Yu-Gi-Oh Master Duel
A long time ago, when the pyramids were still young, hobbyists and try-hards played a game of great and terrible cost. They did battle with trading cards and duel mats, for tournament top eight spots and because they couldn't play sports or talk to girls. From these body odour-addled events erupted a card game that threatened to make Konami a reasonable about of money over several years... until one day, they just up-and-dropped Yu-Gi-Oh Master Duel on every game console, thereby ushering in a new, modern, free-to-play card game experience that thrives on the Switch. Channelling the portability of the analogue hobby into the very portability that made Nintendo's console such a success, it's never been a better time to d,d,d,d,d-d-d-d-d-d-d-you know the rest.
Arguably the best incarnation of the original and best lootbox addiction simulator, Yu-Gi-Oh Master Duel is a logical move forward for the card game, finally delivering a companion experience to the physical hobby, much like Pokemon has simultaneously supported trading card and video game incarnations of its popular franchise. Obviously, the difference here is that Yu-Gi-Oh has no videogame-specific narrative element. It is essentially a digital library that allows players to craft their favourite decks and duel against players the world over, with a minimal solo mode that sees you duelling AI with prefabricated decks in order to earn rewards and unlock said decks. A far cry from prior Yu-Gi-Oh games that had story modes - such as the PS2 classic Duelist of the Roses, or my personal favourite Nightmare Troubadour on Nintendo DS - the single-player mode in Master Duel is best considered as a primer or extended tutorial, allowing you to test decks against strangely inconsistent AI, that oscillates between Joey Wheeler from season one skill level all the way to Yugi Muto King of Games ability! While experienced players and returning duelists might enjoy the difficulty, this could quite easily become an obnoxious push factor for new players who just want to try out strategies without feeling like they're at tournament finals.
Once the individual story challenges are bested, players will be rewarded with tokens they can use to open more sections of the solo mode, or gems if they defeat the AI with their own custom decks. It's here that we can talk about the currency in Master Duel that allows players to purchase card packs. Gems are, of course, purchasable and can be spent on cards, sleeves, unique environments to duel on and sprites that will stand around while you duel and do... erm... nothing. Anyway, gems can be earned by simply logging into Master Duel and duelling other players. Initially, the flow of free gems is rather steady - almost generous - and new players will be buying packs like their newfound addiction depends on it. Soon enough, however, the gems will dry up, leading players invariably to the in-game store where gem bundles can be bought in varying quantities. Traditionally, I'd have nothing but poison and Xenomorph urine to pour over the inclusion of microtransactions in a game: but this game is Yu-Gi-Oh, and spending money is literally a required part of the real-life game. The presence of microtransactions is - and I know this would be awful to say in any other context - perfectly natural, and no where near as baffling as the delivery of card packs in the game. Instead of having shop replete with booster packs, Master Duel hides entire archetypes in card packs that can only be revealed - for 24 hour period - once certain cards from the pack are found in other packs. Utterly obtuse to be sure, the 24 hour period for accessing these packs can be renewed at any time by crafting or dismantling cards from the aforementioned pack. On this subject - and to Konami's credit - there isa crafting system in the game, wherein duplicate cards can be reduced to specific currencies that can then be used to manufacture specific cards of equal rarity. Every three cards dismantled lets you craft one card, essentially, with crafting currencies being divided into four categories: normal, rare, super rare and ultra rare. This system allows players to get cards they want pretty much straight away, with additional crafting resources being awarded through gameplay accomplishments.
Additionally, a free 'duel pass' (think Fortnite battle pass in Yu-Gi-Oh) tops up your resources incrementally as you level up the pass, with a premium 'gold duel pass' adding additional rewards to progression at the cost of six hundred gems - which you will earn back by progressing through the pass. I sincerely believe the monetisation present in the game is fair, reasonable and regulated, with plenty of gem bundles and deals on offer that can all be avoided if you don't want to invest in Master Duel to that degree. Having not spent a dime in Master Duel, I've crafted every card I need, some cards that I want, and built several decks for casual and serious use.
On the subject of casual and serious play, Master Duel does have a ranked PvP mode, with several grades for you to climb through. Rookie, Bronze, Silver, Gold and Platinum ranks are present at launch, yet this is where the competitive scene stalls. There are no in-game tournaments or events, no special prizes or awards for ascending the ranks, and no leaderboards to separate the top ranked players, leaving the best of the best in a virtually meaningless 'Platinum 1' rank, with no means of separating the Seto Kaibas from the Mokuba Kaibas within the rank. In addition to the limited scope of the ranked scene, the casual options available in Master Duel are the most hardcore I've ever seen: there aren't any. You either get gud or stick to solo mode, you filthy casuals! I know Konami are rather famous for ignoring players, but trying to shed new arrivals by forcing them to stare down Tri-Brigade Zoo decks that build Herald of Ultimatness boards on turn one is just, well its PTSD-inducing; resulting in newbies (and idiots like me running Darklords because they look cool) avoiding the ranked system altogether and wishing for a casual means of interacting with our beloved card game.
While there isn't much to see in the way of a competitive framework or a welcoming casual infrastructure, the presentation of the game in general is great. Powerful cards have their artwork rendered in 3D when played, keen audio and visual cues help guide your eyes and ears to the relevant segment of the game board, and attacks against players have hefty, impactful animations that bring Master Duel to life in a way never before seen. The soundtrack is a particular standout element of the game, too. Cautious, suspenseful pieces play during initial turns in duels. As the tempo rises and powerful cards are played, the music intensifies to mirror the rising danger playing out between duelists. Heart-pounding pieces ratchet up the late-game tension, with scoop-worthy strategies being accompanied by a thunderous medley that makes you feel like you're staring down an arch-rival in the season closing episode of the anime! You'll get serious protagonist vibes from the best themes, and I cannot pick a pathetic card in the Grandpa's deck that is Master Duel's OST. Alongside the visual and audio quality, the functionality of the Switch makes Master Duel fun to merely interact with. Touchscreen engagement with the game makes building decks quick and fun, although initial problems with the game's release saw the software shut down when the in-game card searching tools were used. This problem has been dealt with for the most part, but it was present at review and so life points will be deducted for that!
Master Duel is still in its infancy, but so far things are looking great for Yu-Gi-Oh's long overdue transition to a longterm digital incarnation. It's really a matter of most but not all at the moment: most but not all the relevant and iconic cards are here, most but not all the competitive framework is present, and most but not all of the reward structures and play incentives are here. A solid product offering hours of fun with a highly accessible and fun interface on Switch, Yu-Gi-Oh's axiomatic portability has found its natural home on Nintendo's nifty handheld. In a climate where post-launch appeals for patience stem from broken games, Master Duel needs the time to flourish, not be fixed, and as of now the next generation of this classic card game is shaping up to be, truly, a king of games!