Yu-Gi-Oh's Evolution Has Made It Unplayable
Back when I was in middle school Yu-Gi-Oh was a big deal. The rise of the trading card game coincided with the 5-season run of the American TV series (a dub of the original Japanese one), proving to be a foil to the collectible (but unplayable) Pokémon trading cards, and a worthy complement to the established Magic: the Gathering game. As with these and other similar games, the series saw new cards released on a regular basis, resulting in a constantly-evolving strategy and rapid changes in gameplay.
The game centers around a basic setup – five spots for monster cards, five spots for spell and trap cards, and a graveyard for destroyed monsters. Each turn you draw a single card from your deck (which has a specified card count range), summon monsters, attack, and activate effects from cards in your hand, on the field, or in the graveyard as necessary. The goal is to reduce your opponent's life points – which begin at 8000 in most dueling setups – to zero. The actual gameplay ends up being far more complicated, to the point that players can summon several monsters and utilize dozens of effects on their turn, and do the same to a certain extent during their opponent's turn. Some of the effects ended up being so complex that the font size on the card was reduced, and they created abbreviations (GY for graveyard) or shorthand ('banished' instead of 'removed from play') to accommodate all the text. But that was all okay – naturally, as the competitive landscape developed, it was natural that the manner in which cards would be designed would become more intricate.
First, there was the introduction of archetypes, or a set of cards that are specifically intended to work in unison with each other. Before these archetypes, there were cards that could work with each other, but it wasn't necessarily required – one card's effect didn't call out another card specifically. The first major archetype was toon monsters, the preferred type for Season 1 antagonist Maxamillion Pegasus.
The key to these monsters was that they were all based on a version of the monster that wasn't 'toon' – there is a regular Blue-Eyes White Dragon, a regular Summoned Skull, and so on. Most importantly, they all mentioned the same card: "Toon World".
Toon World was what you'd call the 'engine' of this archetype, the card which allowed everything else to work. In this case (unlike most other archetypes), you actually need this card, or nothing else can happen. Toon World doesn't do anything by itself as is evident by the lack of text on the card. But if you had Toon World (ideally, multiple Toon Worlds), you could build an entire deck based on Toon monsters and cards that mention the word "toon" or "toon world". Deck-building from an archetype is somewhat of an art, and resulted in a varied selection of decks.
That was only the beginning. Upon seeing the success from these early archetypes, the game almost universally progressed to archetypes to the point that you'd be hard-pressed to find more than a handful of 'plain' cards in a newly released set. Each archetype had a different mechanism that made them semi-unique – zombies (as you might guess) were based on reviving monsters from the graveyard, crystal beasts saw a second use for fallen monsters as lingering spells, the Lightsworn thinned out your own deck every turn, and the Arcana relied on dice rolls and other luck-based elements.
In such iterations this was fine. Building new variations of a deck upon the emergence of new archetypes is challenging and fun, but the cards slowly became too intertwined to allow for flexibility. If you picked a certain archetype, you of course had the engines (similar to Toon World), but it was almost guaranteed that you had to have 10 other specific cards in there because they were definitively better than the rest of the cards in that archetype. Moreover, so many support cards were created that you could build a deck exclusively with cards specific to that archetype. Such archetypes would come to rule over the metagame (the dominant competitive strategies) culminating in months-long domination, like Mermails in early 2013, Gladiator Beasts through 2008, or Shaddolls in 2014. After Dragon Ruler-wielding players ripped through 11 out of 14 contests in late 2013, the archetype was considered so broken that the primary cards were at first limited (to only one copy per deck), and eventually outright banned – an exile that persists even six years later.
Even some original cards were retroactively made into archetypes years later. Casual fans would certainly know about the likes of Exodia the Forbidden One, Blue-Eyes White Dragon, or Black Luster Soldier, but they'd likely be unaware of how many support cards have been made for each. Even though the five-piece Exodia set wasn't originally designed to be built around – the nature of the cards (if you get all five in your hand at the same time, you automatically win, but they're all weak and don't have any effects) made them borderline unplayable – decks designed to win in one turn using Exodia aren't uncommon. Blue-Eyes White Dragon's archetype not only saw variations of the actual dragon itself, but 'Eyes of Blue' cards that made it a top-tier deck. The archetypes certainly had benefits – they made the game more accessible to new players who were no longer forced to painstakingly cobble together a deck, and they made it easy to emulate top players' decks. But they came at the cost of true, inventive strategy. After all, when newly released cards are always expected to trump the current meta and the variation in possible decks is minimized, it makes the game formulaic.
Four years ago, another layer was added onto the game with the introduction of Pendulum monsters. While archetypes represented a change in philosophy, these Pendulum cards changed the actual structure of the game itself. Pendulums were monster-spell hybrids with special Pendulum 'scale' values, which utilized the of two new Pendulum zones on the field. Not only could these creatures act as either monsters or spells, but they could facilitate the bulk summoning of multiple monsters (including non-Pendulum) every turn. So conceivably, even if you started with an empty field, you could summon four monsters and two spells that augmented said monsters in the span of three moves. Perhaps more ridiculous was their refusal to be destroyed – any Pendulum that was destroyed would simply be relegated to the Extra Deck, where they were eligible to be used in any future Pendulum summons!
New styles of cards, like Synchro and XYZ (in addition to the existing-from-the-beginning Fusion and Ritual), had been released before, but they didn't seem inherently unfair. The nature of Synchros – where you'd add the level stars of two monsters to summon a monster with the sum of their stars – seemingly replaced Fusion monsters, but that was just because Fusions were poorly designed from the beginning. The Pendulum mechanism, however, was so overpowered that it required any competitive player to adopt Pendulums instantly.
Their saving grace was that they could be incorporated into any kind of existing deck, but as more Pendulum cards were released, it made more sense to center around Pendulum cards exclusively. For a game that had begun with the premise of summoning only one monster every turn, it had reached a point where the game wanted you to charge the field to win – the Gladiator Beasts and Arcanas of years past were rendered useless since swarming just wasn't in their nature.
But the card makers weren't done just yet. Just two years ago, they made their most drastic change in the entire game's run, with the introduction of Link monsters. Before we even get to them, let's look at how this entirely changed up the field.
While the rollback of the Pendulum zones into the traditional Spell/Trap card zones definitely served as the weakness that they were never given, the remainder of the changes were truly monumental. The five monster zones were rebranded as 'normal monster zones', and the field was supplemented with 'extra deck monster zones'. This wasn't just relevant for the new Link monsters, it meant that other styles of monsters were confined to these two spaces. Fusion, Synchro, and XYZ monsters – the foundation for the game's most powerful cards thus far – were now completely different. You could only use one of them at a time.
Except if you used Link cards. If you thought Pendulums were gimmicky with their little scale values, these Link monsters have their own little arrows to top them and also have no level stars or defense points, making them completely incompatible with the aforementioned other powerful monsters. First of all, to summon a Link monster, you would have to offer monsters as tribute according to the monster's link value (which could be as high as 4!). If you summon a Link monster in that new zone, the arrows it points to are where that monster's effects are applied, and it also converts those zones to extra deck zones. Phew.
If changes to philosophy and structure weren't enough, this was an absolute decimation of conventional strategic thinking. Something that previously didn't matter at all – the spacing – was now suddenly crucial. This failed to follow the template that the introduction of Synchro and XYZ monsters had created – don't disrupt the powers of existing cards. Just as much as Pendulums had sped the game up, Link monsters slowed the game to a halt.
It was reminiscent of the Duelist of the Roses video game where the field was an actual chessboard-like grid with terrain and movement ability, or the Dice Monsters subplot (as well as season 1's Paradox Brothers duel) that also utilized positional strategy, but those were different games entirely. And that's what this felt like. In an ideal world, it would be possible to utilize the expansive existing catalog of cards and reconfigure the format to create a new game, but combining it with the existing rules just wasn't practical.
While you could choose to ignore Pendulums if you really wanted to (to your own disadvantage, but still), it's actually impossible to ignore Link Monsters. Without them, you're at such a severe disadvantage that it's not even worth playing.
As dumb as the duels in the television show could often be – especially the logic-based first season that was released before the card game even existed, including the infamous moment when Yugi destroys the moon in order to beach his opponent's water-based creatures – there was a purity to the construction and strategy. There was a duel where Joey, faced with zombies that had staggeringly high defensive powers, used a card to switch the attack and defense values of every monster on the field. Yugi had to figure out how to beat someone with three (fake) copies of Exodia in their deck, and how to defeat a seemingly unbeatable god card combo in the most clever duel scripting in the series. But all of those duels in the show, all of those duels from more than three years ago, none of those could have possibly played out with how far the game has evolved.
On the rare occasion that I brush the cobwebs off some of my old decks and play with friends, I'll notice how frozen we are in the timeline of the game's evolution. We stopped playing regularly before the invention of Pendulum and Link cards, but after archetypes had come to dominate the field. We're still able to use an assortment of deck builds, and neither of us is definitively better than the other by the virtue of the cards we chose. And as we all know by now, isn't it about the heart more than the cards?