The Trainer Card: A Once Overlooked Pokémon Gem4 min read

For someone with a casual familiarity with Pokémon, it is easy to see the franchise as purely about creatures with unique powers. But for avid fans, there is an understanding that the humans within the Pokémon universe can be just as important as the Pokémon themselves. Humans that catch and battle with Pokémon (known as trainers) have been prominent figures in the franchise since the very beginning, whether it be the series’ Gym Leaders (Erika, Sabrina, etc.), protagonists (Ash, Misty, and Brock), or other notable characters. Trainers have appeared on Pokémon cards since the 1996 Japanese Base Set and were eventually even given their own themed expansions: 2000’s Gym Heroes and Gym Challenge. In one of the first instances ever, these releases featured Pokémon who were identified by their owners, introducing cards such as Misty’s Gyarados and Blaine’s Moltres.

However, in the early days of the franchise, cards featuring trainers by themselves were generally considered less desirable pack hits compared to cards featuring Pokémon. It wasn’t until 2011, with the release of Pokémon Black & White Noble Victories, that a new explosion of trainer card popularity was set in motion. This set introduced “Full Art” trainer cards to the TCG where the artwork broke out of the confines of the traditional border and reached to the edges of the card, filling up the maximum amount of space. This new concept revolutionized the Pokémon collecting world by placing a stronger emphasis on the card artwork and foil treatments. This allowed all card subjects, even the less popular trainers, to become valuable pack hits. 

As the series progressed into the XY, Sun & Moon, and Sword & Shield eras, Full Art trainer cards became more and more abundant. Even classic characters predating the Full Art concept received their own cards, including Misty (as seen in 2019 Sun & Moon Unified Minds) and Cynthia (as seen in 2019 Sun & Moon Hidden Fates). But the most coveted Full Art trainer cards are not limited to classic characters. In fact, many of the franchise’s newest trainers are featured on cards that are considered some of the most sought after on the secondary market, such as Lillie (as seen in 2018 Sun & Moon Ultra Prism) and Marnie (as seen in 2020 Sword & Shield). In addition to English-language releases, there are also several Full Art trainer cards that are exclusive to Japanese releases including Misty & Lorelei (from 2019 Sun & Moon Tag Team GX All Stars), Giovanni’s Scheme (2017 XY Promo), and others. Given their exclusivity to Japan, these cards, and others like them, are quite valuable.

What is it about these cards that is so appealing? The answer likely boils down to the emotional resonance they have with fans. In other Pokémon media (TV, manga, and video games), these trainers are portrayed as friendly companions, formidable enemies, or mysterious figures. By having firsthand interactions with these characters in other media, collectors have an intimate familiarity with them and their unique role in the larger Pokémon storyline. 

Over the past couple of years, The Pokémon Company has picked up on the trending popularity of trainers and integrated them more and more in their trading card releases. There are a number of recent cards that feature Pokémon and their trainers side-by-side including the 2019 Japanese SM-P Clefairy promo card (which depicts Lillie playfully leading Clefairy down a trail) and the 2019 Sun & Moon Cosmic Eclipse Wishiwashi card (which depicts Lana swimming by its side). In 2021, the hype around cards featuring trainers reached a climax of sorts with the release of the Japanese VMAX Climax set, a special set dedicated heavily to artwork of trainers interacting with their Pokémon. Composed of over 60 “Character Rare” cards, this set boasts amazing inserts, from Charizard to Pikachu to Rayquaza – all depicted snuggling, adventuring, or posing heroically alongside their trainers in beautifully rendered “slice of life” scenes.

Trainer-centric artwork breathes so much personality into Pokémon cards and helps enrich the lore and storytelling aspects of the franchise. Depictions of trainers interacting with their Pokémon capture the imagination of fans who may ponder what a real, Pokémon-inhabited world could be like. Full Art trainer cards are some of the most popular modern Pokémon cards on the secondary market, and with a slew of new additions included in every release, they show no signs of stopping. To acknowledge these gems, the PSA Set Registry has created several sets based on Full Art trainer cards from the XY era, Sun & Moon era, and even key card sets based on the franchise’s Gym Leaders, professors, and more.

 

Posted by Dustin Porras

Dustin is the PSA Set Registry Brand Manager for TCGs. He is a lifelong TCG player and collector who still can’t believe he is working here.

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