Title: Yu-Gi-Oh Master Duel
System: Nintendo Switch (eShop), iOS, & Xbox Series X
Price: Free to Start
Release Date: 01/18/2022
5 years ago, we had Yu-Gi-Oh Duel Links, a pretty great duel simulator themed after the hit anime, which slowly expanded to cover all the various successors since then. Then, we got Legacy of the Duelist, a more traditional offline duel simulator game, which was pretty good as well. Now we have Master Duel, which seems to be a full-fledged, no fat attempt to recreate the real life TCG as much as possible, with the big goal of being fully cross platform!
No anime story representation here, but the solo mode does cover aspects about certain cards, so there’s still some story here, taking place within those chapters, but it isn’t much to write home about at all.
Weirdly enough, despite several Yugioh games coming out back to back lately, they all end up being distinctive enough with their presentation that a newer game takes a brief time to readjust, and Master Duel is no different. Mobile players used to Duel Links such as myself will find the mobile version’s landscape orientation a bit jarring at first, but considering it has to match the console versions, the perspective makes sense.
The main menus in Master Duel remind me a lot of your typical mobile PVP focused games, mainly due to showing you the duel rank and current season up front and center. It sorta gives me flashbacks to the Pokemon TCG Online app in that regard, but with much better layout design, especially when it comes to the actual deckbuilding aspect. While I still find Duel Links to have the best and fastest organization-friendly interface, Master Duel offers a good amount of options to make building a deck out of thousands of available cards far more manageable, especially on touch-friendly platforms. Filtering available cards or finding specific ones to seek is far faster with a touch swipe than awkwardly using a controller stick, so I found myself using the iOS version for deck building, with the Switch as a decent alternative before that version launched.
Visually, duels look fine enough, providing a good view of the arena and an interface that works for using your hand and pulling off the crazy card effects you’ve come to know and love. Some events have brief summoning animations, which can thankfully be turned off for faster play, and you can even buy or earn customizable options for duels, from deck sleeves, backgrounds, icons, and more, so there’s definitely more visual variety here than in both DL and Link Evolution.
Speaking of platforms, there’s still a good amount of differences between the three versions I played for review, and while we’ll get to the gameplay differences a bit later, there’s still some mild variances in presentation and performance. Of course, visual quality wildly varies, with the Switch being the worst of the three platforms by looking decent, but with every action taking a lot more time to load through, and the interface running at a lower FPS overall.
Meanwhile on iOS, the quality is adjustable for the sake of battery life, so while it can load and run silky smooth and fast, lowering it will help your device’s battery life at the cost of visual fidelity and performance. …Yet even with a lower framerate, I found the game to load prompts far faster than my Switch, so even on the lowest settings, the Switch is out-done in this regard.
Finally, there’s the Xbox Series X Version, which has all the fancy dancy high resolution things you’d come to expect, including a super fast UI and framerate, good loading times, and rock solid performance all around. The only real downside are the aforementioned control quirks that come with the console versions as a whole, which I’ll note in a little bit.
If you’ve played Yu-Gi-Oh before, especially the IRL card game or something like Link Evolution, then the core gameplay loop is the same as it’s always been, with a pool of 6000+ cards to pick from. This means all the fancy summoning mechanics pre-Sevens are here, from Ritual to Link, so if you know how to use any or all of those you should be good enough to build a deck or use the structure decks the game provides. This game uses the 8000 LP structure, but otherwise once the brief introduction is over you can literally hop into both main modes right away, so let’s go over these.
The biggest appeal for the majority of players is the traditional Ranked mode. Just like Duel Links, the other YGO Mobile hit, each season is broken up into tiers, with your main goal being to see how high you can get with your dueling skills. Of course, this means you’ll have to actually build a deck and figure out how to counter whatever is the current hotness, so your mileage on this experience may completely vary.
On launch week, I dealt with tons of super pro players in the beginning league making their way higher up, and got obliterated by folks who didn’t stop the IRL game in 2006 like I did, and some of the stupidly long turns you can pull off even made some matches feel outright hopeless and unfun. Yet, as I looked into the sort of mechanics they used, and dug into spell/trap/effects that counter those sort of things, I slowly found myself coming up with decent counters, and even if I still lost, just the sheer excitement from enjoyable back and forth battles lead to incredibly fun duels, no matter how long they dragged on for!
Eventually I got used to some summoning mechanics I ignored in Link Evolution, with XYZ Summons now being easy enough for me to do consistently, and within a few weeks as the pros moved to the higher league, I found myself being matched with players more akin to my low skill level anyhow. While it’s definitely apparent a lot of folks jumping in here who were in my boat of lapsed can find this metagame really convoluted with how much stuff has been added since the Fusion days of GX, (seriously, there’s an absurd amount of new mechanics and some of them I still don’t fully get or find useful, especially synchro cards) I still found myself having tons of fun playing against the pros regardless, and experimenting with decks that may or may not work out is all part of the fun.
Of course, there’s the Solo mode available, for those seeking to practice with the AI and obtaining more cards, gems and items to mess with, and this is a fairly decent mode. Each chapter consists of multiple stages, some with story elements, some with tutorials or step-by-step duels, to slowly ease you into full-fat duels against the CPU. Sometimes it even lets you use a loaner deck the game gives you, or lets you try your own built deck, and I recommend going through this mode first to get the hang of the game, especially if you’re a lapsed player or in need of more cards. The whole game is still online mind you, so don’t expect to be playing the solo duels offline, but that’s what the mobile version is for, since you can thankfully cross-save between every version of Master Duel with ease.
Lastly, there’s the biggest elephant in the room, and that’s the game’s F2P focus. Duel Links I found was pretty F2P friendly at first, especially when it came to in-game events and story duels, but over the years as it added new worlds and characters to unlock, I did start to feel that those who spent on the popular packs were the ones more likely to win, less you deal with the luck of the RNG gods. So far, Master Duel does seem to be pretty friendly with the gem currency for F2P players, offering a ton of them at launch and allowing you to get more via solo duels or clearing in-game missions, and you can use these gems to get card packs or decks to toy with.
On one hand, this does again make it feel that you could pay your way to pulling the best cards imaginable, and while that is definitely an option, Master Duel offers some nice features to make hunting for specific cards surprisingly easy. I was determined to seek an Exodia set, you see, since the instant win nature of that card is always a fun one I like messing around with. However, with the main booster pack having the chance to give you some of any of the 6K cards, pulling the five pieces plus their newer supports felt like a nigh impossibility.
Thankfully, the game will also occasionally give you points that you can spend to create cards of specific rarities, and you can dismantle unwanted cards to earn more of this. Thus, by using this system, I managed to build one of Exodia’s body part cards… Which thus unlocked a “Secret Pack”, which basically is a booster pack focusing on specific archetypes that shows up for purchase if you end up pulling said type. Since you use gems on these secret packs, I just used the ones the game gave me for free and eventually I found myself having a much easier time getting the archetype I needed, a far much better way than just throwing gems at the master pack in hopes it would give me the slim chances I needed.
With that said, I do feel that this game could very easily shift away towards a P2W focus, even with these quality of life bits, so depending on when you read this review, your mileage will heavily vary. Thankfully, I don’t see the solo mode being unfriendly to F2P folks anytime soon, so trying that mode is a pretty good way to get a feel on if you’ll like this game or not, and I don’t personally see myself spending any money in MD, just like how I never spent a cent on Duel Links despite the 100 hrs I dumped into that.
With that all said, your platform of choice will also impact the playability here to an extent, since the console versions use button controls that can be very hit or miss. For dueling, it works fine enough, with the buttons being shortcuts for otherwise touch-focused mechanics, but building a deck with the cursors can get really aggravating, especially when using the controller to search for cards. Luckily, the Switch has an advantage by offering touch controls in handheld mode, though the aforementioned slow loading times can damper the experience. Thus, I find touch-friendly platforms to be the overall best experience for this game, solely due to the ease of deckbuilding a touch screen provides.
In the end, it took a little bit longer to get used to Master Duel than it did the other two recent Yu-Gi-Oh games I got hooked into, but I’m glad I got the hang of things, since as a free-to-start game, Master Duel is fantastic, providing a great place for newcomers to experiment with decks or just goof around, and competitive players to try their decks against the world.
While it may not be as event or anime-focused as the other two YGO games, this is definitely a very well polished duel simulator I plan on playing off and on for many months to come, and even if I find myself sucking at ranked matches, taking notes from those battles and seeing myself slowly improve with card types I used to think were too complex to ever understand was the best aspect of the experience by far, and cross-save makes it the best kind of game to literally play on anything, so for the cost of nothing, all versions are equally worth a go, especially with the Solo Mode being a fine introduction.
I give a Yu-Gi-Oh: Master Duel a 7 out of 10.