Yu-Gi-Oh's notoriously expensive. Throughout its history, we've seen some of the best decks sport price tags that easily cleared the $1,000 mark.
In 2008 there was Tele-DAD, which included Dark Armed Dragon, Allure of Darkness, Emergency Teleport, and the ever-expensive prize card, Crush Card Virus. In 2013 we saw the first Dragon Ruler format, which required multiples of Secret Rares like Number 11: Big Eye and Mecha Phantom Beast Dracossack. Throughout the timeline, there have been many staple Secrets that players needed multiples of to keep up with the competition. Tour Guide From the Underworld, Maxx "C", Solemn Strike, Pot of Desires, Ash Blossom & Joyous Spring, and Lightning Storm are all iconic examples.
Does the heavy price tag that comes with competitive play mean that Yu-Gi-Oh is a pay-to-win game? The answer is that it depends on the context of the question. Let's dig in.
Defining Pay-To-Win Is Contextual
The best place to start is to identify what it means for an activity to be "pay-to-win."
Players generally lament that a game is pay-to-win when elements can be purchased that grant a substantial advantage against those that pay little to no money. If the game isn't centered on PVP play - players facing players - then "pay-to-win" instead describes when some part of the game functions as a paywall; spending money becomes necessary to make any further meaningful progress.
All activities have some sort of fee attached. Even an activity as simple as running requires the runner to purchase shoes. Game companies need to charge their players somehow. In the most literal sense, you must pay something to play anything worthwhile. So why isn't everything considered pay-to-win?
The answer is in how the transaction makes the buyer feel. Extra Credits, a video essay channel that discusses the design of games, created an excellent video that explains the difference between cases where game developers do monetization well and when they do it poorly. There are two extremes for poor monetization. On one hand, when an in-game transaction grants so much advantage that it removes the challenge that makes the game fun in the first place, it's neglected and goes unpurchased. On the other hand, when a transaction is needed just to play and makes players feel that they're forced to pay, it's seen as pay-to-win. Monetization done well is neither of those extremes. Rather, good monetization is when transactions make players happy to spend their money, rather than bored or resentful.
The difficulty in trying to capture the idea of "pay-to-win" is that its definition is a moving target and highly contextual. It's sort of like calling an object "big." Is a house big? If that house is compared to a smaller house, sure. If that house is compared to a mansion, not so much. It's the same with pay-to-win. Even running might be considered pay-to-win in a society where only the richest people can afford shoes.
This relativity is the reason why "expensive" and pay-to-win aren't synonymous. A game can be pay-to-win yet inexpensive. For instance, MMORPGs like Maple Story (a personal favorite) have bosses and challenges that are distinctly made ridiculously easier by paying for items. Yet, the price for these items can be relatively reasonable, especially compared to a game like Yu-Gi-Oh. The inverse can also be true: a game can be expensive yet not pay-to-win. Tennis requires more equipment than running. However, you can't buy your way through a tennis tournament any more than you can buy yourself to the end of a finish line. Pay-to-win often correlates with price, but the two are not synonymous.
Apart from the problem of relativity, the fact that money and skill are always interacting with each other further complicates trying to designate a game as pay-to-win. For example, we generally don't think of sports as pay-to-win. If you win a footrace, you won off the merit of how fast your legs carried you. If you have a high percentage accuracy of basketball free-throws, it's due to the hard work you put into practicing your shot.
However, the average runner is faster today than a century ago. The average pro athlete in nearly every sport is better than their counterpart in the last era. These improvements can be directly traced to advancements in nutrition, training, and strategy – all of which required funding. Even if you examine within the same era, teams that have more funding get better support and training for their players than teams with less. Yet, we generally pay attention to the achievements of the individual athlete over the funding that helped to shape them. Through the sports example, we see that a game can have high paywalls yet still be seen by fans as not pay-to-win if the level of skill involved overshadows the fees. Similar reasoning applies to many other fields, such as musicianship.
Yu-Gi-Oh Is Pay-To-Win Depending On Your Frame Of Reference
Given all of the caveats discussed, let's now ask a more precise question than, "Is Yu-Gi-Oh pay-to-win?" Instead, let's ask in what context it is and in what context it isn't by applying the principles we discussed.
I find that framework by Extra Credits to be an elegant and accurate model, so let's first examine Yu-Gi-Oh through that lens. Why do many players feel that Yu-Gi-Oh is pay-to-win? It's because expensive decks may keep a player from being able to compete at all. The degree to which that's true is highly dependent on temporal and geographical factors.
For example, if you examine the year 2014 you'll find that few duelists complained that the game was pay-to-win. The format at that time was so diverse that even the most budget-constrained players could stand a chance against fat-pocketed duelists. As another example, Yu-Gi-Oh being played at a small local shop in a region with low population density like Louisiana (to use an example from my own life), is unlikely to see lots of players with expensive decks. Even if the format's a one-deck metagame where the best deck is $1000 that beats every other strategy, the competitive environment of a rural hobby shop will still allow for budget players to compete.
There is eventually some threshold in competition where money matters. You can run in local races with just your pair of shoes and win if you're fast. You can play basketball in local tournaments with just a ball if you're skilled. However, if you want to raise up a team to compete in the NBA, you'll need more than just highly skilled players – you'll need funds to the tune of millions just to have a chance.
Similarly, in Yu-Gi-Oh you need to buy that $1,000 deck in a one-deck format in order to have a reasonable chance at topping a premier event. But if we equate the pay-to-win label simply with the expensive barrier to entry for high-level competition and leave it at that, we do ourselves a disservice: we oversimplify the role of money and leave out what makes Yu-Gi-Oh such a well-designed strategy game.
Once the barrier to entry is cleared, money has little to no role in performance. For example, you can't take an average player in the NBA, pay to provide that player the exact same regimen and conditioning as Steph Curry, and come out with a shooter who can match Curry's ability. Money can't close that gap in talent. Similarly, while you can buy yourself a $1,000 deck, it only means that you have the equipment to compete. It doesn't give you the skill to top. You're going to face opponents with the same $1,000 deck as you for many rounds; topping and winning will depend on your own personal talent and effort.
In fact, due to the skillful nature of mirror matches, the expensive one-deck seasons in Yu-Gi-Oh have often been the ones when the best players saw the most consistent success. Whether you see it as a good thing or bad thing, skill's often most rewarded at the premier level during expensive formats.
You'll find that nearly every sufficiently deep form of competition, even if it's affordable on an amateur level, will have some stage where big spending is needed to take performance to the next level. It can be expensive private lessons or equipment in sports or high-rarity cards in TCGs. In that regard, many competitive games like Yu-Gi-Oh are pay-to-win.
However, once that paywall is cleared, a whole vista of complex and engaging strategy opens up. On the other side of that wall, money does very little to help you. Activating that $100 French Ultimate Rare Pot of Desires does the same thing as activating a $4 Structure Deck common copy of the card; money grants no advantage, and only the most skilled duelists rise to the top. In that regard, competitive games like Yu-Gi-Oh aren't pay-to-win.
I propose that the better question to ask isn't whether a game is pay-to-win, but rather, whether it's being monetized well. That is, are we satisfying the needs of the most competitive customers who are able to clear the paywall for the highest level of play, while not leaving those who can't clear that paywall to feel that they are without options to enjoy the game in their own way? Can we design our games in such a way that people are happy to make their purchases, rather than resentful?