A Comprehensive Review of Rarity in the Pokemon TCG

August 08, 2017

(You can find part two of the article here!) 

It is no surprise that the Pokemon TCG has evolved considerably over the last two decades. Pokemon ex were replaced by Pokemon LV. X, which were replaced by Pokemon Legends, which were replaced by Pokemon EX which have now been replaced by Pokemon GX...

While these changes have been largely beneficial for the health of the game, they have had some unintended consequences. Perhaps the most unfortunate of these is the inconsistent treatment of card rarity between sets. It’s so confusing, even veterans of the TCG have a hard time keeping the eras straight. For example, in Sun and Moon, three versions of Lapras GX were available in the set. Are all three of these cards “ultra rare”? Is there a meaningful difference between these cards’ rarities? If you are one of the many collectors that does not know the answer to these questions, you are not alone.

This two-part article will help unwind the mysteries behind one of the most confusing subjects in the TCG, and proposes a new, clearer way for PCI to track rarity going forward. 

First, I want to clarify the terms that I’ll be using to describe rarity in the TCG.

Official Rarity” refers to the official rarity that Wizards of Coast or PCI assigned to a particular card. A card’s Official Rarity can be found official TCG checklists and other promotional and supplemental materials published by Wizards and/or PCI. The current official checklists can be found here: http://www.pokemon.com/us/pokemon-tcg/trading-card-expansions/

Actual Rarity” is used in this article to refer to the actual chances of pulling a particular class of cards from a booster pack. Here’s an example of how these terms work. Both XY Evolutions and Sun and Moon have secret rare cards. Here Comes Team Rocket! and the rainbow foil Lapras GX both have the same Official Rarity of “Secret Rare”. However, you have a much better chance of pulling a Secret Rare from an Evolutions booster pack than you do pulling a Secret Rare from a Sun and Moon booster pack. This means, in terms of Actual Rarity, the Secret Rares from Evolutions are less rare than the Secret Rares from Sun and Moon, even though they both have the same Official Rarity.

While Actual Rarity might fluctuate between sets, Official Rarity usually stays the same. This inconsistency can be a troubling source of confusion for new and casual collectors, and it’s not hard to see why. If you started collecting in the Evolutions set, your understanding of the demand for “Secret Rares” is going to be much different from someone that started collecting during the Sun and Moon era. Properly appreciating both Official Rarity and Actual Rarity in a given set requires one to look at cards from a historical perspective, so let’s start at the beginning and take a look at how rarity has changed in the TCG. Part 1 of this article will examine the changes in rarity structure through the end of the original ex era. Part 2 will examine the remaining changes through the present day, and propose suggested revisions for PCI’s rarity structure going forward.

For the purposes keeping the summary below a manageable length, I’m ignoring special subset cards (e.g., the Arceus inserts from the Arceus expansion, Radiant collection from Legendary Treasures, the unown subset from the ex Unseen Forces expansion) and mini-sets like Dragon Vault and Double Crisis. Given its unique distribution method, I’m also ignoring Generations for the purposes of this article. The Actual Rarity approximations used below come from my own experience as well as reported pull rates from Pokebeach and Pokegym forums available at: http://www.pokebeach.com/forums/threads/card-ratios.81556/ and http://pokegym.net/forums/showthread.php?161139-Pokemon-Card-Pull-Ratios 

Base Set – Base Set 2

At the dawn of the Pokemon TCG, things were considerably simpler. There were four possible rarities in these early sets: Commons Uncommon, Rare (guaranteed 1 per pack), and Holo (approximately 1:3 packs). The approximate odds of pulling a premium card were actually printed on the booster packs in these early days. It is important to note that each Holo card was just as rare as any other Holo card (with the exception of Machamp, which was only available in starter sets). This point may not be obvious to new collectors who see Charizard selling for magnitudes higher than Magneton, both of which are the same Actual Rarity and Official Rarity.

Team Rocket – Neo Discovery

Team Rocket introduced Dark Raichu to the TCG, the first secret rare card available in the west. This initial Secret Rare introduced characteristics that would define Secret Rares to this day. The card did not appear on any official checklists and had a number greater than the total number of cards in the set (83/82). Collectors on various Pokemon TCG forums have estimated that the pull rates of Dark Raichu ranged from approximately 1:54-108 booster packs. The sets immediately following Team Rocket reverted back to 4 Official Rarities, with Holos being the rarest cards available in booster packs.

Neo Revelation – Neo Destiny

Secret Rares returned to the TCG in Neo Revelation with the release of Shining Magikarp and Shining Gyarados. These cards featured a beautiful cosmos foil pattern and featured shiny versions of Magikarp and Gyarados. Featuring shiny pokemon as Secret Rare cards continues to be a running trend in the Pokemon TCG to this day.


Neo Destiny followed up on the Secret Rare style featured in Neo Revelation with the inclusion of an additional 8 Secret Rare shining pokemon. These cards all have the Official Rarity of Secret Rare, but the Actual Rarity of these cards is not quite the same. Collectors have reported pull rates of approximately 1:18 packs for the shining Pokemon in Neo Revelation, and a pull rate of approximately 1:12 packs for the Secret Rares in Neo Destiny.

Legendary Collection - Skyridge

Legendary Collection was notable for its introduction of reverse holo foils to the TCG and e-Expedition introduced the e-series  card template, but Secret Rares would not be seen again until the Aquapolis and Skyridge expansions with the release of Crystal Pokemon. Crystal Pokemon in Skyridge were available in both standard and reverse holo versions (this was not the case for Aquapolis).

In terms of Actual Rarity, the Crystal cards from Aquapolis were more difficult to acquire than the Skyridge versions (approximately 1:36 packs versus 1:12-18 packs). Skyridge was Wizards of the Coast’s last official booster release in the Pokemon TCG.

ex Ruby and Sapphire - ex FireRed & GreenLeaf

Nintendo made some changes to the TCG after taking the reins from Wizards. Their debut set introduced not only new Pokemon from the Ruby and Sapphire video games, but introduced a new Official Rarity to the TCG: the “rare holo ex”. These cards were similar in Actual Rarity to the Crystal and Shining Pokemon from the Neo Destiny and Skyridge expansions, averaging 1:12-18 packs.

Secret Rares returned to the TCG in the ex Dragon expansion, with Secret Rare versions of the Charmander evolution line appearing in approximately 1:36 packs.

ex Team Magma vs. Team Aqua featured a Secret Rare Jirachi with similar pull rates as the Secret Rare cards from ex Dragon, and added an additional wrinkle to the rarity scheme with the introduction of numbered Box Toppers. These were cards that Nintendo included in factory sealed booster boxes that could not be obtained in booster packs in the underlying set.  These cards are probably best thought of as promotional cards, given their fixed availability, but in a confusing move, Nintendo elected to give these cards the same set symbol of the underlying expansion and number the cards in a manner similar to Secret Rares (e.g., Absol was number 96/95 in ex Team Magma vs. Team Aqua).

This decision has led to considerable confusion in the modern era as it is very difficult to tell which cards were box toppers and which cards were Secret Rares during the ex period. A list of the box toppers is presented below:

ex Team Magma vs. Team Aqua - Absol

ex Hidden Legends - Groudon

ex FireRed GreenLeaf - Charmander

ex Team Rocket Returns - Charmeleon

ex Deoxys - Rocket’s Raikou ex

ex Emerald - Farfetch’d

ex Unseen Forces - Rocket’s Persian ex

ex Delta Species - Azumarill

ex Legend Maker - Pikachu (delta species)

ex Holon Phantoms - Mew

Legitimate Secret Rare cards were sometimes included in these sets, including Secret Rare copies of Articuno ex, Zapdos ex and Moltres ex in ex FireRed GreenLeaf, and a Secret Rare reprint of Here Comes Team Rocket! in ex Team Rocket Returns. ex Holon Phantoms was the last set to follow the Box Topper model.

ex Team Rocket Returns - ex Power Keepers

ex Team Rocket Returns introduced a new rarity to the TCG in the form of the highly collectible gold star cards. These cards had their own Official Rarity as “rare holo gold stars” and had a reported pull rate of approximately 1:72 packs (2 booster boxes) for most of the sets in which they appeared (the exception being ex Power Keepers, with gold stars appearing significantly more frequently, with reports ranging from 1-2 per booster box).

ex cards during this period all retained the same Official Rarity, but had widely diverging Actual Rarity between sets. For example, ex cards in Holon Phantoms had a reported pull rate of 1:36 booster packs (1 per booster box), whereas ex cards in ex Power Keepers appeared at a much more favorable 1:8-12 pack rate.

To summarize the rarity structure through the end of the ex era. There were 7 Official Rarity distinctions (from least to most rare):

Common (“C”)

Uncommon (“U”)

Rare (“R”)

Rare Holo (“H”)

Rare Holo ex (“ex”)

Rare Holo gold star (“GS”)

Secret Rare (“SR”)

By the end of the ex era, the straight forward treatment of rarity from the Base Set era had been replaced by a much more complicated beast.  Tune in next August 15th to see how this structure further evolved and my suggested revisions for clarifying rarity going forward.

Thecardpletionist has been collecting Pokemon TCG cards since the game’s English release in 1999.
You can read more from the author at http://thecardpletionist.blogspot.com/ and follow
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