Yu-Gi-Oh's moment-to-moment gameplay is–in my opinion–the best in the industry. Very few other trading card games allow players to take on such a wide range of actions and engage with so many mechanics at once. Not only does Yu-Gi-Oh have a huge number of gameplay mechanics that are written into the official rulebook, there are also hundreds of mechanics and playstyles built into the game's numerous themes!

Mechanical differences are often a major selling point for those themes. Players respond to strong cards, yes, but also unique play styles and fun gimmicks. I'm definitely the type of player to prioritize a deck's interesting mechanical differences over its competitive outlook, and lucky for me, Konami often manages to make themes that can do both. I know I'm not the only duelist out there who's obsessed with playing a little bit of everything just to get a sense of which mechanics are the most fun.

This week we're taking a look at some of the game's coolest mechanics: the effects, rules, or metagames built into themes that create new play styles and strategies. A few of these mechanics are written right into the rulebook, but others are defined by the cards themselves.

Synchro Summoning, The Fan-Favorite Summoning Method

I rejoined the game just as Synchro monsters were being introduced, and I honestly don't think I could have picked a better time to start going to locals. Competition in my area was full of players exploring the first handful of Synchro monsters, and casual play was a hotspot for innovation, even as major competitive events were being overrun by TeleDAD. The earliest Synchro Monsters were incredibly strong: Stardust Dragon countered many of the game's most popular techs, and Black Rose Dragon offered a full-field wipe to any deck that could make its Level 7 requirement.

Synchros might not be the strongest Extra Deck summon in the game, but I personally think they're the most interesting. While Xyz and Link Summoning's often just a matter of fielding two monsters, Synchros require the careful use of Tuners and non-Tuners to meet Level and material requirements. Deck building with Synchros in mind is a lot more complicated than simply playing extenders with the same Level.

That said, complexity shouldn't be the end goal of any game mechanic. Fusion and Ritual Summons weren't compelling for most players until specific cards and entire decks unlocked their potential, like Advanced Ritual Art and Gladiator Beasts. In some ways Synchros feel like a better implementation of the idea behind Fusions: you combine two monsters into one with a special summon.

I think Synchros had the best evolution of any Extra Deck summoning mechanic in the game. From Accel Synchro–combining Synchro Tuners and Synchro Materials into still-stronger Synchros–to the reverse-Synchros of the Ursarctic theme, there are so many interesting ways to play Synchros in 2021. It's one of a few mechanics that Konami got right immediately, even if some of the game's Tuners have occasionally been a little, uh, over-tuned.

Ultimately, the game's flashiest Synchros like Shooting Quasar Dragon are fantastic representations of Yu-Gi-Oh's power fantasy, and they let you temporarily feel like you're channeling an anime character in real life.

Pendulum Extra Deck Monsters Are Complicated, But Incredibly Cool

The Pendulum mechanic was immediately controversial when it debuted in 2014 despite its weak start in the Duelist Alliance format, but it didn't take Konami long to introduce a Pendulum theme that had us all grinding our teeth in frustration.

Qliphorts heavily abused the near-infinite resource engine of the Pendulum mechanic, and it wouldn't be the last theme to do that. Decks like Pendulum Magicians, Metalfoes, Magispecters, and Performage Performapal eventually proved that Pendulums needed to be reworked. The Master Rule 4 Extra Monster Zone made the mechanic significantly more fair while keeping the heart of the Pendulum concept intact.

I love the design of Pendulums, but by far the coolest set of cards in it are the Pendulum-Fusion, Pendulum-Synchro, and Pendulum-Xyz hybrids. They're a unique group of monsters that can live in the Extra Deck in two ways: as a face-down Fusion, Synchro, or Xyz, and as a face-up Pendulum monster. Cards like Supreme King Z-ARC, Nirvana High Paladin, and Odd-Eyes Rebellion Dragon introduce a totally new way to imagine your Extra Deck cards. The lifecycle of these monsters are completely different from your typical Extra Deck monster.

Normally you'll summon a monster from your Extra Deck with the intention of abandoning it after it leaves the field. But with these hybrids you have the option to either send them back to the Extra Deck to be Pendulum Summoned later, or you can add them to your Pendulum Zone to access their Pendulum effects. Losing your Pendulum Extra Deck monster to battle or a destruction effect is just the beginning.

Unfortunately, most of these cards aren't worth playing competitively. It's hard to imagine a situation where you'd want to summon one, and there are easy answers to all of these cards in the form of banish effects. It's a powerful sub-mechanic hidden away inside the broader Pendulum mechanic, but sadly it's not one that sees a lot of use. I hope we see some better ones in the future.

Digging Up Treasure With Excavation Effects

When Sylvans debuted in 2014 there was a terminology change for cards like Archfiend's Oath and Pot of Duality. Effects that 'revealed' or otherwise allowed players to look at the top cards of their deck were broadly categorized as 'excavate' effects. The erratas helped clarify what would trigger the effects of upcoming Sylvan cards: guessing the wrong card on Archfiend's Oath would trigger Sylvan Peaskeeper, but sending the same card to the graveyard with Charge of the Light Brigade wouldn't.

Excavate effects aren't unique to Yu-Gi-Oh. Magic has a mechanic called scry that lets players reorder the top cards of their deck, and one of Cardfight! Vanguard's most notable mechanics are its Drive Check and Damage Check. In Yu-Gi-Oh, a game where you're playing at most three copies of a specific card, the ability to scan the top cards of your deck is incredibly powerful. There's just no comparison here–finding a key card with Pot of Prosperity is so much more beneficial in this game.

So why is excavating one of the game's coolest mechanics? It's not just extremely powerful, it's also noticeably different from the typical 'send your deck to the graveyard to get your graveyard-activated monster effects ready'. Decks that play That Grass Looks Greener or Lightsworn engines are simply shotgunning as many cards into the graveyard as possible and hoping for the best. Excavating is a much more elegant mechanic that often gives better results. Adamancipators and Pot of Prosperity have used excavating to great effect, and I'm always looking for more opportunities to play cards like Reasoning, Monster Gate, World Legacy Survivor, and Enchanting Fitting Room.

Messing With Columns

Card positions on the field didn't matter much in the early years of Yu-Gi-Oh. That's changed since the introduction of Links, and Konami has taken that opportunity to introduce cards that rely on columns.

Mekk-Knights were a fantastic exploration of what a column-based theme could become in the Link era by exploiting the opponent's bad habits of building columns on their side of the field. Magical Musketeers also took advantage of their opponent's column use and punished them for playing cards in columns that contained Magical Musketeer monsters.

Column gameplay wasn't exclusive to a handful of themes: Infinite Impermanence and Links made everyone conscious of positioning on the field, and it ultimately added a fresh perspective to board set-ups and card positioning. It added an extra layer of strategy when executing combos and offered new opportunities for card design.

Column gameplay gave cards like Blasting Fuse a second chance at life–even if that second chance was short-lived. Yu-Gi-Oh's hardly the only game that's obsessive about card positions, but most of those other games have far fewer field positions to worry about.

Free Extra Deck Monsters

The only thing cooler than summoning Extra Deck monsters is cheating out Extra Deck monsters using card effects. Bypassing summoning conditions and restrictions on cards is just an everyday part of Yu-Gi-Oh, but some themes have much more freedom with their exploits.

Zoodiacs break the Xyz mechanic by turning a 2-card minimum summoning method into a 1-card process. Tri-Brigades can also cheat out Links by banishing monsters from the graveyard. Meanwhile, Plunder Patrolls can summon monsters from the Extra Deck with a single card using a Quick Effect.

I absolutely love the Plunder Patroll Attribute-matching mechanic; it's just missing an Earth and a Wind Extra Deck monster. The ability to summon a monster reactively on your opponent's turn, at virtually no cost, is hugely powerful, and surprisingly fun. Plunder Patrolls might be the weakest theme between Zoodiacs and Tri-Brigades, but its implementation of Extra Deck summoning skips is by far the coolest. It's the reason why I've stuck with the deck for so long, and why I'm excited for the newest Plunder Patroll card in Lightning Overdrive: Blackeyes, the Plunder Patroll Seaguide.

There are so many interesting mechanics among Yu-Gi-Oh's themes. From level-modulation via tokens in Mecha Phantom Beasts to counter-based mechanics like Spell Counters, Predator Counters, A-Counters, and Venom Counters, there are far too many different play styles to list in this article. Let us know what your favorite mechanics are, whether they're tied to a theme or built right into the rules of the game.

Until next time then