The majority of Pokémon cards are primarily functional. Designed to be played in the table-top game, the small illustration on a card helps to distinguish it, with far more space given to the details of its attacks, HP, restrictions, and retreat costs. Then there are the special cards, the variants, alt-arts, secret rares, golds, rainbows, galleries… These are the ones the collectors are after. But every so often, things go a step further: there are cards that are released that together will tell a story, and in this department, thee franchise has recently really upped its game.
We’ve compiled together the best cards that tell stories in the Pokémon TCG, from the oldest we could find, to the most recent. The entry requirements are series of at least two cards, rather than individual cards that have a particularly detailed image. There are unquestionably dozens of gloriously detailed single cards that suggest entire little plotlines within their art, but that’s not what we’re looking for here. This is all about a run of cards that together advance a tale.
Tepig, Pignite & Emboar Cards
The earliest examples that we’re aware of, when the Pokémon TCG started including narrative chains of artwork, were in 2013’s Black & White era, specifically in the Legendary Treasures set. And it burst out with a whole bunch of them, four different groups in the one set.
A Charmeleon and Swablu pairing shows the latter accidentally getting its wing scorched on the Charmeleon’s tail, before then in the second card flying off in indignance. Another double has two Natu huddling together for warmth in the snow, with a Bouffalant barely visible in the background. Then in the Bouffalant’s card, the two Natu are snugly nestled in the woolly hair on top of the Bouffalant’s head.
But the set also featured two three-parters, and there they ones we’re highlighting here. This first one depicts the three evolutionary stages of Tepig, and the family it lives with. They’re family photographs, showing a mum and dad with their son, holding the young Tepig. In the second card, you have the boy approaching teenage years and a younger sister now in the family, the family all around their Pignite. Then third card, crowding around an enormous Emboar, are the original mum and dad and their adult daughter. On the other side the original son alongside his partner and their own kid.
Trubbish, Phione & Empoleon Cards
The other Legendary Treasures three-parter is a much more subtle affair, spread across three fantastically disparate cards. And best of all, it highlights that most unloved of Pokémon, Trubbish.
Separately, you might never realise any of the cards are part of a pictorial set, but together there’s a lovely story being told! Poor ol’ Trubbish’s card sees him dumped in a garbage heap, Wingulls screeching overhead, wailing at the sky in despair. But then in Phione’s card, we see Trubbish’s surprise at noticing the water-type splashing in some water running through the garbage. This is then resolved in Empoleon’s card, where somehow Phione has arranged for Piplup’s final form to rescue the stinky trashbag monster and is giving him a ride out to sea, Phione flying alongside! And Trubbish is just delighted.
Meowth & Inkay Cards
In XY’s Roaring Skies, alongside a Exeggutor getting revenge on some Spearow that tried to eat it when it was still in its Exeggcute egg form, there’s this far more fun unlikely pairing between erstwhile mischief-maker Meowth, and an Inkay that gets the better of it.
What I love most about this pairing is that the Meowth wasn’t doing anything wrong in the first place. That kitty is so pleased with his berry — and sure, he probably stole it from someone — but the Inkay watching from behind a bush seems completely uninvolved.
That is until it swoops in and grabs it from the Team Rocket-affiliated monster, making off with the prized berry with a cheeky look on its beak.
Charmander, Charmeleon & Charizard Cards
Another of those three-part growing up alongside a Pokémon sets (and there are more lovely examples to come), this one features that most collectible of monsters, Charizard.
But we begin with Charmander, seemingly bullying some poor kid. The little snot has stolen the kid’s glasses, and is running off with them like a dick. For some reason, instead of sending it off to Professor Oak for storage purposes, the boy sticks with his Pokémon, and we next see the two of them sat up a tree together, the kid now a teenager, the monster now a Charmeleon. And in my opinion, the Charmeleon is explaining the kid’s quantum physics homework. Finally, that kid is now all grown up, and from the expression on his face seemingly in a serious situation with his fully-grown Charizard, the pair of them on a snowy hillside presumably facing some off-camera incident.
Clefairy & Hypno
Regular Pokémon TCG artist, Tomokau Komiya, does something brilliantly subtle with this pairing from XY’s Breakpoint set. In the Hypno card, the sinister Pokémon appears to have split reality into two halves, with Clefairy’s happy-go-lucky fairy tale existence of sparkly paths and rainbows distinct from Hypno’s swirling gloom and rain. Hypno points ominously toward his reality, the Clefairy looking absolutely horrified by it all.
Then in Clefairy’s card, clearly everything has gone wrong. Its eyes are hypnotised, as it runs in a panic through what look like ancient gravestones in this grim world. In the background, staring from just in front of the window back to Clefairy’s world, stands the shadow of Hypno, watching on in satisfaction at the terror he has wrought.
Cosmog, Cosmoem & Lunala Cards
In Celebrations, the 25th anniversary set that ruined every adorable card with the god-awful ugly Pikachu head stamp, another lifetime tryptic appeared, this time featuring the legendary Cosmog and its Lunala-path evolution. But while this is often celebrated as a great example of when the TCG tells stories, what’s almost always missed is that it resolves with its Solgaleo evolution too.
What a joyful thing that is, as this little girl becomes an adult alongside the Sun & Moon era legendary, whether that story ends with Cosmoem evolving during the day or night.
Scorbunny, Grookey & Sobble Cards
Sword & Shield’s starters got a trio of promo cards that tell a tragic tale for the ages.
See, there’s just this giant pile of fruit and berries, and Scorbunny is brave enough to go help itself. Grookey and Sobble watch on in astonishment at this temerity.
Once Scorbunny is tucking in, Grookey gains the confidence to go grab from the pile itself, with Sobble still wide-eyed in shock that anyone would dare to do such a thing.
But finally, with Grookey celebrating his act of bravery, it’s only Scorbunny who notices that by the time Sobble gains the confidence to go plunder the food, it’s all gone.
Charizard Vs. Venusaur Cards
This is one of my favourite examples of the form, primarily because it was so subtle, and so split up over time. The first card appeared in Sword & Shield set Brilliant Stars, as an alt-art for the Charizard V. In it, we see Charizard and Venusaur involved in what looks like a mighty battle, and one that surely only Charizard could ever win against the grass-type opponent?
But a year later, with the release of the ludicrously sought-after Charizard Ultra Premium Collection, one of the enclosed promo cards showed a very different result. Instead, the aftermath of the battle appears to be a victorious Venusaur looking on from the distance, as a defeated Charizard curls up to lick its wounds, surrounded by broken trees and small fires.
It’s a shame the former card still costs over $US130 ($180), and the latter comes in a box that’ll set you back the same.
Charizard Vs. Mewtwo Cards
Another card in that 2022 Charizard Ultra Premium Collection showed a stunning battle between the Zard and another worthy foe, Mewtwo. It was a stunning card by Kiyotaka Oshiyama, showing both epic Pokémon prepare to attack by a cliffside, along with the unwitting victims, Tangrowth and Diglett, hidden in the detail.
An excellent surprise of the final Sword & Shield set, 2023’s Crown Zenith, was the Mewtwo VSTAR card that gives us a completely different angle on exactly the same moment in the battle. This time artist GOSSAN shows us things from Mewtwo’s perspective, the big cloning experiment still generating his psi blast, Charizard still hovering threateningly above. And, once again, Tangrowth and Diglett are still hidden in there, making them the perfect pair of cards.
Ralts, Kirlia & Gardevoir Cards
Much like the very first page of this slideshow, this forthcoming set from the first Scarlet & Violet cards depicts a family growing older with a particular Pokémon. And similarly to the tale of Tepig to Emboar, the journey from Ralts, through Kirlia, to Gardevoir, sees a family in three generations.
Things start with a young couple moving into their new home, unpacking boxes, while a Ralts watches from the couch. Jump to Kirlia and now that same couple has had a child. The mother sits on the (reupholstered) couch with the baby in her arms, her partner bringing bowls of food in from the kitchen, with Kirlia staring in fascination at the new child. There’s even a plush Ralts on the floor, amongst the baby’s toys!
By the time their Pokémon has evolved into Gardevoir, the couple are much older, the child perhaps grown up and moved out? There are photos on the wall of them all together, as well as children’s drawings of the Kirlia, and that Ralts plush still seems to be around, now an ornament on the side. Gardevoir is holding balls of yarn for the older woman as she knits, while the older man laughs next to a coffee table, complete with coffees and cafetiere. Oh, and now they have an indoor lemon tree?
Fuecoco, Crocalor & Skeledirge Cards
Due out March 10 in Japan, Triple Beat is to be the second set of Scarlet & Violet cards released in Pokémon’s home turf, and likely to be the basis for our June release, Paldea Evolved. Which means we’re hopeful we’ll be seeing this Fuecoco triple-set this summer, along with the just-revealed other two starters’ equivalents (read on for those).
What’s so lovely about this trio of cards is that they’re just so silly. We start with the impossibly cute depiction of Fuecoco riding in the shopping cart at the store, munching on a berry that surely hasn’t been paid for. Then when it’s a Crocalor, things have clearly gone far awry with these shopping trips. It’s causing chaos in the berry aisle, and to my eye, staring guiltily right at the security camera. Then by that gorgeous full-art Skeledirge, things seem to have calmed back down again, as the enormous fire-breathing crocodile carries its trainer’s shopping home for it on its back.
Quaxly, Quaxwell & Quaquaval Cards
Um, it’s the bathroom mirror set? It’s not the best of the three. I do love that you have a happy-go-lucky childish Quaxly just being happy to be playing in a sink, followed by that slightly paranoid teenage Quaxwell making sure its feathers are set right before… going on a date? And then Quaquaval is deservedly bursting with confidence, knowing how great it definitely looks. But all three cards are so similar that it feels like a slightly wasted opportunity.
Sprigatito, Floragata & Meowscarda Cards
Finally today, is Sprigatito’s Triple Beat tryptic. This is a much more subtle, far more beautiful trio, the kitty-like growing up in the same gorgeous backyard, climbing the same tree, and generally showing off an idyllic, bucolic life.
We’ll likely be seeing all nine of these starter cards this summer, and hopefully it’s the start of far more of this sort of thing, given how much more emphasis on the notion of stories we’ve seen in the last year or so.
Long may this continue! Given it only makes the cards more collectible, it works for everyone, and the potential for storytelling in these cards has so far only been scraped at.