Nine-year-old Malachi Fox pulled six glass trophies out of a paper bag, showing them off on a card table after a recent tournament. Etched in the glass, one of the trophies read: “Pokémon Championships 2015 City Champion.”

“You won a lot. Wow,” said fellow Pokémon player Jacob Combs as he passed by the table and gawked at the rows of trophies. “You’re going to Nationals, aren’t you?”

Malachi nodded, but his mood was a bit sullen. Although he’s one of the top-ranked players in the country — these trophies represent months of triumphs — at this Pokémon League tournament he only won two out of three games. But he perked up at the mention of the national championship.

In the Pokémon trading card game, players pit fantasy cartoon creatures against each other in one-on-one “battles.” To win, a player must defeat all of their opponent’s Pokémon.

Hundreds of competitive Pokémon players will head to Indianapolis for the Pokémon National Championships in July. The tournament is the last chance to qualify for the world championship, held a month later in Boston. But Malachi has already qualified. For him, Nationals is just another game.

It’s been a quick rise up the ranks for this young Pokémon master.

“We just thought we’d let him try it, and he placed in his first tournament,” said Todd Fox, Malachi’s dad and unofficial Pokémon coach. Shannon Fox, Malachi’s mother, added, “He doesn’t win them all, but he wins a lot.”

Malachi is a kid with a hand in every hobby — he plays soccer and baseball, has a yellow belt in tae kwon do, studies the piano and writes and illustrates his own books (“I write books a lot,” he says). And the Blaine fourth-grader already has dreams of attending a prestigious college to become a teacher like his mom.

“When Mally was in first grade, he came home one day and said, ‘Mom, I’m going to Harvard,’ ” said Shannon. “So I said, ‘Well, what about Yale?’ and he said, ‘Yale sounds funny.’ ”

The Foxes are in full support of Malachi’s Ivy League goals, and Pokémon might play a part in helping him get there.

“I want to win Worlds,” said Malachi, who’s got two years of city Pokémon wins under his belt.

The winner of the World Pokémon Championship gets more than bragging rights and Pokémon merch — there’s a $25,000 scholarship on the line.

Todd calls it a pipe dream, but said the prize money would make a big dent in Harvard tuition.

“There’s some really, really good competition out there,” Shannon said. “When you get to Nationals, it’s almost as bad as hockey parents or soccer parents.”

Last year, she saw parents using their cellphones to take pictures of other players’ deck lists to steal strategies (a deck list is the roster of cards chosen by each player for their unique powers). Todd said one dad assembled his kid’s Pokémon deck specifically to beat Malachi’s.

“It gets really intense,” Shannon said. “And that’s just Nationals. I don’t know about Worlds.”

The Pokémon world

Out of competition, Malachi speaks in soft, short sentences. But once a Pokémon game starts, he flicks the dark hair out of his eyes and chatters with his opponents about the cool powers of each Pokémon.

Even though he was disappointed in his results at last month’s tournament, it didn’t stop him from having fun with the other players in his age division. At that match, held at Dreamers Vault in St. Louis Park, there were seven juniors (players younger than 10), 15 masters (ages 10 to 15) and six seniors (any players over the ancient age of 16) playing in the tournament.

“I’ve seen kids as young as 4 who can’t read but they memorize the cards, and I’ve got parents of the kids who play who are in their 40s and 50s,” said Tom Collins, who owns Highlander Games and Comics in Columbia Heights. He’s played Pokémon since the game was created in the mid-1990s.

Right now, eight stores host tournaments in the Twin Cities area, and another is expected to join their ranks next month. Collins said Pokémon is “on an upswing,” gaining popularity just like Marvel comic characters.

“You’ve got all these comic book movies, you’ve got ‘The Big Bang Theory,’ ” Collins said. “It’s all becoming more mainstream.”

Malachi also is a big fan of Marvel movies, but his dad introduced him to the comic universe long before the Avengers hit the big screen. Todd saved a large collection of comics from childhood and shared some of his favorites with his son.

“Geekdom runs in the family,” he said.

And Malachi is building his own prize collection. Todd estimated that Malachi has 3,000 to 5,000 Pokémon cards.

Shannon added: “It looks like a million laying all over the living room floor.”

Rivals and strategy

As soon as Malachi started playing in league games, he started winning. These days, his most fierce competitors are also his friends.

“Since Malachi has won a lot of games, he’s got a lot of rivals,” said Gillian Chan, who has been playing Pokémon for two-and-a-half years. She said she usually places third or fourth in smaller league tournaments while Malachi usually takes first.

One of Malachi’s league friends who can beat him is 10-year-old Emily Combs. She plays Pokémon because she likes the strategy and the psychology behind the cards.

“I like how I can see what other people like by seeing which Pokémon they choose,” she said. “They can either go for power or defense.”

Malachi plays on the offensive. He said he doesn’t like to be mean, but he always wants to win. And he’s confident that next year, when he moves into the more competitive masters division, his tactics will hold up.

“You just keep destroying their guys, that’s one of my favorite strategies,” Malachi said. “You have to try to do calculations before playing any cards.

“No card is the best,” he added. “There is no card that doesn’t have a weakness.”

None of the young players think the game is complicated, but Todd said learning Pokémon is like learning a different language. There’s an elaborate point system during game play and back stories to each character. It took Shannon three hours of Internet research to even begin to understand how to play the game.

In the coming months, Malachi wants to start learning the oboe and will represent his school at the Young Authors Conference at Bethel University. But on weekends the Foxes will pile into Shannon’s Honda Fit and road-trip their way from Blaine to Pokémon tournaments around the country — where Malachi will try to fight his way up the national rankings (he’s 31st right now).

“All games have strategy in them,” he said. “You just have to figure them out.”

The Fox family attends all of Malachi’s Pokémon events together, even 1-year-old Navi Rain. She’s the only member of the family left to learn the game. Malachi promises that as soon as she’s old enough, he’ll make Navi her very own fairy-themed Pokémon deck.

 

Libby Ryan is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.