Duel Masters was a card game that never really got a chance to shine; released in the west in 2004 during the height of the Yu-Gi-Oh! and Pokemon TCG crazes, for many, Duel Masters seemed like just another cheap attempt at cashing in on a children’s fad.
Originally, it seems like the intention of Wizards of the Coast – the creators of Duel Masters – was to provide children and teenagers a simple, easy-to-understand card game that would encourage them to play Magic: the Gathering when they had outgrown it. There are numerous similarities between Duel Masters and Magic; the five colours of Magic map fairly well onto the five civilizations of Duel Masters, and many mechanics are shared across both games. You might notice that this isn’t a particularly good marketing plan – making a card game one expects their players to grow out of! The fact that they called it Duel Masters – very evocative of Yu-Gi-Oh!’s ‘Duel Monsters’ – caused many to dismiss it as a cheap cash-in and rip-off before giving the game a chance.
Duel Masters is a fun, exciting, and unique game that succeeds in many places where other card games commonly fail. However, as is all too common with trading card games produced during this period, Wizards failed to adequately market or support their product – with a poor tournament scene, small and irregular set releases, and a glut of low-quality tie-in products (manga only available in Japanese, a short run of abruptly cancelled comics, and a television series most interesting for its…unusual…dubbing choices), the game failed to grab audience attention in the west. I should note at this point that the Japanese version of Duel Masters is the most popular trading card game in Japan, and new sets and new cards are being regularly released to this day!
When Wizards tried to reboot the game as ‘Kaijudo’ in 2012, they did a phenomenal job addressing the problems of the original release. Just kidding – they made all of the same mistakes again. By simplifying the rules even further, overloading the game with keywords, and limiting the effects of many creatures, Wizards effectively neutered a lot of the high-stakes, lightning-fast fun of the game. By launching more poor-quality tie-in products that failed to captivate their market, including a television show that aired on a network nobody watches, Wizards ensured their reboot would find little purchase in the modern card game scene. They also managed to split their base, with many players of the classic Duel Masters game being disappointed by the mechanical and artistic shifts of the new cards, as well as their inability to use their old Duel Masters cards in this new game. Kaijudo was discontinued in 2015.
So, if the game is dead why play Duel Masters, then? What is it about this game that has captivated and continues to captivate audiences around the world despite its 14-year absence?
The Core Gameplay
The core gameplay of Duel Masters is fast-paced, fun, and exciting. The game divides cards into five civilizations (much like Magic: the Gathering). This provides inbuilt deck limitations, forcing you to decide early which civilizations your deck will favour – you can’t have them all (or can you?). The unique flavour and style of each civilization causes each to favour certain types of deck or various unique strategies, helping to guide new players, while providing interesting limitations for advanced players to work with and discouraging “good stuff” strategies (where players can just throw all of the best cards into a deck and call it a winner).
Like Magic, the game relies on generating a resource – mana – which builds and recharges each turn, and is expended when you summon creatures or cast spells. Unlike Magic, there is no single card type that must be relied upon to generate mana; there are no ‘land’ cards in Duel Masters. Instead, any card in your hand can be used to produce mana – but you have to put that card in your mana zone, effectively preventing you from using it for the rest of the game. Do you sacrifice the expensive-but-powerful card in your hand to the mana zone to power out your early spells, or try to find another option? (We’ll talk about this choice more in a later article!)
This change fundamentally affects the playability of the game. There is no ‘mana flood’ or ‘mana screw’ in Duel Masters – you will never find yourself in a situation where you do not draw enough mana cards to play your spells, or (even worse!) draw nothing but mana cards for an entire game. This, combined with the lower deck limit (40 cards rather than Magic’s 60) leads to greater consistency and control over your deck and the cards you draw. It also makes the game much tighter and faster-paced; you can pretty much guarantee that a player will be able to bring out their 8-mana haymakers on turn 8, so if you don’t have a counter for those cards – well, better get to work, ‘cos you’ve only got 8 turns to win!
Duel Masters clearly defines which cards can attack, and which cards can defend against opposing attacks (‘blockers’). While this often leads to less complex board positions, the upswing is that the burden of tactical advantage is placed on the attacker, unlike in Magic. In Magic, the attacker declares their attacks, and then the defender is able to decide their blocks, giving them the ability to capitalise on poor attacks, decide which of their creatures to commit, or decide whether they commit at all. In addition, unlike Magic, Duel Masters creatures can attack other creatures – but (usually!) only when those creatures are tapped. This means that tapping a creature – turning it sideways, which you do whenever you attack or block with it – leaves it vulnerable. This both allows the attacking player to seize the initiative and exert precise control over how, when, and where they commit their creatures – do they attack your tapped creatures, or your shields? – and allows the defender to exploit attackers who overcommit and avenge their broken shields next turn!
Speaking of shields…the shield system in Duel Masters is simple and elegant. It is a life-decking solution that actually works (life-decking is a TCG concept wherein your survival in game is directly tied to the number of cards in your deck, and enemy attacks force you to to ‘mill’ – or discard – a certain number of cards from the top of your deck). Generally, life-decking in games is a miserable affair where you watch the best cards in your deck disappear before you ever get a chance to play them – not so in Duel Masters! Both players start the game with 5 shields, cards you place facedown in front of you from the top of your deck before the game begins, and these shields are lost if you are attacked by opposing creatures. If you lose all your shields – and take one more direct attack – you lose the game. This system is one of the most ingenious mechanics in the entire card game.
Firstly, it is – like most of Duel Masters – fast-paced. With only 5 shields, you won’t be taking many hits before you lose. This helps keep late-game control decks in check. With the ability to charge mana from any card, it’s pretty much guaranteed you’ll make your mana drops each turn, unless you explicitly choose not to. This could potentially lead to high-power, high-mana cost cards vastly outweighing the value of their smaller, lower-cost counterparts; the 5 shield limit means that low-cost creatures can make a massive impact on the game. Further, with cards that can break two or even three shields at once, that 5 shield limit starts to look pretty small.
Furthermore, a shield is broken whenever a creature pushes an attack through – no matter how strong the creature is. Whether it’s a measly Deadly Fighter Braid Claw, with 1000 power, or a more respectable Gigamantis, with 5000 power, one shield breaks each time. Unless a creature has the aforementioned ‘double breaker’ or ‘triple breaker’ abilities, your small creatures can be just as effective – if not more – than your opponent’s big ones. This makes cheap, aggro-tastic decks filled with small creatures very effective, and encourages a metagame rooted comfortably in midrange decks; combine this with a lack of counterspells and the ‘draw-go’ control and goldfishing combo archetypes of Magic will not find a place in Duel Masters. I love playing control or combo in Magic, but even I have to admit – it’s nice to play a game where every deck has to concern itself with board interaction, and where you can’t just ignore or ‘go over’ your opponent.
Further, the shield system helps prevent snowballing. When a shield is broken, you take that card and add it to your hand, meaning that if you’re losing, you get more and more cards to use to turn the tide. Some cards are ‘shield triggers’ – if your shield is broken and the card added to your hand is a shield trigger, you can cast it immediately without paying its mana cost. With powerful shield trigger cards such as Holy Awe, Burst Shot, or Volcanic Arrows lurking in your shields, you can really turn a game around against an overconfident opponent.
And you’d better be packing those shield triggers! Duel Masters extensively restricts the amount of interaction you have during your opponent’s turn. Now, this can make the game simple in comparison to other TCGs, but it heavily discourages slower decks and removes the threat of decks that seek to bully an opponent during their turn. Forget playing around frustrating counterspells or waiting to see if your attack succeeds or if your opponent has a trap laying in wait – if you have the mana to summon your big creature, guess what? It lands. If you seem to have a clear line of attack to your opponent’s shields, guess what? You do! (Unless you hit one of those pesky shield triggers…)
Throughout this discussion of core mechanics I’ve been comparing the game to Magic. This is not to disparage Magic or encourage competition between the communities of both games – I simply have much more experience with Magic than I do with other comparable games, such as Yu-Gi-Oh! or Cardfight!! Vanguard. I love Magic and still play it regularly, but for me, Duel Masters scratches an itch that Magic just can’t – it’s fast-paced, exciting, filled with powerful cards and fun effects that are designed well enough that they do not warp entire formats around them (looking at you Oko!). Bottom line – Duel Masters has unique and exciting mechanics that I honestly don’t think have ever been exceeded, or even matched, by other card games.
A ‘Complete’ Game
One of the gripes I have always had with card games is inherent in their very nature; they are collectible, constantly growing and expanding and adding new cards. As card games grow older and begin to explore more distant design spaces – and indeed, as power begins to inevitably creep higher and higher to incentivise players to keep buying packs – I find myself becoming more and more turned off.
I have played Yu-Gi-Oh! regularly for three periods of my life, with long breaks between. When I was young, I played the card game when it first launched (shoutout to Starter Deck Yugi!) and continued through to…somewhere around the Pharaoh’s Servant set. I revisited the game in the early GX era and was surprised to discover that now almost every playable monster was one with an effect – when I first played, effect monsters were the exception, rather than the rule! When I picked the game up again a few years later, I used a X-Saber deck and couldn’t believe how much the pace of the game had increased and how special summoning – a way of summoning extra creatures on your turn that had previously been…well, special and often difficult to pull off – had become the most common way of summoning creatures. Still, I got my head around the faster pace and the special summons and the Synchro Monsters and the power-crept spells (at least, until I got bored and went back to Magic).
I recently picked up Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Links in a fit of nostalgia, and played about on the game for a little while. I quickly realised I had absolutely no idea what was happening in most of the games I played. Games were over in 1-3 turns, special summons were constant, cards flew in and out of the arena faster than I could possibly keep track of them. I still have no idea how pendulum monsters or XYZ-summoning work, and frankly, I’ve stopped caring. This is a game that has become so swollen and bloated with power creep and feature creep that they have invented entire new ways of playing your cards, just so they can keep selling packs. I mean, keep the game fresh. Of course.
Duel Masters has 12 sets in its western release. That’s it, and that’s all there ever will be. The Duel Masters metagame has never been ‘solved’, and the smaller card pool encourages tight groups of local players to build communities, experiment with new deck construction ideas and build their own personal banlists, formats, and metagames.
You don’t need to run out and buy new cards when a new set comes out, or worry that your old cards will be entirely devalued by set rotation or by being replaced or superseded by more pushed, more modern cards. You don’t need to worry about a sudden banlist change meaning your expensive, valuable cards are now worthless. Once you have a full set of Duel Masters cards, that’s it – you’ve got ’em.
The DIY Spirit
Duel Masters cards aren’t cheap. Now, they aren’t Magic: the Gathering or Yu-Gi-Oh! expensive, but due to the game being out of print (and thus the finite stock of available cards), getting full playsets of cards can be difficult. At the moment, an English copy of Bazagazeal Dragon will run you £10-£15 + postage and packaging. That’s a heck of an investment for a game that has no ongoing support, no official tournaments and prize packages, and where you’ll undoubtedly be spending most of your gaming time in friendlies with your local playgroup.
What to do? Well, the option for many players who originally collected the cards is to just continue playing with the cards they already have – if you have a collection of a few hundred Duel Masters cards, you can definitely play the occasional fun game without the need to invest in additional cards. However, if you and your playgroup do get seriously into the game – as I hope you do! – how are you meant to add more cards?
The art of proxying – making DIY cards to stand in for cards you don’t own in your collection – has a rich history around the kitchen table. With decks for formats such as Legacy Magic often exceeding $1000 (!) in price, many tables use proxies to fill the gaps in their decks, giving them the chance to play with cards on the infamous Reserved List (hoo boy!), or even Vintage staples like the Power 9 – the most powerful cards in Magic history that cost megabucks to own. At time of writing, the cheapest Black Lotus I could find on the market was up for just shy of $5000.
Proxying is an elegant solution, particularly for people who fundamentally disagree with the grotesque market manipulation and price gouging that goes on in trading card secondary markets. Creating your own proxies can be as simple as printing a picture of the card out, backing it with an existing card (say, a spare Magic: the gathering land card), sleeving it, and playing. Alternatively, one could…print their own cards out. On cardstock. Potentially, one could finish those cards with an acrylic gloss varnish, cut those cards out, clip the corners, and sleeve them up to play!
Now, of course, using licensed artwork without the permission of the owning company is illegal, so I would never suggest you do this. To quote Wizards themselves: Counterfeits are copies or reproductions of actual Wizards trading cards, whether or not they are identified as non-genuine. The creation and distribution of counterfeits violate United States and international copyright laws and negatively affects the integrity of Wizards’ trading card games. Counterfeits are strictly prohibited, even for personal, non-commercial use.
Yowza! However, I will note that there are plenty of resources online that can offer guidance in the manufacture of your own trading cards – just make sure you do not do this for Duel Masters, or any other copyrighted product. If you are interested in learning what a particular Duel Masters card does before you purchase it legally through the secondary market, you can find decent quality images of most cards available on the Duel Masters wiki, so you can check their art and gameplay statistics before you purchase them legally.
So long as you and your friends are having fun, and are all happy with the cards you have and however you have obtained them, you’re good to go! And so long as you and your playgroup are happy with the quality of the game pieces you are using, you can run your own tournaments – with your own prizes! Due to the limited number of Duel Masters cards released, you can theoretically own the whole lot and have the entire world of Duel Masters deckbuilding at your fingertips!
Should I Play Duel Masters?
Why not? Compared to most TCGs, it isn’t much of an investment. If you’re tired of Magic’s constant banlist back-and-forth, or Yu-Gi-Oh!’s crazy power creep, or Cardfight!! Vanguard’s…
…uh, I dunno, is Cardfight!! Vanguard dead yet?
The point is, you have nothing to lose. If you have a group of friends who are itching for a new trading card game, or even just a game to play between Magic or Dungeons & Dragons or Settlers of Catan, I encourage you to give Duel Masters a go. It might just surprise you!
Still not convinced? Well, keep an eye on this blog. I’ll be writing more articles about strategy, deckbuilding, and collecting Duel Masters cards regularly. I hope I can convince you to start your own collection, and join the wonderful, community-driven world of Duel Masters.
Until next time!