Hot Takes on the new Pokémon TCG Tournament Rules Handbook

Pokémon has released a major revision to their Organized Play documents that guide Players and Professors in participating in everything from Pokémon Leagues to Prereleases to the World Championships. The General Event Rules, and Penalty Guidelines have been combined into the Play! Pokémon Tournament Rules Handbook.

You can find all of the new documentation on their Rules and Resources page at https://www.pokemon.com/us/play-pokemon/about/tournaments-rules-and-resources/

Everyone should take the time to review these documents on their own, but for your convenience, here are some significant changes in the documents that all players and judges should be aware of. There is also a VG Handbook, but since that is not our expertise, we leave it to others to assist with changes and updates found there. Don’t get taken by surprise at the next event that you play at. And if you’re a judge, make sure you’re making the right ruling. Below you will find selected sections with either significant changes or points of interest that everyone should be aware of.
But I will note again, this is not a comprehensive review and all participants in Organized Play (OP) should review the original documents on your own. This is my interpretation of what is presented in the Guidelines. It has not been reviewed or approved by Organized Play.

Section 3.3 Tournament Entry

There are a couple of points worth noting in this section. First:

Organizers may choose to offer prioritized registration to players who regularly attend Pokémon League sessions at an associated League location.

This does not say that non regulars can be excluded. But if you have limited space, an Organizer is certainly within their rights to make sure that their local members are not shut out of their own local events.
And second:

Organizers may choose to completely disallow entry to any player they feel to be a threat to the safety or enjoyment of others, or whose presence has previously proven detrimental to the event location for any other reason.

This means that you don’t have to wait for Pokémon Organized Play to ban a player that has been causing issues at your events.
Neither of these are brand new ideas to Organized Play, but they are clearly expressed guidance that gives Organizers a lot of control over their events. Organizers are empowered and have the tools that they need to keep their local playing community environment healthy and welcoming.

Section 3.4.2.1 Organizer Presence

Organizers need to be present at the events that they sanction in order to make sure that everything is run according to the rules and the Spirit of the Game. They must be there to take care of any non-game customer service issues that come up. The buck stops with them. However, there are occasions where the Organizer might not be able to be present at their event due to unforeseen circumstances such as illness. The previous documents did not state any leeway for exceptions, although Organized Play did work with Organizers through the online Customer Service Ticket system to move events to a new Organizer in emergency situations.
The new document has added clarity to this ad hoc process and made it official:

The Organizer is ultimately responsible for ensuring that the tournament is run according to the rules and procedures laid out in this and other core rules documentation. Because of this, the Organizer must usually be present at the tournament while it is taking place.
In exceptional circumstances, Pokémon Organized Play may allow for the responsibility of a tournament to be passed from one Organizer to another. Should these circumstances apply, the current Organizer should submit a request through the Play! Pokémon Customer Service team.
Each request is considered individually on a case-by-case basis.

Bold added for emphasis.

Section 3.4.2.3 Remuneration of Staff

Professors are essentially Independent Contractors and this especially applies to Tournament Organizers. Pokémon cannot mandate anything financially impacting to how Organizers run their events. They can’t mandate charges (or lack thereof) for League or for Tournaments. Toward that end, they also can’t mandate that Organizers pay or compensate their staff. However, that being said, they do state:

“Pokémon Organized Play makes no recommendation regarding the remuneration of tournament staff, beyond the reminder that judges and other volunteers contribute an added value to the tournament experience and should be made to feel appreciated.”

Bold added for emphasis.
Bear in mind that while Judges and Organizers are involved in this game for the love of the community and fellowship, Pokémon is not Scouts or the 4H Club or {volunteer work of your choice}. The website is Pokemon.com not Pokémon.org.
If an Organizer is collecting money from players to participate in the event, then Judges and Staff should receive fair compensation for their work that is earning you, the Organizer (or store owner), money.
That is only fair. It does not have to be (and usually isn’t) money, but Organizers should give fair value for the work effort of those that are helping put money in their pocket.
Pokémon can’t say it directly, so I will: Compensate your staff!

Section 3.4.3 Paper Records

Big change here. Up until now, Organizers have had to hold on to pretty much all paper documents from a tournament for an extended period of time. It has been changed to:

Paper records, such as standings, pairings, and match slips, may be retained until the end of a tournament to aid with solving any potential discrepancies that may arise. They should then be immediately destroyed.

Section 3.6 Streamed Matches

This section clarifies the policy that Organizers and Players should be following regarding playing matches on stream. Streaming events has become very important to the growth of the game with the rise of eSports. Streaming is a way to promote the game in general, and events in specific. Many players don’t want to play on stream because it is more stressful and also because it has a heightened scrutiny where errors (or cheating) are more likely to be caught. It is understandable that a player might not want to put themselves under the microscope like that. However, it is also not fair that some players get to avoid the stress that other top players have to experience just because they are more vocal in objecting to it. It’s not fair to the other players that have to deal with that added stress, and it’s not fair to the tournament integrity that they are not subjected to the same scrutiny that other players are. Pokémon makes it clear that this is something that should not be easily avoided:

While attending a Play! Pokémon tournament, some players may be instructed to play a match that will be featured, projected, or broadcast (streamed) live to a large audience and/or to online viewers. Players must comply with the Organizer’s directions regarding the location of the match.
Players are not permitted to voluntarily decline participating in a streamed match.
In exceptional circumstances, the Organizer may at their own discretion decide that it is in the best interests of all involved that the chosen match not be streamed. However, it should be noted that this consideration is reserved for truly uncommon circumstances, wherein a serious detriment may occur to the players’ ability to participate fully in that match.

So, should a player never be excused from participating in a streamed match? No, that is not the case. There can, and should be exceptions. However, those exceptions should be “truly uncommon” and not given out lightly.

Section 4.5 Concessions and Intentional Draws

The big difference here is that Pokémon has removed the recently added Informal Agreements section which outlines how players can come to (non-random) agreements on how to decide a winner of a match in order to avoid a tie. The new language is similar to previous language where informal agreements were legal, but not clearly outlined.
It is clear that Informal Agreements are still allowed, but still not encouraged. The specific language in the document is:

A player may decide to concede for any reason. However, Pokémon Organized Play does not recognize any informal agreements made between players regarding the outcome of a match prior to the signing of the match slip. Players should be aware that any such agreements will not be enforced by tournament staff.

Note that there is a difference between “does not recognize” and “does not allow”. Informal Agreements are allowed, just not encouraged and staff can’t enforce any agreement.
Judges: Do NOT DQ players that have agreed to decide a match based on something like who is ahead on prizes or who has the best board state. They still need to resolve their match timely and you won’t force any player to go through with an agreement, but do NOT Disqualify them.
It is unfortunate that this section was not retained in the guidelines to avoid confusion among players and judges, but hopefully it will be restored in future updates.

Section 5.2.2 Card Sleeves

A minor change here. In older documents it was noted that the “fronts of the sleeves are clear, clean, and free of designs, holograms, and emblems that may obscure card information.”
This caused some issues in tournaments where outer sleeves that had minor markings on the face side which did not obscure relevant game information were being penalized by judges. Some judges event went so far as to penalize Ultra Pro sleeves which have a little holographic circle in one corner. Removing this text is a good thing and should avoid excessive scrutiny. Note that common sense prevails. If game text is truly blocked, Judges should use their discretion to fix that issue.

Section 5.2.3.3 Languages – Exceptions

There have been reported cases at International Championships of players being unable to obtain replacements for damaged cards because the local language cards which were available were not legal for them to use since they were from a different Zone. They were forced to either obtain replacement cards in their own local language (which were not available) or replace the cards with basic Energy.
This put non local players at a significant disadvantage from local players who would not have to deal with this kind of problem. Pokémon has addressed this kind of issue with a common sense change which is outlined here:

For the Pokémon TCG World Championships, International Championships, and for side events at either of these, regardless of which country they are hosted in, players are always permitted to use English cards as well as cards in any language that is legal in the player’s home country.
In exceptional circumstances, the Head Judge or Organizer of any tournament may also choose to make an exception to rules regarding the legal languages. This is at their sole discretion, and should only be considered where there would be no operational detriment to the tournament in doing so.

With this guidance, the Head Judge can rule that the player can use cards of the local language, just like a majority of the other players in attendance. Note that this is not a blanket rule allowing all players to always use the local language of whatever area they are playing it. But it does help take care of issues such as described above.

Section 5.4.2.2 Reprinted Cards in the Unlimited Format

Now here is something new and different! Organized Play has always had Unlimited as a legal format, but it basically been given no attention. That hasn’t changed too much, but there is SOMETHING here for those that play Unlimited:

players will occasionally come across cards from older expansions that have the same name as newer cards but completely different effects. Players may still include those older versions of the card in their decks, provided that the wording of the most recent version is used wherever that card is concerned.

What this means is that, unlike Standard or Expanded, older versions of cards that have undergone significant changes and haven’t been errata’d will be legal to play!
This means that Base Set Computer Search is legal. For Unlimited only!

This does have a caveat, though. You must play those old cards using the current text. So Computer Search is still as Ace Spec, Pokémon Center is a Stadium with a much reduced effect, and Base Set’s Pokémon Breeder … well, stick with Rare Candy.

Section 5.6.1 The Play Area

Cards that are placed into the play area from the hand without the effect of another card, Ability, or effect are considered played at the point the player physically releases the card from their hand. If a player does not wish to play a card, they should not place it into the play area.

Judges have been following this guidance for quite a while, but it’s good to see it in black and white in the tournament guidelines. A good test of when a card has been played is to have the player raise their hand. If the card comes up with the hand because it is still held, it hasn’t been played yet. If it stays on the table because it is just being touched, it has been played.
Also note, that while the pictures of the play areas show the right-handed layout, it is perfectly fine to used a mirrored layout. What is important is that the Deck and Discard are on one side and that the Prizes and Lost Zone are on the other.

Section 5.8.2.2 Judge-Enforced Progression

Judge Ball is back, baby!

Once upon a time, Organized Play decided that there was a problem with a few “popular” decks that used very few Basic Pokémon. This led to some issues with Mulligans taking up a significant part of the Match time. It wasn’t fair to the opponent that was sitting there ready and waiting but getting a significantly lesser amount of time to play their game. OP addressed this issue by creating a mechanism dubbed “The Judge Ball” to get those stalled games started. It was outlined in the official Professor Forums at the time. Unfortunately, this procedure was never published in any of the official Tournament Documents that were available to the public so it caused controversy when used. Players were not aware of it, so it looked as if the judge was making up something on their own. Worse, those forums were replaced with newer ones and the information contained in them was not available. So the “Judge Ball” was performed differently by different judges, based on their memory. Eventually, the Judge community decided to mothball the practice since its application was causing more issues than it was solving. But now, we have the “Judge Enforced Progression”. It is published in the official Tournament Documents so everyone is aware of it and the procedures are clearly outlined so everyone can implement it correctly. As noted, it shouldn’t be done very often, but it is good to get an old tool back in our toolbox.

Section 5.8.3.2 Resolving a Game That Cannot Otherwise Reach a Natural End

This is not brand new, but it is pretty new, so many judges and players may not be aware of it.
Basically, if a Single Elimination game gets stuck in an infinite loop, OP has given Judges a tool to use to finish the game and keep the tournament moving. It should be very rarely used, but again, it’s good to have an official process for handling these cases.

Section 7. Rules Violations and Penalties

There is no more Tier 1 and Tier 2. This is a huge change. Basically, local tournaments will be held to the same penalty resolutions as larger events. Note that Judges are also advised to take experience and age of the player into account when deciding when or if to deescalate.
I’ll note that even if a Judge decides to deescalate a Penalty, the fix applied to the game state or situation should be the same in all cases.

Section 7.3.2.2 B.2. Deck Legality

A major change here is that the Double Prize Penalty for “Legal Deck/Legal List” is gone. All deck and deck list issues will earn either a Warning or a Game Loss. Except for cheating, of course. That is always a Disqualification. Otherwise, fixes and severity considerations remain pretty much the same as they have been.

As noted at the beginning, don’t take this as a comprehensive list of all changes. That is not the intent and it is a huge document combining information that previously resided in many separate sources. It’s almost certain that something has not been discussed here that someone else feels is an important change. Read the documents for yourself. That’s always the best way to learn. But hopefully this will help you in guiding your reading of them.