How to play the Pokémon Trading Card Game

Basic Guide on How to Play

This is a simple guide designed to teach people how to play the Pokémon Card game if they haven’t played it before, or to help people brush up on their knowledge of the game if they haven’t played in a while.

The Rules

  • Two player, turn-based card game.
  • Each player has a 60-card deck
  • Each player has 6 prize-cards
  • Who starts first decided by a coin flip or six-sided die.
  • Only four of any-one card may be used, or a single card where limited (e.g. Prism cards)
  • After the first player starts (by coin flip) Each player shuffles their deck and draws 7 cards to place in their hand, and 6 prize cards to put face-down in the appropriate area. The person who won the draw starts their turn first.


Before we take a look at setup, here is what a Pokémon Card match layout should look like, we will use the Pokémon Trading Card Online setup as it is a nice and tidy setup:

The Game Layout

We will talk about the basic setup and discuss other more advanced or newer aspects of the game later.

  1. Your Active Pokémon – You can only have one active at any one time, and it is the card you will use to put out damage on to your opponent’s active Pokémon, and vice versa.
  2. Your Bench – In a typical game you can have up to 5 benched Pokémon which can be used if your active Pokémon dies, or if you retreat or switch to one of them. In some games, there are cards that allow you to have up to 8 benched Pokémon.
  3. Your Hand – This is your current hand containing cards that you can utilise each turn. This will contain other Pokémon, trainer cards or energy cards
  4. Your Deck – When each player’s turn begins, they are allowed to draw one card from their deck, which is shuffled.
  5. Your Discard Pile – If your active Pokémon dies, or your opponent uses a card to ‘discard’ cards from your hand, or bench – they will go here. Sometimes you can discard your own cards, which may or may not give you an advantage later on.
  6. Your Prize Cards – Each player starts with 6 prize cards. This is to signify how to win the game. You need to draw all of your 6 cards to win a game, unless the opponent has run out of cards or active Pokémon. Typically, if you defeat your opponent’s active Pokémon you would draw 1 of your prize cards. However, some cards when defeated allow you to draw 2 or 3 prize cards (GX, EX & Tag-Team cards).
  7. Your Opponent’s Active Pokémon – This is your opponent’s active Pokémon that you must defeat with your own.
  8. Your Opponent’s play area – Like you, your opponent has their own setup area.

How your turn works

  1. Draw a card from the top of your deck.
  2. If you have an energy card, attach it to either your active or benched Pokémon. Pokemon need certain types of energy for their attack to work – so pay attention to that.
  3. Review your hand, such as trainers, other Pokémon cards and use them where necessary – e.g. You can use a trainer card to restore health, evolve a Pokémon (not on your first turn or if you put out the basic Pokémon in your current turn) You may also have trainer cards that allow you to draw additional cards from your deck – such as the Hau Card which allows you to draw 3 and is very helpful.
  4. You can decide if you want to retreat your Pokémon and lose the necessary energy to do so, or you can ‘switch’ if you have an appropriate trainer card.
  5. You can use one of your Pokémon’s “Abilities” or “Pokémon Powers” if you have one – usually printed in red text at the top of the list of attacks your Pokémon has. Sometimes you can use this more then once per turn, and you can also use multiple abilities across multiple Pokémon if you have them.
  6. You attack using your active card (or not) – Once you attack you cannot go back and correct any mistakes or missed opportunities to do something –it is now your opponent’s turn.

How Damage works

The objective is to take the health of your opponent’s active Pokémon to 0 and defeat that card. Pokémon attacks can either damage your opponent’s active Pokémon or benched Pokémon, and /or apply a special condition to your opponent’s active Pokémon if your Pokémon has an attack that can do that. These conditions are;

  • Sleep – The opponent flips a coin at the start of their turn, if tails they are asleep and cannot attack. Heads they wake up.
  • Paralysis – The opponent is unable to use their active Pokémon at all during their next turn, and cannot retreat it.
  • Poison – The opponent takes periodic damage between turns, typically 1 damage counter per turn, sometimes up to 3.
  • Burn – The opponent takes periodic damage between turns, typically 2 damage counters per turn, sometimes more depending on the attack. The opponent flips a coin at the start of their turn, if tails they remain burnt, if heads they lose the condition.
  • Confused – If your opponent decides they want to attack your Pokémon during their turn, they flip a coin. If Tails, they cannot attack and take 30 damage on their own active Pokémon. If heads they can attack. Confusion continues until the condition is removed by a trainer card or affect from another Pokémon, or if the opponent decides to switch or retreat their active Pokémon.

Damage itself is represented by damage counters. Some attacks are relatively small, and won’t do much to your opponent. Some however are devastating and can do a huge amount of damage, in combination with special conditions and they might also affect your opponent’s benched Pokémon, causing them no end of problems.

Generally, the more damage an attack does, the longer it will take you to ‘power up’ the attack with energy cards. For example, some attacks require 1 energy card to do 20 damage. Some will require 3,4,5 or even more to deliver 100 damage and they might have a combination of conditions that are applied to your opponent’s active Pokémon.

Take the Celebi & Venusaur GX Tag Team Card for example;

Celebi & Venusaur GX Tag Team

The Pollen Hazard attack deals 50 damage, but also applies 3 conditions!
This means the card will do a minimum of 80 damage (unless the opponent’s card has resistance or effects in play via tool cards that reduce that) Plus – also burns, poisons and confuses the opponent’s Pokémon, putting them in complete disarray! This attack would cause a serious amount of damage up-front and potentially over-time, and it can be used for only 3 energy cards, a very powerful card indeed. However there is risk involved – if this card was to be defeated, the opponent would be able to take 3 prize cards!

 Sometimes you will be required to discard some energy cards if you use a powerful attack, this is to ‘throttle’ the power of the card, so that it is not overpowered, and can also play into game mechanics.

Some Pokémon attacks (usually Fire-type Pokémon) have damage based on the number of energy cards in your discard pile!

EX, GX & Tag Team Cards

There are special EX or GX cards which will typically be an over-powered version of a Pokémon with superior HP (Health points) and attacks, they are potentially very dangerous but more risk comes with playing them as your opponent can draw 2 or 3 prize cards if they defeat it – so you do need think wisely about how you play them.

Winning the game

The ultimate objective is for either player to take all of their prize cards first. Winning can be done in various ways. There is a very wide-range of standard decks available that you can buy, or you can build your own deck with a custom setup.

Decks can have various types of Pokémon – usually 2 energy types of Pokémon but sometimes more.
There should typically be a strategy or way how to use the deck in order to defeat your opponent.

Some decks for example, heavily utilise trainer cards to disrupt the opponent’s game play, which can be very annoying and result in the opponent making mistakes or being ‘slowed down’.
The Mach-Strike deck (Sun & Moon Ultra Prism) is very smart deck which heavily relies upon the user playing ‘Cynthia’ trainer card before utilising Garchomp’s Royal Blades attack, which doubles it from 100 to 200 damage.

Mach-Strike Deck

The deck is can be even more effective because you can easily locate the Cynthia Training card by adding a couple of VS Seeker trainer cards, which would pretty much give you an unlimited cycle of 200+ damage attacks. This approach is also very hard to counter because you need to have a deck that somehow discards those cards or disrupts play very early on.

With that particular deck, the opponent is going to have multiple evolved Pokémon along the Garchomp evolution line in play, so your best bet is to damage or defeat them before they are fully evolved. You could have the opponent switch their active Pokémon with a benched Pokémon, or you could keep the player’s active Garchomp subdued with confusion for a while, allowing you to chip away at the Pokémon over-time or to re-strategize and buy time.

“Buying Time”

There are various ways to win a game, and if you are unable to defeat a card quickly and decisively you should delay if possible. This is good because it allows you to draw more cards, giving you more defensive or attacking options and it gives you more time to think about your next 2,3,4 or more steps.

“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”


“A tactical retreat”

The option to ‘retreat’ a Pokémon is there for a reason.  It’s a good thing to retreat your Pokémon if it’s low on health, or unhelpful in the current play. Sometimes you can’t because it requires a lot of energy, but it is smart to switch out and utilise another Pokémon if you need to. Sometimes you can win an entire game just by doing that, it may infuriate your opponent but it’s well within the rules.

Maybe you put a Pokémon out as your active Pokémon because it has a high amount of health and can take a few attacks to ‘tank’, giving you time to power up your bench, ready for a switch!

Ultimately, when you are playing against a good or seasoned opponent – you will need a good strategy within your deck. The first step is to know your deck and all of the cards in it. Once you know that, you can work out a plan of attack/defense and aim to do that during your game.

A wonderful ‘Delay’ card – Spinda

Remember though, that cards are drawn at random every turn so your plan may not happen for a while, or at all. That’s why it’s good to have some Pokémon in your deck that can quickly disrupt your opponent and cause some delay with a condition like confusion. A superb card for that is the Spinda card from the Sun & Moon expansion – for a single energy it does 30 damage AND confuses the opponent’s active Pokémon – I usually have 2 of those in every deck because it’s a good amount of damage for one energy, and it can use any type of energy as it is a colourless type attack.

Making less mistakes

You can also expect for yourself and your opponent to make mistakes from time to time – such as forgetting to draw a card or not playing a trainer when you really needed to.
To increase your chances of winning you need to make as few mistakes as possible, or none at all. Let your opponent make mistakes.

“Live Strategy”

One of the reasons why some card games are great is that there are many possibilities on how to play and win a game. Pokémon allows you to strategize ‘live’ meaning – like chess, you can plan several moves ahead and predict what your opponent will do or might do. This is a skill that takes some time to master, but when you do, you will certainly know it! It’s also scientifically proven to improve your intelligence very slightly over-time because your critical thinking skills are being exercised and that’s always a good thing.

As your critical thinking skills improve, you can have some more fun by ‘trapping’ your opponent into predictable outcomes and moves ready for you to take control and win. Sometimes your opponent might not even know what you’re doing and that makes it even more funny.

There’s learning in losing

You will lose a lot of games, and you won’t learn anything until you lose a few. If you are on a winning streak, or it has been a while since you’ve lost – that’s great, but you’re no longer learning anything significant. Your best matches will be against people who utilise new strategies or decks that you haven’t encountered before. Pay very close attention to what your opponent does and think about the outcomes that their playing a single card now or in the future might mean for you.  You can still have a good match if you’ve lost, because you have encountered a worthy player who has challenged you well. That is what this game is all about – improving your critical thinking and knowledge to constantly improve

If you haven’t played the game yet, I hope this guide is useful and I would recommend that you either utilise the Online Trading Card Game (because it’s cheaper, and easier to start quickly) or go to your local games hobby shop who have gaming tables and tournaments – those can be great fun.

I used to play in the Pokémon League when I was younger, and you’d typically get 3-4 games in every week which would help sharpen your skills and it’s good to socialise whilst you’re at it. It was also a great place to trade cards as well, which is a whole other topic!

I will come back to playing the game at a later date where we’ll cover playing with GX cards and some of the newer/more advanced ways of playing.