Trading card game Yu-Gi-Oh! has been around since 1999 and Konami has been putting out video games versions of the TCG for just as long. So why is the free-to-play Yu-Gi-Oh! Master Duel, released with little fanfare last week, hitting so hard there are a couple hundred thousand people playing it on Steam at any given time? It’s because Master Duel is the right game at exactly the right moment.
No one saw Master Duel coming. This streamlined, anime and manga free version of the venerable card game was announced in July of last year along with two other Yu-Gi-Oh! games, the fast-paced Rush Duel for the Nintendo Switch and four-player mobile battler Cross Duel. A relatively bare bones, straightforward recreation of the card game seemed the least interesting of the three, so I wasn’t expecting much of Master Duel. Now, a week after the free-to-play game was released for PlayStation, Xbox, Switch, and PC, getting in (at least) a couple of online duels has become part of my daily routine. And when I’m not playing, I’ve been thinking about reasons why it’s hit so many people so hard.
There is a reason Konami’s trading card game has been going strong for more than two decades. It’s good. Its basic back-and-forth between attacking and defending monsters is easy to grasp. Over the years, many game variants have made summoning monsters more complex and dynamic, but the core idea of building up your army of quirky creatures until they overpower the competition remains the same. It’s like Magic: The Gathering, only without having to juggle all of the different mana colors.
The game mechanics are great. The cards are even better. As someone who played the physical game when it first came out and then found my money was better spent on things like rent and medical care, the ability to explore two decades’ worth of expansions without buying a single physical booster pack is incredibly appealing to me. Speaking of money …
Never underestimate the allure of a free-to-play game. We like to look down on games that rely on microtransactions to make money, but having no barrier to entry means that everybody and their brother can enter with very little effort. Anyone who wants to play Yu-Gi-Oh! Master Duel and has access to a modern game console or modestly powerful PC can do so. It’s also coming to Android and iOS devices, so soon even the mobile folks will be flinging cards back and forth with the rest of us.
Not only is Master Duel free, it’s a free version of a beloved card game that’s very free with the content and cards it gives out. The game’s single-player mode regularly rewards new cards and accessories for personalizing your duels. The first Duel Pass, the game’s version of a seasonal battle pass, is easily affordable with the free currency provided by playing through Master Duel’s engaging single-player content, which leads to even more cool free stuff.
With Master Duel, Konami seems to have taken to heart the lesson Wizards of the Coast learned with Magic: The Gathering Arena: presentation counts. So many digital versions of Yu-Gi-Oh! over the years have been perfectly passable. Master Duel takes the sights, sounds, and dynamic dueling effects to the next level without going overboard. Summoning special creatures results in moderately flashy but not over-the-top graphics. A little light, some impactful sound, and a feeling of achieving something beyond clicking on two cards to summon a third. The playfield is exciting. The ground shakes and cracks as players collide in online battles. Collectible avatars watch rounds from the sidelines, cheering the competitors along.
Even better than the visuals is the music. Duels are accompanied by a variety of tracks, from strange choral chanting to electronic fare that sounds like it was pulled directly from a ‘90s-era console role-playing game. The music is dynamic as well, changing when a player pulls out a particularly powerful creature or a significant dip in life points occurs. I love the soundtrack to Master Duel so much I’ve reached out to Konami to find out who is responsible. So far all they’ve been able to tell me is it was produced in-house. Whoever Konami has in-house has some serious musical chops.
One could argue that the most satisfying aspect of Master Duel is the opening of card packs. Tearing open physical packs of cards is what the kids did before the invention of loot boxes, and Konami has done a spectacular job of translating those joyous reveals into digital form. Card packs are sliced open, revealing their eight cards one-by-one. Ultra and Super Rare cards are covered in shimmering gold or rainbow light, their reveals saved for last.
What makes Master Duel’s pack even more entertaining than most is that certain cards spawn keys when revealed, which unlock special “secret” themed packs. These secret packs, only purchasable for 24 hours after being unlocked, contain special cards grouped together by their themes and styles. A rare robot monster might unlock an entire subset of cards with a robotic theme. Not only does this mechanic keep players pining for packs, it’s given me ideas for decks. I’ve never built a custom Yu-Gi-Oh! deck before. It’s finally my time.
And then there’s the reason for Yu-Gi-Oh! Master Duel’s sudden popularity that Konami (hopefully) has no control over. With the omicron variant of covid running rampant around the globe, it’s not a good time to sit across the table from a stranger trading cards and spit particles. I love collectible card games, especially Yu-Gi-Oh!, but I live in a house with a spouse and two kids who could care less and I am not about to risk my immunocompromised ass on a trip to the local game store.
Yu-Gi-Oh! Master Duel gives me several hundred thousand people to play against health risk free. Getting into a duel is fast, particularly on PC where I’ve yet to have to wait more than a few seconds for a match. Lag can be an issue, but I just imagine my opponents are taking so long because they are narrating every card they play anime-style. It’s much easier to play Yu-Gi-Oh! this way instead of in person, and I don’t have to risk my health to do it.
The best reason to play is that the developers of Yu-Gi-Oh! Master Duel have made an excellent version of an already excellent game, one that everyone that’s ever been vaguely interested in the series or trading card games in general should at least try. Trust the heart of the cards. It’ll never steer you wrong.