Table of Contents

Ranking System Explained

If you’re considering building decks for a retro Pokémon TCG format, but unsure which format you’d most enjoy, I’ve broken down the main formats of the game’s early years, rating them from 1 to 5 on nine different attributes:

  1. Fun refers simply to how often a format produces exciting and interactive games. Formats that have unique Pokémon Powers, or Trainers and Energy cards that enable comebacks will score higher. So will formats that place an emphasis on Evolved Pokémon.
  2. Variety rates a format by the amount of playable decks it offers and, to a lesser extent, the lack of repetition of cards throughout these decks.
  3. Parity ranks how many of the format’s decks create fair and close match-ups against each other. High ratings indicate a format where more match-ups are close to even, while lower ratings indicate a format where one player is more likely to begin the match with a significant advantage based on the decks being used.
  4. Skill measures a format’s tendency to create opportunities for a player to win the game by making skillful and tactically sound play.
  5. Replayability gauges a format’s enjoyability over extended periods of time. Lower-rated formats produce more repetitive games, while higher rated formats are more likely to produce games with more unique decisions and situations.
  6. Affordability indicates the relative cost of acquiring cards needed to build decks from a format. Higher ratings mean the format is inexpensive to build.
  7. Easiness to learn rates the ease with which a format’s rules, basic strategies and key cards can be learned by a player new to the format.
  8. Iconicity refers to a format’s historical significance. Higher rated formats marked a monumental time period in the game.
  9. Popularity assesses how much interest there is in a particular format. While no retro format is nearly as popular as Standard or Expanded, certain past formats have a stronger following than others. If you’re hoping to find other players to play with, I recommend building decks from a popular format. It’s also worth noting that many of the players that play formats from 2004 onward favor playing World Championship formats and not the full block formats I cover in my blog. For rating purposes, I consider interest in these World Championship formats and give the corresponding block format a higher rating.

Base–Rocket (2000) pokemon-tcg-logo.png jungle-symbol fossil-symbol team-rocket-symbol

Fun ⭐️⭐️⭐️
Variety ⭐️⭐️
Parity ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Skill ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Replayability ⭐️⭐️⭐️
Easiness to learn ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Affordability ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Iconicity ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Popularity ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

True classic Pokémon, Base–Rocket is composed only of the game’s first four sets. You’ll endure a constant barrage of Energy Removal & Super Energy Removal as powerful Basic Pokémon exchange attacks. While the Team Rocket set brought some cards that make the format more friendly to beginners (like Nightly Garbage Run to help prevent deckout), you can also remove this one set to rewind to 1999’s Base–Fossil (the format of the Pokémon TCG GameBoy game). Doing so creates a more skill-intensive format that places a larger emphasis on resource management.

Notable sub-formats: Base Set Only (1999), Base–Fossil (1999)

Base–Gym (2000) pokemon-tcg-logo.png jungle-symbol fossil-symbol team-rocket-symbol gym-heroes-symbol gym-challenge-symbol

trap-deck-gym

Fun ⭐️⭐️
Variety ⭐️⭐️
Parity ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Skill ⭐️
Replayability ⭐️
Easiness to learn ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Affordability ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Iconicity ⭐️⭐️
Popularity ⭐️

The Base–Gym format is filled with ways to strip away your opponent’s hand and also beat them in the first few turns. Nonetheless, the format that brought Stadium cards to the game can be fun in its own unique and exciting kind of way.

Prop 15/3 (2000) pokemon-tcg-logo.png jungle-symbol fossil-symbol team-rocket-symbol gym-heroes-symbol gym-challenge-symbol

erika-deck-prop-15-3

Fun ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Variety ⭐️⭐️⭐️
Parity ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Skill ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Replayability ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Easiness to learn ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Affordability ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Iconicity ⭐️
Popularity ⭐️

Wizards of the Coast’s first attempt to reign in the overpowered Trainer cards that dominated the early years of the game, Prop 15/3 was a unique format that limited players to a maximum of 15 Trainer cards. What makes Prop 15/3 fun is that you finally got to build decks with many of the Evolved Pokémon that had been previously overshadowed by strong Basic Pokémon. Though this format was a blip on the Pokémon TCG’s lengthy timeline, I can’t recommend it enough, especially if you’ve already played the traditional Base-on formats. Games have a tendency to be very close and the boards full of evolved Pokémon make you feel like you’re bringing to life the original vision the game’s creators had in mind when they designed it.

Base–Neo (2002) pokemon-tcg-logo.png jungle-symbol fossil-symbol team-rocket-symbol gym-heroes-symbol gym-challenge-symbol neo-genesis-symbol neo-discovery-symbol neo-revelation-symbol neo-destiny-symbol

snichu-deck-base-to-neo

Fun ⭐️
Variety ⭐️⭐️⭐️
Parity ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Skill ⭐️⭐️⭐️
Replayability ⭐️⭐️
Easiness to learn ⭐️⭐️⭐️
Affordability ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Iconicity ⭐️⭐️
Popularity ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Though Base–Neo utilizes the same powerful Trainers of Wizards’ first formats, it does bring many more Pokémon into play, including the powerful Sneasel and, more importantly, Baby Pokémon. The way games in this format progress depend heavily on whether or not each player can quickly Eeeeeeek with Cleffa. When both players do, the format tends to produce great games. While it can be fun at first, the constant coin flips required to attack (as well as how game-breaking these flips are) can make it frustrating to play. Base–Neo is played in small groups globally, including in Japan, Chile and Argentina.

Rocket–Legendary Collection Modified (2002) team-rocket-symbol gym-heroes-symbol gym-challenge-symbol neo-genesis-symbol neo-discovery-symbol neo-revelation-symbol neo-destiny-symbol legendary-collection-symbol

rocket-on-dark-feraligatr-deck

Fun ⭐️⭐️
Variety ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Parity ⭐️⭐️⭐️
Skill ⭐️⭐️
Replayability ⭐️
Easiness to learn ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Affordability ⭐️⭐️⭐️
Iconicity ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Popularity ⭐️⭐️

Pokémon’s first Modified format allows players to exchange big attacks from hard-hitting Evolved Pokémon. Full of coin flips for Baby Pokémon and Focus Band, games tend to be luck-based and repetitive, but are exciting nonetheless.

Neo–Skyridge Modified (2003) neo-genesis-symbol neo-discovery-symbol neo-revelation-symbol neo-destiny-symbol legendary-collection-symbol expedition-symbol aquapolis-symbol skyridge-symbol

entei-magcargo-deck-neo-on.jpg

Fun ⭐️⭐️
Variety ⭐️⭐️
Parity ⭐️⭐️
Skill ⭐️⭐️
Replayability ⭐️⭐️
Easiness to learn ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Affordability ⭐️⭐️⭐️
Iconicity ⭐️⭐️
Popularity ⭐️

Following Rocket-on as the second and final phase of Wizards’ Modified format, Neo-on created an awkward mash-up of old and new cards that almost seemed like they were from two different games. Evolved Pokémon continued to be strong, but while Stage 2 Pokémon dominated in Rocket-on, Stage 1 Pokémon were the stars of Neo-on.

e-Card (2003) expedition-symbol aquapolis-symbol skyridge-symbol

charizard-deck

Fun ⭐️⭐️
Variety ⭐️⭐️⭐️
Parity ⭐️⭐️⭐️
Skill ⭐️⭐️⭐️
Replayability ⭐️⭐️
Easiness to learn ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Affordability ⭐️⭐️
Iconicity ⭐️
Popularity ⭐️

A unique format lost during the game’s transition from Wizards of the Coast to The Pokémon Company International, e-Card battles involve epic clashes between powerful Evolved Pokémon. Using the Supporter cards the sets introduced to the game, each player gradually progresses their board in an attempt to overpower their opponent.

EX (2007) ruby-sapphire-symbol sandstorm-symbol.png dragon-symbol.png team-magma-vs-team-aqua-symbol hidden-legends-symbol firered-leafgreen-symbol.png team-rocket-returns-symbol deoxys-symbol emerald-symbol unseen-forces-symbol.png delta-species-symbol.png legend-maker-symbol.png holon-phantoms-symbol.png crystal-guardians-symbol.png dragon-frontiers-symbol.png power-keepers-symbol.png

lbs-deck-ex

Fun ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Variety ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Parity ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Skill ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Replayability ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Easiness to learn ⭐️
Affordability ⭐️
Iconicity ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Popularity ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

The format that marks the game’s transition from Wizards of the Coast to The Pokémon Company International contains over 1700 well balanced and fun cards that allow for seemingly endless ways to construct decks. Gameplay is both skill-intensive and fun, with plenty of cards that allow players to come back from behind. Though the format can be a lot to take in, those that spend the time learning it are sure to enjoy it.

Diamond & Pearl / Platinum (2009) diamond-and-pearl-symbol mysterious-treasures-symbol secret-wonders-symbol great-encounters-symbol majestic-dawn-symbol legends-awakened-symbol stormfront-symbol platinum-symbol rising-rivals-symbol supreme-victors-symbol arceus-symbol

luxchomp-deck-dpp

Fun ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Variety ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Parity ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Skill ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Replayability ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Easiness to learn ⭐️⭐️
Affordability ⭐️⭐️⭐️
Iconicity ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Popularity ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

The Diamond & Pearl/Platinum format is enjoyed for being both skill-oriented and also for enabling more even match-ups than any other format. Creating games that often last 40 or more minutes, it can sometimes feel like a grind, but the format will ultimately reward intelligent and patient play.

HeartGold SoulSilver (2011) heartgold-soulsilver-symbol undaunted-symbol unleashed-symbol triumphant-symbol call-of-legends-symbol

hgss-battle

Fun ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Variety ⭐️⭐️⭐️
Parity ⭐️⭐️
Skill ⭐️⭐️⭐️
Replayability ⭐️⭐️
Easiness to learn ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Affordability ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Iconicity ⭐️⭐️
Popularity ⭐️⭐️

Playing like an improved e-Card format, the HS format hosts some of the strongest Supporters in the game, allowing players to construct decks full of Evolved Pokémon. Despite a small card pool, the format’s decks each have their own distinct and unique strategies, ensuring fun games.

Black & White (2013) black-and-white-symbol emerging-powers-symbol noble-victories-symbol next-destinies-symbol dark-explorers-symbol dragons-exalted-symbol dragon-vault-symbol boundaries-crossed-symbol plasma-storm-symbol plasma-freeze-symbol plasma-blast-symbol legendary-treasures-symbol

blastoise-deck-black-white

Fun ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Diversity ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Parity ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Skill ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Replayability ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Easiness to learn ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Affordability ⭐️⭐️⭐️
Iconicity ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Popularity ⭐️⭐️⭐️

Featuring decks that try to draw six prizes as quickly as possible, decks that slowly build a way to completely lock their opponent, and everything in-between, the Black & White format blends variety, skill and excitement in a format that is easy for players to learn. Other than Tropical Beach (and a few Ace Spec cards), decks are affordable.

XY (2016) xy-symbol flashfire-symbol furious-fists-symbol primal-clash-symbol roaring-skies-symbol

Fun ⭐️⭐️⭐️
Diversity ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Parity ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Skill ⭐️⭐️
Replayability ⭐️⭐️
Easiness to learn ⭐️⭐️⭐️
Affordability ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Iconicity ⭐️⭐️
Popularity ⭐️

With a massive and balanced cardpool, it might be fair to say it’s more fun to build decks in the XY format than actually play it. Early turns are lengthy and often put one player at an immediate disadvantage. As games progress, however, players enjoy more interaction, skillfully choosing between a variety of Supporters throughout their turns.

Outlines for Playing Through Pokémon’s Timeline

If you’re passionate about the Pokémon TCG and want to experience how the game’s formats unfolded from 1999 all the way to 2016, you can follow one of the three timelines below. Each of them begins with 2000’s Base–Rocket format, then works its way towards Black & White.

Full Detailed Condensed
Base–Rocket (2000)

Base–Gym (2000)

Prop 15/3 (2000)

Base–Neo (2002)

Rocket–LC Modified (2002)

Neo-On (2003)

e-Card (2003)

EX (2007)

Diamond & Pearl / Platinum (2009)

HeartGold SoulSilver (2011)

Black & White (2013)

XY (2016)

Base–Rocket (2000)

Base–Neo (2002)

Rocket–LC Modified (2002)

e-Card (2003)

EX (2007)

Diamond & Pearl / Platinum (2009)

HeartGold SoulSilver (2011)

Black & White (2013)

XY (2016)

Base–Rocket (2000)

Rocket–LC Modified (2002)

EX (2007)

Diamond & Pearl / Platinum (2009)

HeartGold SoulSilver (2011)

Black & White (2013)

The Full version is the most comprehensive of the three, allowing you to experience all of the meaningful phases of the game’s past. It includes more of the game’s earliest formats, allowing you to experience the escalating power of Trainer cards that occurred in 2000, as well as see how the subsequent formats curbed their power.

The Detailed outline leaves out the less notable Wizards of the Coast formats, but still manages to cover every set from Base through XY.

If you’re looking to cover only the most significant formats in the game’s history, go with the Condensed outline, which skips over the less noteworthy formats, but still manages to cover 44 of the game’s first 47 sets. (Only the three e-Card sets are omitted.)