Table of Contents

Introduction

Imposter Oak’s Revenge. Rocket’s Sneak Attack. The Rocket’s Trap. By late 2000, there were so many ways to cripple your opponent’s hand that if you had lost the opening coin flip, you could consider yourself lucky if your hand still had any cards in it by the time your first turn began. Being on the receiving end of these all-out hand assaults often meant you’d be given no more than one or two turns to draw something useful or the game would come to a quick end. This was a common theme throughout the year 2000, as players played one disappointing game after another. That’s why when the Neo Genesis expansion debuted at the end of that year, players breathed a collective sigh of relief. The 111-card set, the first to feature Pokémon from the Gold & Silver video games, brought a plethora of strong new cards. Among them, one in particular was getting a lot of attention.

Cleffa

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Behold, the 30 HP Pokémon that would save the game! Finally, players had a defense against the hand assault strategies that had taken over—some would say nearly destroyed—the Pokémon TCG. Now, any player lucky enough to begin the game with Cleffa could recover a fresh hand of 7 cards for a single Energy, negating every Rocket’s Sneak Attack & The Rocket’s Trap their opponent unleashed on them.

Cleffa put the brakes on the all-out, try-to-beat-your-opponent-as-quickly-as-possible strategies that had taken over the game in 2000. And while it stood at a measly 30 HP, it contained a built-in defense against aggressive starts: the Baby Rule. Baby Pokémon, introduced in Neo Genesis, functioned exactly like Basic Pokémon (and still counted as Basics), but they offered an additional benefit: whenever your opponent would attack against an Active Baby Pokémon, they would first have to flip a coin. If the flip was tails, their turn ended without an attack.

Cleffa revolutionized the game. It allowed players to rely less on Professor Oak and instead preserve cards by shuffling them back into the deck with Eeeeeeek. It brought the game back to its roots, restoring resource management as a necessary skill to win games.

lass-base-set-75Ironically, while Cleffa’s greatest asset was that it weakened the strength of hand-disrupting cards, it also enabled one of the strongest hand-disruption combos the game had ever seen. Cleffa was combined with Base Set’s Lass, allowing players to deliver one-sided hand disruption that mimicked the same strategies players used earlier in the year. The idea was to play Lass and then immediately recover a fresh hand with Eeeeeeek. Meanwhile, your opponent would be left with a weak (and usually small) Trainer-less hand. This strategy was particularly strong on the first turn of the game, especially if your opponent did not themself start with Cleffa. Quick to realize how powerful this combo was, players began adding 4 Cleffa into all of their decks, maximizing their odds of both executing and surviving it. Scott Gerhardt, who was renowned back in 2000 for his skill and success in playing the Pokémon TCG, used to publish reviews for upcoming cards in the long-retired Pojo’s Pokémon Magazine. Reviewing Cleffa, he put it best.

“If you don’t have four in your deck, your excuse had better be I don’t own that many.”

Gerhardt was right. Cleffa was no doubt the best card from the Neo sets. In fact, given its impact on the game, it’s not hard to argue that Cleffa remains the best Pokémon card of all time, relative to its time period. But there were plenty of other game-changing cards in Neo Genesis and the three additional Neo sets that followed.

The Neo Sets

Before we get into other impactful Neo cards, let’s quickly go over the four Neo sets. They’re listed below, with their U.S. release date in parentheses.

  • neo-genesis-symbol Neo Genesis (December 2000)
  • neo-discovery-symbol Neo Discovery (June 2001)
  • neo-revelation-symbol Neo Revelation (October 2001)
  • neo-destiny-symbol Neo Destiny (February 2002)

The Neo sets were legal in both of Wizards of the Coast’s competitive formats:

  • Standard, the default format that included Base Set and simply added each additional set to the legal card pool
  • Modified, which was created shortly after Neo Genesis in 2001 and rotated out Base Set, Jungle and Fossil to create a Team Rocket-On format

This article will focus on the Base Set–Neo Destiny Standard format (Base–Neo for short), which for all practical purposes was the final phase Wizards of the Coast’s Standard format. If you’re interested in reading about the Modified format, I’ve also written an article about the Rocket-On format as well. Before you do, though, take a moment to familiarize yourself with the cards below.

Impactful Cards from the Neo Sets

Recycle Energy

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Since Cleffa’s Eeeeeeek requires only 1 Colorless Energy, Recycle Energy made a great fit in most Base–Neo decks, offering a defense against Energy Removal & Super Energy Removal, while also creating a great combo with your own Super Energy Removal. But Recycle Energy is only one of three game-changing Energy cards that debuted in Neo Genesis.

Two New Types: Metal & Darkness

Neo Genesis introduced Darkness & Metal-type Pokémon to the TCG, as well as two new Energy cards for these types. Both Darkness Energy & Metal Energy were Special Energy cards and each offered benefits to the Pokémon they were attached to. Since these benefits were extended to all types of Pokémon, both of these Energy cards were used in a variety of decks. Metal Energy in particular saw a lot of play because of a technicality that allowed self-damage to be reduced by 20 on non-Metal-type Pokémon. (Explained later.)

Basic Energy versions of Darkness & Metal Energy would not be printed until seven years later in the Diamond & Pearl expansion, meaning decks during the Neo era could not play more than four of each. However, Team Rocket’s Rainbow Energy could (and would) be used to provide Metal & Darkness Energy, just not the –10 or +10 benefits.

Steelix

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110 HP and Metal-type, Steelix was a tough knockout for your opponent if you were able to stick Metal Energy on it. Making Steelix even tougher to KO were two new Trainer cards: Gold Berry & Ecogym. Ecogym was one of the few practical defenses against Energy Removal & Super Energy Removal, while Gold Berry healed 40 damage with no drawback.

Sneasel

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The most powerful Basic Pokémon the game had ever seen, Sneasel had everything: a solid 60 HP, no Weakness, a useful Resistance, free retreat and most importantly, an incredibly powerful two-Energy attack. With a full Bench (something that was never hard to accomplish in early formats), Sneasel’s Beat Up averages an impressive 60 damage. Factor in the additional damage from Darkness Energy and this damage can be increased to 80—enough to one-hit KO most of the Pokémon you’ll encounter!

Given how important Cleffa’s Eeeeeeek attack is in the Base–Neo format, Sneasel’s free retreat should not be overlooked; it permitted players to easily retreat to Cleffa on the first turn of the game. Sneasel by itself was enough to make the Darkness type strong, but wait until you see its partner in crime.

Murkrow

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Another free retreater with no Weakness, Murkrow is another solid Basic Pokémon that boasted one of the best attacks the game’s ever seen. Notice how Murkrow’s Mean Look doesn’t have any kind of during or until your opponent limitation; as long as Murkrow stayed active, so did Mean Look. This meant Pokémon most Psychic-type Pokémon or any Pokémon not capable of dealing damage to Murkrow could be permanently stranded in the Active position while Murkrow’s perfectly complementing Feint Attack could start picking off Pokémon on the opponent’s Bench. The best counters to Murkrow’s Mean Look were Trainers that switched either Active Pokémon, such as Switch or Gust of Wind. To prevent opponents from escaping Mean Look with these cards, Murkrow was often paired with Dark Vileplume or Neo Genesis‘s newest Trainer-blocking Pokémon, Slowking.

Slowking

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When originally printed in Japan, Slowking’s Mind Games Pokémon Power only worked while Slowking was active. With a three retreat cost and a weak, expensive attack, Slowking was far from tournament-worthy material. However, when Slowking was printed in English for the Neo Genesis expansion, the game’s most epic blunder occurred: Slowking was mistranslated, allowing Mind Games to work from the Bench.

Since Wizards of the Coast wasn’t a fan of issuing erratas (they had previously declined to issue them for printing errors on Weakness and also attacks), they decided Slowking would be played as written. This had catastrophic consequences for the game, as players could now activate as many as four Mind Games Pokémon Powers, meaning up to four coin flip opportunities to block each Trainer the opponent attempted to play. Players paired Slowking with Sneasel, which protected it from Super Energy Removal and allowed it mow down Pokémon after Pokémon with its Beat Up attack. Murkrow also easily fit into the deck, with Slowking blocking Trainers that could escape Murkrow’s Mean Look. Since both Murkrow and Sneasel had free retreat, this also made it easy to access Cleffa’s Eeeeeeek Turn 1, allowing Slowking players to follow up the powerful Lass & Eeeeeeek combo with a Slowking before their opponent even got a chance to play any Trainers. While Alex Brosseau of the United States would find a way to defeat the mighty Slowking deck at the 15+ Standard event at the 2002 World Championships, the nearly two years leading up to that event were dominated by Slowking.

Sneasel/Murkrow/Slowking Deck List (No Slowking Errata)

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Pokémon (17)Trainers (32)Energy (11)
4x Cleffa
4x Slowpoke
4x Slowking
2x Murkrow
1x Sneasel
1x Pichu
1x Brock’s Mankey
2x Healing Field
2x Gold Berry
4x Lass
4x Computer Search
4x Professor Oak
3x Gust of Wind
3x Item Finder
3x Super Energy Removal
2x Energy Removal
2x Switch
1x Nightly Garbage Run
1x Pokémon Flute
1x Pokémon Center
4x Darkness Energy
4x Rainbow Energy
3x Recycle Energy

While players who played this deck generally focused on going for Sneasel’s Beat Up attack, the real strength of the Sneasel/Murkrow/Slowking decks was in Murkrow. Between the ability to strip away Energy cards with ER & SER, and Gold Berry & Healing Field allowing you to heal Murkrow, virtually any Pokémon could fall victim to a “Mean Look lock,” where Murkrow stranded a Pokémon active and then used Feint Attack to slowly wipe out the opponent’s entire Bench.

If you’re going to play the Base–Neo format, I strongly suggest playing with an errata on Slowking. It will not only create more fun and interactive games, but also introduce a wide variety of decks to the format—decks that could not compete with Slowking as written.

Going back to the cards, let’s look at the Baby Pokémon, other than Cleffa, that saw play in the Base–Neo format.

Pichu

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focus-band-neo-genesis-86Pichu was a great counter to decks that relied on a heavy line-up of Pokémon Powers. An opponent facing Pichu would need to flip heads to knock out Pichu before it obliterated their board, but a clever strategy to keep Pichu (and any Baby Pokémon) in play and attacking was to equip it with the newly-released Focus Band, making the opponent need not just one, but two favorable coin flips to score a KO.

Magby

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Magby was another Power-countering Baby Pokémon, but the 10 damage it did should not be overlooked—it was a great way to finish off a Pokémon that had just survived thanks to a Focus Band.

Igglybuff

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2–3 Igglybuff were common in decks during 2001–2002 to counter Slowking, but if you’re playing with a Slowking errata, you’ll probably never need more than one in your deck. (It can still be useful against Powers like Dark Vileplume’s Hay Fever or Aerodactyl’s Prehistoric Power.)

Tyrogue

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Tyrogue offered players a chance to KO Baby Pokémon with two lucky coin flips. Attacking with Tyrogue was a strong strategy when you wanted to try to knock out an opposing Cleffa without risking giving your opponent a flip-less Eeeeeeek.

Professor Elm

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An alternative to Professor Oak, Professor Elm was great for when you needed a new hand, but didn’t want to discard your current one. Professor Elm fits into nearly all Base–Neo decks and would have likely been maxed out in them had Cleffa not debuted alongside it.

Misconceptions About Base to Neo

The Neo era is one of the least understood time periods of the game. During this period, Wizards of the Coast was issuing constant changes in rulings (including some that were quite difficult to grasp), mistranslations on cards were rampant, the game’s first Modified format was being created and competitive play for the 15+ division was being removed, though thankfully temporarily. Meanwhile, the game was experiencing a dwindling player base, with interest in the game approaching a low point. Players, myself included, wondered if the Pokémon TCG was coming to an end. With all of this happening at the same time, you can understand how some of the history would get muddled along the way. Let’s clear up the most common misconceptions about the Base–Neo format.

Base–Neo is Not the Format Feraligatr Dominated in

feraligatr-neo-genesis-5When players hear Neo, they often think of a time in the game dominated by Neo Genesis Feraligatr, with other Stage 2 Pokémon like Crobat and Typhlosion also making a splash. These were indeed iconic decks, but not in Base–Neo. Rather, these were the top decks in the game’s first Modified format, which was created in 2001. The Modified format rotated out Base Set, Jungle and Fossil, leaving everything from Team Rocket onwards. Rotating out Base Set meant Energy Removal & Super Energy Removal left the game, which allowed Stage 2 Pokémon, like Feraligatr, to dominate. However, it’s important to understand that the Modified format was completely different than the Standard format. About the only thing these two formats had in common was that all decks played Cleffa. The reason players tend to think of the Modified format (instead of Standard) when they think of the Neo era is because nearly all major events spanning from 2001 to Wizard’s final event in 2003 used the Modified format.

Sneasel was Not Banned in the Base–Neo Format

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A close-up of the Giant Sneasel card players could photograph themselves with at the 2000 Super Trainer Showdown.

Another common misconception held about the Base–Neo format is that Neo Genesis Sneasel was banned from competitive play. Again, this misconception stems from conflating the Base–Neo format with the Modified Rocket-On format. Sneasel was only banned in Modified, with Wizards’ thought process being that it would be too powerful in a format without Energy Removal & Super Energy Removal. However, Sneasel remained legal in the Standard format. No card was ever banned from Wizards of the Coast’s Standard format.

Slowking Never Received an Errata

slowking-neo-genesis-14Slowking would never receive an errata for its entire lifespan in the TCG. (That’s why it’s up to you to decide whether to play it as printed or as it was intended.) Additionally, contrary to what you may have heard or read, Slowking was never banned from the Standard format. It would eventually be banned from the Modified format in 2002, but by then, it had already won several large events, including both age divisions at the 2002 World Championships.

Base–Neo: Decks & Tips

Now that know what the Base–Neo format was and have been introduced to the main cards of the format, let’s move on to the fun part: Part 2: Decks & Tips.


Base–Gym | Base–Neo | Rocket-On