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Since the first cards were published in 1996, the Pokémon Trading Card Game has grown to become one of the most successful and popular trading card games in the world.
The latest set, Sword & Shield, was released in English in February of this year and contains over 200 new cards for Trainers to supplement their decks. While the new Sword & Shield cards contain a whole host of new mechanics, card styles, and Pokémon to do battle with, they still pay homage to and build upon the legacy of the very first batch of cards.
The first Pokémon cards included the Base Set (102 cards), the Jungle expansion (64 cards), and the Fossil expansion (62 cards). Together, those 228 cards make up the very first generation of the Pokémon Trading Card Game. This is the collection of cards that many players learned to love in the ‘90s and continue to love today.
Retro Pokémon cards are still available through many retailers like eBay and plenty of trainers still love to play this older version of the game. With that in mind, we decided to catalogue and rank the 15 best Pokémon cards from the original three sets. These rankings are in terms of performance and not card value. So while cards like Pikachu and Charizard may still be worth a lot of money and are excellent to collect, they are not always the best cards to play with.
That doesn’t mean you won’t see one or two of the heavy hitters on the list. In fact, let’s start with a familiar face…
Yes, he’s a big ol’ lumbering, inefficient lug. Yes, he’s rare and expensive to obtain. Yes, he will burn through energy like an Olympic swimmer after a 12,000 calorie meal. But at the same time, there is simply not a more powerful Pokémon in the first few sets than Charizard. Both his 120 HP and 100 attack power are the class of the format. His Pokémon Power isn’t great and he’s more susceptible to energy removal than just about anyone else. Still, there are few greater feelings in life than trotting out a Charizard with multiple extra energies attached and knowing the next few turns are going to be nothing but pure, fiery destruction.
14. Pokémon Breeder
Pokémon Breeder is perhaps the most limited card on this list. In terms of competitive play, it has but one use: turn Squirtle into Blastoise. Thankfully, that function is so important in a Blastoise-centric Rain Dance deck that Pokémon Breeder has its spot. Breeder eliminates the need to include two to four useless Wartortles (or many other equally useless middle-stage evolutions) in your deck. And since it’s a Trainer card, it can be recovered from the discard pile via Item Finder. A card named Pokémon Breeder turned up in the 2017 set, Shining Legends, but had a different effect. Rare Candy is the Sword & Shield equivalent.
Never has there been a more lovable tank in all of Pokémon than our old pal Chansey. Some strategies in the original Pokémon TCG require a significant level of stalling – whether it be to power up one’s own Pokémon or to ensure that the opponent overdraws their own deck and loses the game. Chansey and her hefty 120 HP (the highest of any basic Poke) simply can’t be beat for these purposes. Sure, four energy for a highly punitive attack isn’t great but you’re never going to have to worry about using it. You’re stalling! A similar Chansey card was published in 2019’s Hidden Fates set.
12. Super Energy Removal
Of all the trainer cards that require a sacrifice on the user’s part, Super Energy Removal is certainly the best. Yes, no one wants to discard one of their own hard-earned energies. But the outcome is too beneficial to ignore. Losing two energy cards is just devastating to any opposing player’s tempo. Pokémon TCG games rely on well thought-out plans and there is no better way to disrupt those plans than by removing your opponent’s fuel. Fun fact, this card was so devastating, it had to be replaced by “Super Energy Removal 2” in Japan.
Mewtwo is inarguably the most powerful Pokémon from the first generation – or at least that’s what Pokémon: The First Movie proposes. So then why is his first-gen Pokemon card so puny? 60 HP and a first attack with a base of 10 (before some additions) is not befitting of Nintendo’s genetically engineered monstrosity. What is fitting for Mewtow, however, is that second attack. Barrier can bring a game to an absolute grinding halt. As long as your opponent can’t deliver damage, he or she cannot win. And that opens up the door for any other shenanigans you’d like to pull.
10. Magmar (Fossil)
Coming along relatively late into the game for the first generation of Pokémon cards, Magmar (of the Fossil set) has never really gotten the respect he deserves. Sure, he’s not as good as a certain powerful trio crucial to the Haymaker deck archetype (more on them later…obviously), but he is way closer than he has any right to be. 70 HP is great for a basic Pokémon. Even better are his not one, but two useful attacks, with the second being particularly deadly. Poison? In a fire Pokémon? That’s sublime stuff.
9. Lickitung (Jungle)
Here’s another curveball for you. Lickitung was never highly thought of during his initial run in the card game. Sure, his 90 HP is great for a Basic Pokémon but his attacks aren’t overwhelming enough to justify including him over a Chansey. But as YouTuber JWittz recently discovered, Lickitung’s attacks are more than enough to take down retro Pokémon’s most famous deck archetype: Haymaker. Lickitung’s high HP combined with the chance to both Paralyze and Confuse opposing Pokémon make him the Haymaker antidote. Not only that, but he’s plenty versatile enough to justify his high retreat cost. Why would you want to retreat Lickitung when he’s making your opponent’s life a living hell?
In every card game with a big enough playbase, a certain meta of successful deck archetypes usually pops up. One of those archetypes in retro Pokémon is “Rain Dance,” so named for Blastoise’s absolutely insane Pokémon Power ability. Make no mistake, Blastoise is a beast on his own. 100 HP and a 40 attack that can be powered up via energy are incredibly useful. But that Pokémon Power makes the card borderline unfair. Move as many water energies from one Pokémon to another as often as you’d like during your turn before you attack. The applications of this are endless. One can consolidate all their energy onto Blastoise for one enormous Hydro Pump – or even rescue energy destined for the discard pile before another active Pokémon is knocked out. In Pokémon TCG: Sword & Shield, Frosmoth has a similar Power called “Ice Dance.”
7. Mr. Mime (Jungle)
Before Mr. Mime’s jester-shoed feet lie the graves of many empires. Mr. Mime was put on Earth for one purpose and one purpose only: to exploit the hubris of the powerful. Mr. Mime is of course extremely puny in terms of HP and attack. But his Pokémon Power, “Invisible Wall,” makes him one of the game’s all-time greatest irritants. Unless Mr. Mime is affected by a special condition, no attack that does 30 or more damage can touch him. Imagine a fully powered Charizard sent out to confront Mr. Mime only to discover it must retreat. That’s useful in any deck strategy.
6. Energy Removal
Energy Removal is the kind of overpowered card that gets added to a card game early on its life – before the creators realize the monster that they’ve created. Energy Removal simply…removes energy. No frills beyond that. And it doesn’t need them. Losing a hard-earned energy at any point in the game is devastating. Not including at least three energy removals in any retro deck is unthinkable.
Here we go! And now we’ve arrived to the collection of cards we’ve all been waiting for. One deck archetype in retro Pokémon towers over the rest. We’re referring to Haymaker, of course. Haymaker simply collected the three basic Pokémon with reasonable 70 HP and cheap, effective attacks and unleashed them upon the world together in a flurry of…well, haymakers. Hitmonchan is likely the worst of the three Pokémon used in Haymaker by just a smidge. The need for two fighting energy makes him less versatile than his two counterparts. A new Hitmonchan is in Sword & Shield with an inflated attack and HP but the competitive Pokémon meta may have passed him by.
Next up is Electabuzz. ‘Buzz boasts basically the same stats as Hitmonchan but makes everything a little cheaper with only a small downside. It’s truly hard to beat 30 damage with the potential for more for only two total energy. Sure, Electabuzz could hurt himself in the attempt but his upsides make him a worthy Haymaker inclusion.
3. Scyther (Jungle)
Scyther is the best of the Haymaker bros by a very slim margin. The fact that his main attack requires all colorless energy makes him extremely versatile and useful. He can be inserted into just about any deck and deliver 30 damage turn after turn. Not only that, but he is the only one of the main Haymaker trio not to have any retreat cost. Even his resistance to fighting types is tremendously helpful as it inoculates him against other Haymakers. And his weakness is the rare fire type as well. But really, however you choose to rank Hitmonchan/Scyther/Electabuzz is fine. All three are inseparable as the best Pokémon that the early version of this game had to offer. Still, there are two non-Pokémon even better.
Players of other non-Pokémon trading card games know that there is one fundamental truth to the format: card draw is hard to come by. Drawing cards is the engine through which players play any card game, and game designers don’t want to make the act too easy, lest it throw off the balance of power in any given game. Pokémon apparently had no such concerns. Bill lets you draw two cards. Simple, elegant, and hilariously powerful. There are no drawbacks whatsoever. Whenever you have Bill in hand and on your turn, you can play him to get two cards. Try explaining the simplicity of that to a Magic: The Gathering player who has to pay two to three mana for a similar effect. In Sword & Shield, the Trainer “Hop” allows you to draw three cards, but as a Supporter card can only be played once per turn.
1. Professor Oak
The only thing better than drawing one card is drawing seven. Yes. Seven…SEVEN…S-E-V-E-N. Granted, Professor Oak comes along with the stipulation that you must discard your hand first. But if you play your cards right (literally), you can essentially pull off a six-card draw for the price of one Trainer. And even if you already have a few cards in hand, playing Oak at the right time will almost always change the entire complexion of your game. Professor Oak isn’t just the best card from Pokemon’s base set, it might be among the best cards ever printed. And the best part is that Oak’s legacy lives on in the many new “Professor” cards in modern Pokemon sets. Professor’s Research in Sword & Shield has the exact same effect, but like “Hop” is a Supporter card, limiting its use to one turn. Of course, with either Oak or Research, that shouldn’t be a problem.