The worst format in the history of the Pokemon trading card game

In the years that have followed the release of Black & White, I’ve heard a number of complaints about the contemporary format, and even heard hyperbolic statements to the effect that certain post-BW formats have been the “worst ever.” (I heard this a lot particularly in the “Mewtwo wars” era following the release of Next Destinies).

If you think that the worst format of the Pokemon TCG happened any time in the last several years, I am guessing that you probably didn’t play at the time of the first modified format.  Or maybe you did play back then, but nostalgia has clouded your judgment.

To be perfectly clear, playing the Pokemon TCG at the time of the first modified format was probably some of the most fun I have ever had playing a TCG, but that is largely due to the the people that I played with and the unbridled enthusiasm that I experienced during my years in primary school.  Looking back, the format sucked, and it sucked in a lot of ways that may be unfathomable to players who picked up the TCG in the past decade.

I think that the discussion of “worst format” is an interesting one to have, and I think it’s good to see where the TCG has come from and how it has evolved.  Plus, it’s fun to reminisce about the “good ol’ days” with a more critical modern perspective.  So, let’s take a trip back to 2001.

What was the format?

The first rotation in the history of the Pokemon TCG occurred after the release of the first Neo set, which added second-generation Pokemon (the Pokemon that were introduced in the Gold and Silver video games, which expanded the Pokedex from 151 entries to 251).  This rotation removed the first three sets (Base, Jungle, and Fossil).  This format was also known as “Rocket On,” because it included the Team Rocket set and all of the sets that followed it.  The complete set list was Team Rocket, Gym Heroes, Gym Challenge, and Neo Genesis.  If you’re counting, that’s four sets.  That’s right: at a time when the game had only seven sets, we had a rotation that brought us down to only four sets.

The Rocket On format also specifically excluded Sneasel, one of the new cards from Neo Genesis.1 Neo Genesis Sneasel was the first card in the history of the TCG to be banned for balance reasons.  Although it’s a relatively unimpressive card by standards of the current format, at the time, Sneasel was simply “too good,” being one of the only basic Pokemon in the modified format that could function as an attacker due to the removal of cards like Hitmonchan and Electabuzz from Base Set, and Scyther from Jungle.  Being able to average 60 damage for two energy was ridiculously good at the time, even in unlimited play, and having that same damage and speed in a format like modified would have made it far and away the most dominant card in the format.

There have been other Pokemon cards that have been banned, like the “Birthday Pikachu” that was banned largely for logistical reasons (and a silly game mechanic that caused it to do more damage if you played the card when it was your birthday), and Slowking (also from Neo Genesis), which was more powerful than intended due to a translation error and later banned in modified play in the absence of an errata.  However, to this day, Sneasel remains the only card in the history of the TCG to be singled out and banned solely for balance reasons, rather than logistical complications.

The best deck in format

Rocket-On had one tier 1 deck: Feraligatr.  Feraligatr’s dominance in Rocket-On was partly due to the rotation of Base Set, which removed many staple cards like Computer Search and Professor Oak, leaving many decks starved for options to grab cards from the deck, fill their hand, and set up quickly.  Most decks relied on Professor Elm to replace Professor Oak as a means of cycling through their deck, but losing the ability to play trainers for the rest of the turn slowed you down considerably.  Another faster but riskier option was Misty’s Wrath.  Misty’s Wrath was too chancy for many decks to play because it placed so many cards into the discard, but Feraligatr could make use of this card fearlessly because of its reliance on pulling energy from the discard to do damage.  Feraligatr also synergized beautifully with Trash Exchange.  After Feraligatr’s Riptide took all of the energy out of your discard, Trash Exchange would take the Pokemon and trainers out of your discard and replace them with cards from the deck, oftentimes filling the discard with more energy cards to power up your next Riptide attack while putting important cards back into the deck to be re-used.  No other deck had the ability to abuse trainers to the same extent that Feraligatr did.

More than that, Pokemon has always been a game that is won by one-hit KO’s, and Feraligatr had the ability to deliver OHKOs while avoiding them himself.  Feraligatr had a whopping 120 HP, which at the time was the highest HP in the format, bar none.  Feraligatr was also one of the few Pokemon that could boast the ability to OHKO anything in the format.  The only other decks that could do the same were fire decks that utilized attackers like Blaine’s Arcanine (and Magcargo after it was printed in the third Neo set) in conjunction with Typhlosion (for energy acceleration), and guess what?  Those fire decks were weak to Feraligatr.

How dominant was Feraligatr?  At the 2001 Super Trainer Showdown, if you looked at the 15+ age division, you would find 6 Feraligatr decks in the top 8.  You’d also see a gutsy 15-year-old Jason Klaczynski piloting a Typhlosion deck at the top tables playing two copies each of Cinnabar City Gym (to negate Blaine’s Arcane’s weakness to Feraligatr) and Giovanni’s Nidoran (F) (a Feraligatr hate card included for its ability to OHKO Totodile and baby Pokemon).

Holy coin flips, Batman

Coin flips have always been and continue to be an unavoidable part of the game, but never to the same extent that they were in Rocket-On.  Games were won and lost by coin flips on a regular basis.  Nowhere is this more apparent than Focus Band, which allowed you a 50% chance to deny your opponent a prize and keep your attacker alive for another turn.  When a game comes down to a prize race with each player dealing enough damage to OHKO a Pokemon every turn, who takes their sixth prize first is ultimately decided by who is better at flipping heads.

Coin flips entered the game in another way: baby Pokemon.  The effect printed on the baby Pokemon in the Neo sets reads as follows:

If this Baby Pokémon is your Active Pokémon and your opponent tries to attack, your opponent flips a coin (before doing anything else required in order to use that attack). If tails, your opponent’s turn ends without an attack.

This is a mechanic that may seem somewhat familiar to those who played with Pokemon from the Heart Gold Soul Silver block. However, the “baby” Pokemon in the HGSS block are far less annoying than their predecessors.  The “baby rule” in Neo isn’t a Poke-power or Ability; it’s just an effect that’s printed on the card, meaning that there’s no way to get around it, other than removing the baby Pokemon from the active spot.  More importantly, the “baby rule” requires that you flip to determine success or failure every time you declare an attack, regardless of whether your attack affects the defending Pokemon.  Cleffa was without a doubt the most important card in the format, in no small part due to the absolute dearth of decent hand refresh trainer cards available to most decks.  If you had Cleffa active and wanted to use Eeeeeeek to get a new hand, and your opponent had a baby Pokemon in the active spot (say, another Cleffa), whether or not you would get that new hand of 7 cards was dependent on whether you could flip heads.  During the early turns of the game, when both players had Cleffa active and were trying to build up their side of the field, who built up first was in large part dependent on who could consistently flip heads the most consistently to successfully Eeeeeeek.

As if that wasn’t enough, the second set in the Neo block (Neo Discovery) brought us Tyrogue, a baby Pokemon that had the ability to OHKO baby Pokemon on a coin flip.  If your opponent led with a Cleffa, you could try your odds: take a 50% shot at drawing a fresh hand of 7, or take a 25% shot at drawing a prize.  If you whiffed on your OHKO attempt, you still left your opponent in the awkward situation of needing to take a 50% flip to get their Eeeeeeek off.  Tyrogue was one of the most annoying Pokemon to play against.

Why I liked it anyway

Rocket-On was the first format in the history of the TCG where we saw old sets rotated out.  And as much as there was to dislike about the new format, the removal of old sets also took out a lot of cards that were themselves gamebreaking to various extents.  The brokenness of the early pre-rotation sets is a separate discussion, but the changes that modified brought us can mostly be summed up as follows:

First, Rocket-On was the first format where we saw evolution decks matter in a big way.  In the pre-modified format, the best decks were those that utilized big basic Pokemon like Hitmonchan and Electabuzz from base set, and Scyther from Jungle.  Playable evolutions were few and far between; the format moved incredibly fast due to the immense draw power afforded by cards like Professor Oak and Computer Search, and anything that required three or more energy to attack was practically non-viable due to the existence of Super Energy Removal.  The manta of “no evolutions allowed” had a pair of exceptions which proved the rule.  Blastoise was the only evolution card from base set to be competitively relevant because Rain Dance allowed it to get around energy removal.  Wigglytuff from Jungle was an evolution card as well, but it matched everything about the big basic Pokemon that made them powerful: speed.  With the help of Double Colorless Energy, Wigglytuff could dish out heaps of damage on the second turn of the game, and it could begin swinging for 20 damage as early as the first turn of the game in the form of its basic Jigglypuff.  Wigglytuff also had the magical ability to OHKO the big basic Pokemon of the format with the help of Pluspower, making it a bit of an anti-metagame card as well.  Apart from Blastoise and Wigglytuff, evolutions were basically non-existent in the Pokemon trading card game’s early days.

Then rotation happened.  And suddenly, evolutions went from being the outlier to being the standardevery deck played evolutions.

Why the drastic shift in playstyle?  In modified, the relative dearth of draw trainers and search cards forced decks to often face off and spend multiple turns Eeeeeeeking to fill their respective benches.  And once you took the time to build up those powerful evolutions, nullifying them wasn’t as simple as just playing a trainer card to zap away their energy.  The removal of powerful trainers and the addition of Cleffa made modified a slower-paced format that made evolution decks viable, with some decks like Typhlosion playing multiple evolutionssomething practically unheard of in the TCG’s early days.

While Feraligatr was far and away the most prominent evolution card in the format, during modified’s early days, it was exciting to see other evolutions get play, like Typhlosion, Erika’s Victreebel, Steelix, and even cards like Giovanni’s Machamp.  The “younger brothers” of the big three basic Pokemon that dominated the pre-modified format still lingered on in the form of cards like Rocket’s Hitmonchan, Rocket’s Zapdos, and Rocket’s Scyther, but these Pokemon were mostly relegated to supporting roles in evolution decks.

Methodically drawing through your deck and playing evolution cards, one on top of another, and powering them up with energy to attack to finally perform a powerful attack was a mechanic that existed in the TCG’s early days, but in practice it rarely happened at high levels due to how fast-paced the game was.  In some ways, playing the game at the plodding pace of modified felt like the way the trading card was meant to be played.

In later formats, we eventually saw a more perfect realization of the idea of a Pokemon trading card game where Pokemon cards played a more significant and prominent role than trainer cards, good examples of this being formats that relied on draw engines like the original Delcatty and Claydol from Great Encounters.  Rocket-On was our first taste of that vision, and you know what?  For the first few months, before we had a chance to get sick of coin flips and seeing the same deck win over and over again, it tasted good.  It was fresh, and in a lot of ways, it was exciting.

  1. Neo Genesis Sneasel may look familiar to newer players who played during the HGSS era, as it closely resembles the Sneasel from Undaunted. []

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