Charizard in Pokemon TCG.
Image via The Pokemon Company.

How to Play the Pokémon Trading Card Game – Beginners Guide and Rules

Let the games begin!

Pokemon TCG is a cornerstone of the franchise, providing you with a different way to collect your favorite creatures. Although card collecting has dominated online Pokemon TCG communities, the competitive side of the game also has a huge dedicated fanbase.

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You don’t need to be an expert to have fun playing the card game, though you must get the hang of the basic rules. At first, learning how to play Pokemon TCG can be daunting. There are a lot of rules, your deck needs to be properly composed, and different generations sometimes introduce new mechanics.

If you want to dip your toes into playing Pokemon TCG, this guide will teach you the fundamentals. By the end of it, you should be able to play a casual game, though you’ll need plenty of practice before you master deck-building and winning strategies.

Mewtwo Elite Trainer Box.
Image via The Pokemon Company.

What do you need to play Pokemon TCG?

Before you start playing, you’ll need to ensure you have all the necessary items. Firstly, you need a deck of exactly 60 cards. Some cards have been banned from tournaments. If you’re playing a casual game with a friend, ensure you’ve agreed whether tournament-banned cards will be allowed.

You’ll also need a coin. You can use a regular penny, or you can use the official Pokemon coins you can score by purchasing products such as the Elite Trainer Box. Lastly, a playmat is recommended. Once you get the hang of the game, you probably won’t need it as much, but when you’re still learning, it helps you to know where to place your cards. You may also want a deck box to store all your cards.

Legendary Birds Battle Deck in Pokemon TCG
Image via The Pokemon Company.

What should a Pokemon TCG deck contain?

The hardest part of Pokemon TCG is learning how to construct a good deck that will help you play out a winning strategy. Your deck composition should be anything but random, though it can be hard to figure out what you need. Luckily, beginners have a few places to turn to.

If you’re a beginner, consider buying Battle Decks first. These are pre-constructed decks built around smart strategies. Use these to learn how to make a good deck of your own. Your deck should contain the following:

  • Basic Pokemon card – At least one of your cards has to feature a regular Pokemon. The ideal deck will have much more.
  • Trainer cards – It’s a bit of a misnomer, as Trainer cards depict more than just trainers. These are your supporters used to heal and power up your team.
  • Energy cards – Energy cards are essential, as you use them to fuel your Pokemon attacks.

Your deck cannot have more than four cards of the same name unless they’re Energy cards. When picking which cards will make it into your deck, ensure you focus on including entire evolutionary lines. You can’t just place a Charizard on the playing field – you need to evolve it from a Charmander first.

Pokemon TCG Live
Screenshot by Destructoid.

How to set up a Pokemon TCG game

Okay, so you’ve got your legal deck of 60 cards, a coin, and a playmat, and your friend has the same. Now what? You start by setting up your playing area. This is when it gets really useful to use a playmat. Your play area should look like this:

Pokemon TCG playmat
Screenshot by Destructoid.
  1. Deck – This is where you place your deck at the start of a game
  2. Trash – Used cards go here.
  3. Bench – This is where you place Pokemon in waiting
  4. Prize cards – at the start of the game six random cards are placed here
  5. Active cards – Your Pokemon currently in battle goes here, along with their Energy cards. Only one Pokemon at a time can be active.

Once your shuffled deck has been placed in the appropriate area, flip a coin to decide who goes first. With this decided, you may pick up seven cards. This is your “hand” and there is no hand limit.

Check your hand for any basic Pokemon (creatures that have not evolved at all). If you have none, put your cards back, reshuffle, and draw 7 more. Every time you do this, your opponent is allowed to draw one card. This should highlight the importance of filling up your deck with sufficient basic Pokemon.

Once you and your opponent both have a good hand, you both place a basic Pokemon, face down, in the Active (5) area. If you have any more basic Pokemon in your hand, you can place them on your Bench (3), face down. You then draw six cards from your deck and place them in the Prize area (4), face-down.

Koraidon and Miraidon cards in Pokemon TCG.
Image via The Pokemon Company.

How to play Pokemon TCG

With setup complete, you can now turn your Active card up, along with your Bench cards. The player who won the coin toss goes first. Let’s imagine that you won it. You begin by drawing a card from your deck. You can then perform multiple actions, except for evolving a Pokemon, as that is illegal in the first round.

These are some of the moves available to you:

  • Put another basic Pokemon card on the Bench
  • Play a Trainer card
  • Retreat a Pokemon from the Active area
  • Use an Energy card (one per turn)
  • Use a Pokemon Ability

You’re limited to placing one Energy card per turn, but you can place any number of Trainer and basic Pokemon cards. At this point, it would be useful to discuss two important concepts: attacking and evolving.

Ava in Pokemon: Path to the Peak.
Screenshot by Destructoid.

How to attack in Pokemon TCG

So you and your opponents have Active cards. It’s your turn and you’d like to dish out some pain. To do this, you need your Energy cards. Let’s take the Luvdisc below as an example.

Luvdisc in Pokemon TCG.
Image by Destructoid.

If you want to use the move Matching, you’ll need one Colorless Energy card. If you want to use Water Pulse, you’ll need to attach one Water Energy card to your Luvdisc.

Some of the best moves will require multiple Energy cards, sometimes of different types. Though you can only place one Energy card per turn, you are allowed to place them on benched Pokemon.

Once a Pokemon’s HP hits zero, it is knocked out, and it goes into the Trash (2) pile. If you knock out your opponent’s Pokemon, you may claim one Prize card. If your Pokemon is the one that has been knocked out, a new Pokemon must then enter the Active area. If you don’t have any more cards to move, you’ve lost!

Ava in Pokemon: Path to the Peak.
Screenshot by Destructoid.

How to calculate damage in Pokemon TCG

It takes a while to get a hang of the damage calculations, but it is not impossible. Let’s say your Luvdisc lands a Water Pulse attack on your opponent’s Charmander.

Luvdisc and Charmander in Pokemon TCG.
Image by Destructoid.

Water Pulse deals 20 damage. Next, calculate the effects of any weaknesses. Look at the bottom left corner of the Charmander card and you’ll notice it is x2 weak against Water. That means you double Luvdisc’s attack to 40. Charmander has a base HP of 60, so after Luvdisc’s attack, it’ll be down to 20.

This is a relatively simple scenario, but various factors can affect how much damage is ultimately dealt. For example:

  • Attack and defence modifiers – Attack modifiers such as Swords Dance can boost your base attack. Other modifiers will decrease damage taken from attacks.
  • Resistance – if your Pokemon has resistance, it reduces how much damage it takes from that type.
  • Trainer cards – Some Trainer cards can defend your cards, reducing the damage they take. Others can boost your attacks.

If you’re having trouble remembering how much HP you have left, use the damage counters that come with the Elite Trainer Box. Pen and paper will suffice if you don’t have any damage counters.

Screenshot by Destructoid

How to evolve Pokemon

Evolving a Pokemon is a somewhat complicated process that requires a bit of setup. Once you have a basic Pokemon card in your Active area or your Bench, you can evolve them. This occurs in stages, and you cannot skip any stage.

It’s also important to note that a Pokemon cannot evolve and attack in the same turn, and a Pokemon can only evolve once per turn. This still leaves you with the chance to evolve multiple Pokemon per turn, so long as they only evolve once.

You evolve your Pokemon by placing the next stage on top of it. The evolved Pokemon maintains the same amount of damage it had prior, but it is cured of special conditions. It also gets to use the attached Energy cards.

As is the case with almost all the rules here, there are exceptions. For example, you’ll find some basic Pokemon cards that are fully evolved. When in doubt, remember that the card’s rules override any of the base rules of the game.

Radiant cards in Pokemon TCG.
Image via The Pokemon Company.

How to win a Pokemon TCG game

There are a few ways you can win Pokemon TCG. One is if you manage to pick up all six of your Prize cards, which typically involves knocking out six Pokemon. Some cards let you claim two Prize cards at a time, allowing you to get to the finish line faster.

You can also win if your opponent has no basic Pokemon to move to the Active area, or if they have no more cards to draw at the start of their turn. On your path to victory, there are other concepts that you’ll need to wrap your head around. This includes:

  • Status conditions
  • Trainers, Stadiums, and Items
  • Abilities
  • Deckbuilding
  • Combos

These concepts deserve their own guides, and for beginners, it’s best to find your feet before you start diving into the more complicated aspects of the game. The best thing you can do to improve your skills and learn the rules is to practice. It’s easy to do this with Pokemon TCG Live, which is a mobile game.

When you purchase Pokemon TCG products, you may have noticed that one of the cards just features a code. Use these codes to add cards to your Pokemon TCG Live account. In the app, you can use the tutorials to learn the basic rules and how to compose a deck. It’s also a great place to practice if you don’t have anyone available in person.

Now go win some battles!

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Smangaliso Simelane
Staff Writer - Smangaliso Simelane is a writer with a passion for all things related to video games. He has been writing about video games since 2020.