Attack of the cuteness....
So you may have noticed (if you are one of my very rare "regular" readers) that I switched things up this week. I always post a Magic article on Friday while Wednesday is my "wildcard". This week I switched the two because I wanted to follow up a bit on the Pokémon TCG after the article that compares MODO and Pokémon Online. If you are looking for Magic content, go there first; but I have to say this is a pretty fun read. Let's get started.
Twenty years of Pokémon... where to start?
Pokémon was created n 1995 by Satoshi Tajiri. Originally a pair of modest, but mobile video games (dubbed Pokémon Red and Pokémon Blue in the US) its unique concept and cuddly characters became a world-wide phenomenon - and is now seen in modern video games, animation, plushies of all sizes and types... and a collectible card game. It is the second most lucrative video game franchise of all-time, coming in just behind Mario. In video games alone, it has grossed over 46 billion dollars - so Nintendo is doing OK for itself.
With the height of the Pokémon craze and the height of the collectible card game craze peaking at the same time, it is no wonder that Pokémon debuted as a CCG in 1996. While most in the United States think of the Pokémon TCG as an American game, our Japanese brethren will be quick to remind you that the game originated in Japan - published there by Media Factory, while in the United States English translations were published by Wizards of the Coast. In 2003, The Pokémon Company took over worldwide publishing of the game, where it remains in active development today.
From a purely financial point-of-view the game is a bit of an oddity. The popularity of the animation and its place in pop culture has made the game as much a set of collectibles as it is a game. For millions of Millennials, the game is about Ash Ketchum, his pal Pikachu and their journey across the land in a quest for gym badges while thwarting Team Rocket. Billions of packs of Pokémon were bought by them as kids and traded amongst each other just for the characters on the cards and not for their gameplay value. In that light, there is a very "meta" quality to the game. Here's the dirty secret of Pokémon TCG - it's lasted for twenty years because it is a very fun game.
A lot of Magic players "look down their nose" at Pokémon TCG and that's not OK. Just because it is not as "complex" or "serious" as Magic does not mean it is without value. With it's initial audience of kids in the 1990's it was labeled "a kid's game" and that is a shame. Our CCG community is far to small to segment out a portion of our population as "not good enough". I actually find the game a great diversion from some of the more serious minded Magic formats. Pokémon is goofy fun - where you are pitting your captured Pokémon against your rival's. In the end no one dies, no one is hurt - and the cute creatures pop back into their little Pokéballs to rest up for another day. It sort of has the feel of a turn based boxing game, where you trade punches back and forth until one of you is spent.
There are only three card types in the game - Pokémon, Energy and Trainer cards. Cards are played without casting costs - Energy serves as the game's "regulator" but it is solely attached to Pokémon to power their abilities not to put them into play. Unlimited card play makes the game very fast with a lot of deck manipulation - but this is kept in check by a strict 60 card deck size. Run out of cards and you lose. This is only one of the win conditions, A Pokémon game is also won when your opponent runs out of active Pokémon or you defeat six of their creatures. This is represented by a pool of six "prize cards" that you deal from your deck to the board at the start of each game. Each time you defeat an opponent's Pokémon you can choose one of these six face-down cards and put it in your hand. Drawing your sixth prize card wins you the game. I love this mechanic because it gives you a card advantage bump for incremental progress. It makes everyone feel successful - even if they lose the match.
So where's the fun?
Simplicity - The streamlined rules and reduced number of card types gives the game a lighter feel and it is much more approachable for people that have never played a CCG. This makes it perfect for family game night or just hanging out with friends. It is easy to explain and its much less intimidating than Magic for a beginner.
Power - Pokémon's designers tend to give themselves more design space than Magic and worry less about power creep. Since they only really focus on keeping the balance in their Standard format, there is a greater opportunity for more splashy Pokémon and Trainer cards.
Collectibility - Who doesn't like collecting Pokémon? It is a formula that has proven to be pretty successful and the TCG plays into this perfectly. Sets also tend to have fewer cards than the average Magic expansion, which makes it easier to "catch 'em all". Art is more whimsical than most CCGs with a cute anime style. This is something Magic has lost over the years and I think the game has suffered a bit because of it.
Flavor - The Pokémon TCG ties directly to the releases of the Nintendo video games. Separate from their list of legal expansions for the Standard format, sets are identified as part of a "Series". For example, all current expansions are part of the "XY Series" which corresponds to the Pokemon X and Y games on the 3DS. The next expansion, "Pokémon Sun and Moon" is the base set for the next series, and corresponds to the new Pokémon Sun and Pokémon Moon 3DS games releasing this month. This gives the developers an opportunity to make a clean creative break, and refresh everything from the card frames to the Pokémon types. It's really easy to feel a part of this world when playing the game - the unified experience means you can go right from playing the video game to the TCG and already have some knowledge of the current generation of Pokémon and their abilities. It is pretty cool.
Wizards of the Coast is really, really bad at this. Opening a booster pack of Magic is not that visually exciting. Sure, you can open that "bomb rare", but players new to the game don't even know that the card is a bomb, so outside of a one in six chance to get a cheaply printed foil card, it is basically 15 pieces of cardboard. Pokémon is a bit different. Yes there are only ten cards per pack, but every single pack has a "holo" card - sometimes two. These aren't those muddy Magic foils either - these have brilliant colors that explode from the pack and alternate art that breaks all the "rules". The design of holos also changes from set to set, so there is always something new around the corner. New player or old, when you open a Pokémon booster you know it is special.
Look... I get it. You get less product for the same price, but there is something to be said for quality and while Wizards is married to the 15 card pack because of draft, Pokémon is not; and this gives them an opportunity to give the players something different. I really don't mind this at all. Look... after you open a box of Magic boosters you almost have too many commons anyway - and that is before you go to Friday Night Magic for a month. After opening ten to fifteen packs of Pokémon I don't even miss the extra cards and the "shiny cards" (as my kids used to call them) makes me feel like a kid too.
Pokémon is a criminally underrated game. It's fast, its fun and it will make you smile. If you are a fan of CCG's you really owe it to yourself to give the game a spin. No, it doesn't have the depth of Magic, but it does have charm and its easy enough to teach to your Mom. Also, like I mentioned earlier in the week, the Online version is the slickest implementation I have ever seen. Wizards could learn a lot from their friends at The Pokémon Company.
Look at the time. Pardon me, but i have to run, Blaziken and I are late for our match at the gym.