Yu-Gi-Oh is one of those media franchises that completely passed me by when I was growing up. I knew it was a card game (that much was impossible to avoid), but beyond that, I only knew a handful of things that circled around pop culture:
- In the anime, the rules effectively don’t exist and are made up as they go.
- Pot of Greed lets you draw two additional cards.
- Blue-Eyes White Dragon is a really good type of dragon.
- You've activated my trap card!
That was about it. I sometimes saw kids playing it in school, unfolding their enormous mats to play on, but I never engaged with it myself until recently, when Yu-Gi-Oh: Legacy of the Duelist: Link Evolution came out for the Nintendo Switch. I have a good friend who loves the card game, and she convinced me to pick it up and see what all the fuss was about.
After engaging in three to four tutorials (out of twenty or so), I came to a realization: I was playing Magic: the Gathering for kids.
This is not to say that kids can’t learn and play Magic: the Gathering, but it was abundantly clear that Yu-Gi-Oh is a heavily streamlined version of Magic. A number of mechanics have been simplified or removed entirely, but the core structure of the game is the exact same: you places monsters onto a battlefield and have them battle each other, with the goal of directly attacking your opponent and reducing their life points to zero. You can support your monsters by playing spells and traps, which are effectively sorceries and instants, in order to give yourself an advantage or disrupt your opponent’s plans. Even the structure of a turn is the same, for the most part: you draw a card, perform upkeep, execute your main phase, possibly battle, possibly execute a second main phase, and then go through your end step.
When you compare Magic and Yu-Gi-Oh, the one point that comes up most often is that in the latter game, the player has fewer choices that they are allowed to make. They’re able to execute strategies and lay traps for their opponents (quite literally), but there are a number of instances where a Yu-Gi-Oh player cannot make a response to their opponent's actions, where they would be able to in a Magic game. This is probably meant to keep younger players from being overwhelmed by options, or paralyzed with worry - and given that Yu-Gi-Oh is the world’s best-selling trading card game, it probably works.
The most obvious difference between the two games is that Yu-Gi-Oh has no mana equivalent. To try and maintain something resembling a ramp-up, the game has some restrictions on what cards you can play and when, though these restrictions generally only apply to monsters. Under normal circumstances, you can only summon one monster per turn, no matter how long the game has been going on. If you want to summon monsters that are more powerful, instead of requiring a lot of mana, you’re required to sacrifice some number of lower-level monsters. For the most part, this forces you to choose between going wide with a lot of weaker monsters, or going strong with one or two highly powerful monsters. Even during the endgame, you can’t pump out one giant monster per turn like you would near the end of a Magic game. (Of course, this is with the "under normal circumstances" caveat - in high-level play, this restriction might as well not exist at all, as I'll bring up later.)
Combat is simplified in an interesting way, such that the defending player is no longer given an option to respond; the entire burden is placed on the attacker. Unlike in Magic, where you attack your opponent and they choose whether to block or accept the damage, Yu-Gi-Oh has players directly attacking their opponents’ monsters. If that monster is destroyed, the opposing player effectively receives trample damage; if the monster is not destroyed, the attacking player often takes the excess trample damage. The opposing player has decisions on whether their monsters should be there to mainly attack or mainly defend, but all these decisions have to occur before combat takes place. The attacking player makes all the decisions, and the defending player has to sit there and take it (unless they placed a trap card).
Speaking of trap cards, they’re basically instant-speed sorceries, but with less of an element of surprise. These are cards that get laid face-down on the play area, and they can be activated in response to certain game actions, such as your opponent attacking you. There’s an absolute limit on the number of trap cards you can have in play at once, but aside from that, you can throw down as many as you like as fast as you like. Comparing this to Magic, however, I find the idea of trap cards to be a bit disappointing. In a game of Magic, your “trap cards” stay in your hand, and your opponent has to take a guess on whether or not you have one to play. In Yu-Gi-Oh, you basically have to call out “BY THE WAY, I’M LAYING A TRAP FOR YOU” and so the element of surprise disappears. (You can still bluff your way into a more advantageous position with these trap cards, of course, as your opponent won't know the strength of your trap.)
This is a very interesting change, in my eyes, as it heavily shifts the advantage to the attacking player. The defending player’s options are limited to cards that are currently on the field, either face-up or face-down (as traps, or quick-play spells), and so the options for countering are explicitly enumerated. This is not the case for the attacking player, who can take advantage of a second main phase. I have to wonder if this change is something that makes younger players feel more comfortable in their actions. I can imagine that players would be less hesitant to attack if they know exactly how many countering opportunities their opponent has.
I felt like I had to be missing something with regards to Yu-Gi-Oh strategy, so I watched some high-level play to see how top players duked it out. In constructed play, from what I could tell, it seems like my first analysis was correct: top-level Yu-Gi-Oh play is less based around counters and psychological warfare, and more based around creating truly obscene levels of deck synergy. In the very first game I watched, I saw one of the players immediately start chaining effects and sacrificing monsters from their hand in order to pull out two enormous heavy hitters, taking his opponent down to a third of his health - in the very first turn. He ultimately lost, as the other player had spell card after spell card that could completely stall his opponent, up to the point where he wiped out all of his opponent’s monsters and delivered a one-hit KO. Basically, if you’ve put together the right deck, there is no such thing as a slow ramp.
Individual cards can also showcase incredible power all on their own, not just when paired with other cards. One of the first cards I came across in the game was called Mirror Force. This was a trap card that could activate when an opponent declared attacks, and its response was to destroy all of the opponent’s monsters that were in attack position. It’s effectively a one-sided board wipe, something which Magic has very few of despite being a much older game.
This definitely exists in stark contrast to top-level Magic play. There are great one-mana and two-mana cards, of course, but they still have roughly the power levels you would expect from a first-turn play. Generally, players aren't going to be able to exceed the standard ramp-up time by more than one or two turns. Compare this to top-level Yu-Gi-Oh, where players can bring out some of their strongest material immediately. I imagine that a rough draw could do a lot more damage in a situation like this.
Ultimately, my impressions of the Yu-Gi-Oh card game are that it seems like not only are the rules simplified, but the strategy seems somewhat simplified as well. It’s harder for me to conceive of something like a deck based around disruption, as it seems like all of the strongest strategies involve actions on your own turn, specifically ones that let you completely destroy what should be a gradual power ramp. Still, it’s a fun game in its own right, and I’m probably going to keep sticking with the Switch version for a little while. I doubt I’ll be trading in my Magic cards for Yu-Gi-Oh cards anytime soon, though.