A Noob's Guide to Pokémon Cards

By Tom Pritchard on at

If you were a young soul rebel like me, you didn't give a flying Fearow about playing Pokémon cards by the rules. Mainly because, well, nobody actually knew what they were. Matches were often little more than extended shouting sessions loosely-based on Top Trumps, with the lucky Charizard owners eventually reigning supreme.

Patience, grasshopper. There is a lot more to the Pokémon Trading Card Game than collecting a bunch of cards and barking at your opponent. If you're thinking of trying it out, or just want to know how it translates a videogame into the format, here's everything you should know.

The Goal

The basics of the Pokémon Trading Card Game will feel familiar to players of the videogames. You and an opponent face off, competing for six 'reward cards' that are pulled from the top of your deck at the start of each match. A player collects one reward card for knocking out one of the opponent's team.

The only way to win a match is to either collect all six reward cards, or get to the point where your opponent has no usable Pokémon. This is some Mad Max stuff, right to the bitter end.

The Kit

Collecting reward cards sounds simple enough, but there are a lot of steps between starting a Pokémon TCG match, and actually winning. Let's set the scene by going over everything you need, and what you're supposed to do with it.


  1. This is the deck, shuffled at the beginning of each match. At the beginning of the game you take six cards from the top to be your reward cards, and a further seven for your hand. At the start of their turn, each player takes a single card and adds it to their hand.
  2. This is the bench area, which you should think of as a pending queue for your monster cards. Basic cards from your hand have to be placed here before they can be used to attack your opponent. You can have up to five Pokémon on your bench at any given time.
  3. The active Pokémon. This is the only card that can attack your opponent, and the only Pokémon that can be attacked. A Pokémon always has to be in this slot, and if someone is unable (or unwilling) to do this then they lose the game.
    Once a card is in this position, it can only be removed from play if it is knocked out, or its owner sacrifices a set number of energy cards to retreat (how many is shown on the bottom right-hand corner of the card), or you use a trainer card with a retreat power. A tiny number of Pokémon have the ability to retreat without penalty.
  4. Most trainer cards are only good for a single use, but some have continuous effects and are placed here
  5. Energy cards live under the Pokémon they're attached to. They can be attached to active and benched monsters, but not the ones in your hand.
  6. The discard pile. This is where cards go when they can no longer be used. This includes spent trainer cards, KO-ed Pokémon, and discarded energy cards.
  7. Reward cards. To refresh our memories, the goal is to collect all six and win the game. You can claim at least one reward card every time you knock out one of your opponent's Pokémon.
  8. This is a sexy Charizard mat. There are other varieties. It is for covering surfaces and keeping cards on.


  1. Your hand. All cards drawn from your deck are kept here until put into play. There is no limit to how many cards you can have here.
  2. These are cardboard damage counters that show how much damage your Pokémon have taken. Experienced players often trade these for dice, with one dot corresponding to ten damage points. The larger counter are status effects: green for poison, and red for paralysis. Confusion doesn't have a counter, instead you position the affected card horizontally.
  3. A coin for solving head or tails decisions. Experienced players often swap this for a die, larger than those used for damage, with even numbers as heads and odd as tails.

The Deck

The most important part of the game is your deck. All you have to remember is to ensure there are exactly 60 cards, and that you don't have more than four copies of any single card (excluding energies). As long as you stick to these rules, the deck can otherwise be structured however you like.

There are three types of card in the game, which are:

  • Pokémon: The obvious one, since you can't win any matches if there are no playable monsters in your deck. It's a good idea to have a nice mix of Basic (first evolution) Pokémon, and higher-level evolutions. Unfortunately you can't just throw in a bunch of ultra-powerful final evolution monsters, which we'll cover a little bit later on.
  • Trainer Cards: These cards cover a lot of different bases, and are generally used to perform actions other than attacking your opponent. Think of them as spells. They range from healing items, cards that let you pick specific cards from your deck or pulling them from your discard pile, and other strategies. You'll need a good number of these, since they basically define your tactics.
  • Energy Cards: The power behind a Pokémon's attack. We'll go into more detail shortly.

Special Cards


There are lots of different cards to play with, but not all are created equal. Some Pokémon cards are special and change the rules of play just a little bit. While many different special cards have been released throughout the years, the ones beginners are likely to come across are the following three:

  • EX Cards: These cards are clearly marked by the letters EX after the Pokémon's name, and are typically more powerful than regular cards. That means their moves do more damage, and they have more hit points than other Basic-tier cards. The drawback to this extra power is that if an EX Pokémon dies, your opponent gets two reward cards instead of one, pushing them that bit closer to victory.
  • GX Cards: New for the Sun & Moon expansion, and come with a powerful GX move. GX Moves function like Z-Moves in the Sun and Moon 3DS games, meaning you're only allowed to use a single GX move per match. This means you have to strategise accordingly. Like EX cards, the attacker gets two reward cards whenever they kill a GX Pokémon.
  • Break Cards: Break cards are a special evolution-like card that grants a power boost to specific Pokémon. Evolving into the Break form means the monster in question gets a health boost and a brand new attack or ability, without losing all the attacks and abilities that it had before. Plus, unlike EX and GX cards, there are no limitations to using a Break card - normal evolution rules notwithstanding.

Buying Cards


Adding cards to your collection can be done in a couple of ways. The easiest thing if you're just starting out is to buy yourself a theme deck which comes with a full set of 60 cards, a single promotional holo card, a paper gaming mat (with rules on the opposite side), a coin, and counters for marking damage and status effects. Unfortunately they're designed to come with a number of duplicates, which is a little frustrating for seasoned collectors. But you can see exactly what's inside the box before you buy, and instantly have the setup for your side of a proper match.

You can also buy Trainer Kits, and these are designed to help two people learn to play the game. They come with 6o cards (two 30-card decks), two holo promo cards, individual step-by-step guides to the game, a playmat, a coin, and damage counters.

Then there are the wallet-smashing booster packs, which contain 10 new cards - including at least one holo/shiny. Other packs are available, all containing different numbers of boosters and promotional cards. These include sets kept in metal tins, sealed blister packs, and larger sets that come with exclusive 'jumbo sized' cards.

Finally, for the more devoted player, there are Elite Trainer Boxes. These each come with protective sleeves for your cards, dice, acrylic status counters, a collector's box for card storage, dividers, six dice for displaying damage, a single large dice for coin tosses, 45 energy cards, and 8-10 booster packs. Ah, beautiful.

Attacking and Energy

When you're actually playing, attacking your opponent isn't quite as simple as selecting one of your active Pokémon's moves. You need to make sure your monster has all the required energy cards attached first. Which ones you need are clearly labelled next to the moves in question and, generally speaking, the more powerful the move the more energy cards it will require.

Below is an example. As you can see, Sunsteel Strike requires three energy cards: two steel, and a single colourless.


Only one energy card can be attached to an individual monster per turn, but nothing stops you from adding energy to multiple active or benched Pokémon. When the monster is killed all attached energy cards have to be added to the discard pile, unless there's an active trainer card that says otherwise.

There are eleven different kinds of energy in all, corresponding to certain Pokémon types: Fighting, Fire, Grass, Electric, Psychic, Water, Fairy, Metal, Darkness, Dragon, and Colourless (Normal). Each energy card's symbol lines up with those next to the move, with the exception being colourless: any energy card can be attached to a Pokémon in order to provide a single unit of colourless energy. That deal doesn't go both ways, however. Colourless energy cards do exist, but they're uncommon and can only be used for colourless energy. To be crystal-clear, because it matters: a fire energy card can be colourless, but colourless can't be fire.

Going back to our Sunsteel Strike example, we require two steel energy cards and another energy card of any colour/type. Once all three are attached, this move can be used to attack your opponent's active Pokémon. Normally you'd be able to repeat this move on succeeding turns but, as you can see, one drawback of this powerful move is that you have to discard all the energy cards after using it.

The attacking math is simple: the damage count from the move is deducted from the opposing card's total health. How much damage inflicted is then marked using damage counters or dice, and once a Pokémon's HP reaches zero it is knocked out and has to be discarded. This being Pokémon, you also have to factor in the types of Pokémon in play. As you can see above, Solgaleo has a x2 weakness to fire, and a -20 resistance to psychic. This means fire-type moves will do double damage, and psychic-type moves do 20 less damage than they're supposed to.

Once you've attacked, your turn is over.



As mentioned before, you can't just fill up your deck with high-powered final evolution Pokémon. Nobody wants to start a match and immediately go up against a rabid Venasaur. Instead you need to start at the bottom and work your way up. This means evolving Basic Pokémon cards into Stage 1 and Stage 2 monsters. Each card has evolution information shown on the top left corner, with higher-level forms also showing the Pokémon that it came from.

Evolving is fairly simple, and can be done to active and benched Pokémon. But it's important to remember that you can't evolve an individual card twice in a single turn, and you can't evolve a Pokémon in the same turn as moving it from your hand to the bench.

Evolving is no magic bullet for what ails you, however. If a Pokémon evolves any damage or status changes affecting it remain the same. So if you evolve Pikachu with 20 damage and confusion, the resulting Raichu will also have 20 damage and confusion. The reason you might do this, of course, is that Raichu has a larger HP pool and can probably handle the damage.

Mega Evolution

Like the games, Mega Evolution is also a part of TCG, but fortunately this doesn't mean adding a fourth level to the evolutionary ladder. Mega Cards are all EX cards and similarly evolve from EX versions of their former selves. EX cards tend to feature powerful evolved Pokémon that are still designated as 'Basic' cards. That means you can play them straight away, without having to work to get to that stage. Although, naturally, EX cards have some limitations we've already mentioned.

It's worth noting that, unlike regular evolution, Mega Evolution immediately ends your turn. These rules also apply to Primal Kyogre and Primal Groudon, which are basically just Mega Pokémon with a special name.

Break Cards

Break cards are not technically an evolution of the previous Pokémon, but are treated as such anyway. It's all very scientific. The reason is so that you can't evolve a Pokémon and then immediately 'evolve' into the Break form during the same turn. Break cards also don't overwrite the previous Pokémon. The monster retains all of its old moves and abilities, but now has extra powers along with a health boost.

Actually Playing the Game

Now that you've digested all the information up there, it's about time you play the game. This bit is rather simple once you know what you're doing.

Before you begin the match you have to decide who goes first - generally decided by a coin toss, with the winner choosing. It's worth noting that going first isn't particularly beneficial, however. Since your opponent hasn't had the chance to play their Pokémon, you can't actually attack until the second turn. That means the person going second is first to attack, and this can feel like a bit of a head start.

Once you're off, each player takes it in turns to organise their team and attack the other player. Each turn begins with you taking a card from the top of your deck, and adding it to your hand. From here you can do anything, provided you have the right cards. Attach energies to your Pokémon, play trainer cards (as many as you like), evolve your monsters, switch the active Pokémon, and, most importantly, plot.

The Pokémon Trading Card Game isn't rushed, and there are no time limits to worry about when your turn starts. So always take the time to think things through, and ensure you're following some kind of strategy. Your turn ends as soon as you've finished attacking your opponent, so before that point you need to have done everything.

You'll pick up new ideas as you play, learning different tricks and combinations that will help you win. Raw power matters but it's not everything, so make sure you're thinking tactically about being the very best, like no-one ever was.

The App


The final thing to mention is that you're not stuck playing the physical game with another person. The Pokémon Company has a digital version of the game that lets you play against the computer and other people, and it has one absolutely killer feature. While it has its own digital store for buying new cards, every physical pack you buy comes with a code that can be redeemed in the app. Sets that have pre-determined cards will be exactly the same in the app, card for card. Booster packs, on the other hand, will be completely random, so you will end up with digital copies of card you don't actually own.

It's available on Windows, Mac, iPads, and Android tablets.



Featured image: Minh Hoang/Flickr