My inspiration for writing this article is Regigigas LV.X, one of my favorite cards of all time. I absolutely loved the complexity in that card — there were so many things going on with it that competitive players had multiple directions in which they could build a deck. Players looking for a Regigigas LV.X deck today have an arduous task ahead of them since almost every player who played Regigigas LV.X had their own spin on it.
At some point as I was cleaning out my card collection, I found this card and looked at it for a long time. I realized just how complex the game used to be, and how simple it is today by comparison. Reading Regigigas LV.X felt like reading a book. On the other hand, the best cards in the game today are simple, almost to an embarrassing degree. Just look at Black Kyurem-EX. It doesn’t even matter which one you look at, you’re looking at a card that does damage and discards some Energy — that’s it. The effectiveness of a card these days is largely based on the number next to its attacks.
In this article, I want to spell out why I believe the card creators are knowingly making this game simpler. I also want to discuss what it means for competitive players, and try to find a silver lining in the whole thing.
Remember to click on the link in the table of contents to go directly to that part of the article.
Table of Contents
- First Things First: The Label
- A Changing Current
- Compare and Contrast
- How Does This Affect the Game?
- Is There Hope?
FIRST THINGS FIRST: THE LABEL
At some point, the packaging for Pokémon TCG products changed to reflect a younger suitable age range for those wanting to play the game. When the game debuted, it was recommended for those 10 years and older. Currently, packaging reflects the “6+” age range.
When I think about how the game is now recommended for those as young as six, I think back to the complex interactions many cards in the past had. Could a six year-old play a Mesprit LA down, announce its Poké-Power, activate Regigigas LV.X’s Poké-Power, Knock Out the Mesprit LA, take two Energy cards from the discard pile and… well, and so on and on?
The point is, the label itself seems evidence enough that the card creators have systematically simplified the game. Along with a change in the label we have seen a stark change in the complexity of the game. It almost seems that there’s a word limit on cards these days; that too much complexity will fry the mind of a six year-old. Unfortunately, that has wide-reaching consequences for those with more than a 3rd grade reading level.
A CHANGING CURRENT
The second bulk of evidence for this simplification of the game is in the cards themselves. While new “blocks” of sets (“ex” series sets, Diamond & Pearl, etc.) normally avoid complexity at the start, I think there has been a specific moment in the game when the card creators shifted into crafting a game that’s overall simpler than before. In my opinion, that moment begins with the HeartGold & SoulSilver (HS) expansion.
HeartGold & SoulSilver Expansions
Starting with the HS expansion, we see a curious lack of text on the cards. From that set, there is only one card that has more than two “attributes” (attacks, Poké-Powers, Poké-Bodies, or Abilities). That card is Donphan Prime, arguably the best card from the set. Some new mechanics are introduced with that set — notably the LEGEND pieces and the new “baby” Pokémon — but not a lot comes out of this set strategically.
Compare this with sets that came out after the Platinum expansion to finish off the Diamond & Pearl block. These sets featured cards that were rich in attributes, and while the SP mechanic became a little too strong, I didn’t get the same bored feeling I got with HeartGold & SoulSilver sets.
Now, most of us know that with the introduction of a new “block” of cards things reset a little. New mechanics may be introduced, but the card creators always seem wary, until a few sets in, before they start unloading the game changers. With the HS block, however, this simplification of the cards stays in place until the Triumphant expansion. While Unleashed seemed to be moving in the right direction, it was still an underwhelming set. With Undaunted, the creators seem set in their ways: none of the cards have more than two attributes printed on them, and with a couple of exceptions the set as a whole is fairly flat.
Triumphant is different in one important way — the set had good cards in it. Unfortunately, all the good cards are the Primes. Not a single rare or rare holo in that set was used competitively. With the exception of Machamp Prime, Gengar Prime, and Yanmega Prime, none of the cards in the set had more than two attributes.
During this period in the game, I remember players attributing this “toning down” of the complexity to Pokémon Card Laboratories’ (PCL) desire to reset the power creep that had gone on since Platinum.
Black & White
To me, the Black and White sets represent a deliberate simplification of the game that we haven’t moved away from since. By this time, the age rating has been changed to suit an even younger audience. Competitively, sets are on the verge of rotating to HS-on, pushing out any of the remaining complexity from Diamond & Pearl sets.
With Black & White, some interesting things happen. Abilities (kind of) get introduced — there are only five of them in the set. Hardly a new mechanic at all, they take the place of Poké-Powers and Poké-Bodies but lose the Special Conditions clause found on most Poké-Powers. In other words, PCL found a way to simplify one of the most important features of the game.
Another thing to note is the lack of new mechanics starting with the Black and White block. Full-art cards get introduced, but that’s not a new mechanic. Abilities are, as stated before, just a consolidation of Poké-Powers and Poké-Bodies — nothing new there. HS by comparison was groundbreaking with its Prime Pokémon, LEGEND Pokémon, and “baby” Pokémon mechanics.
With Black & White there’s also this streamlined effort of making Legendary Pokémon really powerful. Many players might not know this, but Legendary Pokémon before Black & White were normally subpar. The LEGEND mechanic was rarely used competitively, most Legendary Pokémon during the Diamond & Pearl era were laughable (unless, of course, they could Level Up), and Legendary Pokémon in the “ex series” days were hit or miss.
With Black & White, this changed right away. A comparison of the Diamond & Pearl Legendaries and Black & White Legendaries shows a huge jump in damage potential. Dialga DP and Palkia DP could both max out at 40 damage while sporting 90 HP each. It really says something that both Reshiram BLW and Zekrom BLW could do three times that damage. The 40 HP extra isn’t bad either, especially with their flagship move Outrage. Considering this, it should be no surprise that Zekrom BLW and Reshiram BLW-based decks showed up immediately upon their release.
This important factor largely defines the game from that point to the present. Pokémon-EX, introduced in the Next Destinies set (also not a new mechanic), are a continuation of this idea. And while Pokémon-EX nowadays don’t have to be Legendary, they mostly follow the same formula: high HP with two attacks, both of which are remarkably simple. Just compare a card like Regigigas LV.X with its EX counterpart and you’ll see the drastic change I’m talking about:
There’s not much to say when it comes to the XY sets we’ve seen so far. The Mega Evolution mechanic has been introduced, and it’s off to an expected slow start. What irks me about Mega Evolutions is that attacks on the Basic Pokémon-EX cannot be used — less complexity — and that the card design almost ensures that only a single attack will be featured on Mega Evolutions.
Phantom Forces seems to be taking a step in the right direction with the Team Flare cards, all of which have interesting effects. The Team Flare’s Hyper Gear presents a new mechanic: being able to attach cards to your opponent’s Pokémon. This is a first in the game, and I’m desperately hoping they continue with similar ideas.
COMPARE AND CONTRAST
Let’s look at some of the differences between cards before Black & White and cards afterward. Understand that I’m not cherry-picking here; the differences I’m going to talk about here represent, on average, what you’ll find with each set.
Dusknoir SF 1 alone has over 100 words between its Poké-Power and two attacks. By contrast, Gothitelle has a whopping 33. Cards back then were allowed more words, it seems, which made those cards more complex by default (an Ability with 21 words just won’t be as complex as one with over 50). Try explaining Banette SW’s Spiteful Pain attack in less than 15 words, for instance.
Even Trainer cards aren’t immune to this gross simplification. Consider Pow! Hand Extension when held up against something like Pokémon Catcher. Think Fluffy Berry and Float Stone are the same? Think again! Fluffy Berry presented some restrictions, Float Stone doesn’t (how would the game have been different had Float Stone been incompatible with Keldeo-EX?).
Are the card creators even trying anymore? What happened to interesting cards like Regigigas LV.X? Or how about Gyarados SF’s Tail Revenge attack? What about the Lost Zone and all the crazy things that went with it? Even a neat mechanic like “held items” were a welcome change of pace (and something I always wished the card creators did more with). Now, we have cards like Landorus-EX (do bunch of damage), Seismitoad-EX (lock up Item cards), Mewtwo-EX (do damage), and Yveltal-EX (basically Mewtwo-EX). Even cards that could be really interesting like Umbreon PLF and Rhyperior XY seem one attack away from being good.
Oh yeah, Energy cards. Read a Holon Energy WP/FF/LG and get back with me. Special Energy cards today? Strong Energy = +20 damage; Herbal Energy = heal 30 damage. That’s about as simple as you can get without just not printing Special Energy cards at all.
The “This power can’t be used if this Pokémon is affected by a Special Condition” clause has disappeared, as have “held items” (Duskull SW’s Reaper Cloth) and the LV.X mechanic that allowed for additional Poké-Powers/Poké-Bodies/Attacks. With all this simplification, what effect does it have on the game?
HOW DOES THIS AFFECT THE GAME?
I think it’s made the game undeniably simple. There does exist complexity in deck building, but mostly because competitive decks run very few Pokémon (if they center around Basic Pokémon) or very few Energy cards (if they center around a lock). Either way, it introduces a lot of variability in Trainer cards, which is a welcome thing.
Unfortunately, though, the overall feeling is that the complexity of the game has been diluted. Many cards never see play because of their crippling design. If the card creators were doing what they did with sets like Stormfront and Platinum, I honestly feel we would have countless more usable rares in the game, which might mean less dependence on Basic Pokémon-EX. Imagine if Shiftry FLF had an effective single Energy attack. Or Victreebel FFI? What if Magnezone-EX had a decent Ability in addition to its two attacks?
Instead, we have basic cards that contribute to a simpler game. Keep in mind, I still feel the game is complex enough that skillful players will continue to win out over others, but the days of intense SP mirror matches is mostly over it seems. Cards like Regigigas LV.X just don’t get printed anymore.
IS THERE HOPE?
With Phantom Forces, our next set, there looks to be an interesting break in this simplification of the game, most notably in the Team Flare Trainer cards that are coming out. Head Noiser is brilliantly complex, and it and Jamming Net are the first Trainers that can be played on your opponent’s Pokémon. Meanwhile, cards like Battle Compressor and Robo Substitute seem aimed at adding a punch of strategy to the game.
As far as the Pokémon, there are some surprises, but the simplicity is still there. I like Gourgeist, for example, because it has an interesting Ability, an interesting attack, some cards in the set that combo well with it, and even a good attack on the Basic Pokémon it evolves from. That card, however, is much the exception. For the most part, this set presents a lot of the same: Pokémon-EX that maintain most of the power, ineffective rare cards, and only one Special Energy this time around (and a fairly boring one at that).
Much of my desire for the game to change comes from what I experienced when I first started playing the Pokémon TCG: complex strategies, decks that could be played differently every time, and new sets that introduced exciting combos. When new sets are released nowadays, I feel like I’m digging through dirt trying to find gems. The EXs largely seem like the same stuff over and over again, and the rares are hardly ever good.
My hope is for the card creators to continue to ignore their goal of reducing the Pokémon TCG to its simplest components. I never want to see a “4+” logo on any Pokémon TCG product I purchase. I and many others miss the days of complexity, when a single card had access to up to four different Poké-Powers, Poké-Bodies, and attacks (not to mention the other 56 cards in the deck).
That is something I long to see once more in the game.