TAndrewTesting: Pokémon TCG Online

by TAndrewT ~ October 12th, 2011.

So I know you OHKO’ers are knee-deep in Battle Roads right now, battling against all sorts of decks—not just the Reshiram/Typhlosions, Yanmega/Magnezones and Stage 1’s you’ve become familiar with since Worlds, but brand new decks too, like Zekrom/Tornadus, toolboxy Mew decks, Yanmega/Cincinno/Weavile, Gothitelle, Beartic/Vileplume/whatever—all kinds of builds you hadn’t thought of, but yearn to try. But how can you? I mean, you can’t just call up the guys every other day, asking to get together to test out your crazy Wobbuffet-donk deck whenever you please, right? We all have lives—school and college just started up, we’re all working hard to make financial ends meet, and Dancing with the Stars has reclaimed our Monday and Tuesday nights. Personally, it took me like 2 whole weeks to set a series of forest fires in northern Minnesota with the goal of sending a blinding cloud of smoke at Pikkdogs’ Michigan apartment. Let’s face it—we don’t always have the time to playtest like we should.

The Pokémon Company International has just created a new platform—Pokémon TCG Online, or PTCGO—that could make it much easier for us players to build and test decks. It also promises to attract a whole new set of players to the game. But it has its glitches, and its drawbacks. Pikkdogs wrote a brief introduction to PTCGO’s initial release, back when it was just a single-player game with old cards and set decks. Now, in its open beta, PTCGO has many of the features Pokémon players would want: two-player online games, owning and trading of virtual cards, a fully functional deck-builder, and a multiplayer matchmaker. In this article, I hope to bring you up to speed on what has changed with the service since Pikk’s article, and to help you decide whether investing time and money into PTCGO is worth it for you. I’ll also tell you about my own effort to use PTCGO to get ready for my first tournament of the Battle Roads season: the October 9th BR in Coon Rapids, MN.

Starting out with PTCGO, step by step

I’m sure most of you know about PTCGO from the code cards you received in your Black and White and Emerging Powers boosters. But up until a few weeks ago, like many of you, I hadn’t yet used any of those boosters at the PTCGO website. PTCGO is an Adobe Flash application that operates within your web browser. This means that the game can be played on any operating system—Mac, Windows, Linux, whatever you got. There is no executable to download, but you’ll need to have Flash installed. The Flash application eats up an incredible amount of system memory—150MB while you are playing the game, 250MB or more while you are managing your card collection—along with 50% of my aging 2.5GHz processor’s speed. So you’ll want to close most other applications while you’re playing, and pick the leanest browser you’ve got. (I found the game worked best in Chrome or Firefox, and not as well in Internet Explorer.) To play, you’ll also need to have created a Pokémon Trainer Club account at the main Pokemon website, the same one you’ve used to search for tournaments and check your ELO rankings.

The very first thing you’ll need to do to start playing is to exchange your PTCGO codes for online booster “credits”. You can do this at the Code Redemption page. The site offers two methods to exchange each card code with a credit: enter the code by hand, or use a webcam to read the QR (pixel) code on the card. In practice, I found the QR code interface clunky, so I’ve entered all of my codes by hand. (TAndrewTesting note: I originally thought I might convince my 8-year-old to do this for me. I was wrong.) Once you’ve redeemed all of your codes for credits, you can take those credits to the PTCGO Shop and use them to purchase one pack of 10 virtual cards. The pack can be any in the current HGSS-on format, not just the set that the code was pulled from. I wouldn’t advise exchanging them all at once though; you’ll probably want to keep some of your codes, just in case you realize that you want something in a particular set later.

After you have some unopened packs, you can head to the PTCGO playroom, where you’ll find links to your Card Collection, the Deck Builder, and the Trading floor. In your Card Collection, you’ll find all of the packs you purchased in the PTCGO shop. In addition, if you’re just starting out, you’ll also find a couple of free theme decks; these add a few reasonable cards to your collection, but unlike the packs you buy, you can’t trade away these free cards later. Click on any of the packs, and the program will offer to open one. When you do, you’ll get 5 common, 3 uncommon, one rare and one reverse holo, just like in a real-world pack. If you do this for multiple packs in succession, you’ll find that the distribution of cards you get is truly random, nothing like the even spread of cards you get by buying a booster box. For example, I pulled two virtual Kingdra Primes from my first three HS Unleashed boosters (yay!), but I haven’t pulled a single Yanmega Prime from the many many HS Triumphant boosters I’ve opened. (But I do have three Absol Primes. Grrr.) Once you’ve opened some of your boosters, you will see all of your new cards in your Card Collection organized by Evolution line, or Rarity, or Type, depending on the criterion you’ve selected.

With all of these cards in hand, you can go to the Deck Builder to construct your first deck. You can get to the Deck Builder via the buttons in the playroom, but the easier way is to drag up the screen divider that appears at the bottom of the Card Collection page. Once you do this, you’ll see that this page, the Deck Builder, and the Trading floor are actually all the same webpage. (Took me a while to figure this one out.) From here, you can click on the Deck Builder tab, and add cards to your new deck by clicking and dragging from the Card Collection pane. Simple stuff, really.

Tricks of the trade

Where things get more troublesome is the Trading floor. There are a few tabs that correspond to actions you can take. New Trade will allow you to create a public or private trade, where you offer up one or more of your cards in exchange for someone else’s. In Offers, you can see all of the public trading offers that have been made by anyone in the PTCGO universe, and accept them if you like. And in Binders, you can mark a subset of your card collection as available for trade, and create a list of wants, to make private trades easier to put together. In principle, I think this all could work nicely. You would always have your electronic binder of wants and haves, that could be browsed by other players trying to make the perfect trade. If you wanted something, but couldn’t construct that trade, even now you can offer unopened packs instead of cards; in fact, on the Trading floor, unopened packs have already become the alternative currency of choice for the most valuable cards, with pack-equivalent values nearly matching the real, physical cards. (For example, Yanmega Prime currently sells for ~11 unopened packs in the PTCGO world, and about $30—11 unopened packs—in the real world.) With what is on the PTCGO site now, players should be able to construct any deck they like and try it out.

But a couple of issues are keeping the PTCGO Trading floor from fulfilling its potential, for now. The first is technical: the Binders are leaky, for some reason, and cards that you’ve marked for trade lose that marking within minutes. PTCGO programmers have acknowledged this bug on the support forums, but haven’t fixed it yet. Unfortunately, this makes it pretty much impossible to set up trades with anyone else, unless you happen to see a specific trade on the public listing that strikes your fancy. But the second, even greater issue with trading in PTCGO is that there is currently no way to purchase single PTCGO cards with real money, and it may be a while before one is developed. In a way, Pokémon has structured PTCGO’s trading format like that of Magic the Gathering Online (MTGO), which also has virtual boosters to be opened and an alternative currency (event tickets, in MTGO’s case). But in the MTGO universe, to meet the demand for individual cards outside the official trading channel, private vendors have set up trading “bots” that will trade virtual singles for cash or tickets. These trades are typically set up and paid for outside MTGO, on vendor websites, and then executed inside MTGO between the buyer and a bot. I think this system must benefit MTGO—Wizards of the Coast could presumably stop the practice if they wanted, by re-programming the interface. No similar bots have been set up for PTCGO yet though. If vendors are considering it, it will surely take them some time to program those bots and to build virtual card inventory. Jason Klaczynski, two-time Pokémon TCG World Champion and user aatwoson in PTCGO, is doing this the hard way, exchanging unopened packs for your bulk and individual cards on the Trading floor, re-selling the cards as singles on EBay, and then delivering the virtual cards you’ve purchased back on the Trading floor. (So, Jason is the bot. You can see Jason’s buy rates on the PTCGO Trading Forum. On the day this article was posted, you could see his virtual card listings on EBay here, but the following day he had taken them all down.) But it’s not yet clear whether trading bots is in Pokémon’s interest, or whether TPCi will program the interface to exclude them. Until all of that shakes out, I can’t say whether trading in PTCGO will be easy or difficult in the long run. In the short run…well, it’s difficult.

Catching them all, with just a few clicks (and a lot of bucks)

But let’s say that, like me, you’ve decided to look past the limits of trading, and to build an online card collection that will allow you to run your favorite couple of decks, and to swap in a few trainer lines and techs. You’ll certainly want playsets of 4 each of the most common Trainers and Supporters—your Pokémon Collectors, Professor Oak’s, Communications, Rare Candies, etc. You could trade for these, but your best approach to getting them is probably to open a bunch of boosters in the sets they come from. Unfortunately, the best Supporters and Trainers are spread across most of the past expansions, so when I started out, I ended up opening ~15 packs each of HGSS, HS Unleashed, HS Triumphant, Black and White, and BW Emerging Powers to get the support cards I was looking for. This also gave me quite a few common Pokémon, some good uncommons, and a few rares. Basic energy cards are free in PTCGO, so you’ll never need to worry about those. At this stage, you might hit the Trading floor to pick up the rares you need to complete your first deck. But I wasn’t really sure what deck I wanted to run, and I was concerned about how much I might need to spend to complete it. Code cards currently cost ~$0.80 each on EBay, meaning I had already spent $55 just on virtual Trainers and Supporters alone. One virtual Yanmega Prime costs $9 worth of codes, so no MegaZone for me! Instead, I decided to base my deck-building decision on the 75 boosters I had already opened, and the rare card that I had pulled the most of from those boosters was—Tyranitar Prime! (I had two.) So, along with two Mandibuzz and a Zoroark that I had pulled from my BLW packs, I decided to try and build and test TTar Spread. I traded ~15 more unopened packs for the cards I didn’t have, and came up with the following list:

3 Larvitar UL-51 3 Pokemon Communication 4 Pokémon Collector 4 Special Dark
1 Pupitar UL-39 3 Rare Candy 3 PONT 4 DCE
3 Tyranitar Prime 3 Junk Arm 3 Cheren 3 Dark
3 Zorua BW 2 Pokemon Catcher 2 Twins 2 Psychic
3 Zoroark BW 2 Max Potion
2 Vullaby EP 1 Energy Retrieval
2 Mandibuzz BW 1 Switch
1 Jirachi UL 1 Super Scoop Up
1 Cleffa HS
19 Pokemon 16 Trainers 12 Supporters/Stadiums 13 Energy


TTar Spread is an old deck concept that came from the HS Unleashed set, but I think it has benefited from both Black and White expansions. The primary objective of the deck is to use Tyranitar Prime’s first attack, Darkness Howl, to spread damage around your opponent’s field for the cost of just one Darkness Energy. Darkness Howl does 20 damage to every Pokémon on the field that isn’t Dark-type; with luck, that will include all of your opponent’s Pokémon, and none of yours. Tyranitar Prime has 160HP, which makes it extremely difficult to OHKO, even when your opponent is Fighting type and hitting for weakness. Max Potion is used to heal the active Tyranitar after it gets hit, turn after turn. Max Potion discards the one Energy typically attached to Tyranitar, but that’s easy enough to replace, and I found I could usually get in three or even four Darkness Howls before one Tyranitar went down. Then, Jirachi’s Time Hollow attack is used to devolve any of the opponent’s Stage 1’s or Stage 2’s once they’ve accumulated enough damage to KO the underlying Basic. Jirachi’s Poké-Power, Stardust Song, allows you to flip three coins and attach a Psychic Energy for each heads to Jirachi from the discard pile. I found I could usually discard one or both Psychics with Junk Arm and/or retreating before dropping Jirachi, so I always had a good chance of being able to pay the one Psychic Energy attack cost with his Power alone. Time Hollow devolves one of your opponent’s Pokémon for each energy attached to Jirachi, so I would usually try to attach a DCE to Jirachi on the turn I dropped him, to allow for 3-4 devolutions in one turn! Zoroark is included as an early attacker that can copy opposing Zekrom’s and Reshiram’s 120-damage attacks with Foul Play at the cost of just a DCE. And Mandibuzz BW can snipe Howl-damaged bench Pokémon with Blindside, and is the only attacker that is resistant to Fighting. So, Mandibuzz serves as the deck’s sole counter to Donphan and other Fighting Pokémon.

Playing the game: PTCGO’s jewel in the rough

With my freshly built deck on the screen, I went back into PTCGO’s main playroom to play my first one-on-one games. On the website there are buttons for a variety of play modes, but the one I was most interested in was the Multiplayer Ranked/Expert Game format. Pokémon advertises this as a matchmaking system, where players are paired with an opponent of similar caliber. In practice, however, I think there aren’t enough players online yet to do this efficiently. I found myself paired with opponents with all sorts of play histories—first-time players with theme decks, long-time veterans like Seena Ghaziaskar (BigGhaz01), and late-night PokéDads like Carlos Pero (losjackal). I ended up playing ~100 games with TTar over a period of 7 days, maybe playing 2-3 hours per day. I could fit that many games in only because the game engine is pretty efficient. Shuffling occurs instantaneously, and game actions like searching are much faster on the computer than in the real world. PTCGO programmers have tried to accompany most actions with animations (or “dancing bologna”, as web designers used to call it), but these can be turned off to save game time. Network lag is a problem, and gets worse the longer you play in a stretch, but I found I could solve that by exiting the program and reloading every hour or so. In addition, my opponents would occasionally drop their connection to the game, maybe intentionally, and it would take the system some time to resolve this. There are a couple of rules that aren’t correctly applied in the game—Defender doesn’t reduce self-damage from Zekrom’s Bolt Strike, for example, and Dragonite’s Dragon Stamp always does nothing, whether you flip two tails or not. And some cards are more annoying to use in PTCGO than in real life. For example, Reuniclus’ Damage Swap Ability says that you move damage counters from Pokémon to Pokémon one at a time. And so that’s what you do in PTCGO: Click on Reuniclus, tell him to use his Ability, indicate which Pokémon to move one counter from, indicate which Pokémon to move it to. Click on Reuniclus, tell him to use his Ability….

Nevertheless, I thought the game engine worked well, and made playing lots of pick-up games, at any time of day or night, extremely easy. On the positive side, this meant that my deck and I got a lot of “looks”—lots of training on different scenarios I might face. On the negative side, about half of my games were played against theme decks, and because TTar Spread is a slow deck to set up, these inevitable victories would still take a full 10 minutes or so to resolve.

So what did I learn from this experience? I found TTar Spread actually has strong matchups against a number of decks in the metagame—in particular, against any deck that runs a lot of evolutions. I won most of the games I played against Reshiphlosion and Magneboar, and sometimes against MegaZone, by Time Hollowing damaged Stage 1’s and 2’s with Jirachi. Tyranitar’s and Zoroark’s Psychic resistance also came in handy against Gothitelle and Mew-based decks. (Against Mew, I just had to make sure I had only one high-retreat-cost Tyranitar on the field, in the active spot, at any given time to avoid Sludge Drag. Against Gothitelle, Special Dark Energy put T-Tar’s Megaton Tail attack over the 130-damage threshold needed to OHKO Gothitelle and ruin her game plan.) But Donphan was extremely difficult for the deck to deal with. Not only does Donphan hit Tyranitar and Zoroark for weakness, his Exoskeleton Poké-Body prevents damage from Darkness Howl, meaning it was challenging to set up snipe KO’s on Donphan with Mandibuzz. Zekrom decks were also a challenge, because they would set up so much faster than TTar, because the spread damage helps them use Outrage, and because they’re immune to Jirachi. But most importantly, I became extremely comfortable with TTar in a very short period of time, such that I felt I could make the best play most of the time against any opponent.

The final test: Battle Roads, Coon Rapids, MN

In the weeks before the Sunday BR in Coon Rapids, I had assumed I’d be playing MegaZone. I had some practice with the deck, and I knew how to play it in specific matchups. In addition, I had the advantage of watching Kyle “Pooka” Sucevich stream his own PTCGO matches with MegaZone on TheTopCut’s twitch.tv channel. But I never felt extremely comfortable with it, and I found I misplayed a lot. Saturday morning, at Pokémon league at the Source in Falcon Heights, I got humiliated twice in a row by Isaiah, a 6-year-old playing Beartic/Feraligatr. And so, Saturday night, I decided to see whether I could put my PTCGO experience to good use the next day by entering with TTar Spread.

Round 1: Frantz with Donphans and Dragons
Before our match starts, when I ask Frantz where he’s from, he can’t decide whether I’m making a joke about his name or not. (“You mean, am I from France?”) Turns out, Frantz is from Monticello, MN, and came down with a group from the Saint Cloud area. Now, if Donphan is bad for TTar, and Zekrom is bad for TTar, then you can imagine how I did against Donphan/Zekrom. I did manage to score a few Pyrrhic prizes in this game–I Catchered up any underpowered, high-retreat Poke I could find, and Time Hollowed his two benched Donphans in one turn–but in the end, this was an uphill battle.

Round 2: Jordan with Meta Funbox
Jordan was up from Rochester, MN, and he had a lot of different premier Pokémon in his deck: Zekrom, Reshiram, Yanmega, and Magnezone, all of which he had on the bench at the same time. Unfortunately, benching lots of guys isn’t the best strategy against TTar Spread. I managed to sprinkle damage all over the field early to KO his unevolved Yanma and Magnemite, and then I cleaned up with Zoroark’s Foul Play on the remaining dragons. At the end, a Mandibuzz snipe on a Manaphy got me the win. Tough game for my opponent—I think if he was more familiar with TTar, he could have taken this one from me.

Round 3: Ed Mandy with ZPST
Ed and I are possibly the slowest players in the history of Pokémon; judge Steven Marques circled us, eyeing us for slow play violations, even before the match had begun. (I’m kidding. Maybe.) In any case, against ZPST, I only have one strategy that has ever worked: spam Zoroarks at the beginning to trade prizes with Zekroms, draining the opponent of energy, while gradually building up Tyranitar on the bench that can come up against Tornadus and Howl away any Shaymins and Pachirisus that have been left behind. The first part actually worked, with Ed not hitting all three energies he needed in his first turn, and me managing to trade a couple of Zoroarks for a couple of his guys for the first two prizes. But I couldn’t evolve Tyranitar in time, had to sacrifice a couple of Basics to stall, and gradually lost. In PTCGO, I had tested Lost Remover as a way of stalling Tornadus right after a Zekrom KO, and this might have bought me a turn in this game, but I think the matchup was still pretty tough for me.

Round 4: Paige with Machamp/Gigalith
Paige leads a League in Saint Cloud, MN, on Monday evenings, which attracts a lot of players in that area. Paige played a Fighting deck, which worried me, but it’s slow to set up, and that gave me time to array some attackers against her. She walled for a few turns with Roggenrola’s Harden against my Howling Tyranitar, and then Fighting Tagged up a fully powered Machamp to score a couple of KOs. But Zoroark’s Foul Play scored one big hit on the Machamp, and then Mandibuzz finished it off, to put us near even again. I managed to Howl enough damage on a Machoke and a Gigalith to put them within Time Hollow range, but I ended up only hitting one energy with Stardust Song, with none in hand. So I could only devolve one, putting me up 1 prize to 2 with no more energy on the board. Luckily, after she KO’s Jirachi, I top-decked the Darkness Energy I need to hit with my last Mandibuzz for the victory. I really enjoyed playing Paige, not the least because she let me take back a misplayed energy drop mid-game that probably would have given her the win. (Which I told her, at the time. And she still let me take it back.) Right before the final KO, I asked whether she’d like me to concede—it would have been her match, after all, after the misplay—but she says no. Thanks Paige!

Round 5: Jason C with Toxic Tricks Theme Deck
Jason is a Pokédad whose son Ryan is a Junior, playing in just his second tournament, who ended up with the same record as Paul, my son (1-2). Paul came with a deck that he and I had worked on for weeks, had practiced with many times, and which I wrote an OHKO article on. Jason’s son had lost his deckbox the week before at the Burnsville BR, forcing them to build a new deck for Ryan the night before this tournament. The take-home lesson on building decks for your children? I don’t know, I’m old, so I don’t learn lessons quickly. In any case, Pokédad Jason didn’t stand a chance in this matchup—he used his theme-deck Gothorita to KO my Cleffa, which allowed me to Twins into six straight prizes. I’m sure that, once these guys get Ryan’s deck back (Legion Games called to say they found it!), they’ll both have stronger decks for next week’s BR’s.

Final words

So, in the end, did PTCGO help me play to a 12th-place finish (out of 26) at the Coon Rapids BR? I’m not sure; I didn’t end up playing many of the Twin Cities area’s strongest players, and I lost to both of the meta decks I faced. But I do think that PTCGO made me more comfortable with my deck after some hours of practice, at my convenience. Given my experience, I’m not sure that I can advise anyone else to use PTCGO yet. For advanced players, it will cost you a fortune and an awful lot of time to build the same card collection in virtual space that you currently have in your real-world decks and trade binders, at least until mutliple outside vendors manage to program bots to sell individual cards. For intermediate players, that same price and trade barrier will keep you from trying out the meta’s best decks, and because there are no “proxies” in PTCGO, you can’t play with a card that you haven’t yet acquired like you can in the real world. With the current state of things, I feel like other online play options—like PlayTCG.me, or Skype—offer more flexibility without the price tag, even if they don’t have the matchmaking convenience of PTCGO. The only players I can recommend PTCGO to right now, I think, is beginners—players who would like an introduction to the rules and to gameplay, and don’t mind starting out with a free theme deck. Now that I’ve sunk my first $100 worth of code cards into the online game, however, I’m sure you’ll find me there now and again!

Category: Deck Discussion, Opinion, Tourney Report | Tags: ,