What the Pokemon TCG Online Leaderboards REALLY Say About the Game

Despite months of playing Pokemon TCG Online religiously, I was unaware of its leaderboards until long after. In my defense, they live on the Pokemon website and not within the game, making it very easy to miss

Though I’m annoyed that I can’t check the leaderboards while I’m playing, it does have one particularly neat feature. By scrolling all the way to the back of each leaderboard, you can see how many players are playing within each format.

For the purposes of this post, I went to each leaderboard and scrolled to the very back of the previous full season. I then wrote down what the last place number was to determine how many players were listed in each leaderboard. The results of that research caught me by surprise.

# of Players in Each Format (stats taken somewhere around September 2021)

Standard: 53,024

Expanded: 98,116

Theme: 116,852

Legacy: 3,982

Lost Legacy

Let’s start with the lowest. Legacy format is a mode unique to Pokemon TCG Online that only allows for cards from Pokemon Black & White and Pokemon X & Y. These two eras of the game are segregated into their own format because cards from this era are notably underpowered compared to what would come after.

Though this mode was always meant for niche audiences, its appeal shrunk even further when The Pokemon Company removed Legacy format from its online tournament rotation. With no extra incentive to play, this scene has largely dried up, which is unfortunate for those who want to play this particular format. Worse yet, this mode will disappear completely from Pokemon TCG Live as the cards won’t transfer over to the new game.

No So Standard?

Standard format is the prestige tournament format officially backed by The Pokemon Company. All of the biggest tournaments online and IRL are run in Standard format.

What ultimately makes it different from the other modes is that it only supports the most recent 2-3 years worth of cards. This is done to help keep the meta fresh and fairly balanced while also placing an emphasis on the newer cards.

The problem is that keeping up with Standard is the most difficult path to take as a Pokemon trainer. It’s already hard enough to assemble a set of 60 cards that can compete against others online. But to then narrow down the scope of what cards are usable and having cards fall out of rotation every year seems to be more trouble than what most Pokemon TCG Online players are willing to put up with. Based on Standard being only the third most popular mode, it seems like the hurdles for what should be the default mode are too high.

Expand Your Horizons

Created by The Pokemon Company a few years ago, Expanded format is the 2nd most popular way to play. This variation of the game supports cards dating all the way back to Pokemon Black & White.

Even though it supports way more cards, it’s not the prestige format that Standard is. All of the biggest events are centered around Standard format, and in a post-pandemic world, Expanded tournaments aren’t currently supported by The Pokemon Company. Also, at a root level, Expanded can be a pretty wild format to play in, as the blending of a decade’s worth of cards can lead to some insane gameplay quirks that are difficult to balance for.

Even so, its popularity within Pokemon TCG Online can’t be ignored. With almost 100,000 active players, it’s essentially double the size of the Standard player base. I suspect that the biggest factor for this is the fact that decks are a big investment of time, money, and memories. This data suggests that players would rather continue playing with the decks they have rather than being forced to leave them behind to keep up with the Standard format.

Expanded will return as part of Pokemon TCG Live, but it was initially announced that not all cards that are eligible would make it in time for launch. However, since the game was officially delayed, that tidbit is subject to change.

Thematic Battles

Theme format is a mode unique to Pokemon TCG Online. Players can only use pre-made theme decks that The Pokemon Company has provided. There are dozens of decks to choose from; all of which were created to be roughly equal in power level. Another common thread within the realm of theme decks is that they’re created with ease-of-play over raw power, giving newcomers a good entry-point into the game.

While I have sung the virtues of Theme format in the past, I had no idea it was actually the most popular way to play Pokemon TCG Online. But when I really think about it, it makes a lot of sense.

As stated above, Theme format is a fantastic entry-point for new players. It serves as a safe space where you don’t have to worry about power imbalances that are oftentimes inherent to this style of game. Considering the fairly-level playing field, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a number of veterans who prefer Theme format because of its inherent balance.

Furthermore, the game has dozens of decks that can be unlocked for free through in-game coins. You will earn enough coins to unlock one theme deck fairly quickly and you can ride that for the entirety of your Pokemon TCG Online career if you wanted to.

In spite of Theme battle being intentionally-designed as the shallow end of the pool, it’s clearly the most popular way to play with over 116,000 active players. That’s more than double the player base of Standard!

…which makes this next point very awkward. While many cards from the existing pool of Theme decks will return as part of Pokemon TCG Live, the actual Theme format isn’t likely to return. The Pokemon Company stopped making Theme decks in the old format back in 2020. Also, based on the screenshots and language The Pokemon Company have used thus far, there’s no indication that this mode is coming back. This would leave the largest player base of the game out in the cold.

Will they make a new format in this style using the new V-Battle decks? Will they find some other way to make a safe space for these players to battle one another? Or will The Pokemon Company surprise me by bringing this format back?

Being able to see the player base numbers really puts things into perspective. While Standard dominates the tournament scene and much of the content created about Pokemon TCG Online, it’s technically not “the” standard for the majority of players. The barriers inherent to Standard format are too high for most to get into, at least based on where the actual player base is based on the leaderboards.

Speaking from experience, I shouldn’t be surprised by this reality. When I first got into the game and didn’t know anything about formats, I got absolutely destroyed by others running top-tier decks. I would have fallen out of the game had I not found Theme battle. And I wouldn’t have left theme battle had I not done some homework on how to make competitive decks and made a few purchases of specific codes in order to bring those decks to life. For many players, Theme battle is as far as they’ll want to go.

Whatever mode you choose to play, I hope you’re having fun! There’s no shame in playing one mode over another, nor is there any reason to shame others for the mode they choose to battle in. It’s a good thing that there are different formats that allow players to enjoy the game on different levels.

Going forward, the future is unclear. The game’s most popular mode is likely on the chopping block and its 2nd most popular mode may still be delayed, leaving only Standard format for everyone to play. Assuming that’s the case, I think it’s going to be a real struggle funneling all of those displaced players into the Standard format, at least in the short-term until Expanded gets fully-support.

That said, the game’s biggest gap is the fact that it’s really difficult for new players or those comfortable with Theme battle to jump into the deep end of Standard play. Some of the announced updates should help with that a bit, such as being able to unlock specific cards by dusting duplicates and a ranking system for a higher chance at fair fights. I hope that The Pokemon Company implements enough solutions to solve this problem, which may or may not include some version of Theme battle returning.

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