Despite the obvious benefits that come with the digital adaptation of the Pokemon Trading Card Game, it feels like fans see it as an afterthought. At its core, the appeal for players and collectors is the experience of having physical cards. There’s a joy that comes with having them on display, kept safely in a binder, or held in your hand just before playing them on the board. Even when The Pokemon Company gives codes with every physical product to unlock cards and other accessories in the video game, codes are sold for dirt cheap or even simply given away.
For collectors with zero interest in playing the game in any form, the existence of an online version is a moot point. But if you have even the slightest interest in playing the game, Pokemon TCG shouldn’t be ignored.
Before we dive into the particulars of this digital adaptation, let’s take a moment to quickly cover the card game itself. Originally released in 1998, the Pokemon Trading Card Game is a tabletop adaptation of the turn-based combat that takes place in the mainline series of games. Using cards that represent your Pokemon, you’ll place them on the field, unleash their attacks, and manage their combat order among many other potential actions in order to score the victory.
Ever since I discovered the game a few months back, I have become absolutely enamored with it. While it’s not a 1:1 translation of the combat found in the video games, it does a great job of capturing the sensation of a Pokemon battle. Truthfully, I actually prefer the combat in the card game thanks to the plethora of actions you can perform during a match. Even outside of combat, it’s a joy to micro-manage every aspect of my decks to optimize them all for battle.
Though I can’t put the game down, I do have to flag some of my gripes with it. At its core, there are varying elements of luck that can greatly impact a battle, from the cards you draw, to moves that are resolved with coin flips. The element of chance becomes particularly pronounced early on, as you’ll be playing with theme decks that aren’t designed to maximize each draw. Should you get into building more competitive decks, you can minimize some of the randomness. However, there will be times where the luck of the draw will doom you to failure in the first turn. Nevertheless, these luck-based lapses don’t undermine the enjoyment of the game enough to keep me away.
All of the joy and pain of the card game is captured in Pokemon TCG Online. The action is presented on a table with every card accurately rendered. I especially love the graphical treatments given to holo cards, as they really amplify how special these cards are. Graphical flourishes of varying levels are also applied to cards when they perform their moves, which is a nice touch. Even outside of the action, the experience of opening new packs is a joy thanks to the way that it presents the cards. When packs are opened, it quickly reveals them one-at-a-time, highlighting which ones are new to you. Then it ends with a big reveal for the rare card you uncover.
Managing everything is a breeze thanks to its intuitive interface, whether you’re playing the game, building decks, or opening packs. While the game is clearly designed with PC and tablets in mind, it is somewhat disappointing that this game isn’t also available on the Nintendo Switch or on mobile phones. I understand why, as it would require a major rework, but it would be nice if we could play this game on other platforms where I think it would work very well.
For newcomers, the first few minutes of the game are key. When you boot up the game for the first time, you’ll be guided through a brief tutorial. Within a few minutes, you’ll know just enough to get started. Out of all of the options available for learning the game, the tutorial in Pokemon TCG Online might very well be the quickest and best way to learn. Certainly the cheapest, as you don’t need to make any sort of financial investment up to this point.
From there, you’re could swim with the sharks in online play, but I think it’s best for newcomers to jump into the Trainer Challenge. Serving as the game’s single-player campaign, you’ll work your way up the ranks against 36 AI opponents until you’re crowned the city champion. Even though there’s essentially no story, you’ll get some sense of progression by adding new cards to the three pre-made decks as you win matches. Also, when you earn four stars on an opposing trainer by beating them with four different decks, you’ll unlock a booster pack. That’s 360 cards to start building decks with!
You’ll also earn coins, which you can use in the shop to purchase booster packs or theme decks. Early on, I would strongly recommend saving up those coins for at least one pre-made deck. It’ll make your journey through the campaign a smoother ride while also serving as your starting deck in online theme battles.
Once you earn all of the stars in Trainer Challenge, the incentives to play fall off a cliff. Yes, you can keep unlocking decks and beat the computer 12 times with each deck to unlock a free booster pack, but the slog isn’t worth trudging through. After beating the computer, it’s time to face off against the world.
Online matchmaking segregates players based on what format you choose. Standard play is the same ruleset used at official events, which only allows for the last few years of cards. Expanded play supports every card from the Pokemon Black and White era forward, giving players a seemingly-limitless set of deck-building possibilities. Both of these modes are likely to be your endgame once you’ve got the experience and a quality deck. For newbies, these modes are death traps, especially since they’re entering with a lack of experience and likely without a competitive-level deck.
I wish the game had a better way of steering new players towards the Theme matchmaking option, where only theme decks are allowed. Playing in a safer space where the overall power level between decks is going to be a much more pleasant time for entry-level players. I had a blast playing Theme battles for weeks until I cobbled together a deck that could compete in Standard play, which is now my primary battleground.
Regardless of which matchmaking option you choose, you’ll earn rewards for wins, such as coins, tickets for events, and booster packs. Though the game’s daily rewards shrink considerably after 11 wins, you’ll easily earn enough coins to buy at least one booster pack per session. Again, since rewards are only doled out for wins, your incentives to stay in Theme matchmaking are higher until you’re ready for the big leagues. Or, if you’re content with theme deck battles, you can easily stay in that realm and play compelling matches forever.
You can earn even more goodies in the Events mode. Here, you can cash in the tickets you’ve unlocked through online wins to compete in eight-player single-elimination tournaments. Tournaments are running all the time across Standard, Expanded, and Theme matchmaking. Rewards are even juicier here, as you’re guaranteed some form of compensation even if you lose in the first round. Winning at least one match will earn you a booster pack. Winning the whole tournament will reward you with an assortment of coins and booster packs.
I greatly enjoy playing with stakes like this on the line, but sometimes the wait times between matches can take forever. At their worst, you might be waiting upwards of 30 minutes between matches. Theme tournaments aren’t so bad with the wait times, but the downtime between Standard and Expanded tournament matches can really drag. I wish this tournament could be played asymmetrically, similar to the tournament system in Fantasy Strike. Unfortunately, everything must be experienced in real-time.
You can also play against friends. Doing so is fairly straightforward. Find them in your friends list and challenge them to a match. It’s been awesome playing with my friends this way, though I wish it had a rematch option. Instead, it kicks you back to the menu after every match.
As my desire to compete in Standard mode grew, I began spending more time managing my cards. Its intuitive deck-building interface makes deck-building a breeze. It even has a wizard that can build a deck for you based on which cards you pick as being the focal point of the deck you want to use. Most helpful to me was the ability to specify which matchmaking mode I wanted my deck to work in, as it limited my collection to just the cards applicable for that mode. You’ll want to do this when building Standard decks in particular, as the rules are most stringent here.
When it’s time to get more in-game stuff, you’ll head over to the in-game shop. Its selection is gargantuan, as it features booster packs, decks, and accessories dating all the way back to the Pokemon Black and White era. Even though certain packs are incredibly difficult and expensive to find in real life due to their age, everything is perpetually available within the in-game shop.
Curiously, there is no way to buy anything in the game with real money. Instead, you can unlock booster packs, decks, and more with your in-game coins. Everything is reasonably priced and it’s not hard to earn enough coins to get at least one booster pack every time you play. You can get a ton of mileage out of Pokemon TCG Online without spending any money.
That being said, having codes from physical purchases goes a long way to bolstering your collection. If you happen to have a bunch of old codes lying around, now is a great time to cash them in and get even more cards and decks! If you don’t, don’t worry! You don’t have to build a physical collection to subsidize your online play. I frequently use PoTown Store to purchase codes for booster packs, individual cards, and decks, which is always considerably cheaper than buying their physical equivalents.
Last but not least, you can also trade pretty much any items you have in the game, from cards, to booster packs, deck boxes, coins, or even avatar clothing items. You can set up private or public trades, with the only real limit being that it costs in-game coins to post trades. Unless I’m looking for something specific, I generally just browse what trades are available to me and take the offers I like.
Since it is a free-market economy within Pokemon TCG Online, you can put anything up for trade. Technically, pretty much everything can be obtained for a price. However, certain cards are in incredibly-high demand and the demands are insane. I’ve seen people offer 99 packs in exchange for one Shadow Rider Calyrex VMax, which is the most sought-after card in Standard mode. I don’t know if anyone took them up on that offer, but the ceiling for certain cards can be incredibly high. With no way of just buying certain cards outright like you can in real life, it does make obtaining certain cards incredibly difficult. If you can’t put up a king’s ransom for trades, I pray you have the best of luck in your pulls!
Pokemon TCG Online will never hit quite the same as the physical card game. Not being able to hold those sweet cards in real life is going to be a turn-off for many. But if you’re looking to start playing the game or want to widen your competition pool beyond your local community, this game serves as a robust platform with almost everything you need to enjoy the game. Newcomers benefit from having an interactive tutorial, AI opponents, and theme deck matchmaking to learn the ropes. Serious players can throw down in Standard/Expanded play while having a great interface for managing their decks or trading for new cards. Best of all, it’s free-to-play and you can get quite far without spending a dime. If you have any interest whatsoever in playing the card game, this is a must-get.
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