Yu-Gi-Oh's been defined by its Advanced Format since the concept was first introduced to the TCG in 2004.
Competitive play's always been built around the Advanced Format, and new card releases are balanced and centered with that format in mind. That doesn't mean that there's only one way to play Yu-Gi-Oh: Speed Duels, team duels, draft play, and sealed play are all officially supported now, or were supported in the past. Custom formats like Goat Format are also a big hit, but for officially supported play the most popular option aside from Advanced is Speed Dueling for physical cards, and Duel Links for the digital side.
Speed Dueling and Duel Links use custom tailored card pools to create a good experience for casual and competitive players. Let's face it: Advanced Format Yu-Gi-Oh can be a mess when unexpected card interactions fuel FTKs or create impossible-to-break boards. Speed Duels aren't perfectly balanced either, but they do deliver a more even playing field at a fraction of the cost. That said, Speed Duels and Advanced Format play run on different rulesets. The unique set of rules for Speed Duels lead to shorter games and shorter turns. There aren't as many combos or extra summoning mechanics, and deck counts and Life Point totals are much lower.
Unfortunately if you're looking for Master Dueling rules you're pretty much stuck playing either the Advanced or Traditional Formats. I think the limited format options are underselling the potential of Yu-Gi-Oh, and in reality this game really only has one Master Dueling format.
I think the biggest problem facing Yu-Gi-Oh's format dilemma is the fact that the 'two-format' system for Master Dueling is really just a single format with a 'fake' second format that nobody actually plays.
The Traditional Format seemingly emerged as a compromise to players who wanted to keep playing their favorite cards regardless of whether a bunch of hyper-competitive tournament goers were overplaying them. From a casual perspective the Traditional Format makes a lot of sense, at least at first glance; there's still an attempt at balance via limits and semi-limits, but every card is playable in at least one copy per deck.
The idea that casual players would play in the Traditional Format's probably a symptom of my perspective as a competitive player. The reality is that casual players who want to keep playing Firewall Dragon because it's an important card in the anime, or like playing Pot of Greed with their friends, aren't using the Traditional Format's Forbidden & Limited List. Instead, they're either using a custom list and ruleset with their friends, or they're ignoring both F&L Lists completely. After all, if you're willing to buck the Advanced Format list to play Fiber Jar, then you're probably willing to ignore it when your friend plays two copies of Monster Reborn.
As a personal anecdote I've encountered far more casual players who prefer to use their own custom rules when playing with their friends. These are players who've banned the use of Links and Pendulums, but still allow Graceful Charity. And that's fine–there's nothing wrong with using your cards the way you want to. Goat Format is an excellent example of this trend even among some of the game's most competitive players.
Still, if casual players aren't using Traditional Format then why bother with it? Traditional doesn't have a place among competitive duelists–all serious competition in that format boils down to highly consistent FTKs. Traditional is the definition of a 'dice roll format' and it's utterly boring. Advanced Format play is really the only way to play Master Duels in a constructed sense, at least officially, and for a game that has over ten-thousand cards, that's kind of a shame.
Player-created custom formats give us a bit of insight into what duelists are looking for from an alternate format. Let's be clear: the Advanced Format will always be Yu-Gi-Oh's primary mode of play, but there's still room at tournament side events, local play, and casual play to try other formats. Goat Format's one of my favorites, and it's easy enough to pick another 'snapshot' of the game's history and build decks based on the card pool and banlist at the time.
From Konami's perspective it's hard to justify a 'time capsule' format like Goats if you're not also selling new cards. Speed Duels circumvent that problem by creating an entire new card pool that your existing cards won't work with, but there are other ways that Konami could build a new card pool for a new format. Other games do this using set rotations where only the newest releases can be played. I don't like the idea of using a rotation system in Yu-Gi-Oh because part of the game's appeal is the evergreen nature of its card pool. You can open a shoebox of cards from 2006 and still find cards that are tournament-ready today.
On a personal note I'd love to have an opportunity to play certain older cards again. Goat Format's so fascinating because it plays so differently from modern Yu-Gi-Oh, rule changes aside. A face-down monster in Goat Format isn't an admission of defeat: it's a real threat that makes Nobleman of Crossout a serious choice. You don't want to run into a set Magician of Faith that could return a Premature Burial to your opponent's hand and set up the summon of Black Luster Soldier - Envoy of the Beginning.
That very specific kind of strategic play–maneuvering around set monsters–doesn't exist in the game anymore. It's a refreshing take when most of today's decks are obsessively pumping out negation bodies and trying desperately to prevent their opponent from even taking any actions to begin with.
A third format won't look exactly like Goat Format, but I think it's a great baseline for how Konami could build a new way to play the game. Remember, Konami has to sell some new cards out of this, so a full recreation of a prior format where we can use our existing cards is probably out of the question. Instead, I think there's an opportunity to spotlight retro themes, revive older ways of playing the game, and still spice up the competition with new cards using a curated card pool and Forbidden & Limited List.
So what might that look like, exactly?
Let's imagine for a moment that the new season of competitive play is kicking off in August of 2021 and Konami announces a Side Event circuit that ends at the World Championship Qualifier. This circuit features a custom card pool that highlights Synchros, Tuners, and themes like Crystrons, Junk Warrior, and Scraps. In this pool there are no Xyz, Fusions, Links, or Pendulums, and instead many of the game's best Tuners make a comeback in a format where Synchros are indisputably the strongest cards in the game.
Synchros currently on the F&L List might get moved around a bit, and new Tuners and Synchros could be added to the card pool as they're released through the year. Infernity Doom Archfiend and Penguin Brave are about to be released in Phantom Rage, and they'd instantly find their way into the Seasonal Format card pool.
About the term 'Seasonal Format': not everyone is going to want to play with Synchros all the time, and there are more than enough cards and mechanics in the game to change the focus of a Seasonal Format once a year. 2021-2022 might be focused on Synchros, but 2022-2023 could target Xyz or Fusions.
There are some added benefits to doing this on a yearly basis, including the potential to prevent insane price spikes on the secondary market. Reprints are largely based on Advanced Format play, so a top competitive tech choice in a Seasonal Format might have very limited availability. Swapping the format yearly prevents cards from steadily climbing to unreasonable price points.
This idea isn't new or terribly original, but it's much more practical today than it was a few years ago. First, the Master Rule change that made Xyz, Fusions, and Synchros less dependent on the Extra Monster Zone means that a Seasonal Format wouldn't need to change game mechanics to work. Only when Pendulums are included would you need to find some way to also fit Links into a curated card pool.
Second, and I think this is the most important point: building for a custom format has never been easier. In the past I'd have written off a custom format as a serious alternate form of play because it would have been too difficult to build decks for. You'd need to sit down at a computer or pull up a massive list on your phone and cross reference every card in your collection against that list.
Thanks to Yu-Gi-Oh! Neuron you can easily build decks in-app for the Advanced Format, and I can't imagine it would be difficult for Konami to implement a format selection option. Imagine toggling a setting to enable deck building for the current season, and being presented with a concise list of available cards that are sortable and searchable.
Neuron's widely available to Yu-Gi-Oh players and it comes complete with features like hand testing and deck sharing. There's a lot of room for Neuron to grow, and it could be exactly what a Seasonal Format needs to be successful.
I think Goat Format's the key to understanding what a potential third Master Rule format might look like, but Konami has to be able to monetize it somehow. We'll see what kind of decisions are made about Speed Duels down the road, although I get the feeling that the next new experiment by Konami will probably feature Master Duels rather than a custom ruleset.
Until next time then