That Time They Banned an Unreleased Pokémon Card

Jun 4, 2021 23:30 · 4560 words · 22 minute read

So, throughout the entire 24 year history of the Pokémon Trading Card Game, out of the over 9000 cards released, only 35 cards have ever been banned from competitive play.

00:12 - And, of those, only 25 are still banned. That’s surprisingly low.

00:18 - Like, Yu-Gi-Oh, which launched after Pokémon, currently has 101 cards in it’s forbidden list.

00:25 - Magic the Gathering, in it’s 27 years, currently has 53 cards in it’s Modern format, and 102 cards banned in it’s more expansive Legacy format tournament list.

00:36 - With any trading card game, there’s bound to be some cards that are more powerful than intended, but it’s clear there’s a bit more restriction to what effects Pokémon cards are given.

00:47 - So, how powerful does a Pokémon card have to be in order to be banned? How much game breaking power does a Pokémon card need to posses in order to be removed from competitive play before it’s even released? Well, in September 2000, right in the middle of a worldwide Pokémon craze, fueled by Nintendo’s monolithic marketing push, Wizards of the Coast was about to show us.

01:10 - This is a story about a Pokémon card that was banned before it was even released.

01:35 - You might remember Pokemania. [NEWS FOOTAGE] Pokémon is now in full mania.

01:39 - - Global marketing phenomenon. Pokémon the Movie joins Pokémon the videogame - Pokemons and Jigglypuff daddies - And this is gonna be one of the hottest selling toys for the holidays - [NARRATION] For a single moment in the late 90s, after a fast flash of months of marketing and a concept really well-geared towards playground conversations, suddenly, everyone in the world was focused on just one thing: these silly little creatures called Pokémon.

02:05 - Pokémon was everywhere. and, news stations loved to point that out, which only bolstered it’s popularity.

02:12 - It seemed, though, that throughout the entire conversation was one thought: Pokémon was a fad.

02:21 - But North American audiences didn’t see the Japanese side of the craze.

02:26 - See, in 1998, Game Freak and Nintendo had a hit on their hands.

02:31 - Two years ago, after the release of Game Freak’s nearly studio-ending role playing game, Pocket Monsters Red and Pocket Monsters Green, a steady boil of popularity produced a juggernaut of a household name at least in Japan.

02:44 - Up to this point, most Japanese media didn’t get localized to the US, so something had to be really big in order to make it through that step.

02:52 - And, fortunately for Game Freak, Pokémon was really, really big.

02:57 - Nintendo, at this point, were the masters of introducing things to the western market.

03:02 - They essentially revived the US videogame market with the NES, and it just recently sold the Gameboy simply on the nature of it having Tetris.

03:11 - But, Pokémon was different. Pokémon was cute and had simple greyscale graphics, and North American audiences were busy gawking at GoldenEye and Tomb Raider and Street Fighter.

03:22 - And Pokémon was long, too- it was an RPG, a genre that never quite landed, culturally, in the US, at least on the scale that it did in Japan.

03:31 - But Pokemon was so big in Japan, it would be stupid not to at least try.

03:36 - So for a while, they did- they started talking about how they could alter it to better resonate with western markets.

03:42 - they thought, “maybe if it was like baseball, the kids in the US would like it!” Why is - why is he like that? What was that voice? “maybe if it was like baseball, the kids in the US would like it! Maybe if the Pokémon were less cute, more graffiti-like? ” But it was too big - splintering Pokémon wasn’t going to work.

04:03 - it wasn’t just a game at this point, it was a massive franchise.

04:07 - They stumbled into the phenomenon organically in Japan.

04:11 - And now, they had to manufacture it. In fall of 1998, Pokemon began the rollout of a massive marketing campaign: so, they planned to release the anime first, figuring that kids who liked the long nature of stories in cartoons would then be eased into the depth of the games.

04:31 - So, then, three weeks later, the games would come out, and they’d focus mainly on the collectability of Pokémon.

04:38 - Presumably figuring that baseball cards did pretty well in the US.

04:43 - But a cartoon series and a video game does not a phenomenon make.

04:47 - They needed more. They needed a lot more.

04:49 - So, they teamed with Nintendo of America’s PR company, and armed with a marketing budget 4 times as large as past games, Pokémon was about to be thrust into the daily lives of every American living in the turn of the century.

05:04 - Pokémon figures and Pokémon lollipops. Pokemon on school book covers and KFC buckets and lunchables, they even convinced the city of Topeka, Kansas to rename their town Topikachu, where they just… dropped Pikachu plushies from the sky.

05:24 - Within the wild scramble of marketing and cross promotion, Nintendo worked with creators of Magic the Gathering to bring the Pokémon Trading Card Game to the US.

05:34 - It latched on, fast. Playgrounds turned into mini wallstreets for trading, and new shipments of Pokémon cards were treated like museum artifacts.

05:44 - And these were not just some digital simulacrum of a Pokémon like it was in the games.

05:50 - These were an honest to god physical, collectible Pokémon, resonating directly with that “gotta catch em all” mentality.

05:57 - And you could play it at school, where you couldn’t bring your gameboy.

06:01 - Or for kids who couldn’t convince their parents to buy a gameboy and buy a copy of Pokémon, a booster pack of cards was way cheaper.

06:09 - Or in some cases, they’d just give ‘em to you.

06:13 - Nintendo knows the power of cross promotion, SUPER SMAAASH BROTHERS So Nintendo began producing a bunch of different Promotional cards, to be distributed alongside various different events and merchandise.

06:27 - And these were fully playable and tradable cards, sometimes even being somewhat competitively viable.

06:34 - Alongside every movie release, every DVD release of those movies, and at Pokémon leagues from 1999-2002, Wizards of the Coast would include these Black Star Promo cards.

06:44 - All told, Wizards of the Coast produced 53 different promotional cards in various marketing efforts with Nintendo.

06:52 - Of of these 53 cards, though, one stands out.

06:59 - One of those 53 cards was banned before it even released.

07:10 - The knowledgeable among you might have seen the title of this video and remembered Ancient Mew, which was a card which was created for distribution alongside ticket purchases to The Power Of One.

07:23 - Ancient mew is printed in some sort of, like, runic language, so it stands out pretty quickly among the sea of “rare” cards, you might have even thought this video might be about Ancient Mew, since it’s written about so often on the internet.

07:36 - but, Ancient Mew was banned alongside it’s release, not before it was released, and has since had a re-print which makes it entirely tournament legal in Japan.

07:50 - The card that I’m talking about, The card that was banned before it was released, The only black star promo card to ever get banned, That card is this card.

08:11 - It’s pretty unassuming, featuring art of a Pikachu sitting in front of a birthday cake and a present, with some holofoil effects surrounding it.

08:20 - It’s only move does just 30 damage, and it’s got a pretty strange name.

08:25 - or, as it’s known colloquially, Birthday Pikachu.

08:29 - But why ban this card? You might be like me - when I was a kid, I didn’t really read the rules, so I just assumed it was like the games - you put out a Pokémon, and then you take turns using moves until you’ve defeated all 6 Pokémon, and, the comments on the official tutorial video makes me think it might not just be me.

08:51 - So, I wanna take a minute to get everyone on the same page regarding the most basic, relevant rules of the game.

09:01 - The Pokémon Trading Card Game is a turn based, competitive strategy game for two players.

09:08 - Two players place Pokémon out onto the field, and play energy cards to power moves, and trainer cards to add support effects.

09:16 - Each player has up to 6 Pokémon in play - 5 which sit in the bench, and one which is the active Pokémon.

09:22 - The active Pokémon is able to use moves, given that it has the right number and type of energy.

09:28 - Each player has a deck of 60 cards. Players take turns playing cards and using moves, to damage the other Pokémon on the field.

09:36 - Pokémon have health, indicated on the top right corner, and when they gain enough damage to equal or surpass that number, they are knocked out.

09:43 - A Pokémon from the bench then replaces that Pokémon, and the trainer who knocked out the Pokémon is then able to take one of 6 of their prize cards.

09:52 - There are 3 conditions to win: You can win by picking up all of your prize cards, You can win if your opponent is out of playable Pokémon or if your opponent is out of drawable cards.

10:04 - And thats all there is to the game itself. There’s a bit more to it than that, but that should give you everything you need to know for the sake of keeping up with this video.

10:12 - But there is some more context surrounding the game itself - bear with me, this’ll be quick.

10:20 - In order to keep things interesting, trading card games have to keep releasing newer, fancier cards with new and interesting uses.

10:27 - Pokémon releases cards in sets, each containing Pokémon cards, trainer cards and energies.

10:32 - There was the base set in 1996 in Japan, and since then they’ve released over 80 different sets, each with their own unique themes, mechanics, and more complex trainer card effects, and with each release saw more and more cards adding to the growing list of cards that could theoretically be played.

10:51 - For a while, Media Factory, the company behind publishing the trading card game in Japan felt it was ok for the game to let em pile up.

10:59 - But in the US, with Wizards of the Coast at the helm, they had a bit of a pedigree to maintain.

11:04 - At this point, they had years of history running tournaments and maintaining balance between hundreds of cards.

11:10 - So, naturally, they had a pretty specific idea of how to extend that to the Pokémon Trading Card Game.

11:16 - But Media Factory refused to let Wizards of the Coast make any changes to card text or pass out any bans to any cards.

11:23 - To them, Pokémon was a game chiefly for kids, and administrating and explaining bans would have been difficult.

11:29 - By 2001, it started to get too much. The metagame became completely dominated by decks containing functionally only trainer cards and very few Pokémon.

11:40 - WOTC’s strategies to maintain a viable tournament scene were restricted by Media Factory’s wishes for the game, so they came up with a loophole.

11:48 - They needed to remove certain trainer cards from the game without the ability to ban them directly, so they took the nuclear approach of removing entire sets.

11:57 - Adopting from one of their Magic the Gathering tournament variations, they introduced the Modified format.

12:02 - The idea being that they’d only allow the most recent few sets in play, with plans to continuously rotate them out.

12:10 - The effect here was twofold - not only did it give them control over the metagame, it also made deckbuilding a lot easier, as players only had to plan to encounter the most recent few sets of cards.

12:19 - It meant that phases of mechanics could come and go.

12:22 - In fact, this format worked so well that it would actually end up becoming the standard format today.

12:27 - But that didn’t fix everything. There was still one card that worried them.

12:33 - There was still one card that, if left unchecked would have wreaked havoc on the competitive scene.

12:39 - That card? Sneasel. Oh yeah sorry, its Sneasel - yeah it’s Sneasel, not - yeah I realize that it sounded like I was leading - yeah, it’s Sneasel.

12:51 - Neo Genesis Sneasel, which was from a set allowed in the first rotation, was remarkably powerful.

12:57 - Appearing in roughly every tournament deck at the time, it was getting to be a problem.

13:01 - It comes down to Beat Up, which is a 2 dark energy move that has you flip a coin for each of your Pokémon in play, and count the number of heads.

13:09 - Then, multiply that by 20. That’s how much damage it does.

13:14 - That, combined with the fact that Sneasel was an unevolved Pokémon meant that as soon as turn 2, Sneasel could put out an average of 80 damage per turn - 140 at max output.

13:25 - For reference, the next strongest 2-energy move at the time was Electabuzz’s Thunderpunch, dealing only 35 damage on average.

13:33 - The highest HP on a Pokémon at this point was 120, which wouldn’t be surpassed until 2003, when ex Pokémon were introduced, intended to be extra powerful versions of already existing Pokémon, rewarding a KO with two prize cards instead of one.

13:50 - Ironically, Sneasel was re-introduced as one of these extremely powerful cards, and even then they still nerfed Beat Up.

13:58 - So, in these very specific circumstances, Media Factory finally allowed Wizards of the Coast to ban one card.

14:05 - Since then, there have been 34 other cards which received such a ruling, and now you might see why that number is so low.

14:12 - In the early days they were incredibly slow to ban cards - not for a lack of trying.

14:16 - Now, mainly, it’s to prevent certain combos from happening - that specific case where a new card and an old card combine in an unexpected way.

14:24 - There was a sweep of 9 cards banned all at once because they caused too much disruption to an opponent’s hand, something the modern game design team decided didn’t make for fun or creative gameplay.

14:34 - Blaine’s Quiz Show was banned because it required the opponent to correctly guess a pokemon based on one of it’s moves - which would be practically impossible to play between languages.

14:44 - Tropical Beach was given out to certain finalists in Worlds 2011 and 2012, meaning it’s pretty relatively rare - and since it’s competitively viable, the fact that it’s rare meant essentially locking playstyles behind a really high cost barrier.

14:59 - That’s all well and good, but here’s the thing: Birthday Pikachu was the first numbered card ever banned.

15:05 - Actually, Birthday Pikachu was banned before they even started banning cards.

15:10 - Yeah: when Sneasel was banned, during the announcement of the modified format, they actually also announced that both Ancient Mew and Birthday Pikachu would be unplayable, which were both already ruled unplayable.

15:23 - Wizards of the Coast seemingly had a little bit more leeway when it came to announcing promotional cards as unplayable cards.

15:30 - Sneasel, of course, had an incredibly gamebreaking move, but what did Birthday Pikachu have? Birthday Pikachu doesn’t have any abilities or Pokémon powers - it features just a single move.

15:43 - Birthday Surprise. It’s move description is the following: If it’s not your birthday, this attack does 30 damage.

15:50 - If it is your birthday, flip a coin. If heads, this attack does 30 damage plus 50 more damage; if tails, this attack does 30 damage.

15:58 - The logic here is probably obvious. Anyone could just declare today their birthday, and claim the 50 extra damage - at best, that would mean checking an ID every time a player wanted to use this, something WOTC deemed “Unwieldy” So then, hold on - why was ancient mew banned? WOTC never gave an official reason as to why Ancient Mew was banned.

16:22 - On July 13, 2000, in one of their weekly Q&A chats, they said that, yes, actually the card would be playable.

16:29 - And then, by August 25, the card was banned.

16:31 - There seemed to be a lot of discussion over it’s status, but it isn’t a good card at all, so its strange that it posed such a point of contention for the English community.

16:41 - I want to emphasize this a bit here - Ancient Mew was not, by any measure, a good card.

16:47 - It wasn’t competitively viable, and it had an official means for translating and playing the card, *bundled alongside its distribution. * Seriously, look at this - look at how many people were asking questions about it.

17:00 - This relatively weak, fun promotional card practically through a wrench into the competitive scene.

17:06 - There’s one chat where they mention banning the card because it was only meant for fun.

17:11 - Obviously that proved to be too much for the American audiences, so Wizards of The Coast, possibly out of frustration, banned it.

17:18 - So it’s no surprise that Birthday Pikachu, in the almost immediate wake of Ancient Mew, was banned essentially alongside it’s announcement.

17:27 - And so that was it. For, functionally the last time, Pokémon experimented with a non-tournament promotional card.

17:36 - They would later go on to release comically overpowered cards, but those were released as non-regulation sized cards, and in the more modern 2013 era, they’d release some of these more fun cards, but functionally, for the foreseeable future at this point, they’d stop making any cards meant only as a fun thing.

17:55 - Or, for functionally the last time in America.

18:03 - Japan is pretty well known for it’s vending machines.

18:06 - It’s pretty much the first thing tourists make observations about, and its a pretty big part of the culture there - not that vending machines are always trying to sell you something, more that there’s a feeling that there will always be a vending machine if you need one.

18:19 - And in case you didn’t think that far ahead, it’s not just for drinks and snacks - but for toys and meals and clothes and, yes, Pokémon cards.

18:28 - In 1998, before and during the American rollout of Pokémon, Media Factory created a set of cards that were available on sheets through vending machines.

18:38 - They made 3 of these expansion sheets. The first two had 3 cards on each of the 18 sheets each, with cardboard damage indicators and coins in the top right corner.

18:48 - The third set, however, was a bit different.

18:51 - Imagine being in Japan around now, where Pokemania isn’t nearly as tacky as it would be in early 2000s America.

18:58 - What I mean is that they didn’t really have anything to prove over there.

19:02 - They weren’t trying, yet, to make a massive media franchise out of nothing.

19:06 - In that way, you can imagine Game Freak feeling that there’s a bit more room for fun with the Pokémon brand in Japan.

19:12 - And so have fun, they did. The third vending machine card set did away with the damage indicators in the extra space, and instead had some special cards there.

19:23 - Some of those were deck suggestion cards, which is the first and only time anything like these have been produced - each of the 5 themed around a different location from the Gameboy games- More interestingly, there’s the extra rules cards - you’ll notice the specific different card classification in the top bar, these 5 cards are the only ones to have that.

19:44 - These extra rules cards contain adjustments to the base rules of the game - like, this one, which simulates confusion damage the way that it works in the videogames, or this one which reduces the number of prize cards to 4, functionally shortening the game.

19:58 - Or this one, which suggests a best of 3 simultaneous match, which, you didn’t really need a rule card to tell you that you could do? There’s Bill’s PC, which asks you to send in one of 5 Pokémon cards, alongside itself to receive the evolved form of those cards, once again, simulating a mechanic in the videogames.

20:19 - Bill’s PC is categorized as a Pass card, which, if this video is the longest of your exposure to the trading card game, you might not catch how strange that is - there are only 5 card classifications.

20:33 - There are, of course, sub classifications, like, items, which fall underneath the broad classification of a trainer card, but the broad categories I mentioned before, Pokémon cards, Trainer cards and Energy cards contain every other card in the game.

20:48 - Pass cards and Extra Rules cards are entirely separate classifications, and exist only to contain these cards.

20:55 - A couple cards do exist that change some gameplay for specific tournament rule variations, but these were classified as trainer cards and included inside decks.

21:05 - Oh, and then there were these cards. What you’re seeing right now are officially released, regulation size, real Pokémon cards.

21:15 - Each of them are hand-drawn, and some of them aren’t even categorically cards - but they’re officially part of the vending machine expansion set, so they’re cards in that sense! Here’s the most normal of them, at the very least actually being categorizable as a Pokémon card.

21:32 - The two moves here are Greetings, which lists the damage as “about 10” and Fake Sleep, which suggests that you pretend to be asleep, only to then surprise your opponent by waking up.

21:44 - This one’s a joke card depicting some art of a machine in the Pokémon card factory.

21:49 - The next one here is a hand drawn trainer card, Imakuni’s Nasty Plot, which features uh, this.

21:57 - Now, the whole story of Imakuni will have to wait for a future video COUGH COUGH but, in short, he’s a musician who’s worked on a lot of the music for the Pokémon anime, and was a big player in promoting the trading card game.

22:11 - He is eccentric and he is incredible. He’s got this costume that he’s always seen in, which I can only describe as a news channel’s best attempt at a Pokémon.

22:21 - But back to his nasty plot card - the text on this card reads, When you play this card, you may remove damage counters when your opponent isn’t looking.

22:29 - And no matter what they ask, pretend you don’t know about it.

22:32 - And the cards just get more and more wild from here.

22:35 - Imakuni’s PC is a parody of Bills PC, which I’ll remind you, also was introduced in this expansion - meaning that, 1, you might see this card first, and 2, Imakuni’s PC is the only other card classified as a Pass Card.

22:51 - Imakuni’s Corner is just a card which contains a note from Imakuni saying “hi everyone, Pokémon cards are cool” and defending his trainer card from a previous promotion which simply confuses your own Pokémon, and Lose. which is just Imakuni, in a hole, insisting that maybe losing isn’t so bad after all.

23:11 - These vending machine cards were only released in Japan.

23:15 - People were, surprisingly eager to get their hands on them, but really they just wanted the Pokémon contained on the rest of the expansion sheets.

23:21 - And they did end up getting some of them, released in various promotional events and whatnot, but none of these expansion 3 cards got released at all.

23:30 - Pretty soon after this, Wizards of the Coast lost their distribution rights to The Pokémon Company And since then, the international look of Pokemon was set, and the silliness present in Japan stayed in Japan.

23:42 - Birthday Pikachu, then, stands tall in the history of pokemon, being one of the only cards released for fun in america, while also sitting at the cross section of a huge number of card oddity venn diagram circles.

23:55 - I didn’t even mention the fact that it’s one of only two cards banned from the Unlimited format.

24:01 - Imagine what it would have been like if Pokémon was more unapologetically Japanese - American games journalism narratives at this point was a lot of “look at this game, its weird because its from Japan” - and seeing that, the Pokémon Company, and by extension, Nintendo decided that perhaps, there was no room for silly outside of Japan.

24:21 - The general cultural acceptance of absurdity is not really a topic in scope for this video but it’s pretty safe to say that, for Nintendo’s initial marketing goal of global domination, keeping absurd out of the international Pokémon scene was kind of required.

24:35 - But this doesn’t just stay with Pokemon - once Nintendo started really proving that North American audiences reacted better, generally, to things which beg you to take them seriously, they started polishing silly out of their entire international release scene.

24:50 - It’s gotten better in recent years, but even during the last Nintendo Direct, while we were getting DC Superhero Girls, Japanese audiences were getting a light summer vacation game.

25:01 - Or like. Mother 3? boy, I hope that line ages poorly.

25:08 - Nintendo has time and time again proven that they think that there’s no room for nonsense outside of Japan - Outside of some core fans, of course, but cult classics don’t really satisfy investors.

25:19 - No, Nintendo is looking to make something the casual observer might look at from the outside and say, “I wonder what this is about. ” They’re looking for something with more general appeal.

25:32 - They’re looking for a Pokemania. Hey, thanks so much for watching the video! If you wanna join the list of faces scrolling by on your screen, you can subscribe to me on Twitch, or join me on Patreon, where you’ll also be able to find a whole bunch of bonus features, including for this video! how are you supposed to end a video, do you just.