Screenshot of the title screen for the game, Yu-Gi-Oh! Master Duel. A stylized, humanoid figure wearing exuberant, gold-plated armor and accessories poses with their palms open, standing next to the title text.
May 6, 2022 | by Walker
How Master Duel Taught Me to Play Card Games

I am thick as a brick. It is a condition I share with millions of people and one that always kept me from actually getting into card games, especially one as complicated as Yu-Gi-Oh. Sure, I’m able to learn basic things like when damage is taken depending on a monster’s position, tribute costs, the graveyard, banishing and all that. But by the time you’re asking me to remember to reshuffle my deck every time I search for a card in a deck that is searching five times a turn, as well as remember which cards target, what “targeting” even is, and which specific card effects lock me out of using other card effects for that turn, my brain is just unable to keep up.

It is especially awkward when it catches up to me in the middle of a match and a friend would inevitably be forced to explain “It doesn’t work like that”, before slowly pointing me to the two little lines of text in the tiny card I played two whole minutes ago, explaining my mistake. What usually follows is a very awkward, Spinal Tap-y sort of moment where we discuss whether he will allow me to take back my move, or whether it counts or not, whether he’ll go easy on the dumb beginner and let them be wrong anyway, and by that point neither of us is really playing the game “correctly”. By now it’s been 45 minutes of setting a mat, patiently letting me read every card, re-explaining basic rules, and we’re all quite disappointed it’s come to such an anticlimactic dud. It then takes little time before the cards go back into their sleeves and we just break out the beers and the Elton John CDs instead.

But with card game simulators a magical thing happens. When you activate a card effect the game helpfully points you to the 5 or so cards in your deck it is actually applied to —no shifting through 40 other cards required— the deck reshuffles itself after every effect, and the game helpfully reminds you when your effects are ready to go as the phases of a turn proceed.

A screenshot of gameplay from Yu-Gi-Oh! Master Duel. A top-down perspective view over a sparsely grassy floor with stone tiling in a nondescript, outdoor setting where cards are being played. Various UI elements frame the screen.

This doesn’t solve the first issue brought up in this column, which is that I am thick as a brick, but it does speed up the process of learning by a considerable amount when you are slowly handheld through your viable plays. Keeping a detailed duel log for you where you can review every turn, and forcing every action and placement to abide by the rules, makes it a lot easier to learn the system than when you’re expected to be both rule keeper and player.

I am of course talking about my experience with Master Duel and the overcomplicated, combo-laden beast that is Yu-Gi-Oh. But duelling simulators solve many other issues inherent to the traditional card game format, primarily those concerning time and space. Why yes, I am talking about them solving the theory of relativity, that is exactly what I mean.

No, what I actually mean is that, if you want to play Yu-Gi-Oh, and assuming you’re not an asocial shut-in such as myself, what you would do is call up a couple of your friends and get together, or hit up your local card shop on designated days and time slots to play with strangers. Even then, you need a table, and you need to receive guests at your place. There is no such thing as a “quick 20 minute duel” in the real world, lest you happen to be incredibly lucky with your allotment of co-workers. It’s a large-commitment sort of genre; it requires time, space, a significant monetary investment, and more often than not it requires someone to travel.

These are not inherently bad things: getting out of the house or having friends over is an incredibly healthy experience, or so I am told. But putting in all that time and effort can be intimidating when you already expect the aforementioned 45-minutes-of-disappointment-into-Elton-John flowchart to ensue, which leads many people like me to just not bother with the whole affair.

The online environment of Master Duel  makes learning potential decks and enemy strategy a much easier process than in real life. Where the flow of a normal conversation might lead to a friend bringing up a card that you can use, or one that might be releasing in a future set (and if they’re being extra helpful, looking up a picture on Google) that kind of learning is limited and is more conducive to the fun of hanging out with a friend than actually developing your game knowledge. But with games like Master Duel, and features like the “related cards” function, you can look up every card in the game and reread their effects as much as you want with minimal effort as you develop your understanding of the game. There are no stopgaps in the process of learning how to defeat a deck only moments after encountering it for the first time. The process is intuitive and progresses as fast or as slowly as your own interest in researching the game dictates.

A screenshot of gameplay from Yu-Gi-Oh! Master Duel. A screenshot of gameplay from Yu-Gi-Oh! Master Duel. A menu screen showing a large inventory of various cards lined up in rows and columns.

This might be a contentious opinion but I quite enjoy that they effectively take out the “trading” out of trading cards. Master Duel has a scrapping and crafting system that allows you to essentially turn 3 of a card you don’t use into a card you do want of the same rarity. It’s not the easiest thing in the world, but it allows you to funnel your resources into the deck you want without much issue. Now, just like real life card games, digital card games can be a huge money sink, and it always requires a lot of judgement to not overspend on what is, in the end, a hobby, but there is ease and accessibility to the way you can spend in this game. There is no need to worry about availability or supply, or the condition and protection of the cards you’re spending money on. You can always spend a modest sum, to get exactly the card you want, whenever you need it, and it will be in perfect condition for the rest of time (or at least until the servers go down).

I cannot emphasise enough how much not having to worry about card condition and preservation matters to me. When even the cataloguing of cards to trade for other cards, as well as generic “staple cards” can quickly become its own concern in terms of the quality of storage and required space, that becomes a barrier of it’s own; I usually give up as soon as I start researching which card sleeves to get whenever I consider acquiring my own deck. (Editor’s note: It’s Dragon Shield. Always get Dragon Shield. –John)

As for tutorialising, Master Duel having entire questlines meant to illustrate how certain deck types are supposed to work, and giving you the opportunity to not only fight but use over a dozen different decks, is incredibly useful to newcomers. Master Duel is structured very helpfully, carefully holding your hand through the key cards of every deck and showing you how to use their effects. The simple ability to use a wide variety of well-structured —albeit weak— decks teaches you a lot more of how the game flows when played properly even without the slow-paced tutorial. The hands-on approach helps you understand the flow of a deck much better than simply spectating a match where it’s used.

A screenshot of gameplay from Yu-Gi-Oh! Master Duel. A textblock featuring a visual of three cards explaining the differences between types of decks.

Of course, this is not to say digital card games are perfect. They are, ultimately still under the control of the developer, so if you want to do basic things like playing house rules, that is simply not a viable option, and unlike a real card game where the banning of a card may still leave you with a neat collectible item or at least a card that can still be resold to recoup some loses from other collectors, in a digital card game a banned card is effectively useless. And let’s be sincere, holding a mint card with a cool artwork in your hands is just a lot more satisfying than knowing you “have” a card in digital space. Collecting is fun, and losing that does diminish their appeal for a lot of people.

However, as learning tools and gateways into the larger ecosystem of card games, I think they’re a learning tool like no other and I am quite happy to have taken an opportunity with Master Duel, for no other reason than it being free and having plenty of tutorial campaigns that made the beginner’s hump considerably less steep.

Walker is a bilingual Punk living in Mexico. When he's not getting stomped on in a mosh pit he is online getting stomped on in BlazBlue.

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