Tales from the Fireside – Gotta Catch ‘Em All

With a laptop sitting upon his tartan blanket, Campfire ventures online to fight against the youth of today. Or try out an online TCG. One of the two.

——————–

Trading Card Games are a difficult hobby to get into. Between the cost of assemblng a decent deck and rulesets that become ever more complicated with every new expansion, they often cater more toward existing players than they do clueless newbies. Fortunately newbies like myself have an easy on-ramp in the form of the Pokémon Trading Card Game, a game which treats its players with kid gloves. In Pokémon it doesn’t matter who wins or loses – it’s the taking part that counts.

I am, of course, lying. The Pokémon TCG is just as cut-throat as its older siblings, only players my age suffer the dual indignity of first being pounded by some pre-pubescent punk with more Pokémon cards than body hair and then being arrested for grooming minors. “I didn’t do anything!” I yell as the Fuzz haul me away. “I just wanted to play Pokémon!”

The Pokémon Company recently started beta-testing an online version of the Pokémon TCG. At the moment you can only play against the game’s AI, but without any children involved this is great news for anyone who wants to get into trading card games without ending up on the cover of The Daily Mail. Feeling only slightly self-conscious about signing up for a kids’ game (all right, a game aimed predominantly at children) I decided to see if I had what it takes to be a Pokémon
master.

As soon as the user interface loaded I felt immediately out of my depth. I’m a Pokémon OG – I played Pokémon Blue a decade ago and caught a few episodes of the cartoon on listless Saturday mornings – but so many years down the line I was entirely unfamiliar with the new monsters added to the roster. What the heck’s a Chikorita? Where’s Bulbasaur? Do they call this music? Where are my slippers? If this column was a tweet I’d be hash-tagging it #TooOldForPokémon

I was presented with a choice of three basic starter decks – a water deck, grass deck and fire deck. When the game officially launches players will unlock additional starter decks by buying real world trading cards. For the moment, eschewing possible strategies and in-depth analysis, I chose the water-oriented Breaking Wave deck on the basis it was only one featuring a Pokémon I recognised from the original game’s starting line-up – a Squirtle. My starter deck chosen, the game introduced my first opponent: Zach from San Francisco. He works in a Pokémon store, likes The Lord of the Rings, and, rather unsettlingly, says he ‘lives for Pokemon’.

“Ah,” I cackled, bridging my fingers like the nerd equivalent of Ernst Stavro Blofeld. “But will you die for them, Zach?”

Zach is apparently the eighth best Pokémon card player in the world world. As someone who’s never played Pokémon before, facing off against him as my first opponent seems a little unfair. I decided I need help. Unfortunately the game’s help screens, which talk about energy placement and ‘zapping’ confuse me more than anything else. Hope came in the form of a button that said “Still not sure? Check out the Tutorials to learn more!” I clicked it and was presented with a not-at-all-helpful screen that read: ‘404 Not Found’. Reminding myself that the site was still in Beta, I soldiered on and decided to plunge straight into the game.

I drew my first hand, and – prompted by on-screen commands – choose Bulbasaur as my main Pokémon. I then benched my Totodile – which sounded more like a sock with rubber grips on the bottom than a vicious battling monster. The game determined which player went first by tossing a virtual coin. Of course, I lost the coin-
toss. “Start as you mean to go on,” I muttered, and once Zach had has his first turn, started playing cards. Like the video game, the Pokémon Trading Card Game is all about animals fighting one other. You place monsters into battle or onto your bench, and power them up by attaching energy cards from your hand. The more energy you attach to a single Pokémon, the more powerful its attacks become.

I attached water energy to my Bulbasaur and made my first attack against my opponent’s Pokémon, gleefully drenching his two-headed freak-bird Doduo with a Rain Splash attack that caused a mighty 10 damage. “Yeah!” I yelled. “How do you like that?” As it turned out my jubilation came too early – 10 damage was puddlenuts in Pokémon country, and rather predictably the Doduo shrugged off the attack like water from a duck’s back.

Though I feared retribution, Zach bided his time, attached energy to one of his benched monsters, and didn’t return my attack. Colour me suspicious. My next turn I encountered another mechanic lifted from the Pokémon video game: Evolution. Placing a card from my hand in front of it I evolved my Totodile sock monster into a Croconaw – a creature that looked like a hippo with a mohawk. The Croconaw was still on my bench, but I could see that if Zach smashed my active Squirtle to soup I could replace it with my now super-powerful Pokémon.

Of course, over on his side of the table, Zach was doing exactly the same thing.

Over the next couple of turns I attached more energy to my Squirtle, had it attack again and placed another Totodile card on my bench. Then, just as I’m beginning to understand how the game works, I’m thrown for a loop. On his turn Zach attacked by flipping two coins – they both came up heads – and knocked my Squirtle
out of the game. Dumbstruck, I moved my Croconaw up to the plate, evolved my second Totodile and place a third onto the table. I was suddenly aware I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. Like a self-loathing vandal in branch of Hallmark I was throwing cards every which way and crying all the while. I didn’t know what the hell I was going to do next.

I drew my next hand and tearfully regarded the new card. And everything changed.

I drew a Feraligatr. It’s a supremely powerful card – a second stage evolution. I replaced my Croconaw with it and powered it up with another energy card for good measure. Suddenly, instead of dealing a measly 10 damage with a Rain Splash attack I was swiping at my opponent’s entire menagerie with a Spinning Tail attack that did 20 damage to every Pokémon Zach had. He retaliated, but the Ferilgatr’s one tough mother and powered through the damage. I attacked again, knocking another 20 damage into each of his useless pawns. His benched Pokémon only had 50-60 health each. With one more attack they’d all go down, and no amount of health
potion cards would save them.

On my next turn I drew a power card and attached it to the Feraligatr, which allowed him to use his Surf attack. Dealing out a mighty 80 damage per attack, Surf was powerful enough to knock out any one of Zach’s Pokémon, but I was so close to the finishing line I could taste victory. I attacked with Spinning Tail one last time and knocked out Zach’s benched Starly, another Starly, his Doduo, another Doduo, his Spearow and the attacking Doduo he’d had on the board since the start of the game. Like Jersey Shore cast members at a free bar, one by one they all passed out.

With each victory I won a prize card that I shuffled into my deck. I only had to win six cards to win the match; with that single attack I net all six, and passed into legend. “Hey, great game!” said Zach through bitter tears of defeat. “Looks like you’ll fit right in.” Yeah, yeah. Go back to your Tolkien, loser! For beating Zach like the wimp he is I won a swanky Kingdra card to add to my deck and a couple of tokens to spend on in the card shop, which I can’t use because the game’s still in beta
and the shop hasn’t opened yet. I don’t care – I won!

I checked the leader-board and it showed I was ranked ninth in the world while Zach the bird-loving loser had been bounced down to 14th place. Judging from the leader-board it seemed there are only 14 people in the world who played the Pokémon TCG, and he was the worst out of them all. “Sucks to be you, Zach,” I said as I folded my arms and – in the manner of sore winners everywhere – flip my defeated opponent the bird.

And then it was onto the next match.

Even at this early stage, Pokémon TCG Online is a great game. It eases beginners into the game without overwhelming them with tactical options. The more matches I played, the more advanced cards I earned, and the more I came to understand the game. When the site moves out of beta players will be able to customise and build their own decks and fight each other. As it stands, it’s a fun and gentle introduction to TCGs as a hobby – and it’s free. You can play the Pokémon Trading Card Game Online at http://www.pokemontcg.com/

If you do, be sure to tell Zach that Campfire says hi.

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