“...The dude had game in the palm of his hands: how the HECK did he lose!?!” Whenever I watch some of the greatest players in Yu-Gi-Oh! duel, their games always seem so weird and strangely situational. Like if those great players didn’t have that one single, powerful card in their hand or if their opponents had played any different at all, then they would’ve lost easily. If only he had been more aggressive and attacked instead of fearing a Gorz; if only he didn’t summon another monster to play into a timely Torrential Tribute; if only he had used Solemn Warning on the Tour Guide first instead of waiting until his opponent summoned Number 20: Giga-Brilliant with it, gaining the dark and light monsters needed to bring-out Black Luster Soldier – Envoy of the End: if only, if only. I kept looking through those games again and again, and it just didn’t make any sense. At first at-least.
Slowly but surely however I began to realize a startling revelation: their opponents never had a chance to begin with. These awesome duelists would use their cards to the fullest of their potential, while making the opponent waste strong cards on minor threats or diversions. They would look like they were losing or out of options, but then out of nowhere fields would be filled and opponents would be crushed, left with only stunned looks and puzzled gazes. From beginning to end, luck was never really a factor: each opponent was being led strategically and mentally, conditioned to unknowingly but willingly walk down the path to their own defeat. I began to marvel at the level of skill and talent required to reach such a stage and wondered how I myself could even begin to play at such a level.
This higher level of play seems to set these pros apart from the rest of the dueling community, putting them on a pedestal of great praise and admiration. Many aspire to reach that level but only few are able to even perceive glimpses of their world, let alone walk among their ranks. But how, HOW can one hope to bridge the gap between being someone as humble as a local or regional go-er to becoming a top 32 Yu-Gi-Oh! Championship Series regular? With my humble analyzation and experience I think I’m able to at least begin to identify the skills necessary to make it to the top.
Mastering the Basics
Before you even begin to approach the advance level of thought needed to bridge the gap and become a champion, you must first know the basics by heart. That means knowing all the rules of the game, knowing what your cards do, keeping up-to-date with rulings, erratas, and etc. For example: how many can say that they’ve sat down and read through the entire Yu-Gi-Oh! Official Rulebook? Some of my judge friends tell me that they almost always learn something new every time they read that old thing, so I’d definitely recommend starting there if you already haven’t.
Even though now you may now how to make your cards work, you have to figure out how to use them to the fullest! By studying different how cards interact with each other and in different scenarios, you can begin to tell which cards work best together and when the best time to use them generally is. Sometimes it’ll be more beneficial to use a Dark Hole on a single face-down monster, but other times it’ll be best to get more mileage out of the card by waiting until your opponent builds-up a bigger field or has a strong monster that’s tough to deal with. When you consistently use your cards more effectively than your opponent, it’ll generally leave you with more resources and options over your opponent, which can usually lead to wins.
Meeting Your Deck at the Middle
Your deck must be optimized to best fit how you play, since you'll be more likely to perform much better with something you're more comfortable with. So perhaps you’re more of an aggressive dueler, and like to make games threatening right from the start. Playing a Dino Rabbit deck might be the right choice for you then, since Rescue Rabbit and Tour Guide to the Underworld allow you to bring out big threatening xyz monster for little card investment, while your opponent is immediately pressed for answers. With a little customization of the card ratios and the addition of a few tech cards, you can make a deck that you feel most comfortable playing.
However you can’t just play the deck exactly how you feel like since no deck will perfectly match you style. Sometimes you’ll have to hold on to those power cards and make more conservative plays, like summoning a Thunder King Rai-Oh or a Sabersaurus to bait-out removal cards that would threaten your Rescue Rabbit plays first. Others you’ll have to wait for a protection card like Solemn Judgment or Forbidden Lance, to make sure your big plays will go through and will thus have to play defensively until the time is right. You must be flexible and open-minded to learning new decks and new ways of playing; adapting to the playstyle that best maximizes your decks strengths while minimizing its weaknesses.
If you’ve ever read tournament reports from regional or YCS-attending duelists, you might notice a trend of statements like “so the night before, my friend convinced me to run this new deck, because it kept wreaking mine in playtesting” or “I didn’t know what to play so I just threw something together and scrambled to write out a deck list, just in-time for the start of round 1.” A lot of times you won’t hear that in a loser’s report, because let’s face it: why would someone write a report saying they did something clearly risky, like picking up a deck they’re not experienced with, and threw away their chance at the top because of it? You were dumb and you lost for it: hi, what’s new in the world?
The ones who do happen to win however don’t just squeak through with luck. With enough practice and experience, good duelists can easily pick up a random deck and quickly learn all about its strengths, weaknesses, and abilities to be able to play it according. By playing different decks one can eventually notice patterns in play style and usage, allowing them to approach this new deck with a modified form of it.
You must always try to look for the deck that can best match your playstyle, and try your best to best meet its style-of-play in-order to best maximize your chances for victory.
Many pros say this word, but what does it mean? Reads are educated guesses of an opponent’s information unknown to yourself, made from a combination of public knowledge, prior info, and intuition. Let’s say its turn 1 of the duel and your opponent, after some thought, places a face-down monster with a face-down spell/trap card. On your turn, you draw and move to your main-phase 1 without interruption: from this point you can probably assume he doesn’t have the card Trap Dustshoot. The most optimal time to activate the card would have been during your draw phase, considering you deck isn’t known and in other match-ups the card’s usefulness can be greatly minimized if activated too late (like against decks with heavy backrows like Tech Genus or Hero Beat). You summon your Thunder King Rai-Oh and he quickly activates his face-down Solemn Warning, paying 2000 life points to negate summon and destroy it.
Now we can continue to surmise at what our opponent’s cards might be. To use such a powerful card like Solemn Warning so early might possibly mean that his hand doesn’t have many protective cards, like Maxx “C” or Effect Veiler, to hinder an early assault and he wanted to halt it prematurely. Thunder King Rai-Oh is not really the sort of card to lead aggressive assaults however: in fact it would hamper you from using combo-forming cards such as Pot of Duality, or searchers like Genex Neutron or Herald of Mystery – Earth. Then perhaps there was another reason for using Solemn Warning? Maybe he has a face-down Sangan that’s needed to search for a crucial card. Or perhaps your opponent might have misplayed and used the Warning to negate the first possible target, regardless of threat-level. It might even be possible that your opponent has several more protective cards in his hand and is feigning weakness and desperation in an attempt to lead you into a trap!
By looking at what you know and what your opponent shows you through public information, you can attempt to make better guesses at what cards your opponent has, and with that you can then readjust your strategy to take advantage of that. The best of players have this refined to such an art that they can not only determine card type (like spell or trap, recruiter or a wall monster, and etc.) but will narrow it down to their exact names! For those trying to make reads on them they might even play differently to feign weakness or fake strength in order to either buy some time or make your opponent make suboptimal moves that they wouldn’t normally make. I’ve seen players have games swept out from under them just because they didn’t attack with all of their monsters, due to the threat of a Mirror Force that wasn’t even there!
Reads aren’t just limited to cards however. They might hint at strategies or playstyle, and even feelings like confidence, anxiety, or fear. By using that same process of elimination using public information and prior knowledge/experience but this time with words, facial expressions, body language, conversation, and etc., the best can tell what their opponent is feeling or how they’d react in certain scenarios and act to best use this towards their advantage.
With that in mind let’s try to make a more reasonable read on the situation based on what we know, but this time making sure to see how our opponent is behaving outside the cards. Looking back the scenario we notice that the opponent activated the Solemn Warning “quickly”, which possibly could tell us that he’s been considering this exact scenario and Thunder King was on our opponent’s mental list of “Warning on sight!” Our opponent also took some time to think before he made his opening move, which could most likely either mean that he had a lot of plays that he could make or his hand was weak and he needed to think of which plays he could make that would leave him the least vulnerable to assault. But then again he used that power card so early and so quickly, which can only logical lead to an assumption that he’s vulnerable and needs that set monster to search for a crucial card (perhaps telling us it’s a Sangan), or he needs big monster summon to go through (like a Tour Guide into a Wind-Up Zenmaines play). There’s also the possibility of incompetency or subtle mental tactics, but from only this point of the game we probably can’t make those assumptions in confidence and will just have to see how things turn out. After that we can learn if our reads were spot on or not, adjust our perception of the situation, and continue this process all over again in light of this new information.
Have you ever played against a deck like Monarchs or Gladiator Beasts and every single turn you felt things were getting worse for you while getting better for your opponent? In situations like these it would seem like you’ve been caught up in your opponent’s tempo. Tempo is the direction the duel is headed, and this can be controlled in many different ways. Playing Gold Sarcophagus for Rescue Rabbit and following up with a Tour Guide summon can quickly bring the game up to a critical point as that play will lead to field filled with big monsters and card negators to push big amounts of damage through. A simple set like Spirit Reaper against this deck however can just as quickly convert things back to a slow crawl as both now get the chance to build up on resources. By making certain moves you can make the direction of the game go a certain way and it’s always important to be aware of which directions the game develops are beneficial or not for you and your deck. Dino Rabbit decks don’t like cards like Spirit Reaper as it gives the opposition more time to take the duel into the late game, which the deck doesn’t perform well in.
Just like with reads, tempo isn’t just restricted to cards. Simple plays like summoning a Black Luster Soldier – Envoy of the End or flipping an early Trap Dustshoot can place fear or despair in an opponent, making them play predictable, become more readable, or possibly even misplay. A personal example of my own was playing a Blackwing deck with my own Karakuri deck. My opponent was low on life, and due to some reads and a misplay on my opponent’s behalf, I determined that my opponent a face-down Icarus Attack paired with a face-up Black Whirlwind. He had 4 dark monsters in in his grave and four cards in his hand: Blackwing – Zephyros the Elite, Blackwing – Blizzard the Far North, Heavy Storm, and Dark Armed Dragon. On my field are only a face-up Karakuri Soldier mdl 236 “Nisamu” and a set Mystical Space Typhoon: in-hand is a Monster Reborn, Karakuri Ninja mdl 919 “Kuick”, and Karakuri Komachi mdl 224 “Ninishi”. The life point count was 6000 to 2600 with me in the lead.
I knew that all I had to do was make it to my next turn and the game would be as good as mine. As soon as he used Blizzard to bring back Blackwing – Shura the Blue Flame (no search targets for Black Whirlwind left in the deck), I realized that things were going to turn very scary very fast.
With Shura on the field he now had three dark monsters left in the grave, and slammed that Dark Armed Dragon down on the table with complete confidence. With a smile he then tuned his Blizzard with his Shura to synchro summon Brionac. At that point I knew he would clear my field to get some very big damage in and I thought it was over. If I would have stayed calm however I would have realized that Brionac + Dark Armed only equals out to 5100: 900 life points short of game.
I let myself be intimidated by his monsters and his actions however, and as he began to bounce my cards with Brionac by discarding the rest of his hand, I chained the Mystical Space Typhoon to destroy his facedown Icarus Attack. That move would latter cost me the duel as he then bounces his face-up Black Whirlwind, which I should have instead destroyed, back to his hand in-order to special summon his discarded Zephyros the Elite, giving him the extra attack power needed to end the game.
Because of my opponent’s confidence backed with his strong monsters, I fell into my opponent’s tempo and lost a game that was easily winnable – to add injury to insult, I discovered I would have drawn a Dark Hole next turn to further solidify a victory. Staying calm, keeping a cool head, and looking at the situation logically however can always help you break out of an opponent’s tempo back onto your own or prevent you from getting caught-up in it preemptively.
Internalization and “Feel”
The final skills I want to talk about are what I have found to be the biggest dividers between the mice and the men, so to speak. And both of these skills go hand-in-hand as well. Internalization is the mental minimization of all the knowledge, skills, and techniques available to you to the point to where you don’t have to actively think about them to using them. For example, solve try to solve this equation without using a calculator:
0*(35 + (86 – 47 + 67/192)5) = ?
This problem had a lot of different parts to it and if you took the time to work through the whole equation, it might take you quite a bit time to solve. Using your knowledge of math properties however, you can easily deduce that zero multiplied by anything will equal zero. With that we can quickly work out that the numbers inside of the parenthesizes are negligible and our answer would be 0. In the same manner of using our internalized math properties to solve that equation, we use our internalized knowledge of Yu-Gi-Oh! to duel. This can range from many things like knowing that Treeborn Frog can revive in the standby phase to be used to tribute for a Monarch or the best time to activate your face-down Mind Crush would be after your opponent plays something that adds cards to the hand like Elemental Hero Stratos or Pot of Duality.
If internalization is the minimization of knowledge, then “feel” would be the minimization of effort required to use that knowledge to perform actions. There may better words for this concept, but for now the technical term “feel” concerns itself with how natural actions are and the level of difficulty of the action. For example, a low example of feel would be using a Monster Reborn either on the strongest monster in both graveyards or a tuner to synchro into a different powerful monster. A higher display of feel however could be using the Reborn instead as a way to steal a monster that your opponent would have wanted in the grave, then playing a Dimensional Fissure along with a Solemn Judgment to make sure that it never gets back to the grave. An even HIGHER example of feel would be using that Dimensional Fissure as a diversion to make your opponent waste a Mystical Space Typhoon on it then setting the rest of your traps knowing that the odds of breaking up your backrow with them down one Mystical Space Typhoon and you still having that Solemn are now heavily in your favor. The more complex the maneuver, the harder it is to perform without actively thinking about it, making a higher level of feel necessary to naturally perform the task.
But why would it be bad to think of something actively instead of naturally: wouldn’t you want to constantly be aware of your actions? Well yes, you still want to be aware but realistically you can’t actively think about everything, and the more brain power you waste actively thinking about simple maneuvers, the harder it is to consider more complex actions and thinking multiple turns ahead. To be pro you should be actively thinking less about questions like “How can I get over this Thunder King Rai-Oh?” and more about “What actions would best lead me to complete control over the board while maintaining card advantage latter on in the duel?” To make that higher level of thought your more active priority over simpler tasks, you have to actively practice and realize why you’re making certain moves over and over until you need to even think to come up with sound logic to your actions.
It’s not an easy process to bridge the game between a decent duelist and the best duelist, and reading this article alone won’t get you there. You must constantly learn and practice new decks and techniques, honing your skills while leaving room for growth. Even at the end of this tunnel, not all will have the capacity to finally make that last step into greatness and become a pro player. But for those few potentials that might be reading this article, I wish you the best of luck on your pursuit: you’re definitely gonna need it! And if you do somehow make it into this strange, new world of greatness don’t be afraid to let us down below know what its like and what you've seen.
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To those who aim for the sky and no lower: play hard, or go home!