How Deckbuilding and Technical Play are at Odds with One Another

I often wonder if my whole approach to the game is correct. As a competitive player I am always looking for ways to gain an edge. While I have been able to find that edge pretty consistently over the last couple of years, I’m certainly not satisfied. Sitting at a roughly 50% top ratio may better than most, but it leaves me wondering how I can get the other half. In today’s article, I’m going to give an analysis of my tournament strategy in comparison to other top players throughout the game’s history. This inquiry has lead me to the unexpected conclusion that more in-game options, and theoretically more chances to mess up, actually decreases how important technical play is. Let’s see if we can find out why.


dark armed dragonThe strategy that I take when I approach a tournament emphasizes deckbuilding over all other possible areas. Simply put, if you have the best deck in the room, you should be the most likely person to win the tournament. If you’re playing Tele-DAD it’s not hard to beat a room full of Gladiator Beasts.


Over the years I’ve gotten pretty good at identifying what makes up a good deck. I can spot what is unnecessary and deadweight, know the value of playing with a forty-card deck rather than a six-card hand, understand how probability affects card choice, have plenty of mental models to template off of, and fully embrace the idea that bigger is better when it comes to building a deck. My tournament strategy can be summed up by saying that I try to have a better deck than every other player in the tournament.


There are plenty of examples of when it worked. I had triple Sacred Sword and mained Vanity’s Emptiness in Dragons, while others were doing one to two Swords and siding Emptiness. I was doing powerful Dragunity combos when others were banking on the vague synergy between level seven Dragon Rulers and level one Plant tuners. I was looping Pike and Turge through Gunde when others were throwing all their resources into the grave for Megalo or reminiscing about the fairer days in the game by poking with Fire Fist Bear for a +1. But after the initial successes with each of these decks, I wasn’t able to continue to see success until a major shift in the format had occurred. Why?


sacred sword of seven starsThe fundamental principles behind deckbuilding are to maximize what all you’re able to do and minimize what all your opponent is able to do. The triple Sword allowed more plays, while Vanity’s cut off theirs. Dragunity combos were virtually limitless and could address any situation, and then presented the difficult task of overcoming the field I established, knowing Dragon Rulers can follow up to clear their play right back. Pike and Turge loops gave me an extra deck toolbox that I could access each turn to address any scenario or create defensive cards, such as Dweller, out of nowhere. In each of these formats, at the time I won my opponent could do and prevent less on any given turn than I could. What happened next? I had to play against them.


If I have the same deck as others in the room, I certainty don’t have a better deck than everybody in the room. At that point it seems like there are a couple of obvious things to do to keep an edge. I could attempt to build an even better deck, build a deck that counters that deck, or try to outplay the newly created mirrors.


Let’s talk about building a better deck. That is not always possible, because a small advantage like deciding whether two or three Valkyrus in Nekroz is optimal is very marginal. You need significant strides and your deck has to be significantly better. This pretty much means that you need a better engine, the part of deckbuilding focused on maximizing your plays. The Nekroz engine is very standardized and only has a couple of minor differences (1 Trish or 2, Gungnir or not, etc). These aren’t really things that are going to give you that significant advantage that you would need to walk into a tournament and confidently say that you have a better deck than everyone else.


It’s quite possible that there may not be a better engine available than Nekroz at the moment and that the model that is currently the standard is largely correct. The card pool is limited. Something has to be able to make more powerful and consistent plays than everything else.


mirror forceYou can’t attack for game with Mirror Force.


This leads us into our second option of building a deck to counter the newly minted best deck. Countering the other decks is the other part of deckbuilding that is minimizing what your opponent is allowed to do. In no uncertain terms, being able to make more powerful and consistent plays (having a better engine) is more impactful on the outcome of a game than being able to stop what your opponent is doing. Think about it and it’ll make sense. If you flip Mirror Force on a field of four monsters, it may be incredible, but it is impossible for the game to end with Mirror Force. Your engine has to then reduce your opponent’s life points or run them further out of resources. The opposite isn’t true, as you can win the game via reducing their life points or running them out of resources with only your engine. This is the classic misconception that two options means they both carry equal weight. It’s simply not true. Your engine is more important than being able to counter your opponent’s engine.


It is because of this that meta-countering strategies fail. Why not just play Evilswarm in a format dominated by Dragon Rulers? Because Dragon Rulers are an inherently better deck. The best deck is the deck with the best engine, not the deck that counters the best engine. Since the card pool is limited, something is the best engine. There’s not always an up to go. In all likelihood, Nekroz with the standard engine may be the best engine available in the game at the moment. If they make the most powerful and most consistent plays of any engine, you can’t build a better engine and countering it won’t be effective as it means you have an inherently worse deck. That leaves us only with the third option of attempting to outplay opponents. Where does technical play fall into all of this?


Deckbuilding actually directly contradicts the ability to outplay your opponent. That seems odd when you consider that the purpose of deckbuilding is to maximize your options and minimize your opponent’s. We’ve established that maximizing your options is more important than minimizing your opponent’s. Logically it should follow that maximizing your options means that there are more opportunities to outplay your opponent since you can do more with ten options than you could with three and the opponent will be more likely to mess up with ten options than they would with three. Oddly enough, I find that not to be the case, even though it appears logically sound.


Tour GuideThe reason for this is that more options across the board correlate with a more powerful deck. What can I do with a Tour Guide and a couple of Burning Abyss? Probably at least thirty different things when accounting for what to pull from my deck, what to summon from my extra deck, and what order to do it in. What can I do with a D.D. Assailant, a Spirit Reaper, and a Dekoichi? Realistically, six. I could summon or set the Assailant or Reaper, set the Dekoichi, or not do anything with any of them. Regardless of the order or what I pull from my deck off of Tour Guide, the Burning Abyss play will likely end with a couple of Dantes no matter how you go about it. In this respect, the deck is a lot more forgiving as you can still execute an incredibly powerful play without it actually making too much of a difference if you did it entirely correct. Pick the wrong monster to do something with in the hand of normal summons and it’s much more significant since there’s much less to be gained and much more to be lost by picking the right one. Thus a paradox is created where more options actually de-emphasizes technical play, because more options correlate with more power, and a more powerful deck is more forgiving. Does it really matter which order you summon your Burning Abyss monsters in if you’re playing against the deck that has the hand full of normal summons? You could mess up, but if you’re playing against a set Dekoichi it probably doesn’t matter.


I don’t mean Dekochi in the literal sense, but I think it does a pretty good job of illustrating my point on the importance of power as it relates to technical play. At the end of the day, you can’t outplay a better deck.


This is magnified when you account for the other part of deckbuilding; preventing your opponent from playing. You have a big advantage when you play Vanity’s Emptiness in the main deck of Dragon Rulers, when others are siding it at best. But at the next event, you then have to play against Vanity’s Emptiness as it will inevitably catch on. Once it does, draw an out or you won’t be able to play. You can’t outplay somebody if you can’t even play the game.


This serves to explain much of this game’s history, both recent and in the past. I was got the deck right for six consecutive formats, but was only ever able to win a second event within the same format once (which can almost certainly be attributed to the draft structure). It seems that an emphasis on deckbuilding serves to allow a good chance of winning the tournament, but will then subsequently hit your consistency at the events following the initial tournament where you got deckbuilding “right.” This can be attributed to an inability to build a better deck, an inability to build a counter deck, and limits on technical play. Players of the past who have not taken this approach to tournament strategy have been able to reach top cut a higher percent of the time, as they do not have to deal with these restrictions, but have a lower ceiling of tournament potential and will not win as often.


The question surrounding tournament strategy now shifts to what can be done to win more events, while still maintaining a higher top percentage? The player that can answer this and overcome the challenges explained in this article will go on to become the next dominant player, perhaps even the greatest of all time. Until next time, play hard or go home!

Patrick Hoban

Patrick Hoban

Patrick Hoban

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