Throughout our yearlong celebration of 25 years of Pokémon, we've had Pokémon TCG historians provide commentary on some of their favorite cards from the various region-centric eras of the game. Now, we've reached the point where it all began: the Kanto era.
Of course, since Kanto was the first region that we explored in the Pokémon Red and Pokémon Blue video games, many of these cards come from the Base Set, the very first Pokémon TCG expansion from 1999. Nowadays, everyone knows about Charizard and Pikachu from Base Set; but back in the early days, beyond those super-famous Pokémon was a whole new universe of exciting cards waiting to be collected and led into battle. Read on to see what cards from that and other early expansions stood out to our Pokémon TCG superstars.
We'd also like to give a special thanks to these awesome experts who have shared their knowledge with us all year long!
During competitive play back in 1999, Lickitung (Jungle, 38/64) never really got the credit it deserved. One of the main reasons was its weakness to Fighting types. This seemed like a huge issue at the time because the format was so centered around Hitmonchan (Base Set, 7/102).
Still, having 90 HP was massive back then and made for a solid tank. It's important to remember that the early formats had incredibly powerful Trainer cards, but comparably fragile Pokémon. Energy Removal (Base Set, 79/102) could strip away Energy effortlessly turn after turn, while Gust of Wind (Base Set, 93/102) left no Pokémon safe. Scoop Up (Base Set, 78/102) could save your attacker from getting Knocked Out as well. All these strong Trainer cards made games incredibly grindy, with victory often going to the player who successfully preserved their resources best. It was not uncommon for games in this format to last upwards of 50 turns, making decking out far more likely than winning on Prizes. Lickitung needed only 1 Energy to attack for damage and could make the opponent Paralyzed to buy even more time. This made it extremely cost efficient and potentially the uncrowned champion of the Base Set–Jungle format.
Not long afterward in the year 2000, the Team Rocket expansion was released. Trainer cards just kept getting better. At this point they were powerful enough to strip away an opponent's entire hand as early as the first turn of the game. Like Lickitung, Dark Vileplume (Team Rocket, 13/82) is another Pokémon that did not receive the credit it deserved. Its Pokémon Power, Hay Fever, was by far the most impactful in the format, blocking any Trainer cards from being played at all. Since the game was still in its early stages, there was no differentiating between Trainer cards, meaning only Pokémon and Energy cards were left to be played. This could slow down the game tremendously and allowed Pokémon with a higher Energy cost to be used.
One of my favorite combinations of cards is Dark Vileplume, Alakazam (Base Set, 1/102), and Snorlax (Jungle, 11/64). Dark Vileplume protects Snorlax from losing its Energy and Alakazam can move the damage counters away from Snorlax. When fully set up, this field was near unbeatable. Dark Vileplume only had one realistic counter; Muk (Fossil, 13/62) with its Toxic Gas Pokémon Power.
With 70 HP and free retreat, Scyther (Jungle, 10/64) was an impressive Basic Pokémon by 1999's standards. Able to attack using Colorless Energy, it fitted into nearly every deck following its debut in the game's first expansion set. Its Resistance to Fighting-type Pokémon made it an effective counter to Hitmonchan (Base Set, 7/102), a Pokémon that had dominated the earliest days of the game.
Your deck didn't need to play Grass Energy to make use of Scyther, but if it did, you gained the added bonus of Swords Dance. Thanks to Double Colorless Energy (Base Set, 96/102), a first turn Swords Dance immediately threatened a 60-damage Slash on the following turn. With PlusPower (Base Set, 84/102), this Slash could reach 70 damage, enough for a one-hit Knock Out of popular Pokémon such as Hitmonchan, Electabuzz (Base Set, 20/102), or even an opposing Scyther. Though your hand didn't always contain the cards needed to pull this off, even the threat of it could be enough to disrupt your opponent's plans.
Scyther remained a competitively viable card throughout its years in the game. When Cleffa (Neo Genesis, 20/111) and other 30 HP Baby Pokémon began flooding into decks in 2000 and 2001, Scyther's Slash attack offered an effective way to land one-hit Knock Outs against them.
Super Energy Removal
Though the first generation of expansions released hundreds of Basic and Evolution Pokémon, only a small percentage of them made their way into successful decks. One reason for this was that before any Pokémon could be added into a deck, players first had to answer an important question: Could this Pokémon endure Super Energy Removal (Base Set, 79/102)? If the Pokémon needed more than two Energy to attack, the answer to that question was almost always no.
Super Energy Removal was an incredibly oppressive force in the game, turning dozens of exciting Pokémon with powerful attacks into little more than novelties (the renowned Charizard (Base Set, 4/102) was no exception!). The unfortunate reality was that a constant stream of Energy Removal (Base Set, 92/102) and Super Energy Removal wouldn't permit these Pokémon to deliver their strongest attacks.
Many of those who played with Super Energy Removal have wondered if the game might have been better off without it ever existing. However, its hidden beauty was that it forced players to preserve their precious Energy cards carefully. This process created a skill-intensive game that placed a huge emphasis on resource management. It's for this reason the game's earliest formats, like 1999's Base Set–Fossil, remain my favorite to play to this day.
While Charizard may have been the most popular card out of the three first partner Pokémon from Pokémon Red and Pokémon Blue, Blastoise (Base Set, 2/102) was definitely the most successful in Pokémon TCG tournaments. Its Rain Dance was the best Pokémon Power of those in Base Set. While many Evolution Pokémon struggled to power up big attacks due to Energy Removal (Base Set, 92/102) and Super Energy Removal (Base Set, 79/102), Blastoise could power up any Water-type Pokémon instantly, making it the best Evolution deck of the earliest Pokémon era.
Another thing I love about this Blastoise is that the legacy it began has endured for more than two decades. Blastoise-EX and Blastoise both had nearly identical Abilities to the original Rain Dance Pokémon Power and were popular decks. For a significant period of the last two decades, players could build decks around this Ability. One of the fun aspects of the Pokémon TCG is when we get to associate certain gameplay mechanics with specific Pokémon, giving them a bit of character beyond (in this case) just being “Water type.” Some other legacy examples from the Kanto region include Dark Vileplume (Team Rocket, 13/82) stopping Trainers, Electrode (Base Set, 21/102) knocking themselves out to provide Energy, and Muk (Fossil, 13/62) (and later Garbodor) stopping Pokémon Powers and Abilities.
Cerulean City Gym
The Gym Heroes and Gym Challenge expansions are two of my favorites. Gym Leaders' Pokémon in these sets, and the Dark Pokémon of the Team Rocket expansion, were the first of many themed Pokémon that we would see in the TCG. The Gym Leaders' Pokémon felt particularly special to me as a kid who had first played the video games, as now I could play as the Gym Leaders that I battled in the game and pretend I was one of them. Brock and Misty's Pokémon were particularly cool to me since those characters were so prominent in the Pokémon animation.
I chose Cerulean City Gym (Gym Heroes, 108/132) as my pick from these sets as Water-type Pokémon were always my favorite. I could have picked Misty's Starmie (Gym Heroes, 56/132) or the Misty (Gym Heroes, 18/132) card itself, but I thought it was extra cool to see the Stadium cards, each with elements of the gyms you battled in the video game (or saw on the show). Stadiums were also a new type of card introduced in these expansions—one that still plays a big role in the game. Stadiums were the first subclass of Trainers, later joined by Supporter cards and Pokémon Tools over the first few years of the game.
Hitmonchan (Base Set, 7,102) is one of the most iconic cards ever printed. Its Jab attack does 20 damage for 1 Fighting Energy, and its Special Punch attack hits for 40 for 2 Fighting and 1 Colorless Energy. This card has a lack of depth and complexity, but was released when the game was brand-new. Back in this era, people were just starting to figure out how to play the Pokémon TCG and simply tried their best to take six Prize Cards. Times were much simpler, although in hindsight, there were a lot of control decks that could have been built. Basic Pokémon had around 30-50 HP, so unleashing Jab in combination with PlusPower (Base Set, 84/102) could set you up for victory nicely.
Hitmonchan was the main Pokémon in a deck called Haymaker. The main strategy of this deck was simply to Knock Out as many small Pokémon on your opponent's Bench as possible. More recent players would know this approach's name as Big Basics, but when the game was new, this strategy was devastating. One of the first decks I ever built was Haymaker, and it basically introduced me to playing the game. If you ever get a chance to try this old deck out, I hope you will enjoy it just as much as I did.
This card holds a special place in my heart. Zapdos is my favorite Pokémon, and I always enjoy a good wrestling heel. So, when I went to my first ever major event, I knew I had to play this card. In retrospect, Rocket's Zapdos (Gym Challenge, 15/132) is a really bad card, but to my childhood self, it was the best card ever printed. This card can use its Plasma attack to accelerate Energy and then deliver a hefty 70 damage with Electroburn while doing 30-40 damage to itself. There are ways to make this card viable with others such as Defender (Base Set, 80/102), but that was way too advanced for me; so I just attacked.
Another thing I enjoy about this card is the art. Zapdos shooting out bolts of lightning is so cool! I also like the idea of Zapdos, a Legendary Pokémon, being commanded by a Team Rocket Grunt. The reasons I like this card may be very basic, but we all have things we like for nonsensical reasons. Rocket's Zapdos was one of my favorite cards as a child, and it remains a favorite to this day.
When you look at the original version of the Pokémon TCG's Rulings Compendium, you will find that rulings on Ditto's (Fossil, 3/62) Transform Pokémon Power take up a whopping six pages. Professors actually had to separate them into 11 different categories to make it more manageable for players and Judges. Because of this, people would often come up to me and say, “You must hate Ditto!” But to the contrary, Fossil Ditto is absolutely my favorite Pokémon card of all time!
Transform was a Pokémon Power that had an incredibly broad scope in how it interacted with just about every aspect of the game. Essentially, it turned Ditto into whatever Pokémon it faced off against in the opponent's Active Spot. It also allowed you to turn any Energy attached to it into whatever Energy type you wanted. This made for some very complicated interactions as games were played and Ditto changed from one Pokémon to another. But if you understood the principles of how the Pokémon Power worked, then you could figure out what should happen.
That's why I loved Ditto. Playing with it, or judging games in which it was involved, were like solving a puzzle—something I love to do. While we have seen other effects in the game that possess some limited aspects of Transform, we've never again had a card that had all of this Ditto's power. A truly unique card.
Gust of Wind
Gust of Wind (Base Set, 93/102) is one of the original six power cards from Base Set. You either played these cards in your deck, or you didn't win tournaments. “Gust of Win”—as it was often nicknamed—allowed you to choose one of your opponent's Benched Pokémon and pull it into their Active Spot. This could be a weak Basic Pokémon that they were hoping to evolve into a useful Evolution Pokémon, or it could be one of their attackers that had taken a lot of damage and was now trying to hide on the Bench to avoid a Knock Out. Once Active, you would Knock it Out for a guaranteed Prize.
Because it was so powerful, a lot of people never expected to see a card like it ever printed again. Weaker versions appeared for a while, then, over 10 years later, Pokémon Catcher was printed, and it had the exact same effect! Well, for a couple of years anyway… Two years later, erratum was issued and now all existing and future prints of Catcher require a coin flip to work. Currently, if you want to bring up an opponent's Benched Pokémon without flipping a coin, you must use your one Supporter for the turn to do it. And that's a much more balanced cost for such a powerful effect.
The Pokémon TCG community would not be the same without these five contributors to the game, and we appreciate their valuable insights.