I have no animosity toward Trading Card Games, being a veteran of both the Pokemon TCG (which I was really awesome at) and Magic: the Gathering (which I was awesome at until all my friends bought premade decks off of eBay, the gits). As such, I felt I could give Cardfight! Vanguard a fair shake.
Vanguard makes no attempt to mask what it is: a marketing vehicle for a trading card game. While a show designed to sell you stuff is not automatically a bad thing (Hell, remember Transformers?), Vanguard goes about its task with very little tact and even less class, producing a show that is not only boring but has actively made me dislike the product it is selling.
Part of the problem is the main character Sendo Aichi; a child so utterly milquetoast that even harem protagonists would tell him to grow a spine. Having such a character be the proxy for the viewer is toxic, as you often feel that you know far more about what is happening on-screen than the person who is supposed to be acting as your viewpoint. The rest of the cast are an equally unlikable bunch, comprised mostly of bullies or jerks that Aichi seems far too willing to forgive and become best buds with simply because they both play the same card game. Perhaps the show creators realised this problem themselves, as in the third episode they introduce a little sister for Sendou who is set up to be the perfect foil for all of the card game obsessed idiots, only to be relegated to the role of viewer proxy because the main character is now suddenly a master strategist at the Vanguard card game.
The other main facet about Vanguard that is utterly intolerable is the pacing. Scenes feel drawn out and conversations are extended by needless repetition, both of which feel like a decision made to spread out the budget for the show. The first actual card battle takes the lions share of the first two episodes to play out, an excruciatingly long amount of time given the lack of actual events and sparse nature of the tutorial given. The first episode ends on such a weak cliffhanger that it is almost embarrassing - the credits roll with you still unsure of the victory objectives of the game so there is zero tension or impetus to keep watching. Another thing that frequently kills the tension stone dead are the show's attempts to instill a desire to play the real game - a group of no-name extras will start jabbering about how super awesome cool the game is out of nowhere, or the narrator will chime in with an authoritative sounding assertion that everyone loves card games and that the bestest best one out right now is the one the show is trying to sell you. You can almost see the vile hand of marketing reaching in to meddle with the script.
It doesn't help that the game itself, by side effect of the awful pacing and poor tutorial, sounds utterly boring to play. As far as I can understand from the show, you make a squad of bigger and bigger monsters in the hope of overpowering your opponent before they can overpower you. Also, there is a massive element of luck involved which determines if you get a colossal attack boost whenever you attack. That's about it. No equipment cards, enchantments, instants, trainers - no modifier cards to add an element of deeper strategy. The whole thing smacks of power creep and I can already foresee the creators releasing expansions that instantly turn the previous monsters obsolete by simply making the numbers bigger.
The character art appears to have a classic case of design by checklist - with everyone having a cookie cutter personality and a hairdo that would take a gallon of gel a day to maintain. The actual animation in the show is clearly under a budget, but I feel it is well spent. Things remain on model and whenever the action changes to show a dramatisation of the card battle as it unfolds the monsters generally look very nice. The budget saving becomes obvious when you see that while the actors look nice, they rarely move and so minimise the amount of work needed.
One last complaint is that the music for the show is often obnoxious and far too loud - characters are drowned out by inappropriate or just poorly made music. One scene in particular had the backing track repeat so often that I had to mute it for fear of being driven mad.
I can't really bring myself to hate Cardfight! Vanguard - with a little more budget I feel that many of its glaring errors could have been corrected and it would have been a much better show. But as it stands, the show is honestly not worth the time or patience to watch.
You can currently watch Cardfight!! Vanguard in streaming form right here at UK Anime Network!
Japanese audio, English subtitles - Available in Standard Definition, 480P and 720P streaming resolutions.