Pokemon TCG Live Preview: The T No Longer Stands For Trading

The digital version of the Pokemon Trading Card Game has been long overdue for a face lift. While I still consider Pokemon TCG Online the most rewarding digital TCG, particularly for new players, the presentation is missing a lot of the flash and flow of modern card games. The UI is plain, the avatar system is rudimentary, and it doesn’t even work on phones.

Interest in the Pokemon TCG has exploded in recent years, but it’s needed a modern digital adaptation for a lot longer. That game is called Pokemon TCG Live, and the beta version is currently available in select countries. I got my first hands-on experience with the new and improved TCG client at the Pokemon World Championships this past weekend, and while I love the look and feel of the update, there were also some unexpectedly big changes that I’m still coming to terms with. Namely, the removal of the in-game market for trading cards.

But, first, the good news: Pokemon TCG Live plays like a dream. The Pokemon Company has taken a lot of cues from modern CCGs like Magic: The Gathering Arena, Yu-Gi-Oh! Master Duel, and Legends of Runeterra, and has redesigned the game to feel snappy, intuitive, and easy to navigate. Modern Pokemon TCG is a complex game with a lot of overlapping rules and conditions, but TCG Live makes it easy to keep track of your turn and all the various moves you can make.

Simple things like highlighting your optional abilities to make it easier to understand and tool tips are available to remind you about mechanics and rules you may have forgotten. It feels great to flick the screen to play cards or tap to blow them up for easier readability, and while I didn’t see it working on a phone, the developer walking me through the demo said that cards scale to actual, printed size when playing on mobile, so they’re just as easy to read.

While the board design and UI were clean and easy to parse, I wouldn’t exactly call the visual design impressive. There’s a utilitarian style that felt somewhat underwhelming. There aren’t different battlefields or even playmats like in its competitors, and the cards themselves don’t have any kind of effects when played. Maybe my time with Marvel Snap – a true visual feast of a card game – has spoiled me, but TCG Live still looks rather plain. It has already been announced that a big VFX update is coming soon that will alter the perspective of the game board to a more top-down POV, as well as add some visual effects, such as weather conditions when you play a Stadium card. I am keen to see those additions, but I still think playmats would be a great cosmetic option – after all, both Magic: Arena and Master Duel offer them already.

The big change from PTCGO is, of course, the removal of player-to-player trading. While TCG Online had a thriving secondary marketplace of people trading their cards, TCG Live instead uses a crafting system so that players have a more deterministic way of getting the cards they want. Rather than trading dozens of packs for a single in-meta card, players will now earn crystals by playing the game and progressing the season track. These crystals can then be spent to craft any card they want. You can also earn crystal anytime you open a pack and find a duplicate. Anything beyond the fourth copy of a card will automatically convert into crystals.

The crafting system was described as a work in progress, and the development team has already run into some issues with it. For one thing, it makes smaller sets like Celebrations extraordinarily valuable, since it's much easier to collect the entire expansion and start farming crystals. It also makes it so that players will essentially need a master set of four copies of every card each in order to start consistently earning crystals. This means that bigger expansions are more diluted and therefore cost more. Considering how big sets have gotten over the last couple of years, it's hard not to see a connection there.

Ultimately, the game is completely free-to-play, which is not something any other digital card game can claim. Buying packs to get code cards should still be considered a microtransaction, but there is no way to spend money within TCG Live itself. The battle pass, which resets with each new expansion, is completely free, and all the cosmetics have to be earned, not purchased.

The one other big question I have about Theme Decks. In the old PTCGO, the theme decks were a great way to get started, learn how to play, and have a great time battling other players with pre-made decks that were all at the same power level. Now that the TCG has largely abandoned the Theme Deck format, TCG Live has introduced a new kind of pre-made deck. When starting the game, every player will have access to eight decks they can use for free.

These decks will get updated regularly when new cards release to keep their power level consistent, but you can’t add or remove any cards from them. On paper this sounds like a reasonable replacement for Theme Decks, maybe even a superior one, considering how quickly Theme Decks fell behind and became unusable before. I have to reserve judgment until I see it myself, but my only concern is that eight decks might not be enough to keep the game interesting. Collecting and playing Theme Decks in the old game was great if you weren’t interested in building your own, but I’m not sure if the new system will hold my attention for as long.

There’s no release date on TCG Live currently, though the team is planning to expand the beta to more countries over time. At this point I’m cautiously optimistic, but I’m generally averse to change, so take that for what it’s worth. I’ve wanted to get Pokemon TCG on my phone for so long, it’s worth any sacrifice I need to make to get it. Even if it means that the T in TCG no longer stands for trading.

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