This is a really long post…
As a person who plays games for a living, I take them pretty seriously. And usually, I can check my emotions at the door about a game; the fact that I dislike a game does not make the game “bad.” Whether or not I like a game is a matter of personal aesthetic, and I’m willing to recognize that. To be fair, there are a bunch of games I like that aren’t good. I’m quite fond of Exalted, for instance, and for all that I laude the Game Master’s Guide, 7th Sea, as a game, kinda sucked.
There are a few games, though, that are both Games I Dislike and Bad Games. They’re pretty few and far between, honestly. FATAL. Racial Holy War. That role-playing game about the bishonen boys with sea anemones for penises. All three of these show up on any Worst Role-playing Games Ever Published list. The Star Wars collectible card game is on my list. Steve Jackson’s non-collectible Burn in Hell was atrocious. Most of these games, though, don’t have a huge fan following, either because they are bad, or because whatever cross-market synergy the designers were trying to build never really got off the ground. (For example, I love Star Wars, and I love collectible card games, so a collectible card game about Star Wars has to be the next best thing to perfect, ne?)
Yu-Gi-Oh! is the beneficiary of one of the most successful cross-market synergy campaigns ever created. There is an animated series based on the already-successful manga, there are video games and toys. There is really no better way to tap into their target market than to toss a cartoon at it. Chaotic tried the same thing, and for a while the game was wildly popular (the game was kinda meh, and the production schedule mishaps kept it from attaining any real popularity).
So Yu-Gi-Oh! is wildly popular. In the mass market, it’s the most popular collectible card game in the world. Sadly, being popular does not make the game good.
Understand that my issues with Yu-Gi-Oh! have nothing to do with the game’s rules. Honestly, if the game were played as it was originally designed, it would be pretty solid. The rules are simple and elegant, and the strategy has the possibility of real depth. I remember being pretty impressed with the game when it first came out (back when there were a lot of creatures with no abilities, and trap and spell cards were the tits). There are some things that strike me as entirely arbitrary (monster levels, for instance; you could simply separate monsters into three different levels: normal, tribute, double-tribute, and be done with it), but none of those things are enough to break the game in horrible ways.
No, the issues I have with Yu-Gi-Oh!, the reasons I think it is a bad game, are these:
1) Card and Set Irrelevance
2) The Banned List
3) Game Speed
1) Card and Set Irrelevance
In any given pack of Yu-Gi-Oh! cards, there is a miniscule chance that you will open a card that is good. This isn’t to say that the card you open is amazing or jaw-dropping, just good. I sell packs of Yu-Gi-Oh! in my store, and I cannot count the number of times I have found entire packs of cards just sitting opened on tables or counters, nothing having been taken from them because even the rare card in the pack isn’t worth anything. This is a problem frequently encountered in eternal-format card games. Only two or three cards released in an entire set of Yu-Gi-Oh! are any good. Out of over a hundred cards per set. And sets are released every three months or so.
Imagine how many trees have died to produce cards people aren’t even using in their decks.
And it’s never the commons that are any good. It’s always the rarer-than-rare cards, the so-called Secret Rare or Ghost Rare. You might find one of these cards per box. Which means that twenty three other packs of cards are a complete waste of paper, foilwrap and money. When each booster pack costs $5, that turns into a lot of cash, fast.
And older sets are completely irrelevant now. There are boxes of the earliest sets that have one or two cards that used to be good but aren’t anymore that will sit on a shelf forever. Legend of Blue Eyes White Dragon packs are worth almost nothing save the nostalgia value of opening a pack and seeing a bunch of monster cards with no effects and trap and spell cards that simply aren’t very good. Entire sets of cards have been obsoleted, making the eternal aspect of the game completely ridiculous.
2) The Banned List
When I play Magic: The Gathering, I play Limited formats or Type 2 (Standard). I like having a smaller, more stable card pool, and there hasn’t been a time in recent memory that they’ve had to ban a card from Standard (skullclamp being the example I can think of). Having a limit on the number of sets allowed in a format means that there are fewer ridiculous synergies to look out for when publishing new cards, so the development team can focus on rooting those synergies out, and then worry about longer-winded formats later. You can work on balancing a set against itself and the most recent iterations of the game.
Yu-Gi-Oh! solves synergy problems by banning them. When a particular card or deck becomes too powerful, the players who have invested in those cards and decks no longer get to play them. Sorry, Monster Reborn, you’re just too good. Bye bye, Judgement Dragon, you’ve appeared in too many decks. Oh look, Lightsworn is getting too powerful, let’s ban half the cards on the list. I don’t even play Yu-Gi-Oh!, and this pisses me off. People pay for those cards, people search for them for months, just to have them torn from their fingers because the card is too good. At least with a rotation, you can plan for it; you can see that a set is going to be leaving the format soon and sell the cards that will no longer be legal for that format. Or retire them to a casual-deck pile. Or set them aside for a different format that you play.
3) Game Speed
Last year, there were three or four decks that could kill you on turn one in the Yu-Gi-Oh! metagame. That is terrifying. That isn’t a game of strategy, that’s a game of chance. A couple of weeks ago, one of my customers went to the Canadian Nationals. He finished third, and told me that the deck that had beaten him did so on the first turn of games one and three. This was after a huge banned-list update that had gotten rid of all the previously discovered first-turn-win decks in the game.
A first-turn win is the first indicator of a broken meta-game, in my opinion. Even at its slowest, Yu-Gi-Oh! sports a consistent turn-three win strategy. It’s too fast. There’s no time to strategize, it really comes down to whether or not you’ve drawn the cards that will allow you to “go off” on the earliest possible turn. I don’t need to worry about attack or block positions, what traps or spells you’ve set, or what you have in hand. If my deck goes off, I win. If yours goes off first, I lose. Which brings me to point four, and my biggest issue with Yu-Gi-Oh! as a game.
One of the biggest reasons I think Burn in Hell is a bad game is that it rarely effects your opponent’s side of the game. You collect your bits, you make the best sets you can, and your opponent does the same. You strategize and plot and plan, sure, but you do it independent of your opponent’s actions. A good game needs to be interactive on all sides. I need to be able to effect what my opponent is doing in a meaningful way, set them back, make them lose the board advantage, make them ditch cards from hand, or from the top of the deck. And they should be able to do the same sorts of things to me. In a game like A Game of Thrones, there’s a lot of that; the whole game is about interaction with other players, from the job I take at the beginning of the new round (“Oh, sorry, you needed to be the Hand this turn? Oh, and look at that, you’re supporting me…”) to stealing Power from an opponent’s House card and then beefing it up with Renown. Every part of the game involve some level of player interaction, and that is what makes A Game of Thrones so incredibly deep as a game.
Magic is actually a pretty poor example for this, because combo decks don’t really rely on interaction at all, and combo decks are a long, proud history in Magic. When your deck goes off, you sit on one side of the table playing it through, doing whatever it is that wins you the game, and your opponent just sits there and takes it for a while. One of the most gracious thing I’ve seen a Magic player do is start running their combo, look across the table to their opponent, show the opponent their hand, and then ask: “Do you need me to play this through?” It wasn’t asked as a snotty remark, it was a concession that watching a combo deck explode in your face fucking sucks. There’s nothing fun about watching someone play solitaire while there’s nothing you can do about it.
Every good deck in Yu-Gi-Oh! is a combo deck. It is designed to kill you regardless of your own actions. It has answers to all of your actions, so that you don’t even get to make them. I watched a guy recently throw down a combination of cards that removed everything his opponent had on the table and then swung in for lethal damage. Just to make sure his opponent had no answer. On turn three. If that were a Magic game, his opponent would be pissed, and rightfully so. When a Dragonstorm deck goes off, and a million things happen on one side of the board on turn three, and someone loses, it’s a piss-off. But what makes these two decks different is that the Magic deck was legal for a couple of weeks before the key cards rotated out of the format. And as soon as the deck was in the meta-game, for those few weeks people developed answers for it. Dragonstorm didn’t take the Worlds because it was amazing; it took the worlds because no one saw it coming. It was a masterful metagame call. In Yu-Gi-Oh! it’s just the state of the game.
So how do you make Yu-Gi-Oh! good?
Anyone who frequents my store and plays a lot of Yu-Gi-Oh! has already heard me rant about this, and it’s nothing I haven’t been saying for months. The first and most important fix is that the organized Yu-Gi-Oh! tournaments need to branch into multiple formats that focus on different releases for the game. The organized play that is currently standard should stay; there will always be people who love playing in eternal formats, and there’s nothing wrong with them. But for those players who are new to the game, or those who are looking for strategy that goes deeper than “My deck goes off, you lose,” having a smaller card pool makes the game a lot more entertaining. It slows the game down, as well, because the crazy one-turn-kill synergies exist spread out across a bunch of different sets from all over the Yu-Gi-Oh! timeline. My personal suggestion has been “Go two years back.” The cards that have been released in the past two years, those cards are legal in the narrower format; this includes all of the new booster sets, the new starter decks, the new premium packs, what have you. If it’s been printed and sent out in the past two years, you can use it. For a slightly broader format, go back five years.
Where the organized play goes, the casual play will follow. Though, to be honest, casual players will play whatever the fuck they want anyway, with no thought wasted on what’s going on in the tournament scene (past: this is a good deck, so I will thief it).
Konami needs to rethink the way their sets are released, as well. Each set needs to have something to offer to whatever decks they want to support from now on. If Gadgets are going to be a thing, every set is going to need to see some Gadgets. If Lightsworn is the new hotness, having some Lightsworn cards in each set doesn’t seem like a terrible idea. But it’s more than deck archetypes, too. The Magic guys have figured out what players want from their game, and they try to provide those things in spades. There are cards for guys who love smashing face, and cards that need some creative thought to break into something good. There are cards for people who love to lock their opponents down, and cards for people who want to stop that from happening. When you know what your players want, and you design your game’s expansions around those things, the sets you produce become a lot more cohesive. Also, understanding the new formats is important so that you can design cards for each of them; giving the eternal formats a bomb (for the sake of funny, let’s say there’s a new Toonworld printed that is strictly better than the current Toonworld), the narrower formats aren’t going to be able to use it effectively, which is fine, but you need to provide the narrow format guys some love, too.
And having a healthy testing/development team together to make sure that the cards aren’t broken before you release them is a much better strategy than simply banning the cards that are too powerful. When a card like Judgement Dragon is able to take over the game because it is simply that good you probably shouldn’t have released the card in the first place. This happens occasionally in every large-format card game (Bitterblossom, I’m looking at you…), but the chances of it happening are far reduced when you limit the synergies available in most organized play events. Fully testing your cards before you send them out to the public is a good way to trim down an already glutted banned list, reducing the number of cards that cost $700 two days ago and are now just a chunk of foiled cardboard.
Mixing a narrower format with better set design increases card relevance, too. When I open a pack of Legend of the Five Rings cards, there is something relevant in that pack for nearly everyone. Honestly, though, L5R is a bad example of card relevance; a lot of people only play in a single clan, and if you don’t get any good cards for your clan in that pack, it was a useless pack for you. It’s still more likely to be good than a Yu-Gi-Oh! pack! This is because commons and uncommons are relevant in L5R in ways that they are not in Yu-Gi-Oh!. The number of good common cards in Yu-Gi-Oh! in the whole history of the game is drastically close to zero. The few that are “good” are often barely playable, and will more likely than not be replaced by a Ghost Rare that does a better job of whatever it was the common did. Making each card relevant is important in a collectible card game, because it increases the chances that the metagame will need to account for it. If every card in even a single set is relevant to the most common format, then the number of deck archetypes will explode.
Honestly, people should be able to play a game directly out of two packs of cards. I should be able to sit down with two packs and play a game of Yu-Gi-Oh! against an opponent who has done the same thing, and have a good time doing it. This is the narrowest of all possible formats (barring playing out of a single pack, which in Yu-Gi-Oh! would be impossible because of the size of a pack). When you can have fun playing out of fresh packs of cards, your game will probably be good.
*For the record, I don’t own the copyright to anything except what I’ve written on this post. Every game I’ve mentioned belongs to someone else, and I am making no threat to their copyright at all.