I'm feeling nostalgic these days, so here it is: the first article of a long serial recounting the History of Pokémon TCG, from the early days up to now. I'll try to transcribe the context and facts of these eras as accurately as possible.
In February 1996, Pokémon Red & Green were released in Japan. They introduced the concept of collecting, trading and battling with Pocket Monsters, three points that make the transition to a Trading Card Game innate.
Eight months later, thanks to the success the Game Boy games have met, wild tie-in products appeared; Pokémon Trading Card Game was one of these. With 102 cards to collect of which several elusive holographic rares, a bit of adverstising towards kids, and the renown of the video games, it became a commercial success in a short time.
Play with your favorite Pokémon, play Trainer cards to support them, attach Energy cards to attack with them. The principle is simple but efficient, and terribly addicting. The playerbase quickly rose and sales were there, so new expansions were made, and the TCG reached its cruising speed it still has nowadays.
1999: Pokémon TCG comes to the USA
Two years later, Pokémon TCG was introduced in North America by Wizards of the Coast, at the dismay of many children's parents' wallet, as WotC was set to take over the North America kid's market. The Pokémon craze reached its paroxysm, numerous commercials were on TV and newspapers, Pika-cars were crossing the USA, and the TCG invaded every schoolyard in a instant, with games ranging from Memory to « Throw your card the nearest to the wall ». Many a Charizard was decimated during this unholy epoch.
Religious and legal controversies
Several schools -mostly in the USA- banned Pokémon cards from their walls. The diverse reasons given for this ranged from the justified “there could be racketeering in our school”, to the sliiiiightly less justified “Pokémon are creations of Satan to corrupt our children”.
Quite a few zealots were in crusade against Pokémon, as “it conveys satanic messages”: Kadabra was likened to the goat of the Sabbat...
As a new fad that swarmed the Western world, it brought what every fad brings : legal threats and incidents.
Burger King had to make one of the largest and most expensive recalls in history after one of the Pokémon toys they were giving away caused a 13-month year old death due to choking, with half of the ball covering her nose and mouth. After this incident, every fast food chains hired human-factors psychologists to evaluate toys and how children will use them before release.
A parents' group filled a legal suit because the random distribution of the cards in a booster pack can be considered a form of illegal gambling, after a mother complained that her kid begging to get boosters until he got cards he desperately wanted costed her more than $2000. To quote psychotherapist Ruth Kreitzman :
“I think people are really, really frightened of saying no to their kids.”
Uri Geller, a self-proclaimed psychic, sued Nintendo for $100 million as he claimed the Pokémon Kadabra -Yungerer in Japanese- was an unauthorized appropriation of his identity, with the similarity in their names and their shared ability to bend spoons. He also claimed that the star on Kadabra's forehead and the lightning patterns on his abdomen were references to the Waffen SS. A Patent troll precursor...
US District Judge Vaughn Walker dismissed his complaint, but to avoid any more hassle no more Kadabra have been printed in the TCG since Skyridge. 4 years later, Abra Mysterious Treasures circumvents the issue.
But all these legal suits did not stop the Pokémon phenomenon. The game instantly became a best-seller among kids, and Pokémon Leagues began to appear in chain kid stores such as Toys "R" Us. There, players could learn how to play, trade their cards, battle, learn about the metagame, and of course make new friends. Video games such as Pokémon Stadium and Pokémon Snap were in demo too.
On your first venue, the Gym Leader of your Pokémon League would hand you a League Badge Book in which points were stamped. You had to earn 500 points to obtain the Badge of the current season. Pokémon League was held twice a week, and you received points in various manners : 10 points by simply coming to the league, bringing a new player, taking part in League activities, constructing a new deck, trading cards, helping the Gym Leader (like clearing the chairs after a League session), or more prosaically by playing and winning games. You could also earn 20 points by teaching a new player how to play the game, once you successfully passed the Pokémon League rules test.
This helped a lot consolidating an important playerbase, as most players would come back more often to play with their friends.
Before I continue on, you have to understand that in some places cards were scarce and some players did not have access to a lot of cards, if to any. So, your experience of this time might be different from mine. I played in Pokémon Leagues in Paris, where there was no shortage and cards were produced in sufficient quantities right from the start. In fact, in France Base Set 1st Edition are more common than 2nd Edition ! While in most of USA, there has been numerous shortages, thus most players did not have access to the cards needed to make a competitive deck right from the start. The 1st Edition US cards are very valuable and are some of the most sought-after cards by collectors nowadays, as well as « Shadowless » cards.
Also, not everyone had access to the Internet at this time. Information was scarce in some places, and uninformed players were crushed by informed players. Information is power. There was not a lot of netdecking at the time, and the players who did not have an access to Internet had to rely on magazines to keep up to date about the metagame.
In the US, the Pokémon Trading Card Game Player's Guide is probably the publication which popularized the deck Haymaker, which was already dominating the game for several months.
In France, we had a reliable source, at least until Gym Challenge: Lotus Noir. It presented top-tier archetypes to the players even before the game was released in France, with competitive decklists. It gave players a standard Haymaker decklist, a standard Rain Dance decklist, and explained why most of the other Pokémon in Base Set are trash.
It provided competitive players without access to Internet good informations about which cards to get right when Pokémon TCG would be released in France. Publications like this one had a crucial importance in the establishment of a competitive metagame, sometimes even causing slight differences between countries.
For example, I recently discovered through a slightly heated discussion on PoJo that when Neo Genesis was released in the USA, Bill's Teleporter did not see a lot of play; while here in France it was a staple played in 4 copies in several decks, as it provides a card advantage of +1 in average.
Now that Internet is more widely available, metagame and decklists tend to be standardized all around the world; but 15 years ago that simply was not the case.
To summarize in one sentence : your experience of this format might have been very different from mine.
So, what the Base Set metagame looked like ? You could say it was completely and utterly unbalanced.
Big Basic Pokémon were ruling the game, and Evolutions had absolutely no chance, with the exception of Blastoise.
We'll take a look at the most important cards of Base Set, before delving into the decks played during this era.
Hitmonchan needs no explanation. 20 for and 40 for on a 70 HP Basic Pokémon was broken at the time.
It is the best Pokémon in Base Set, it can OHKO Squirtle with 2 PlusPower and 2HKO Electabuzz with Jab, and he is the #1 reason why Evolution cards aside Blastoise were unplayable in the early days of the game.
Its high damage output early game with the help of PlusPower and Gust of Wind means Basic Pokémon won't have the time to evolve. It also hits the Weakness of Electabuzz. There was nothing to stop it until Jungle and the first Pokémon movie brought Scyther and Promotwo.
Its only flaw is its Retreat Cost, which is easily circumvented with Scoop Up, Switch and Double Colorless Energy. Hitmonchan was the sole reason why Doduo and Farfetch'd saw some play in the early days; they are by no means good cards, but they resist Fighting.
Electabuzz is the second best Pokémon in Base Set. Very few things resist it in Base Set; no one played Diglett because of its paltry 30 HP, and Sandshrew was useless. Its first attack deals 10 damage and paralyse on a coin flip for , which at the time was really good, as it forced your opponent to waste Trainer cards to retreat early in the game.
Electabuzz destroys Doduo, Squirtle and Blastoise, with Thunderpunch dealing up to 80 damage to them for .
Electabuzz has the same Retreat Cost as Hitmonchan, but its biggest flaw is its Weakness: it's weak to Fighting !
So Hitmonchan 2HKO it with Jab, and OHKO it with Special Punch.
Doduo is the only Pokémon in Base Haymaker decks that has free retreat. It is also one of the few viable Fighting Resistance in Base Set, the other one being Farfetch'd. It's a very pratical Pokémon in Base Set, thanks to its two aforementioned attributes:
• It makes a great starter, so you can switch it early game for Hitmonchan or Electabuzz depending on what kind of deck your opponent plays.
• It makes a great replacement after one of your Pokémon is K.O.'d, and depending on your next turn draw you can switch out for free and send another Active.
• It makes a decent wall to Hitmonchan, taking no damage from Jab early game and only 10 from Special Punch; Lass helps it fulfill this role.
Farfetch'd, on the other hand, is less of an utility player and more of an attacker, despite its 50 HP.
It can deal 30 for with a coin flip, and 30 for without coin flip. Its role was also to absorb Fighting, trading the free retreat of Doduo for additional firepower, scoring a 2HKO against Hitmonchan with a PlusPower.
... But the main issue with Farfetch'd is that 15 years later, we still don't know where its pot comes from.
Blastoise is the best Evolution card in Base Set. The reason is pretty obvious: it deals 60 damage on turn 2 !
The downsides ? It's weak to Electabuzz, and it evolves from a 40 HP Basic. You'll have to put several Squirtle in play, or use Defender to ensure a Squirtle will survive until next turn so it can evolve. It's like baby turtles rushing to the ocean after birth: if they aren't fast enough, they're going to be eaten alive.
Alakazam is bad in Base Set. Really, I mean it. “Why are you talking about it, then ?”, you ask. Well, this soup lover actually saw a bit of play for Damage Swap, which lets you move your Damage Counters between your Pokémon. A damage swap deck combined Alakazam, high HP Pokémon such as Chansey and Zapdos, and healing cards such as Scoop Up and Pokémon Center. This deck has numerous issues, the main one being Alakazam itself. Its attack sucks, 30 for . Its Retreat Cost sucks, . It's a Stage 2 which evolves from a 30 HP Basic, which means you'll sometimes lose on turn 1, and that you'll have to put 2 Abra in play so at least one of these will survive until next turn.
But at the difference of Blastoise, which enjoys the Active Position and can fight on its own, Alakazam does NOTHING. It's a waste of space on your Bench, a Gust of Wind target that doesn't want to be in the Active Position, and its high Retreat Cost means you'll have to use Switch to get it out of there.
Another big weakness of this deck is its reliance on Trainer cards to heal damage. One well-timed Lass by your opponent usually meant the loss of the game. The whole deck also couldn't take Hydro Pumps from Blastoise forever, and Alakzam is K.O.'d by it with 2 PlusPower. Its Psychic weakness means it's OHKO'd by Promotwo released a few weeks later. And finally, Chansey had the bad idea of being weak to Fighting, which means you had to heal 80 more damage if your opponent hit it with Special Punch.
Chansey has a nickname in Base Set: the Punching Ball. And this doesn't mean she can take a lot of hits; it means she gets destroyed by Hitmonchan's Punches, despite her 120 HP. She was used alongside Alakazam and Pokémon Center, however her presence in this list is due to her Double-Edge attack, which deals 80 damage for .
It puts her in the K.O. range of Jab from Hitmonchan though, so be careful before using this. Defender helps a bit.
If you use Lass before playing DCE to escape Energy Removal, she can OHKO a Big Basic for two Energy cards, which is actually usable despite the heavy recoil damage. Note that her Scrunch attack doesn't prevent Special Conditions.
Zapdos was actually a better tank than Chansey: this is due to its absence of Weakness and its Fighting Resistance. Even if its attacks were really expensive, and it was awfully weak to Energy Removal, Zapdos took time to K.O. : it's only a 3HKO from Electabuzz, and if Blastoises 2HKO it, it's also weak to Lightning, which means if Zapdos were to find a way to attack quickly, it would get OHKO'd by Thunder. Which brings us to the next card...
This card would have been played a lot more if Energy Removal was not around at this time. Buzzap lets you K.O. your own Electrode to convert it into 2 Energies of any type. Its main recipient was Zapdos : with the help of PlusPower, it could OHKO the Big Basics with Thunder. Of course this card is utterly destroyed by Energy Removal : you lose your Energy, you lose the time required to set up Electrode, AND you give up a Prize for nothing. Not a great plan.
With the support of Lass, Electrode is remotely playable; without it, it is outright suicide.
Computer Search lets you search for any card in your deck. Period. Computer Search is basically any card you need at any time. If you need to renew your hand with Professor Oak, it gets it. If you need to K.O. a Benched Pokémon, it gets Gust of Wind. If you need 10 more damage, it gets PlusPower. If you need to retreat, it gets Switch or Scoop Up. It also works well in combination with cards coming after Base Set, namely Promotwo and Rocket's Zapdos.
Computer Search is so good it should be played in 4 copies in every format allowing it.
You discard your hand, then draw 7 cards. While the drawback might seem costly, it actually isn't, as your hand will be near to empty when you use this card. Professor Oak lets you renew your hand, and in combination with Computer Search, Item Finder and Bill, you can go through your entire deck on turn 1 ! Professor Oak is unanimously seen as the best Trainer ever printed in Pokémon TCG.
Bill lets you draw 2 cards with no drawback. There is absolutely no reason to not play this in 4 copies.
(Super) Energy Removal
Energy Removal and its big sister Super Energy Removal are two of the most disruptive cards ever created.
Their effect is stupidly simple and simply stupid: removing an Energy for free, when you can only attach one per turn, is disastrous for your opponent. Super Energy Removal is potentially worse, removing two of them when your opponent expects it the less, while you have complete control of the moment you lose one. It even works in combination with Promotwo and Rocket's Zapdos, just in case it wasn't powerful enough by itself.
Super Energy Removal enjoyed a quickban in Japan for very good reasons, but Wizards of the Coast did not ban it.
Gust of Wind
No one is safe. No one can hide. No, not even you Squirtle. Lil' Hitmonchan will find you and punch you in the face. This card was the bane of every Evolution card in the format. In the Pokémon TCG history, the next Evolution card after Blastoise and Wigglytuff that would see play is... Dark Vileplume, which blocks Trainers, and thus blocks Gust of Wind.
In Base Set, 70 was a magic number to achieve. Hitmonchan has 70 HP, Electabuzz has 70 HP, Promotwo has 70 HP, Scyther in Jungle has 70 HP. And guess what ? Pokémon used in Base Set deals either 20 or 60 damage, which means PlusPower will very often earn you a turn. With a PlusPower, Hydro Pump OHKOs the Big Basic Pokémon, and Jab + Special Punch becomes a 2HKO. It also disrupt your opponent's strategy by scoring surprise K.O.s, deny your opponent the possibility of using Scoop Up to save their Pokémon, and prevent your opponent from evolving their Basic early game. Those 10 additional damage had a huge impact in the Base Set metagame.
As if reusing Energy Removal, Gust of Wind and PlusPower was not enough, Item Finder also complements your draw engine by letting you reuse Professor Oak and Bill. It also saves your deck resources as you can grab a card from your discard pile rather than from your deck for the same cost as Computer Search. Aaaand you can retrieve Trainers you just discarded with Professor Oak. Item Finder is a very powerful Trainer and should be played in at least 3 copies.
Scoop Up is a card that must be used carefully. Scoop Up returns a Pokémon from play to your hand, but it discards EVERY card attached to it. It discards Evolution and Energy cards, so using it on Blastoise is obviously out of the question.
It's best use is to save Big Basic Pokémon, which were already powerful enough and enjoy a card that saves your Pokémon from K.O., denies Prize cards to your opponent, acts as a Switch when needed, and gets rid of Special Conditions such as Paralysis, while having very few drawbacks on Pokémon that can attack for a single Energy such as Hitmonchan and Electabuzz. It is also used by Damage Swap decks on high HP Pokémon such as Chansey and Zapdos.
If your Active Pokémon has a bad match-up, or if it is Paralyzed, Switch lets you send another Pokémon from your Bench. Useful when you don't want to lose Energy cards with Scoop Up, especially with a Doduo on your Bench which lets you send right back the Pokémon you switched out in the Active Position.
Don't get deceived by its looks. Lass is absolutely evil. It is a great weapon that is primarily used to reinforce a dominant position by denying your opponent the right to play Trainer cards. Lass must be used carefully, as it could end up hurting you more than your opponent if your timing is bad. It is also useful to protect yourself from Energy Removals and Gust of Winds. Just don't yell when your opponent top-decks Professor Oak on the very same turn you played Lass. Happens all the time.
The original Rare Candy. It's main use is to play Blastoise and Alakazam on turn 2. If you play Stages 2, you should play 4 copies of this.
The most effective way to get into competitive play was probably to get 3 Blackout, 4 Zap and 1 Brushfire decks.
In France, the Theme Decks were pretty cheap when they were released; and with 3 Hitmonchan, 4 Computer Search, 3 Super Energy Removal, 4 Energy Removal, 4 Professor Oak, 4 Bill, 4 Gust of Wind, 4 PlusPower, 1 Lass, and enough cards to trade for some Electabuzz, Item Finder, Scoop Up and Double Colorless Energy, building a competitive Haymaker was pretty quick.
Base Set - Haymaker
|9 Pokémon||33 Trainers||18 Energies|
|3× Hitmonchan||4× Computer Search||2× Double Colorless Energy|
|3× Electabuzz||4× Item Finder||7× Lightning Energy|
|2× Doduo||4× Professor Oak||9× Fighting Energy|
|1× Farfetch'd||4× Bill|
|3× Gust of Wind|
|4× Energy Removal|
|2× Super Energy Removal|
|2× Scoop Up|
=> Simply strike as hard as you can, and get your six Prizes by taking out frail Basics. Spam PlusPowers any time they are needed, and get them back with Item Finder. Gust of Wind helps you getting cheap K.O.s, or brings a Pokémon that was trying to set up into the Active position. Double Colorless Energy is mostly used as a means to pay for the Retreat Cost of Hitmonchan and Electabuzz, but can also help Farfetch'd to attack with Pot Smash, and it still provides Colorless Energy for Special Punch and Thunderpunch.
Base Set - Rain Dance
|9 Pokémon||34 Trainers||19 Energies|
|4× Blastoise||4× Computer Search||19× Water Energy|
|4× Squirtle||4× Item Finder|
|1× Doduo||4× Professor Oak|
|4× Pokémon Breeder|
|3× Gust of Wind|
|2× Super Energy Removal|
|1× Super Potion|
|1× Full Heal|
=> Simply use your draw engine to get Blastoise on the field on turn 2 with 5 Water Energy on it. PlusPower lets you attain the Magic Number of 70 damage with Hydro Pump. This deck isn't weak to Energy Removal thanks to Rain Dance, and you can use cards such as Super Energy Removal or even Super Potion (useful vs Haymaker) without slowing your deck. This deck is very weak to Lass early game, and one of your Squirtle will have to survive the first turn if you want to attack with Blastoise on turn 2. Also note that you should try to K.O. any Electabuzz on sight, as they can deal up to 80 damage to Blasoise with Thunderpunch.
Base Set - Buzzap
|13 Pokémon||35 Trainers||12 Energies|
|4× Zapdos||4× Computer Search||12× Lightning Energy|
|4× Electrode||4× Item Finder|
|4× Voltorb||4× Professor Oak|
|1× Doduo||4× Bill|
|3× Gust of Wind|
|2× Energy Removal|
=> This deck was seen in the very early days, then quickly disappeared as most players started to play 4 Energy Removal in their decks. Charge Zapdos with 4 Lightning Energy by turn 2, with the help of Electrode, then spam Thunder with PlusPower to OHKO Blastoise, Hitmonchan and Electabuzz. Use Lass the turn Electrode activates its Buzzap so it doesn't get discarded by Energy Removal.
It's clearly not a top-tier deck, but it crushed the opposition down ruthlessly when most players didn't have powerful decks.
Those were the three decks that were played at the very beginning, Haymaker being the clear top-tier deck.
As I said before, some players tried to use Alakazam + Chansey + Zapdos + Pokémon Center decks, with no success. Venusaur was even worse in a metagame plagued by Energy Removal. And a lot of kids had random rogue decks at the first League sessions. Some were well constructed but on a budget (e.g. 4/4 Dewgong, 4× Machop, a few Doduo and every good common/unco Trainers in 4 copies), and some were horrible, playing bad cards such as Magmar or Haunter with little to no Trainer cards. You had to play with what you had, and you already needed money to win, even if slightly less than now, retrospectively.
In the next episode:
I'll talk about the Jungle and Fossil expansions, as well as several promo cards in the next Pokémon TCG History article.
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I can't post articles and updates as often as I'd like to, but I'll keep adding new content to this website on a regular basis.
Any question or correction about Base Set ? Did you have a different experience from these ancient times ? Post your comments below !