Schoolyard League Rules: Reflecting Upon Modifications in the TCG at its Beginnings
Welcome readers to my first blog post here on PokeBeach! I’m a player of the Pokemon TCG Online, who usually creates rogue decks, which I post in the Deck Garage here every so often. In person, I’m rather shy, and on the web, I will perhaps forever hold the psudonym ‘Lanstar’ in place of my real name. But I hope you like this reflection of the past I have written up!
This article documents a true occurrence which I think is quite relevant to the image of the game. It talks about a cultural aspect of it that many adult and competitive players might not think about: The process and reasoning of people modifying the rules due the context of which the game is played, and it is something I believe more players and collectors should think about.
Oh the Memories….
When I was very young, I often watched people playing the Pokemon Trading Card Game in real life at a very independent TCG League, and also did a couple (failed) attempts at playing as well. This was during the days of the Generation I-II Base/Neo Genesis sets, so it was indeed pretty far back, when the Metagame was complete chaos. The rules given to the card game, however, were heavily modified in a way that for the name of this article, I call them ‘Schoolyard League Rules.’
Now, why do I call them this? To explain, imagine elementary school children playing a game of Kickball, without a true moderator in the house. No doubt the young kids probably do not always read the entirety of the rules properly, and thus create assumptions instead about how the rules work. This might include throwing a ball directly at the runner to force an out, the runner capable of running anytime they like, and other modifications like this.
Of course, there are often arguments that take place in terms of who is ‘out’, what is ‘fair’, or which team ‘won’. Since there’s no referee here, chaos can ensue, with no pure certainty in the rules of the game. But In terms of this league, there was actual moderation – but it was run by someone who may have never quite figured out the rules, much like the children in this kickball metaphor. Either that, or the moderator decided to shape the rules according to how the kids reacted to playing the game. It’s probably a mixture of both, as you will read about.
The Mods to the Rules
Note how these modifications could easily be added into modern times.
Theme Deck Layout
In the league, the Moderator, as an intro to new kids becoming members, gave each kid a prepackaged paper playmat kit, which on one side of the paper playmat was a template to building your own deck. It recommended you have the same parameters as a theme deck at that time: 28 energy cards, 11 trainer cards, and 21 Pokemon. The Pokemon chains were of 1-2 types (3 if you add colorless Pokemon), divided into pyramid evolution and basic pokemon chains, just like how theme decks at those times were created.
This is where the League Mod was really strict about in deck construction: Every deck was required to mimic this distribution template! The assumption was that every commercial theme deck consistently followed the template all the time, and it was what the league showed children the first time. The mod turned these attributes into rules for the children, even though that in the official rules, as long as you have a basic Pokemon in your deck, you can mix and match in any way the player liked. The kids seemed fine to embrace this requirement of the mod. Quite curious, isn’t it?
One Energy Attachment per turn… Per Pokemon!
From the rule that each deck required this very strict template, there was one part that seemed… odd, in the eyes of the moderator. 28 energy cards required in a deck is quite a lot to bear, and according to the official rulebook, you could only attach one energy card to a Pokemon per turn. In that regard, with everyone’s decks so stacked up with energy, the mod let assumptions of the rules take over: In this leagues rules, you could attach one energy card to each of your Pokemon you had in play per turn.
It seemed logical to the League mod, given how it would feel like a slow slug-fest of a game to the eyes of the children. Why impose 28 energy cards in each deck if you could only play one energy per turn? The slippery slope of assumptions go hand in hand in this league!
“x” = “+”
Let’s just say this: The moderator must have _hated_ coin flips. The main complaints were about how the coin was flipped, whether if it was that in the air, the coin never flipped, or the coin just kept avoiding the playmat all the time. Children at the league whined a lot about this, and coins kept getting reflipped so frequently, even if many of the flips were actually sound. Somehow, many attacks that required coin flips to determine damage so often felt painful to do, as from the wording ‘this attack does N damage times the number of heads’ implies, if all are tails, this means ‘N times 0’ – the attack does zero damage.
Now, many elementary school children are still trying learn multiplication, and the Mod probably knew how “times” worked. But just to save the hassle, the Mod decided to add preliminary damage with the flippy ‘times’ attack. For instance, an attack that ‘does 20 damage times the number of heads’ has 20 preliminary damage first. It’s thus read more like ’20 damage plus 20 more damage for each heads”.
Just to not confuse people, the Mod decided to make the meaning consistent, in that all numbers with the multiplication symbol included preliminary damage as well. This ended up making many very weak cards incredibly powerful. Think of if this Fighting-Type Golurk from Ancient Origins had been played with this type of rule in tact (and with the other rules too!)
Colorless Energy Means “Any Energy”
This debacle of a rule was semantically messed up: The way the moderator interpreted the colorless symbol on the card, you could attach any type of energy to fulfill the symbol’s attack cost. The colorless symbol meant “any energy” could be applied, as read from from the rulebook by the moderator. This part is indeed true, even in modern times. However, the application of the wording “any energy” was applied verbally to those notorious colorless special energies at the the time, void of what the actual colorless symbol meant.
In other words, those colorless special energies ended up being the equivalent of rainbow energy in decks, with various effects as printed on the card. Just imagine: Double Colorless Energy were literally “double rainbow energy” in the league!
Fortunately, there was another misread of the rules: Special energies meant you could have only four of them in a deck. The rule was misinterpreted as you could only have four special energy cards in your deck, total. Given that you must have a total of 28 energy, they weren’t overly powering a match like they are these days – but they were indeed quite special if you drew them.
Mysterious Fossils counted as Pokemon – even in your Starting Hand!
This rule was really screwy: There were trainer cards in the olden days that played much like a modern day trading card known as the Robo Substitute Team Flare Gear. One was the Poke-Doll: It had but 10 HP, and just like the Robo Substitute, you could play it on your bench as a basic pokemon. The other one was the Mysterious Fossil, which was a clone of the Pokedoll, but the difference was that it could evolve into a pokemon.
The way the words were interpreted on the card, the Moderator completely ignored the order of operations. The true ruling of the Fossil was supposed to be that it counts as a basic Pokemon only after you put it on your bench. However the Mod overly targeted the “Basic Pokemon” attribute – and if it was the only “Pokemon” in your hand, you had to play it!
No doubt people played the card, if only to get out Aerodactyl, which back then had a Pokemon Power that could totally lock out all evolution cards from being played – Just like Archeops in modern times. Sadly, those players were also common donk victims in the league as well. (Remember that players could attack first turn back then.) But for the trouble, the Mod gave the fossil the ability to do 10 damage as an attack – it felt strange for a card like this to be doing absolutely nothing anyways.
Context is Important…
I’m not sure what happened to the league, as my family soon moved away from the area. But I know that the fad of the card game started fading out post generation II, and in other locations, other card games like Magic the Gathering and Yu-Gi-Oh dominated every league I witnessed throughout my childhood. I, too lost interest in TCG’s in general at those times – it was only until around the Phantom Forces Expansion when I learned about the Official Online Card Game app, and curiously started playing again.
Now, there were probably other modified rules in this old league, yet these ones listed above were the most vivid ones that I recalled. Some of these you may think are incredibly hilarious, and made you wonder, “Is this League Moderator absolutely crazy?!” Well, times were different back then, as well as the design of the TCG, so I’ll bet there were loads of different modified rules created upon the newly developing game. I theorize this from the context of the time and the design of the card game itself:
Trainer Cards were Extremely Overpowered
Imagine playing a modern day Supporter Cards, which you can only play one of them per turn, in the days when there was no such thing as a “Supporter” – That is, if you played Supporters like they were Item Cards, which you can play as many as you’d like on your turn. That was indeed how strong cards like Gust of Wind, Energy Removal, and Professor Oak all were back then.
It’s quite interesting, though, how Wizards of the Coast portrayed a good deck to beginners as having only 11 of these cards, yet did not set a limit to how many you could play in a deck. Did they ever play test this game before releasing it?! Perhaps the moderator also may have known how extremely strong trainers were, and wondered the same thing. In modern times, it would be absolutely broken to play rules in modern times where Supporters are Items!
When official rules create an extremely broken Metagame, or potentially create one, it’s only natural that people will change them. Look at the mainline Pokemon Video Games nowadays: There are loads of unofficial rules and regulations because many Pokemon players find the official Metagame hosted by the Pokemon Company International to be… rather unhealthy, to say the least.
Children Create their Own Rules by Habit – and by Misreading Them
In essence, kids are innovators by instinct. Recall the kickball analogy at the start of the article. If left alone without guidance of a skilled moderator, assumptions about how to properly play the game come up out of nowhere. This happens in most types of games, but especially in games that involve reading rulebook text.
Think: Children around ages 6-11 or so are still learning how to read in the United States, and also learning how to think in terms of logic. The Pokemon TCG is quite a complex game in one sense in that, to understand the way all the rules work, you must know how to read the text of the cards properly, to know the order of operations of which the text tell you what you can and cannot do, and to follow them as strictly as utter possible.
Take the Mysterious Fossil mod I listed: It counts as a basic pokemon, right? But the order of operations is that you must _play_ the card from your hand first before it becomes a basic pokemon. This fail in logic happens because the reader did not take this abstract order into account, and in a strict manner. Also take the energy card ruling: The reader looked at the rules saying you could attach one energy card to a pokemon once per turn. The reader did not read the line strictly enough, and made an extra assumption, which was you could do this on a per-Pokemon basis. Assumptions are BAD when you read strict game rules like this!
Now you may think, “Hey! Was this moderator a young child or something?!” Well, no, it was an adult. But who knows, maybe the mod didn’t think the rules logically enough. But another thing could be that the children around the mod influenced the illogical reading of the rules to happen. From this, you might say, “Then this moderator did a horrible job moderating, letting the children control part of the rules, right?”
Well… Yeah, you just might be correct on that!
But there’s another piece of context that might explain why this happened:
Most Children liked Collecting the cards more than Playing Them
This is definitely worth considering: It was the Pokemon artwork that sold the cards back then, not the game. Few at my league bragged that they were good at the game. Instead, many bragged that they had a First-Edition Holographic Japanese Charizard in mint condition! (It was always called ‘holographic!’ xD) More so, probably no more than half of them actually played even one game at the league – the place was mainly a playground for the kids to show off their collection and trade their most valuable cards to each other.
In such, what is a league moderator to do? Competitiveness is nonexistent if the card keepers are divided between those who are somewhat serious enough and those who are casual and hardly even tried to play the game. And with the worrisome Metagame and some confusing card descriptions and rules… Making the game attractive can involve modifying the rules in a way that children would be willing to play them – and in this case, the rules may have reflected the many modifications children created outside of the league.
Social Networking was close to Nonexistent back then
I think this one area is the biggest reason why there might be less rule modifying now than the past: Back then, there wasn’t much communication between the leagues across the cities, unless if there was a city-wide Pokemon TCG tournament that brought the individual leagues together… Which I rarely ever saw people at this old league ever attend. There also weren’t many places Online that linked the game based realm between the players, as most fan sites I remember back then looked at the cards as collectors items, and less as a ‘game’ to play.
Isolation does have a large effect on societies, in that they can undertake different cultures and traditions – and I’ll bet different game modifications. Think of the Internet back in 1998-2001: No Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, MySpace or Reddit existed. The place wasn’t yet a huge commodity like it is nowadays, and computing power was still kind of low. With the lack of human networking that actually involved playing the game, combined with the casualness of the player base, I believe variations could have potentially come about across the world.
But now, when we have a true card game emulator that is advertised on the packs, and a huge amount of networking and information Online on how to actually play officially, different rules start to fade away. Everyone starts to embrace the ‘real rules,’ due to how we now can play and clearly communicate with each other thousands of kilometers away. The networking between players to “play this way” is huge when it comes to universalizing the rules.
As you can see, this is but my reflection of the old days of modifications I witnessed on the TCG, as well as my opinions and theories on why this happens. Do I wish for these past rules to be enforced upon the TCG today? Not really, but there are times that I wish there were more creative rule modifications that, for the most part were sane and justified, much like how sites like Smogon do for the video games.
Bear with me: I do appreciate actually playing by the actual rules quite a lot – and truthfully, it’s the biggest reason why I started loving to play this game again! And yet I do find many things in the game that do irk me now and then, as well as confusing rules enforced on the online emulator. I wish the art of modification was revived back into the game somehow, though for the good of the game itself rather than just to spite the official rules.
Thank you all for reading!