Pokémon Trading Card Game Online, Shadow Era, and How to Make an Online Card Game


Hey everybody, and welcome to something a little different!

Today I’m going to be doing something similar to what Esa did back in October for The Deck Out and post something on SixPrizes as a way to introduce you to the blog that the post is from. Today’s post is from my new personal videogames blog, WittzGaming.com.

For those of you who haven’t been keeping up with my life (I really can’t blame you if you haven’t), I’ve been pursuing a career in videogame journalism. If you’re deeply interested in videogames and want to share a conversation about my different opinions on them, stop by sometime and leave a comment! If you’re not really that into games, don’t worry if you’re not into the site! While I’m sure Adam would let me shamelessly self-promote here if I wanted to, I have a little more of a purpose today.

Every now and again, I’ll be stopping by here to write articles outside of Underground. I can’t promise a specific deadline or anything, but if a subject in the realm of Pokémon or card games interests me down the line, I’ll share my thoughts here for you guys to read. Long, long ago I wrote an article on SixPrizes about Gardevoir/Gallade and I really enjoyed sharing my work with you guys (way back in September 2009!). I never wrote a second article because I ended up going straight from that into episodes of Prof-It!. While technically most episodes of the show had a written script, I feel like it’ll be nice to return to a written format for everybody to read every now and then.

The articles will likely have nothing to do with strategy, but rather about more abstract concepts, such as commentary on the state of the game as a whole, an analysis on card games, or the occasional joke article making fun of the stupid things we all do playing this game. As I’m looking to move forward to writing about videogame journalism, I’m already finding myself writing over 20,000-30,000 words a week. As much as I love games, changing things up to write about my favorite hobby now and then should be a nice way to break the pace while still letting me work on my writing craft.

Sound good? Good! Today’s post is a nice hybrid between the two things that I love—Pokémon cards and videogames:

The Article

As I’m sure most of you are aware, I am a huge enthusiast of the Pokémon Trading Card Game. I’ve been playing since the game’s creation in 1998, I’ve been running an online show about the game for over two years, and I even ended at 5th place for last year’s world championships. Because of this, it was only natural that I would be much more excited than the average person about the release of the Pokémon Trading Card Game Online program earlier this year. Conversely, it also meant that if the release was poor, I’d be extra critical of the game. Unfortunately, the latter is true.

As a game journalist, I’ve been looking for ways to integrate my best game-related skills into what I write. With the Pokémon Trading Card Game Online program alive for a handful of months now, I can think of no better way to share my knowledge. Today, I’ll be talking about the major factors behind PTGO’s lackluster introduction, and comparing Pokémon’s major problems to another online trading card game that executes it’s problems a little better: Shadow Era.

At face value, both of these games exist on entirely different scales. The Pokémon TCG has been around for over a dozen years in physical form, with organized competition existing in one form or another for at least a decade. Technically, it’s only been in open beta since August 2011, but I’ll address later why I feel that doesn’t excuse PTCGO from being judged as a brand new videogame. Shadow Era, on the other hand, has been around as a program only for the past year or so, and has only just recently announced physical cards. However, at the basest level, both games are still in essence the same thing: collectible online deck building videogames. Both games contain entirely different mechanics and fundamentals, and I won’t waste any time talking about which game functions better as a tag alone. What’s more important (for the sake of this website, at least) is examining the success and failures of both products as videogames.

Let’s look at some crucial categories, shall we?

Single Player (offline)

Nothing helps integrate a player better into an online card game’s universe than allowing them a chance to practice the game’s mechanics. Allowing a player to learn your game against an AI opponent instead of a human opponent right off the bat helps decrease confusion and frustration.


This is actually one of Pokémon strongest points, in my opinion. Dubbed the Pokémon Trainer Challenge, PTCGO’s single player mode allows you to select from a handful of pre-made decks and compete against a large handful of AI opponents. Players face off against every other opponent in a “Mortal Kombat” style bracket until they’ve completed that specific “league” of opponents, and are then given more challenging opponents to face. The experience is complete with achievements, awards for your deck, and a great range of challenge needed to slowly learn and understand the game. It’s colorful, fun, and a great way at getting a new player hooked on the game.

The Trainer Challenge is actually a great way to introduce players to the game.

Shadow Era

Shadow Era’s single player option isn’t the flashiest, but it still gets the job done. Just like PTCGO, Shadow Era begins with the player selecting a deck out of a pool of pre-constructed options. The game places you in a single player world map, where the player can decide between five different challengers at a time to battle. It’s simple, but it’s all you really need to make sure that a player can practice against multiple types of decks. One fantastic feature that’s also included is the ability to make custom AI decks to test against with the game’s entire card pool, but this is more a resource for a more serious player than a tool for someone trying to learn the game for the first time.


Being able to play a game from a variety of platforms and formats isn’t critical to a game’s success, but it only helps. Being able to jump into a new card game from as many different ways possible is a great way to get a large and diverse audience playing your game. It’s also convenient for players who have multiple different platforms for gaming, and don’t always want to use the same one connection to play.


Pokémon immediately severs itself from a core audience by making its game entirely flash-based. Because PTCGO is a fairly complex program, it takes a heavy toll on browsers, and is extremely slow on fairly capable machines. Flash makes it non-compatible from all iOS devices (even with browsers that claim to run flash-based elements), and it also doesn’t run very well on flash-enabled tablets, from what I’ve heard. In addition, I’ve found that the flash-based PTCGO has never jived well with my Macbook Pro whatsoever, despite it’s more than capable gaming and browsing specs. In order to get an experience that has minimal slowdown, I have to either play PTCGO on a PC, or emulate a PC on my Mac and play using that.

What PTCGO desperately needs is a separate downloadable client for both PC and Mac, which would prevent slowdown due to a rapidly filling browser cache. Flash has been a great way to play plenty of solid independent games on Newgrounds.com, but a major worldwide card game deserves a better way to perform.

Shadow Era

Despite being a smaller release, Shadow Era is available for every major computing device that makes sense for playing a card game. To date Shadow Era is available in-browser through Unity Web Player, downloadable as independent clients for Mac and PC, and is offered as a free App for both Apple and Android marketplaces. As someone who loves playing on-the-go, I’ve spent most of my time playing Shadow Era on my iPod and iPad, and I love it. Touch screens make for the most immersive and integrated way to play a card game, because it most accurately mimics the way you’d play a game in real life. Simply tapping a screen takes substantially less physical effort than gripping a mouse for hours on end, and I highly recommend downloading the Shadow Era app if you haven’t already. As a longtime player of Pokémon, I can’t help but be extremely jealous that we don’t have nearly as many options to play our official game.

Cost vs. Free

Due to the continual expansions featured in TCGs, cost is almost always going to become a factor. When companies create a paid system for obtaining all of the items necessary for playing their game, they should make the ability to purchase new cards as simple as possible. In addition, I feel like every online game should have the ability to enjoy their game on at least a semi-competitive level for free (Think League of Legends). Players able to compete and become engrossed in a game will be much more likely to seek ways to pay for the game’s exclusive content.


This is where Pokémon really begins to drop the ball. It’s also the major reason I don’t consider Pokémon safe from judgement, despite its “beta” status. Pokémon currently offers just two ways to obtain its cards, and both exclusively require you to purchase physical product. You cannot obtain new cards in any other way, and thus cannot experience the trading card game as a whole without making a considerable investment into it.

At the time of writing this, the only way to get new online Pokémon cards is through code cards found in physical structure decks and booster packs. Structure decks come with a code that allows you to redeem the same 60 cards as your physical counterpart online, while booster packs allow you to redeem a single randomized 10-card pack from any legal set of your choice. This is a fantastic marketing tactic: every time someone buys a pack of Pokémon cards, they’re introduced to an advertisement for the online game. However, limiting yourself to ONLY physical product leads for plenty of problems.

The first is simply convenience. Every physical PTCGO code card comes with a 13-character code that can be redeemed one of two ways: by typing or by webcam. Scanning via webcam has rarely worked for me despite attempts on multiple platforms, so I’ve been left to do a lot of typing in order to play this program the way I want to. Typing out each and every individual code becomes an exercise in patience, and is one of the major reasons I currently have a stack of nearly one hundred un-redeemed cards sitting on my desk right now. All of this could be resolved by simply offering the ability to purchase packs and theme decks online. No reason to punish the customer after they’ve already paid good money for your product.

My other problem with only offering the physical product leads to a major issue: getting the cards you actually want. Because Pokémon has officially taken a stance against selling their digital cards online (they’ve persecuted major players of the game for doing so), your only way to get individual cards is either through opening a massive amount of product through sheer luck, or through the program’s trading system. Without having a cash value to go off of, the only way to judge the value of a specific card seems to be in its approximate worth in unopened packs. The only efficient way to “buy” the cards you need is by hoarding up on unopened pack codes and spamming the public market with specific offers that you hope will be accepted by someone out there in the world.

Aside from giving the hardcore players a serious hassle, it also completely locks out casual players interested in the game. You’re given a single deck to play with online, and that’s it. If you want more cards, you need to buy physical product one way or another.

Words cannot describe how frustrating it can be to type dozens of individual codes at a time.

Shadow Era

On the flipside, Shadow Era does almost everything right. In the exact same fashion as Pokémon, both theme decks and booster backs are available for adding new cards to your collection. The major difference is that these items are purchased using a digital currency by the name of shadow crystals. With a simple credit card transaction, you’re on your way toward getting new cards through simple or advanced packages. No hassle, no problem. Ironically, while Wulven is currently promoting its new physical cards, you get free physical cards for the purchase of digital currency.

In addition to shadow crystals, Shadow Era offers a fantastic way for serious players to increase their collection for free. By playing matches against the AI or other players, you are periodically awarded with different amounts of coins. At any point in time, you can visit the in-game merchant to purchase any individual card in the game for coins. The price of cards fluctuates based on its popularity, simulating a real-life market fairly well. Despite the fact that you can’t do any physical trading in Shadow Era, the free in-game market more than makes up for it.

The Shadow Era market is a fantastic way to let players earn new cards for free.


Players should be able to play a quick match against a random opponent at any given time, as well as have the option to play against their friends in private matches. Also important is the ability to play players in quick match that match your own general skill level, keeping your games constantly challenging without being overwhelming.


I can’t really say much about PTCGO right now, because it fails on every account other than offering simple random matches. This is where the game touts its giant “beta” flag on the home page, and there’s not much that can be done as a player other than simply waiting for more functionality to appear down the line. Random matches are truly that–extremely random. If I’ve had to count the number of times I’ve had to play a completely new player with my world-class decks, I’d be embarrassed at how much time of my life I’ve essentially wasted. Having no real tier system keeps both the weaker and stronger player unhappy. In addition, dedicated private matches are currently unsupported, so going online and hoping to hit a decent opponent is really your only option.

Shadow Era

Offers random matches that pair you with someone at your relative rank. Also offers private matches. Need I say more?

Overall, there’s a lot more that I could say about Pokémon Trading Card Game online that I’d like to see improvement in, but for now I wanted to examine a few key areas where things need to be better in order to deliver a satisfactory experience to everyone. These problems (and many more) have been mimicked hundreds of times by other members of the community, but I thought that it’d be an interesting perspective to compare Pokémon to another videogame to provide a fuller perspective. Does this make Shadow Era the perfect game? No, it doesn’t, but that shouldn’t stop me from praising the multiple things it does right. I know that Shadow Era is a much less complicated game with nearly one-third the amount of total playable cards, but that shouldn’t ever prevent a major company like Pokémon from being able to deliver the same experience as an independent developer.

I can’t lie and say that I haven’t spent plenty of time on PTCGO, and I also can’t deny that I’ve had fun on it before. However, as a competitive player, I know there’s a lot more work to do. I know that things are still technically in beta, but you can’t expect to force people to pay and play your game without delivering a complete and finished product, first.


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Reader Interactions

33 replies

  1. beyblade1410

    Jwittz what should I play for states, mewtwo celebi tornadus, or mewtwo zekrome ex eel, this is an important decision, I need your opinion or anyones on whats beter out of the two.

  2. Riley August

    As far as I and just about everyone I know is concerned, PTCGO has already bombed, and it’s not likely to recover at this point. Even if they overhaul their business model, they have to drag themselves out of a tarpit of bad press, being infamous for scams, bugs, horrible resource usage, and all the other issues with it.

    That’s the other reason, by the way, they depend on physical product: since there are no online transactions, all online product is without liability. Otherwise they’d have to deal with scams, hackers, and other fraud more aggressively, which I’m pretty sure they’re not capable of doing.

    • Anonymous  → Riley

      Thanks for commenting! It’s a shame that they handled their release so poorly, and they likely are at a “point of no return” like you said.

      It’s a shame that they aren’t able of handling online transactions, because they’re pretty much becoming the standard with any game that can connect to the internet these days. If even the smallest independent game developers are handling internet transactions just fine, I don’t see why a major company like Pokemon is struggling to do the same.

      Actually, now that I think about it, Pokemon released a statement a few months back about how they’d eventually be implementing gems into their game, which can be purchased online to buy AVATAR items. So it’s not that they don’t think they’re capable of selling digital currency, they just don’t want it going toward packs. It doesn’t make any sense to me.

      • Riley August  → Anonymous

        That makes even less sense. That said, as a game developer and former researcher in game development processes, I have to say this: nothing Pokemon does makes bloody sense. The word Pokemon prints money – things like rules consistency, competitive integrity, and game balance don’t even have to be considered. If I didn’t love Pokemon, I wouldn’t touch this game with a ten foot pole.

  3. Anonymous

    Great job Josh! I quite enjoyed the article and I really wish Pokemon made it easier to get specific cards online, especially with free online currency.

    Looking forward to read more articles like this!

  4. Lynx Meche

    A direct comparison between PTCGO and another program like this is a lot better than seeing a single paragraph vaguely explaining why they think TCGO sucks. It does have its strong points even though it’s still in beta, which are usually ignored. I do wish they didn’t release it until they handled online currency, but it’s not like they can take it back and shut it down, so I’m not sure what’s expected of it as a whole.

    Shadow Era is something I haven’t heard of yet though. I’m curious enough to Google it now.

    • Anonymous  → Lynx

      I definitely think PTCGO has potential and does a few things right, otherwise I wouldn’t have taken the risk on writing an Underground article about it a few months back. I think the interface is a lot cleaner than most online card games, and being able to randomly get paired with a really good player is a cool feature too. I’m just sad because PTCGO could have been something much, much bigger for the entire Pokemon TCG as a whole.

      Go ahead and check out Shadow Era! It’s free, after all. It reminds me a lot of the World of Warcraft TCG if you’ve ever played that, and a little bit like MTG.

      • Lynx Meche  → Anonymous

        At least some people still have hope left in PTCGO, haha. Too easy to find people online and in real tournaments who laugh at anyone who says they tested on TCGO, since it has a pretty interface and random matchup. Unfortunately, it looks like they rushed it to time with the release of the BW sets and advertise both at once.

        I played MTG as a kid, but otherwise, card games are too expensive to keep up with long term, especially the ones that don’t keep a limited format like Pokemon. Definitely looking once I get the chance.

  5. Anonymous

    While I liked what you wrote, I have to respectfully disagree about having to put money into the game. Without putting a cent into the game I have been able to create a fully functional 6 Corners deck. This is without any money and acquiring cards such as Shaymin and Kyurem that are very valuable in the game.

      • Anonymous  → Anonymous

        It was at the very beginning of the game, but if I remember right you get x amount of free packs to start with. Then I just ended up doing a heck of a lot of trading. I found if you trade a valuable card for a few packs, then it makes it so you can really stock up on value. Plus scouring the trading area for people with no idea of the value of cards.

        • Anonymous  → Anonymous

          You got 20ish packs for maximum participation (10 hours I think) in the closed beta once they moved to the open beta. If you were able to get enough “valuable cards” in 20 packs to stock up on enough packs to make a competitive deck, I applaud you.

          Regardless, this method isn’t available anymore to anyone who is interested in the game now, so it still is mandatory to invest money if you’re a new player interested in the game. I also don’t know how often you could pull that off–I’ve opened 40 packs at a time only to have little redeeming value left. Even trading unopened packs (the best way to get new cards imo) can only go so far.

        • Anonymous  → Anonymous

          Well that is too bad. I guess I was just fortunate enough to get to play in closed beta. But it isn’t so much about getting valuable cards in the packs. I must have many times traded a two for one deal and seen the same deal as a one for one five minutes later. It took a while, but with patience it is very much possible to create a good deck. Heck when I began the best I could muster was a Sharpedo, Weavile, Sloking deck with what I had. Now it is 6 Corners. It just takes patience.

        • Lynx Meche  → Anonymous

          I played in closed beta, but I wasn’t NEAR as lucky as you, and those packs are definitely not the deciding factor in how much money you’ll spend overall. If all you could get was Sharpedo/Weavile/Slowking, that’s still pretty amazing compared to the “Typhlosion non-Prime rush” I had. I pulled stuff that I had no chance of trading for unless I wanted to try the Red Paperclip game, like Wigglytuff or Ursaring non-Prime. It took me several other codes and someone loaning me cards to be able to build Tyram.

        • Anonymous  → Lynx

          That is pretty much what it amounted to was the red paper clip game. I must have traded 10 DCE for packs. I would just get cards and shuffle them off trying to get better cards. Though if it was not for a couple of trades that were posted that had no business being there, I would not have gotten the deck I have now.

        • Lynx Meche  → Anonymous

          Ah, what I didn’t do was trade cards for packs. I had no luck with getting those for trade and I just know I’d end up worse off, but it is always fun finding the rare amazing trade. I did get a few of my Supporters through that.

  6. Jason Killough

    Awesome article…PTCGO does need to step up their game (pun intended)…wishing you the best in your career!

  7. Shadow Era

    Thanks for the in-depth comparison! It’s always hard for an indy studio to go up and compete with the big boys, but I’m glad we came out on top! :)

    • Josh Wittenkeller  → Shadow

      Holy crap! Is this Kyle? Either way, I’m a huge fan of your game and think it’s awesome that you were somehow directed to this article. I’m a huge fan of independent releases, and am trying to give them as much spotlight as I can at my new blog WittzGaming.com. I can’t lie, I’m jealous my card game wasn’t given the same treatment as yours got!

      Best of luck with your future releases at Wulven!

  8. Matthew S

    Really great article. I too have invested a substantial amount of time in money into ptcgo, and I agree with the majority of players here that it is do or die time. The release of Noble Victories could very well be the downfall of the game. As anyone who keeps up with the forms knows, there is supposed to be a new version in the works. It was supposed to be released early this year, but there has been no word on it for quite some time. I think that if that version doesn’t make substantial improvements (including a downloadable client) the game will die. I know it’s the last change for the game to win me over. I have a number of codes saved up for Next Destinies, but if things aren’t improved, I’m not going to waste anymore money on the game.

      • Matthew S  → Josh

        They don’t have a specific forum page about it. It’s mostly been mentioned by the profs in replies to issues with the current version. The two biggest responses in December were, “We’re still in Beta, be patient.” and, “The new version is coming early next year, be patient.” They seem to have dropped the second though. If you dig through the Suggestions thread and find a few posts that Prof_Proto has replied to, you can probably see some mention of it. They haven’t told us anything about it or what it’s going to improve on though.

    • Lynx Meche  → Matthew

      I’ve heard about the downloadable client, and I’m definitely wanting that as soon as possible. Not all of my computers run Flash programs very well, but most of my download games run okay. I’m up for anything that’ll cut down on the lag without me dropping the quality to low every time. It could save it some, since my biggest problem with the game is the lag. (I just get cheap code cards off Pokegym if I want them, so I’m not as concerned about having to buy packs to get codes.)

      I’ve also heard they’re considering a downloadable DSi/3DS version through the eShop, but it’d charge. The alternative to them releasing a 3DS version is releasing a port of the Gameboy TCG on eshop, but I’d actually rather see that personally. (This is secondhand knowledge, haven’t seen it on the forums officially, but I think it is worth noting.)

  9. Leandro Weber Souza

    Hey really cool article. I was just trying Shadow Era for the first time today and while googleing I found that there is this pokemon online tcg. I used to play pokemon years ago and though I’d love do play it back online, it just doesn’t seem very functional as is.
    Also while googleing I found about magic the gathering online. And I also never heard of it!

    Did you ever tried it? What’s your opinion about that online tcg ?

    (hope you didn’t talk about other online tcgs here too often cause I just found your webpage! =] )

  10. Chad DragonLord

    I have to say that I absolutely LOVE Pokemon TCGO. I just started playing pokemon about a year ago and have little to no physical collection to speak of. So I needed an online method to do my playing and testing. I tried Playtcg and Red Shark and felt both interfaces were much too clunky for me, plus it was difficult to find opponents to play when I wanted to play. Then Pokemon TCGO came along and wow!

    The graphical interface is beautiful, night and day compared to those other two programs. All the card rules are built in and the playability alone was far superior to those other two programs as well. The need to acquire codes was a bit of a hurdle, but with very little effort I found several web sites on the internet that sell unused code cards dirt cheap. I even found a place to get the equivalent of three virtual packs for about cents! That means a full virtual booster box is just $6!! So for less than the price of two real packs I could buy an entire booster box of virtual cards. I quickly built up a 4000+ card collection and didn’t have to spend much money to get it.

    And trading for cards is a breeze. With just a little bit of patience I managed to build 4 or 5 top level decks and have been playing and testing them ever since. I play 5-10 games a day. No other way of playing Pokemon compares to it. It is even faster than playing someone in real life. The computer shuffles for you, and searching your deck is easier than in real life. At any time of day I can go online and play a game within 90 seconds!! And the games play fast and I can complete them in 5-30 minutes, with most games lasting just 10-15 minutes long. For busy working folks like me that is perfect.

    Forget Shadow Era – I have no interest in that game. Or MTG, or any other card game. If you want to play Pokemon then Pokemon TCGO is the BEST way to go, period. Yes I know there are a few bugs and it seems to be taking a long time to fix them, but it hasn’t taken away any of my enjoyment. The bugs are only with a very small handful of cards so they don’t come into play that often. I know because I have played over 700 games online (600+ wins). I have been having a blast on Pokemon TCGO and the program has fueled my interest in the pokemon game immensely!! It will only get better from here on out as they add new features and correct the issues. Other than the problem with older computers having a tough time with the lag, I see no reason that everyone shouldn’t be playing it. Shop for codes online and you can get lots of packs for little cost.

    Where else can you play Pokemon online as good as this? Pokemon TCGO is far and away better than Playtcg and Red Shark.

    • Mickaël Giroux  → Chad

      wen i start the game the coulour of my cards was pink and purple, i can’t see my chat and many other important details (i can’t see my deck on my “deck selection”)
      why and how can i repair this problems…
      pleaze help me i want to play this game correcly

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