Learning the Game: Yu-Gi-Oh!
Mike Eaton, Play Unplugged
By now, if you’re as awesome as we know you are, you’ve downloaded and listened to Rico’s and my Duelcast from Phantom Games. For this follow-up, I would like to talk a bit about my impressions of how Yu-Gi-Oh! plays — the mechanics, the strategy (at least, what I’ve been able to figure out), and the appeal of playing the game.
I should mention that Konami sent us a generous amount of some of the most current product to test the game with, and we thank them for giving us the tools to accurately get a feel for this game.
You are a practitioner of that game-of-games, Duel Monsters, just like the great Yugi Mutou, the original hero of the Yu-Gi-Oh! anime/manga franchise. You and your opponent begin with 8,000 life points, and by summoning monsters and casting spells at each other (in the form of cards), you can whittle that life away or blow it out of the water.
A deck consists of a minimum of 40 cards. You can keep up to 15 special monster cards in your Extra Deck, and you will use the cards in your Main Deck to summon those monsters in specific and unique ways. (I like this because it means they don’t take up space in my Main Deck.) Additionally, there is a Side Deck that you can use to switch cards (evenly, and up to 15 cards) between duels. A match consists of the best-of-three duels.
The Game Mechanics
Your main arsenal in Yu-Gi-Oh! are monster cards, spell cards, and trap cards. The game uses no “resources” other than the built-in interactions between these cards. You can play as many spell or trap cards as you like on your turn, but only one monster per turn.
You can only have five monsters and five spells/traps in play at a time. Your monsters can attack as soon as they come into play (except on the first players first turn), if your attack phase hasn’t happened yet. You can play spells and traps both face-down, though when they can be revealed depends on when the spells and traps can legally be played. You can play monsters face-down in what’s called “Set” position; this means they have not actually been summoned, but they have been “set” for the opponent to get through – much like traps. Unless a card specifically allows it, an opponent must attack any of your monsters in play before they can attack you directly, and “setting” a monster can be a good way to trick your opponent into attacking with the wrong monsters. You can also play your monster after you attack, and change the position of a monster that didn’t attack, to add defensive strategy to monster summoning.
In order to play a spell or monster, there must be room for it on the board. This means that if you set five traps, you can’t play any spells that need to fit there, even if they would go to your graveyard immediately afterward. Also, spells involve timing, with each type of spell having a “speed” setting of one, two, or three. You can only respond to a type of spell or effect with a spell of the appropriate higher or equal speed level. (We just talked about this concept in Forceball! Cool.)
If you play a monster face-down, you may turn it face-up later in Defense Mode. If a monster is in Defense Mode (sideways), it uses its DEF score instead of its ATK score when in combat. It cannot, of course, attack in this mode — but it can deal damage to a player whose attacking monsters have a lower ATK score. If a monster in Defense Mode is attacked and destroyed, the attacking monster does not get to deal extra damage to the opponent. If a monster in ATK mode is attacked and destroyed, the attacker deals damage equal to the difference to that monster’s controller.
Some spells and trap cards can deal damage, and many monsters have effects printed on them that are as powerful as spell and trap cards.
Sounds simple enough, yeah?
So, how does it play?
So far as I can tell? Quickly, and kind of brutally. Because your monsters can attack as soon as they hit the board, having no monsters and being unable to play one is a death sentence. On the other side of the mechanics, having a Defense Mode monster with high defense is unstoppable if your opponent doesn’t have any creatures big enough to take it out, or some kind of kill spell/effect. Either of these situations will make a duel literally impossible to win, so building a balanced deck is crucial. There are many, many cards from the game’s early days that are forbidden or limited in tournaments because they can make your deck unstoppable in a hurry. (My favorite that I’ve seen so far is Crush Card Virus, which destroys all monsters of 1500+ ATK from your opponent’s board, hand, and the next three turns they draw cards.
Large monsters will be absolutely necessary — at least some, to protect you in the long term. Kill spells for monsters will be absolutely necessary, also. A unified theme of a deck will probably be stronger than a scattered one, since this game is not afraid to print cards that specifically reference other cards to create powerful effects. (Example: There is a Blue Eyes Ultimate Dragon, which can only be summoned if all three copies of Blue Eyes White Dragon allowed in your deck are on the table. But that’s OK, since it has 4500 ATK, and so can kill in two turns or less.)
The rulebook seems to indicate that the game is intended to be played in best-of-three matches, meaning that even casual players at the kitchen table will have a Side Deck and be swapping out cards between consecutive games. Given how hit-or-miss, topdeck-or-lose the games I’ve played so far have been, I think this concept is an integral part of the game’s design, and I recommend always utilizing your Side Deck and playing to win two of three. It seems like the only fair way to decide which deck is really better.
So, what worked?
The idea of “spell chains” is good, and is a simple way to make a complex idea — cards happening “before” other cards that have been played — more accessible to a young audience. (The game is intended for players as young as 6.) The absence of “resources” for playing cards, letting the built-in rules take over, also streamlines the game, and allows for smaller decks that let you play your favorite cards much of the time. A player who gets attached to the cards in their deck, who may be worried that a certain card won’t see play, has a very good chance of always seeing that beloved monster do its thing. The spread of game functions across both spells and monsters allows a player who prefers one or another type of play to do much the same thing with either type of card — though, since monsters can deal so much damage and there is limited space on the table for each type of card, a good mix likely will always make the better deck.
The idea of using weaker monsters to pay for more powerful monsters works in the absence of other resources and keeping hard-to-use monsters out of the main deck is a fair way to allow players to try to use these major threats. Additionally, this balances how often they get to use them — and what options they have if they can’t use them yet, without making a player sift through useless cards in his or her hand and deck.
And what didn’t work?
The flavor of the cards differs wildly. While this means you can either choose from medieval fantasy, ancient lore, NASCAR or Power Rangers as just some of the archetypes these cards resemble, it also makes for really bizarre flavor if you’re trying to reconcile a game world within. Attacking through all your opponent’s monsters to deal direct damage is a fine system, while a duel is balanced; when you can’t draw a monster, it means your opponent can use a giant monster (necessary to get through your blockers) to deal brutal, lethal damage in just a few turns. If you have no way to summon a comparable monster (because many powerful monsters need additional monsters to be played, but you can only play one per turn, which your opponent can attack right afterward), you’re just delaying an inevitable loss, unless you play some crazy combo that turns the duel on its head in the other direction. In my experience so far, a Yu-Gi-Oh! duel is a lot like a race where you’re allowed to trip your opponents any number of times; the winner wasn’t the fastest, but just the guy who could deal with interference the best — or at least get in all the lucky shots.
This could be appealing, or even exciting, to many players — the idea that you need to draw that one card that turns the game around. However, I think it makes the game too unforgiving. While it doesn’t kill the fun, and it’s great when the cards you need come through when you need them to, I’m not attracted to this aspect of play.
Should I learn to play Yu-Gi-Oh!?
Sure, there’s no reason not to! Grab a few starter decks that look cool and try it out with your friends. If you’re looking for a card game you can thoroughly customize to your interests and play style, with scores of different cards in print to choose from, and many powerful, game-changing monsters and effects, this might be the game for you. It’s never dull in Yu-Gi-Oh!, where many small cards can build up to one ultimate finisher at any given time.