The Pleasure and Pain of Theme Deck Matchmaking in Pokemon TCG Online

The fundamental challenge with collectible card games is that your ceiling as a player is predicated by the cards you have. Even the best players will lose to average players if the power gap between decks is wide enough.

For newbies, the struggle is even worse. The combination of being short on game knowledge and powerful cards is an incredibly steep (and expensive) hole to climb out of. As a newcomer to Pokemon TCG Online, my pre-made decks would routinely get stomped out by players who had every GX/V/VMax card imaginable. Above and beyond learning how to play the game, it’s going to take some combination of time and money – probably lots of both – to avoid losing every match in Standard or Expanded format.

Thankfully, there exists salvation for newcomers, scrubs, and those who want to play Pokemon TCG Online with a more rigid set of balance boundaries. If this sounds more up your alley, then the Theme format is your battlefield of choice.

Theme battles are a category within matchmaking where only theme decks distributed by the Pokemon Company are allowed. No modifications can be made whatsoever. Dozens of decks are available for use here, from the Vivid Voltage Charizard deck released at the end of 2020 all the way back to Heart Gold/Soul Silver decks from 2010. While the newer decks did steadily increase with power as the game evolved, these were intentionally designed to be competitively-balanced against one another.

Obtaining an eligible deck for theme battle is a fairly straightforward process. You can use the four pre-made decks against online competition right away, but I would advise against it, as those particular decks are bad. Instead, use those starter decks against the computer until you’ve earned 500 coins, which shouldn’t take very long to do.

From there, go to the in-game store and buy a deck. Any of them will do and you only need one to really get going. Of course, you can buy a physical deck in a store and use the online code to use that deck in the digital game, but you can also unlock decks with in-game credits without spending any money.

With such tight parameters, Theme battles are as close to a fair fight as one can get in Pokemon TCG Online. Newer players like me benefit the most, as they have the opportunity to actually get a chance to battle and learn, even if we’re not using the best cards. Even if the outcome doesn’t end in my favour, at least I can battle knowing that the outcome wasn’t determined before the match even started.

Without Theme matchmaking, I likely would have bounced off this game quickly, as my card arsenal was so far behind seemingly everyone else online. Heck, even now, after all the money I’ve spent on real cards that come with online codes and the cards I’ve unlocked through the game, I only have 4-5 custom decks that I think can truly hang.

Again, that’s an issue that Theme battle can indirectly solve. While I still have to outplay my opponents in Theme battle, the odds of one winning are higher thanks to the more even playing field. Not only does winning more frequently give me a bit of a confidence boost to keep playing, but I also unlock rewards with each win. Most importantly, I earn coins that can be used to unlock more theme decks or booster packs with better cards that can use in Standard or Expanded play when I’m ready for it.

As great as Theme matchmaking may be, its limitations are glaring. Most theme decks are built with one energy type in mind. Because of this, your Zacian or Zamazenta theme decks are going to struggle mightily against fire decks. Matches like this aren’t necessarily impossible to win, but the person with type advantage is probably going to have an easier time taking you down.

Speaking of fire energy, Charizard decks are wildly popular in theme battle. My guess for this phenomenon is that the Vivid Voltage Charizard deck is the newest one, it’s a lot of fun to play with, and Charizard is likely the 2nd most popular Pokemon after Pikachu. Knowing this, it’s likely in your best interest to play decks that aren’t weak to fire. Or better yet, strong against fire! I mostly play the Inteleon deck in random matchmaking cause there’s a good chance it’ll give me a competitive advantage. That is, until I match against someone with an electric deck, at which point I get blasted off the board in no time.

Even in mirror matches, there will be times where the deck will let you down. While they are designed around specific approaches to battle, they are intentionally designed to be not as strong as a tournament-grade deck. As such, you’re more prone to losing by virtue of a bad hand or a bad set of draws. It’s frustrating to lose in that way, but I’d much rather go out like this than to get regularly stomped out by players with dramatically better decks.

Also worth noting that starting in 2021, the Pokemon Company is no longer making new theme decks. Their modern equivalent – V Battle decks – aren’t supported in this mode, as each deck features one powerful V Basic card that Theme matchmaking isn’t balanced for. Understanding that rebalancing everything to accommodate for V Battle decks would be an absolute nightmare, I hope that a new matchmaking option just for V Battle decks arises when more decks of that style have been released.

At a certain point, players like me may eventually grow out of Theme matching. Playing with and against the same decks with limited firepower can get stale, especially when the meta isn’t changing. And as you unlock new cards, you’ll likely want to implement them in decks of your own, which potentially have the ceiling to win you more matches than a theme deck in Theme battles ever will.

Even with the concessions one must make when playing in Theme battle, it’s still your best way to play against online competition as a newcomer. More often than not, you’ll partake in exciting matches where you will have a fair shot at winning. And each time you win, you’ll earn credits to use towards more theme decks or booster packs. Should you choose to graduate to Standard or Expanded play, all of the cards you’ve unlocked through Theme battles will help you in that transition. Or, you can just enjoy your career as a Theme battle player that always has rival trainers to play against. Either way, if you’re just starting out, Theme matchmaking is the way to go!

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