A year ago today, I’m sure many of us would have scoffed at the idea of Pokémon being a ‘big thing’. Sure, they’d been around since the mid 90s, there were dozens of popular games in the series, and there’s now hundreds of episodes in the anime, but surely this was a series on the wane? With Pokémon Go and Pokémon Sun & Moon, they’re absolutely back in a big way, and the new 3DS games are on track to be some of the best selling Pokémon games so far.
Alongside all of this, there’s the Trading Card Game. It has a major following in its own right, and people might have a link, but somewhat separate soft spot from their childhood. Just as Pokémon Go spurred the TCG to revisit the original batch of trading cards and reprinted them, seeing record breaking growth in the process, Sun & Moon’s 3DS release has now been followed by new theme decks and cards featuring all the Alolan additions.
Bright Tide mixes water element Pokémon with a few lightning, with Popplio and its evolutions the stars. Forest Shadow naturally features Rowlette, with almost entirely grass, while Litten heads up with fire and fighting Pokémon in Roaring Heat.
With Litten being the cutest and the best by far, I obviously picked Roaring Heat to be my deck. One thing that stands out about this deck is the number of basic Pokémon that have a high number of hit points, that are balanced by either relatively weak or expensive attacks and high retreat costs. It certainly felt, to me, like it was the strongest of the three decks because of that, able to boss Forest Shadow’s grass Pokémon and, with a little luck or the use of the fighting Pokémon, go toe to toe with the watery Bright Tide deck. Of course, all of that changes as soon as you start to open booster packs and customise the deck, or build something from scratch.
If you’re lucky, you’ll open your booster and find yourself with one of the new GX cards in your hands. These ape the Z-Moves from the Sun & Moon video game, with the ability to play one, ultra powerful GX move per match. These 11 cards, which include Solgaleo, Lunala, Incineroar, Gumshoos, and so on, are sure to find their way into plenty of decks in the next couple of weeks.
Now, I’m under no illusion that I’m particularly good at Pokémon TCG. In fact, you may remember my tale of woe from the release of the XY Generations packs towards the end of last year, which revisited and reprinted the original Pokémon TCG cards and brought them back into the fold of the current game’s meta. I lost, quite pitifully in the first round that time.
The same could almost have happened when playing with the new Pokémon Sun & Moon themed decks. A hilarious but distressing statistical improbability came to the fore in my first game, as I battled a complete novice, my deck with fire giving me the obvious advantage over his with grass. Yet, my evolved Terrocat would deal practically no damage as I relied on Fury Swipes attacks and the need to successfully toss a coin, in lieu of enough energy cards to use Flamethrower and deal 90 damage while discarding an energy card. Needless to say, my flipping a string of 14 tails in a row nearly stopped me at the first hurdle – let’s blame the admittedly shiny, but potentially weighted design of the included plastic coin here.
All I can really say is that I got damned lucky after that, managing to make my way through some particularly tense and close battles. I was lucky to avoid defeat to a water-based deck, having managed to deal 100 damage with Incineroar’s most powerful attack before it was knocked out, I cannily used Passimian’s attack that affects benched Pokémon to pick on the adorable but relatively weak Lillipup to win a round, and the positively sandcastle-like Palossand evolved into Sandygast was able to simply soak up damage by reducing incoming attacks by 20 points. Oh, and if you can burn an opponent’s Pokémon? That’s basically the most evil thing you can do, as far as I’m concerned!
So, through a bit of luck, having a strong deck, and figuring out the most dastardly and frustrating things to play, I found myself in the final of the little competition at the launch event. I genuinely can’t remember the blow by blow of what happened, but it was a another tough, but enjoyable battle that swung back and forth until we were both left with just one prize card each. I remember the moment at which victory became inevitable, though. For me, there’s always an odd mixture of joy and guilt, more pronounced for it being a final that I was as surprised as anyone to be in.
Pikachu helping to clarify some of the TCG rules in his own inimitable way.
I think there’s an undeniable charm to playing card games in person. It’s just more involving, whether you’re friends with someone or are shaking hands and saying hello for the first time just before the match. I find it more convivial, and feel bad when I’m slowly but surely chipping away at someone that can’t defend themselves at that point. When I’m the one staring down the barrel of defeat, as I was when playing just one last match against someone after winning the final, at least I can shrug and express that there’s literally nothing I can do at that point to turn my fortunes around.
That’s something that I miss when playing Pokémon TCG Online, and other card games. I know that I’m playing against another person, but there’s none of that feeling. It’s colder. It’s also a much easier game to understand. That’s the real problem with Pokémon TCG; it might say it’s for ages 6 and up, but understanding the phases, knowing if you can evolve a Pokémon as soon as you place it on your bench, figuring out how often you take burn damage, and so many other layers to the rules makes this much tougher than you may expect. All of this is handled automatically when playing TCG Online, but you have to puzzle out, learn and remember it when playing with cards. Sometimes you just agree to go with the flow and decide that something’s fair if you’re both doing it, which I doubt would pass muster at an official TCG tournament.
Of course, the real thing to take away from all of this is that Litten is the best.