Like many youngsters in the early 2000’s, I was quite fond of this new card-game phenomenon by the name of Yu-Gi-Oh. Complete with super-censored anime adaptation airing at the time, my interest peaked pretty early, only to slowly dwindle as the different generations rolled around (mid-way through GX for me, personally). Still, if there was one thing I could harbor a deep affection for, it was the super rad artistic aesthetic of the collectible cards.
Yes, I was one of those people who would collect the cards to stare at the cool artwork and not actually play the game.
A random urge recently came over me to re-visit some of those old artworks that titillated my younger mind. In time, that urge to simply view transformed into an urge to rank, to assert my opinion in a structured fashion that speaks to me on a spiritual level. Now, here we are; these are my favorite Yu-Gi-Oh card artworks, based solely on how rad I think they are.
I will note a few things before getting into it, though:
- All of these will be Monster cards. I like monsters.
- The applicable card pool only covered the years when the original iteration of the anime, Duel Monsters, was airing in the U.S.: ~2001-06. Nothing against GX or afterwards, but this era was when I was most invested.
- Many of these choices are heavily influenced by nostalgia. Because of course they are.
10. Flame Ghost
See, I wanted to specify that this list would be based solely on artistic liberties because this card, on its own merit, is kind of underwhelming. Fusion cards in general (in this era) aren’t really worth the effort to summon, given they’re rarely much better than the base two creatures necessary to fuse. Flame Ghost has a pitifully weak 1000/800 ATK/DEF statline with no special effect. It’s just a steaming, rotting skeleton to-be.
It does look really cool, though.
Something to know about my aesthetic preferences is that I really enjoy “the abject.” Things that are off from the norm; things that a majority may find “ugly” or “gross” or what have you. Zombies and monsters and skeletons and ogres and… you get it. Things so innately unhuman that it’s hard to find any semblance to connect to. This is not a be-all-end-all, of course, though it’s fair to assume that if it’s found in a graveyard, or made in secret factory, or summoned via “the underworld,” I’ll probably be into it.
Flame Ghost is a manifestation of a lot of those quirks. Skeletons are already cool. This particular skeleton actually has some meat to it, succumbing to the intense heat radiating from its form. The radiant dark-red aesthetic, as someone who really favors red and black, is additionally glorious. Simplicity makes this as good as it is; a “burning corpse” in every sense of the title.
Hilarious name aside, this is another exemplary example of my adoration for things completely inhuman. Gagagigo is actually something of a surprising addition, as I have very little nostalgic attachment for it. I don’t recall having it, nor do I recall seeing it in the anime. This is a case of looking through hundreds of old cards online and just stopping in my tracks upon unearthing this fella.
Not 100% sure if I’ve ever made this clear on my blog, but I love lizards (or more generally, reptiles). Reptile has always been my favorite Mortal Kombat character. I adore Godzilla. Yoshi was my go-to in Mario Party and other Mario spin-off titles, if not Bowser. While perhaps not as well documented online, my personal history with reptilian creatures is notable enough for me to assume that lizards > humans. It is what it is.
Now with this in mind, look at Gagagigo. Seems pretty obvious I would be into it. Almost looks like a more agile, slightly edgier interpretation of Pico from the F-Zero franchise. While again rather simple in design, it has that sort of essence that makes it appealing. Not too overcomplicated, not too simplistic. A good balance of being a cool lizard dude and an almost barbaric physique.
Apparently the card has a lot of lore behind it, with the creature being a pinnacle of goodness and such. Future cards will scale it up in form, relaying that its thirst for power ended up corrupting its heart and making it into an unthinking, unrelenting behemoth. Even a prior form card, called Gigobyte, has it prophesized that its destiny is to be, at one point, tainted by evil.
8. Skull Servant
One of a few cards on here that is sure to have those familiar with the franchise going, “huh.”
Skull Servant is an incredibly benign Monster card that doesn’t have a lot going for it. With a 300/200 ATK/DEF statline, it’s basically deck fodder. Not efficient at all in battle, though it can be used to make Flame Ghost up above (though that’s also kind of mediocre). Its design itself isn’t even all that extravagant, either. Very C-3PO-like.
What gets this on here are two specific things: simplicity and wholesomeness. “Wholesomeness?” you may wonder; indeed, I think Skull Servant seems like a cutie-pie. Like a goofy protagonist to a family-friendly comedy reminiscent of an Addams Family-esque setting. I could see it trying to serve dinner, only for the family dog to take one of its femurs and have it toppling to the ground, its robe forming a big puddle. Classic.
Aura disparity makes this kind of unique. Usually Yu-Gi-Oh monsters are gruesome, scary, bizarre, etc. Skull Servant is more like a cool buddy to tag along with, maybe share cute secrets with. Such a friendly being despite its innately spooky appearance. It’s just a teddy bear, without the fur, claws, or anything remotely distinct to a bear.
7. Wall Shadow
A theme of spookiness continues with Wall Shadow, one creature I do remember quite prevalently in the anime. The duel with Para and Dox and the whole “Labyrinth Wall” shenanigans. While basically nothing in the anime looks nearly as good as the art of the cards (ha?), it was one creature that always appealed to me. Why? Look at it: ugly, horrific, and terrifying in concept. It looks like a boss straight out of a Metroid game. That alone makes me love it.
A creeping shadow, able to pop out of a wall and decapitate you at a moment’s notice. Even worse, it looks like the thing pictured above. Beautifully reminiscent of a short-form horror myth that one would spread in small towns or communities. A creature so vile in form that it’s hard to really equate it to anything remotely realistic. How would one even describe Wall Shadow’s form? Bacteria-like? Mantis-like? Not quite either, yet distinctly similar.
Ghoulishness is the appropriate compliment here. A decrepit creature with sagging limbs and an assortment of beady red eyes(?) adorning its almost Christmas-like body. Its base form, Shadow Ghoul, is also pretty solid in design, yet it is Wall Shadow that brings it to max potential, design-wise. I’m quite fond of the whole “coming out of a wall” presentation, and the card’s art portrays it as more powerful, more menacing. That pushes it up just enough to put it on this list.
6. Swamp and Lava Battleguards
Technically a two-for-one counting as one. It’s cheating, but I don’t care.
These big, ferocious bozos are canonically best buddies, and I think that’s beautiful. Aesthetic aside, the fact that these big, ferocious-looking demon… imp… things… work together like a tag-team duo in the WWE only adds to the fun factor. It’s part of why I put them together, since visually, I like both of them (almost) equally for different reasons.
Swamp Battleguard (left) is kind of my preference, mostly because it looks slightly more dopey in its strength than Lava Battleguard (right). I could see Lava being more wise, more mischievous. Almost like the classic villainous duo of big-dumb and small-brains. Though both of these specimens are likely dumb brawn at heart.
The major difference between the two in terms of visuals is the color. Facially, Lava looks a little more Goblin-like to me, while Swamp is more… mammal? But I find Swamp’s coloring to be more agreeable overall. Its shade of pukey-green with the red eyes sells it for me, while Lava’s fiery pink physique is maybe a tad too bold. Nevertheless, they complement one another beautifully.
Big, bulky dudes with monstrous appearances sporting spiked clubs and a penchant for trouble? I love them.
5. Flame Swordsman
Now we’re getting into “iconic” territory. Flame Swordsman was a regular in the anime, appearing in what seemed like a hundred episodes. And while kind of terrible in animated form, the card art is a big chef’s kiss.
One word: power. All that comes across when looking at this artwork is just how massively strong this warrior is. Giant, flaming sword that takes up half of the image, with the swordsman perhaps grimacing with the effort needed to wield it. Gorgeous combination of ocean blue and shining orange, complete with incredibly over-the-top headpiece. It’s a color fanatic’s eye candy. Of course, fire enthusiasts would also have a lot to appreciate here.
What makes this more ironic is how shoddy, relatively speaking, this card’s stats are. Its 1800/1600 ATK/DEF statline is all right, though again, hardly worth going through the effort to summon it via fusion. There are normal creatures that have better overall stats. So much for that show of strength.
Nevertheless, Flame Swordsman unequivocally looks the part. A mix of nostalgia and true appreciation for the ferocity of its card art makes it an easy choice for the Top 5. And hey, it looks relatively human! That must account for something considering it’s me, right?
4. Red-Eyes Black Dragon
Yeah, let’s get back to non-humans, where we belong.
Some may look at this choice and say, “Gee, that’s not the specific-colored dragon I was expecting to see on this list.” Spoiler: Blue-Eyes White Dragon is not on this list, nor is Ultimate Dragon or any of the many variations of it. While cool and iconic and synonymous with the franchise and [additional superlatives here], I’ve always been fond of its “little brother.” Why? Let me quote something from just above:
“. . . as someone who really favors red and black. . .” (Plus, it’s much edgier in its design. That tends to speak to me.)
What’s better than a “white” dragon? A black dragon. What’s better than blue eyes? Red eyes. It speaks for itself. A darkened and, unfortunately, weaker counterpart that acts as a sort of “runner-up” rad dragon card for characters not named Seto Kaiba to use. While it will forever be linked to its more recognizable dragon comrade, I think Red-Eyes Black Dragon is very neat.
I should also note that the specific card art that is very good and pleasing to the eyes is the one shown above, not the alternative version they released at some point later, which is not as good. Too glow-y and… not angled in a way to show off its fury. The art above does that brilliantly; it’s easy to imagine the mighty roar as it comes to swallow you whole. Or shoot a giant ball of energy at you. Whatever it does (I honestly don’t remember).
3. Gaia the Fierce Knight
Gaia the Fierce Knight is undoubtedly one of the more popular cards of the early years of Yu-Gi-Oh, and for good reason. Another anime series regular, its 2300/2100 ATK/DEF statline also makes it pretty efficient in battle. But what gets it on this list is the artwork attributed to it, which is magnificent in a colorful sort of way.
Colors mentioned, I considered putting Gaia the Dragon Champion up here instead. What ended up having the base card win out was the nice color complement Gaia’s horse has with the outer armor. Purple goes better with red and blue than a dull-ish yellow, methinks. Regardless, just about everything works here, from the color coordination to the armor adorned itself. Spikey and almost superhero-like. I dig it a lot.
Big red lances, a frankly bold combination of bright blue and red armor, a vivid purple horse; it’s almost like a Crunch Berries-sponsored Yu-Gi-Oh card. Yet everything comes together in a cohesive enough package that not only looks pleasing, but powerful. Even Gaia’s skin is a semi-gross pale blue color, and it works!
This also seems like something that would look great cosplayed. (It’s probably been done before.)
2. Cyber Falcon
Cyber. Falcon. CYBER. FALCON. How is this not one of the most visually awesome card artworks ever by default? CYBER. FALCON. It’s a robotic falcon! Look at that sleek, silver steel casing with the robotic body all sharp and bold! The orange glow of its eyes signaling high-energy! Such a wonderfully retro-looking design that manages to look shiny and new and vintage all the same.
It reminds me so much of Mechagodzilla, it’s insane. That may or may not help.
Do I even need to go on? It’s a cyber fucking falcon. It looks really rad. Look at it. I’m not saying anything else.
1. M-Warrior #2
When I was much younger—say 10 or so—I had a specific little container to hold all of my Yu-Gi-Oh cards in. A cute little red box-like container that fit to the size of the cards to keep it relatively neat and tidy, held shut by Velcro. On the front adorned the phrase “Card Deck” or something similar. I would often bust out this box whenever I wanted to look at my cards.
My deck would grow to contain some hundred cards or so throughout the years, mostly ones I got out of random card packs or booster sets. Hell, half the cards on this list, if not most, I’m sure I owned at some point. There were plenty of cards whose art I could admire and have a sense of accomplishment in owning.
Then there’s M-Warrior #2, which, along with M-Warrior #1 (almost made this a duo selection, too), were two complementary cards that just… looked really cool to me. They are weak at best in duels and, like Skull Servant, complete deck fodder. Yet M-Warrior #2 spoke to me in a way that no other card did.
Very vividly, I remember looking at this card over and over and over and over again. I would always go back to it to stare at it more. When I compiled cards to put on this list, it was one of the very first cards I remembered visually (despite forgetting the name). Something about it just makes me really, really like it. No deep, complex reason or personal history that would make it stand out. I just remember looking at the card a lot as a kid and liking the design an absurdly high amount.
This has not changed at all some 18 years later.
Honorable Mentions: Dark Magician of Chaos, Hitotsu-me Giant, Saggi the Dark Clown
For more Top 10 lists on miscellaneous topics, please view the associated archive.
What are some of your favorite Yu-Gi-Oh cards? How terrible is my taste? Do let me know in the comments and I promise to at least glance at them!
Thank you for your time. Have a great timezone.