Wait, How Do I Start My Turn Again?: Learning to Play Trading Card Games Via Anime Adaptations

I love trading card game anime. There’s something really charming about how self-serious they are – trading card games dictate everything in their world, from social hierarchy to business deals to intergalactic war. If anybody wants to be somebody, they better learn how to play the game. And for the average viewer, it’s important that they can also learn how to play the game from the show itself. Nothing kills the intensity of a fight like the inability to follow the action, and the same goes for card games. If the viewer can’t follow the turn-to-turn actions, there’s no sense of tension, and the appeal of the game and show are lost.

One of my favorite things to do with these trading card games (or TCG) is to see how they play. TCG anime tend to present very punchy and streamlined versions of their games that really show off how fast and exciting they can be. Since this will likely be a viewer’s first time experiencing a particular game in action, I wanted to look at some of the bigger TCG series and see how they handle teaching their rules to the audience.


Yu-Gi-Oh!

Yu-Gi-Oh! is weird. At the time the original Duel Monsters manga was being written, there was no card game and therefore no rules to follow. Hell, the game wasn’t even called Duel Monsters before the release of the trading card game. Originally, Yu-Gi-Oh! was about an ancient Egyptian spirit inhabiting a modern-day Japanese teen and playing games with life-size stakes, with stories about variants on tabletop RPGs, chess, and even Tamagotchi. One of these games was a card game called Magic & Wizards, and the fan response to the stories featuring this game was so positive that the author, Kazuki Takahashi, ended up making it the focus of the series, with an eventual name change to Duel Monsters.

For the first arc, Duel Monsters follows a core ruleset so that the very basics of the game can be understood, but there are a lot of added embellishments for the sake of dramatics. Still, characters constantly explain their moves and their card effects, sometimes to a memetic degree, to keep the viewer informed on everything going on. The statistics of each monster flash on the screen frequently to remind the audience of the current field state. There’s also running strategy commentary from whoever is deemed the protagonist of each duel, so even though the finer details hadn’t been figured out, it’s easy to follow the general flow of the game even without a proper introduction to the game.

After the card game was properly released, the manga updated its own version of the game with a worldwide tournament arc meant to redefine how Duel Monsters was played in-universe. A few rules were changed for the sake of presenting more concise duels, but otherwise it was a proper reflection of the actual game. At the beginning of this arc, the writers make sure to have several duels where characters talk about and run into trouble based on the new rules, so the audience can become familiar with them alongside the cast. It also helps that most of the rule changes focus on more consistent gameplay, so it does simplify what seemed like a very complicated and open-ended game in the first arc.

As the series branched off into new shows like 5D’s and ZeXal, it expects you to have a basic understanding of the rules because the focus is on the new mechanics that have been added to the card game. These shows help the viewer get familiar with how new rules work by making them the central point of every episode’s duel and demonstrating the added mechanics in different contexts multiple times. Some rules may have gotten out of hand as the game evolved, and modern cards frequently have paragraph-long effects, but Yu-Gi-Oh! goes out of its way to try and be as accessible as possible for viewers tuning in at the start of any given series.


Cardfight!! Vanguard

Cardfight!! Vanguard has easily the most robust game explanation out of any of the card game series included in this blog post. Its first episode has the main character, a complete newbie to the game, get tutorialized through his first match of Vanguard. Even though its introduction is a bit flowery thanks to the tutor’s enthusiasm, all of the core rules are described with examples, making it easy to follow along while still leaving space for dramatic fights later on. It helps that Vanguard is also a very simple game, with only a single card type (monsters) and a set of rules based around a small number of monster stats that the viewer is always aware of as long as they’re relevant in the course of a duel.

The first few duels don’t even feature monsters with involved special abilities, like forcing the opponent to discard or changing the field state. And when decks that feature these abilities pop up, they tend to start with a basic example of the effect before getting into some of the more synergistic strategies. Cardfight!! Vanguard seems interested in slowly teaching the game to viewers, even repeating the tutorial duel episode at the start of every season. It’s a smart move, since that means even new people joining in at a later season become fully acquainted with the basics of the game.


Future Card Buddyfight

Future Card Buddyfight, like Cardfight!! Vanguard, has an amateur-as-protagonist duel which gives the show a reason to explain all the basic rules. Unfortunately, it’s a much more complicated game than Vanguard, and the anime tends to forego showing some of the most important mechanics, like card statistics, unless it helps play up the dramatics. The viewer is told that each monster has specific stats like size, attack and defense so that they can follow the flow of the duel. However, the show never mentions these unless they’re particularly impressive numbers or it becomes a really important part of the duel. Fights sometimes look like a game of back-and-forth with no real sense of development, but that’s not too much of a problem since very few matches last longer than half an episode or so.

The series also introduces a secondary character who’s training to be a professional Buddyfight commentator/reporter, so each duel is given running commentary to help the viewer follow along and get hyped about the turn-by-turn action. Other secondary characters include people who study the game or are professional deck builders, so they provide more in-depth mechanics discussion, as well as talk about the differences in the deck archetypes. This helps fill out some of the stuff that the duelists gloss over, like individual card abilities or basic strategies, but not as much as I’d like. Still, Future Card Buddyfight is a series that’s not hard to jump into at any point, and it has some of the most vibrant action scenes out of any of the shows on this list.


Selector Infected WIXOSS

Selector Infected WIXOSS does not care if you understand how the game works. The actual focus of the series is so separated from the card game that the writers never bother with explaining the rules or putting more focus on the game than “this is a popular card game in this world”. If you’re familiar with other trading card games you can infer some of the basic rules, but that’s not enough to allow the viewer to follow along. The series never makes note of card statistics, so the actual turn-to-turn progression and development is completely invisible and impossible to follow, especially when it drops its rules for the sake of an out-of-place action scene between the card avatars.

Based on the small bits of gameplay from the series, it seems like it has quite a bit in common with something like Cardfight!! Vanguard and a little bit of Magic the Gathering, but hell if WIXOSS wants me to confirm that. It’s an odd decision to make a tie-in franchise be so flippant about the product it’s trying to sell, but WIXOSS also seems to be targeted at a very different audience than something like Yu-Gi-Oh! or Future Card Buddyfight, so the change in focus and tone makes sense in that way. Selector Infected WIXOSS wants to tell a story first and foremost, and the game is just a vehicle to make the plot happen.


One thing all these shows do well is that they make characters feel unique through decks that either play into their personal traits or their fashion sense. These character specific decks show off the series’ diverse gameplay, whether it be variations on offensive and defensive tactics, or alternate win conditions. It also gives the audience a chance to see different card aesthetics available, showing viewers that there’s something for everyone. TCG anime are just as much commercials as they are entertainment, so emphasizing the versatility and diversity of a game is important, and I think each show succeeds in this way.

If we throw out WIXOSS as an outlier, we see similar but distinct ways in which trading card anime handle teaching the viewer their rules. The remaining three shows are labeled as shonen, but that doesn’t mean they’re all intended for the exact same audience. Something for younger audiences, like Future Card Buddyfight, isn’t as interested in the minutiae of the game, like the card statistics, and more interesting in loud colors and dynamic action like a hip-hop demon suplexing a pegasus. The shows that seem more targeted towards the older side of shonen, like Cardfight!! Vanguard and Yu-Gi-Oh!, focus more on story and dramatics and therefore put more work into keeping the turn-by-turn action and field state parseable and intense. However they handle it, these anime work to engage their viewer and get them interested in the product they’re selling. The easier a person is able engage with a game right out of the box, the better chance there is at player retention.

Now if you don’t mind, just thinking about trading cards has made me want to go out and buy a hot handful. Wish me luck on those odds!

I feel like this year I’ve been able to work on solidifying my own style and getting down anatomy/composition better…
But there’s still a lot to learn! (Man I draw so many red haired charas ww..)
Thanks, everyone, for supporting me and sticking with me in 2016..!
I hope you’ll watch over me in 2017 as well! O(–<
–> My 2015 Summary is here!