Defining Skill

Last week I posted a discussion on “old school” vs. “new school” Yu-Gi-Oh. It was the result of my friend and I trying to figure out which created more skillful formats. We concluded last week that asking whether “old school” or “new school” Yu-Gi-Oh was better was really a question of whether or not archetypes produced skillful formats. This week we’re going to continue that discussion. Before we can figure out whether or not archetypes produce skillful formats, we have to define what we actually mean when we say that a format is skillful. It seems like such a straightforward question. What is a skillful format? This question actually has multiple layers to it and is in no way simple to answer.


It is no secret that being better than someone doesn’t guarantee that you’ll win every game you play against them. Some games you’ll get a bad hand, they’ll get an especially good hand, activate too many powerful cards for you to deal with, or perhaps you’ll even mess up (because playing better than your opponent doesn’t mean playing perfectly). Let’s say that you play them in 1000 games. It seems to reason that the more skillful the format is, the closer to all 1000 games the better player would win.


If a game were decided on no factors other than skill, the best player in the tournament would also always be the winner of the tournament. This cannot always be the case as there are other factors involved. Think of all the factors that determine the outcome of a game as a pie chart. Some of them are not under the player’s control, but some of them are. The less skillful the format, the more influence the factors that are not in the player’s control play into the outcome of the game. Conversely, the more skillful the format, the more influence the factors that are in a player’s control play have on determining the outcome of a game.


There are three broad areas that players have control over that influence the outcome of games. The reason it is difficult to define exactly what a skillful format is made up of is because these areas often overlap. The most obvious one is the order of operations. How do you play your cards? As straightforward as that question appears, it too has different layers. Let me start off with a question for you to consider before we continue. Was Frog FTK skillful to play? How about even when you go first and are unopposed?


I’m sure many people would argue that it wasn’t. The opponent didn’t even get to play and the Frog FTK player to win the game. Your right in that the opponent didn’t get to play the game, but is there nothing to be said for how the Frog player won the game? While he never gave his opponent a turn, he had an enormous decision tree. Let’s take what looks like a straightforward hand and examine its decision tree for just the first play you make:


RonintoadinThat’s 85 different plays. 85 different opening plays you can make for the first play of your turn. Before you get to the point of Mass Driver on Ronintoadin, you’re quite literally going to make thousands of decisions.


I am a firm believer in the idea that there is only one correct play for any given scenario. People like to think that this isn’t the case, that there is some sort of preference or that multiple plays could be correct. Perfection does exist. If you take a test, it’s possible to get every question correct. If you miss a couple of questions, you may still do well. If your goal is to get an A, you can miss some. Similarly, it’s possible to win even if you do not always take the correct line of play, but just as 100 is better than 94 on a test, one line of play is superior to all other possible routes.


If that test had 1000 questions on it, it would be impressive to get a perfect score. In the case of Frog FTK, some of these 1000 or more questions are quite obvious to answer. What month is Christmas? Is setting Swap Frog correct? Many of the decision trees are much more difficult to discern the correct answer from. When I special summon Swap Frog, who will I discard? I am going to draw later in my turn with Poison Draw Frog. If I draw Moray of Greed, which of these will give me the best alternative route to victory if this happens and I am not able to FTK? That’s a much more complicated branch on the decision tree than whether or not to set Swap Frog. There are many things to consider, but only one right answer.


It’s nothing more than memorization. You’re not going to sit down and get a 1000 branch decision tree and pick the correct choice the first time you’re in the situation. You have to have put yourself in these scenarios many times before and have shortcuts to know which branch will lead you down the correct path for any given scenario. This is most certainly a very important skill.


You can question whether or not being able to memorize combos or shortcuts to properly identify the right path is actually a skill, but let me challenge this with a question of my own: is correct technical play even when interacting with your opponent ever anything other than memorization?


fiendish chainYou have Fiendish Chain set and Effect Veiler in hand. Which do you use first? What are the possible cards that they could have? What reasons do I have for thinking they might have one of these cards? Which are they most likely to have? How devastating will it be if they have this particular card and I use Effect Veiler first? How about Fiendish Chain first? What about the next card?


Are these not all questions that you know because you have memorized the answer or memorized a shortcut to get to the answer? Just like you wouldn’t pick the proper branch the first time you tried to do a Frog FTK combo, you also won’t be picking the correct branch when interacting with your opponent’s cards. It’s no secret that the actual tournament is a mere formality. They’re actually won in the weeks leading up to the tournament. Whoever has the most and best shortcuts is also the most likely person to win the tournament.


You know whether it is better to use Fiendish Chain or Effect Veiler first because you’ve been in a similar scenario and have developed a shortcut for it. The kicker? There are only three actual choices; activate Fiendish Chain, activate Effect Veiler, don’t activate either. The Frog FTK tree has several hundred legitimate choices (when you take out stuff like set Swap Frog). At the end of the day, your reasons for activating Effect Veiler first may be incorrect, but you may still end up making the correct play when using Effect Veiler first because there were so few alternatives that you coincidentally picked the right one. In this respect, both scenarios are no more than memorization of scenarios and shortcuts to arrive at the correct answer, but combos are much more skillful than actually interacting with your opponent since they have many more potential answers than the three options when you have when picking which card to activate in response to an opponent’s effect.


The second aspect that players can control to gain an advantage is the mental game. This dimension of skill can also be further broken down into two parts, just as the order of operations aspect was broken into two parts.


heavy stormThe first part of the mental aspect is making reads on what cards your opponent might have or what play your opponent might do. How might this change from format to format? Let’s take most any format where Heavy Storm was legal and compare it with most any format where Heavy Storm was not legal. In a format where Storm is forbidden, there are usually few reasons to not set every trap card that you draw.


Let’s say your opponent summons Deneb, gets Altair, and sets three cards. How much information can be gained on the simple fact that Heavy Storm is banned? Well, if they kept a card in hand, it’s probably not a trap card as they are unlikely to be punished by setting it. It’s not unlikely that if they had a card like Raigeki, they would have set it too in an attempt to mitigate MST from destroying their trap cards. It’s possible for it to still be some spell card that they wouldn’t have activated, but there is also a great chance that it is a monster. If it were a monster, can we tell what monsters it could be? If they had a second Deneb, they couldn’t summon it, so that’s a possibility. Would they have summoned Unukalhai over Deneb if they had it? That seems likely only if they have a Call of the Haunted or Oasis of Dragon Souls set. Could it be a second Altair? It seems unlikely as they would likely search Vega if they already had Altair, but they searched Altair. What about Vega? Would they have made an XYZ first turn? Definitely not if they had an Alpha set. What about if they didn’t have Alpha set? Having a Call or Oasis, but no Alpha might be a reason to summon an XYZ. Then they could put Deneb in the grave. It does not seem unlikely that they would choose to not make an XYZ here either, regardless of having Alpha or Oasis set and having Vega in hand. Vega is a possibility in which case. Hand traps? Maxx “C” isn’t uncommon and Honest is played, both of which are possibilities.


maxx cLet’s say I start my turn by summoning Tour Guide From the Underworld. They don’t stop my effect. What changes about my knowledge of all their cards? They don’t have Maxx “C” in hand. They likely do not have Alpha, Emptiness, Fiendish, or Warning set. What are their most likely set cards? Oasis, Call, Dimensional Prison, and MST with other, though less likely because they are less played or fewer copies are played, possibilities include Mind Crush, Compulsory Evacuation Device, Bottomless Trap Hole. Assuming they don’t use Book of Moon on whatever I summon, I can now rule it out as well. It is also still possible that they set Snatch, Raigeki, or something like it to mitigate MSTs.

The reason why skill is so difficult to define is because so many different areas overlap. Let’s say for instance I have Good & Evil in my hand in this same scenario. If I was not interacting with my opponent and merely solitairing my hand to find the correct order of operations, I might set a trap I had and wanted to use. Setting Good & Evil would be counter productive as I could no longer special BA. Assuming I just use whatever trap I set, I could still special BA in the future. However, I have identified that a likely set of theirs is Mystical Space Typhoon. Because of my read, I set G&E and hope that it gets destroyed for me to use its effect in the future, turning their MST into my advantage, while also saving my trap in hand for the future. Here the two aspects overlap.


Let’s say on their next turn they set a card. It is likely that whatever card they set is also the card they drew because they would have had no reason to not set it first turn along with their other set cards. On my turn I draw Mystical Space Typhoon. Which one do I use it on before making my push? We have identified that the old ones cannot be cards like Vanity’s Emptiness, Book of Moon, or Solemn Warning, but we can’t say anything about the new card other than they did not have it the last turn. This means that it could be Vanity’s Emptiness, Book of Moon, or Solemn Warning. If we MST the new set, our play is much more likely to go through as we hit potential problem cards that the other set cards cannot be. The more plays that we make that are not responded to, the more cards we can eliminate from the list of possibilities of the old cards. If we never attacked Deneb and it never went to grave, they could still have Oasis or Call, but if we did attack and they let it go through what does that mean? They could want to bring it back with Altair to reuse the effect, so they wouldn’t necessarily activate Dimensional Prison if it were set. However if in the future they had a monster that they would obviously protect if they could, but let an attack go through, we can also eliminate Dimensional Prison.


SATELLARKNIGHT DENEBThis is the type of thinking I do on every turn of the game. How does this change if Heavy Storm is legal and your opponent has the exact same hand? Well, we established that they did not open Alpha. This means that they probably would summon Deneb, get Altair, and set maybe two cards. It’s possible that they’d set only one, but they aren’t setting three without an Alpha to protect it. If we assume they set two cards, that means they have Altair and two unknowns in hand. Do these two unknowns have to be monsters/spells they couldn’t get value out of yet if Heavy Storm was legal? No, they could have opened Deneb and four traps, but if one of the traps were not Alpha, then they wouldn’t set more than two of them. We can’t really say anything about the cards in hand because they could be anything other than Alpha.


What about next turn when they set two more cards after using Typhoon? Now we can’t say which card they just drew. We know that one of the two could not have been a defensive card they would want to set first turn, such as Solemn Warning before I establish a field, but even when we draw MST on our turn two, we don’t have a way of knowing which of the two new sets could be a Solemn Warning that they might have drawn, because we have no way of knowing which of the two cards they drew for turn (if either) and which of the two cards they already had in hand.


It becomes pretty apparent that Heavy Storm being in a format or not can give us a lot of information. This is an active thought process that the player using BA in the scenario would have to make to gain any useful information from. Since they can gain a lot of information through reads where Heavy Storm is banned, but are left with no way to gain reads if it is legal since the cards could be anything, I’d argue that a format where Heavy Storm is banned has the mental aspect occupying more of the pie chart of factors that decide the game.


The other mental aspect is forcing your opponent into a bad play. An example of this is bluffing a card that you don’t have or bluffing that you don’t have a card that you really do have and want them to think you don’t have.


mirror forceA common example is known as the pen trick. Your opponent is debating playing around Mirror Force and switching one or more of his three monsters to defense. You have Mirror Force set, so you want him to attack with all his monsters instead of just one or two. You pick up your pen as if you were about to take life points, perhaps asking something along the lines of combined attack points. Your opponent is lured into a false sense of security and believes that you don’t have Mirror Force set and almost immediately loses the game when it is flipped and you have tricked them. Both making reads and forcing bad play are parts of the mental aspect of skill.


The third and final aspect of skill is probably the least thought about as being a skill, yet I would argue it determines more games than everything else in your control; Deckbuilding. People lose so many games before they ever sit down because they do not have a proper deck. Perhaps their ratios are off or they are playing unnecessary cards. These can cause you to draw poorly and lead to the idea that you couldn’t do anything. Many games, if not almost all games, that you believe you could not have done anything differently to win, you likely made a deckbuilding error that could have been avoided and that resulted in poor draws.


Knowing how to optimize your deck is going to win you more games than playing well. If you think about it, this makes sense. You can play better than everyone else in the room, but a large number of plays are obvious. Referring back to the Frog example from earlier, pretty much everyone would know not to set Swap Frog. You make wind up with a better play than your opponent, but a lot of hands are fairly obvious. This results in the 94 vs 100 thing I was talking about. If your hand were the Satellarknight hand, there isn’t really much of a choice. The best player and an average player are both going to summon Deneb, get Altair, and set three with a monster in hand and Heavy Storm banned. You may get to 100, but they can get to 94 pretty easily. Deckbuilding, on the other hand, is much less limited. Even if there is a dominant archetype, you’re less limited. If you have a better deck than everyone, you’re going to be at a significant advantage, not a miniscule one like if you played a hand better.


The irony here is that deckbuilding skill almost always directly contradicts technical play skill. You’re winning because you’re playing the better deck, not because you’re playing better than they are playing. I think this is why so many people hate meta decks. Your Baby Dragon deck is going to beat your friend’s Ice Barrier deck pretty much without even a possibility of dropping a single game. They could be piloting their deck perfectly, you could be messing up a significant amount, and this result is still unlikely to change.


That’s the point of deckbuilding skills though!


vanity's emptinessYou want to build a better deck than every other person in the room so that you have an advantage over them! That rarely comes in the form of Baby Dragons vs. Ice Barriers though; it usually comes in the form of making a meta deck that is better than all the other meta decks. My first experience with this was when I won Nationals with, none other than, Baby Dragons. I had a huge advantage over the competition because I played 3 Sacred Sword of Seven Stars and 2 Vanity’s Emptiness, while most of my opponents played 1, maybe 2, Swords and no one main decked Emptiness in Dragons. I played 11 mirror matches and won all of them. Sure, I knew the interactions of the mirror match, but really I won those 11 matches because I was playing a better deck than my opponents were playing. In a way, this was similar to the idea of Baby Dragon vs. Ice Barriers. My extra Sacred Swords let me do more things and be more consistent and my Vanity’s Emptiness prevented them from playing the game. It is ironic that this is an aspect of skill, because the more deckbuilding skill in a format, the less technical play skill the pie chart is made up of. Being the first to create this better version of the deck is most certainly a skill.


This gives direct rise to our original question, are archetypes good for the game? Do archetypes emphasize a particular skill (deckbuilding, technical play, or the mental aspect) over another skill? Is one skill in particular superior to the others? What makes it superior? If so, is this one skill superior because it wins you more games or is it that it is harder, or in essence “more skillful?” Which skills are harder? Which skills win you the most games? Do these skills become more or less emphasized as the format progresses in a format defined by archetypes? What about one not defined by archetypes?


We now have established a standard for what we mean when we are trying to define skill. It is composed of technical play, mental game, and deckbuilding. Next week I will attempt to answer whether or not archetypes are good for the game on the basis of skill alone. Using this article as a definition of skill in Yu-Gi-Oh, would you say that archetypes promote or stunt the skill in the game? Be sure to leave your answer and explanation in the comments down below. I’d also love to talk to anyone willing about the topic this weekend at ARG Circuit Series Fort Lauderdale or next weekend at ARG Circuit Series Hartford! I look forward to seeing you all there! Until next time, play hard or go home!

Patrick Hoban

Patrick Hoban

Patrick Hoban

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