Go Fish

Revisiting Mulligans, Benching Out, and First Turn Rules

I spend a lot of time writing about, reading about, thinking about, talking about, and sometimes even actually playing Pokémon. Because passing this amount of time on Pokémon is basically unavoidable with the way my life is currently shaped, I like to do myself a favor every once in a while and think outside the box.

I often think about ways to improve the game, whether it’s through updates to the invite structure, tournament procedure, card designs, or in the case of today’s article, rule changes. This is something I’ve written about before and will likely continue to write about fairly regularly, as long as you guys remain interested in it!

Revisiting Mulligans

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Sometimes your opening hand is just that bad.

I’ve spent the most time pondering potential changes to the mulligan rules. The current mulligan rule works like this: If a player has no Basic Pokémon in their opening hand, they reveal their hand to their opponent, shuffle it back into their deck, and draw a new hand (and repeat this process until they do draw a Basic Pokémon). Each time the player is forced to redraw, their opponent has the option to draw an extra card (beyond their original seven). This rule exists to encourage decks to be built with an adequate amount of Basic Pokémon. I feel, however, that it is particularly brutal in that the person mulliganing not only has to reveal their hand to their opponent, but they are also subject to a card disadvantage to begin the game.

I’ve brainstormed a lot of different mulligan ideas, some of which I’ve spoken about in my previous article. However, I believe that this time I’ve come up with a solution that is simple, is realistic, and, most importantly, addresses some of the issues with the current mulligan rule. Here is a brief summary of how the rule would work:

  • If a player has no Basic Pokémon, they reveal their hand to their opponent and go through the normal mulligan procedure — but their opponent does not get to draw any extra cards.
  • After players have placed their Basic and set out their Prizes, each player (starting with the player going first) may place any amount of cards from their hand onto the bottom of their deck, and draw one less than that amount of cards. Afterward, each player who choses to do this shuffles their deck, and play begins as normal.

The biggest issue with this sort of mulligan rule is that decks might be able to get away playing fewer Basics, as there is no downside to not drawing one in your opening seven cards. Additionally, Professor Juniper and Sycamore existing do make the mulligan decisions easier, as either player could shuffle away a hand of utility cards, keep one Juniper, and know that regardless of their subsequent draws, they’ll be able to refresh their hand and lose less resources in the process.

While I do truly believe that this is the best solution, I’ve also thought a lot about simply keeping the current mulligan procedure but having no penalty for mulligans at all. That’s basically what I’m suggesting above, although this method does come with a massive upside, which I think is overall an improvement.

No mulligan rule will ever be perfect and it’s possible that there is someone out there with a much better mind for game design than me who has thought this through even further, and has formulated an even better idea. I do think that there needs to be a change to the system either way though, and I would be willing to entertain any idea that wasn’t too impactful to the current overall structure of the game.

Benching Out

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Save me a seat!

One of the most aggravating ways to lose a game of Pokémon is to not have any remaining Pokémon in play when your last Pokémon is Knocked Out. This will often happen after starting the game with a dead hand and not drawing out of it for the first few turns (which my suggested mulligan rule would help to alleviate!) but sometimes you just draw the wrong combination of cards at the wrong time.

My suggestion would be to reword the rule to say: “You lose the game if you end your turn without a Pokémon in play.” This way, after your lone Basic is Knocked Out during your opponent’s turn, you would have a turn to play cards and hopefully find another Pokémon to put into play. While this wouldn’t necessarily help the dead opening hand scenario as described above, it would be relevant in a lot of other settings, and it would lessen the amount of non-games in Pokémon tournaments currently.

With that being said, there are a fair number of issues with this rule:

  • It doesn’t make any flavor sense. This is supposed to be a game about Pokémon battles, and one player still being able to play the game while not having a Pokémon in play is quite the strange concept. While I do ultimately think that game rules should trump thematic consistency, this is an important point, and one that the card designers are definitely aware of when making changes like these.
  • There are templating issues. For instance, cards with “when you put this Pokémon onto the Bench” effects — like Shaymin-EX ROS — present an immediate issue. My idea would be that, whenever you play a Pokémon without another one in play, it’s automatically moved to your Active Spot and no effects are activated from it. While a bit confusing, I think this is a fair way to balance out the fact that you get an extra turn of trying to set something up in the first place.
  • Some existing cards don’t play nicely. Cards like Revive, Archie’s Ace in the Hole, and Maxie’s Hidden Ball Trick would have very confusing wordings if this rule were in place. Although this is a very real cost, as confusing new players and making the game complex is never a good idea, I do think that players would come to understand how these cards would work (again, they would automatically go into the Active Spot) and, should this rule be implemented, future cards would be worded differently.

While it’s not perfect, I do believe this is a worthwhile rule, and it could really change the landscape of the game by lessening the amount of feel-bad moments and making players believe they have more of a chance in games they otherwise might have not.

First Turn Rules

I’ve been playing a lot of Cube lately, and in the current version of Matt Chin’s Cube, we use the following turn one rules:

  • Draw a card
  • No Trainers can be played
  • No attacking

Note that these rules, as well as this entire section, are referring to the player going first, meaning the very first turn of the game.

The Pokémon TCG has undergone quite a number of changes to the first turn rule. In the seven years I’ve been playing, I believe there have been three different rules for what players can and can’t do on the first turn. Each rule has had its place and I don’t necessarily think any of them were too game breaking, but it’s clear that some are more balanced than others.

When the flip occurs can be relevant too.

Personally, I believe, after playing dozens of games with it in the past few weeks, that the rule above may be the best rule overall in the history of the game, but it would lead to a lot of non-games in the current format. Cards are so powerful and decks are so reliant on Trainers that I think we would see a major increase in donks and overwhelming starts from aggressive decks.

With that being said, I think the current rules we have now work for this era of the game. Allowing the first player to get set up and draw some cards while restricting them from attacking leads to mostly fair early turns, and overall does favor the player going first. The only real downside to this rule is that there’s not really a downside when choosing to go first, as leading off is almost always correct, regardless of deck, matchup, or other scenario.

The only other rule that I’ve put some thought into would be to keep the current rule as it is, except disallow both players from attacking on their first turn. This would allow both players to get set up without suffering an attack. On the other hand, this would benefit the player going first even more, and I’m not sure that’s what we want.

I think it speaks to the complexity and richness of Pokémon that so many different rules can exist and be viewed as valid. While I would like to see a little more cohesiveness in card design so that hopefully we may one day keep a first turn rule for more than a handful of years, I’m glad that designers and developers are pushing the envelope, keeping the game fresh, and changing things where they need to be changed.


Thanks for reading! In the comments, let me know which of these rules changes you like, which you dislike, and if you yourself have come up with any potential rules you’d like to share!

Additionally, I’m always interested in hearing tales of when you’ve tried out custom rules (whether they’re mine or yours), as the only real information (outside of PTCGO data that we’ll probably never see) we have about current or future rules comes from players actually playing games.

See you in Arizona this weekend!

Reader Interactions

12 replies

  1. Xavier

    Ridiculus just ridiculus just keep the pokemon rules as they are and stop trying to change rules

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