Hello, Poké-players! Today, we're going to talk about everything you need to know about Pokémon Trading Card Game (TCG) formats. This information is geared towards both newer players and those who may be returning to the game, or are considering playing in official Pokémon tournaments for the first time. Not into competition? That's alright—there are some incredibly fun casual formats to enjoy with friends!
A "format" is a specific rule set that determines which cards players are allowed to use in their decks. Essentially, some cards are allowed to be played in one format, but may not be allowed to be played in another. Formats keep gameplay exciting, fresh, and fun! They also give players options to discover the ways they enjoy playing the TCG.
Officially-run Play! Pokémon Events (where you play with physical trading cards) award exclusive prizes to winners, and allow players to qualify for large competitive championship events—even the World Championships! These events recognize two formats: Standard and Expanded.
The Pokémon TCG Online (PTCGO) also recognizes these formats, plus an additional two formats that are considered online-only: Theme and Legacy. Online, all four formats can be used in events to earn points, coins, and packs.
For more fun, you can also play casual or made-up formats with friends and family!
No matter what format you choose to play, basic energy cards are always legal in all formats. Whether you have a favorite from the late 1990's or you just really love the artwork from a specific set, choose whatever makes you happy.
Additionally, banlists (i.e. lists of cards that are not allowed to be used) update with every set and are always posted on the official Pokémon TCG website. Cards are usually banned when they are "too powerful", or can be used in a way that makes the game less fun to play. These situations are usually unforeseen and discovered when players find ways to use the card in a combination that makes it very difficult for their opponent to recover from (i.e. unfair).
Standard is often considered by many players to be the default format, and it's arguably the most competitive. Newer players enjoy Standard because it features the latest cards and strategies. This format rotates each year, which means that cards become "too old" to play with and generally may not be compatible with newer sets or rules. Pokémon Organized Play removes older card sets from competition in the Standard format, in the spirit of keeping play fair, fun, and exciting.
Typically, Standard includes the most recent four set releases, and set rotation usually takes place each August, around the time that the World Championships are broadcast. To make it easier to tell what cards will be allowed in tournament play, beginning with the Sword and Shield Expansion all cards will be printed with a letter in the bottom-left corner called a regulation mark. For the 2021 season, all cards with the "D" regulation mark are legal for use in tournaments.
This format was introduced in 2014. In Expanded play, players can choose from over 10 years worth of cards, allowing for the most options in terms of strategies and archetypes. Likewise, Expanded has the most banned cards of all the formats! Because of the larger card pool, some of the craziest and most powerful card combinations have arisen in Expanded tournaments, which can make certain older cards inaccessible due to cost and demand.
Participating in Expanded events is worth considering if you live in North America, as there are many larger regional events available for players. These types of events, as well as League Cups or League Challenges, can gain you Pokémon TCG Championship Points (often called "CP) which are required to be invited to compete in the Pokémon World Championships. The more players that attend Championship Series events, the more additional Championship Points are awarded. In other countries, such as Europe or Australia, Expanded format events aren't really common, so players only have the option of Standard Events to earn those points. The Expanded format for the 2021 season includes cards from the Black & White set and any sets released afterward, including other products.
As the name suggests, each player uses only premade theme decks that can be purchased from a local game store (LGS). These decks are usually at about a $7-15 USD price range, and contain everything you need to play right out of the box. This makes them a great pick for newer players learning the rules, or those who may not have the time to build custom decks!
While theme decks are intended to be fun and give each player a more equal playing field, sometimes you get incredibly good theme decks that dominate the competition. As a nice bonus, each theme deck includes a code card that you can enter on PTCGO to play the deck for free. Though you can hold a casual theme deck league or tournament in-person with friends (like we do for fun at TCGplayer), you'll often see this format played online.
Introduced in 2016 as a format exclusive to the TCG online (i.e. there are currently no Legacy events in-person), Legacy format lets players build and battle using classic cards from the HeartGold & SoulSilver series and after. With the introduction of Legacy, the Unlimited format was officially retired online, though some players may use the terms "Legacy" and "Unlimited" interchangeably.
This option is great for more experienced players who love the nostalgia of older cards and is often quite fun. However, since cards don't rotate, the gameplay can become a little repetitive. By the way, one of the fun features players love about this format is that you can use those amazing looking two-part LEGEND cards from back in days of HeartGold and SoulSilver! We talked about these very briefly in our Rules Recap article, so check that out for a refresher!
Offline, friends may still play the Unlimited format for fun. It's pretty similar to Legacy, although Unlimited players might use cards dating all the way back to Base Set. This option may be viewed as unbalanced, because some older cards were known for being considerably overpowered.
Pauper is a more "underground" format that allows only common or uncommon rarity cards for deckbuilding, similar to pauper formats found in other card games. It can be incredibly strategic, and extremely easy to get into, since these types of decks are inexpensive to build! Players end up on a more even playing field without having to figure out how to get a hold of harder to find rare cards. Just keep in mind that different locations may have different rules on how to play, since it is an unofficial format.
This is the really fun format you've probably never heard of. Sometimes thought of as the "Commander format of Pokémon," the basic concept is that players build 100 card decks with no more than 1 copy of Trainer or Special Energy Cards with the same name. Any card from any set is legal, and no Pokémon is allowed to be over 150HP. There are some modified gameplay rules used in terms of drawing cards, prize cards, and other changes. Different play groups may impose different restrictions on copies of cards.
In this format, all cards from the current Standard rotation are legal, with the exception of Pokémon-GX, Pokémon V, and Pokémon VMAX. Banned card rules applicable to Standard remain in effect. Think of this one as a different way to play Standard, without all the special rules and overpowered options of GX and VMAX!
In the Pokemon anime, some trainers are fond of specific regions found in the world of Pokémon, such as Unova, Kalos, Alola, and Galar. In this format, players use cards specific to those regions for their deckbuilding. Each format has its own legality in terms of ban lists and what sets can be used. Again, this is an unofficial format that you don't really hear much buzz about, but it might be popular in friend groups or local game stores, so rules may vary considerably.
By this point, you may be wondering...do people actually play these lesser-known formats?
Well, it depends on who you ask. Some game stores have players meeting regularly to master these alternatives, and others have never even heard of them. We've been known to play Pauper format at the TCGplayer office regularly and loved it. In fact, a while back, we created a library of 'grab and go' decks for anyone interested in experiencing this unique option, which really helped expand our little Pauper community!
If you or your play group has tried out any of these casual formats, I'd love to hear about how it went, what you do to expand your community, and what you've liked or disliked!