The Heart of the Cards: Yu-Gi-Oh, mysticism and the power of games

I love trading cards and card games. I like the rules, the deckbuilding, the funky little artstyles and lore, the collecting, the feel of it all. But when it comes to card-game anime things are a little more complex. The logic in the shows, while also applicable to a lot of shonen tropey stuff, has a unique context all its own. I think people complain a lot about Yugioh and its ilk because of the absurdity of its setting and internal order, but I wonder if there’s more to it than that? So I’m going to ramble a bit about Yugioh, these types of shows, and also about card games, their history, and also….mysticism and the occult! Woooo. This one’s going to be pretty informal, you’ve been warned.

You’re playing a card game with your friend! Be it Yugioh, Magic, Vanguard, Netrunner, whatever, you’re playing it and you’re in a pinch. Your opponent has the field full, you’ve got barely anything in your hand to counter, and a clean hit from him will end the game! Everything depends on the next draw. You remember that cheesy Yugioh anime and its talk of the “heart of the cards”, a mystical moment where your deck responds to your will to win and grants you exactly what you need! You reach for the deck. You pick up the card….it’s trash. You lose! Well, of course. See, the average card deck is 40 cards and your draws are random- pulling exactly what you need isn’t likely unless you take advantage of specific rules, because most games only allow a maximum of three identical cards in a deck. The probability of drawing the one card you want with three copies in the deck is something liiiike 24% likely, and if there’s only one copy then it’s like, 7%. That’s part of the fun, though. Cardgames are never exactly the same, you never know exactly what tools you’ll get and at what point. Yes, it’s possible to design decks and use rules that minimize risk, but there’ll always be that moment waiting for a good card…and sometimes it never comes… *sniffle*

So why the mystical nonsense? Well part of it comes from making a good story! Cardgame anime, along with shonen properties advertising battling spinning tops or race cars or fishing rods or what-have-you, are all about enhancing the coolness of the theme. When a spinning top breaks or topples over, that’s not exactly cool or exciting. It’s much cooler to have them spin crazy amounts of times and hop around and stuff that is entertaining! Same with cardgames. A game where decks brick and samey beatstick tactics work isn’t terribly interesting. So the cardgames in stuff like Yugioh are much flashier and generally represent the higher level of tactics and feature combos that work perfectly! But there’s another angle worth considering about that whole “heart of the cards” thing- the occult. Ehehe, it may sound silly since magic and stuff is part of the show, but it’s worth looking into just how magic and supernatural stuff plays into games, because there’s a pretty long history there.

To begin, let’s look at the connection between chance and fate! Consider the humble dice. Existing since before recorded history, dice are simple objects with different markings on each side. You throw the dice and the markings you get determine if you win or lose, normally due to betting on the outcome. Gambling as entertainment, or a simple form of amusement for bored humans the world over, yes. But there’s another side of this. Ever heard of throwing bones? Little bits of bone were used in similar sorts of practices, with markings and meanings to tossing them about, but they were also used as a form of divination. The element of randomness is actually something that is found in many forms of divining, everything from seeing things in the clouds, to the splattered entrails of animals….to cards!!! Playing cards were a Chinese invention that came along with woodblock printing, they were used in all sorts of games, lots of them involving betting. They spread through the middle east, to Africa and Europe, which is where we loop into divination. See, there’s a little game that developed in Italy and France and so on which was called Tarot. Tarot, as I’m sure you know, eventually developed into one of the most famous forms of fortune-telling, but originally it was entirely a game. For a few reasons, probably because Churches condemned such games as tools of the devil (gambling!), it got mixed up with the Occult and mysticism and transitioned into a popular tool for divination, and it really worked! Or not.

The reason Tarot works so well is because, I think, the nature of the cards themselves. The way it works is that you draw out different cards with rather broad meanings, then kinda link em together. Each card has a distinct identity, so it functions as a nice form of emergent storytelling- it makes them feel like entities themselves and by drawing each card you’re interacting with them, and the result has an effect on your faaaate. Spooky, huh? This sort of concept ties in pretty strongly with Yugioh’s story and setting, which if you’re not familiar with has a strong tie to these sorts of ancient games and occult junk. Egypt, land of mystery and ancient spooks, has its own history relating to this stuff in the real world, though it has been messed with over the years, IE the Tarot are connected with the Book of Thoth, Thoth being an ancient Egyptian god, and Senet, an ancient Egyptian boardgame, is speculated to represent the spiritual journey of souls through life and death and all that stuff. Add to this a common theme in stories and urban legends about ancient Egyptian tombs delivering curses and treasures to their raiders in equal measure, and you have the basis for something that hits a lot of nerves!

Yugioh begins with a boy named Yugi assembling a puzzle from an ancient Egyptian tomb. The result is that he’s possessed by an at-first malevolent spirit that is obsessed with games of chance and risk, punishing the greedy or reckless who choose to play his games with death and despair. This sort of behaviour plays into two mythological pools- the first being the god who punishes the wicked in bizarre ways, and the second being the concept of tempting fate, respecting the supernatural, and the identification of risk as a malevolent force. To explain what I’m talking about, let’s consider superstitions that take a negative view of, say, communicating with the dead. In a supernatural cosmology such behaviour makes sense as bad because it interferes with the proper order, which is why we have stories about people who do such things getting punished in some form. But there’s also things that don’t really make too much sense besides the superstition against them, such as stepping on cracks or whatever, but they’re still things that are seen to invite  misfortune. That’s because misfortune is an entity in and of itself- the gods, the spirits, the world moves at the behest of thinking beings, so doing things that upset them is causing them to target you specifically. Bad things don’t happen randomly, they happen because you started it. Of course, we don’t actually cause misfortune, but in the cosmology of the supernatural that’s how it works and we search for reasons to explain it, even if said reasons are nonsensical.

And that’s where games link in- What’s the most common thing games are used for? Gamblin’! Gambling really does invite misfortune, because chance inevitably fails you and you’ll lose your winnings. Or you try to cheat and get punished for it. Regardless, the supernatural and reality align, which is why games are the hotbed for divine punishment: You can’t escape the ire of the gods. But by playing them, as you will do, you tempt fate. You invite risk, you anger the supernatural. And thus, the will of the spirit world is made manifest in the form of a deck of cards.

And now we can combine our two little threads: Remember how I was talking about how the Tarot cards and their stories and personality made them memorable and endearing? Well, plenty of card games realized this. Magic: The Gathering, to name one example, is a game where your cards are literally forms of magic, monster, and heroes, little entities who create an army of followers with their own stories at your command. The creator of Yugioh eventually realized this, and began to create a card game for his stories. It was naturally popular and eventually the series became centered around it- and it thematically brings the whole thing together. Yugioh’s cards became a conduit for supernatural power, and people who played it risked the ire of malevolent forces who would destroy them or seal them away should they lose the game of chance. The heart of the cards, the will of the entities in each card responding to the player’s feelings, is actually an understandable part of this mythology; born to give a sense of fate and thematic justice to these confrontations. In the stories, the narrative dances with the idea that these cards are more than a game, but more like the spellbooks of wizards (people who have mastered this supernatural force) engaged in duels- and that’s also a pretty telling point. Duel Monsters, the name of the game- duels are traditionally to the death, or at least to show that someone was prepared to risk their life.  It all kind of mixes together into a soup of punishment and destiny, foretold through a superficially-random method. If you look at all forms of divination it’s basically the same thing: humans find the words and actions of the gods within random data.

Soooo what does it all mean? Well…. basically Yugioh isn’t really about real cardgames. It’s not about mulligans or topdecking or making the best of a bad situation. It’s using a very very old form of human interpretation of games of chance to play on supernatural forces within said random elements. And arguably the show (or at least the original show) handles that pretty well. People give a shit about cardgames in those universes because said cardgames always seem to deliver order to chaos, settle disputes, mete out justice, and punish hubris. And that shit is coooool. So it works to advertise all the little packets of cards kids will waste money on and assemble into a deck that loses then gets abandoned in a desk drawer and is still there all these years  later taunting me with my inability to understand actual tactics at the time you f- ahem. Anyway. Yugioh as a series has changed a bit, it’s no longer even explicitly supernatural at this point, but its origins are understandable and relate quite strongly to our past. So if you ever watch it and get irritated by unreasonable luck and silly combos, remember that sort of absurdity exists because our ancestors actively looked for it, and smile at how desperate they were to find meaning in our wild, messy, godless world that they scrutinized bloody dice rolls.

With that, I place two cards face down and end my turn!

1 thought on “The Heart of the Cards: Yu-Gi-Oh, mysticism and the power of games”

  1. The card games being linked to justice speaks to me in particular. At the beginning of the show, Kaiba loses his duel with Yami because, at the time, he was narratively the villainous antagonist. Much later into the show, Yami gets megalomanically ruthless during a duel that he then loses, losing Yugi in the process. Both Kaiba and Yami get subsequent redemption arcs, as though the universe was punishing them and forcing them to repent in order to be redeemed.

    Liked by 1 person

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