What Can Wizards Learn From Yu-Gi-Oh?

At this time, Yu-Gi-Oh outsells Magic, but not quite as much as appearances would suggest. I watch Yu-Gi-Oh players of ages eight to twelve wander into the store and throw down more money than I’d care to admit. I have no idea where these tykes are getting their hands on freshly-printed, unmarked one hundred dollar bills, but as I wipe off the cocaine left over on the textured bling I am struck considering what exactly is better than Magic in this game.

Occasionally, you get into one of those situations where you’re forced by common sense to learn something you didn’t want to learn. Leaping through life as we all do, Magic players probably choose to disdain several things – and for many Magic players, that means they dislike Yu-Gi-Oh. And what forced me to learn Yu-Gi-Oh? Well, being out of work and hanging around a gaming store a lot, I picked up a position as the behind the counter guy for my local store. It’s a position I literally adore, as it is filled to the brim with child abuse, MILFs, and absolutely nothing that even slightly resembles actual work. I’ve been told several thousand times that retail is Hell, but retail at the gaming store is quite delightful.

But there’s one problem.

Yu-Gi-Oh is the fad right now. I can talk Magic with every type of player ’til the nether regions of the damned frost over, from casual to pro, but I didn’t know a damn thing about Yu-Gi-Oh. I knew something of the screaming, demonic hordes that play the game in the same way every adult knows of large swarms of children: They all look the same, they keep biting each other, and I wish they’d go away. It is inevitable, though, that working behind the counter means you should desire to know the product. Since the gaming store is where one plays their games much of the time, you’re left with an internal wish to make the gaming store do better. And since you’re spending a couple of hours a week behind the counter, aspiring to sell people the products they may or may not want to buy, you’d better pick up a thing or two about Yu-Gi-Oh.

That I picked up the basics of the Yu-Gi-Oh game in a couple minutes of playing the Gameboy Advance game isn’t too much of a shock. I’ve played so many CCGs I’ve lost count, and this one is nothing too different: Creatures do not tap and in fact, when turned sideways are not capable of attacking. However that minor point aside, the rules are simple, clean, and I would be quite pleased to admit they are somewhat fun.

But Yu-Gi-Oh is a far cry from Magic. Magic’s rules are very complex, taking us players quite a time to fully adjust to. The depth of the rules allows for a diverse game, which is added to by a very strong R&D department that pours effort into getting it at least playable at all times. You would be quite surprised at how much you begin to appreciate R&D when you sit and play Yu-Gi-Oh. Imagine a game that plays like every Limited match you will ever play – that is, focused almost entirely on creatures – and you will begin to understand what a match of Yu-Gi-Oh is like. But beyond that, the game simply possesses some of the most broken cards I have ever seen.

First, bear in mind there is no mana or divisions between cards. There is almost entirely no reason to not play whatever cards I feel like; I can slap them down next to free of charge most of the time without difficulty. There is the odd monster that is”ritualed” or”fusioned” into play, but these are almost entirely unplayable garbage that is nothing worth noting. However, consider that there are all these complex, powerful monsters just bursting out of every booster pack. If you were designing such a game, wouldn’t you include the following?

  • A Free Wrath of God.

  • A Free Wrath of God that kills only your opponent’s attacking creatures.

  • A Free Wrath of God that kills all your opponent’s creatures, but leaves your army entirely spared.

Hoboy. Isn’t that some great game balance right there? The designers of Yu-Gi-Oh took the natural design decision, of course, and restricted all these cards. (One per deck.)

So imagine this game as something like Onslaught Limited, with face-down cards and nothing but waves of critters bowling into each other, then add in over-powered restricted cards. There you go; that’s Yu-Gi-Oh in one sentence, summed up all but entirely.

There is more to the game, of course, but that sums it up so elegantly that you may look over the game with a newfound understanding right there. Think of Yu-Gi-Oh not as a children’s game, but as some sort of brain-stunted version of Type One where players can’t get past the coolness of restricted cards, instead enjoying nothing but utter swinginess. This game swings more than the Ferrett does. One minute you’re winning and the next your opponent has wiped your side of the board and his beasties are chewing on your face.

If Magic is slow, graceful lovemaking… Then Yu-Gi-Oh is Wham-Bam-Thank-You-Ma’am. The idea of winning on turn 3 is more or less created simply by one player drawing his broken beating stick and the other player not. One player, clearly not having the”Heart of the Cards” or whatever nonsense, is beaten like a lame mule in a situation so swift one envisions a lead pipe and watermelon meeting.

At this time, Yu-Gi-Oh outsells Magic, but not quite as much as appearances would suggest. I watch Yu-Gi-Oh players of ages eight to twelve wander into the store and throw down more money than I’d care to admit. I have no idea where these tykes are getting their hands on freshly-printed, unmarked one hundred dollar bills, but as I wipe off the cocaine left over on the textured bling I am struck considering what exactly is better than Magic in this game. A couple of things slowly come to mind, and I shall present what I think Wizards of the Coast might learn from Yu-Gi-Oh.

Theme Decks

A popular item or the most popular item of Yu-Gi-Oh are the ever-lovely theme decks in their gaudy packaging. Perhaps they should be called”starter decks,” but the real point is these things sell shockingly well. They are named after two of the characters from the Yu-Gi-Oh TV series.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit I’m a huge fan of Anime. I have spent many hours of my life downloading and watching subbed shows like RahXephon or Hellsing, I’m big on it. I have, however, never watched a single minute of the Yu-Gi-Oh cartoon in my lifetime. I assume only the most basic fundamentals about the multi-colored, weirdly drawn characters: This one is the good guy, this one might be the bad guy, and I think this one is supposed to be an anime version of Bill Gates. I mean that in the most vague of senses, as I don’t care if I’m right – and if I’m wrong, Jedit will surely roll into the forums to correct me. But only he would care.

So while the characters themselves are totally irrelevant to me, I believe there is a fundamental twist being shown that Wizards has yet to capitalize on. One thing has always irked me about the Magic novels – besides the fact they’re generally pretty terrible – is that they have little real tie into the game or its marketing. This may shock people to their very core but, as a marketing strategy, cross-promoting works.

Or so I hear. I think we can blame the entire Yu-Gi-Oh and Pokemon franchises on this dainty bit of knowledge, so maybe it’s about time Magic started to push towards this?

What I’m attempting to imply here is that the Magic”theme” decks released regularly with each set, which from my knowledge of working at a store sell all right but not all too well, should perhaps be spruced up a little with some ties into the game. Let’s that instead of the wonderfully-named”Storm Surge” or”Pulverize” or”Ultra Violence” or a”Little Of The In And Out” decks, we are blessed instead with theme decks actually based around the characters in the sets.

Take Onslaught, for example. You’ve got five pitfighters, one representing each color. Why not release decks based around those characters and in some way emphasizing those legends? You’d have a Jareth deck, a Visara deck, and so on. Younger players enjoy connecting with the certain themes or characters. Assuming you could actually released legends which looked cool and had enough flavor to power a stick of gum, this sort of thing might actually improve sales a touch.

I’m sure somewhere out there, some lad is going to cry foul at the idea of marketing the game better or producing characters younger players will connect with. The simple truth is, as it stands the story is basically chaff. It serves no serious purpose – which is pretty strange when you consider you’re paying people to develop this stuff. If younger players can be marketed to in order to increase sales of the game, then Wizards of the Coast should latch onto them like a fat man gripping a slice of pizza. We want more players one way or the other, even if we have to convert the younger generation into our willing slaves. While not every younger player is going to grow up with the game, many of them will – and these people will increase the player base. I suppose I could mention that at younger ages games like Magic appeal a lot more to humans of the female persuasion, but they won’t grow up fast enough to save the current generation of lonely Magic players.

Beyond that there is the simple fact that the theme decks are, more or less, garbage. I am sure that some of them have good cards in them and fit together nicely, such as the recent Goblin theme deck released with Scourge. I mean sure, it has Goblin Sky Raider in it, but other than that it doesn’t make me want to stab people in the face like the Storm surge deck does. Please explain to me why a White/blue weenie deck is running Reward the Stupid and Mind’s Desire?

Honestly, I’ve got all day. Who came up with this nonsense?

Yu-Gi-Oh is, of course,”blessed” with a set of rules that allow any old theme deck to be thrown together using almost entirely random cards. Just chuck a couple of dragony things, a demon or two, with some oddly-named trap cards, and you’re pretty much all set. However, something stops me in my tracks when discussing Yu-Gi-Oh theme decks: Besides the fact they have better packaging, better marketing and cost about 50% more, they actually have better cards in them.

For the game, anyways. That card stock is just plain terrible, looking like old sports cards printed by Topps when I was five years old. I’m surprised Upper Deck doesn’t package the boosters with that rock-hard gum many a youth sliced his tongue open on. Then again, given the modern day US market, there was probably a lawsuit.

I do not expect R&D to know every”great” card, but I do formally believe they are entirely capable of building better decks than the stuff packaged in the theme decks. I know that they are gunning for a specific sort of theme but there is a simple realization to this: It doesn’t make sense.

Theming that appeals to children is based around very colorful concepts like”A Pegasus starter deck.” Pegasus is the name of one of the Yu-Gi-Oh characters who is dressed like an upper-class European gentlemen. The connection is made primarily to the imagined powers of the characters involved and not precisely the cards themselves. A much sought-after card, Blue Eyes White Dragon, is basically junk in most games… But because children enjoy something their idol uses in the show, they will seek it out because it connects with them. Starter decks based around abstract concepts are generally either too advanced or simply not as powerful as they could be.

I’m still liking the Goblin deck here, though. The Goblin deck is good. Kids like Goblins and Dragons!

On the other hand, older children shed off the simple joys of the theme and instead look for what they consider powerful options in deckbuilding. That you can hype them to believe a deck is powerful is true, but if it’s not they’re going to figure it out and probably won’t be easily fooled again. The Yu-Gi-Oh decks beat Magic’s decks matter-of-factly in both categories: They are full of powerful cards and they have better theming for youngsters. Granted, some of those”powerful” cards might actually just be big, over-priced creatures – but those appeal to novice players. Reward the Faithful is not going to win a child a game. Please do not sell a child lifegain cards.

Scourge is a successful set that I am told is both selling well and promises to sell well. The casual and youth markets of Magic, which although similar are not the same, enjoy sets like this one. It is not to take away from Scourge itself when saying that the theme decks sold alongside the product seem a bit lacking, nor should this be taken as a badmouthing of Wizards as a whole.

Foils And Product Design

I don’t use foil cards in my decks and have no great love of them as a collector, either. I’ve thrown away money on cards I consider interesting or having art I love. This article will generate, perhaps, a sum of credit for me that will replace a lump of credit I blew on a”Glossy Japanese Promo Archangel,” but foils on a whole are pretty much unappealing to me.

A lot of people reacted with blood and rage at the prospect of the 8th Edition card face being at least partially motivated by producing better foils – and I am one of those people, actually! But the realization that this is probably a foolish standpoint to take is pretty true. What benefits the sales of the game generally benefits us. More Magic players makes for better prize payouts, makes it easier to form drafts, makes tournaments more diverse and interesting. Again, foils sell to younger players but any player added will generally help us as a whole. And foils, sad or otherwise, do benefit the game in some way.

The first thing is obviously that small children enjoy shiny things. Foils are shiny and therefore appeal to small children on an elemental level that we as somewhat-mature individuals are never quite going to get. Of course, they do”look cool” sometimes, but overall they’re more for the youth market. We all know that.

The other thing that caught my eye while working, however, was the external market. Generally, Magic and other niche games are driven by the players who enjoy the game itself. This is nothing to be ashamed of, and in fact at times puts us much further ahead of others hobbyists or just people in general. We enjoy the game for the love of the game and not much else, but the external market does exist. By external, I mean the people who are related to or friends of players who purchase them components of the game as gifts.

An external doesn’t care that Wild Mongrel is a great card, and will need a fair bit of urging to purchase these items from the storekeeper. A professionally-designed product will help appeal to these individuals. I’m not trying to say your parents or friends are shallow, but their understanding of the game is definitely show. I’ve seen a mother pick up a well-designed Yu-Gi-Oh foil and say something along the lines of”Wow, that’s cool looking.”

You can bet she spent a good $50 in the store that day. (She was a nice lady besides though, and a customer I’d be happy to see her again. Heh.) Whether or not the well-designed foil sold her on the product is definitely hard to tell, but I begin to believe that such things do have an effect on the acceptance of the product by mainstream people who purchase the product. I really don’t care if they accept the game into their viewpoints, but if the game can appeal to their shallow understandings without taking away from the overall appeal of the game to us, the users, then Wizards should go that route.

Yu-Gi-Oh has better-designed foils and they’re getting better looking as new, more professionally designed sets come out. While the original Yu-Gi-Oh sets had some absolutely terrible artwork with pretty pathetic-looking foils like ye old white blotchy Swords of Revealing Light, it pains me to see someone pick up a Yu-Gi-Oh foil from Legacy of Darkness and gasp. They never do that for Magic cards, and it would be better if they did.

I realize that I am really going to piss a lot of people by saying the following, but honestly: Wizards, I hope the 8th edition foils are a big step up. I don’t mind the idea that they put effort and time into selling the product – and if they’re not a big step up, consider improving them. Like I said, I know I’m pissing some of you off and you are perhaps going to take an elitist attitude towards this, since it doesn’t really benefit you or I.

But just stop and consider the implications of what you’re saying: The game needs to sell. It needs to make money. The more money it makes, the larger R&D can become, the more accepted it will be by your peers and the better the game will be in other ways. It is worth it to us, although perhaps not in the short term. They can change foils how they like; it’s not going to change my perception of them.

“Oh, a foil Blistering Firecat? Into the binder never to be played with you, kitty.”

Will it really change yours if they become better tradebait?


This is the part of the article where I stop trying to be irreverent or silly and discuss the differences between the two games from a more serious design standpoint. I’m no longer trying to make you smile now, so put on your thinking cap here.

As we get better at Magic, we adjust to concepts within the game itself and deckbuilding. We learn to not trip over novice mistakes both when playing the game and when designing the decks we play with. This gaining of wisdom is what makes us a better player over the years. Sometimes we get better through practice and study, other times we make elemental breakthroughs as to the nature of metagames or necessary tools within a deck. This is an important thing for Wizards to understand, because players must reach a certain threshold rapidly in order to enjoy a game – and Magic’s threshold can be pretty brutal.

The most simple point I can make here is that while a player can sit down and memorize the rulebook, he may not have crossed that threshold already even though he understands some of the most advanced concepts of the game through the rulebook. The threshold between simply playing Magic and enjoying Magic is functionally getting your deck to work.

I do not mean that your deck works well or that your deck wins games enough to be considered tier one – that kind of selective design is not something an eight-year-old is going to be able to develop or understand until he’s been playing for quite a while. A bright kid might be able to begin to grasp the concepts, and I mean no offense to younger players who are good at the game. You’re good; I don’t mean you.

Consider this: A youngster wants to make a Dragon and Wizard deck. Don’t ask why, but let’s say he felt there was a link between Wizards and then those Wizards helping him summon dragons later on. It doesn’t really matter.

So his Wizards are blue and his Dragons are red, both with different casting costs and converted mana costs. Now think about it: He doesn’t really know of multilands or mana fixing. He isn’t going to know the ratio of mountains-to-islands, nor will things like the fact his wizards will come out early and his dragons later affect his thinking. He won’t consider that he needs an island on turn 1 to play Imagecrafter but not a mountain ’til turn 6 to play Shivan Dragon.

And yet those are a huge part of making his deck work. He wants to cast his Wizards and his Dragons, but without proper instruction he’s going to meet the first, last, and worst demon of Magic’s design: Mana screw.

(Accept for the moment that the youngster knows the rules of the game and is not playing in a manner that sits outside how the game is supposed to be played. I’ve seen kids play Magic like it was Yu-Gi-Oh, but that’s entirely irrelevant to the actual design of the game)

Now let’s take Yu-Gi-Oh instead. The game does not have lands or mana costs. If you want to place a normal monster on the field, you generally simply lay it down, one monster during each of your turns. Some monsters require”tribute” or the sacrificing of other monsters to get them into play. There are also more complicated summoning types referred to as”ritual” and”fusion,” but for the moment I’ll ignore them.

If that youngster wanted to make a deck based around Spellcasters and Dragons in Yu-Gi-Oh, he would never have to worry about mana costs, since the game is built around monsters costing tempo or card disadvantage, not mana, to be put into play. While tempo and card disadvantage are difficult concepts to understand and assimilate into your playing strategies, they are naturally adjusted to when”casting” things. A player can understand discarding a card from his hand because he is directed to do it; however, he will not realize that his Dragon and Wizards deck will require a specific balance of mountains, islands and multilands to function well.

This is one of Magic’s absolute most crucial points, though. Without mana, swingy cards and the division between the cards would be left totally out of check. Yu-Gi-Oh does not have truly separate colors and at times it’s”tribal” lines seem extremely limited, compared to the powerful flavor and balance Magic gains from it’s roots.

My conclusion and wish is for Wizards to let more multi-lands into sets and attempt to drill into players during the early stages of the game, the importance of mana overall. I do not care if these multilands are good, only that they appeal to casual or younger players and are not rares. Let us take a very modern, very potent example:

The modern Sliver deck. Built from cards within Onslaught block, the number of strong mana fixing lands is almost zero when it comes to the casual player. He’s trading for his Brood Slivers and his Sliver Overlords; he has no interest in running Krosan Tusker since it’s not a Sliver, and doesn’t understand why he would want to pay a point of life to go looking for a forest or mountain. If Wizards is going to promote a multicolor theme to casual or younger players, they would do well to remember that those players are held back at times by their lack of understanding when it comes to mana.

A young player who plays both games is going to remember how he got his Blue Eyes White Dragon on the table and swinging in a casual match, but that he was always struggling to find the right color of mana to power up his Sliver horde. Tell me which one he is going to want to play more. It is very important that Wizards emphasizes the subtle means they possess to encourage players to balance their mana. Even if they must make”bad” multilands and put them in the uncommon slot to help casual players out, it is something that simply should be done for the overall good of the game.

It is very important that novice players be capable of playing their spells. I really don’t think we need them to be hitting the PTQs a year from playing, but I’d like to see the Sliver-laden deck I’ve seen in the hands of many a novice or casual player have access to cheap multilands simply so those players can get their damn Slivers out against each other as often as possible. Their enjoyment of the game preserves them as a player in my store and may one day make them a player I would consider at my level. I’d be happy to have more players of that sort, and so should everyone.

I realize that lately, Wizards has been putting more multilands into sets, and I am very glad they have done this. I hope they reprint Invasion multilands and continue to put out more multilands, but I encourage them to actively consider the needs of casual players, as well as other routes to fixing mana for novice players. Onslaught block is obviously a huge step up from Odyssey block in this sense, and I do believe they understand much of this concept during set design.


Overall, learning how to play Yu-Gi-Oh has definitely done one thing: Heightened my enjoyment and appreciation of Magic. The game itself is a fun diversion and I still occasionally fire up the emulator to enjoy a round of cards against the computer, but this is about as strong a pastime as those gents that fire up Solitaire or Hearts at work. It doesn’t have the depth and it simply isn’t as well-designed as Magic, nor does it have the powerful allure of a complex metagame. It is very much designed for towards children – and though I am sure there are serious players my age that play it, I think they’ll tire of it as I did rapidly.

It’s not a bad game, though. I think Wizards of the Coast would do well to consider the successes and of course, the failures, of Yu-Gi-Oh when looking towards the future of their product. Magic is succeeding and growing stronger over the years, but we would all be happier if Magic was as strong as possible.

Iain Telfer

Also known as Taeme while screaming at randoms on IRC, annoying blisterguy on Misetings and in other places too numerous to mention. E-mails can be directed at [email protected] if you feel like saying something private or swearing so much the forums will edit out your entire post.