Have you ever read a Yu-Gi-Oh card, then gone back to read it again, then read it one more time, and finally decided that you still don't understand how it works?

Don't worry, you're not alone. Yu-Gi-Oh's a complicated game with dozens of mechanics and shockingly few keywords to help players make connections between different kinds of card effects. Problem-Solving Card Text was a step in the right direction, but even modern cards can be challenging to understand.

I'm kicking off 2021 with a look at some of Yu-Gi-Oh's most confusing cards, including cards with complicated effects that are difficult to understand, or are challenging to use correctly in a duel. Many cards are straightforward on paper, but they lead to head-scratching moments shortly after you put them into play. Other cards require outside resources to even begin to understand them, or a more intimate knowledge of rulings to really appreciate them. Some are even just worded strangely.

Black Garden

How could we not start here? 2008 was already a complicated time for Yu-Gi-Oh players with the introduction of the Synchro mechanic. I think we take for granted the history of Extra Deck mechanics, but in 2008 we'd only had Synchros for a few months. Before that you'd only find Fusion Monsters in what was then called the 'Fusion Deck'.

Black Garden added an extra layer of complexity to the Synchro-spam that was beginning to take off in tournaments. Decks that were summoning lots of cards would inevitably force Black Garden to halve the ATK of their cards, load the field with tokens, and set up Black Garden second math-heavy effect. Black Garden created huge confusion thanks to its interactions with cards that had ATK-changing continuous effects, and it threw a huge monkey wrench into the concept of turn player priority on ignition monster effects.

Fortune Lady Light

The era of optional triggers that could miss timing is long behind us, but in 2009 there were still plenty of cards that used "When…you can" text with bad triggers. You'll still see this text from time to time on cards that can be activated in response to the destruction of a monster or the activation of a card or effect; their activation conditions are almost always met because the response window is open virtually every time their trigger occurs.

Themed 'summon from deck' cards like Graff, Malebranche of the Burning Abyss and Whitebeard, The Plunder Patroll Helm are modern versions of Fortune Lady Light that can't miss timing, and they're much less complicated for it.

Fortune Lady Light continues to confuse players because we just aren't used to cards with this kind of optional trigger. Destroying her with Dark Hole or Torrential Tribute will trigger her effect, but using her in a Link or Synchro Summon won't. It's unintuitive for new players who probably won't run into this issue on most new cards, outside of situations involving chain blocking.

Falling Down

Mechanically Falling Down isn't much different from Snatch Steal, and it's definitely not as complicated as Mark of the Rose. What sets Falling Down apart is its self-destruct effect that triggers if you don't control an Archfiend card.

Seems simple enough, right? Well, Archfiends are an unusual theme. If you've seen a recent printing of Summoned Skull you'll know that it's considered an Archfiend card, and this is the case for several other cards as well, including Beast of Talwar, Lesser Fiend, Shadow Tamer, and Axe of Despair. As a result of a localization difference none of these cards were printed as 'Archfiends' originally. They did, however, still fulfill Falling Down condition if you took the time to research online documentation.

That kind of academia's no longer necessary, but it's not the only case where referring to documents online was the best way to figure out how a card actually worked.

The Entire Weather Theme

The whole Weather theme gets a special mention in this article for being one of the most convoluted and counterintuitive strategies in the game.

The gimmick of The Weather is that the monsters do relatively little on their own, and instead it's the deck's Continuous Spells and Traps that give the monsters bonus effects. Naturally, a Weather Painter monster can pick up more than one effect, and The Weather Painter Rainbow can grant them another one. That's up to five effects rolled into a single monster, and those effects can change each turn since the Weather Painter monsters are regularly leaving and returning to the field.

It's all extremely difficult to keep track of, and the theme's getting two new cards later this year. You may want to start studying.

Inspector Boarder

Any effect that requires you to count or keep track of actions can quickly become overwhelming. Inspector Boarder particularly annoying to keep in mind over the course of a turn because the magic number you're incrementing towards can change.

Boarder requires players to keep their field loaded with specific monster card types to keep activating monster effects. Summoning additional card types gives you more room to activate effects, but losing card type diversity shrinks the number of activations you're allowed. Maintaining both numbers in your head while planning your moves, which almost certainly involves changing those numbers with nearly every action, is enough to annoy even dedicated control players.

The Fabled Unicore

Like Inspector Boarder, The Fabled Unicore effect can switch on or off multiple times in a turn, or even multiple times during the resolution of a chain. Compared to Boarder its effect is significantly easier to understand, and it's not nearly as much of a pain to deal with during an actual duel. Still, The Fabled Unicore can easily trip up players who forget that simply activating a spell will drop their hand size by one.

The player controlling The Fabled Unicore will usually try to keep their hand size exactly one card lower than their opponent's. That was easier to do in the days when both players started with six cards in hand, but it's mostly a non-issue these days. I'd much rather be staring down a Unicore instead of Inspector Boarder.

Voltester

I think the idea with Voltester is to imagine a chain of destructive electricity moving from Link Monster to Link Monster. The way that works in-game is a little difficult to wrap your head around, and even stranger to implement in a real duel. Voltester features a few keywords that are extremely rare in Yu-Gi-Oh, including the phrase "repeating the process".

First, Voltester destroys the Links that are pointing to it. Then, if a Link Monster was previously pointing to a Link Monster that was just destroyed, that monster is also destroyed. You'll keep going until there are no more monsters that meet this condition, and that's just over the course of resolving that single effect!

Broken Bamboo Sword

Some cards aren't confusing because they have an excessive amount of text. Instead, a handful of cards are confusing because they don't tell you enough about how they work.

Broken Bamboo Sword an ATK-boosting equip that's no more complicated than a classic like Axe of Despair, but it's still a head-scratcher. Why would anyone play a card that effectively does nothing?

Imagine pulling this card from a new pack of Tactical Evolution back in 2007. Golden Bamboo Sword was still a full year out in Light of Destruction, so there was literally no reason to play Broken Bamboo Sword in the meantime. It wasn't just a bad card: it was a strictly useless one.

Mystical Refpanel

At a surface level Mystical Refpanel isn't terribly complicated–at least until you try playing it in an actual duel. In the days before Problem-Solving Card Text you'd often need to consult an online ruling to determine whether a card effect targeted other cards, and which parts of that effect happened at activation versus resolution.

Mystical Refpanel an oddity in Yu-Gi-Oh because cards rarely target players in the same way as other card games. Magic: The Gathering cards will explicitly mention targeting a player, but Yu-Gi-Oh cards rarely do. The kinds of effects that Mystical Refpanel can redirect, how it redirects them, and to what extent those redirections occur is almost always a process of digging through old forum posts or examining ruling documentation that's over a decade old.

Small World

Easily one of the most complicated cards released in 2021, Small World is confusing largely because the order of your actions is abnormal. Typically card effects deal with one card at a time. For example, Spore Special Summons itself from the graveyard by banishing another Plant in the graveyard, then gains Levels equal to the banished monster. In the first step you're banishing a monster and noting its Level. In the second step you'll summon Spore and add the Level boost.

Small World subverts that by forcing you to jump back and forth between the cards you're revealing. In total you'll reveal three cards: two from your deck and one in your hand.

Notice how the order's completely mixed up? You're constantly moving between the revealed cards in different areas of the play space. Unfortunately because Small World banishes face-down, unlike Spore, it's necessary to order things this way.

There are still plenty of opportunities to make mistakes with Small World even if you're not tripped up by the order of operations when resolving the card. Unlike other Yu-Gi-Oh cards you're not simply looking for one matching condition. Instead, you're looking for exactly one matching stat and four unmatching stats. That means you need to check every reveal five different ways, with two separate conditions, each time you resolve the card. For a player that's carefully prepared their Small World combos that's not too much of an issue, but it's a huge pain for the opponent if they want to double check every reveal for themselves.

Sometimes a card doesn't need to be mechanically complicated to be confusing. Inconsistent card text issues plagued Yu-Gi-Oh's early days and the pre-PSCT era. Cards like Small World are likely the way of the future for Yu-Gi-Oh as complexity creep demands increasingly confusing card text. Maybe the game really does need a new Extra Deck mechanic, or some other new card type to build new kinds of effects around, rather than doubling down on odd mechanics like face-down banished cards.

Ultimately though, it's not a huge problem. Konami prints hundreds of cards each year that live in the game forever. If one or two take a couple of readings to get right, I'd call that a success.

Until next time then.