Yu-Gi-Oh Duel Links is the biggest digital card game in the world, yet, its parent company Konami, has decided to release a new title in hopes of returning the franchise’s digital entries back to its roots. Why? In this piece, we’ll explore the game mechanics that helped propel Yu-Gi-Oh into digital dominance, and why its parent company is reinventing the wheel in order to keep the IP successful.
This essay was written by Anil Das-Gupta. In addition to being a content contributor at Naavik, Anil is the Chief Product Officer and Co-Founder at First Light Games .
The biggest digital card game in the world right now is Yu Gi Oh Duel Links by Konami, which is slowly but steadily driving incremental revenues on top of an extremely favourable player response. But despite this lofty and enviable position, Konami chose to do something risky — to release a different version of Yu Gi Oh which is more like the tabletop game that inspired a billion dollar multimedia franchise. But why did Konami choose to do this, and how has it turned out for them?
Yu Gi Oh! A Brief History
Yu Gi Oh! is a Japanese manga series written and illustrated by Kazuki Takahashi. It was serialized in the Japanese pop culture sensation Weekly Shōnen Jump magazine between September 1996 and March 2004. The plot follows the story of a boy named Yugi Mutou, who solves the ancient “Millennium Puzzle.” Yugi awakens a gambling alter-ego or spirit within his body that solves his conflicts using various games, with battles between characters consisting of epic card duels.
Whether by design or through fortunate coincidence, Yu Gi Oh became a media franchise spawning an anime, movies and most importantly of all a trading card game. Impressively, despite its Japanese origins the series also resonated with audiences worldwide, joining a small list of Japanese IPs that have managed to become worldwide smash hits as well as hits in their country of origin.
The physical trading card game is what really propelled Yu Gi Oh to another level of popularity. As of January 2021, the game is estimated to have sold about 35 billion cards worldwide and has grossed over $9.64 billion.
Prior to Duel Links coming out, Yu Gi Oh games were pretty lucrative for Konami and whilst not as heavy hitting as the rest of the media properties within the IP, helped to consolidate and grow numbers of players interested in and buying the product. That said, over time even great games start to show their age. For that reason a faster and more mobile friendly version of Yu Gi Oh called Duel Links was released — in tandem with a revised version of the trading card game that was also simpler and faster — whilst retaining the elements of the franchise that made it. This game was so successful that it influenced a new paper format called Speed Duel, which replicates the digital mechanics in tabletop form.
Duel Links is a contender for the most under the radar game on mobile. Since its release, it has surpassed every other card game to become the dominant one, even beating big hitters like Hearthstone and Legends of Runeterra. The game uses a simplified version of both the card pool and ruleset of the existing Yu Gi Oh game to allow for a faster and easier to understand version of the game. Despite initial resistance to the product, the game has become beloved among its own community and is an excellent case study for an established IP modernising itself and catching a new wave of players, something which is not easy to achieve.
Master Duel Analysis
Master Duel is the original Yu Gi Oh trading card game ported to the digital world, with a free-to-play economy layer added on, similar to Hearthstone. Players start the game with some free cards and decks to get them going, but then can buy additional packs to increase their collection. As this is a Free-to-play game, there is no way to trade or sell cards with other players like in real life, but players can “Dismantle” cards to “Generate” new ones that they don’t have so they are able to customise their collections to some degree.
Cards can normally be dismantled for 1/3rd of their value, giving you 10 Card Points (CP) of the card’s rarity. For example, dismantling Primathmech Laplacian here gives 10 SR CP. In some cases, dismantling can give more. Glossy cards provide +15, while Royal Flushes can be dismantled for their full value. Generating a card will require 30 of a particular rarity’s CP. This system is similar to those found in other games, but has a bit more complexity because of rarity limits.
There’s currently no draft mode for the game, which is probably the biggest feature the title is missing compared to its competitors, but I expect this will be on the product roadmap and implemented by the time the year is up. This means there is currently no way to “go infinite” which is a term in some games that allows players to grind lots of cards for free providing they are extremely skilled at the game with a high win percentage, and may well be behind the decision not to offer this mode.
Overall there’s nothing really unique about Master Duel’s F2P setup, but it works, is fairly intuitive and suits the game model it’s been applied to. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel here, so Konami have stuck with what works.
Digital TCG’s have come a long way since Hearthstone’s release in 2014, but Master Duel puts in a strong showing here despite being late to the party. Though there’s the glaring omission of a draft mode, the game is very feature rich at launch and has many more features than Magic: Arena despite being a much newer product including Single Player content, Spectator Mode, a Battle Pass and a Login Bonus.
Whilst still falling someway behind Hearthstone in terms of game modes, features and live operations, Master Duel starts in a good place. And overall whilst subjectively the execution of the game isn’t as strong as any of its competitors, Master Duel is fun to play, rich with things to do, fairly generous in terms of getting started and offers the type of experience that long-time players are looking for.
In general, the player response to Master Duel has been favourable, as shown by healthy Steam Metrics and customer reviews.
Players are happy with an authentic representation of the game, but have complaints around the length of time it takes to play games (some combos are extremely cumbersome and time consuming), as well as issues with the initial economy of the game being too harsh on players. The length of time the game takes is an interesting grievance because it’s one of the reasons why the Speed Duels format was created, as card complexity was getting out of hand and power creep in the game was hard to control. The Speed Duel format simplified the game and gave it a breath of fresh air, but in return created a clear division in the ranks, those who liked the new format, and those that were perfectly happy with the game they were already playing.
The overall success of this title is an impressive achievement given that prior to this game launch, players were playing homemade versions of Yu Gi Oh on platform agnostic card simulator software. These programs allow access to the entire card pool for free, so the investment into Master Duel is pretty steep by comparison. For top players, you’re asking them to spend hundreds of dollars on a new product when Speed Duels already exists, and yet players have been more than happy to empty their wallets to get a piece of the action.
In the short term Konami needs to fix the following aspects in their game.
Players are complaining about an overly stingy economy, specifically players are given poor rewards for competing on the Ranked Ladder, which is the competitive lifeblood of the game. This is a game that has about 6000 cards in it, and you won’t always get to the maximum rank in the game. This means that it’s exceptionally difficult to build up a competitive collection of cards, and this is without taking into account new expansions and cards.
A more generous set of rewards will likely lead to better player retention and overall LTV increase given the sheer depth of content in the game.
Feature Parity with Competitors
Master Duel comes out of the gate with a good set of features. However, aspects like Drafting, 2v2, alternate game modes, and dedicated in-client tournaments will surely be on the roadmap as such features are in high demand from players according to the most popular social and community channels.
Card Rebalancing and Competitive Metagame Adjustments
Some decks in Yu Gi Oh are incredibly overpowered and whilst they are fun and bonkers to see working the first few times, it can get old pretty quickly. Dynamic adjustments to the competitive metagame on a frequent basis are part and parcel of modern digital card games, and Master Duel is in pretty dire need for this to be the case to prevent the metagame from getting stale.
Konami has started to run events in Master Duel, but will need to keep up the cadence and quality of these to retain their player base. It took Hearthstone and Magic: Arena quite some time to really get up to speed with liveops, but both games are now running several different variations and new formats on a regular basis to really keep the game interesting and fresh.
So circling back, why did Konami choose to release a second version of its flagship trading card game in a digital format, and how has it turned out for them?
Konami understands it’s audience and knows that Master Duel and Duel Link are not competing for the same player base; there will be players who prefer one format to the other. This diversity of formats and ways to play them is healthy for the longevity of the overall Yu Gi Oh ecosystem and franchise.
Whilst Speed Duels is about protecting the future of the franchise, Konami recognises that Yu Gi Oh is a game that has many nostalgic memories for an audience that is now getting older and has deeper pockets. With 10,000 cards split across all of the many expansions the game has had over the years, Master Duel provides extremely deep sinks that a more mature player base is only too willing to spend cash on. That this game was released on home consoles as well as mobile really typifies the audience this game is made for; consoles these days are brought by those age 25+ who are looking for a deeper and more meaningful experience with a premium feel and quality to it. Master Duel gives players exactly that and celebrates all that is great and good about the IP in an enjoyable way.
Master Duel is a great example of Product Market fit. There is a clear market for players 30+ who grew up with Yu Gi Oh and want that authentic experience in an online world. Whilst not as polished as some of the other Digital TCGs out there, it doesn’t need to be. It gives exactly the right experience to the players that wanted it the most, and for that reason is successful, both commercially and critically to the player base that matters the most, Yu Gi Oh fans.