Understanding the Pokemon Card Game and How to Play It

Updated April 11, 2022
Pokemon World Championships - Getty Editorial Use

Ever since its North American debut in 1999, the Pokemon Trading Card Game (TCG) has been unbelievably popular with players of all ages. In fact, the Pokemon card game is just as big a part of the Pokemon community as the TV shows and video games, if not more so to some dedicated fans. From friendly matches against your best mates to huge international tournaments, this trading card game is a serious strategic activity that, despite its reputation, anyone can learn to play.

Pokemon: The Trading Card Game

In a stripped down adaptation of the popular Nintendo games, the hit app Pokemon Go! helped bring the famous late '90s phenomenon back into the zeitgeist. Where 90s kids from around the world spent their childhood afternoons battling their siblings and neighbors to increasingly chaotic Pokemon battles, thousands of kids and teens are just now finding out about pocket monster's adaptive card game. Thankfully, the Pokemon Trading Card Game (TCG) is easy enough to follow that every Gen Z newcomer can land a match win in just a few hours.

Pokemon Trading Card Game: Rules to Follow

Pokemon TGC might seem like a simple card game at a glance, but it's actually an intricate strategic competition that forces you to weigh both you and your opponent's best moves against each other, all the while putting your own cards at risk. However, once you've run through a couple of practice rounds, you'll be able to get the rules down pat, and you can always check back in with Pokemon's official tutorial and rulebook to make sure that you're playing it right every time.

Collect Your Cards

The first thing any Pokemon competitor needs to do is collect cards. While you're only allowed to a 60 card deck into the match, the more cards you collect, the better chance you have of building a dominating deck. In your deck, you should have three different types of cards:

  • Pokemon - The most important cards are the actual Pokemon cards, of which there're multiple per individual pocket monster, since each Pokemon usually has several evolutions. With each evolution, the Pokemon becomes stronger and learns new skills, and you can play both the basic and evolution cards in a Pokemon battle.
  • Trainer - There are multiple different types of trainer cards (items, stadiums, and supporters) that a competitor can use during a battle.
  • Energy - Energy cards help power-up your Pokemon during the game to make their attacks and defenses stronger.

When building a deck, it's important to make sure that you have a well-rounded array of Pokemon and complimentary energy cards so that you always have something to combat your competitor with. For instance, while you might gravitate towards dark type or fire type, it's important to have other Pokemon types at your disposal just in case your competitor has Pokemon that aren't susceptible to your Pokemon's attacks.

Set Up Your Battle

Pokemon Trading Card - Set up your Battle

Setting up a battle for the first time might feel confusing if you don't have a battle board at the ready, since these plastic sheets or hard boards show you exactly where you need to place your cards throughout the game. Here are the basic parts to the battle board and what cards go where:

  • Place Active and Bench Cards - One of your basic Pokemon cards as well as up to five reserve Pokemon cards are placed in the center of the board. The active card is a single basic Pokemon placed in the middle with the reserve cards placed in a row behind it.
  • Note the Discard pile- To the right of your cards is the discard/trash pile.
  • Place the rest of your Deck down - The rest of your 60 cards are placed in the upper right-hand corner, above your active card. These cards must stay faced down and in the order that you placed them.
  • Place your Prize Cards down- Your prize cards are 6 cards from the top of your deck, and are laid down in a column to the left of your active and bench cards. Each of these cards can be added to your hand after knocking out one of your competitor's Pokemon and vice versa.

Start Your Battle

To start a Pokemon battle, you'll shake your opponent's hand and flip a coin to see who gets to select which player goes first. Following that, you'll each shuffle your decks and select the top seven cards. If you have any basic Pokemon in the batch, you can put one of them face down in the active spot.

*Note - If you don't have any basic Pokemon in your hand, reveal the hand to your competitor and reshuffle it back into your deck, selecting another seven cards. Keep repeating this until you get a basic Pokemon card.

You can put up to five more basic Pokemon in your bench space. After this, pull the top six cards and place them face down in the prize space. Once you've done this and have seven cards in your hand, you'll both flip over your active and bench cards and start the match.

What to Expect on Each Turn

There are three objectives that you'll complete on each of your turns - with the player going first decided by the coin toss. These objectives are:

Draw a card

You're going to add a single card to your hand at the start of each turn.

Complete all Possible Actions

There are multiple different actions you can take in the second objective on your turn, and those include:

  • Move basic Pokemon from your hand onto the bench.
  • Evolve Pokemon using evolution cards in your hand.
  • Attach only one energy card to one of your Pokemon.
  • Put trainer cards in play (one stadium, one supporter, and one energy per round).
  • Retreat a single active Pokemon.
  • Use any abilities (as many as you'd like).

During this phase of your turn, you're allowed to complete as many of these tasks as you'd like and in any order that you want.

Attack Your Opponents Pokemon

In this final phase of your turn, you're able to attack your opponents Pokemon using the offensive moves that your active Pokemon has. It's important to note that on each player's first turn, no one attacks.

However, when you're attacking, you want to check your active card's attack options to see how many energy cards they cost to complete an attack and how much damage that attack will do on your opponent's card. The upper right corner of each Pokemon card will indicate how many health points it has; each attack will damage this store of health points. Once those health points are decimated, that Pokemon has been defeated, and a benched Pokemon takes its place.

Pro Tip - Check your opponent's active cards weaknesses and resistances to make sure that your attacks will have the maximum amount of damage. For instance, fire types are vulnerable to water types but powerful against grass types.

How to Win the Match

Winning a Pokemon match is actually really straightforward. The first player to take the last of their prize cards into their hand wins the match. Remember that these prize cards are taken when a player defeats one of their competitor's Pokemon.

Attendees compete at the Pokemon European International Championships - Getty Editorial Use

How to Purchase New Cards

There is a massive number of Pokemon cards available. Since the games incredible popular, it means multiple sets of cards are released every year. Players can purchase cards in theme decks, booster packs, and collector's chests.

  • Theme decks - Theme decks are pre-built decks that're ready to play out of the box and are based around a particular game mechanic or Pokemon type.
  • Booster packs - Booster packs come with 10 randomized cards from a given set and are great for adding extra Pokemon to your collection.
  • The collector's chests - Collector's chests have an expansive collection of cards from a given set and are great for committed players.

Purchasing Old Cards

Since its inception, there've been over 60+ sets of Pokemon cards released. While retailers carry the newest cards on their shelves, many players search for older cards that may be unavailable in stores or even out of print. The best place to search for older cards is the Pokemon TCG Expansions Database. Once you have located the card you're seeking in the database, you can search for that card on Amazon or eBay. Some of these cards, like limited edition cards, shiny Pokemon, and so on, are extremely valuable and command high prices, but it's important to make sure you that you're purchasing old or used cards from reputable dealers when shopping online.

Stay Caught up on the Action

It can be difficult staying up to date with all the new releases and competition news in the Pokemon TCG world. Luckily, there's an official Pokemon TCG website that has news on all the latest and greatest Pokemon cards. There's also a thriving community that discusses new releases, battle tactics, and everything surrounding the game. One of the most popular websites for staying up to date in the Pokemon world is Bulbapedia (named after everyone's favorite grass Pokemon Bulbasaur). There're also numerous Twitch TV gaming channels dedicated to the Pokemon TCG. These channels have everything from live-streamed battles to shows discussing the game.

How to Play Online

The Pokemon TCG Online game is a great resource for new players to learn the game quickly and for experienced players to hone their tactics. The online game is free to play and allows trainers to battle against AI opponents or join battles with competitors from around the world. Currently, the game is available for PC, Mac, Android tablets, and iPad. Unfortunately, it's not available for iPhone or Android phones due to the size of the screen required to play. You can download it here from the official Pokemon website.

Train to Compete in Tournaments

One of the most interesting things about Pokemon TGC is that there's actually a prize-winning completive global tournament network where people can join Leagues or compete individually in local, regional, and international TGC competitions to gain experience and win cash prizes. These tournaments culminate in the Pokemon World Championships that're held in August of every year, where talented trading card players and video game players compete for top prizes and international recognition. While beginners are a far way away from battling against professional Pokemon trainers, continuous practice can help them battle against the best in their area and maybe even the best in the world.

Gotta Collect 'Em All

The Pokemon card game is fast-paced and fun for adults and kids alike. Children can enjoy playing their favorite Pokemon and learning new techniques while adults can craft powerful decks that utilize complex strategies. Now that you're ready to compete in your first battle, it's time to run through your deck and see which Pokemon you have left to find - after all, in honor of Ash Ketchum, you've gotta catch 'em all.

Understanding the Pokemon Card Game and How to Play It