Eventually a real world adaptation of the game was made, but it was not the Yu-Gi-Oh that we know today. The first version of the game was made by Bandai, and because of the lack of rules in the Manga this version of the game actually played completely differently from the modern version. It only had 13 rules, and even had some of the characters from the manga appear on the cards!
That version of the game didn’t last long, and the rights to the game were quickly sold to Konami. Konami created an entirely new version of the game, with completely different rules. That version of the game became very popular, and eventually the manga started following that rule-set as well. This is the version of the game that is still being played today, and it is this game that I am mostly going to be talking about.
Back to Basics
Today there are thousands of different Yu-Gi-Oh cards, dozens of different sets, and countless possible deck combinations. Back in 2002, however, this was not the case. When Yu-Gi-Oh was first released in North America all we had was 1 booster set – Legend of Blue Eyes White Dragon – and two starter decks – Yugi and Kaiba.
This era, from when the first cards were released until 2008 when Yu-Gi-Oh 5ds introduced the idea of Synchro monsters, is what I will refer to as “vanilla” yu-gi-oh. During this period the rules of the game were relatively stable, and all that really changed about it was the steady release of new cards.
Because Yu-Gi-Oh was originally intended as a thinly-veiled knockoff of Magic: The Gathering, much of the game’s mechanics are very similar to that game. Like Magic, the primary goal of Yu-Gi-Oh is to knock your opponent’s life total down to zero, and your main way of achieving this goal is to attack eachother with different monsters.
Yu-Gi-Oh is far from a direct ripoff of Magic, however. What is very interesting about Yu-Gi-Oh’s design is which elements they chose to retain from their source material, and which they chose to change. In order to more closely examine these elements, lets take them one step at a time.
The Heart of the Cards
What better place to begin than with the most fundamental aspect of any trading card game – the cards themselves. Yu-Gi-Oh has three main categories of cards, each with several different sub-categories. The main card types are Monster, Spell, and Trap, each of which fill the role of one or more different card types in Magic.
Monster cards in Yu-Gi-Oh are used to represent any number of different humans, robots, aliens, or other types of creatures. They are your primary offense and defense, and are the main way players bring their opponent’s life-points down to zero. Monster cards are based on the Creature card type in Magic: The Gathering.
Monster cards have several different parts. At the top of the card is the card’s name, and next to the name in the upper right hand corner of every monster card there is a circle that represents the monster’s attribute. These attributes can be either water, fire, earth, wind, light, or dark. Monster attributes don’t really affect gameplay on their own, but can be referenced by other cards. These attributes are somewhat similar to color in Magic, but because they do not affect the game by themselves there is no reason not to mix monsters of all different attributes into your deck.
Below that attribute there are a number of stars, from 1 to 12. These stars represent a monster’s level, and determine how you can play the monster. While there are 12 different levels, they can be separated into three different categories. A card with 1 to 4 stars can be played for free, a card with 5 or 6 stars can only be played by “sacrificing” one other monster you control, and a card with 7 or more stars can only be played by sacrificing two other monsters.
Level stars are somewhat analogous to a card’s casting cost in Magic: The Gathering, and cards with higher levels tend to be more powerful. Unlike Magic, however, there is not a linear connection between cost and power. A level 3 monster costs exactly the same to play as a level 4 monster, but level 4 monsters tend to be more powerful. Because of this, monsters with a level below 3 are rarely played in Vanilla Yu-Gi-Oh.
Below the levels is the card image, and underneath that is the textbox. This textbox contains all of the information about what the monster does, and can tend to get very crowded. Firstly, at the top of the textbox in square brackets  is the monster type (spellcaster, beast, fairy, etc). This type, much like a monster’s attribute, does nothing to affect the game unless it is referenced specifically by a card.
Next to the monster type there is usually another set of brackets that contains the monster’s category. The different categories of monster in vanilla Yu-Gi-Oh are normal, effect, fusion, and ritual. A normal monster has no special abilities, and has flavor text where it’s abilities would normally go. Effect monsters are like normal monsters, except they do have a special ability. Fusion monsters are formed by combining two other monsters that are listed on it. Finally, a ritual monster can only be summoned by playing the proper ritual spell card.
In addition to being listed in the text box, a monster’s category can also be determined by it’s color. Normal monsters are a light brown color, effect monsters are a darker orange-brown, ritual monsters are blue and fusion monsters are light purple.
Underneath the card type is the card’s flavor text (if it’s a normal monster) or it’s abilities (for everything else). These abilities can become quite long and complicated, so this part of the text box is usually very full and hard to read (as evidenced by Dark Paladin, above).
Finally, at the very bottom of the text box is a monster’s attack and defense points. These numbers are used in combat, and will get explained more later when we talk about the combat system.
The second category of cards in Yu-Gi-Oh are spell cards. Spell cards are colored green, and have the blue “spell” symbol in their upper right hand corner. The general layout of a spell card is similar to a monster card, except for a few key differences. Instead of level stars, spells have the words “spell card” in brackets. Next to this there may also be a small symbol, which can determine the type of the spell. Spell cards also do not have any attack or defense points.
Equip spells are used to attach to a monster, usually to give them more attack or defense points. These types of spells have a cross-like symbol, and are very similar to equipments or aura’s in Magic.
Field spells and continuous spells are very similar, in the fact that they remain on the board until they are destroyed and tend to have effects that boost your entire team. The main difference between the two is that you can only have one field spell on the board at a time, and they have their own special zone. Field spells have a compass symbol, while continuous spells have an infinity symbol. They are similar to global enchantments or artifacts in Magic: The Gathering.
Quick-play spells are spell cards that can be played as either a spell or a trap. They have a lightning bolt symbol.
Ritual spells are used to summon a ritual type monster. You must have both the ritual spell and the ritual monster in your hand at the same time, and you must sacrifice monsters whose level is equal to the ritual monster’s level. These spells have a symbol that is meant to represent a burning offering that might be used in an ancient ritual.
The final card type is the Trap. Trap cards are Yu-Gi-Oh’s equivalent of instants in Magic, but they have a number of differences. In Magic: The Gathering, cards can be played by spending a resource known as mana. Instants are cards that can be played on your opponent’s turn, but only if you have enough mana to spend on them. Yu-Gi-Oh does not have a resource system in the same vein as mana, so in order to have similar functionality they had to make some changes.
Trap cards are played facedown on the board, and can be used anytime except for the turn they are played. This gives the opponent the ability to be aware of and play around the trap, the same way they would in Magic if they see that their opponent has mana leftover from their previous turn. This system also uses time as a pseudo-cost, as not being able to use traps the turn that you play they somewhat limits their power. Finally, it allows you to bluff by placing a spell card, or a trap card that you cannot use facedown to try to trick your opponent and buy time.
Like spells, there are different sub-categories of traps, but in this case there are only two. Continuous trap cards are very similar to continuous spell cards, and use the same infinity symbol. Counter trap cards are special because your opponent cannot respond to a counter trap except with another counter trap. This is similar to a discontinued card type in Magic known as an interrupt, which had a similar property of being “faster” than other cards. Counter traps use a curved arrow as a symbol.
The Sincerest form of Flattery
Already, simply by looking at the card types we can see some issues under the hood of this game. While I believe the intention of the game designers was to create a simplified version of Magic: The Gathering in order to appeal to a younger audience, I believe that they copied a number of different elements from that game without fully understanding why those elements were there. Because of this, we have a number of extraneous details such as monster attributes, creature types, and level stars which have very minimal effect on gameplay and serve mostly to clutter up the card.
That being said, extraneous elements and bad-looking card frames do not necessarily make for a bad game, and Yu-Gi-Oh seems to have some really interesting elements to it as well. I think that the monster summoning system, where you must sacrifice weaker monsters in order to summon more powerful ones, could be a very interesting mechanic if implemented well. I also really enjoy the design of trap cards, as I believe that they add a good amount of interactivity between players while allowing for some very interesting mind games.
Because this post is already running quite long, I am going to wrap it up here. If you enjoyed the post, feel free to leave a friendly comment down below. If you didn’t, let me know what you think I could do better next time! Next week I will be writing the second half of this series, where I will examine some of the mechanical elements of Yu-Gi-Oh and determine whether Yu-Gi-Oh is truly a bad game. See you then!