Pokemon TCG – The Good, The Odd, The Frustrating

This past weekend I attended my first major Pokemon TCG event. As someone who has played in hundreds of sanctioned Magic events to date, it was an interesting experience for many reasons. Today I am going to write a bit about my experience which was composed of good, strange, and frustrating moments.

Let’s start with the good, shall we?

First of all, Pokemon is an incredibly interesting game. While gameplay is simple to learn the basics of, the average competitive game is fairly complex and most decks contain lots of sequencing decisions every game. The resource management in the game is fairly different coming from other card games like Magic and I am enjoying learning my way around. If you want to learn the basics of getting started check out this video from TCC here.

One of the things I really like about Pokemon’s organized play is that all of their events are broken up into age divisions. This means, unlike at a Magic Grand Prix or Open, you can never play against a small child at a competitive Pokemon event as an adult. Their age brackets are 11 and under, 12-15, and 16+.

The price point of the event was amazing compared to similar Magic events. As someone who was used to paying $50 for an SCG open and who skips Grand Prix that cost $80-100, the $30 entry fee that included a playmat, promo, and lanyard / badge was a great value.

The check-in process for the event was great. Instead of having a player meeting where decklists are collected, players wait in line to check in and turn in their decklists. Before the decklists are collected they are validated that they contain 60 cards that are all legal in the format. While it takes a bit more time, the event had more than adequate staffing and with 20~ people checking decklists everything moved along fairly quickly.

The video coverage of the event was very professional. It was high quality with hand cameras and even cameras under the table to show which cards each player had prized. Seeing it for yourself is better than my explaining it, so check out the archives on their twitch channel here.

Next, let’s talk about some of the oddities of the Pokemon Tournament rules.

First, they do not have a round timer at events. You also cannot find out how much time is remaining in a round by asking a judge. They feel that knowing the amount of time remaining encourages stalling as the round nears its end. The result of this strange rule is that players who know about this bring watches to events and note the time a round starts. This is effectively the same as having a round clock, but only for the players “in the know”.

After hearing the thought process for why there is not a round clock, I was fairly surprised by Pokemon’s slow play rules which allow for legal stalling. You are allowed 30 seconds for every game action in Pokemon before you can get a slow play warning. I watched multiple players over the course of the weekend go from lightning fast play at the start of a game, to taking 30 full seconds for every game action they took in a third game as they started losing to force a draw. Draw your card for the turn? Count to 30. Play a card that draws a few cards? Count to 30. Attach an energy to a Pokemon you control? Count to 30. If you have played Pokemon before you know that you often take many actions in a turn and this allowed for forced draws by taking 5+ minute turns where very little actually happened.

Unlike a priority based game like Magic where you have both players taking actions back and forth fairly quickly, because Pokemon largely has one person playing and then the other I am fairly surprised they do not use chess clocks instead of a single timer. It would be fairly practical and eliminate the idea of slow play all together.

The next thing I found kind of strange is that an event that pays out prizes to the top 64 players only invites the top 32 players back to play on the second day. This means people who could finish higher in the event are removed from play before they have a chance to improve their record. It also means half the people who collect prizes from the event did not even play the entire event.

Some cards in Pokemon involve coin flips. Many players, myself included, use a die roll instead of a coin flip because it is easier to control a die from going off the table than it is a coin. Pokemon has a rule that you are required to use clear dice for any coin flips because they feel it is harder to weight a clear die. No idea if this is true or not, but the rule felt strange.

When playing a game your deck is required to be facing you and your opponent. It cannot be on an angle or facing left / right. The spirit behind this has to do with preventing cheating also and it is not a big deal, but again just felt strange.

With all the rules in place to prevent potential abuse while playing, something that felt truly odd is that “open face” shuffling is something that was common place. Essentially, players shuffled their decks in a manner that allowed them to see which cards were going into which portions of their deck while doing so. When asking a judge about this I was informed it was acceptable since I was allowed to randomize their deck after. Very different from the culture of Magic where the competitive players mostly know to look in the opposite direction of any deck they are shuffling to avoid any abuse while shuffling.

The last rule that caught me by surprise was that you are not allowed to leave your discard pile displayed while playing. Like many TCGs, Pokemon has cards that allow the player to use their discard pile as a resource. When I play a deck like this in Magic, I always leave my discard pile neatly displayed so at a glance both players can see the name of every card in my discard pile. It generally saves time and it gives away less information when I draw a card that cares about my discard pile. Your discard pile needs to be in a single pile with just the top card visible when you are not holding it to look through it.

Finally, I would like to close this piece talking about an unfortunate situation during the last round I played in the event.

I was playing my Rainbow Road deck against an opponent playing M Gard After losing a fairly quick game one we settled for a longer game two. My opponent had a slow time setting up and I was able to put myself into a fairly commanding position. I had just two prizes remaining, meaning I just needed to knock out just one more of their Pokemon, while they still had five prizes.

My opponent played a card that allowed them to search their deck and pulled out a card called Karen that had no impact on the current board where they were going to lose the following turn. My opponent then said “I’ll play first” which is casual language implying a concession that is used on occasion, because the player who lost chooses who goes first in the following game. In fact, it was what I said when I conceded the first game.

Because the language was casual though, I always ask for a confirmation. I asked my opponent:  “That’s the game then?” to which he replied “Yea” and began picking up his cards. As I shuffled up for game three he picked up the match slip and began to fill it out, confused I said “We have a game three still” to which he responded with “No, you conceded.”

Not being a stranger to TCGs, I simply called a judge. The judge came over and my opponent explained what had happened accurately, but said he thought I was conceding the game at the end. He explained that he felt I was conceding to his card that did not impact the board, while he was losing the game on my following turn as the board state was. I felt pretty bad, the kid was, at-most, twenty and it seemed like we just had our communication crossed. I should have been more formal and gotten a full “I concede” from my opponent before moving on.

The judge goes to get the head judge. We both explain what happened again, only this time instead of explaining why I would concede with lethal on board, my opponent embellished his story and says “You said ‘I concede’”. At this point every bit of sympathy drains from my body. This kid likely knew exactly what he was doing. The judges did not care that his story changed from one instance to another.

The result was that since the best they could determine without taking sides was we both conceded, the result was a double game loss that meant the person who won the first game won the match. I was surprised and frustrated by this result. I thought at worst here I was simply going to have to win two more games in this match. In Magic when simultaneous game losses happen they simply cancel each other out as opposed to turning the match into a best of one.

The thing that shocked me the most about the process, though, was we were not informed an investigation was happening as a result of this match. My opponent had flat out lied to a judge and it was not going to be looked into. I wonder how many times my opponent had won the first game in a bad match up and then lied their way into a match win in a similar “miscommunication”.

It really made me appreciate how fair, thorough, and reasonable the Magic judge policies are in most instances.

Wrapping Up

The result of my interactions with the judges at the Pokemon event left me feeling not only frustrated, but more than a little bit disappointed. Pokemon is a truly interesting and fun card game that I was having a good time playing. I had invested not only a few hundred dollars in paper cards, but also another couple hundred dollars and two days of my time to play in this event. The fact that Pokemon’s system allows for such blatant abuse with no repercussion or investigation is truly terrible. While I plan to continue to play online when I want some amusement, the whole experience left me sour to Pokemon’s organized play. Allowing your players the ability to legally stall and lie without repercussion is not something I want from a game I am looking to play competitively.

To close on a good note, I would like to give a shout out to the TO of the event – Yeti Gaming. Their event was well run and they went the extra mile for customer service when I requested a refund of my entry due to my sour interaction with the judges.

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