The three big juggernauts in the global Trading Card Game industry have two things in common: they've all achieved an incredible level of success, and they've all faced some very big moments of crisis that they all managed to survive. It's exceedingly difficult for new games to enter the TCG market just because Magic, Pokémon, and Yu-Gi-Oh are so dominant in the space. And it seems like every time one of the Big 3 hits a rough patch, where a new game might be able to slip in and steal some market share, that big destroyer-class TCG comes roaring back and reclaims its territory.
That's why at this point, I think it's kind of a cliché whenever someone sees something in one of these games they don't like, and immediately says the game will die. It's especially true in Yu-Gi-Oh, where it always feels like those predictions are coming from really involved tournament players who run into a problem, and immediately go into Chicken Little mode.
We've seen lots of, "No cash prizes? Game's gonna die." And "One-deck format? Game's gonna die." And the always classic, "New set wasn't as good as the one before it? Game's gonna die."
Those are just a handful of the many, many reasons I've seen involved, invested, passionate Yu-Gi-Oh fans suddenly fear for the game's future. This has happened hundreds of times in the game's history; we hit a snag, a card's too expensive, there's an annoying deck, an event gets cancelled, somebody gets suspended, a Structure Deck gets turned into a booster set… As a community of millions of people who love this game, there's always a few overly concerned individuals who overreact to just about everything.
It's inevitable, and I make jokes, but it happens because at the end of the day people care about the game and want to see it go on forever. It's not just that we've spent a lot of money on Yu-Gi-Oh, it's the time we've invested, the emotions we've put into it, the friends we've made, and everything in between.
So with all that pessimism in mind, and considering all the times Yu-Gi-Oh's just breezed on past hiccup after hiccup, I want to take a minute to look back on the five times we maybe were at the cusp of a game-ending problem. Everybody's going to have their own opinions, but as someone who's worked with Yu-Gi-Oh for almost 20 years now, here are my picks for the five times Yu-Gi-Oh almost died.
Overall, everything was great for the Yu-Gi-Oh TCG through the full run of the original TV show. The Yu-Gi-Oh! TV series was a massive success, and the TCG did exceptionally well for a number of reasons. But the biggest one was a truly revolutionary concept: every day, people could watch what was effectively a 22-minute long commercial for the game.
And sure, Pokémon had a TV show years before. But the difference between Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh was that if you sat and watched an episode of Pokémon, you watched kids run around having adventures and catching animals in balls. If you watched Yu-Gi-Oh, you watched people play the actual card game, or at least something very close to it. Making the leap to going out and buying the cards yourself was easy. That revolutionized the TCG industry, and made Yu-Gi-Oh an incredible hit.
GX seemed determined to take Yu-Gi-Oh's initial recipe for success and just ignore it.
But for the card game to sell because of the TV show, people had to actually like the TV show. And one of the biggest reasons the original Yu-Gi-Oh! series was popular, was because it was dark and grittier than other shows at the time (especially Pokémon). It felt like it was targeted at a bit of an older audience, it felt more adult, and as the Pokémon audience aged up a lot of them grew into Yu-Gi-Oh since it was a little less all-ages.
With Yu-Gi-Oh finding so much success with that more mature approach, I'm not sure how Yu-Gi-Oh! GX happened. GX seemed determined to take Yu-Gi-Oh's initial recipe for success and just ignore it. While Yugi Muto was a smart, plucky hero who demonstrated bravery in the face of overwhelming odds he seemed to understand, GX's Jaden Yuki was this sort of Dollar Store Ash Ketchum who was too dumb to really serve as the audience cipher the writers clearly wanted him to be.
Yu-Gi-Oh went from a story of destiny and fate and historic battles fought across millennia, to some dweeb bonkin' around Fake Hogwarts chasing egg sandwiches.
I could go on, but the point is, Yu-Gi-Oh! GX saw the Yu-Gi-Oh brand holders try and trade cool-kid cachet for a new audience of younger players. And it kind of worked; lots of kids showed up to tournaments with E-Hero decks. The problem was a lot of former fans tapped out, and tournament numbers started dropping.
The other problem - which I talked about in my article on The Most Expensive E-Hero Cards - was that the cards of the GX era weren't good. It feels weird quoting myself, but here we go…
"The worst part of the GX era was watching a little kid fresh off their birthday, walk into a tournament store for the first time with a foiled out Elemental HERO deck they couldn't wait to play, and just get blasted off the face of the earth, round after round. Yu-Gi-Oh GX was meant to bring kids into the competitive fold and show them Yu-Gi-Oh was fun. But since they were excited about the wrong cards, a lot of them played in their first tournament and never came back."
Cyber Dragon was a high point, but for much of the GX era, the branding of Yu-Gi-Oh was actually working against the success of the game on a few different levels. Upper Deck was watching their cash cow take a definitive turn for the worse for reasons beyond their control, retailers were seeing sales tank, and tournament sizes shrink, and while it wasn't an immediate nose dive it was a clear slide toward a state the game had just never even had to consider before.
Upper Deck did a lot of pivoting to get through this era of Yu-Gi-Oh. They ramped up coverage and support for bigger tournaments, and the judge program that supported them. They retooled product lines like Collector's Tins to make them more appealing to both tournament players and GX fans, changed the strategy around Ultimate Rares, and rolled out more product releases to try and appease retailers. In the end it worked, and Yu-Gi-Oh survived, but the hits in this era were very real and in my mind, this was the first time Yu-Gi-Oh was under real threat.
Fans didn't think it could get worse than Yu-Gi-Oh! GX. But when they saw that the concept for Yu-Gi-Oh! 5Ds was actually characters playing Yu-Gi-Oh on actual motorcycles, they were just dumbfounded. It was like someone watched GX, loudly asked "What could be worse than this?" and then someone turned around and was like, "Here, it's this thing."
Lots of players were confused and indignant. But for those of us who did Yu-Gi-Oh for a living? We were quietly updating our resumes. We'd seen Yu-Gi-Oh survive a lot over the years, but this new Turbo Duel angle just made zero sense. We were in it to the end, but we were all pretty terrified of where this crazytrain was going.
On top of it, the idea of a new kind of Extra Deck monster with a unique border and new summoning mechanic was entirely new. Nowadays we've seen Xyz Monsters, Pendulum Monsters, Link Monsters, all sorts of stuff, and we've come to expect a new summoning mechanic with a new category of card from each era of Yu-Gi-Oh.
But back in 5Ds? This was all new territory. Players weren't super open-minded, especially with 5Ds making everybody take a step back and wonder what on earth was going on with the motorbikes.
After so many monsters featured in Yu-Gi-Oh! GX proved to be flops, just irrelevant to most players, these new Synchro Monsters needed to be so good that players would love them immediately. If players rejected Synchros, the next several years of Yu-Gi-Oh were just going to be a slow-moving death march.
And then something miraculous happened. We all watched Yu-Gi-Oh! 5Ds, and it was actually pretty damn good. Somehow this insane concept of Turbo Duels became a framework for a story about class war and how it affects friendships. And with character design that hearkened back to the original Yu-Gi-Oh! series, it all kind of clicked. The characters were likable, the monsters were cool, the story made sense, and it felt like a real successor to everything that made Yu-Gi-Oh! so much fun in the first place.
And Synchro Monsters? They weren't just good. They were fucking great. Stardust Dragon, Black Rose Dragon, Goyo Guardian, Magical Android, Thoughtruler Archfiend, and countless others were fantastic cards that fit into lots of different decks. With each new set, players were excited to see what Synchros were coming out next, and the best Synchros had unbelievably long shelf lives in competitive Yu-Gi-Oh. The 5Ds era looked like it was going to be horrible, but it worked out in a big way, as the showrunners and TCG team learned from their past mistakes and pulled a massive u-turn, kickstarting one of the golden eras of Yu-Gi-Oh.
5Ds was a surprise success on every level. And then everything exploded anyways.
You can read all about it over on Yugipedia, but the gist is that as the entity paying to license the TCG element of the Yu-Gi-Oh brand - a brand that has lots of different elements, the TCG just being one arm - Upper Deck broke their contractual obligations in some massive, unbelievably brazen ways. When it got so bad that they were caught printing shoddy unauthorized Yu-Gi-Oh cards and using them to move old stock behind Konami's back, as well as the multitude of other stakeholders in the Yu-Gi-Oh brand, it was the final straw and Konami filed legal action to take back control of the Yu-Gi-Oh TCG.
Konami was suddenly stuck trying to handle one of the biggest Trading Card Games of all time
Over the years this situation's been colored lots of different ways. Players generally didn't like Upper Deck, until Konami took over and suddenly the Upper Deck era was held up as "the good old days." The reality is that no company wants to have to sue their partner out of nowhere and figure out how to build international supply chains and support programs, just to keep their product alive and kicking. Konami and Upper Deck both had a good thing going on paper, but it's not secret that ownership of Upper Deck in the 80s and 90s had accrued a reputation in the collectibles industry.
So Konami was suddenly stuck trying to handle one of the biggest Trading Card Games of all time , with no distribution network and no tournament support infrastructure: there was no judge program, no Konami official tournament stores, no relationships with anyone who could run Regionals, and no Yu-Gi-Oh! Championship Series. They had to move fast, building out new operations and hiring key employees; the latter wasn't easy, since most of the people working with Yu-Gi-Oh still worked with Upper Deck, some of whom had non-compete clauses, while others had been burned by the court proceedings and would be un-hirable for some period of time.
26579 || 25554 || 26169
At the same time, Upper Deck had done a lot of things to try and retain their audience, and make Konami look bad in the process. You might remember Upper Deck Day events , but if your dueling career doesn't go back that far, Upper Deck basically tried to flush all their backstock by giving it out as prizes for one last huge Yu-Gi-Oh shindig, probably in a bid to flood the market with product and win player favor for their future TCG products. They even gave out a ton of Championship Prize Cards, momentarily destroying the value of product-hover id="26579", product-hover id="25554", and product-hover id="26169".
The good news is that Konami managed to rebuild pretty swiftly, finishing out the SHONEN JUMP CHAMPIONSHIP events and then transforming them into the Yu-Gi-Oh! Championship Series we known today. Konami hired the right people, a few incredibly hard-working individuals managed to keep the Yu-Gi-Oh TCG above water, and loyal Yu-Gi-Oh fans did the rest. Meanwhile Upper Deck learned the hard way that most Yu-Gi-Oh players weren't willing to trade Yu-Gi-Oh for a new game even if you threw them a bunch of Yu-Gi-Oh prize cards. Upper Deck's replacement games like the Huntik: Secrets and Seekers TCG did decent numbers for a while in Europe, but never really caught on in North America.
And if your response to that is something like, "What the hell is Huntik?" please rest assured that's a perfectly normal reaction.
If you're playing Yu-Gi-Oh now, there's a good chance you might have been playing it in 2017, too, so you may remember the struggles of the VRAINS era. New Master Rule , often referred to as Master Rule 4, introduced Link Monsters and Link Summoning, and the rule that stated Extra Deck monsters had to be Special Summoned to an Extra Monster Zone, or to a Main Monster Zone pointed to by a Link Monster.
All in all, the optimistic view of New Master Rule was that Link Monsters would force Yu-Gi-Oh to slow down. Instead, all it really did was make the game vastly more complicated, pushing Synchro and Xyz Monsters to the fringe of competition, while killing Pendulum Monsters almost entirely. Here in the TCG, in the Americas, Europe, and Oceania, we rolled with it. Sure, some players left because their favorite kinds of monsters were now useless, and some left because the game just became so complex. But overall, event numbers were still solid and sales still grew.
Yu-Gi-Oh's sales in Japan tanked. They were 52% lower year over year.
That was the case in the TCG. Over in Asia's Yu-Gi-Oh OCG? It was a different story. You can find a few different takes on the OCG's sales numbers in 2017, but the most popular one - and actually the most conservative - was presented as part of a larger state-of-the-industry announcement by Studio Iketti's President Yoshimasa Ikeda. Card shops were hurting in Japan in 2017, and Ikeda presented a claim that the Japanese card game market as a whole suffered more than a 40% drop in sales between 2016 and 2017 .
According to the research firm Ikeda quoted, Yu-Gi-Oh's sales in Japan tanked. They were 52% lower year over year. That's a number a lot of western fans were willing to call shenanigans on, but more numbers from other sources corroborated the trend, and I've seen some numbers that even suggest the OCG might have seen as much as a 70% crash that year. That's shocking for a market that was in a constant state of growth beforehand .
This all led to the Master Rule revision that was announced for the OCG on April 1st of 2021, which - amongst a few other changes - reversed the rules that forced players to control Link Monsters if they wanted to play Xyz, Synchros, and Fusions. The Link rule revisions changed for the TCG at the same time, though the rest of the revisions were only officially confirmed for the TCG a few weeks ago .
Generally speaking, while many players were unhappy with the 2017 New Master Rule changes, the impact on the TCG market was minimal, especially compared to the utter demolition suffered by the OCG. The TCG player base is largely more competitive than the OCG player base, and I think the average TCG player was just more invested in competition and more willing to roll with all the new complexities. However, those complicated rules did create a big barrier to entry; Yu-Gi-Oh was a deeply confusing game to explain to new players, and really still is. But removing mandatory Link Monsters from the over-arching game design was a big help, solving challenges in the TCG and rectifying debilitating problems in the OCG.
Okay, so maybe we're not out of the woods yet. But with product becoming less drastic, with Yu-Gi-Oh Championship Series events returning to real-life venues next month , and with in-person Regionals returning in February , it feels like we can finally stop holding our breath.
Yu-Gi-Oh survived COVID, and slowly but surely, things are getting back to normal.
But can we take a second to just appreciate how wild the situation was, and how crazy it must've been for everybody involved in running the Yu-Gi-Oh TCG and OCG, to keep this game alive over the last two years? Magic and Pokémon had an obvious mechanism to keep players engaged with their games: Magic's Arena platform is largely just the Standard Magic format online, while PTCGO mirrors multiple real-life formats of the Pokémon TCG. Both offer tournament support, too, and are officially supported with updates, maintenance, customer service, and direct ties to their respective TCGs.
Yu-Gi-Oh had nothing like that, at least not on an official basis. Fast forward to now, and as of this writing we're still waiting for Master Duel, the official online version of Yu-Gi-Oh's Advanced Format play. Rumors are strongly suggesting a mid-January launch, sure, but Yu-Gi-Oh managed to survive almost two years of pandemic conditions asking players to strap webcams to things and join Discord servers.
Remote Duels have actually been really well-supported, with tons of great prizing, lots of formats, and involvement from some of Yu-Gi-Oh's most active and iconic tournament stores. But it's still amazing that the concept worked at all. Starting with that first Discord server launch that had, uhh, let's say mixed results; through to the modern reality of Remote Duel YCS tournaments that draw 1000+ competitors, it's been an insane ride that by all rights probably shouldn't have worked. A mix of creativity and determination from Konami staff, combined with the sheer never-say-die love of the game Yu-Gi-Oh players have, managed to get us to where we are now.
And while real-life events are on the way, is it weird that I feel like we could be better off if Konami keeps supporting Remote Duels?
You know, love 'em or hate 'em, Remote Duels have accomplished two big side goals: players who can't attend regular events, either because they can't travel long distances for card games or because they have specific limiting abilities affecting their day-to-day life, have been able to play in Remote Duel events. And on top of that, formats that struggled at the local level can find enough players to fire tournaments in the Remote Duel environment - Speed Duels have probably never been more relevant than they are now. That could prove to be increasingly important as Yu-Gi-Oh continues to try and grow not just Speed Duels, but other rumored formats too.
But yeah, don't get me wrong: Yu-Gi-Oh is virtually unkillable, and if you're ever worried that something you don't like might threaten the actual future of the game? Ehhh… You probably don't need to stress about it. This game's survived crazy, self-destructive reversals of brand image; ludicrous character concepts and weird new types of cards; corporate backstabbing and secret plots to counterfeit merchandise; huge rollbacks of failed game mechanics; and now the biggest plague-level disaster of the past century.
The next time you find yourself worrying about Yu-Gi-Oh? Trust me: Yu-Gi-Oh's gonna be fine.