Power to the People

How the Pokémon TCG Became More Popular by Becoming Worse​

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This is the story of how the Pokémon TCG changed from being a game ruled by powerful groups of elite players to what it is today – a far more open and accessible experience. But that process of change has had consequences, not all of which may have been intended: we may have ended up with the game we deserve, but have we really ended up with the game we wanted?

I want to start this story by taking you back to my very first World Championships in 2008. I was 12 years old and we made a last-minute decision to attend because it was held in Florida and could be part of a family holiday. A few days before the tournament, I did some practising with Tom Hall, a well-known UK Masters player.

We tested and tweaked all the popular archetypes of the format: Gallade/Gardevoir, Empoleon/Bronzong, Magmortar… we spent a whole day playing Pokémon. During those many hours of playtesting, I managed to win one single solitary game. That’s all. But I wasn’t frustrated or angry: Tom was a very much better player than I was, with a lot more experience. I honestly didn’t expect things to turn out any different – why would I? Why should they?

Back in those days, elite groups of veteran players developed decks, playtested, and kept their lists a secret from all but trusted friends. As a result, their decks and their playing skills were superior to the rest, and this meant that they dominated the tournament scene. Larger tournaments, such as Regionals and Nationals, were almost always won by one of these players.

Then it all began to unravel. Pokémon opened up, the power of the elite became disseminated and dispersed. A new environment was created: one where relatively new players could succeed at a very high level. They too had the right cards, the right lists, and enough knowledge to prosper. How did this happen? I would like to suggest three important factors.

1. It’s the Internet, Stupid!

Yes, the internet has been around for years now, but only relatively recently has it become so easily accessible to anyone at anytime. Some of you might be reading this very article on the phone you carry around in your pocket.

At the same time, the amount of available information on Pokémon has expanded exponentially. You can see winning deck lists on this very site, discuss them in Facebook chat groups, and even watch videos of them being played on YouTube (other sites, chat programs, and streaming services are available). No longer are the top lists in the hands of a select few. Anyone with access to Google search can find them.

2. The Death of Consistency

There is always a lot of talk amongst players about “consistency.” Sometimes, I wonder what people even mean by it, so I thought I would provide what I think is a fair definition:

The reasonable expectation that you will have access to the resources in your deck during the course of a game.​

When both players have reasonable access to their resources, then it will be the player who has the best resources and uses them most wisely who wins.

This is something which I think has been missing from the game for a number of years now, probably since the rotation of Uxie LA. We are now forced to rely almost entirely on draw Supporters, most of which are really quite poor or have a potentially disastrous downside which is largely outside of the player’s control. Ironically, the more of these we play, the more we open ourselves up to chance: who hasn’t had to Juniper away a whole bunch of Supporters, or been stuck with a useless early Colress, or N’d themselves into an awful hand? In previous formats you had draw or search support which could be accessed throughout the game (Pidgeot RG, Magcargo DX 20, Claydol GE), or an easily-searchable form of reusable draw (Uxie LA) or an entire engine dedicated to making the use of Supporters as efficient and reliable as possible (Holon Transceiver).

Now it feels like “consistency” is an illusion created by lucky Junipers and Ns. There are basic things you can do to affect the chances of a better draw (such as thinning your deck), but they still leave you at the mercy of chance far more than Claydol or Pidgeot ever did. The result is that a massive advantage is held by those who happen to get their Supporters in hand when they need them, and draw well when they play them. Little or no skill is required to do this.

3. The Simplification of Pokémon

During the most fondly-remembered formats, Pokémon was a game of deep strategy and forward planning which rewarded those who made the best use of their resources. Players who were able to think many turns in advance in order to take Prizes had a distinct advantage. The game was much slower in those days, which accommodated the planning aspect. Pokémon that did huge damage needed a lot of support, or a very risky set up.

Now Pokémon trade mostly in one- and two-hit KOs. They are extremely easy to set up using fairly basic combos (Emboar LTR + -EX, for example). When you are trading knockouts like this, the need to plan ahead is very much reduced: in fact it largely comes down simply to scoring a decisive hit before your opponent. This makes the game faster, and perhaps more exciting in a superficial kind of way. However, it also makes it very much easier.

Everyone’s a Winner?

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All this has had the effect of making the game more appealing and more accessible to potential players because they can now have a realistic expectation of winning without attaining a high level of skill and experience. The number of people who are prepared to spend a year, maybe two, practising, getting beaten, and seeking help and advice from established players in order not to suck at a children’s card game is likely to be extremely small.

Maybe by extending the possibility of victory to more people, the Pokémon TCG is ensuring its continued popularity and even survival. You only have to look at the attendance figures for US Nationals to see that competitive participation in this simplified format is more than double what it was during the “golden age” of DX-on.

You would think that these changes would alienate the elite groups of players, but then a strange thing happened: a few did quit the game, while some moved to the VGC. Most stuck around because they were so heavily invested in Pokémon on an emotional level: the appeal of the franchise itself and the good memories and friendships it had brought them, combined with a hope that the TCG itself would someday return to what it was.

More interestingly, many became the key distributors of information to the masses, setting up websites, writing articles, and providing commentary. They became high-profile leaders, not just of their own narrow friendship groups, but of the community as a whole, and this has helped to grow the game. Thus they retained most of their influence and status even as their success in tournaments declined.

When it comes to results, though, the stranglehold of the small, elite group of players has been broken, and now everyone has a chance to win, to join a much bigger elite that isn’t really an elite at all. But what we have lost along the way is much of the complexity and strategic opportunities that made Pokémon so compelling and so rewarding to play. Sometimes there is more fun to be had in mastering a difficult art than in getting a quick blast of instant success thanks to the internet and a hot streak at a tournament.

If you want a metaphor for what the game of Pokémon is today, we need to go back to where this article started: my very first World Championships in 2008:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MZOYXDnffNA

Here we see two of the world’s most skilful players, Jason Klaczynski and Yacine Sekkoum, engaged in an intense competition. But instead of playing the TCG, they are doing rock-paper-scissors. Yes, there is a degree of psychology and skill involved but primarily the outcome is determined by luck. It certainly has little or nothing to do with either person’s ability to play the game of Pokémon.

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