I lay restlessly in bed a few nights ago thinking about something I presume many people who have just turned 30 think about: Pokemon cards. I wasn’t counting Mareep to lull myself into a slumber, nor was I dreaming of sliding down the freakishly long neck of an Alolan Exeggutor (not tonight, at least). No, I was thinking about how bloody expensive the Pokemon Trading Card Game is, and this made me unreasonably upset at roughly 1 in the morning.
For a lot of people, the Pokemon Trading Card Game is something they remember fondly from school. Opening booster packs of 10 randomised cards, comparing shinies with mates, and making ill-advised trading decisions based on the playground economics of each card’s perceived worth. But for many, including myself, it’s so much more than that. It’s one of the best online and offline card games on the market, with the added bonus of fuzzy nostalgia in pocket-sized monster form.
A few years ago I got back into Pokemon cards. It was oddly fulfilling about being able to spend adult money on something I could rarely afford as a scruffy 11-year-old in secondary school. I quickly started playing and competing, thanks to the support of my local Pokemon League and the friendly bunch of players who turned up each Saturday morning. Building decks and taking my best Pokemon cards into an intense one-on-one battle was far more exciting than anything I had experienced in the video games. I was hooked.
Something you learn about very quickly in the world of Pokemon cards is the meta. Certain decks of 60 cards are just better than others, so if you want to be competitive you need to have one of those decks. It seems simple, but herein lies the inherent problem with The Pokemon Trading Card Game: the best decks have the best cards, and the best cards are often rare (or even ultra rare), which makes pulling them randomly from booster packs extremely unlikely and uneconomical. So unless you’re funded by Team Rocket or you can convince someone to trade their very good cards for your not-so-good ones, the next logical step is to find someone selling the cards you need on eBay or through a collectible card seller online. But of course the rare, powerful cards are in high demand and have a premium price tag attached to them.
What I’m describing will of course sound familiar to anyone who has played any trading or collectible card game. To a certain extent it’s just the nature of the beast, but other card games offer alternatives to you hemorrhaging cash just to keep up with the meta. Magic the Gathering, for example, widely supports multiple formats for veterans and newcomers on any budget, with limited formats like Draft and Sealed levelling the playing field, and a much larger player base to support this. Hearthstone, the popular online collectible card game from Blizzard, lets you break down unwanted cards so you can craft those you need. Pokemon, on the other hand, is effectively pay or lose.
In 2012 a card called Darkrai-EX came along, at the height of my love and obsession for Pokemon cards. The deck winning all the local tournaments had four of these cards, and it was available as part of the Dark Explorers expansion, so obviously I needed it. I decided to take the plunge and drop £80 on a box of 36 Dark Explorers booster packs. After feverishly unwrapping them in what was, to be fair, a pretty cathartic pack-cracking binge, I couldn’t believe what had happened: after all that money spent, I hadn’t pulled a single Darkrai-EX, and I needed four. The card was selling for £40 a pop on eBay, so that was it. I packed it all in and I headed for the greener pastures of the “Living Card Games” by Fantasy Flight Games, which did away with randomised boosters and offered a more constructed experience with games like Android: Netrunner and A Game of Thrones: The Card Game.
This brings us back to me, years later, an adult, laying in bed thinking about Pokemon cards. The 2018 Pokemon World Championships have just taken place in Nashville, Tennessee. There, the best TCG players in the world get together and put their decks to the ultimate test. First place takes home a massive $25,000, so the pressure is on to pick the right deck and pilot it to victory. Of course, I’m playing Pokemon cards again. Nothing has since matched the gameplay experience for me so I couldn’t stay away for long, but this time I’m determined to do it on a budget. I jump out of bed, switch on my computer, and begin to pore over the winning deck lists fresh from Nashville to see if I could afford any of them.
In the Masters Division a Zoroark / Garbodor deck carved a path to a first place victory. I looked up how much it would cost to buy these cards online and, at the time of writing, this deck would cost a whopping £237.40 ($305) to build. Second place went to a Malamar deck, another staple in the format, which carries a price tag of £145.52 ($187). In at third was a Zygarde / Lycanroc deck to the tune of £168.70 ($217), and finishing in fourth we have a deck using the recently released Rayquaza-GX from the Celestial Storm expansion. This one would cost £213.40 ($274) to build with cards purchased from online sellers, and as it happens similar Rayquaza decks also filled in three more spots in the top 10 at 5th, 7th and 10th.
You can see the picture I’m painting here, but at this point I want to stress that merely owning an expensive meta deck doesn’t guarantee victory. It takes a lot of skill, and hundreds if not thousands of hours of practice to play at the level seen at the Pokemon World Championships. To reduce the game simply to the cost of a deck would be a discredit to the incredibly talented, passionate, dedicated, kind, and friendly people who make up the TCG community.
The problem I’m facing, though, is that decks like Zoroark make up a huge percentage of what is currently played not just on the world stage but in local tournaments too. Zoroark decks alone made up nearly 30% of competitive play in the last season, so it’s hard to ignore the fact that expensive decks do win games, whether that’s at the highest level in tournaments, or friendly local games. Nearly every competitive deck includes multiple copies of the meta staple Tapu Lele-GX, which currently costs about £30 ($38) for one copy.
It’s no surprise, then, that pack-opening videos are so popular on YouTube, with people (likely a lot of young children) living vicariously through those who can afford to buy endless booster packs and share the treasures within for the viewer at home. There’s even an eight hour long video where an eye-watering $24,000 worth of Pokemon Sun & Moon boosters are opened up for over one million viewers.
At this point it seems to be widely accepted that this is just the cost of playing Pokemon cards. If you don’t have the cash to front for the best cards, then you won’t have the best chance when it comes to competing. Apply this to video games and the equivalent might be having to pay for better weapons in Call of Duty or Overwatch putting character abilities in loot boxes. There is already a lot of controversy surrounding loot boxes and “pay to win” content in video games as it is, but trading card game manufacturers aren’t held to the same level of scrutiny.
So what’s the solution? Am I doomed to weak budget decks or playing with printed proxies? Surely there is a way to lower the entry price for a competitive deck below £200, and below £100 or even £50 while we’re at it. After all, one deck won’t last you long, with new expansions releasing every few months and an ever-changing meta that sees new cards and strategies appearing like wild Zubat in a dark cave.
Booster packs will never go away, they have been a part of the Pokemon Trading Card Game since the beginning, and to be fair a lot of people do love them. But for the competitive scene, I want competitive cards to be more accessible with cheaper reprints for those not able to fork out hundreds. Granted there have been some already, and the must-have Tapu Lele-GX will be included in an upcoming boxset–but at $50 and well after the card initially hit the metagame in May 2017, it’s too little too late. Theme Decks are often a starting point for new players, so it’s good to see recent releases include a handful of staple uncommon cards to help kickstart a competitive collection, but there’s room for improvement. I would like to see The Pokemon Company make these cards easier to get ahold of and make powerful GX cards more frequent in booster packs, rather than the measly four or five you might be lucky enough to get in a full box of 36 boosters at the moment.
This will surely lead to a healthier meta, happier players, and more of them at that. I love the Pokemon Trading Card Game, but the thought of not being able to play because of my budget is literally keeping me up at night. I have a full time job and I can’t keep up with the cost of Pokemon cards.
In my mind Richard Garfield, creator of Magic: The Gathering has the best mentality when it comes to cards, their availability, and their pricing structure: “I wanted to see the cards collectible in the sense of stamps, where you go to the post office and buy some stamps you don’t expect them to be immediately worth $10 when you spent $2, but over time, they can be special.”
Right, I’m going back to bed.