How to play the Pokémon Trading Card Game: A beginner’s guide

Learn the basic rules, card types, how to build a deck and how evolutions work.
Pokemon Trading Card Game card Charizard
Sarah Jarvis

With Pokémon Sword and Shield releasing on the Nintendo Switch recently, Pokémon is back in the spotlight once again - if it ever left, that is. Whether you’ve just discovered the Pokémon series for the first time, rediscovered it through the latest video games or Pokémon Go, or have been a fan since Red and Blue (or Green) landed on the original Game Boy, now is the perfect time to take up the almost 30-year-old series’ tabletop counterpart and learn how to play the Pokémon Trading Card Game.

One of the reasons the Pokémon Trading Card Game has remained so popular over its lifespan is thanks to its ability to keep all the familiar aspects of the video games involved, without having to tone it down. Evolutions, shinies, trainers, battles, status ailments: anything you know from Pokémon, be it the animated TV show or the video games, has found a way and place in the trading card game.

That's without mentioning the great sense of nostalgia a lot of players feel when they go back to a world and series of games they enjoyed when they were younger. With Pokémon in one form or another so familiar to millions of people, figuring out how to play the Pokémon TCG is a cinch - at its heart, it's the same as the video games you already know.

Even so, learning to play a competitive collectible card game of any kind can be a confusing task for total newcomers. So to start you on your journey to discovering what for some has been a lifelong hobby and for others is an old friend worth getting reacquainted with, we've put together this handy step-by-step guide to how to play the Pokémon TCG.

How to play the Pokémon Trading Card Game

The basic flow of play in the Pokémon TCG is relatively simple to grasp, but it involves a few steps you’ll need to learn before your first battle.

Each player has a deck of exactly 60 cards, consisting of Pokémon cards, energy cards, item cards and trainer cards. Apart from energy cards, you can’t have more than four cards in your deck with the same name.

At the beginning of a game, players can flip a coin to see who plays first. Then the decks are shuffled, players draw a hand of seven cards and the top six cards are set aside as prize cards; you add one of these to your hand each time one you defeat an opponent’s Pokémon, and claim victory if you pick up all six before your rival.

Pokemon Trading Card Game card Sceptile

A player can have a total of six Pokémon in play at once, although only one - the active Pokémon - can perform attacks during each turn. The rest remain in your bench - a row of cards behind the active Pokémon where you hold five other Pokémon who wait to battle it out against your opponent, a bit like your party in the Pokémon video games. Both active Pokémon and benched Pokémon can be evolved and have energy attached to them. If your active Pokémon is defeated, you must replace it with one from your bench; if you have no Pokémon on the field at all, you lose.

When each turn begins, the active player draws a card from the top of their deck; if you run out of cards in your deck, you lose.

During each turn’s second phase, you can:

  • Play any number of basic Pokémon from your hand to your bench.
  • Attach one (and only one) energy card to a Pokémon from your hand. This can be your active Pokémon or a Pokémon on your bench.
  • Evolve a Pokémon by playing a Stage 1 or Stage 2 evolution on top of a basic or Stage 1 Pokémon, respectively. A Pokémon can’t evolve the same turn it’s played, and can only evolve once per turn. (Unless an item card like Rare Candy specifies otherwise.)
  • Play any number of item cards.
  • Play any number of trainer cards. (Except supporter and stadium cards, which only let you play one per turn.)
  • Retreat your active Pokémon to your bench by paying the retreat cost on its card in energy from your hand. You must then replace it with a pokemon from your bench.
  • Use any number of abilities on pokemon cards.

After you’ve done the above, your active Pokémon can attack the opponent. The Pokémon can perform one attack listed on its card as long as the correct amount and type of energy is attached to the card. (The energy isn’t discarded.)

Damage is assigned to the opponent’s active Pokémon as damage counters - once it receives as much damage as it has hit points, it faints. A defeated Pokémon must be replaced with a pokemon from the bench (if there are no Pokémon to replace it, the player loses), and the player who knocked it out claims a prize card to add to their hand. If they claim their sixth and final prize card, they win.

Pokemon Trading Card Game card Wartortle

How does evolution work in the Pokémon TCG?

The Pokémon Trading Card Game has a lot of similar traits to the Pokémon video games. One of the biggest similarities is that you can evolve your basic Pokémon to powerful Stage 1 and Stage 2 Pokémon, letting you use more powerful attacks and abilities to knock out your opponent’s Pokémon.

Evolving is done in stages, and you are unable to skip or jump any stages unless otherwise stated on a card in play - meaning evolution must follow the pattern of basic, Stage 1 and Stage 2, and a single Pokémon can only be evolved once per turn. (They also can’t be evolved the same turn they are played to your bench.) The exception are GX and EX Pokémon, which may be played straight away and do not require evolution.

To evolve a Pokémon, all you have to do is place the evolved form on top of your active Pokémon or a Pokémon on your bench. This cures any current special conditions, but any attached energy and damage stays put. Once a Pokémon has been evolved, you can’t use a previous stage’s attacks or abilities - only the current evolution.

Evolution can happen in the bench section of your play area, so you can make stronger Pokémon in preparation for your current one being knocked out - and it’s strongly recommended you do so.

Pokemon Trading Card Game card Brock's Grit

How do status conditions work in the Pokemon TCG?

As in the Pokémon video games, the Pokémon Trading Card Game has a number of special conditions that can be inflicted on Pokémon, giving their opponent an extra advantage in a battle.

The special conditions are Asleep, Burned, Confused, Paralyzed and Poisoned, and are indicated by turning the Pokémon card counterclockwise (Asleep), upside-down (Confused) or clockwise (Paralyzed), or putting a special token on it (Burned or Poisoned). Multiple special conditions can affect the same Pokémon - in the case of effects indicated by turning the card, the most recent condition is the only one applied.

  • Asleep and Paralyzed: If a Pokémon is asleep or paralyzed, it can’t attack or retreat.
  • Burned: A burned Pokémon suffers two damage at the end of each turn.
  • Confused: Pokémon video game players will be oh-so-familiar with the words “It hurt itself in its confusion!” Confusion in the Pokémon TCG works the same - when you attack with a confused Pokémon, flip a coin. On heads, the attack happens as normal. On tails, the attack fails and the Pokémon suffers three damage counters (30 HP).
  • Poisoned: A poisoned Pokémon suffers one damage counter (10 HP) at the end of each turn.

The Asleep and Burned special conditions can be cured by flipping a coin at the end of the turn (after damage from being burned has been applied). On a heads, the Pokémon is cured.

Special conditions can also be cured by evolving a Pokémon or retreating it to the bench, which cures all special conditions. (Remember that asleep and paralyzed Pokémon can’t retreat!)

Pokemon Trading Card Game energy cards Water

How to win the Pokémon Trading Card Game

Like many other competitive trading card games, the Pokémon TCG can be won in a variety of ways:

  • The most common path to victory is to knock out six of your opponent’s Pokémon and collect prize cards. Every time you defeat a Pokémon controlled by your rival, you claim one of the six prize cards you set aside at the start of the game and add it to your hand. When you pick up your sixth and final card, you win!
  • If you defeat an opponent’s active Pokémon and they have no available pokemon on their bench to replace it, you can also claim victory.
  • If your opponent runs out of cards in their deck, and therefore can’t draw a card at the beginning of their turn, you win. This is what’s known as ‘decking’ your opponent.


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Mia Honey

Contributor

Mia has been a freelance writer for over three years, contributing video game reviews and buyer's guides for Jelly Deals and Official PlayStation Magazine. She turned her hand to tabletop games after discovering some video games translate amazingly well to cardboard, such as Resident Evil 2 and the Pokemon Trading Card Game.