At some point we've all wondered why new releases are jammed full of cards that nobody would ever play.
Cards like Synchro Transmission or Pendulum Encore from Blazing Vortex will probably never see any serious use. And it's not just that these cards aren't worthwhile in a competitive setting–they're almost totally worthless in casual play, too. In a game with so much powerful stuff, why does Yu-Gi-Oh continue to print cards that are so often a step down in power…cards so weak or bizarre that they're borderline unplayable?
"Why doesn't Konami only print good cards?" is a question that comes up pretty frequently, especially when new sets are filled to the brim with cards that are barely worth reading. The answer is a little complicated, but it all comes down to one key point: balancing a game with thousands of moving pieces is hard, and it's often better to release cards that are underpowered and safe. Believe it or not, bad cards aren't exclusively the result of Konami padding out sets with filler cards that nobody wants.
Making new cards is hard, and there are real dangers to raising the power level of each successive theme.
Why doesn't Konami simply replace bad cards with good cards? In practice this isn't hard to do: most traps could be modernized by making them spells, monsters could be improved by adding built-in Special Summons, and plenty of effects just need their restrictions loosened a bit.
You can probably imagine a few different ways to improve the worst cards in your favorite casual-level strategy, right? Who hasn't fantasized about what could happen if only a certain restriction wasn't there, or if there was a better way to search key cards? Konami could provide all of those things to every theme, sure. But there are big consequences to doing so.
Power creep gets thrown around a lot as the most prominent reason why every new release can't be at least as good as the last. If each new theme or new card is at least as good as its alternatives, then eventually we'll run into a situation where new releases become increasingly powerful. Yesterday's Gorz the Emissary of Darkness is today's Evenly Matched.
Rank 4 Xyz like Number 39: Utopia were outdone by cards like Number 101: Silent Honor ARK and Evilswarm Exciton Knight, and Level 8 Synchros like Stardust Dragon were replaced by Crystal Wing Synchro Dragon. Yu-Gi-Oh's best cards are regularly being outpaced: remember when Forbidden Chalice was a competitive staple for going-second decks, turning off your opponent's monsters? A year ago we were playing Dark Ruler No More in the same role, and today Forbidden Droplet the clear successor.
Yu-Gi-Oh's unique among trading card games because it lacks a rotation of playable sets like the ones you'll see in Magic: The Gathering and Pokemon formats. When a new card gets printed it's immediately compared against other, similar cards that serve roughly the same role. If the new card is now the best pick for a situation it immediately becomes the new standard, and all future cards will now be compared against it.
That sounds like the worst-case scenario, but it's just the reality of trying to sell new cards to players who already have a bunch of good stuff. You only have two options: you can either create different cards at an identical power level but with a different playstyle, art, or some other unique feature, or you can just make cards stronger.
It all comes back to the problem of creating desirable cards. New play styles are a big draw for many players, myself included, but stronger cards are generally a safe bet for the competitive community. Competitive duelists are always looking for a way to get an advantage over their opponents, and they pay attention when there's an opportunity to invest in a powerful new card or deck. Forbidden Droplet, Triple Tactics Talent, and Pot of Prosperity are expensive because they deliver a competitive advantage over their predecessors, like Forbidden Chalice, Called by the Grave, and Pot of Extravagance.
Themes have varying power levels as well, and frequently the most exciting themes are those that are simply better than existing strategies. We've seen this power creep overtake decks countless times, so much so that the best strategies of the early 2010s aren't competitive against today's best decks.
There are outliers, of course, but the average power level of new themes and cards has gone up quite a lot over the last ten years. Blackwings took the game by storm when they were introduced in 2009, but the same deck today is only passable in casual. Decks would be obsolete even faster in a world where every release is an improvement over the last, and it's obviously unsustainable in the long term.
Konami seemingly has three approaches to introducing desirable cards without breaking the game.
First, they add themes with diverse play styles and cards that fill niche roles in unique ways. Second, cards are carefully restricted in specific ways to prevent them from enabling broken interactions with existing or future cards. Third, some percent of cards and decks are just simply better than many previous alternatives. Sometimes this is an accident where the balancing built into the card just wasn't enough, and sometimes it's by design to create new desirable must-plays for competitive duelists.
No design team is perfect, and cards are never balanced exactly where they should be. Many cards are simply worse than existing alternatives and most themes never see play beyond the kitchen table. Restrictions plague those strategies and keep them from being leveraged by other themes, or hybridized in a way that greatly enhances the deck's power.
For example, Ancient Warriors - Rebellious Lu Feng just debuted in Blazing Vortex with a solid interruption effect that can destroy an opponent's monster, but you can't combine it with hand traps to defend your set-up. Firewall Dragon just returned to Yu-Gi-Oh's Asian OCG with new text that limits its from-hand Special Summon to Cyberse monsters only.
Theme-stamping itself is often a useful tool for limiting the power of a card. There are exceptional standout cards in many different themes, but they're usually limited by the theme that they exist in. When fantastic cards escape their themes, like Heavymetalfoes Electrumite and Denglong, First of the Yang Zing, they often become problems that need to be solved with the Forbidden & Limited List.
Restrictions are important to balancing the game, but locking cards to a theme can totally condemn them if the rest of the theme isn't very good. A lot of the 'bad' cards that get released aren't necessarily bad in a vacuum– they're just shackled to a theme that's either missing stuff it needs, relies on a weak gimmick, or is filled with too many subpar cards.
As I mentioned, cards like Heavymetalfoes Electrumite and Denglong, First of the Yang Zing broke away from their themes and ultimately landed on the Forbidden & Limited List: Konami's last resort for runaway cards.
When cards overshoot Konami's balancing attempts there's always some sort of correction that follows, but the F&L List isn't their only tool. Hand traps were introduced to the game as a way to counter the power of combo strategies, and cards like Pot of Duality offered control strategies even more support to stay competitive as more and more Special Summon-heavy themes debuted. Dimension Shifter, Dark Ruler No More, and Nibiru, the Primal Being were all answers to the planned power creep of combo strategies. Conversely, Lightning Storm, Twin Twisters, and the return of Harpie's Feather Duster helped combo decks push through backrow-heavy strategies.
To understand why 'bad' Yu-Gi-Oh cards exist, you really just need to look at the unplanned power creep from cards that escape Konami's balancing attempts. It's a huge pain for a card to suddenly enable a busted combo that rips apart the game's competitive scene. The F&L List can't come early, and banning cards that were released just a few months ago might scare away buyers for the next piece of planned power creep. It's almost always better for Konami to make new themes a little underpowered, but with support possibly coming later, than to accidentally break the game by creating the next Guardragon or Performage theme.
A lot of what's tying up Konami's hands here is the lack of a real set rotation. When every card exists forever you have to be very careful about the wording on each individual effect. It's not enough to make sure a new card doesn't break the ten thousand cards that already exist–you also need to balance it against the next ten thousand cards. That's no small task, and it's no wonder that Konami gets it wrong from time to time.
Without card retirement there's no way to universally sunset strategies or move players to the next big theme without making increasingly stronger cards, and as a result the game we have today is a lot different from where the game was ten years ago.
Until next time then