I was recently debating the comparative skill of “old school” Yu-Gi-Oh and “new school” Yu-Gi-Oh with a friend of mine at locals. The topic came about from a broader discussion on the best formats in the history of the game. Because we had both experienced the two different kinds of Yu-Gi-Oh first hand, we had plenty of insight on the subject. The product of this debate was an excellent discussion that delved into multiple layers of the game’s culture. This discussion is going to be the basis for the first three articles in a new mini-series that will explore and evaluate the history and culture of the game.
Let’s start out with a little bit of background. The terms “old school” and “new school” are, to say the least, broad and vague. While I think that most people who have played the game for an extended period of time certainly have a good idea of the differences between the two, it’s worth going a little bit more in depth in our definitions to define them for newer players and clarify them for older players. This way, we can all start at the same place and have equal footing.
New school Yu-Gi-Oh shouldn’t be too difficult to figure out, since it seems obvious that anyone playing in today’s game is currently playing new school Yu-Gi-Oh. Old school Yu-Gi-Oh, or specifically the line that distinguishes the two, is harder to define. What are some common associations you make when you think of “old school” Yu-Gi-Oh? It seems like the golden standard is Goat Control. This is associated with slower-paced games of one summon per turn, lots of back and forth interaction, and conservation of resources. Many of the formats that followed Goats, such as Warrior Toolbox, Chaos Return, and Monarchs, would also fall under the classification of old school Yu-Gi-Oh. Unfortunately, these are just examples. They don’t actually tell us what attributes they have in common that allow them to follow this classification.
So that begs the question, what do these formats have in common? Can we say that formats today don’t necessarily follow the things we associated with old school Yu-Gi-Oh? Doesn’t Fire Fist only summon one monster per turn? Do they too not thrive on the back and forth interactions with the opponents? While I think many would agree that Fire Fist follows a similar line of play as that of old school Yu-Gi-Oh decks, I don’t know if anyone would be bold enough to make the assertion that Fire Fist is an old school deck.
Are these limitations to being able to summon one monster per turn the defining factor for a deck’s interaction with the opponent? This would seem to imply that the ability to special summon multiple times per turn would mean that the deck does not heavily interact with the opponent. Many others and I would argue that this assertion is outright wrong. The Dragon Ruler formats of 2013 were easily two of the most interactive formats in the game’s history, but they are both formats defined by multiple special summons in a single turn.
If we can’t say that these formats exhibited a certain set of characteristics for new school Yu-Gi-Oh and a different set of characteristics for old school Yu-Gi-Oh, how are we supposed to actually make a meaningful distinction between the two characterizations? Most would agree that there is a difference and most could probably identify which format falls under which characterization, but if we can’t articulate where that line falls, who is to say that the characterizations are not truly arbitrary?
How can Fire Fist and Dragons exist only a format apart, yet say the one deck exemplifies the attributes old school Yu-Gi-Oh and the other deck does the same new school Yu-Gi-Oh? I think the answer can be found by a closer examination of the original question. We are seeking to compare the skill of various formats throughout the game’s history; not deck. Dragon Rulers were the dominant deck in both of the formats that it existed, but the same cannot be said for the Fire Fist deck that followed the second Dragon Ruler format. Fire Fists were one component of that format, but they didn’t actually define the format. While the deck saw heavy play early in that format, the format came to actually be defined by Mermails. This is an important distinction as we now have grounds to compare the formats as a whole in search of the defining line between old school and new school Yu-Gi-Oh.
Before we can compare the formats of new school and old school, we should take a step back and ask what is the underlying cause of a particular deck defining a format? While this may come across as obvious, it is a necessary distinction to make; a particular deck defines a format, when the deck is better than the available alternatives at the time. Having noted this, we can make the leap that Mermails defined that format instead of Fire Fist, because Mermails were the better deck. Since we are evaluating the skill of the format as a whole, we can acknowledge that even though Fire Fist resembles the qualities that people tend to associate with older formats, it is irrelevant with respect to the comparative skill of old school and new school formats because it was not the defining deck of the format. This eliminates the earlier contradiction that new school and old school formats cannot actually be differentiated since there are examples where they demonstrate the same characteristics as each other. Specific decks exhibit may exhibit like characteristics, but if they are inferior strategies that is not an indicator of a distinction between formats. When evaluating the skill of the format, it must be acknowledged that formats are defined by which decks succeeded and not the alternatives within the format.
Because of this this, we should not be comparing Goat Control and Warrior Toolbox with Dragon Rulers and Fire Fist, we should instead be seeking the similarities and differences with regards to Goat Control and Warrior Toolbox as old school Yu-Gi-Oh and Dragon Rulers and Mermail as new school Yu-Gi-Oh as these were all dominant decks and not just viable alternatives.
The presence of a power curve in the game becomes much more evident with this classification. New school decks are all more powerful than old school decks. Decks that dominant new school formats can do bigger and better things than decks that dominate old school formats. The first question is what causes this? The next question is effectively the same as our original question regarding a comparison of skill between the characterizations of formats: is this increase in consistency and power good or bad for skill?
What makes Dragon Rulers and Mermails more powerful decks than Goat Control and Warrior Toolbox? The older formats certainly had their fair share of power cards: Pot of Greed, Delinquent Duo, Graceful Charity, and a plethora of other cards that currently reside on the Forbidden list were defining cards in these formats. Make no mistake, Dragon Rulers and Mermails were certainly not without powerful cards of their own. All these formats had their fair share of powerful cards, so that doesn’t help us much in determining where the line between the categorizations falls.
Let’s try looking at it from a different perspective. What isn’t there? What are Goat Control and Warrior Toolbox lacking that allow Dragon Rulers and Mermails to be able to do so much more? If we examine it this way, we can see a glaring distinction between the two types of Yu-Gi-Oh: synergy.
Dragon Rulers were made to work with other Dragon Rulers and Mermails were made to work with other Mermails. You don’t get awkward assortments of cards that lead to less powerful plays because they were all designed to work with one another. This isn’t the case for Goat Control and Warrior Toolbox. The defining decks in these formats were made of good cards, but not really cards that specifically worked with one another. While things like discarding Sinister Serpent for Tribe Infecting Virus or tributing a Scapegoat token for Metamorphosis existed and displayed synergy, it doesn’t even begin to compare to the synergy of discarding Mermail Abyssgunde for Mermail Abysspike or discarding Blaster for Lightning. While players of the time certainly wanted to maximize the consistency available to them, by enlarge, decks of old school Yu-Gi-Oh did not display much synergy. That’s not necessarily a bad thing as it should be noted that you weren’t playing on an uneven playing field such as Goat Control vs. Dragon Rulers. Your Breaker the Magical Warrior and Exarion Universe in your Goat Control deck may not have actually synergized with one another very well, but neither did your opponents monsters in their Goat Control deck.
As stated earlier, this is rooted in the inherent design of the cards. It seems that most formats that can be classified as new school Yu-Gi-Oh are defined by archetypes that synergize with one another, not just any card that is good and legal.
This is the major distinction that we were looking to find between old school and new school Yu-Gi-Oh. Old school formats are formats in which the defining deck is comprised of cards that are good and legal. The defining decks in these formats are typically defined by a narrower scope of plays, few special summons, and many turns of back and forth interaction between opponents. New school formats are formats in which the defining deck is an archetype, or themed deck where the cards are specifically designed to work with one another. The defining decks in these formats typically display high levels of synergy and power, but this results in fewer turns played per game.
It seems to be a commonly held belief that powerful cards are bad for the game in terms of skill. Dragon Rulers, Soul Charge, and Noden are a few examples of powerful cards that aren’t seen as skillful by the masses. The logic that follows the assertion is that since the cards are powerful and will have a large impact on the game, you can use them to beat your opponent without necessarily being better than them. By extension, powerful decks are often seen in the same light. As we have already talked about, these powerful decks are typically archetypes.
We can now clarify our original inquiry about the comparative skill of old school and new school Yu-Gi-Oh to really be an inquiry into whether or not archetypes are good for the game, since archetypes define new school Yu-Gi-Oh and non-archetypes define old school Yu-Gi-Oh. Top players of the different time periods are able to consistently perform well in tournaments, so it seems that from an empirical standpoint, there is no clear answer and it will require further evaluation.
Do archetypes promote skillful formats? Now that we have properly identified what we are looking for, we can proceed with the inquiry and make our best attempt to solve it. The first step in this process is to clearly define what we mean by a “skillful format.” This seemingly simple question is actually incredibly complex. In the next article, we’ll try to pin down the definition of a “skillful format.” Leave your definition of a skillful format down below in the comments. Once we have this definition, we will then be able to answer whether or not archetypes promote skillful formats. This is something I will attempt to do in the third article of my history and culture mini-series. Until next time, play hard or go home!