The Three Characteristics of the Best Deck

IMG_2276If a year ago you told me that within the next twelve months I’d go on to top 10 premier events, 3 of which I would win, there’s no way I would have possibly believed you. This past weekend was the culmination of what I would have to say would be the dream year for any player. Two weeks ago I made Top 16 at the YCS in my hometown of Atlanta, Georgia with a Mermail deck that was substantially different from any build I had seen before. Of the matches I played with the deck in that tournament, I only lost two games before being eliminated in the draft section of the tournament. This past weekend the Circuit came to Charlotte, North Carolina and I managed to take home first place with the exact same deck list that I used in Atlanta. Because of how different the deck is, I’d like to take some extra time explaining both how I arrived at Mermails and why I chose the cards I did for the tournaments. I have entirely too much to say to do this in a single article, so I intend to break my findings for the format into four separate articles. The one for today is going to focus on why it is important to play the best deck if you are a competitive player and give you the skills necessary to make that determination for yourself by quantifying the attributes of a best deck into just three groups. Also in this article I’m going to identify some perceptions that I believe to be incorrect about the best deck and provide alternative ways of thinking about these things. In the next article I’m going to give an in-depth analysis of the deck that I played in Atlanta and Charlotte explaining individual card choices and my thought process on solving the problems I had with the deck, being careful to reconcile with how I believe it aligns with the material set forth in this article to qualify it as the current best deck. In the third article I’ll go round-by-round for the YCS in Atlanta and in the final article of this mini-series I’ll give my account of the tournament where I won the championship in Charlotte.

Particularly at the beginning of a format, I get asked all the time what I think the best deck is. I think objectively there is a single best deck for any given tournament. I’ve written in the past that I do not think play styles exist; I think that applies to the concept of a best deck as well. You may certainly like how one deck plays more than another (like setting lots of backrow with Fire or summoning lots of monsters with Water), but that doesn’t mean that you cannot learn everything there is to know about whatever deck is more optimal and play it to its full potential. I think something a lot of people are mistaken about is that they think just because someone doesn’t know what the best deck is, they think there isn’t a best deck. I hear people all the time say “this format is too diverse to have a best deck.” I think this is completely false. Regardless of your ability to figure out what it is, an objectively correct answer still exists. It’s definitely not always a clear cut answer, but the point is that there is an answer. Let me give a real life example to try and better illustrate my point. Every four years we vote on a new President in America. Each of the candidates has different economic policies that will affect the economy in different ways. Voters vote on the candidate that they believe will have the greater positive impact on the country. When they cast their vote, they cannot say for certain that their candidate would do a better job than the other one, but theoretically if both candidates could govern for the same four years and they both instituted their economic policies, one of them would be objectively better than the other one. One of them would have increased GDP more, created more jobs, and/or raised the standard of living higher than the other one would have. Because it is impossible for two candidates to govern the same four years, we can never say with complete certainty that one was the better choice, but regardless one of them would have done better. Simply having an opinion does not make it right. You may have very well voted for and elected a candidate that would have less of a positive impact than some other candidate running would have had they been elected instead. Similarly, just because you cannot say with absolute certainty what the best deck is, it does not mean it does not exist. In fact, it does exist because if you were able to play every deck to its full potential 1000 times against every other deck, a clear cut best deck would emerge. The political scientist major in me is really coming out in this article.

HIERATIC DRAGON KING OF ATUMSo why is it important to know what the best deck is? In previous articles I’ve also talked about how I don’t think your goal should be to win, but to make correct decisions. It would seem to reason that if an objective best deck does exist, and in fact it does, the correct decision would be to always play that deck. Keep in mind this is purely from a competitive point of view. I understand people have different goals when it comes to Yu-Gi-Oh, but it is important to note that everything I write is geared for the most competitive mindset. For this mind set, playing the single best deck for a tournament is the correct decision. I will never enter any major tournament with a deck that I do not believe to be the best deck because choosing any other deck would give me an unnecessary disadvantage. That is not to say that I am always right about what the best deck is (I incorrectly believed Hieratics to be the best deck earlier in the format), but, just as the voter can make an objective and rational decision about which candidate he/she believes would have the greatest impact on the country, I believe you can make an objective and rational decision about what the best deck is in order to give yourself the best chance. Because of this, it seems important to be able to distinguish what the best deck is from the other options available. The question then becomes how do you do that?

One of the most obvious answers to the above questions is to look at results of previous tournaments. I think this is the absolute worst way to discern what the objective best deck of a format is? First of all, what if you’re going to the first tournament of a format? In that case, you’d have no previous tournaments to base your results on; however, the problem extends past the first time results are collected as well. The commonly held opinion is not necessarily correct. To give an extreme example, there was a time when society considered slavery to be acceptable. I think we can all agree that slavery is objectively unacceptable. For the same reason, we cannot base what we think the best deck is off of what people accept to be true. If 70% of people agree that X deck is the best, it would not be surprising if the most spots in the top cut are X deck. I will further explain why later, but I do not believe that Fire Fist is the best deck this format, yet they have the most tops at every major tournament so far. If we were to go solely off of results, Fire Fist would be the best deck. Another reason why results don’t matter is that every single major tournament we have is played with too small of a sample size to validate results. Math rules dictate that a sample size of at least 30 must be used in order to get valid results. If there is a 10 round YCS and you base your opinion off of which decks performed the best in those 10 rounds, you don’t have a big enough sample size. You’d need to play 3 YCSes before you could see which decks truly performed the best. This has problems as YCSes are held no more than once a month. There are a lot of variables that can change in about three months that would affect future results.  For example, a new combo is discovered that greatly increases a decks performance. You can see this happening last format when the double Dracossack combo using Trigon was discovered. In the beginning of the format, decks like Blackwings and Fire Fist got multiple tops, but when a better build of Dragons was shown to exist, the number of tops Blackwings got significantly decreased on average per jump. To value these results, you’d need all of your factors to remain the same from tournament to tournament. There is also no way to determine the skill level of the players in the tournament. You don’t know how good each and every player was. The gap that this creates can also really skew results. For example, if all the good players play Fire and none of the good players play Water and as a result, no Water decks top, does it meant that Water wasn’t the better deck because none of them topped? Of course not. Even if you master a deck and can fully support what you believe about it, can you say that you were right or wrong based on your results? Again, the answer is no. If you’re playing only 10 rounds and you need to play 30 to have an accurate idea, you might have not topped when you should have or your might have topped when you shouldn’t have. The point is that there is way too much room for error to value results that are all gathered with small sample sizes with any real kind of weight. That’s not to say that tournament results don’t have value, it’s just for a different purpose such as constructing a good side deck against what you believe to be the most played deck.

If you cannot take results as an accurate measure for what the best deck is, what can you do to try and make a rational decision to determine the objective best deck? I’ve come up with three characteristics that I believe the best deck should have. What I’ll do now is go over these characteristics and apply it to several perceived top decks this format to show how I arrived at my decision to play Mermails.

fire fist - bearConsistency

You’d be hard pressed to ask someone to describe the attributes of a best deck and not have one of the first answers be consistency. That’s because consistency is absolutely one of the most important dimensions of a best deck. 12 is the new magic number for number of rounds. Most YCSes have a large enough attendance to require 11 rounds of constructed play in swiss. After that, you play one additional round of constructed in top cut before switching to draft format so if you plan on winning the entire tournament, you have to make it through 12 rounds with your deck. Similarly, at an ARG Circuit Series event there are usually 9 rounds of swiss, but one of them you would usually intentionally draw as anyone with a record of x-1 or better can guarantee a spot in top cut by doing so the final round. This means that if you plan on topping, you should expect to play at least 8 rounds of swiss with your deck. Since Circuits do not do draft in top cut and are usually a cut to Top 16, you have to play 4 additional rounds of constructed to win the tournament. Once again, you’ll be playing 12 rounds with whatever deck you register at most premier events. You won’t make it through 12 rounds of swiss if your deck is losing games to itself. In order to avoid this, the best deck of a format needs to have consistency so it can avoid these unnecessary loses. Let’s see how some of the perceived top decks hold up to the consistency standard. I’m going to exclude Mermails for now as I plan on fully explaining my deck in a follow up article, in which I will cover how Mermails interact with all three of the categories that I think are needed for a best deck. Please note that when I speak about Fire Fist here, I’m specifically talking about 4-axis without Dragon. The builds of Fire are too different to cover all in one group and I’m not going to look at every single deck, so for simplicity’s sake, I’m speaking about deck’s that are similar to Dalton Bousman’s Nashville deck.

Fire Fist – What draws people to Fire Fist is there perceived consistency. They rarely draw badly and all of their cards are relatively independent of each other. What I mean by this is that most cards in their deck are stand alone such as Tenki or Bear and do not require other cards in order to be good. Stand alone cards are a big advantage for consistency purposes. If everything does something without having to rely on another card, you don’t have to worry about drawing awkward combinations of combo cards that don’t work with one another. Fire Fist largely embodies this consistent element.

Hieratics – As I just mentioned, having awkward combinations of combo cards that won’t work with one another is a threat to the consistency of a deck. If a Hieratic player has two Eset in their hand an no other Hieratics, they’ve got two combo pieces, but they don’t work with each other. This is one of the inherent problems with any combo deck. It’s not to say that a consistent version of a combo deck cannot be found, but the nature of the deck is inherently less consistent. I’ll revisit how I attempted to solve this problem for Mermails in the follow up article explaining my card choices. Hieratics seemed to follow this model of combo decks being slightly less consistent than non combo decks, but I felt that I was still able to find a build that’s consistency was not damaged too heavily but minimizing unnecessary cards (something you should do in non combo decks as well). Hieratics do play Dragon Rulers which are largely stand alone. This helps with its consistency. By comparison, I found Hieratics to be slightly less consistent than Fire.

geargiarmorGeargia – Geargia have an interesting mix of combo cards and stand-alone cards, which can really work to its benefit as stand-alone cards help it in terms of consistency and combo cards help it with the next characteristic of a best deck that I’ll get to in a minute. Speaking in terms of consistency only, the stand-alone cards such as Armor, MK-II, and Geargiagear really shine, but cards like Karakuri tuners and Geargiano take away from its consistency. Even with several combo-based cards, the deck manages to stay fairly consistent and tries to do the same thing every game (set Armor and traps) and is quite good at accomplishing it.

Prophecy – Spellbooks are the first deck that comes to mind when I think of a top deck that loses to itself. There are several things that hurt the deck’s consistency. The first and most apparent is drawing the World of Prophecy. Just in your opening hand you’ll draw him 1/7 games. Over the course of a bigger tournament, that’s definitely going to affect your consistency. While it does run a significant amount of them, there will still be plenty of games where you won’t see a starter card such as Spellbook of Secrets. Without one of these all important starter games you cannot even play. These combined led me to believe that Spellbooks were the least consistent of the decks that I’ve mentioned thus far.

I’m sure that there are several other decks I could analyze on the three qualities of a best deck basis such as Bujins or Harpies, but this would be a good practice exercise for those of you reading this. See how a deck that I haven’t listed compares to the perceived top decks in terms of most important qualities.


In the last section, you’ll notice that there was an emphasis on cards that did things by themselves. As I mentioned above, that is because when cards require other cards to be good, you’ll often draw the wrong combination of cards which will hurt your consistency. If it were as simple as that, Fire would hands down be the best deck as they have the fewest cards that don’t do anything by themselves. Since there is clearly a debate for what the best deck is, there has to be something missing that would make the other decks that run more combo cards worth it. I believe that that is the amount of games that you will auto-win by drawing powerful combos. I’m going to simplify this at first to get my point across and then go a bit deeper. After that I’ll look at examples from the current meta. Let’s say that two decks have an 80% win ratio of every game played. All else the same, they should win about the same amount of the time. But what if one deck won a certain percentage of games by virtue of having combinations of cards in the deck that when drawn together would outright win you the game? If in this scenario there were the two decks that won 80% of the games they played. If one of them had combinations of cards that were auto-win and the other did not, the deck with the auto-win capability would be inherently better. It’s not a hard thing to imagine as both decks win 80% of the games they play, but by virtue of having combo cards, they do not have to play some games and will auto-win those games instead. Perhaps a deck has an auto-win ratio of 20%. That means that out of 100 games they would outright win 20 of them just by playing those cards and then you would have the 80% win ratio on the other games. 80% of the other 80 games is 64 so they would win 64 of the 80 games that they actually play and 20 of the 20 games they open auto-win due to combo cards. This gives the deck an 84% win ratio overall. Now look at the deck that has an 80% win ratio without auto-wins. That 20% that the other deck won by playing those auto-win cards, the deck without auto-wins must now work for. That means that they will only win 80% of those 20 games, or 16 games while still winning the same 64 of 80 of the other games that the other deck would have won with as well. This means that the deck without auto-wins would only have an 80% win ratio where the deck with auto-wins would have an 84% win ratio. This would mean that the deck with auto-wins is the better deck. Simple, right?

Unfortunately that’s a bit too simplified to have any practical use just by thinking about. One of attributes of being a combo deck was that it was inherently less consistent because drawing certain combinations of cards together would be bad. That means that if there was a top deck with auto-wins and a top deck without auto-wins, it would be very unlikely that they would both have the same win ratio of 80%. The deck with auto-wins would draw awkward more often and make that number go down and the deck without auto-wins would not.

wind-up magicianThe next issue is that auto-wins don’t actually auto-win 100% of the time. Magician + Shark + trap can still be stopped by Effect Veiler and MST or simply going second. Auto-win combinations of cards are certainly going to increase your win ratio when drawn together, but you aren’t actually guaranteed to win every single game you draw them together.

I believe that theory is significantly more important than actual play testing for strictly building a deck, but this is where play testing comes in. How much does your consistency drop by adding more combo cards that could be drawn at inopportune times? How much does your deck actually auto-win? These are very difficult questions to answer without actually picking up the deck and playing with it. You’re going to have to gauge as best as you can which strategy will have the biggest win ratio overall. Even if it’s very close, I’d pick 51 over 49 every time. Let’s see how the decks of this format stack up against the auto-win rule.

Fire Fist -   In the past couple of weeks I’ve made a lot of jokes about thinking that Fire Fist was a bad deck. I don’t actually think that, but when I say that I more mean something like “it’s a bad deck to play for the event.” Why do I feel like that? I don’t think it is the best deck and I’ve said that I would not play any deck other than the best deck. If I don’t think it’s the best deck, it’d be a bad deck to play for the event. The question then becomes why do I think it’s not the best deck? Auto-wins. The deck does not auto-win games. It has to work for every single win that it gets. While you may see that as more rewarding, it is not really a good attribute to have in a best deck. Auto-wins are very important to something being the best deck. I have trouble seeing Fire as being the best deck because of its consistency when other decks are also consistent, but win a percentage of their games by virtue of playing a certain combination of cards. Note that if other decks in the format did not have auto-wins either, Fire not having one would not be damaging. Take Goat Control for example. There weren’t really any auto-wins in the format, so it wasn’t a bad thing if the Goat deck I was building didn’t either.  If we were playing Fire mirrors all day, auto-wins would be not a factor. The problem is when Fire plays against Hieratics and they open Atum Dracossack x% of the time and win the game and Fire cannot do the same thing any percentage of the games.

Hieratics -  This deck definitely has a relatively high percentage of auto-wins thanks to the aforementioned Atum Dracossack combo. This deck excels in this area.

Geargia -  Any game that this deck opens Geargiagear Armor is essentially auto-win. The deck has so many ways to get to Armor that it happens close to every game so any game that you open with Geargiagear, a 3 of, you have a very strong chance of auto-winning that game.

Prophecy – Spellbooks have an auto-win in Temperance + Secrets/Crescent. That’s fairly non-specific and will happen a significant amount of games resulting in a nice boost to your overall win percentages.


The first two categories were things that increased a deck’s win percentage. This category deals with taking away from a deck’s win percentage. The last characteristic of a best deck is that it does not or minimally conflicts with general things that you know about Yu-Gi-Oh. This is a lot more broad so I’m going to jump right into the specific examples so you can get a better idea of what I’m talking about.

FIRE FORMATION - TENKIFire Fist – One of the things that I noticed last format is that card advantage is relative. If you’ve got 5 cards to your opponent’s 3, but can only play 2 of the ones you have, are you really at a +2 in terms of card advantage? If you’ve only got 2 cards that you can play that turn, it’s really more similar to you being at a -1 to your opponent (generally speaking as they may not be able to activate some of their 3 cards as well). Why I bring this up with Fire Fist is that it plays a significant amount of normal summons. Dalton’s list from Nashville played 12 normal summons (including Tenki). Well if you’ve got 3 normal summons in your hand, but can only summon 1 of them, it’s very similar to being at a -2 for a turn. The following turn you gain an additional summon so you gain one of your options back so you go to a -1 from having too many normal summons in hand unless you draw another normal summon. Tensu helps mitigate this, but is a 1 of and very difficult to account for so we’ll disregard it, but know that it will lessen the impact of this. With 12 normal summons in a 37 card deck, you’ll open 3 or more normal summons roughly 29% of the time. That means that somewhere between 1/4 and 1/3 games you’ll start the game at a -2. Any deck that can put up a big field is going to have a huge advantage over this kind of deck as their options for dealing with it will be limited.

Hieratics – So earlier this format I mistakenly thought that Hieratics were the best deck. They had the consistency and the auto-win aspects going for them. What I had overlooked was a contradiction that significantly weakened the strength of the deck. Hieratics play cards like Hieratic Seals From the Ashes, Reckless Greed, Cardcar, and Call of the Haunted. Exactly which combination of these you choose to play is largely irrelevant to this point, but the deck needs some of these cards or it is simply not good enough. The problem with these cards is that they are all bad to draw to established fields. When you play such a large number of them, that’s bound to happen a significant amount of the time. Sure enough, this ended up being the reason that I put the deck down.

Geargia – So Geargia seem to have both consistency and auto-wins, yet there still seems to be something missing from it being the obvious best deck. The problem is the contradiction that it has. When it goes second, it goes fourth. The deck cannot play until it tries to flip its first Armor. Because of this, games where your opponent goes first you’re not going to be able to do much outside of setting an Armor. Your opponent then has another full turn to react to it before you are finally allowed to play on the fourth turn of the game.

Prophecy – My last article dealt with how many of each card you should play in each deck. Spellbook of Crescent is not what a 3 of should be, but the deck is forced to play 3 of them or it is not consistent enough and will lose to itself. Any time a deck makes you violate a rule like this, there is a contradiction which is going to hurt the deck’s performance. The other thing about Spellbooks that is contradictory is that the entire core of the deck comes with a “once per turn” clause. The problem is that most of these cards are ran in multiples, but if you draw more than one of them you’re going to be at a -1 for at least a turn. Running multiples of anything is going to make you draw it more often than if you were playing fewer copies of the card so drawing multiples of something with a “once per turn” effect is going to happen quite often.

Where you want to go from here is see if you can’t improve upon your decks performance in each of the areas. What unnecessary bad draws can you cut from the deck to improve its consistency? Is there a card that you could add to significantly increase the number of auto-wins in your deck? And finally are you able to solve for any contradictions that your deck might have? Realizing the weaknesses of the deck is the first and most important step to perfecting it.

This is where I’m going to stop for this part of the article series. I apologize that this article was so execrably long, but I wanted to fully develop and present my ideas about how to find the best deck in any given format. I hope you all take it as such and not just part of my tournament report. Whenever I write an article I try to give it reach, even if it is a tournament report. I want it to have applications beyond just this tournament or even this format. I believe that the three characteristics can accurately help you figure out what the best deck is in any format. This is going to be that much more important of a skill to have now that we have three month formats. If you truly master this skill it’s going to be one of the more rewarding things you can do in the game and you’ll really start to see the results that you want to get as it means that at the beginning of any given format you’ll be playing a better deck than everybody else in your same tournament. For me I’ve been able to figure out builds that were closer to the ideal best deck the past two formats quicker than other people and it has resulted in a championship win each time with Dragunity last format and now Mermail this format. I urge you to spend time analyzing how other decks fit into the three characteristics as it will be good practice for next format. I hope you all have enjoyed the first part of a four article series about my experiences this format thus far. Be sure to check back soon as part two reveals how I came to the conclusion that Mermails were the best deck for this format and explains all of my seemingly crazy card choices such as zero Heavy Infantry! Until next time, play hard or go home!

Patrick Hoban

Patrick Hoban

Patrick Hoban

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