Yu-Gi-Oh Master Duel Review: "Electrifying And Rewarding"
Digital trading card games seem like such a no-brainer idea for existing franchises, providing a way of experiencing the action without the hurdle and initial cost of physical cards. It's a space that existing TCGs have been slow to move into, leading games like Hearthstone and Gwent to rule for a while - but now Yu-Gi-Oh has burst in with a surprise bang. Yu-Gi-Oh Master Duel is a free-to-play TCG that brings the eclectic and deeply-tactical franchise to the digital space, and while it's not the first time, it's their most complete effort yet.
If you have ever played a collectible/trading card game - whether digitally or physically - the general rules and ways to play Yu-Gi-Oh should be pretty familiar. At its core, two players square off with one another, and each take turns using their cards until one player loses all their life points. The goal is simple and tangible, but the ways in which you go about completing this objective is where the variation and complexity of Yu-Gi-Oh distinguishes itself.
Simply put, Yu-Gi-Oh is damn complicated. In every deck, you have monster, spell, and trap cards, along with an extra deck of more powerful cards. Putting most of these cards on the board is a simple case of selecting them and placing them down, with monsters going in the front row, and spells and traps sitting a row behind. There is also an extra deck, which houses the most powerful cards a player will have, and these require more intricate methods called 'special summoning.'
With over 10,000 cards, dozens of deck archetypes, and even more deck combinations than you can count in a lifetime, Yu-Gi-Oh Master Duel requires the player to learn a lot to be competitive. There are tonnes of mechanics that are specific to certain card types, and many cards have long descriptions that can contain multiple effects depending on the circumstances that they're used. This complexity is part and parcel of Yu-Gi-Oh, but this leads to Master Duel feeling like one of the least beginner-friendly card games you can currently play.
For veterans of the game this isn't an issue, as they'll be familiar with the mechanics and cards already, but if you've never played Yu-Gi-Oh before, then Master Duel can be difficult to immediately engage with. This issue is apparent in the tutorial, which teaches you how to play Master Duel, but doesn't really teach you how to play Yu-Gi-Oh itself. Yes, you'll learn how to place cards, and what the difference between the card types are, but it gives no information on vital summoning mechanics and the intricacies of deck building. These can be learned in the Solo mode, but they're optional and aren't explained in a way that is suitable to a Yu-Gi-Oh newbie. And to top it off, the only online mode right now is ranked, which has become a stomping ground for legacy players and ruinous for any new players looking to test their mettle.
The tutorial system really needs an overhaul to suit newer players, and more effort needs to be made to signpost the complexities of decks and archetypes. Ways of alleviating this would be to give decks a star rating based on their complexity, and to introduce a mode that lets newbies solely play newbies, so they can actively learn the game.
On the flip side however, an area that Yu-Gi-Oh Master Duel excels in is the presentation, and Konami seem to have learned some things from their past attempts and the current crop of card games on the market. Many card games try to replicate the physicality that's intrinsically missing in digital versions, which frequently manifests in the ability to interact with the board and characters. Master Duel offers this too, and while it's a small and ultimately useless addition in terms of how the game is played, it's a nice touch.
The things that really set Master Duel's presentation apart from the rest, are the animations for summoning. When placing powerful monster cards on the board, they are often accompanied by a 2D animation of the monster as the board shakes. It serves as a reminder that in the lore, many of these cards represent extremely powerful monsters, like dragons, gods, titans, and more - giving the feeling that these beings are barely contained in the game, and their presence is made to feel special.
This aspect is also heavily complimented by the dynamic soundtrack. It's a mechanic so obviously designed to give these battles an epic atmosphere, and it does so with ease as electric guitars swell and choral harmonies crescendo during the summoning of high level monsters. These moments ultimately made me feel more like an anime character than just someone playing Yu-Gi-Oh on a PC, adding to the power fantasy of duelling with actual mythical creatures in my hand.
Gotta Gacha-m All
As a trading card game, the allure of Master Duel doesn't just stem from the duels, but the act of collecting cards itself. Due to the insane amount of cards available to play with, opening packs isn't the most efficient way of procuring the cards you'll want, which is where one of the Master Duel's most game-changing mechanics comes in. In the shop, you can access something called a secret pack, which offers cards specific to an archetype and allows you to build a coherent deck.
Of course, opening packs is still gambling, but the secret packs allow you to narrow the odds for the cards you want significantly. There is also a crafting mechanic to throw on top of this, letting you generate the cards you want and dismantle those you don't need. It's a smart choice by Konami for once, and it significantly lowers the grind of building decks in favour of giving the player more agency.
It's important to note that this game makes use of many gacha mechanics, and while at the beginning you don't need to put any money in to acquire tonnes of gems and packs, this is only likely to get harder over time. In that case, it's best to make the most of the missions, battle pass, and solo mode while gems are a bountiful resource. We can only speculate that Konami will give players less free ways to gather gems in the future, but it's a standard in the majority of gacha titles.
Ultimately, Yu-Gi-Oh Master Duel is a must-play for fans of the franchise, and they'll fit right in despite the lack of beginner-friendly design. If you're new on the other hand, it's hard to recommend unless you can bear with the frustration that's sure to plague your first games and put in the effort to learn the myriad of mechanics. If you can overcome the hurdles, you'll be blessed with one of the most electrifying and rewarding TCGs on the market, with richly tactical gameplay, stylish presentation, and some of the friendliest monetisation that can be found in free-to-play gaming.
Reviewed on PC.