Best Card Game Anime Series (Our Top Picks Reviewed)This post may contain affiliate links. If you buy something we may get a small commission at no extra cost to you. (Learn more).
Fun (possible) fact: many avid anime fans may have started with a card game anime.
These usually made to sell merchandise, so character writing and narrative can disappoint. The idea is focusing so much on appealing to children that it appeals to nobody.
So instead of blasting through a list of every possible card game anime on the market, this post will try something different.
Join me as I discus four anime franchises that broke the mold to craft compelling takes on a formula with lots of potential!
Studio J.C. Staff’s deconstruction of magical girl card game anime goes to dark places.
Half Yu-Gi-Oh! and half Madoka Magica, the WIXOSS series follow Ruuko Kominato: a cute schoolgirl who one day receives a deck of cards.
Now a ‘Selector’, Ruuko can battle other players in a battle-royale-esque tournament where the prize is whatever they wish.
However, lose three times and you die.
The rules are constantly changing from season to season, the stakes always rising.
It’s violent, tragic, and a pure dissection of card games in anime, all made by a staff that respect the best aspects. Check this one out if you want something unique, moe, and morbid!
You can follow Ruuko’s story in the first season, Infected, which aired in 2014. And the second season Spread, which also aired in 2014.
The third season Incited was released in 2016 and takes the focus away from Ruuko and onto Suzuko Homura with a new cast. Until Ruuko returns as protagonist in the fourth season, Conflated, in 2018.
And we’ve got something to look forward to so now is a great time to jump on the Wixoss bandwagon!
Hunter x Hunter: Greed Island
So, Hunter x Hunter isn’t a card game by itself.
Hunter x Hunter is whatever genre it wants to be. And that’s what makes it so consistently exciting and fresh.
What better way to build hype for a card game, than seeing those same characters battle their way through different stakes beforehand?
Greed Island is more than the length of an entire typical anime by itself, too.
By the time we enter the Green Island arc we’re already fans of Gon and Killua. We’ve seen them go through different stories, battle terrifying opponents, evolve as people, and now we get to – see them play a card game?
That’s right, and it’s just as hype.
With a ton of new characters introduced, a fresh ambience and environment, and a completely new method of progression, Hunter x Hunter: Greed Island stands on its own feet as one of the best written & exciting card game anime. Well, it’s an arc but you get my point.
You can either watch the 2003 Nippon Animation adaptation of the Greed Island arc, or the 2011 Madhouse version.
I recommend the latter, but some of the animation and artwork for the 2003 versions certainly warrants a watch too.
Probably the most well-known card game anime of all time.
Equally absurd, complex, childish, and adult. Yu-Gi-Oh! has gone through many iterations over the last two decades, both as an anime and trading card game.
We’ve had the original series, Gx, 5Ds. Zexal, Vrains, Arc-V, Sevens… and numerous movies inbetween.
But I’m gonna focus on the best, as they hardly connect together except under rare circumstances. YGO is just too big to dive into cold, so why not start with the very best?
The original (2000) series follows Yugi, Seto, Joey, in an Egypt-infused time-distorting series of arcs and tournaments.
Whether they’re battling on an island to reclaim a soul trapped inside a card, or riding atop a large blimp above a city dueling with mythic Gods, the main cast always finds a way to save the day. With children’s trading cards.
Even if the narrative occasionally suffers, this anime is an all-time classic and entertaining as all else. There’s a movie set midway through the series, Pyramid of Light, that is worth watching once you’re finished. And a 2016 sequel movie (The Dark Side of Dimensions).
Also if you’re enamored with this specific cast, check out the 1998 original(Yu-Gi-Oh! Season Zero) and 1999 movie to see what Yu-Gi-Oh! looked like before the focus was on card games!
GX (2004) is an indirect continuation of the original series. This time the scale is smaller, focusing on a private dueling academy and the students who reside there. But the threats get just as large as before.
There’s a greater focus on interpersonal drama and inferiority that runs through this slightly more childish series. Jaden is one of my favorite Yu-Gi-Oh! protagonists, and he stands out because of his carefree jovial attitude. Worth a try for sure.
5Ds (2008) is set in the same universe as the original series and GX, but so far in the future that it barely matters.
This is the most mature series in the franchise. It has aged and jaded protagonists, complex antagonists, and worldbuilding that compliments the plot perfectly.
The Akira-inspired setting of Neo Domino City is the best that Yu-Gi-Oh! has to offer. Yuusei is also the best main character we’ve had, so if you want to start and end here, you certainly could.
The three main protagonists (Yugi, Jaden, Yuusei) team up in the 2010 movie Bonds Beyond Time, which was an enjoyable watch if you’ve perused all 3.
There are other seasons in the Yu-Gi-Oh! franchise, but these are the best by far & mark when the franchise was truly in its prime.
You know, it’s incredibly hard to recommend Chihayafuru and not receive weird looks.
But bear with me, for this one escalates card game anime to new heights.
At the beginning of the anime, Chihaya is a girl lacking direction or ambition.
Constantly overshadowed by her model sister’s accomplishments, she has relegated herself to focusing on what she’s good at: sports.
Until one day when she meets a boy called Arata who plays Karuta, an ancient Japanese memorization card game nearly a thousand years old.
However, it’s dying due to its exclusivity to Japan.
Arata is brilliant at the game from a young age, but has nobody to play with except in tournaments and can hardly compete without steamrolling his opponents.
The trio is rounded out by Taichi, a popular boy with complex depth who loves Chihaya and wants her to see him the way she sees Arata.
He is definitely my favorite character – for to be Taichi, is to Suffer.
What follows in this series is some of the most intense romantic drama in anime, all expressed through the sport that brought the three of them together.
The soundtrack, animation, and artwork are sublime in this wonderful (blessed) Madhouse adaptation.
Season one acts as a prologue to the Karata club and competitive matches.
This progresses well into season two, which focuses on team national tournaments. The third season centers on solo tournaments and raises the stakes even more.
We got the first season in 2011, second season in 2013, and third season in 2019. But I’m really hoping we won’t have to wait long for a fourth!