People spend a lot of time talking about "hits" in modern Pokémon: GX and VMAX Pokémon, Rainbow Rares, Gold Rares, Alternate Arts... When The Pokémon Company wants to get us fans drooling, it's not hard to accomplish: take a popular character, add some foil or a full art frame, and then make it hard to pull. It's a recipe for success, and it drives a lot of the collectability of the Pokémon TCG.
With so many different kinds of rarities, special artworks, and promo stamps, modern Pokemon's got that down to a science. But even twenty years ago, in the early days of the Pokémon TCG, artificial rarity drove collecting: we still see that now, with the biggest vintage holos and 1st Edition printings commanding premiums above all else. Flash equals cash, and it's not hard to design something to be rare and desirable. Make a card cool, print less of it, and it's a powder keg waiting to go off.
But that sort of designed rarity isn't the only way a card can become collectible. Printing fewer copies of something so it's tougher to get can generate scarcity, sure. But if you wait long enough, scarcity can just happen over time: left unprotected, cards will deteriorate, get damaged, and in the end fall apart. Entire collections of cards may be lost all at once, thrown away by a careless parent or lost in a flooded basement. Sometimes cards are just plain forgotten about.
But however it happens, every card that's removed from circulation makes the remaining copies a little more scarce.
The cool thing is that if fans want a card, and that card is scarce, it doesn't matter why it's scarce.
A Base Set 1st Edition Charizard is rare because it's a holographic card from the Pokémon TCG's first printing, and there were so few of them made. But even an unlimited edition common or uncommon that didn't start off scarce, can become scarce over time: maybe collectors neglect those cards, maybe people write them off as bulk and throw them away, and eventually good condition copies are suddenly tough to find. Or on the flip side, maybe those cards came from a set that was under-printed, or just wasn't popular, so collectors opened fewer packs.
The booming Pokémon market of 2020 and 2021 has been focused on stuff like Base Set 1st Edition holos and iconic Gen 1 Pokémon from the first few sets of the vintage era. That's not news, if you're reading this you're probably well aware. But those big, obvious cards aren't the only ones that are worth money. If you're an old school collector you might have looked at your non-foil cards from Base Set, Fossil, and Jungle, right? and in most cases, you probably just shrugged and put them back into the shoebox you found them in. You can pick up a good looking Squirtle (base1-63) for two dollars here on TCGplayer. The most expensive Base Set uncommon isn't even a Pokémon: it's Double Colorless Energy (base1-96) for under four. And the most expensive Base Set Rare, Dragonair (base1-18)? It tops out at a Market Price of around eight bucks.
The reality is that Base Set, Fossil, and Jungle all had huge print runs. The world's first Pokémon TCG boom was massive: it was a cultural moment and millions of people got in on the action. Now a huge number of one-time collectors have been unloading their old cards over the last two years, flooding the market with so much stuff from those sets that all but the rarest cards are pretty cheap.
But that boom didn't last forever, and if you look beyond the first few sets there are tons of hidden gems you might not know about. For lots of collectors, their Pokémon journey ended at sets like Gym Heroes or Neo Revelation, and with lower demand the print runs of those sets were smaller than earlier releases. Players didn't really know what to make of cards that had Koga or Sabrina's names slapped on them, and lots of Gen 2 Pokémon just weren't popular when they first released. Smaller print runs, fewer fans, and a tendency for players to chuck "bad" cards straight into the trash…?
Well, give it two decades and the result's a lot of valuable cards, if you know where to look. Let's talk about some of the biggest surprises of the vintage era, starting with Gym Heroes.
Gym Heroes dropped in August of 2000, and it tried a few new things that didn't really connect at the time. Gym Leaders like Erika and Blaine are iconic today, but they weren't really a big deal 20 years ago, and seeing new versions of Pokémon that carried those characters names was weird. Dark Pokémon, from the Team Rocket expansion a few months prior, were inherently cool: the idea of Dark Pokémon was a little edgy, and the artwork really helped set those Pokémon apart with unique poses, funny facial expressions, and creative color palettes.
But Erika's Dragonair (gym1-4)? It's kinda just Dragonair. It couldn't even evolve. It was a different time: the Gym Leaders of Gen 1 were largely just speed bumps on your way to the Elite 4; they hadn't really been fleshed out as characters yet, so they didn't add any value to the cards they appeared on. To make matters worse, a lot of the fans who were still into Pokémon by late 2000 were actually playing the game. And these new Gym Leader Pokémon sucked. Real bad. With Rocket's Zapdos (gym2-15), they were largely unplayable.
But fast forward to today and the landscape has changed.
The Gym Leaders of Kanto eventually became more popular, and that made the cards based around their Pokémon a bigger deal. The average Rare from Gym Heroes is worth anywhere between $5 to $9, but a few are notably higher, starting with Lt. Surge's Raichu (gym1-28). Featuring a ready-for-battle Raichu on a bold lightning-strike background, it's the most expensive non-foil in the set, clocking in at roughly $15 for a Near Mint copy!
Rocket's Snorlax (gym1-33) is another Rare from from Gym Heroes that punches way above its weight… which is saying something, since Snorlax can commonly weigh as much as 1,000 pounds. Like Lt. Surge's Raichu (gym1-28), it's pushing the $15 mark.
Neither of these cards were popular when Gym Heroes first released, but the enduring appeal of these two Pokémon fuelled demand. The fact that Gym Heroes cards have become scarce over time has made them way more valuable than collectors would've predicted in 2000.
If you stuck around for Gym Heroes and you're searching your old collection, you'll want to keep an eye out for this card, too…
Good Manners (gym1-111) is just an uncommon, but it's worth as much as $6 or more. Erika went on to become a much more popular character than she was in the year 2000, and this card's effect was also pretty playable back in the day, so retro players seek it out. Collectors and stores threw out stacks of these back in the day, contributing to the card's scarcity 20 years later.
There are lots of uncommons in Gym Heroes that are actually worth a few bucks, so check out TCGplayer's Price Guide for the set if you've got a big stack to sift through. Gym Heroes was massively underrated for years, but cards like Minion of Team Rocket (gym1-113), Sabrina's Haunter (gym1-58), and Erika's Weepinbell (gym1-49) are no joke in today's market.
Gym Heroes was followed by Gym Challenge, an even less popular release: lots of people didn't want Gym Heroes to begin with, so they sure didn't want a sequel two months later. A couple of key cards like [Rocket's Zapdos]((Rocket's Zapdos (gym2-15)) were actually very playable at the time, but Gym Challenge marked a real downpoint for the Pokémon TCG, and the fact that so few packs were opened makes it look very different from Gym Heroes today.
It's probably not fair to compare the two sets' most expensive foils: Blaine's Charizard (gym2-2) from Gym Challenge is obviously just a cooler card than Blaine's Moltres (gym1-1) from Gym Heroes. But check out the low end: the three cheapest holos from Gym Heroes are Lt. Surge's Magneton (gym1-8), Misty's Tentacruel (gym1-10), and Erika's Vileplume (gym1-5), all $11 to $12. But the bottom three from Gym Challenge? You're looking at Koga's Beedrill (gym2-9) at $18, Koga (gym2-19) himself at $24, and Giovanni's Persian (gym2-8) at almost $25. Those aren't big sleeper cards featuring fan-favorite characters: Gym Challenge is just worth more across the board, and that's because the lack of demand in 2000 created a lack of supply in 2021.
What does that mean for nonfoils? Sabrina's Gengar (gym2-29) is a standout Rare that sells for more than some of the set's holos, going for more than twice the value of the other Rares in the set at a whopping $26. No other Gengar looks like this one: its sinister grin is incredibly eye-catching, and its dark colors really pop against the full moon background. For a lot of Gengar collectors this is a wildly popular card, and 1st Editions can go for over $100.
Moving onto uncommons, Erika's Bulbasaur (gym2-39) is over eight dollars. Again, check out our Price Guide for the set if you've got a bunch of Gym Challenge, because lots of uncommons crack the $5 mark, and if you've got a bunch they could add up to some serious dough.
Lt. Surge's Pikachu (gym2-84) deserves a shoutout too, for its soaring Market Price of nearly $6. This one's climbing fast because people absolutely love the art - that Pikachu's determined expression, set against the silhouetted landscape and the sunset is really dynamic. And as more hobbyists start collecting Pikachu specifically, this card's been on the rise.
Okay, so everybody hated Gym Heroes and Gym Challenge, and that bred some big hits 20 years later. But when the Pokémon TCG moved into the Johto Region with Neo Genesis, lots of fans returned to collecting, and Pokémon got a big shot in the arm. That means there are lots of Neo Genesis cards out there; there's a lot of supply. Luckily Neo Genesis was a mix of popular new characters and a surprising amount of really playable new stuff, and many of the biggest tournament cards have turned into sleeper hits.
Case in point? My favorite baby Pokémon of all time.
Cleffa (neo1-20) was adorable. It was one of the biggest hits of all the Gen 2 Pokémon, it quickly became a fan-favorite, and its debut card in Neo Genesis was huge for lots of reasons. First? That freakin' cute artwork.
With a career spanning the Pokémon manga and the Pokémon TCG, Kagemaru Himeno's one of Pokémon's greatest artists, and her vibrant watercolors combined with her signature white cottony highlights make this card come alive in a way that fans instantly connected with.
In addition, Cleffa (neo1-20) was a format-defining power-card when it came out. The Baby Pokémon rule made Cleffa (neo1-20) frustrating to face, and its "Eeeeeeek" attack - which drew you a card for every 'e' in the attack name - was game-breaking coupled with Lass (base1-75).
All that adds up to a non-holo rare that's $21 or more on the open market, over three times the price of any other rare in the set. Except this one…
Focus Band (neo1-86) is an $11 rare from a set where most Rares are $5 or less. The art's… famously weird, too, so the value here isn't rooted in the unique portrayal of Machoke trying to give itself a headache. This card's popular because it was a competitive staple back in its day, and with the Neo era being a favorite for retro Pokémon fans who enjoy revisiting the old game, it's still surprisingly valuable.
Gold Berry (neo1-93) a $5+ uncommon for the same reason: every deck played multiples back in the day, since it offered better healing than similar cards from earlier sets like Super Potion (base1-90) and Scoop Up (base1-78). Heal your Pokémon without giving up energy? It was revolutionary at the time.
That said, there are a few more good uncommons from Neo Genesis, including Noctowl (neo1-42) and Togepi (neo1-51), both around 4$ to $5. Beyond that, the popularity of Neo Genesis and the size of the print run landed shoved rest of the uncommons below $3. They're solid, but nothing to write home about. And you won't find a common that's over a buck-fifty.
Fast forward to the next expansion in the Neo series, Neo Discovery. While Neo Genesis was a huge hit that arrived to a ton of hype, the rest of the four Neo sets would each debut to less fanfare. Part of the problem was timing: Neo Genesis launched in December of 2000, but Neo Discovery wouldn't drop until six months later, releasing in June of 2001. With no new product, the Pokémon TCG went through another cooling off period.
And again, fewer collectors opening product in 2001 has translated to lower supply twenty years later. The values of some of the cards in Neo Discovery are surprising, starting with the set's biggest rare: while the set's biggest pull today is Umbreon (neo2-13), the non-holo Umbreon (neo2-32) is huge too, clocking in at a Market Price of over 30 dollars! With vibrant, dynamic artwork by Naoyo Kimura, it's worth more than half of the holographic rares in the set.
It's actually an interesting card for a few reasons. While the holo rares in Neo Genesis were all unique, Neo Discovery saw a return to the old split rarity system of Jungle and Fossil: every holo rare came as a non-holo as well, with the same artwork and game text.
But Umbreon (neo2-32) and Espeon (neo2-20) were different: those two cards are explicitly unique, with two different illustrations and different attacks. The rare Espeon (neo2-20) landed at more of a middle-of-the-road value, but the rare Umbreon (neo2-32) a big deal, and it's massively popular with collectors. The next most valuable rare in the set is the Tyranitar (neo2-31), coming in at over $10.
Wizards of the coast reversed course for the third set in the Neo series, Neo Revelation: every holographic rare and regular rare was once again unique. It also marked the TCG debut of mons like Ho-Oh, Celebi, and the Legendary Beasts, and it included two surprise cards that became a watershed moment for collectors: Shining Magikarp (neo3-66) and Shining Gyarados (neo3-65). Even the wait time between sets was more reasonable: Neo Revelation released in September of 2001, three months after Neo Discovery.
It also marked the return of Lugia, a huge holographic hit in Neo Genesis, but a flop of a rare in Neo Revelation. At the time, Lugia (neo3-20) was the biggest pull from Neo Genesis - a title it still holds today. Printing that original Lugia (neo3-20) as a Normal Pokémon made the artwork pop with an iconic white-on-white look, and the Lugia (neo3-20) attack, Elemental Blast, was cool because it used three different types of energy that gave the text box a bit of pop. The holographic negative space was gorgeous, too.
The second Lugia (neo3-20) in Neo Revelation felt like a misstep by comparison: Aya Kusube's etched-style artwork is more appreciated today, but at the time players felt it looked "sketchy", and the Psychic typing did nothing to complement it. Neither card was playable in tournaments, either. This card went under-appreciated for years, which has probably contributed to low supply… and by now you know what that means! Neo Revelation Lugia (neo3-20) is about $25 these days, roughly twice the value of any other rare in the set, from a release that has lots of double digit rares.
Ho-oh, Suicune, Raikou, and Entei are all popular from this release, with values ranging from $10 to $14. Uncommons and commons from Neo Revelation were especially underwhelming, and the modern market demand hasn't really changed that. But it's loaded with popular rare cards that have aged exceptionally well.
Finally, the last set in the Neo series was Neo Destiny, which didn't arrive until February of 2002. Again, a longer-than-normal wait between sets took a toll on fan interest, and this time the result is huge.
Neo Destiny's an incredible set to look at today. On one end of the scale, the chase cards like Shining Charizard (neo4-107) and Shining Mewtwo (neo4-109) are still holy grails for collectors worldwide. But on the other end, the sheer volume of exceptionally valuable uncommon cards is mindblowing.
Before we get there, here are Neo Destiny's two most valuable normal rares: Unown Light Dragonair (neo4-22). These cards were both underappreciated for years - I'm pretty sure kids used them to line hamster cages - and now they're both around $20.
This is one of only two Unown Light Dragonair (neo4-22). Both cards are pretty unique, and that's made each of them a hit.
And yet, neither card is as pricy as this one! All three of the original Eeveelutions appeared in Light forms in Neo Revelation: they were all uncommon, and they're all huge in today's market. Light Jolteon (neo4-48) the most prized of the three, featuring super-cuddly artwork by Naoyo Kimura with a cameo appearance from Togepi.
Light Flareon (neo4-46) and Light Vaporeon (neo4-52) are huge too, so if you've got a bunch of bulk Neo Revelation under your bed now's the time to dig through it. Both of these cards are around $15; they're not as crazy as Light Jolteon (neo4-48), but their values are still way up there for uncommons. And hey, how cute is that Vaporeon! Light Ninetales (neo4-50) is another highlight: in any other set, an uncommon worth $7.50 would be headline news, but the Light Eeveelutions are just so expensive that it gets overshadowed.
Given enough time, even the most common cards could become scarce. If you've still got your old cards but you've only looked through the early stuff and the holos? Give them another look. You might be surprised by what you find!