For those unaware, "set rotation" isn't just a pretty good field spell searcher. It's also a system used by most popular TCGs, such as Magic: The Gathering or Pokémon, where they periodically rotate the legal pool of cards, having older cards leave their standard formats to make space for new sets. There has always been a huge argument about Yu-Gi-Oh! needing a set rotation in order be a more balanced game, and while I disagree with this, now is not the time to discuss it. What I intend to discuss in this article is the ways Yu-Gi-Oh! has found to balance itself instead of resorting to removing cards from the format every year.
As you should already know, Yu-Gi-Oh! employs a ban list to deal with problematic cards or decks in the format directly, either banning or limiting them. This is the most obvious and straightforward way of keeping the format "fresh," making it so decks don't remain in the spotlight so long that they become boring. At the same time, unbannings bring back old fan favorites that the player base might miss.
Funnily enough, both these objectives were served at once very recently. The famous 2019 "Eternal Format" concluded with bannings that put an end to a whole year of Thunder Dragon, Sky Striker, Orcust, and Salamangreat being ubiquitous. Meanwhile, Konami brought back Sky Striker Mobilize - Engage! and Salamangreat Miragestallio, showcasing how the Forbidden & Limited List serves both to keep decks from getting old and returns old decks to new life.
However, Konami had a couple of issues releasing a ban list in recent times, notably as lockdown went into effect worldwide and real-life events were being cancelled. While official tournaments were out of the question, most of the player base was experiencing Adamancipator ending on six negates through four hand traps. Curiously, Konami elected to release a ban list that only saw the freeing of very few off-meta cards that did little to impact the game. If they were to address the issues the format actually had, so it seemed, they would be acknowledging tournaments run by players through unofficial and barely legal simulators. Later we saw them give in and drop a proper list, shortly before remote duel tournaments really started to take off.
Updates to the Forbidden & Limited List aren't the only way to balance the game. One way of balancing that's constantly happening, even though we're not fully aware of it, is new card releases and players innovating. Konami supplies the tools and players discover new decks that were not considered before but can stand up to the meta. As one of the best examples I want to call back to my article on Goat Format, where there has not been a single card added or banned in fifteen years and the format still sees change and evolution.
This is the main reason why decks such as Invoked or Burning Abyss remain untouched for so long, while still being competitively relevant. Yes, they could have limited Dante, Traveler of the Burning Abyss or banned Magical Meltdown (the latter of which would not be unasked for, in my sincere opinion). But new sets release and players learn how to build against these decks they've known for years.
This is more evident now than ever, but for the opposite reason. We're living in a COVID world with sets delayed for several months, making players hunger for a ban list to drop, for new decks to stir the pot of stale stew that is the 2021 format. Added to this is the acceleration that formats experience when there are no in-person events. Players are able to playtest much more aggressively, and there's a lot more communication, causing every format since the cancellation of YCS Rio De Janeiro to feel old really, really fast. This was obviously an issue ever since lockdown began, but in the past few months we've been faced with long-term delays on products that were set to change up the format significantly.
While online tournaments are obviously a great (and the only) option, they tend to devolve into this vicious cycle of specific counters with no real innovation outside that circle. Side cards rotate every event based on how the decks change by very small amounts, making the entire act of side decking a chore, as there are a lot of different decks with very different side-deck cards for each. This would not be an issue if the differences were organic, naturally developed by how new cards are added into the game. But we are in a situation where no cards really change, thus the format instantly feels stale.
On top of that, since we don't really have big events anymore, we have to guide ourselves through what Extravaganzas and other small-scale events tell us. Their very limited player counts—no more than 300 on the very big ones, but averaging around 80—make for a very polarizing view of the format. In some areas, mostly North America, players are begging for a Drytron hit, whereas in some zones of Europe, players ask for Tri-Brigade to be neutered or Prank-Kids to get off the playground. And yeah, the ban list will help a lot, but as long as we do not receive new product releases, the same issues we are all having with the current state of the game will keep resurfacing.
What's there to look forward to, then? If sets are delayed and September is a month devoid of ban lists and product releases, what awaits us beyond that? Well, Burst of Destiny, for one, introduces Swordsoul and Flundereeze, two archetypes that are sure to shake up the meta, together with Elemental HERO Destroy Phoenix Enforcer—which caused Fusion Destiny to skyrocket in price and which will probably follow a Red-Eyes Dark Dragoon ban in October. This should make way for a healthier (but not less powerful) use of Predaplant Verte Anaconda.
On top of that, the 2021 Tins will provide most of the player base with a suite of powerful staples hitherto locked behind their unaffordable prices. We can expect a higher level of play at the local level, which currently constitutes all of the in-person play in the vast majority of countries in the world. Sure, it might look dire now, but we're at the end of the tunnel. It is here that we must learn to accept that a ban list is not necessary to shake up the metagame, and set releases are a much healthier, organic way to keep the game fresh.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily Cardmarket.