Card-buying advice for beginning players

Before we begin, a fair warning: this article is concerned with optimizing the process of acquiring cards for use in the Pokemon trading card game.  Some people buy cards because they want to play the Pokemon trading card game, while other people buy cards because they enjoy buying and collecting cards.  This article’s intended audience is the former group.

Summed up briefly, there are two approaches to buying cards:

  • Figure out which cards you want to use, and then buy them (the economical way)
  • Buy cards, and then figure out which ones you want to use (the popular way)

Probably the biggest reason that new players choose to buy pre-constructed decks or booster packs (the popular route) is that they simply don’t know how to build a good deck. “Skill as a deck builder is something that comes from experience,” most people seem to figure.  And they are right.  However, building decks with completely random cards from booster packs is a tremendously inefficient way to learn how to deck-build, and pre-constructed theme decks generally serve as very poor examples of effectively-constructed decks.  Even a novice player buying singles according to a planned deck list can expect to come up with a better deck than someone trying to piece together a deck using the random cards that they pulled from packs, and it doesn’t take much learning to make a deck that will outperform basic theme decks.

Learning from the masters

If you must buy a pre-constructed deck, I highly recommend buying the reprints of the World Championship decks that The Pokemon Company International releases at the end of every season.  Unlike theme decks, which are literally made to be played by children, the World Championship deck reprints are decks that were assembled and piloted by some of the best players in the game at the most competitive Pokemon event of the year.  These decks usually operate using complex strategies that do a much better job of exposing budding players to the intricacies of the game’s mechanics.  More importantly, they can teach good deck design by example.  The World Championship decks, being reprints from the previous season, usually contain cards that have been rotated out and strategies that are “obsolete” in the current format, but they still do an excellent job of teaching the fundamentals, and reflect the competitive metagame much more accurately than any other sealed product.

The only con to buying the World Championship deck reprints is that the cards included in them are not tournament legal.  However, they are generally a much better use of your money than some theme deck that contains cards which, while technically tournament legal, are generally not actually useful or competitive in a tournament setting.  Occasionally, a theme deck will have several good cards, but those few cards could have been purchased individually on the secondhand market for a fraction of the cost of the entire theme deck.  The non-legal status of the reprints is inconsequential for players who do not participate in sanctioned events, which accurately describes most fresh budding players as they are in the early stages of learning the game.  The reprints are still allowed for use in a league setting.

One last caveat associated with the reprints is that they are printed with different backs, meaning that they can not be mixed and matched with other cards as easily.  However, this can generally be rendered moot by employing opaque playing sleeves, which most players will want to invest in early on anyway.

Going the cheap and efficient route

By far the most cost-effective way to build a deck is to research the current metagame, figure out which deck you want to play and what cards are needed to build it, and then buy those cards on the secondhand market.  Buying cards secondhand is always more economical than buying booster packs, theme decks, tins, and the like.  Every time you buy sealed product, the act of breaking the wrapper and removing the cards decreases its value.

If you want to be competitive without spending hundreds upon hundreds of dollars buying packs, buying your cards from the secondhand market really is the way to go.  Pokemon isn’t an expensive game to play if you don’t waste money on cards you don’t need.  A “league deck” (a deck that is non-viable for competitive tournament play but capable of winning games in a casual league setting) can be put together for less than the cost of a pair of theme decks in most cases, and it’s possible to build a competitive deck for under $80.  Even for those who want to play a deck that is one of the very best, most rotations have at least one tier 1 deck that can be assembled for under $150.

Where to buy cards secondhand

Local card shops sometimes carry Pokemon singles, although selection tends to be limited.  eBay can be a good source of cheap cards if you do comparison shopping, although if you want to simplify things (and cut down on things like shipping costs) it’s recommended that you buy all of your cards from a single vendor.  TrollAndToad is popular among Pokemon players for generally having the lower prices than other online vendors.

Flying in the face of reason

The main reason that the “buy cards now and figure out what to do with them afterward” method is so popular is that a lot of people find it fun.  While it might not be cost-effective, some people get a thrill from tearing open the plastic on a sealed product and seeing cards with pretty artwork fall out of the packaging, then combing through the spoils to find holofoil cards to put into their binder.  Doing this, you wind up with a lot of cards that are worthless in competitive play, but some people enjoy having these competitively “worthless” cards because they bring some kind of intangible joy into their lives.  There are physiological reasons why gambling generates pleasure, and opening booster packs is no different.  Rather than attempt to create the best deck possible, these players simply aim to make the best deck with the resources doled out to them by random chance.

I can’t really argue against this philosophy, other than to remark that it’s an excellent way to spend your money (and time) on something other than actually playing the game competitively.  If you and have an unlimited amount of money to spend, or are not concerned with playing the Pokemon Trading Card Game to the best of your ability, by all means, buy cards however you please.

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