In the latest issue of Witches & Pagans, there was a short article from professional tarot reader Witch Hazel. While the article was on how to approach cards with negative connotations like Death or Devil in a way that isn’t intimidating, that’s not what I focused on. The bold header for the essay exclaimed that a “few tarot cards have permeated pop culture” (p. 8). Of course, I picked up on the words “tarot” and “pop culture” . . . and my thoughts summoned up the Yu-Gi-Oh! television show.
It wasn’t a craving for poorly-dubbed 4KIDS cartoon mornings full up on plots about trading card games (TCGs) and their juvenile players that led me there. Honestly, I was thinking about one episode in particular. Towards the end of the second-to-last episode of the first american season, the arc of the story finishes with a dramatic exchange of antagonists, accompanied by a sinister tarot reading—performed with a Yu-Gi-Oh! deck.
This post covers the basics of Yu-Gi-Oh! tarot, including some of the history of the TCG as well as ways folks read the cards, all thanks to my misreading of a letter to a magazine editor and reruns of an americanized anime in the mornings of my childhood.
Hold Up: What Is Yu-Gi-Oh!?
So, for a little of the background I’ve picked up as a reader, viewer, and player:
The story of Yu-Gi-Oh! begins with a serialized manga (Japanese comic) in the magazine Shonen Jump in the mid-90’s. The title stars Yugi, a tiny highschooler with a ton of hair, who solves a “millennium,” read “ancient Egyptian”-ish, puzzle and comes to share his body literally with a pharaoh (who adds the “Oh!” to “Yu-Gi-Oh!”). To menace the bullies and villains in his life, Yugi sometimes transforms into this pharaoh, reaping justice through a series of mind games. In one instance, a mind game involved an unknown, Magic: The Gathering-like card game that transported players to a dangerous plane called the Shadow Realm where monsters come to life and lifepoints (the way to measure the success/nearness to loss) becomes the actual life force of participants.
It’s from this concept that the TCG came from. Around 1996, Konami started to mass produce cards depicting Duel Monsters, Spells, and stats in luscious color. As a game, the Yu-Gi-Oh! TCG is a marketing success, raking in money from competitions that continue to expand on the system of the game and card sales as new sets keep coming out. The popularity of the card game has also made way for cartoons, movies, video games (which aren’t as magic-handy as the cards), and new print series further and further away from the precious protagonist of the first books. There’s even fan media that mocks the official stuff for not keeping the rules straight!
As the game is translated into many languages and distributed worldwide, the content of the cards continues to incorporate the stories of other cultures. Sets in the past have included romanticized versions of Scandinavian legends, Japanese folklore, and of course ancient Egyptian existence. It’s important to consider that real life models for the cards and lore are not being used, that this really doesn’t represent these cultures or their peoples. The art is eye-catching, the backstory detailed, but the accuracy isn’t there and should not be used to divine for anything culturally-specific or as a cultural artifact (unless you’re doing Japanese pop culture magic, then go ham).
The focus of the rest of this article pertains to the trading card game. (Yep, that’s a link to a page for guardians and parents whose child/ren are interested in playing the game. It does cover the game in more depth still.)
According to Patti Wittington’s blurb on tarot, using tarot to read your circumstances is less about the deck and more about intuition, what calls out to you, the images and sensations you can cling to. Especially with their flamboyant manga-style card art, Yu-Gi-Oh! cards can elicit many reactions, but unlike fan tarot decks for other series (like the LotR or Jane Austen decks plugged in Wittington’s piece), we’re working with something already in card form with its own rules about those cards.
Your usual tarot deck is made up of 78 cards, 22 from the well-known easily-recognized Major Arcana and the remaining 56 filling out the Minor Arcana. Each card is unique. A typical Yu-Gi-Oh! deck, however, has 40 cards in the main deck and any amount of cards in the sidedeck (important for many deck types that summon cards from outside the game). There can be up to three copies of a card in one deck.
Despite structural incompatibility, there are still approaches to Yu-Gi-Oh! tarot. The game itself has two card-type/archetype sets that incorporate the Major Arcana. The “Prophecy” archetype involves 22 Monsters that align perfectly well with the Rider-Waite tarot deck most are familiar with. This makes it easier to make part of a tarot deck, but these cards also have the benefit of making most of a solid Yu-Gi-Oh! deck. The other archetype, the “Arcane Force” type, is a lot less familiar to me, but the fact that the cards (of which resemble the Major Arcana once again but address that Spells and Traps (not-Monsters) are the Minor Arcana) are read in the show, displaying cause and consequence, is rather handy for those who don’t trust their gut as much. Using these archetypes requires a bit of knowledge about the game and card markets to acquire these cards. Especially for those who care less about the play functionality of their decks, it’s more worth it to scour booster packs (and maybe even cupboards?) for the parts to make a Yu-Gi-Oh! tarot deck. When it comes to pop culture artifacts like these, it’s better to ascribe correspondences, just as long as you can remember them or update your deck if the feelings associated with cards start to become less distinct or muddle with another.
My own deck is multi-purpose. I split the forty cards among the eight elements, where elements like water, fire, wind, and earth on the Monster cards aligned with those four elements and life-point replenishing Spells, equipment-like Spells, Traps, and the player made up the less common four. The “Spellcaster” Monster type shows up on almost all of the cards, as well as the word “Magic” in the names. I forwent the traditional tarot configuration, going through buckets of cards where the art made me feel things like revulsion or content. Some of the older cards also presented nostalgia and childhood memories, and I included many of those, too. All in all, my deck is a pretty solid for playing and a rather mediocre when it comes to readings (although, to be fair, card magic is not my forte).
Are Yu-Gi-Oh! decks reliable and worthwhile tools for divining? When it comes to the neutral disposition of the player (as tactician over medium), the propensity to interpret cards in a way that promotes goal-setting increases, lowering negativity. With this bonus comes the realities of cost and credibility, though. If you don’t have any cards on hand and want to pursue this, you’ll have to drop serious cash. As a player of TCGs, I can tell you that the expenses do add up. The greatest mark against Yu-Gi-Oh! tarot is the lack of dependable resources on it. So many forums and blogs I read for this post wrote about “ancient magic residue” on the cards or the “devils” in both the game and technopaganism itself. So many. It really hurts the integrity of this innovative approach to this type of magic.
I may not stock faith in the folks who have reported on this form of pop culture magic, but I’ll still believe in the heart of the cards.
Warnett, S. (2017). A few tarot cards have permeated pop culture,. Witches & Pagans 34 (pp. 8-10)
Takegami, J., Sogo, M., & Yoshida, S. (Writers), & Sugishima, K. (Director). (2002). Yugi vs. Pegasus: Match of the Millennium (5) [Television series episode]. In Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel monsters. Burbank, CA: Kids’ WB.