A Comparison of Skill Between “New School” and “Old School” Yu-Gi-Oh

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.


scapegoatNew 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?


fire fist - bearHow 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?


delinquent duoWhat 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!

Patrick Hoban

Patrick Hoban

Patrick Hoban

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  • Jowsh

    I believe a skillful deck is not one that necessarily has an archetype, but one that devises a strategy, and assesses its defects. The new Nekroz, a tank of a deck to say the least, easily a bank breaking deck. This deck relies heavily on rituals and special summons, and has quite a few potent cards. Vanity’s Empitness is a card designed to prevent special summons of any type, limiting these effects. Nekroz however are high in power and can easily steam passed the effect simply by making an attack. the game can be over very quickly regardless of starting hand because of the synergy between the cards, and the ability to defend against strategies that would break its synergy. That is exactly what makes a good skillful deck. not the archetype, not your hand, but the ability to prepare and situational awareness of defects, and being able to prevent their exploitation.

  • jalanmarvel .

    I believe the only “skill” left in the game is when a player goes to side deck. You were right on the money when you spoke about the new school being based on themed decks and old school refering to goodcards.dec . Coming from a player who remembers beckett magazine with the blue eyes flute deck as meta, i think the game has only evolved to simplify game states and promote a more approachable game for newer players.

  • Lewis

    Here’s my attempt at defining a ‘skillful format’:

    I would say that skill comes in many different forms. In goat control skill was all about card advantage, and making the most out of your power cards. Knowing when to flip the heavy storm for the plus 1, or when to save it. Whether to duo them early, or wait till the serpent is already in the grave. Whether to nobleman the monster they set on their first turn, or wait until they set one later, or perhaps when they have a facedown monster with a pot of greed in grave.

    In the first burning abyss, shaddoll dominated format it was all about grinding through life points. Both decks had seemingly infinite resources, but struggled to dish out damage. And so games were decided based on utilizing traps best to stop their plays then on your turn make your own.

    In the more recent formats games have been decided largely by dealing a full 8000 in one turn. Knowing when to go for an otk, and when overextending is not a good idea is another form of skill.

    So my personal definition of a ‘skillful format’ would be a format where as many of these factors are important as possible. A format where BOTH resources must be used wisely, and life points matter.

    Any format where both players are likely to have the same number of resources at their disposal at a given time (be that many or few) would seem to indicate a skillful format. And any format where there is no significant advantage to going first or second is also key.

  • MemeStartHobadPlayer

    Hey, can you post an article about why Nekroz are bad, then top with them? Gotta keep that pattern going, they’ll never think I was tricking my opponent’s into not worrying about the Nekroz matchup!

  • Took my idea >:O

  • Constantine Varelas

    I would put forward what I believe to be a skillful format.

    I think that for a format to have a large skill requirement there is one main aspect which is divided into two different sub-aspects between new and old school YuGiOh. Choice. Throughout the game’s history, we can see that the biggest names of the game won more continuously when there were more choices to be made by whatever given deck is being most commonly used in the format. From Goats to Rulers, from TeleDAD to Plant Synchro, every format where a group of accomplished players has have defined themselves as the best has involved nigh-incalculable choice on the part of the player. This inherently gives more chances for errors which can cost games. In Goat format we saw teams Odyssey and Overdose rise as champions, in TeleDAD we had Adam Corn, Plant Synchro had Billy Brake, Ruler format events were dominated by Hoban, Frazier, Brake, and others who were widely thought of as the best.

    It should also be noted that, while there are more choices per turn in New School formats, there were more turns to make moves (generally) in Old School formats.

    With number of choices defined as a good way to determine skill, we should analyze how now and old school YuGiOh offer choices to the player. It seems intuitive that new school YuGiOh must offer more choices, right? There are far more plays made in any given turn with plants than with Goat, so therefore more skill is required, right? Not quite. While Rulers and Plants offer more moves in any single turn, there are definitely an equal amount of choices that go into any given Goat play. It will be easier to separate these two schools (as defined above) and then state what I believe the most skillful parts were.

    New School Choice:

    New School YuGiOh offer, on the surface, far more plays every turn, and far more room to make mistakes when actually making the plays at the table. However, as Hoban once said – the tournament is won in the weeks leading up to it. In New School YuGiOh, despite there being an overall larger card pool, because of the advent of archetypes, the number of deckbuilding options has not expanded as exponentially as the card pool. A large number of cards are simply unplayable to most decks. You will never see Sylvans running Burning Abyss cards or Rulers with Ice Barrier cards. This leads to scenarios where you can almost assume a significant portion of the opponents deck which they have to play in order to be using their archetype. Also, recently, we have seen the rise of “big decks” using powerful opening combos to win games, and, while it takes some manner of skill to know how to properly execute the combo, there is actually little to no interaction in an autowin hand of lonefire and soul charge or something similar. Therefore, there are a percentage of games where a memorized series of plays will win the game – 0 real player choice, except in fringe situations where the combo would need to be slightly different, for the sake of this argument, I am referring to only ideal turn one openers. So we can, from this examination, get a general idea of what skill is offered by New School, and where it lacks such.

    — Archetype decks require synergy. Archetype decks cannot use a majority of non-archetype cards because they break this synergy. Archetype decks offer more choices while playing, though this leads to no-interaction games with autowin combos —

    Old School YuGiOh:

    Old School YuGiOh offers a very different set of choices which require other valuable skillsets. In Goat format, there were wide slews of varying tech choices in the game which you always had to account for and which need to be considered by deckbuilding. In older formats, a wider array of cards could be made viable because there is no specific combos or synnergies that are being disrupted. Aside from this, while playing Goat, you have to consider the whole array of legal cards which can be used against you. I have gone entire days at locals playing Goat games and not shown off that I was playing the zombie build that day, or that I was using a second tsukuyomi instead of an asura priest, or was running Kycoo. There are an astounding number of cards that can be different that can completely change how you play the game against another Goat deck. No top-tier Ruler deck could be nearly fifteen cards different from the norm and still be as consistent and viable (assuming that no revolutionary breakthrough had been discovered – such at Pat’s NAWCQ Ruler deck from 2013). From this cursory evaluation we can determine some sort of generalization about the choices offered in Old School YuGiOh.

    —- Old School YuGiOh had a wider array of deck variation and tech choices that a skilled player had to consider. Most games took longer, giving more consideration to certain fringe cards. Old School YuGiOh requires more intimate knowledge of the card base, but has less overall complex plays. —

    While this evaluation is rather brief for how extensive this discussion can be (I didn’t cover things like a wider array of bluff traps and hand traps vs mind games and power cards), I hope that it can contribute and be of some use for the next article! Great Read Pat!

    P.S. Are you going to be at the next ARGCS?

    • Jack Huang

      I will have to disagree that an old school deck has a wider array of variation. If you look at goat control, the best cards were so obvious that to not run them would be a travesty. The biggest variation in decks in an “old-school” format was probably the time when perfect circle and DDT coexisted, but they shared a ton of cards as well.

      • Constantine Varelas

        I understand that there were a large number of cards that were generally standard during formats like goat; however, there was still a lot of room for change and difference. Compare the Zombie goat lists to Goat control lists from the time. There are sometimes 10+ card differences! Nowadays, that kind of variance is almost unheard of (barring any set releases or major innovations). Look at all of the winning deck lists from the pre-secret forces North American premier-level events. The BA decks are maybe 1 card different! Loli was radical with his 2 creature swap. After Jeff Jones revolutionised the shaddoll deck with Denko Sekka, most lists were carbon copies of his, with perhaps a 2-3 card change between events. The simple fact of the power creep nowadays is that less cards per set are viable me as more sets come out, more and more are made less and less viable. I understand what you are saying, most of hyena time, even in Oder YuGiOh, at least 20-30 cards are the same between winning decks, I think that there was a wider variance from average in older games of YuGiOh

  • Hentai84

    Anyone still hate Rosty Elkun?

  • Mariomon

    What is a Noden?

    • Felix Rojas