says to). Each energy symbol will correspond to a type of energy, so if the attack costs three Grass Energy (hint: grass is the green one), you need three Grass Energy. Any type of energy can be used in place of Colorless Energy (Colorless is the white one), so if an attack costs one Grass and two Colorless, you may attack with one Grass, one Water, and one Lightning – or whatever other combination of three Energy you desire as long as it includes at least one Grass.

Once you have confirmed that you have the energy, you will add damage counters to the Defending Pokémon. Each damage counter is worth ten damage, so if your attack does fifty damage, place five damage counters on the defending Pokémon.

Source: via Pintrest
Source: via Pinterest

There are eleven Pokémon types in the TCG. Video game (VG) players may notice that this leaves seven types unrepresented. Pokémon of these types are dumped into whatever seems reasonable. Bugs become Grass types, Ice becomes Water, Poison and Ghost Pokémon end up as Psychic types, Rock and Ground as Fighting Types, and Flying types are usually classified by their secondary type or given a Colorless type (which is basically Normal). Why is this relevant? To start, most Pokémon’s attacks use energy that matches their type. Secondly, Pokémon usually have either a Weakness or Resistance (or both), and if the attacker’s type is the same as the defending Pokémon’s Weakness or Resistance, a damage modifier will be applied that is listed on the defending Pokémon.

Oh, and there is no Electric Type in this game. It is called Lightning Type. Don’t get that wrong. Ever. You have been warned. Oh, and the silver type is always Metal, not Steel. Dark is also always written as Darkness, but I’m not nearly as picky about that one.

After the attack is fully resolved, check to see if any Pokémon involved has at least as much Damage on it as its HP. If this is the case, that Pokémon is Knocked Out. The owner of the Knocked Out Pokémon discards said Pokémon and all cards attached to it, while the other trainer collects one of their own Prize Cards and adds it to their hand. You never take your opponent’s cards, this isn’t playground-rules marbles.


Special Conditions

Special Conditions are mostly carbon-copied from their VG inspiration. Only the Active Pokémon can have a Special Condition, and retreating to the bench or evolving removes all of them. Freeze is left out of the TCG, which leaves Sleep, Paralyzed, Burned, Confused, and Poisoned. Asleep, Paralyzed, and Confused can all be removed by each other, but Poison and Burn can stack on any Special Condition, even each other.

Burn: Between turns, the player flips a coin. If heads, no damage is taken. If tails, two damage counters are placed on the afflicted Pokémon. The Pokémon can Retreat. Burn is represented by the small red object of your choice placed on the Pokémon.

Poison: Between turns, one damage counter is placed on the afflicted Pokémon. It can Retreat. Poison is represented by the small green object of your choice placed on the Pokémon.

Asleep: Between turns, the player flips a coin. If heads, the Pokemon wakes up. If tails, it remains asleep. The Pokemon cannot Retreat. An Asleep Pokémon is turned to the left to demonstrate its sleepiness.

Paralyzed: The Pokemon cannot attack or retreat for one turn. A Paralyzed Pokémon is turned to the right.

Confused: The player flips a coin when they declare an attack. If heads, the attack is performed normally. If tails, three damage counters are placed on the afflicted Pokemon and the turn ends. A Confused Pokémon is turned upside down to represent it’s confusion.


Winning the Game

There are three ways to win the game (unless someone is playing Lost World, in which case they are an inherently evil person). These are Knocking Out your opponent’s last Pokémon in play, taking your final Prize Card, or forcing your opponent to draw from an empty deck at the beginning of their turn. Simple enough, right?


Building a Deck

Well, now that you know how to play, we still are missing one thing: a Deck. As I said earlier, a Deck is made up of sixty cards in some combination of Pokémon, Trainers, and Energy.

Top-tier decks are very rarely straightforward and require a good amount of experience to play correctly, so I’m not going there in this article. Let’s just build a good starter deck and start looking for some options.

First, start by planning out your Pokémon. Just under fifteen-eighteen seems to be the ideal number for most decks, but I’ve seen as few as five and as many as twenty-five. You can hypothetically use as many types as you want, but unless you have a plan to combat having to deal with weird energy requirements, I’d stick with one or two (plus Colorless Pokémon, which can be used in any deck without repercussion). My advice is to choose a powerful Pokémon and work around that. Once you have picked a Pokémon, you can either add more attackers or focus on Pokémon that help support those attackers.

Next, move to Trainers. This should be the bulk of your deck, probably around twenty-five to thirty, but I’ve seen as many as forty-eight at a tournament. Generally good Trainers like Ultra Balls, VS Seekers, and Professor Sycamore should be present in nearly every deck, but the rest can be catered to match the Pokémon you are playing. For example, most decks that run Water Pokémon also have a number of Dive Balls, while a deck with a focus on lower HP Pokémon might run Level Ball. As a more complex example, Shiftry (STS 11)’s Extrasensory does sixty more damage if you and your opponent have the same number of cards in your hand. Thus, I probably would run Judge, which makes both players shuffle their hands into their decks and draw four cards, to create a situation where we have even hand sizes.

Lastly, fill out the deck with Energy. I run twelve-eighteen in most decks, but how many you should have varies greatly with the cost/effects of the attacks you are using.


How to Start

The two biggest falling points for most people who want to play the TCG are having no cards or having no one to play with.

The former is most quickly solved by purchasing a Theme Deck from your local card store or Walmart equivalent. Theme Decks come with a pre-constructed sixty card deck that is ready to play right out of the box, as well as some handy tools for new players like a playmat, a box to store your deck, some damage counters, and a rulebook. There are normally two released per set (the ones from the Plasma Freeze expansion are pictured), with three coming out for the base set of each generation, so you have plenty of options. Some of them are actually decent decks too (I have most certainly lost to a Theme Deck before). These normally run around $12 USD, which is not a bad price at all.

Once you know how to play, you can also try going to a Prerelease event. These occur a week or two before a new expansion is released, and for a reasonable entry fee (mine was always $25 a person), you get a large quantity of cards from the new set. You then have to build a forty card deck on the spot, and begin a tournament with that deck! I’m not certain how they work now because I haven’t been to one in a while, but be assured you will have a ton of fun. Here you can search for your local Prerelease event.

The second issue is finding an opponent. There are two ways to get around this problem:

The Trading Card Game Online (TCGO): I highly recommend this for any and all new players to the TCG. Their tutorials are of an acceptable quality, and completing them nets you a starting deck. Getting any cards in real life nets you a code to get cards in the TCGO, and it is great for testing new deck concepts.

Your Local Pokémon League: Again, I highly advise seeking one of these out. Pokémon Leagues are usually weekly gatherings of Pokémon players at a card/comic/hobby store or the like to just have a casual chat and battle. In my experience, there are usually people willing to trade and/or show you the ropes, so it is great fun. Plus, you get free cards just for playing! Find your local League HERE! Tournaments are also fun, but I’d make sure you have a deck before you sign up for one of those.


The TCG is super fun and I hope many more people can learn the game! I almost certainly missed something important in this guide, so point out any inconsistencies in my testimony in the comments. Questions and comments are encouraged and enjoyed by the author. If you like the TCG, look forward to increasing Daily coverage of it. Specifically, look out for reviews of new sets and analyses of top decks! Now go out and be the very best!

Edited by bobandbill, gimmepie, Lost, and tokyodrift. All card images from The Pokémon Company International.