August 20, 2020

An Interview with Atsushi Nagashima About Pokémon TCG: Sword & Shield—Darkness Ablaze

The Game Director of the Pokémon Trading Card Game at Creatures Inc. reveals some secrets behind this latest expansion.

The incredible Pokémon V and Pokémon VMAX cards continue to make a sizable impact on the Pokémon Trading Card Game, and the latest expansion, Sword & Shield—Darkness Ablaze, features even more of these powerful Pokémon (among a bevy of other new cards as well, of course). To find out more about the creation of this new set of cards, we talked to Atsushi Nagashima, the Game Director of the Pokémon TCG at Creatures Inc.

Mr. Nagashima has been involved with the Pokémon TCG since 2001, and he was able to share all sorts of behind-the-scenes information such as how they choose which Pokémon and human characters will appear on new cards. He also pulls back the curtain to reveal some of the finer details about the Pokémon TCG's gameplay mechanics. Longtime players can learn more about how certain cards are designed to work together and the thought process that goes into the development of a card. Here's what he had to say!

Do you look for ways to make cards synergistic, or are card combinations mostly discovered organically through gameplay? If you do set them up intentionally, have you ever had an instance when fans did not discover a combination?

Mr. Nagashima: Normally, there is something we're aiming for with all the cards when we create them. Each card is designed with its own synergies in mind, some simple and some more complicated, depending on the role of that particular card.

I doubt there are many combinations players haven't found, but we take a broad approach, so maybe there are a few. As a developer, it makes me very happy when players discover one of the more complicated synergies.

Additionally, sometimes skilled players put cards to uses beyond what we expected. As a developer, being outfoxed in that way is also very exciting.

How do you decide which cards get to be Pokémon VMAX? (They don't seem to always correlate to Gigantamax Pokémon from the video games.)

Mr. Nagashima: Often we make that choice based on questions such as: what will be most interesting for the metagame, what sort of worldview do we want to express with that series, and what Pokémon types do we want to feature in the product in question.

We also actively look for Pokémon that might not have gotten full attention in the video game but can be put to good use as a card and really shine.

With the Sword & Shield expansion, we saw some swapping of traditional types, such as traditional Poison-type Pokémon changing to Darkness types in the Pokémon TCG. What was the primary reason for this, and has it played out as you expected?

Mr. Nagashima: Making Darkness types weak to Grass and Fighting types has the advantage of dispersing Weaknesses.

Also, the TCG was previously characterized by a rock-paper-scissors relationship between Grass, Fire, and Water types, but that relationship allowed the metagame to progress too quickly. So, with the Sword & Shield Series, we began focusing compatibility around five types: Grass, Fire, Water, Lightning, and Fighting. Darkness types represent a new change, as a type that's related (via Weakness) to two of those core types. This change opens up a lot of tactical possibilities.

Every once in a while, there's a card like Galarian Darmanitan that is clearly designed around unique aspects of that Pokémon from the video game. What is the process like for translating video game concepts to the Trading Card Game?

Mr. Nagashima: We start with as thorough an understanding as we can gather of that Pokémon's characteristics in the video game, and the contents of its Pokédex entry. From there, we discuss various options that we feel will best emulate this new mechanic within the TCG.

The important point is to represent the Pokémon in a way that is both simple and interesting for the card game, and that can be enjoyed by as many people as possible.

How do you decide which human characters to match to specific Trainer card effects?

Mr. Nagashima: Sometimes we look at the way characters or tools are depicted in the video games and think of interesting effects they could have in the TCG. Other times, we start with the effect we want and then match it to the character or other element that seems to fit that effect.

On occasion we'll see cards, like Mew V and Dracovish in this expansion, that share similar Abilities or attacks with popular cards from the past. What considerations do you have to take when revisiting popular concepts?

Mr. Nagashima: First, we thoroughly analyze what kind of effects past cards have had, and then we explore how those effects should evolve.

Even when a technique or combo has the same effect as a previous card, we design the new card to create a different and exciting experience. It can be a change in which Pokémon now has that effect, or different interactions with the many other cards that make up the game environment.

Could you talk us through the development of the following cards from Sword & Shield—Darkness Ablaze, such as how you devised their Abilities and attacks, and how you balanced those with other elements such as HP and Retreat Cost?

Mr. Nagashima: The idea for Corviknight comes from the Flying Taxis, which players of the video games should be familiar with. Corviknight can shuttle Pokémon into the player's hand.

Mr. Nagashima: It's difficult to raise up and evolve multiple Pokémon at once. Our objective with this card is to encourage decks with multiple evolving Pokémon.

Mr. Nagashima: In the TCG, when people think of Charizard, they probably think of big damage. This version of Charizard is capable of doing 300 damage, which is a stunning amount even compared to other VMAX cards.

Mr. Nagashima: Grimmsnarl has an image as a powerful, fur-covered Pokémon, so we designed this version so it would become more powerful when Energy is attached to it.

It makes a great combo with the Darkness Ablaze version of Hydreigon, which allows a player to instantly attach maximum Energy.

Mr. Nagashima: Eternatus VMAX is a mammoth presence in the original story. We chose to represent that in the TCG by giving it an HP of 340, which is the largest HP to date. Additionally, Eternatus was meant from the beginning of the series to have major implications for the metagame, so we designed this series so that it would also create a big splash in the TCG game environment. Naturally, in addition to the card data, we considered how it would connect to other Pokémon and the tactical options it would create.

At Creatures, we have a team of TCG playtesters who play the game throughout the day to gather as much data as they can on how a card performs. Their role is to check the playability of the new cards and game mechanics, while making sure that the game stays balanced after releasing a new expansion. The playtesters need to anticipate the strategies that competitive TCG players will choose once the new cards are introduced to the public, and how these cards will interact with the ones from previous sets. Some modifications that might be requested based on testing are reducing or increasing HP and damage. The creative team works in close communication with testers, using their feedback to help achieve the kind of game we hope to create.

Many thanks to Mr. Nagashima for sharing his insights into the development of this latest Pokémon TCG expansion. You can find Pokémon TCG: Sword & Shield—Darkness Ablaze cards now in the Pokémon Center and where Pokémon TCG products are sold.

Sword & Shield—Darkness Ablaze
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