The prize cards created for the annual Yu-Gi-Oh! World Championships are some of the game's most coveted collectibles.
Each year, there are two different prize cards awarded to top finishing competitors in each of the World Championships: one for 2nd Place, 3rd Place, and 4th Place, as well as another reserved exclusively for the 1st Place winner. Even before the collector boom of the last few years, Worlds cards were so rare and so high-profile that they regularly commanded prices in the five digits, long before the time when a graded Blue-Eyes White Dragon could double as the down payment on a house.
The prestige, the scarcity, and the value of World Championship prize cards is well known - it's every player's dream to go to Worlds and win one. But there are aspects of these cards that aren't as obvious; secrets hidden in their design and artwork. If you've ever looked at a World Championship prize card and wondered why that specific monster was created for that specific card, you might have thought these characters were just cool, commemorative character designs. Or if you're a cynic, you might have guessed that they were leftover art from previous projects!
But the truth runs deeper: over time the World Championship prize cards developed a set of traditions, unique hallmarks that are surprisingly consistent, and that show up again and again, every year.
Most of the older prize cards - specifically those from 2005 to 2007 - predate what are now established patterns. The concept of what Worlds prize cards are today, evolved over time, seemingly starting in 2008. First, the cards reserved for 1st Place have prominent gold colors in the character design, while the runner-up prize cards feature silver. That's pretty easy to spot, and there's some argument to be made that it was happening in earlier prize cards too (2006's Testament of the Arcane Lords is a standout, being extremely gold!).
But 2008 also marked the start of the continental rotation system, where the continent hosting the World Championship changed each year, rotating between Asia, the Americas, and Europe. When that cycle started, with Europe's first hosting of the World Championship in 2008, the design philosophy behind the prize cards seemed to shift: suddenly the cards were showing explicit ties to the history, iconography, and architecture of the hosting region… but only if you knew how to spot them. Look carefully and you'll find characters pulled from local mythology, colors and objects taken from flags and coats of arms, and even references to famous landmarks, architecture, and industries unique to the hosting city.
Today, let's examine the World Championship prize cards from 2008 forward, and talk about the cultural influences hidden in their design. There's some really cool stuff here!
It's no surprise that two mythological entities grace these match winner cards: there's a wealth of fables and inspiration that these cards could have drawn from, thanks to Germany's rich history of storytelling.
It would've been criminal if a Nordic God wasn't the crown jewel of the first-ever European World Championship, and sure enough, the 1st Place card in 2008 was Tyr, the Vanquishing Warlord. You may already be familiar with Tyr's mythological background, so I won't go into deep detail on the Norse God, but what you need to know is that the original Tyr was part of the Norse pantheon, worshipped by the Northern Germanic Tribes. Like most divine beings that get tapped for Yu-Gi-Oh cards, Tyr appeared here as a Fairy-type. Its gold coloring contrasts the next card in the 2008 pair, symbolizing their first and second place status with gold and silver color schemes.
While Tyr was called from the highest echelons of Nordic legend, Lorelei, the Symphonic Arsenal draws on Germanic folktales, and a more modern culture. Lorelei's entire concept is an amalgamation of music and legend. Her musical qualities might be a reference to the Berliner Philharmoniker, a world renowned orchestra in Berlin recognized for its technical mastery.
Lorelei's chimeric body is composed of many types of musical instruments and pipes. Her silver body and the sheer majesty of the character's design may be meant to mimic the Great Sauer Organ. If you look closely, behind the flourish of lights and sound waves in her artwork, you'll see that Lorelei's perched on a rocky cliff. That cliff could make her a reference to the landmark called the Lorelei, a real-life slate rock found on the Rhine River's right bank, in the Rhine Gorge. The Loreley Open-Air Theatre was built on top of it.
Both the rock and the theatre's names are no coincidence: they're both named for a story written by Clemens Bertano, a German Romanticist poet and novelist, wherein a woman - Lorelei - waits in vain for the love of her life to return to her. But her lover's unfaithful, and never returns. In a fit of grief, the devastated Lorelei hurls herself from atop the rock and into the river below, emerging as a mermaid. From that point forward, she uses her siren song to call out to fishermen, beckoning them to their deaths. In Yu-Gi-Oh, our Lorelei the Symphonic Arsenal mimics the story, standing on the cliff and singing her symphony.
Inspired by Buddhist and Shinto ideology, this pair of prize cards debuted in Tokyo. Skuna, the Leonine Rakan's name is better understood when we look at its Japanese name, which contains the word "Arhat" in place of "Rakan". In Buddhism, an Arhat is someone who's released their worldly desires and made significant progress toward enlightenment. An Arhat has overcome the human attributes of greed and anger and have relieved themselves of their past Karmic burdens. They're no longer part of the samsara cycle of worldly suffering, rebirth and death.
Skuna, the Leonine Rakan's duality also plays an important role in its design. The heads are a pair of Shishi, lion statues with an open and closed mouth sometimes seen outside Shinto and Buddhist temples. They're closely related to the anthropomorphic Ni-O guardians more commonly seen, Agyo and Ungyo (those come up again in Yu-Gi-Oh, in the Dual Avatar theme ).
Their mouths are important as they're key to their symbology. When the mouth is open, it's known as "Ah", and when the mouth is closed, it's "Un", representing the beginning and the end. The opening and closing the mouth are the beginning and ending of the cycle of speaking, and are tied to ideas about existence beginning, and existence ending. It's accepted that the open-mouthed figure is meant to be scary, baring its teeth to frighten away demons, whilst the closed mouth keeps the good spirits safe.
The card's name, Skuna, may be a reference to a Shinto deity who also had two faces, Ryomen-Sukuna. In Shinto beliefs, this entity had two faces; one on the front of their head, and one on the back of their head, analogous to the Roman God Janus. Although depicted as a villain in the Japanese historical text called the Nihonshoki, Sukuna is worshipped at temples throughout Japan, and was thought to have been a herald of Buddhism.
To be honest, I'd been wracking my brain over Aggiba, the Malevolant Sh'nn S'yo for years. In the end it seems the answer was right under my nose: being a part of the World Championship held in Akihabara, this card was probably named for the host city: Akihabara's name is derived from Akibagahara, which itself stems from the name of a Shinto deity who had the power to control fire, Akiba. The sounds of "ki" and "gi" are interchangeable, and why it was spelled so erroneously in the west is mind-boggling to me. Maybe Aggiba sounded scarier than Akiba?
The shining spectacle of this card's art is laced with golden imagery and Buddhist motifs. At first glance, anyone familiar with Buddhist iconography can glean the inspiration taken from the Heavenly Myō-ō, the Directional Kings and protectors of Buddha.
Particularly, this monster shares symbols with the Directional King, Bishamonten. Both are holding a trident in one hand, both have the karmic wheel on their back, elaborate armor, and in their left hand, a small golden pagoda, the treasure house from which they dispense the riches of wisdom as they see fit.
At first glance, Stardust Divinity offers us nothing but a golden statue monster that has no ties to the Stardust theme. But Stardust Divinity isn't as shallow as you might think. Its colors, gold, blue and white are the same as the flag of Long Beach, where these World Championships took place. The gold dust surrounding it could be a reference to the flag's own symbology, tied to the flag's yellow sand; the blue crystal could represent the flag's ocean; and even the pointed adornments on this monster's body could have been inspired by the sun, seen in the flag as well.
More interesting, the blue jewel on Stardust Divinity's navel could be a reference to the Walter Pyramid - the shape is a perfect match with the same number of sides. The crystal could also be a reference to California's state gemstone, Benitoite. Blue and gold may represent the sky and the gold once found in the California goldfields, respectively.
Alternatively, Stardust Divinity might be a reimagining of the figure within the flag, better seen on the standard of the Governor of California. If you look closely, the helmets have some similarities. There's also a bear walking beside this figure on the standard, which brings us to the next card in the pair.
Grizzly, the Red Star Beast is a physical manifestation of the California State flag. The brown bear walking, the green grass, and the red star above it, are all perfectly accurate to the flag. The gemstones that adorn this monster might be more Benitoite, which are most valuable and most prized when they're sapphire blue in color.
King Landia the Goldfang's a really easy one if you know where to look! It's a near perfect recreation of the Dutch coat of arms, from the sword and the crown, right down to the number of arrows placed in its hands (those seven arrows represent the seven provinces of the Union of Utrecht, if you want to get really history-nerd about it). Even the red tongue is consistent, and the red-tipped claws seen on the real-life heraldry are replaced with the red gemstones adorning King Landia's accessories.
In fact, while you're looking at that cloak, check out the blue lining and compare it to the blue shield in the coat of arms: the gold markings in King Landia's blue cloak are clearly similar to the gold markings on the coat of arms' blue shield.
Queen Nereia the Silvercrown is a little less straightforward, and to me it's even more interesting. Amsterdam is famously known for the cultivation and export of tulips, and the tulip is the national flower of the Netherlands. They became a sensation as an ornamental plant in the seventeenth century. "Tulip" is the Turkish word for "turban", due in part to their shape. Knowing this, it's no surprise that everything on this card was created to be in the shape of a tulip, from Nereia's crown of tulips, to her cloak, and even the embellishments of her dress.
Her name, Nereia, may be a reference to the Nereiads. They were the sea-nymph daughters of Nereus. but the name's come to be associated with all classes of faerie or nymph these days, whether they're water-dwelling or not. Nereia's also a genus of algae, which may have contributed to her color scheme and the light green cloak.
Returning to Japan, it only seems right that Yu-Gi-Oh's two most familiar icons would be the inspiration for the 2012 prize cards. It's safe to say that Legendary Dragon of White and Legendary Magician of Dark are reinterpretations of Blue-Eyes White Dragon and the Dark Magician. They also seem to draw design cues from other Spellcaster and Blue-Eyes themes. These cards sort of break from the real-life mythology inspirations, instead leaning on the mythology of Yu-Gi-Oh itself.
The more I looked at these cards, the more I started to see things I hadn't noticed before. Legendary Magician of Dark artwork looks like it might have influences from other Spellcaster archetypes. And notably, there's the Contact with the Aquamirror. The staff itself looks like a warped Prophecy sigil with similarly shaped sigils placed on its clothing. The clothing also shares the same sharp lines found in Hierophant of Prophecy, in fact, I'm pretty sure he's wearing the Reaper of Prophecy. The misty background and ornate columns are also Prophecy standouts. It's now truly the ultimate wizard.
Legendary Magician of Dark positioning even mirrors the Dark Magician's most classic pose. And instead of a single Dark Magical Circle, he's surrounded by two.
Legendary Dragon of White has grown out its hair and traded in its Blue-Eyes for gold instead. (Yes, that actually removes the "Blue-Eyes" aspect of it completely.) Maybe the hair is meant to show that Blue-Eyes has finally come full circle, connecting with its Eyes of Blue worshippers. The head does have a small pair of wings that resemble the wings found on the statues, staves and other accessories that the worshippers of the Blue-Eyes White Dragon wear. Gold details represent its first-place prize status and Light attribute.
The background of this card's art work also mirrors the original LOB product-hover id="21792" "rippled" background, and like Legendary Magician of Dark, the monster's mirroring the exact same position as that of the LOB Blue-Eyes White Dragon.
Since Las Vegas was the setting for 2013 World Champions, all the monsters are definitely Vegas themed! These cards were so bold in their theming that for many of us, this was the first time we really recognized that prize cards were being designed around their hosting regions.
Grandopolis, the Eternal Golden City is a metropolis built on the back of a giant tortoise. You might not be shocked when I tell you that Nevada's state reptile is the Desert Tortoise. Look closely and you'll see that the base of this monster's neck is a roulette wheel; the city on its back is almost certainly a reference to the Las Vegas strip, and the grand sum total of all of this alludes to the World Turtle Theory.
Examine the background and you'll see that Grandopolis, the Eternal Golden City is standing in a desert surrounded by mountains, probably another reference to Las Vegas, since the real-life city's flanked by deserts and mountainous terrain. The title of "Eternal Gold" could be referencing Nevada as the fourth largest producer of gold in the world, and that the city is an unfaltering beacon of lights. Or I could just be that it's the 1st Place prize card.
A pit boss is a casino employee in charge of gaming tables. The symbols in E☆HERO Pit Boss' art work are pretty straight forward references to Vegas entertainment, from the cards and casino chips, to its Spellcaster type alluding to stage magic. In the Japanese card text, the "E" in " E☆HERO" is shown to stand for "Entertainment Hero".
When the World Championship was hosted in Italy, flavor of the prize cards took on a distinctly Italian tone with very specific references: one to its founding mythology, and the other to the beauty and brilliance of the country's most famous engineer, painter and sculptor.
The Twin Kings, Founders of the Empire are a very thinly veiled reference to the legend of Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome. Famously said to have been raised by a she-wolf, legend states that the brothers used ornithomancy - augury via birds - in the process of building Rome. It was agreed that the brother who'd seen the most birds would decide where Rome would be built, and with such an arbitrary contest, it's no surprise that the two brothers quarrelled over who won.
Remus said that he'd seen the most birds, and wanted to build on the Aventine Hill. Romulus had already started construction of a wall on his own hill, and when Remus came over to see his brother, he jumped over Romulus' wall. This offended Romulus then killed Remus, because that's the rational thing to do?, and thus Rome was born.
As a Pendulum monster, the concept of duality is present in this design. The armor they're wearing is typical of depictions of Roman centurion warriors, the gold metallics marking this as the 1st Place prize card, and the heavy use of red, white, and green allude to the colours of the Italian flag.
Leonardo's Silver Skyship references some of Leonardo Da Vinci's greatest concepts, including the aerial screw, seen in the card art as the two protrusions on top of the ship, and the Great Kite as the two sets of wing. On the left side of the ship you'll even see elements of Da Vinci's paddle boat at the rear of the ship's body.
The entire monster is made up of a variety of Da Vincian concepts. The card design's really genius, and the more you look, the more you'll discover.
In 2015 the World Championships returned to Japan, this time to Kyoto. The red and blue fox fires that flank either side of Kuzunoha, the Onmyojin are low hanging fruit, clear references to the blue and red of Pendulum Scales. The character this card is based on, Kuzunoha, from Japanese folktales, wasn't actually an Onmyojin - a government position in pre-modern Japan - her son, Abe no Seimei, would grow up to be one of Japan's most famous and powerful Onmyoji.
The legend of Kuzunoha and Abe no Seimei begins with Abe no Yasuna, a young nobleman, on his way home from travel. Abe came across a hunter who'd trapped a white fox. Knowing the white fox is a vassal of the God Inari, Abe took pity on the fox and confronted the hunter. They fought over the fox: Abe managed to defeat the hunter, setting the white fox free, but was wounded in the fight.
On his way home, Abe was helped by a young woman named Kuzunoha, who tended to his wounds. Kuzunoha is in fact the white fox he'd saved, albeit in a more pleasing human form. The two fell in love and married quickly, upon returning to Abe's home. From their union, Abe no Seimei is born and ttheir child shared some of his mother's supernatural powers.
However, as is common in Japanese legends, tragedy befell the family when young Abe no Seimei accidentally discovered that his mother was a white fox in disguise. The embarrassment forced Kuzunoha to return to the wilds, but before she departed, she left behind a poem for her husband, asking him and their son to visit her in the forest of Shinoda. The two set off in search for Kuzunoha, where she revealed herself in her majestic fox form. Kuzunoha then tells them that she is the residing entity of the Shinoda Shrine. Abe no Seimei would grow up to become the powerful Onmyojin of legend.
So what does this have to do with the 2015 World Championship? The Shrine dedicated to Abe no Seimei is actually located in Kyoto, explaining why this character was chosen for the prizez card. However, the shrine dedicated to Kuzunoha is actually located in Osaka. The background of this card features the many red tori gates found in the Inari shrine, the patron animal of which is the fox. The mask this monster is wearing in the card art is a fox mask. It's possible that this card is meant to represent Kuzunoha in her powerful form as the shrine protector.
The other monster of the pair, Sakyo, the Swordmaster of the Far East might be a reference to Sakyō ward of Kyoto. The name Sakyō translates as "on the Emperor's left". Apparently, the Emperor would face sitting the south while in the Kyoto Imperial Palace, and so the eastern direction would be to his left, giving Sakyō ward its name.
Interestingly, the card itself makes a reference to the "far east" direction, so either this is a strong coincidence, or a purposeful reference. The ward beside Sakyō is named Ukyō, which means "on the Emperor's right". Some red and blue colours have also been tossed in for good measure, as another Pendulum reference. Interestingly, this monster is charging to the left.
Back in the U S of A, Juno, the Celestial Goddess is a reference to the Roman Goddess of the same name, the wife of Jupiter. She's the goddess of the heavens and a parallel to the Greek goddess Hera. It's no surprise that this mechanical being is seen in the prize card art work, gracefully dancing in a space motif background.
How does Roman mythology fit with a tournament held in Florida? The Juno probe was launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, about an hour away from Orlando, and while it left Earth in 2011, Juno entered its target orbit of Jupiter on July 5th, just a little over a month and a half before the 2016 World Championship was held. The heavenly Juno is the 1st Place winner's prize card, so naturally the character is gold in color.
On the other hand, Shelga, the Tri-Warlord seems to represent the Bermuda Triangle. Shelga is showing pulling himself out of the Different Dimension, as found in the artwork of cards like Dimensional Fissure or Dimensional Prison. Being a vanilla monster, this card's flavor text may reference the World Championship battle itself, implying that Shelga's escaped the Different Dimension due to the "shockwaves" unleashed by the competitors.
And as mysterious as the Bermuda Triangle is said to be, Shelga, the Tr-Warlord's silver color is no mystery, as it was the runner-up prize card.
Okay, so a brief modern history lesson: this World Championship was originally supposed to be held in London England, but ended up in Japan instead, breaking the regular three-continent cycle of hosting. I don't believe an official reasoning for the move was given, but the announcement was made some time after the Manchester Arena bombing in May, so safety of the attendees may have been the key factor.
The 2017 World Championship marked the beginning of Link Monsters as prize cards. At first I wasn't going to bother writing about them, because I wasn't really sure how much there was to say; I didn't think I'd find anything interesting. The accepted theory floating around the internet is that Sanctity of Dragon was a reference to the dragon slain by St. George, but after researching it more, I think that's actually wrong.
Instead, I believe Sanctity's based of the dragon found on the Temple Bar memorial, and here's why: Sanctity of Dragon's name is written as if the dragon is holy or sacred, almost protective. In fact, if you look at the dragon on the Temple Bar monument, you'll begin to see the similarities. Both dragons are in very similar poses, and both feature a reference to the British flag (in the case of Sanctity of Dragon, the lines radiating from its chest). Even their tails are identical. It's crazy! The Temple Bar memorial is the entrance to London from the city of Westminster, historically an important entryway into the city. I won't go into the history of Temple Bar, but it's worth reading about if you've got some free time.
Although the dragon atop the Temple Bar memorial is more often referred to as a griffin, it's in fact a dragon. It's one of many dragon sculptures which are placed strategically at entry points into the city as boundary markers. I don't think this monster is the dragon slain by St. George, but in fact the dragon welcoming you to London, since Worlds is always an international event! And of course, the dragon's gold coloring is probably owed to its 1st Place prize status.
Knight of Revolution is a reference to the Industrial Revolution and steam powered locomotives, and the motif fits really nicely with lots of Yu-Gi-Oh's most popular Train cards: stuff like Night Express Knight and Flying Pegasus Railroad Stampede. That's about all! I guess if you really want to stretch it, the character riding the train could be St. George, but I doubt that.
I think, if anything, it's a reference to humanity's endeavours and charging forward into the modern world with iron horses, rushing through old London and into the future. Coincidentally, this monster's lance looks very similar to the one wielded by Dingirsu, Orcust of the Evening Star. And it's got silver coloring, for the runners-up.
Just because Europe lost its hosting of the World Championship in 2017, didn't mean they'd get it back for 2018. Instead, Worlds was back in Japan for the second year in a row, and this time we returned to another reimagining of Dark Magician and Blue-Eyes White Dragon, in the forms of Noritoshi in Darkest Rainment and Amatsu Okami of the Divine Peaks. These two cards are very complicated if I'm interpreting them correctly.
Noritoshi in Darkest Rainment can be interpreted in a number of ways. First, this monster looks like an ancient form of Dark Magician, posed in a similar position to Legendary Magician of Dark and the original Dark Magician itself.
Interestingly, "Norito" are incantations read by a ritual performer during Shinto ceremonies, or festivals involving kami. Norito are believed to be very old, first mentioned in performance rituals of Japanese antiquity, and written in the Nihon Shoki and Kojiki, two Japanese divine texts detailing the history of Japan and its gods. It would take me forever to actually explain in detail what exactly Norito are, but you get the gist of it.
Amatsu Okami of the Divine Peaks could be a reference to a group of Shinto gods called Amatsukami, the kami of heaven or the kami of earth. The card itself features a dragon surrounding the earth, residing in the heavens, so it's possible that's what's being referenced in this card. It's said the legendary Amatsukami reside in the "Plain of High Heaven".
More specifically, I believe this monster is supposed to represent the Shinto deity, Ame no Minakanushi. In Japanese mythology, it was the first god to emerge after the heavens and earth came into existence, and its name roughly translates to Lord of the August Center of Heaven, AKA, the pole star. It's one of three Creation gods who each came into being separately and have no counterpart, but it's also part of another sect of Shinto gods and is thought to be the god of the pole star.
Amatsu Okami of the Divine Peaks looks to be a reference to Blue-Eyes White Dragon, seeing as it's literally a white dragon with blue eyes. But what's interesting is that if you look closely, the art work of Amatsu-Okami of the Divine Peaks shows Norito in Darkest Rainment standing on the monster's head, between its horns, which is important because it brings us to our next point.
Okay, buckle up, because this is where we go down the rabbit hole and things get a bit confusing. In Chiba Prefecture, where this World Championship was held, lies Chiba Shrine. It was originally a Buddhist temple dedicated to the deity Myoken, a deity associated with the pole star. Later it was converted to Shintoism, and dedicated to Ame no Minakanushi in the Meiji period. Chiba Shrine has historical status as a principal center for the worship of Myoken.
In Buddhism, Myoken's the parallel to Ame no Minakanushi. And Myoken's sometimes depicted standing upon a dragon. Noritoshi in Darkest Rainment, similar to Myoken, is depicted standing on the head of Amatsu-Okami of the Divine Peaks, similar to Ame no Minakanushi.
Essentially, it appears that both gods who were enshrined at Chiba Shrine - the Buddhist Myoken and Shinto Ame no Minakanushi - were translated into two separate cards. Combined in the art of Amatsu-Okami, we see the connection between their real-world inspirations.
After all of that digging around for the 2018 prize cards, and everything you've read up to this point, we're ending on a lighter note: Kaiser Eagle, the Heaven's Mandate is a much simpler reference to Germanic heraldry and the German coat of arms. The eagle is black in the coat of arms, and so is Kaiser Eagle. The gold and red colors are a match, and the distinct vertical lines that represent the eagle's wings in the coat of arms seem to have inspired the black sashes Kaiser Eagle wears. Note the similarities with the splayed legs pose as well.
Skyfaring Castle of the Black Forest is named for the Schwarzwald, Germany's Black Forest, and the art design looks like it was informed by a plethora of German castles. It's difficult to pinpoint if just one castle is being referenced here, although Skyfaring Castle does bear some striking resemblances to Hohenzollern Castle, given the shape and color of the turrets. Hohenzollern is located high atop the Black Forest, and is the ancestral seat of the Prussian Royal Family, so there's some case to be made for it.
I hope you enjoyed today's article! It's astounding how much effort goes into the design and imagery of a Yu-Gi-Oh card sometimes. Considering just how hard it is to obtain these fantastic, exclusive prize cards, someone clearly wants them to be deeply special. Thank you for reading!