Table of Contents
- 2003–2004: The Pokémon Company International’s Takeover
- 2004–2005: The Season of Powerhouse Cards
- 2005–2006: The Holon Season
- 2006–2007: The Rotation of Rocket’s Admin.
- Playing the EX Formats
- EX Decks & Tips
What makes for a great Pokémon TCG format? If you surveyed players, you’d hear responses like: a variety of usable decks, skillful match-ups, a large and diverse card pool. Since many past Pokémon formats have granted a large advantage to the player who played first, players may also tell you they prefer formats where losing the opening coin flip doesn’t immediately put one player at a significant disadvantage. Formats that do not produce long, drawn-out turns also tend to be more well-liked. After all, no one likes to sit idly while their opponent takes a five-minute turn.
The competitive formats of Pokémon’s EX era (2003–2007) possessed all of these virtues. Not only did they produce a variety of strong decks and skillful match-ups, they also had very balanced Turn 1 rules. They worked like this: beginning in 2004, the player who played first did not draw a card to start their first turn, nor could they play a Supporter card on that turn. This naturally created closer, more even games.
The term EX era refers to the years of the EX sets, which are named for their introduction of Pokémon-ex to the game. Totaling 16 expansions, the EX series spanned across five competitive seasons, making up the majority of legal sets in four of them. I define the EX era as those four seasons composed of mostly EX sets. These seasons and their legal cards are broken down below.
EX Era: Legal Sets by Season
EX Ruby & Sapphire
EX Team Magma vs Team Aqua
EX Hidden Legends
EX Trainer Kit
Nintendo Black Star Promos 001–026
| EX Ruby & Sapphire
EX Team Magma vs Team Aqua
EX Hidden Legends
EX FireRed LeafGreen
EX Team Rocket Returns
EX Trainer Kit
POP Series 1
Nintendo Black Star Promos 001–027
| EX Hidden Legends
EX FireRed LeafGreen
EX Team Rocket Returns
EX Unseen Forces
EX Delta Species
EX Legend Maker
EX Holon Phantoms
EX Trainer Kit
EX Trainer Kit 2
POP Series 1
POP Series 2
POP Series 3
Nintendo Black Star Promos 027–036
| EX Deoxys
EX Unseen Forces
EX Delta Species
EX Legend Maker
EX Holon Phantoms
EX Crystal Guardians
EX Dragon Frontiers
EX Power Keepers
Diamond & Pearl
EX Trainer Kit 2
POP Series 2
POP Series 3
POP Series 4
POP Series 5
Nintendo Black Star Promos 029–040, DP01–DP05
Don’t spend much time looking at this gigantic chart—it’s meant only to give you an overview of what sets made up the EX era, or as a tool if you are ever wondering if a specific card was legal in a certain format. What’s important to know is that each of these four seasons had its own unique characteristics and signature decks. To gain a deeper understanding of the EX era, let me take you through its timeline, beginning in 2003.
2003–2004: The Pokémon Company International’s Takeover
Format: Expedition–EX Hidden Legends
2003 marked a historic moment in the Pokémon TCG as the year the game transitioned from being ran by Wizards of the Coast to The Pokémon Company International. While Wizards went back to focusing on their flagship game, Magic: The Gathering, TPCi attempted to revive what seemed to be a dying game with the release of their first Pokémon TCG expansion, EX Ruby & Sapphire. This ambitious set not only unveiled an entire new generation of Pokémon in card form, but also introduced new rules for mulligans, retreating and Confusion that remain in place today. Most exciting in EX Ruby & Sapphire was the debut of a new kind of Pokémon: Pokémon-ex. Pokémon-ex were stronger than regular Pokémon, with better attacks and higher HP, but they came with a steep downside: when knocked out, they gave up an additional prize card.
In addition to some new rules and new Pokémon, EX Ruby & Sapphire also established rules for a 2-on-2 format. Aimed at mimicking the doubles battles from the Ruby & Sapphire video games, the 2-on-2 format allowed each player to have two Active Pokémon, choosing one of them each turn to attack one of their opponent’s Active Pokémon. Though the 2-on-2 format technically continued to exist for several years, it never gained popularity, eventually being scrapped during the Diamond & Pearl era that followed the EX sets. (More on the 2-on-2 format later.)
While TPCi now carried the torch for competitive Pokémon, their first format kept Wizards’ final three sets (the e-Card sets) tournament legal, with the format’s most striking combo being a 50/50 mix of Wizards and TPCi.
Oracle, from Wizards’ Skyridge set, combined with Ruby & Sapphire’s Delcatty allowed players to fetch out any two cards from their decks. This combo fit into multiple decks, but none used it better than decks built around Ruby & Sapphire’s Blaziken, which benefitted from Delcatty discarding Energy. Blaziken decks would dominate through TPCi’s first season, only becoming stronger with the release of Blaziken ex in March 2004.
After the release of the EX Hidden Legends set that June, the format began to see an increased variety in decks, with a Gardevoir ex deck managed to win the Masters Division at the 2004 US National Championships. But when it came time for the season finale at TPCi’s first World Championships, it was not a Blaziken deck (nor a Gardevoir deck) that would win. Instead, competitors from around the world were stunned by Japan’s Team Magma deck. Relying on the beefy Team Magma’s Groudon, Japan and their Team Magma deck won all three age divisions, with Tsuguyoshi Yamato of Japan defeating the American Chris Fulop’s Blaziken deck in the Masters Division Finals.
Tsuguyoshi Yamato’s Magma Spirit Deck
🥇 1st Place World Championships 2004 (Masters Division)
|Pokémon (15)||Trainers (28)||Energy (17)|
As the season came to a close, it was clear TPCi’s first year running the Pokémon TCG was a success. They had created a fun and skill-based format and hosted an exciting and truly international World Championships. They had already awarded bigger and better prizes than Wizards of the Coast ever had, including new scholarship prizes. To create even more hype, TPCi eternalized their World Champions by making replicas of their winning decks that could be bought in stores across the world. Most important of all, by the time the season finished, there was no longer any doubt that people still wanted to play the Pokémon TCG.
2004–2005: The Season of Powerhouse Cards
Format: EX Ruby & Sapphire–EX Emerald
By the time TPCi had crowned their first World Champions, they were already readying the release of their sixth expansion, EX FireRed LeafGreen. With six sets now to their name, TPCi decided their second competitive format could rotate out Wizards of the Coast’s three e-Card sets, making 2004–2005’s Ruby & Sapphire–On format the first to use only sets released by TPCi.
The ’04–’05 season oversaw the release of many of the era’s most powerful cards. Pidgeot (EX FireRed LeafGreen) instantly made its way into nearly every Stage 2-based deck players constructed, with its Quick Search Poké-Power making their decks run more smoothly. In November 2004, the game saw one of its most impactful sets ever, Team Rocket Returns. Team Rocket Returns added powerful Stage 2 Pokémon and Trainers, including Rocket’s Admin, which created a new and exciting element of hand disruption. Team Rocket Returns also marked the debut of Pokémon-, powerful Basic Pokémon limited to one per deck.
Following EX Team Rocket Returns was the EX Deoxys set, whose Jirachi quickly replaced Dunsparce (EX Sandstorm) as the game’s best starting Pokémon. Also in EX Deoxys was Scramble Energy, which drastically weakened aggressive decks that aimed to draw fast prize cards.
As the 2004–2005 season progressed, the format favored Stage 2 decks. After all, they had a lot going for them: Scramble Energy allowed them to fight back against fast starts and Pidgeot’s Quick Search allowed them to evolve the multiple Pokémon they needed to win. In addition to that, some Evolved Pokémon from the 2004–2005 season simply had incredible synergy. For example, EX Deoxys Ludicolo and Magcargo.
Or, Dark Dragonite and Dark Electrode from Team Rocket Returns.
These Poké-Power-heavy Stage 2 decks dominated until the release of the EX Emerald set in May 2005, when it seemed like the card creators began designing cards specifically to counter them. Standing out most in EX Emerald were two cards: Battle Frontier & Medicham ex.
Battle Frontier was a devastating blow to Pidgeot decks, which now needed to fit Stadium cards to counter it. But the real game changer in EX Emerald was Medicham ex. Not all players immediately caught on to just how strong Medicham was, but those who did reaped the rewards. With a format based so heavily around Poké-Powers, Medicham ex was the perfect counter. While other decks capable of attacking Turn 2 had trouble against Scramble Energy, Medicham’s Pure Power could play around it. One of the strongest decks of all time, it would sweep the 2005 US National Championships, with Seena Ghaziaskar victorious in the Masters Division.
Medicham’s dominance continued into the 2005 World Championships, where it won both the Juniors and Seniors divisions. However, Medicham was stopped just short of a second sweep by Jeremy Maron’s Nidoqueen/Pidgeot deck. Developed by the trio of Maron, Adam Capriola and Pablo Meza, the simple but effective “Queendom” deck went unnoticed until its World Championship win, beating my Medicham ex deck along the way.
2005–2006: The Holon Season
Format: EX Hidden Legends–EX Holon Phantoms
Not long after the start of the 2005–2006 season came a new type of Pokémon in the EX Delta Species set. Delta Species Pokémon (marked with a δ after their name) were regular Pokémon except that they were a different type than they’d usually be. For example, Eevee δ was Metal-type, instead of the Colorless-type you’d have come to expect from an Eevee.
Released alongside these new Delta Species Pokémon were the Holon Supporters. Since some of the Holon Supporters offered specific benefits for Delta Species Pokémon, the Holon Supporters were strongest in decks using these Pokémon. However, the Holon Supporters were strong and versatile enough to become the backbone for most decks in the ’05–’06 season, even those that played no Delta Species Pokémon. (You’ll read more about the “Holon Engine” later.)
Though the Holon Supporters were powerful, the defining characteristic of the 2005–2006 season was no doubt the debut of the Holon Pokémon that doubled as Energy Cards. These unique cards could be played one of two ways: as a Pokémon, or as an Energy. As an Energy, Holon’s Castform, Holon’s Electrode and Holon’s Magneton all provided two of any Energy at a time. As if that wasn’t good enough, they had the added bonus of being retrievable through cards that searched Pokémon (like
Since both Lugia and Steelix each require two specific non-Water Energy cards to attack, they would have otherwise never been paired with Blastoise ex, but with Holon Pokémon, virtually any card could be powered up by Blastoise’s Energy Rain. Though Blastoise’s success throughout 2006 might make it the most iconic deck of the season, nearly all of the successful archetypes from 2004–2005 also continued to be played. Queendom, Ludicargo, Dragtrode and Medicham ex all stuck around into 2006 and some new archetypes popped up as well.
Metagross δ & Dragonite δ (Delta Species) formed “Metanite,” a Lightning-type deck that functioned similarly to the 2004 Blaziken deck.
Flareon ex (Delta Species) & Ariados (Unseen Forces) teamed up to create “Flariados.”
By Spring 2006, the format again revolved around Poké-Powers, setting the stage for another anti-Poké-Power deck to swoop in. The Raichu δ/Exeggutor δ “Rai-Eggs” deck that went unnoticed until the 2006 US National Championships exploited the format’s heavy reliance on Poké-Powers, while also forcing opponents to walk into activating Scramble Energy. Add the surprise element to the equation and you have the perfect formula for a Championship-winning deck, with Martin Moreno piloting Rai-Eggs to a 14–0 US National Championship win in the Masters Division. Meanwhile, flying under the radar at the 2006 US National Championships was another clever deck.
Created by Seena Ghaziaskar, the Mew ex/Manectric ex “Mewtric” deck relied almost entirely on one attack: Manectric’s Disconnect. With Scott to search out Stadium cards, the Mewtric deck could permanently lock a Battle Frontier or Cursed Stone in play, which, between the two, single-handedly defeated most decks in the format. While the Mewtric deck didn’t necessarily beat the Rai-Eggs deck that won US Nationals, it did have a lot of other favorable match-ups, including a great match-up against the popular Lugia ex/Blastoise ex/Steelix ex “L-B-S” deck. With luck on my side, I was able to pilot Mewtric into the Top 32 of the 2006 World Championships, then defeat five opponents, winning my first World Championship.
2006–2007: The Rotation of Rocket’s Admin.
Format: EX Deoxys–Diamond & Pearl
From 2003 to 2006, hand disruption played a key role in the format, even if it was only from one card. The 2003–2004 format had
Nevertheless, the season went on. With all Delta-themed sets still legal, the early parts of the 2006–2007 season favored decks built around Delta Species Pokémon, with Raichu δ/Exeggutor δ (Rai-Eggs) and Metagross δ/Dragonite δ (Metanite) remaining strong. Taking advantage of a new Shuppet with an Ascension attack was the speedy Banette ex, which relied on Holon Supporters to quickly fuel its Shadow Chant attack.
As for new cards, the ’06–’07 format saw the continuation of the anti-Poké-Power trend, with Shiftry ex and Cessation Crystal making their debut in EX Crystal Guardians (August 2006). Also in Crystal Guardians was the first card aimed at limiting the power of the Holon Pokémon and Scramble Energy: Crystal Beach. Crystal Beach again allowed aggressive, Turn 2-attacking decks a shot at beating decks equipped with Scramble Energy, but Banette ex was the only Pokémon in the format fast enough to need a Scramble Energy counter.
Though the format initially lacked one dominant deck, this changed when the first Diamond & Pearl set debuted in Spring 2007. There was a noticeable power creep in the set. The new Infernape was a glaring example, possessing a two-Energy 90-damage attack. Forming a perfect partner for Infernape was the reprint of Ruby & Sapphire’s Delcatty in the EX Power Keepers expansion and Infernape/Delcatty quickly became the deck to beat leading up to the US National Championships.
With players running anti-Infernape cards (namely the Lunatone/Solrock combo), Infernape was kept in check at US Nationals. Chris Fulop’s damage-spreading Absol ex/Eeveelutions deck won the Masters Division. And for the first time, when the game’s best players met for the 2007 World Championships, there were no surprises; Absol ex/Eeveelutions was triumphant again, defeating a Flygon deck in the Masters Division finals.
With that, the EX era had come to a close. As the second Diamond & Pearl expansion debuted and TPCi rotated out five more EX sets, powerful new Pokémon replaced those of the EX formats, advancing the game into its next phase.
Playing the EX Formats
You’ve just read about the four competitive seasons of EX era. Perhaps you’re intrigued and want to try playing one of these formats. Which one should you try? I too faced this same question when I decided to re-explore the EX era. The 2004–2005 and 2005–2006 formats were favorites of mine, as both had a rich card pool with a lot of decks to choose from. 2003–2004 was a unique and fun format, though with less variety in decks.
If you’re looking for the most EX-inclusive of these four formats, that would be the 2006 World Championship format (the final version of the 2005–2006 format). By the end of that season, this format featured nine of the 16 EX sets. More importantly, these nine sets contained a disproportional amount of competitively viable cards.
One drawback of the Worlds 2006 format, however, is that some really good, format-balancing cards didn’t debut until the following season. Cessation Crystal would have kept Poké-Power and Poké-Body-reliant decks in check and Crystal Beach would have toned down the 2-Energy Holon’s Pokémon and Scramble Energy. Without either of these cards, most decks in the 2006 format succumb to the slow and unusual Mew ex/Wobbuffet/Jynx/Minun “Mew Lock” deck. Though it can take up to 60 minutes to do so, this deck eventually wins by trapping a Pokémon in the Active Position, then creating an infinite cycle of Pow! Hand Extension to strip that Pokémon of its Energy. Though many players that played during the ’05–’06 season knew of this deck and how strong it was, the fact that it took so long to win made it a risky tournament choice. With a 30-minute time limit on matches, Mew Lock often didn’t have the time it needed to ever get ahead on prize cards. Knowing this, players shied away from the deck, leading to a format where the true best deck saw little success.
While neither the Worlds 2005 nor the Worlds 2007 format contain the cards needed to build the dreaded Mew Lock deck, both of these formats are missing some key and fun cards. 2005 doesn’t have the Holon Pokémon and Supporters that enable so many creative and consistent decks, and 2007 is a bore with its palpable lack of Rocket’s Admin. So, going back to the original question, which was Which format should you play?, the best way to enjoy them is actually to merge these formats into a Ruby & Sapphire–Power Keepers format that I call simply the EX format.
The Ruby & Sapphire–Power Keepers “EX” Format
The Ruby & Sapphire–Power Keepers format was never one of TPCi’s competitive formats. Rather, it is a format composed of only the 16 EX sets (and EX promos), giving it every legal set from the ’04–’05, ’05–’06, and ’06–’07 seasons, minus Diamond & Pearl. This expansive format plays most similarly to the Worlds 2006 format, as that format contained most of the strong cards from the era. However, adding the seven EX sets the Worlds 2006 format is missing not only increases the amount of playable decks, but also creates a more balanced and fun format, as there are more ways to counter the Mew Lock deck.
Legal sets for Ruby & Sapphire–Power Keepers “EX” format:
- EX Ruby & Sapphire
- EX Sandstorm
- EX Dragon
- EX Team Magma vs Team Aqua
- EX Hidden Legends
- EX FireRed LeafGreen
- EX Team Rocket Returns
- EX Deoxys
- EX Emerald
- EX Unseen Forces
- EX Delta Species
- EX Legend Maker
- EX Holon Phantoms
- EX Crystal Guardians
- EX Dragon Frontiers
- EX Power Keepers
Legal promotional cards for Ruby & Sapphire–Power Keepers:
- POP Series 1
- POP Series 2
- POP Series 3
- POP Series 4
- POP Series 5
- Nintendo Black Star Promos (001–040)
Don’t think of the Ruby & Sapphire–Power Keepers format as an arbitrary format. In fact, it’s actually the opposite, composed entirely of cards that were made to interact with one another. While TPCi chose to rotate out some EX sets following each season, Japan’s primary tournament format was a continuously growing Ruby & Sapphire-On that eventually grew to become Ruby & Sapphire–Power Keepers.
While it certainly contains a lot of cards to learn, the simple rules for what cards are legal make it easy for new players to learn and build decks. It is a format filled with possibilities, but that still permits you the opportunity to build and play the strongest and most iconic decks of each specific year. Even if you’ve already built decks for specific years of the EX era, I urge you to put together two Ruby & Sapphire–Power Keepers decks and give it a try. You won’t be disappointed.
Playing the EX Format: Key Cards
Now that I’ve shared with you what I believe to be the greatest way to enjoy the EX series, let’s discuss strategy and take a look at some of the most common cards you’ll play with and against in the EX format.
Jirachi: The Key to Getting Set Up
By far, the best starting Pokémon in the EX format is Deoxys Jirachi. Since its Wishing Star Poké-Power is not an attack that requires Energy, you’re not even required to start with Jirachi to use Wishing Star on the first turn. Simply retrieve Jirachi with a card like Holon Mentor, bench it and retreat. Jirachi is such a powerful card in the EX format that nearly every deck you build should either play it, or, if you think your deck doesn’t require Wishing Star to set up, play Girafarig (Legend Maker) or Cessation Crystal to counter it. To further emphasize just how powerful Jirachi is, when choosing which version of an evolving Basic Pokémon to use—something that usually seems trivial—you’ll want to pick the one that can potentially prevent your opponent from using Wishing Star. Anything that can inflict a Special Condition or prevent a retreat to a Jirachi should usually be your first choice.
Choosing Your Supporters: The Classic Engine versus The Holon Engine
Before we compare the two Supporter “engines” most decks will choose between, let’s talk about the best Supporter in the EX format: Rocket’s Admin. The earliest version of N, Rocket’s Admin. is an effective response following one of your Pokémon being knocked out, particularly after your opponent has drawn multiple prize cards. It also serves as a solid Supporter early in the game, where it gives you six new cards. Rocket’s Admin. belongs in every EX-format deck, and most decks will want four.
The Classic Engine
Before the release of EX Delta Species, decks relied on some combination of Steven’s Advice, TV Reporter and Copycat as their source of draw. Then, depending on whether or not the deck played Pokémon-ex, they chose from either Celio’s Network or Professor Elm’s Training Method.
The amount of Basic Pokémon a deck needed to set up determined whether players would run Lanette’s Net Search, Dual Ball or Great Ball. Decks that needed more Basic Pokémon to set up would favor Lanette’s Net Search, while decks that didn’t need as many could get by with either Dual Ball or Great Ball. These Basic Pokémon-fetching Trainers combined with the Supporters above to function as a reliable engine for decks.
The Holon Engine
The Holon Engine has Supporters that are slightly weaker on average than those of the Classic Engine, but this is outweighed by the huge boost in consistency decks gain from being able to play Holon Transceiver. Decks using the Holon Engine have a higher chance of a productive first turn since Holon Transceiver can be used to find Holon Mentor. A deck with say, four Holon Transceiver and two Holon Mentor has six cards that can produce that ideal first Supporter. Compare that to a deck using Lanette’s Net Search, which can play no more than four of this card. Holon Transceiver also brings the enormous bonus of allowing you to reuse Supporter cards, permitting you to save deck space by running a single copy of cards like Holon Adventurer and Holon Scientist.
Decks that require multiple Basic Pokémon to set up are almost always better off running the Holon Engine over the Classic Engine, as Holon Transceiver offers a better chance at finding the perfect first Supporter. For decks that rely primarily on Delta Species Pokémon, it’s an even easier choice, as these decks can draw an additional card from Holon Adventurer and also gain the added bonus of being able to play Holon Researcher.
Unless the deck you’re playing the Holon Engine in is composed almost entirely of Delta Species Pokémon (or all Basic Pokémon), you’ll still need to include either Celio’s Network or Professor Elm’s Training Method to ensure you have a way to search out your Evolved Pokémon. And even with the Holon Engine, some decks may still want to supplement their draw with additional Supporters, like Scott or Steven’s Advice.
Rare Candy: In Every Stage 2 Deck
Unlike in today’s Pokémon TCG, Rare Candy in the EX format can be played both on your first turn and on the first turn a Pokémon has been played down. In a format filled with powerful Stage 2 Pokémon, like Pidgeot, you’ll no doubt want to max out on Rare Candy in pretty much any deck you build that’s based around Stage 2 Pokémon. You should still typically run at least one Stage 1 of any Stage 2 Pokémon that plays an important role in your deck, though, as sometimes you either can’t find (or can’t play) Rare Candy.
Pidgeot: Play It or Counter It
The advantage a player gets from being able to retrieve any card from their deck each turn is a big one, and when only one player has this, games will naturally tip in that player’s favor. When you’re constructing a deck for the EX format, you’ll want to either play Pidgeot (or something with a similar Poké-Power), or ensure your deck has some way to stop repeated Quick Searches. The most effective Pidgeot counters are below.
These Pokémon can also be used to deal with Pidgeot:
Scramble Energy: Watch Out
One of the reasons the EX format requires much skill to play well is that games frequently produce stalemate-like situations where taking a knockout can put a player at a disadvantage. That’s because a knockout can give the opponent access to three Energy from Scramble Energy, enabling them to unleash a powerful attack. When your opponent likely has access to Scramble Energy, and a KO would put you ahead on prizes, you sometimes want to sit back for a turn (or even several turns) and continue developing your board. This is particularly true during the first turns of the game when you don’t yet have a back-up Pokémon ready on your Bench. Leading with too valuable an attacker and being KOed in return by a Scramble Energy-fueled attack is the most common mistake players make in the EX format, but game-losing nonetheless.
Holon’s Magnemite/Holon’s Voltorb: Worth the Spot
If you’re going to play the Holon Engine, your first turn will often involve playing Holon Mentor, where you’ll retrieve two Basic Pokémon and Jirachi, with the plan being to retreat to Jirachi. However, you’ll occasionally find yourself with an opening hand that doesn’t have an Energy to retreat. Reduce the likelihood of being stuck with a weak Active Pokémon by including either Holon’s Magnemite or Holon’s Voltorb in your deck, which allows you to use Holon Mentor to grab both Jirachi and the Energy needed to retreat to it. Though you’ll occasionally have the misfortune of being forced to start with these Holon’s Pokémon, their easy accessibility make them worth playing.
Cessation Crystal: Be Prepared
If your deck is reliant on Poké-Powers or Poké-Bodies, you’re going to need an answer to Cessation Crystal. Your best bet is usually Windstorm, which doubles as a way to counter any pesky Stadium card your opponent has played.
There are some other ways to turn off a Cessation Crystal, though:
Since Cessation Crystal only works when attached to an Active Pokémon, anything that switches your opponent’s Active Pokémon can function as a counter to it. You’ll want to keep a balance of these switching cards and Windstorm in your decks to give yourself the best chance at winning. If you play only Windstorm, you’ll miss out on some more versatile cards. And if you skip out on Windstorm entirely, your opponent will freely place as many Cessation Crystals as they please, never worried about losing two at a time.
Now that you’ve gotten your introduction to the EX format, let’s move on to the fun part! Deck lists and tips are in in Part 2: Looking Back at the EX Era: Decks & Tips.