Wise words from my good friend Samuel Pedigo. He recently wrote a really good article on how to go about playtesting to build the most optimal version of your deck and if you haven't read it yet I strongly suggest it:
He mentions in the article that practicing only makes you better when you have an incentive to win. Pretending you're in a YCS/WCQ or having other stakes at hand push you to try your best to make the best play possible. Practice also gives you something you usually don't have: the time to think. Often times when I'm practicing with friends online I'll have other tabs on my computer open may it be articles, Youtube videos, Facebook, or anything else because I expect them to take their time and turns usually span from 5-10 minutes. Because of this I usually only get 10 games of testing even if I stay up all night. I value these minimal amounts of games a lot more than if I were just breezing through 20 or 30 of them. On the flipside, when I do make the trek to Yu-Gi-Oh civilization 2 hours away to go see my friends I often go hardcore with simulating tournament conditions by timing a match just like would happen in any premier event and practice end of time procedure. It's good to take your time to see all the possible plays and outcomes and exercise your brain but sadly that is only a luxury of playtesting and real life doesn't work like that so you have to keep up with having to think quickly, too.
Like I mentioned in my previous article, I'm the only person to really play any sort of competitive Yu-Gi-Oh in my area and I have to travel 2 hours in any direction to find any locals. But that's not how it always was. I never really had a Yu-Gi-Oh local per say, but there was this fragrance/witchcraft/card shop (I know..) people would go to to hangout and many of them played Yu-Gi-Oh and Magic: The Gathering. It took me a couple years but by the time of my 11th birthday I was at the top of the player base there. The Big 4 as we called it consisted of me (Chaos), Sean (Zombies), Steven (Spellcasters), and Shawn (Dark Paladin Spellcasters). Shawn was different though. He played by the TCG Advanced Format Banlist and while we were wrecking everyone with Raigeki and Harpie's Feather Duster, he competed with us without any of those power cards. At least 10 of the most broken cards in our deck weren't available to him and he still yielded the same results as we did. The one thing that really bugged me is that no matter what I did I just could not impress him. No amount of cool plays or win streaks ever got even a simple "Good job" from him and it made me try my best to improve so much and even though I did, he still wasn't impressed.
One day I decided to confront him and he told me that anyone could throw around power cards and plow through their opponents that way but the real boys didn't need them to win. You know what I did? I pulled my deck out of my bag, handed it to him and told him to take out all the banned cards. He took out almost half my deck and handed it to me but I didn't want them back. I told him to take them and he smiled and took them home with him. That night I got a call from a number I didn't recognize and it ended up being from him wanting to schedule times to playtest and help me learn how to play without all the powerful cards. A year passed and I was attending my first regional in February 2006 with a copy of Dale Bellido's Tomato Control deck he won SJC Chicago with. I ended up going 4-3 and invites were only passed out to the Top4 finishers back then so I didn't get any prizes. What I did get was a spot on Team Net-Deckers alongside Ryan Newburn (multiple event tops + invite to Worlds), Jesse Twohig (Top8 SJC Indy 2005), Tyler Lee, Adam Block (Top64 US Nationals 2009), and George Yin. I came back home to tell Shawn of my experience and he was thrilled to hear every story I had to tell but at the end of our conversation he surprised me. He pulled out a deckbox and handed it to me; inside was every card I gave him a year ago. He told me how proud he was and that in order to keep growing I had to move on. I remember what he said like it was yesterday: "I was just your stepping stone. In order to succeed you need to have someone to look up to and you need the will to impress them and prove you can hang with the best of them. We'll always be friends but only outside of Yu-Gi-Oh. Playing with me will just stunt your growth, you need to look up to your teammates and let them take my spot. Do everything in your power to continue growing and never stop, kid".
Those words have resonated with me through my whole dueling career. It was always the driving force to make me want to find the people better than me and want to impress them. I took Shawn's advice and started talking to Jesse and Tyler a lot more and by the time the next regional rolled around 2 months later I was ready. I finished 6-1 and ended up Top8ing at 12 years old. That was a bigger accomplishment back then when wins came out of knowing (what was back then) advanced card advantage theory and tempo control instead of having 2 Dragoons to discard with your Megalo or opening Magician Shark. You always have to be looking for an opportunity to grow. In order for you to grow, the pressure needs to be there. If you aren't pressured into trying your hardest to make the best play then why even bother? You might think you're playing your best just messing around with your friends but you aren't and really that's just a waste of time. Dalton Bousman and I play in person a lot and we often "pause" our games every other turn to go over what we're reading and how we're trying to advance our gamestate. Does it affect the game itself? Sure, but who cares who wins? The information we get by discussing our in-game tactics is way more valuable than being able to say one person got more wins a certain night.
I can say that online warring is hands down responsible for most of my growth in the game. There are sites like Duelistgroundz.com that have their own sections dedicated to making teams and warring against each other. A war is when 2 teams go head to head and the team that runs out of players first loses. I saw this as a perfect opportunity to grow and wanted to join the best team I could. Luckily I was already really good friends with Chris Hentz and he was on a pretty decent team and convinced the leader of Fourshot to add me. I can't remember the original roster but the only people left from it are us 2. The current roster is Alistar Albans, Jonathan Weigle, John Hubbard, Scott Pulera, Samuel Pedigo, Chris Hentz, and myself while other big names like Austin Kulman, Robbie Boyajin, Paul Clarke, and more have also been on the team. Tell me you honestly wouldn't get nervous warring on DN while having those kind of teammates watching your every move. The last thing you want to do is screw up and disappoint them by making them work harder to pull the win out for the team when they didn't have to if you hadn't misplayed. It's nerve wracking and more importantly it creates pressure! Back before DN was a thing it was even harder to come back from a war match barring bad news that you lost. No one could watch you and even if you truthfully did get sacked 5 matches in a row, that's sometimes really hard to believe and you could be cut from a team because they thought you were just playing badly and blaming it on luck.
I highly suggest getting into warring if you want to get better. Even if you can't get onto a team, making a team yourself and doing well will get you noticed fast. I made my first team before I ever joined Fourshot and 5-1ed the best team at the time - Starless - led by the same person that created Fourshot. I'm currently leading a team right now that is 7-0 after last night and a lot of my players are getting a lot of attention. There are other teams with current pros on them and there's really no way not to get noticed if you can consistently go up against them. The best part? Even if you constantly lose, you're still testing against some of the game's best players and at least are getting on friendly terms with them. A big thing that helps is that while I war I either go on Skype or Xbox Live and try to get the whole team on at once to talk through the plays while someone on the team is warring. You get to see so many different perspectives and eventually when you're playing by yourself you'll be able to think "What would my teammate do?" and it gives you more options than if you were just using your own thoughts. You don't even have to war to play really great players though. DN is a great tool and by getting high up in the rated matches rankings you'll find yourself playing against great players all the time. It's a lot more fun if you have a friend to try to best, too. Samuel and I were in a competition a little bit ago and while I was high ranked in singles and eventually just had to play against Dark World every time, I'm pretty sure he got to the #1 spot! Competition sparks growth.
Even if you don't end up looking into warring I hope you took something away from this article. You can't just practice for the sake of practicing, you gotta put something on the line. Whether it's respect from peers, pride, or even just a Reese's candy, having something to play for will ensure you play your best. As long as you have a role model to look up to you'll continue to keep getting better. My first role model played Dark Paladin and he's still the most important one I've ever had. Never stop striving for perfection and let Shawn's words resonate in your head as well. Every time I have trouble in the motivation department I think back to that day and it keeps me going. I'm sure you all have an experience like that to look back on. Let your past push you forward!
Do everything in your power to continue growing and never stop.