Greetings, fellow Yu-Gi-Oh players! And perhaps Magic players, since you might be reading this, too!
I recently had the wonderful opportunity to speak with the Professor from Tolarian Community College on his Untitled MTG Podcast series, a large and well-renowned content creator in the MTG space. We had a candid conversation comparing and contrasting the differences between the communities, play structures, and developers of our favorite games.
Since I haven't really dabbled in Magic and he hasn't played Yu-Gi-Oh, it made for some fun, eye-opening conversation. Sure, I know Magic cards use bigger card sleeves, but I didn't know how rotating formats work, since they don't exist in Yu-Gi-Oh. The full video's available on the Professor's channel, but now that I've had some time to consider everything we talked about, I wanted to recap some of the details and reflect on a few of the most impactful things I learned.
To be clear, I don't want to turn this into a "one game's better than the other" type of debate. If it sounds like that at some point, just bear with me. And as a disclaimer I still don't play Magic; I only just learned more about it, so I may make some generalizations. Sorry in advance if I get something wrong, but I think there's some really interesting discussion to be found comparing the two games, starting with one of the most fundamental differences between the two.
In Yu-Gi-Oh, we get a new banlist every few months that shakes up competitive play. A few important cards will get banned or limited, often removing a couple decks from high competition, but otherwise the tournament legal card pool largely stays the same. There are roughly 10,000 different Yu-Gi-Oh cards printed over the course of the game's history, and you can play almost all of them.
Magic's Standard format is different: the entire pool of tournament-legal cards changes completely at regular intervals. To my knowledge, four sets release each year and on a specific day, the four oldest sets rotate out. For my fellow Yu-Gi-Oh players, imagine if we were only able to play sets from the last two years. So while cards from sets like Eternity Code and Rise of the Duelist would be playable, you couldn't use cards from an order release like Circuit Break or Flames of Destruction, for instance.
So what do I think? Lacking the experience of playing in a rotatinig format, I can't say for sure. At first glance it seems a bit restrictive. After all, in Yu-Gi-Oh many players pride themselves on playing older, more obscure strategies even against newer, stronger themes in tournaments. But I think Magic's rotating format may be more similar to Yu-Gi-Oh than it looks. The top decks in Yu-Gi-Oh often get hit on the F&L List around a year or so after release, often becoming shells of their former selves in the process, so comparing the timeframes for the two games I'd say we really aren't that far off.
Take Thunder Dragons. The revamped theme released in October 2019 in Soul Fusion, it enjoyed about a full year of relevance in tournaments, and it was effectively decapitated in January 2020 with the banning of its key monster, Thunder Dragon Colossus. You could argue that the deck had around 14 months of playability then basically got "rotated" out.
From what the Professor said, I think this rotating door of cards isn't actually a bad idea. It allows Wizards of the Coast to fine-tune its formats so different strategies are as viable and enjoyable as they intended, and that's cool to me. Yu-Gi-Oh is probably planned out in a similar way by the R&D staff at Konami, but our game feels more dynamic because we always have access to older cards, which often interact with new cards to form altogether different and stronger strategies. Sometimes those strategies are ones Konami didn't necessarily anticipate, too.
A rotating format also helps fight against power creep - the gradual increase in the strength of new cards and strategies as a way to entice players to buy and play new cards. According to the Professor, MTG has a considerably smaller issue with power creep, since cards are always rotating in and out of the competitive game. It's something I think I'd like to see in Yu-Gi-Oh, though not in an immediate, official capacity (that's a sweeping change and one I'm sure many players wouldn't be readily accepting of). And that transitions well into the next difference…
Wizards of the Coast offers MTG players a variety of formats. I've only vaguely heard of terms like Standard, Modern, Legacy, Pauper, Highlander, and Commander. I don't know the specifics of each, but I'll say this: if you can think it, you can play it. Some formats rotate, some don't. Some allow legal card pools of varying sizes. Formats like Pauper only allow cards of a certain rarity, while Highlander only lets you use one copy of each card. What fascinated me more than the myriad ways to play Magic was the fact that many of these formats are officially supported by Wizards.
This all stands in stark contrast to Yu-Gi-Oh, which only offers one way to play: the plain, familiar Advanced Constructed format, where virtually any card from any period of time is playable up to three copies and it's in the players' hands after that. I don't dislike it by any means, but I think Yu-Gi-Oh could use variety sometimes. We've had Draft and Sealed play formats before, both in the past and more recently with the Battle Pack series.
Older players may even remember Traditional format, which allows the use of cards that were normally banned at one per deck instead. We've had brief exposure to Tag Duels, and the short-lived Pegasus challenges (which sometimes emulated formats like MTG's Pauper), as well as Generation Duels (restricting players to cards from a certain "generation" of the Yu-Gi-Oh anime and sets released in its era).
However, I feel official Konami support around each of these alternative formats is fleeting. Players sometimes take things into their own hands and create custom formats themselves – the popular 2005-based Goat Format comes to mind – but there's effectively only one way to compete in Yu-Gi-Oh. Again, I don't want to say that's a bad thing. Whatever store you walk into for a Yu-Gi-Oh tournament, you know what the format will be, and many players love that they can always pick up old favorite strategies and take them for a run in 2020. You can't do that in MTG's Standard. But thanks to issues like power creep, it's sometimes hard to tell the difference anyway. And I'm a strong supporter of giving players a breath of fresh air.
When competition gets stale in Yu-Gi-Oh, there's really no recourse. You either take a break from the game and wait out the next F&L list update, or you accept the best decks for what they are. I'd like to see more alternatives for newer or casual players in Yu-Gi-Oh, which leads me into my last big takeaway.
As Yu-Gi-Oh players, it's no secret Konami isn't the most forthcoming company. At least, not in the ways most players would like. We don't get much communication from the people running our favorite card game, even on social media platforms, and that can feel a bit off-putting. I don't mean to say that the company's dishonest or deceptive, but I know it's a common sentiment that players don't feel heard sometimes. As for why that is… well, I don't feel informed enough to give an opinion. It's a company and it's probably more complicated than any of us know, so I'll let them have their reasons.
I don't want to dismiss the efforts Konami's made in this regard, especially in recent years. There's been significant progress lately in working with content creators to showcase upcoming products, releasing an official card database (and even more recently, the Yu-Gi-Oh! Neuron companion app), and making preview videos of upcoming sets. It's a changing landscape. But Wizards of the Coast couldn't be any more different.
According to the Professor, Magic players enjoy a much more open dialogue with their game's developers. Wizards of the Coast employees are, to my knowledge, much more transparent about their work on the game. Interviews and social media interaction seem to be the norm, employee appearances at major events are common, and players are thus provided with considerable insight into the thought process behind new cards and products.
Imagine if we as Yu-Gi-Oh players got to ask Konami why a card was designed the way it was, why a product included or missed the cards it did, why the F&L list changes the way it does, or why certain rules and policies are integrated into organized competitive play. As a Yu-Gi-Oh player, this much more open dynamic between developers and players sounds like a dream come true… or does it?
We all know how arguments and slander work on the internet. People aren't always friendly behind the anonymity of a screen and keyboard. Because some Wizards employees are known to many players in the Magic community, they come under a degree of personal scrutiny that can be alarming. A Yu-Gi-Oh player can take issues with the game and blame Konami, but you can't point a finger at the specific person who created the new card or change in the game causing the community's unrest. And from what the Professor shared with me, that relationship has been the cause of more than a few personal attacks and even death threats to Magic developers in the past.
I shudder to think how Yu-Gi-Oh players would react if given such a direct means of communication to the minds behind the game. Imagine being able to hop on Twitter, tag the person who designed Mystic Mine, and share a piece of your mind. I would feel VERY sorry for that person, because I've seen how nasty gaming communities can get.
I don't really have much of a conclusion to this. I still don't know a lot about Magic the Gathering, and I don't feel comfortable making any big judgment calls regarding how it's played or supported. And of course, I'm very biased in favor of Yu-Gi-Oh, since I've played it for the better half of my life. But I will say both games could afford to take a thing or two from the other. I'd love to see Yu-Gi-Oh with more support for alternative formats and more communication from Konami. Likewise, I think Magic players might appreciate things like Yu-Gi-Oh's frequent reprints.
I hope you check out the video with the Professor. It's a great conversation that opened my eyes to a very different (though ultimately, similar) side of card gaming. Who knows? Maybe one day I'll try to learn a bit of Magic myself! I certainly know who to ask.