Pokémon is a game of limitless possibilities. Generous deck-searching and draw power means that convoluted, Rube Goldberg-esque gambits are not out of the question. Oh? You need to play these three cards on successive turns to fully Evolve this Pokémon, and you need a specific Poke-tool and a specific Pokémon sitting on your Bench for things to work out? Good for you there are a myriad Poke Balls to dredge up the cards you need! Just toss in a Skyla (xy8-148) to nab that Tool and you're in business.
See, no single card is going to win you a game. Rather, building an engine into your deck that allows you to grab what cards you need, when you need them, is what will help you come out on top. There's also the additional tension of your opponent trying to do the exact same thing.
Deck building in Pokémon is a process of refining this engine, looking at the cascade of cards you want to play, eliminating redundancies, and finding efficiencies. Can you be fast? Can you be consistent? If you don't draw the cards you need right off the bat, what contingencies are built into your deck to get you there?
All this is to say: the best Pokémon decks are simple, relying on the fewest amount of cards possible to get to their endgame. However, even the best decks need multiple cards to function. So when it comes to singling out a MVP, where does the credit lie? With the massive powerhouse that dealt the finishing blow? With the Trainer that turns your janky jalopy of a deck into a precision machine? Or does it belong to that one card you keep in reserve should you need to disrupt your opponent's plans?
This is my roundabout explanation for why, when tasked with talking about "The Top 10 Pokémon Cards of All Time," I initially drafted my list and realized, "...Crap, this is all Trainers." My mind instantly seized on the engines of the world: the Professor's Letters and Stevens that allow my decks to run consistently. I placed all my stock in the engines, and none in the hired guns sitting shotgun. To me, the getaway vehicle was more crucial than whatever interchangeable monster pulled the trigger.
However, a list of all Trainers just isn't sexy. Generally speaking, there's no pathos attached to Trainers. Instead, I constructed this list based on the impact certain cards have had on the game. Each of these cards drastically impacted certain formats, and their echoes can be felt even into the present day. I avoided any cards that were too new (casts side-eye at Eternatus VMAX (swsh3-117) ) because we have yet to see what lasting impacts/scar damage they leave on the game.
Without further ado, let's look at what cards have shaped the game. Here are the top ten Pokémon cards of all time.
Ah, Double Colorless Energy. This was one of my favorite cards as a child. I was a big fan of Colorless Pokémon like Snorlax and Dragonite, and even as a kiddo with no grasp on strategy, I understood that being able to power up my Pokémon faster meant good things.
Double Colorless Energy is so influential to the game that it shapes the way players conceive of energy cost. For example, an attack that costs 2 Fire energy and 1 Colorless might be seen as underwhelming, but one that costs 1 Fire energy and 2 Colorless is an entirely different story. Running Double Colorless in your deck means you can get going one turn sooner, and one turn difference is all it takes to win a game. In fact, many of the early strategies essentially boiled down to "attach Double Colorless so I can hit faster than my opponent." I'm talking about the Haymakers of the world, and any time Double Colorless is in Standard, you can expect decks to be built around Pokémon with two white starbursts in their energy cost.
There aren't a lot of cards that will let you search for special energy, so actually getting this card out of your deck and into your hand can be a challenge. But oh boy, when you do, you are cooking with gas.
This isn't even my favorite Sableye card (that honor goes to the Sableye from Dark Explorers and its Junk Hunt attack), but this is the Sableye that has had the most profound impact on the game. Overeager is an interesting meta ability. It's the sort of thing that has such a niche use—if you don't have Sableye (dp7-48) in your starting hand and don't play him as your active Pokémon, you don't get to take advantage of it. Half the time, you won't even want to use it, depending on the outcome of the coin flip. However, that other half of the time, you can yank the rug out from under your opponent and steal what is rightfully theirs: going first.
Being ahead of your opponent on the energy curve is critical. There are a couple of drawbacks to going first, though. Recently, the rules changed so that you can't play supporters on your first turn. This is pretty huge, as before the change, the right combination of cards could mean you were perfectly set up from turn one, and your opponent had nothing to do but play catch up. That said, it's a pretty fair adjustment.
However, Sableye (dp7-48) isn't just a one trick pony. For the low cost of absolutely nothing, you can use Impersonate to pick and play a supporter from your deck. For those keeping track at home, this technically counts as an attack, not actually using the supporter. That means come your second turn, you can play one from your hand, then play any from your deck. You're caught up to your opponent supporter-wise, and still ahead of them on the energy arms-race. Even before the rules change, the Sableye (dp7-48) was popular in Expanded, and I'm sure he'll be making decklists for many years to come.
Sometimes the most powerful play you can make in a game is simply saying "No." That's what Garbodor (bw6-54) did. If you get a Pokémon Tool attached to it, suddenly all Abilities get turned off. There have been several iterations of Garbodor and its signature Garbotoxin, and each time, it has made its way into competitive decks. The chance to gum up your opponent's strategy is just too ripe to resist, especially considering there are some Abilities that have warped formats. Garbodor (bw6-54) is a hard answer to your opponent abusing certain combos.
Garbodor (bw6-54) falls into a category of Pokémon I like to call "Bench Sitters." This means that absolutely under no circumstances do you want it on the front lines, where its corpulent garbage body could fall prey to stronger 'mons. However, support can be just as powerful as offense, and Garbodor (bw6-54) opens the way for the actual star of your deck to attack unheeded. While that key player has changed over the years, switching out every time Garbotoxin has made an appearance, there is always a place in the format for a little bit of control. And since you aren't sending him on the front lines, your opponent will have a hard time turning him off.
Part of why Joltik (xy4-26) makes this list is pure absurdity. This flea of a monster has the ability to do over 200 damage on its first turn. When it was in Standard, you were either playing Night March or you were playing to beat Night March.
Part of the deck's success was that its heavy hitter was this common card. A Night March deck cost pennies compared to other top decks. While many of us have dropped enough money on cardboard to finance a car, pricepoint is a huge barrier for a lot of casual players that prevents them from jumping into the deep end of competitive play. Nothing is more discouraging than hearing, "If you want to be a contender, you're looking at around $300 to build a viable deck."
However, Night March broke that trend by introducing a top deck that could be built on the leftover bits of lunch money. It was a deck for the proletariat, easy to build and exciting to pilot—a definite gateway drug. Some people started competitive play with Night March, and were enticed to stick around even when the cheap deck went away.
Another key to Joltik (xy4-26) supremacy: it felt a bit like cheating. You were being rewarded for dumping stuff into your discard, deliberately throwing away resources. It felt like you were playing the game in a way not intended by developers, outsmarting the very people who designed it, and there was something truly exhilarating about that.
There's reason to believe that Joltik (xy4-26) wasn't intended to be this good, and only design oversight allowed it to infest: Night March only became a competitive deck because another card, Lysandre's Trump Card (xy4-99), was banned. By trying to solve one problem they created another. Lysandre's Trump Card (xy4-99) was too powerful, but the cure was worse than the sickness.
Since the ban, Joltik (xy4-26) and its spooky friends have wormed their way into multiple formats, and there have been cards specifically designed to try and limit the bug domination while not being as abusable as Lysandre's Trump Card (xy4-99). The first solution was Karen, and true to her name, she is very good at ruining fun. She'll stop this little bug in its tracks, but not before its gnawed off a leg or two.
With VS Seeker (ex6-100) in hand, your discard pile becomes an open book. Considering how often you discard cards (especially when Phantom Forces was in rotation and you had Battle Compressor in the mix), having a card in your discard pile meant it was easier to access than if it was in your deck. As an added bonus, this card is an item card, which means there are no restrictions to how many you can play in one turn. So whatever supporter your dumpster-diving escapades gives you, you can turn around and play it right then.
This is another one of those cards that makes essentially every deck better. Who doesn't want to be able to get an extra use out of a clutch card? As you'll see on this list, some of the best cards are not ones part of a crucial strategy. Rather, it is their versatility that makes them so good. If a card is useful in any context, it is going to see a lot of use. VS Seeker (ex6-100) made decks more consistent, and it was a staple in essentially every deck when it was in Standard.
Sneasel's claim to fame is that it was one of the first cards to be Banned in the game (along with Slowking from the same set). While it may not seem like much today, being able to hit for a max of 120 damage with Beat Up was formidable— and at a low energy cost, too. It was consistent, and it didn't need much to get it going, which was why it got the ban hammer.
Compared to other games, Pokémon is very restrained with banning cards. They only do so if a card is having a profoundly negative impact on the game (and some would argue they act too slowly in issuing these bans). However, Sneasel (neo1-25) lives in the hall of infamy for being too cool for school.
Pokémon has very few one-turn wins. You can't even attack on your first turn. However, Shiftry (bw4-72) makes one-turn wins possible. Through a combination of Forest of Giant Plants and that Stormfront Sableye mentioned earlier, it's not impossible to get Shiftry in play on your first turn.
From there, you have a 50/50 chance of sending your opponent's Pokémon back to their hand. Throw in some Devolution Spray, and you can try again if the first time doesn't work. The end goal is to force your opponent to lose by returning all their Pokémon to their deck. A loss on a technicality is still a loss, all without drawing a single prize card.
If this seems janky...well, it is. This deck either wins on turn one or fizzles out shortly after. However, it is consistent enough that for a while, the Expanded Format was absolutely nothing but Shiftry (bw4-72). The online version of the game was even worse, since it was impossible to get booster packs for Next Destinies, meaning either you had the card or you could not play and hope to win in the Unlimited format. It was absolutely miserable, and the card was banned in an attempt to make the game more enjoyable. It worked, and the formats once dominated by Shiftry (bw4-72) flourished.
One letter, infinite possibilities for vengeance. I didn't play the Gen V games, so I am not familiar with the lore behind this particular pickle-hued Pokémon trainer. However, when I researched him on Bulbapedia, I discovered that his full name is apparently "Natural Harmonia Gropius," and I felt like learning anything else beyond that would be anticlimactic and superfluous.
What I can tell you about N (xy10-105) is that this card is a game-changer. Oftentimes, if your opponent pulls ahead, there isn't much you can do besides lose. However, N (xy10-105) lets you turn the tables. Imagine: your opponent has two prizes left, and they just played a card that let them get the cards they need in hand. You are way behind with five prizes left. Normally, that would be game over. However, play N (xy10-105) and suddenly your opponent is down to a measly two cards. Coming back from a play like that can be very hard, forcing your opponent to get lucky or top-deck. A gamble is better than a sure loss, and N (xy10-105) is an excellent last resort for the desperate—or just the vindictive.
Shaymin-EX (xy6-77a) was my elusive white whale during the entire 2016-2017 season. All the best decks had it, and I so desperately wanted to cobble together something resembling a functioning competitive deck. If you wanted to play with the big boys during this era, you needed to have Shaymin-EX (xy6-77a).
At a miniscule 110 HP, poor little Shaymin was an easy target and a huge liability. One wrong move and your opponent could walk away with two prize cards. However, it was worth the risk. Playing Shaymin meant refilling your hand. Colorless meant he could slide into any deck. Sky Return meant he could slip back into the safety of your hand. It was a strong card that could slot into any archetype and enable you to launch bigger, crazier things.
Unfortunately, this little fella was ridiculously expensive. There were times when you were looking at $50-$60 for a copy of the card (the Full Art version was even more expensive), and you wanted a couple for your deck. It had many players bemoaning the price tag, but the card was not banned. However, now that he is out of Standard his price is much more reasonable. Maybe I'll finally pick up a playset, just for old time's sake.
While this card is legion, going by many names and many different iterations, its effects are the same: discard your hand and draw 7. What seems like a fairly simple card has shaped the entire game. Professor Oak is as old as the game itself, and it immediately set the tone for how players should engage with it: strike fast and hard, and take no prisoners.
Played out your entire hand? Draw a new one. Didn't get the key card you need for a combo? Redo! The Professors are what allowed Pokémon to be such a combo-heavy game. Even when they weren't in Standard, they set a standard (pun intended) of heavy draw-power. After all, a game where you lose half the time because your opponent got lucky and drew their combo first isn't a fun game. If it weren't for these cards, no doubt the game would have been slower.
However, slower does not equal more thoughtful or more strategic. Instead, matches are high-octane races to build the better monster, and cards like Professor Oak allow our decks to operate at max-capacity. So thanks, Professor. You've always been so eager to help young trainers get started on their journey, and the game wouldn't be the same without you.
So there you go—a crash course through some of the most influential cards in the game. There were so many cards we didn't even touch on, but with a game as explosive as Pokémon, there's no way one article could contain them all. So until next time, stay chill!