The Pokémon Trading Card Game (TCG) has been out for 20 years, bringing fans together through their mutual love of collecting, trading, and battling characters from the franchise. With the recent resurgence of the little critters, now is as good a time as any to figure out how to play.

On the surface, the Pokémon TCG may seem like a daunting tabletop activity, given the two decades of releases, but the core concepts behind it are relatively easy to learn and build upon. It can be played with different types of decks and varying card numbers too, allowing players to create a situation that’s ideal for how they want to play. The standard set of rules is a great place to start, though there’s strategy beyond that. (It’s worth noting that we’re only covering the basics behind the Pokémon TCG, here).

How to Read a Pokémon Card

There are three main types of cards: Pokémon, Trainers, and Energy.

A quick look at each type of Pokémon card available.
A quick look at each type of Pokémon card available. 

Pokémon are the bread and butter of the trading card game. Pokémon cards are going to be the damage dealers of your deck, each marked with a specific type and amount of HP on the upper right side of the card. Evolution stages are also marked on the card, located in the upper left. Basic Pokémon can be played immediately, while Stage 1 and Stage 2 Pokémon must be evolved from a basic Pokémon on subsequent turns.

Below your Pokémon, you’ll notice a few things too. The first of these are your attacks. Each attack costs a specific amount of Energy, which must be attached to the Pokémon for use. Your Pokémon may also have an ability, which is explained on the card. This ability is active at all times regardless of the Pokémon’s position on the field. Pokémon also have weaknesses and resistances, marked in the lower left hand corner, that must be taken into account when taking damage. You’ll notice a retreat cost as well, which must be paid to move your Pokémon from the active position to the bench.

Trainer cards are utilized to compliment your Pokémon and Energy cards. These have a wide variety of effects and abilities and are broken into three categories: Item, Supporterm and Stadium. Supporter cards typically feature more powerful effects but can only be played once per turn, but you can play as many of the Item cards as you’d like each turn. Stadium cards can be used to change the board for both players, but only one can be in play on the board — plus, they can only be removed by another Stadium card or a card which a specific removal effect.

Energy cards are used to power your Pokémon’s moves. These must be attached to Pokémon each turn in order for them to use attacks. Currently, there are nine types of Energy in the Pokémon trading card game: Grass (green), Fire (orange), Water (blue), Lightning (yellow), Psychic (purple), Fighting (red-brown), Darkness (black), Metal (grey), and Fairy (pink). The exact amount and type of energy is required for a Pokémon to use an attack, with the exception of Colorless (white) energy, which can use any type of energy. Special energy cards also exist, such as double energies, but those are a only a little more complicated.

Decks typically consist of a mix of these types of cards and contain 60 cards in total if you’re playing by the standard rule set. No more than four of each specific card can be present in the deck either, with the exception of Energy cards.

How to Start a Match

Here's a look at my mat with all the proper positions labeled.
Here's a look at my mat with all the proper positions labeled. 

When you first start a match, you’ll have to determine which player goes first with a coin flip. The player who goes first is not allowed to attack on their first turn. Simple enough, really.

Once you’ve determined who goes first, each player places their shuffled decks face down along the right side of their playing area. Each player then draws seven cards from the top of their deck, which will become their first hand.

Each player then places one basic Pokémon on the field face down as their active Pokémon. If you have more than one basic Pokémon in your starting hand, you can place each down on your bench face down. No more than five Pokémon can be placed on the bench at once however. If you don’t have any basic Pokémon in your starting hand, you will ultimately have to reshuffle your deck and re-draw. If your opponent has to reshuffle to get a basic Pokémon into their hand, you get to draw an additional card from the top of your deck.

Once you both have your first hands and basic Pokémon on the field, you’ll each draw six prize cards from the top of your decks. These are placed face down on the left side of your playing areas (we’ll touch more on these in a bit). Finally, reveal your active and bench Pokémon to start the game.

Playing a Match

Matches of Pokemon TCG are played in turns, each consisting of a few steps:

  1. At the beginning of your turn, you’ll draw a single card from the top of your deck.
  2. Following your draw, you’ll be able to attack a single energy card to one of your Pokémon on the field. These energies will power each of the Pokémon’s attacks.
  3. Once your energy has been played, you can play any additional basic Pokémon you’d like to your bench. You may then evolve any of your Pokémon in play.
  4. If you wish to swap out your active Pokémon for one present on your bench, you can retreat it for the required energy cost. Keep in mind that this retreat cost must be present on the active Pokémon.
  5. At this point you can play any trainer cards in your hand according to their rules. Multiple item trainer cards can be used during a single turn, while supporter trainer cards can only be used once per turn. Once used, these cards will go face up in your discard pile just below your deck on the right side of the field.
  6. If your Pokémon have any specific abilities (marked on the card) or Pokmon powers you can use them at this time. Keep in mind that bench Pokémon’s abilities and powers can be used as well, provided they don’t say otherwise.
  7. Finally, you’ll be able to attack with your active Pokémon provided you have the right amount of energy attacked to them. You may only attack with one of the Pokémon’s moves unless they state otherwise.
  8. Rinse and repeat!

How to Win a Match

In order to win a match of Pokémon TCG, you’ll have to meet one of three criteria:

  1. Take all six prize cards from your opponent. Every time you knock out one of their Pokémon in play by reducing its HP to zero, you can claim a prize card of your choice from your set of six. If you manage to knock out an EX Pokémon, you get to claim two.
  2. If your opponent runs out of Pokémon in their active slot and on their bench.
  3. By “decking” your opponent. If you manage to get your opponent to go through their entire deck, they will lose — you must always have a card to draw at the beginning of your turn.

The basic idea behind victory is to develop a deck that adheres to one of these three victory conditions while also countering possible opponent strategies. Easier said than done, of course. It just takes practice and plenty of testing.

Now, go, get out there — and become the very best trainer!

Photos via Nicholas Bashore

Nicholas is a writer and content creator in Knoxville. He frequently covers video games and other consumer electronics. When he's not writing for Inverse, you can usually find him tweeting about Star Wars or streaming on Twitch.