No False Move

On Playing the Pokémon TCG Optimally

ash pidgeotto strategy

Strategy. It’s a word that is dear to the heart of any player of the Pokémon TCG. After all, once the cards are shuffled and drawn, the only thing left between you and victory are your choices, the step-by-step decisions that either inch you closer to a win or push you toward a loss. In a word, it is one’s chosen strategy that determines an outcome.

At the same time, strategy as it exists in the Pokémon TCG is a bit strange. Optimal strategies for other games are readily available – think chess or poker – yet with the Pokémon TCG there are idiosyncrasies that seem hard to explain. High-level tournaments are won by players piloting subpar decklists, rogue decks meant to perform well bomb spectacularly, a guy wins three Regional Championships in a single season, and so on. These things do not add up, and so players often attribute the discrepancies to luck, randomness, matchups, the weather, etc.

Some players have enough insight to highlight their misplays – and I believe that gets closer to the point – but the idea of nailing down an optimal strategy for performing well in this game seems difficult, if not laughable. A player can have an innate ability to build effective rogue decks yet play poorly. Or perhaps a player hardly makes in-game misplays at all, but they’re awful at metagaming (making a deck choice based on what everyone else is playing).

I believe an optimal strategy for victory in the Pokémon TCG is hard to reveal because we have been thinking about it in the wrong way. Practice doesn’t lead to victory, though sometimes it does. A decklist doesn’t lead to victory, though sometimes it does. Luck doesn’t lead to victory, though sometimes it does.

Strategy in the Pokémon TCG is like cooking. There are many different disciplines in the world of cooking one can learn about to produce a good meal, from proper hygiene to an understanding of exotic cuisine. Some chefs apply scientific thought and experimentation to their repertoire, while others become known for cooking a single dish over and over until it’s perfect. Asking what it takes to be a good cook is like asking what it takes to be a good human being – there’s no single answer, there are collections of answers.

The Pokémon TCG is like this. A good chef may be an expert at cooking steak, but what does it matter if the customer is a vegetarian? In this way, what does it matter if you’re a great Virizion-EX/Genesect-EX player if you face Pyroar FLF all day long? Maybe a chef has a background in putting together exotic dishes but they can’t cook an omelet. Maybe you can create rogue decks all day long but refuse to play a well-known archetype.

With this in mind, today’s article is going to focus on the most important strategies needed for success in this game. Sure, you might be able to think levels ahead of your opponent, but is that necessary for a deck that mostly plays itself? Or how about being able to get into your opponent’s head – is that going to pay off in the Pokémon TCG?

Remember to click on the link in the table of contents to go directly to that part of the article.

Table of Contents


power spray art

It’s strange to talk about the strategies that exist in the Pokémon TCG – to even admit there are multiple strategies to this game. We often think of strategy as something more simplistic than it is. “Practice,” “plan ahead,” “counter X with Y”… these are the most common bits of advice that float around in the Pokémon TCG. But these are different strategies entirely. So while Jenga requires only finger stability and War requires nothing more than luck, the Pokémon TCG requires a bit more.

When a friend of mine taught me how to play Magic: The Gathering, I quickly realized how different that game is from the Pokémon TCG. Perhaps the biggest difference was in how Magic expected me to plan ahead on a turn-by-turn basis. Pokémon TCG decks, by contrast, often play themselves out fairly simply. Being able to plan many turns ahead is not as important as in Magic.

What other strategies in the Pokémon TCG are not that important currently? Below you will find skills and strategies I believe are not integral to being good at this game. Some of them may surprise you, so let me first say I think some of the strategies have their place in the game, but are currently not that important. This does mean they might have held importance once before (for instance, there was a lot that went into convincing an opponent to play a Power Spray in previous formats).

Here, then, are the strategies and skills I believe just aren’t important in today’s game:

1. Bluffing

Power Spray was a card that created an interesting relationship between both players in a game. It opened the door for players to determine through body language, tone of voice, facial expressions, etc. whether or not a Power Spray should be played. In the seasons it was legal, players would trick their opponents into either playing Power Sprays or holding onto them.

2. Deck Building

I don’t put this skill on this list because I think it’s unimportant. Rather, with the access most of us have to decent lists, deck building has lost its significance. The previously required practice and tuning that went into deck building disappears the moment a player finds a good decklist online. Of course, building a rogue deck is something entirely different and remains one of the most important skills a player can have.

3. Thinking Steps Ahead

I know many players will disagree with me on this one, but let’s compare the Pokémon TCG to chess for a minute. In chess, nearly the only thing a player can do to win is think a few steps ahead of their opponent. For those who have played chess at this level, it’s a dizzying exercise (“If I move my Bishop here my opponent may take the bait, but if I move my Knight instead my opponent may overlook a vulnerability that…”). Yes, this happens in Pokémon too, but I don’t think it’s as important.

Consider, for instance, your opening hand in any game you play of the Pokémon TCG. At that moment, are you thinking about the mid-game and late-game or are you thinking about the turn you’re taking? The way I view the Pokémon TCG currently, each turn is comprised of optimal plays that build upon each other to represent a pre-planned strategy. In other words, the cards kind of play themselves. There are moments when I have to think a few turns ahead, but this pales in comparison to what’s going on in chess.

4. “Psychology”

This is a word mentioned often in the poker world to describe things like bluffing, tells, “going on tilt,” and so on. If anything, players will want to make sure they don’t get “tilted” (that is, getting upset at circumstances enough to affect one’s performance). Otherwise, there isn’t a lot of psychology in the game currently. With cards like Power Spray and Team Galactic’s Wager there used to be, but things have gotten simplified over the years.


I talk about playstyle a lot more in my upcoming article on in-game skill, but here’s a summation on what I think of playstyle and why I believe it’s important for any player to get acquainted with.

“In-game playstyle,” in my opinion, is a myth. It represents the idea that players – once a game has begun – can somehow get closer to victory by playing in various chosen manners. Playing “aggressively” or “defensively” is not a playstyle so much as it is a result of the strategy of the deck.

A Steelix Prime deck will play out defensively in the hands of any player – it’s in the deck and not the player. Even the idea of making aggressive or defensive choices during a game in progress breaks down when we as players consider what the optimal play is. As an example, most players can agree on when to play a Professor Juniper (aggressive) instead of an N (defensive/disruptive) when all factors are considered.

“Playstyle,” then, works better when used to describe a player’s successful tendencies. Ryan Sablehaus, a good friend of mine and an extraordinary player, has done tremendously well in the game by taking deck ideas from other people and tweaking them into something better. This is his tendency, his primary strategy… in a word, it’s his playstyle.

Sometimes, a player’s playstyle is represented by a specific strategy. Russell Laparre has made a name for himself by using decks that wall – decks like Flygon BCR/Dusknoir BCR and Donphan BCR/stuff that are designed to present a threat by getting the right Pokémon into the Active Spot.

This is something I think players should consider. It’s essentially being able to recognize one’s own strengths and then find a path to success based off those strengths. If you really like decks that “tank,” for instance, don’t be discouraged by the existence of a card like Rayquaza-EX or Black Kyurem-EX PLS, find a way around those cards and make it work. If you like speedy decks, try and discover decks out there that haven’t even been built yet (I’m sure this is how “Speed Lugia” decks even became a thing).



We are at an interesting moment in the game. Right now, Phantom Forces has just been released and has the potential to change the game entirely. My gut tells me that each set from now on will change the game just as much as Phantom Forces. For some reason, the card creators (Pokémon Card Laboratories) really like to make game-changing sets about 4-5 sets into a new block of cards. This happened with the Diamond & Pearl block (starting with Great Encounters), the Black & White block (Next Destinies), and prematurely with XY (assuming Phantom Forces is as big a set as many believe).

What this means is that your pet deck might be no good from one set to the next. Many players gain strength from being able to play the same deck a season throughout (think Darkrai-EX), but this may soon be a thing of the past. Instead, being able to change and adapt with each new set might be a key to prevailing.


Good rogue decks still win tournaments and present players with a skill that can lead to wild success. Both decks in the Masters top 2 at the US Nationals this past season were rogue decks, strange constructions that few saw coming. Of course, “going rogue” can present many challenges as well, so this is a skill I will say works best when done well (and can lead many to drop from a tournament if done otherwise).

The biggest aim with any good rogue deck is so important it’s a strategy in and of itself…


A key to any successful strategy is being able to identify a weakness in your opponent, in the metagame, or in the format itself. If everyone is playing fire decks, why not play a water deck?

In a lot of cases, these weaknesses aren’t obvious until someone has won a tournament exploiting that weakness. Afterward, we all do a face palm and tell ourselves, “Why didn’t I think of that?” Even something as simple as a deck choice can be an exploitation of a certain weakness in the format. Accelgor DEX, for instance, saw success when everyone had forgotten to tech for it.

While exploiting a weakness in the game can lead to a great rogue deck, it can also lead to proper tech choices. We have seen this a lot lately with the inclusion of Pyroar FLF into many decks as a way to deal with certain threats. Of course, this leads to another important skill in the game right now, which is…


pyroar male closeupBulbapedia

I’m actually more interested in what you, the reader, thinks about metagaming than what I think. Over the years, I have personally seen metagaming become a less and less valuable skill. Perhaps it fluctuates a little with each format, but it just doesn’t seem as important as it once was. I have trouble accounting for each deck that will show up at a tournament, and unless the format has a “rock-paper-scissors” feel to it, I usually just go with the deck I’ve tested the most.

I think metagaming is important for things like Accelgor DEX and Pyroar FLF, but it’s impossible to cover all your bases. Add to that the shift in deck building that has occurred lately (with many people adding 2 Seismitoad-EX, a 2-2 Pyroar FLF, and so on) and it feels like the value of proper metagaming is almost a myth itself.

Like I said, I’m interested to know what the players think about this skill, so be sure to speak up in the comments section!


Earlier I mentioned that the cards tend to “play themselves.” While I stand behind this statement, I don’t want anyone to get the idea that there is no skill in the game. While decks in the Pokémon TCG often play out by themselves, there has to be a good player behind it to play it perfectly every time, to find those optimal plays that aren’t always so clear.

In-game skill is something I’ll be focusing on again with my next Underground article, but it’s worth noting that very few players execute a deck’s strategy flawlessly every time. This continues to be an important aspect of the game and one that separates the winners from the losers.


It doesn’t look like tournaments are going to get shorter anytime soon, and so I must introduce one of the main reasons I climbed to 2nd place at US Nationals in 2010: endurance. During the three days I played in that tournament, I kept my tummy full, my throat wet, and my sleep sufficient. These are all incredibly important for maintaining one’s endurance.

In addition to providing your body with what it needs physically, all-day tournaments will take a toll on you mentally. If you’re anything like me, you might not have time to practice for long stretches at a time. Scheduling all-day practice sessions might help you become acclimated to playing in something like a Regional or State Championship.


count von count three cookie monster

I feel silly listing this here, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve played against someone who added things up wrong. In a game where reaching certain plateaus of damage is so important, there are still a surprising number of people who get lost in the additions, subtractions, divisions, and so on.

Since most players of the Pokémon TCG know their math, I have to conclude it’s because they aren’t considering everything on the field. Overlooking something like Hard Charm or forgetting about Strong Energy can cost games, so make sure you’re using your powers of observation!


As you can see, there are many different approaches a player can take to the Pokémon TCG, strategies and skills that will either help propel one to success or just get in the way. We have also seen these “required skills” change over time. In the future, planning ahead might become a much-needed component of effective play, but currently it falls in line way behind something like the all-important decklist.

Part of my aim with this article is to continue to dispel some of the myths that go around when it comes to determining what it takes to be a good player. We can put a lot of focus into the “psychology” that exists in Pokémon, but right now it just isn’t important. A good player, in my opinion, is someone who has identified their own strengths (playstyle) and uses those strengths to execute a deck’s strategy flawlessly with every game (in-game skill).

As always, thanks for reading! Be sure to sound off in the comments section, particularly with your thoughts on the importance (or lack thereof) of metagaming.

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