Nothing could have prepared me for what was to come. I was staring down the week of my first ever Shonen Jump Championship, which happened to be taking place in my hometown of Philadelphia. I played more Yu-Gi-Oh than I’ve ever played in my entire life during that one week. At the time, Chaos Return was the biggest and baddest deck on the block, so you could expect that everyone who could play it, would play it. I, of course, would be playing it. The deck was also fresh off a win at SJC Arlington, which was only seven days before the scheduled date of SJC Philadelphia. Many of my close friends who played the game were also using the deck, so we tested the mirror match extensively—or as extensively as a bunch of duelists-in-training could without the guidance of a professional in the area. Dekoichi and Zaborg were the two lynchpins of the deck, which meant that knowing how to play around them was crucial to success. But I hadn’t bothered to think outside the box, and unfortunately for me, that would lead to my downfall.
Back in the day, when Yu-Gi-Oh was much, much slower, you had time to set up plays and fight for card advantage with your opponent until one of you was able to grind it out. Yes, that’s right, I said “grind it out,” which seems to be a completely foreign term when compared to Yu-Gi-Oh nowadays. If you lost the die roll, it didn’t mean that you would automatically lose the game from something as simple and silly as Magician Shark, or Rescue Rabbit with infinite backrows, or any of the other nonsense that we’ve recently experienced in the last two years or so. What it did mean, however, was that your opponent was technically up one card—so they had a +1—and they would most likely be setting a Dekoichi to give themselves yet another +1. Therefore, if you went second, and your play was to set your own Dekoichi and pass, you would be left open to your opponent flipping up his, netting another +1, and then tributing the used Battlechanted Locomotive to summon Zaborg, the Thunder Monarch. This was your bread and butter. In fact, the play was so solid that I’d bet 99% of players who used Chaos Return back then had never even questioned an alternative. It was just too broken, so why fix it?
And as history would have it, the play did get fixed, and there was an alternative. It was the introduction to what was known as Recruiter Chaos. The deck focused much more on field control, rather than hand presence. Normally, having a big hand meant that you were winning the game, and that will probably always be true to some extent because you have more options. But the problem with having a big hand and not having some type of legitimate field was that you couldn’t get a foothold in the duel, and your lifepoints would be reduced to zero shortly after. In other words, a huge revolution was underway.
On the morning of registration, which was always the same day as the actual tournament back then, my friends and I made our way down to the Pennsylvania Convention Center to play in what would be the biggest Yu-Gi-Oh tournament of the time. Roughly 808 players registered for the event, it was monstrous. I remember standing in the long line that outstretched the entire building, thinking about finally seeing the people who I’d read so much about. I didn’t know how I would react when that time came; they were my Yu-Gi-Oh idols and real-life celebrities in this world.
One of my sillier friends, Jamaul, would take advantage of our boredom while waiting in line by yelling things that simply weren’t true. Yes, he was that guy. “OH MY GOD, IT’S EMON!!!” he exclaimed while pointing a finger in the opposite direction that everyone was facing. This of course led to the entire registration line turning around at breakneck speeds—literally—while he folded over in laughter. Sadly, I was a victim of his folly, too. I mean, what can I say? Emon was a huge name, maybe even the hugest, so it made perfect sense that he would use that one for his prank. But the momentary alleviation from moving at island turtle speed to register couldn’t stop the time from dragging on before we got to the front. Unfortunately, I soon found out that Emon wouldn’t be making an appearance in Philadelphia. That was unlike him, considering he went to just about every event, and the rumors were plentiful. Even still, that was none of my concern; I had a tournament to focus on.
As I walked around the huge room, I could see duelists doing what duelists do, playing cards and trading cards. I avoided playing before it started because I didn’t want people to see my deck, but I hadn’t realized just how insignificant I was, so no one would’ve cared or noticed. And even if they did, who would remember? Besides, it wasn’t like I was playing anything new or innovative. It was as standard as standard could be for a Chaos Return deck. I might’ve changed one or two cards from the last winner’s deck only a week ago, just out of player preference. And if you were wondering, I felt no shame about netdecking, either; I knew my place—I was a player, not a deck builder. You equip me with the proper tools, and I’ll go out and put in work. That’s who I was. That’s who I was comfortable being…back then.
Before I knew it, the player meeting was going up, meaning it was time to prove myself and attempt true success. Player meetings have always been the bane of my existence, though. I never really understood the point of them, though I’m sure there is one—or several—so it has always been something I resented. They made a couple announcements, one of which was game changing, and asked us to give a round of applause for the biggest SJC to date. The ruling in question was how Apprentice Magician would work if it was destroyed by battle on the opponent’s side of the field from, let’s say, Creature Swap. Would it be treated as a graveyard effect? Or would it be an effect that activated and resolved on the field, meaning that whoever controlled the Apprentice at the time would be the one to reap the benefits? The answer was that it would be whoever originally owned the Apprentice Magician, so Creature Swap would be absolutely broken in conjunction with the tiny, overlooked Spellcaster.
We would be playing 10 rounds of swiss with a cut to the Top8. That’s drastically different from what you might be accustomed to today, seeing as how four times as many people are allowed into the playoffs. I don’t think the expansion was unwarranted, however, especially since about four times as many people are entering events, too. Thinking of the number of rounds sent chills down my spine. On top of that was the thought of the number of players—and good ones, might I add. I had a hard time coping with the whole theory of taking it “one round at a time.” I couldn’t rationalize making it to the top cut unless it was much closer to the last round, and by that, I mean the round right before it. Despite all of this, I simply didn’t have time to finish the psychological warfare I had waged upon myself. The pairings had just been posted.
Things were about to get real for many of us, but luckily for me, I smashed my round 1 opponent quite easily. It was your everyday 2-0 creaming with all the toppings. I can’t even recall what he was playing, and that’s not because it was seven years ago, but because I won so fast. I had massive card advantage and even more lifepoints, making it seem like the tournament might not be so bad after all. Winning round 1 will always invokes confidence, but on the contrary, losing the first round could easily break your spirit, depending on how strong you were.
After the round, I did what we all still do to this day, which is finding a friend and discussing the previous match. There were a few casualties, but most of us had made it out alive. I ended up winning round 2 as well, so things were looking up for me, but I became complacent, not realizing that it had only been very early in the tournament, and there would be eight more rounds to follow, assuming I even made it that far.
By the time round 3 had rolled around, I was brimming with confidence in myself, which was good, but I should’ve kept my guard up. I made a severe misplay and allowed myself to get caught in a nasty Return from Different Dimension. It hurt because most of my friends were there to watch. Basically, I cleared up too much space on my opponent’s board by killing his Scapegoats when I should have let them sit there until I had a way to either destroy the set Return, or defend myself. It’s always the little things that give you away.
In round 4, I played yet another mirror match, which is pretty much what I expected after reading all the coverage from previous events. I won game one relatively smoothly, so I didn’t think winning one more would be too difficult. Something that I absolutely wasn’t ready for, however, was the fact that we had taken 30 minutes just to complete that game. Like I said, I won smoothly—mainly because I was leading in card advantage almost the entire time—but he never scooped when things were grim, and he would draw cards to drag out the game. I really didn’t mind. Back then, when I knew I was going to win a game, I didn’t care how long it would take to complete it. That was a misplay in itself.
We ended up going into time during the middle of game two, and he was up in lifepoints. This led to him winning that game, and forcing us into a four turn duel with sudden death after those initial turns were up. I didn’t know how to correctly play in time, and looking back on it, I’d be willing to bet that he did. He just kept setting monsters, which caused me to grow impatient, thus finally costing me the match. I had lost 2 rounds back to back. It hurt so badly, especially since they were both avoidable. I knew exactly what I had done wrong in both instances. My inexperience had caught up with me, and it didn’t take long.
I knew there was no way to make the top cut now, I literally wanted to cry. I just wanted to do better; I was supposed to do better. It was expected of me, from my friends, my teammates, and of course I expected it from myself. It wasn’t even halfway through the tournament and I was technically eliminated. I played the next few rounds, but emptily and angrily, so they only served to make the situation worse. My emotions were getting the best of me, and everyone kept asking, “How’d you do?” and, “What’s your record?” Those questions plagued me for the remainder of Day 1. The only saving grace was getting to see Jerry Wang play Shane Scurry in a feature match. It was then, at that very moment, that I realized just how far away I was from the best. They were doing something I couldn’t quite comprehend. My friend, Jamaul, had spoken the words before I could formulate them into a complete thought. “They’re holding back. It’s like they have all these broken plays, but they’re just doing nothing instead.” It was exactly what I’d noticed, too. His words were reinforced truth. Both of them had power plays, but they were being exceedingly conservative, so calculated, something I never truly considered before. I became filled with emotions that were too ambivalent to co-exist. I was jealous, yet unable to stop admiring. I was angry at myself, but happy to watch them play. I was to able learn, yet too prideful to admit it.
Maybe there was more to this game. Maybe I needed to reevaluate myself as a player and take a step back for a little while. Frustration grew fiercely inside of me like the fires of doomsday. I wanted more. I needed more. And I wasn’t about to let this opportunity go to waste.
Tomorrow, I’d be returning to watch Day 2. Or to be more accurate, I’d be returning to study it…
To be continued…