"I got sacked."
"His topdeck was perfect."
"They got lucky."
If you've been to a tournament and asked your friends how their last Round went then you've probably heard a few answers like those. On paper, none of these are necessarily incorrect ways to talk about your previous match. Yu-Gi-Oh! is a card game, and therefore it will always have an element of luck. Even the best decks in the game's history had a chance to brick from time to time, and even the worst decks sometimes open with broken hands.
However, I've found that many duelists (some more than others) use phrases like these to dismiss any personal growth as a player. There are a lot of factors besides luck that influence the outcome of any given match: deck building philosophies, fatigue, metagame reads, and technical play, just to name a few.
So when a friend tells me that they lost their round because their opponent got lucky, I tend to ask more questions to figure out the context. Perhaps there was a play in Game 2 that would have stopped the match from going to Game 3, or maybe my friend misread the metagame and didn't properly prepare for that matchup. With enough analysis most matches are decided by something besides luck, but sometimes you have to dig deep to figure out what went wrong.
Being able to identify where the match went wrong is a great skill for any game! By dismissing matches without analyzing them it's challenging to better yourself. Keeping this in mind, I wanted to spend today discussing how you can make your post-game analysis more meaningful instead of blaming your losses on luck. It's true that not every match is within your control, but there are questions you can ask yourself to consistently find spots that could have given you a higher chance of winning.
Excuses, Excuses, Excuses
How do the best players in Yu-Gi-Oh! react when they lose a match? Emotions aside, I consistently see the better players analyzing their matches longer and more in-depth than other tournament participants. That's not to say great players can't show emotions after an especially grueling set of duels, but generally speaking they're willing to go over what went wrong. The purpose of this is pretty straightforward: if they made a mistake in Round 5, they don't want to make that mistake for the rest of the tournament (or any tournaments in the future).
This might sound simple, and yet I feel the vast majority of duelists don't bother with too much post-game analysis. They might tell a bad beat story to a couple of friends but after that they move on. There's nothing inherently negative about this considering not everyone has the time to discuss Yu-Gi-Oh! for hours, but it does feel like a missed opportunity.
Something that's important to understand, then, is that when players explain how they could have turned a loss into a win they aren't just making excuses. An excuse would be deflecting the blame to some outside factor other than themselves. Taking the time to backtrack and figure out where your crucial misplays were is truly one of the best ways to improve. Realizing after a tournament that you missed a draw off of Knightmare Phoenix or that you could have Solemn Warning'd a Macro Cosmos doesn't mean you're making an excuse; it just means you're addressing the areas of your game that need work.
Reviewing matches doesn't always come with perfect knowledge. It can be tough remembering all of the key details, especially if the tournament happened yesterday or last week. If you're playing online you get the benefit of replays, which is easily one of the biggest advantages of testing decks on those platforms.
So what are some ways that you should be thinking of your duels? I listed them briefly earlier, but it's important to have a plan for which ones you look at first. This won't be the same for everyone, but I usually look at everything in the following order:
1. Could my technical play have been better?
2. Could my deck building have been better?
3. Could my deck choice have been better?
4. Did I properly predict the metagame and prepare for it?
5. Was I doing the most for my physical and mental state?
All of these aspects (and more!) are valuable ways to look at a match or a tournament to see where you could have done better. Personally, I don't even begin to talk about luck until I've gone through all five of those questions.
1. Could My Technical Play Have Been Better?
Yu-Gi-Oh! has a lot of cards, a lot of rules, and a whole lot of unique interactions. It's impossible to prepare for every line of play that might come up in a tournament. Even if both you and your opponent are playing standard proven strategies, it doesn't mean you'll be ready for every single possible scenario. The great players are able to quickly adapt to almost any situation and see openings where others might not.
My suggestion for addressing your own technical play is to avoid focusing on the last turn in the match, or even the last several turns. While the final misplay you made might have given you a huge disadvantage in the last minutes, don't forget that it might not be what actually cost you the duel! Sometimes the misplay that actually loses you the game isn't even one that's obvious, but rather a small decision you made at some point earlier on.
For an example of the biggest misplay not always being the most impactful, let me describe a recent game I played in the Crush Card Cup. In the early turns of the game I had Aleister the Invoker and Invocation in my graveyard. This tends to happen when you search Invocation but you need to use it to summon a Shaddoll Fusion Monster instead of an Invoked. A cool trick you can do with Naelshaddoll Ariel in this situation is banish your own Aleister so you can get it back with the Invocation. It's a pretty straightforward play that's fairly common, and one that I've personally done many times throughout the tournament.
About halfway through the game I banished my Aleister with Ariel, just like I'd done many times before. However, I immediately realized that the Aleister had actually been stopped by an Ash Blossom & Joyous Spring on the first turn, so there wasn't an Invocation in grave. This, obviously, was a gigantic misplay. And it got worse when I later drew another Aleister, Normal Summoned it to get Invocation to my hand, and then made Salamangreat Almiraj into Secure Gardna. I then used Invocation and the Aleister got hit by D.D. Crow.
Upon my initial analysis of the match I saw that this was the misplay that cost me the match. Not only was banishing the first Aleister blatantly wrong, it also had negative repercussions just a few turns later. On top of that, the turn where I couldn't resolve Invocation for Invoked Mechaba was the turn where I found myself behind on tempo and card advantage. It seemed like the most impactful bad decision that I made in the match by default.
When I went back and watched the replay, though, I realized that I was wrong. While banishing Aleister was the most obvious misplay, it didn't actually cost me the match. Instead, there was a moment a few turns later where I neglected to D.D. Crow my opponent's Conquistador of the Golden Lands in their Main Phase 2, resulting in them banishing it in their End Phase. It's certainly a play I thought over while it was happening, but not one that I knew would change the result of the match. I even got pretty good value out of D.D. Crow later on using it to banish an Eldlich the Golden Lord trying to return to the hand, but I hadn't used the Crow in the most optimal way possible.
In other words, I made a terrible misplay that I thought cost me the match. But when I was able to go through each and every play later on I learned that a smaller misplay was the one that ended up mattering a lot more!
2. Could My Deck Building Have Been Better?
Deck building isn't easy. Budgetary constraints, time constraints, and your own skill level all play a role in your ability to put together a deck. Yu-Gi-Oh! has around 10,000 different cards, so narrowing those down to your Main, Extra, and Side Deck is no easy task. Deck profiles and articles certainly give you a starting point, but you'll only get so far if you copy a deck list and make no changes to it (more on that later).
This part of the post-game review is based on how well you constructed your deck given your resources. Someone that deck builds for 20 hours is going to have more time to experiment with ratios than someone who had 5 hours, so you can't expect both players to arrive at the same conclusions.
Did you try out a new tech choice?
Did you decide to Main Deck a card conventionally Side Decked?
Did you play a ratio that you weren't 100% sure was correct?
Those are some of the deck building questions that I ask myself after a tournament. Sometimes you'll have the luxury of being able to go to a few locals and a Regional Qualifier before a YCS, other times you won't. Whatever the case may be, it's important to not be too hard on yourself if you don't have the same resources as other players. Yu-Gi-Oh's a hobby after all, and you shouldn't be expected to devote every second of your life to it.
Identifying where your deck building could use improvement is a great way to narrow down what you should focus on. For example, if budget is your main shortcoming, spend more time watching deck profiles to figure out which cards players used that underperformed. It's possible that one of the expensive cards in their deck wasn't actually that powerful, but you won't know until you do the research.
If time's your main concern, spend what free time you do have learning how to build upon deck building fundamentals that you can apply to any deck. Johnny recently dropped a fantastic article series discussing card roles in modern deckbuilding and they're a great place to start for an aspiring competitor.
3. Could My Deck Choice Have Been Better?
We all have themes that we enjoy playing, and we all have certain decks that win more games for us than others. Sometimes one deck fits into both of those two categories, but not always. When you enter a tournament you can play whatever you want as long as it follows the rules. I could enter a tournament with 40 of my favorite Normal Monsters if I really wanted to, but that doesn't mean I would.
Overall deck choice is often based on the same factors that deck building is based on, but there are a few key differences: deckbuilding is about the finer details, whereas deck choice is more about the big picture. Deciding to Main Deck Evenly Matched in an Altergeist deck comes from your deckbuilding decisions, while playing Altergeists comes from your deck choice decisions. There's often overlap between those two questions, but for the sake of simplicity it's best to separate them on the checklist.
If you had an infinite budget and infinite time to test a deck for an event, what would you play? Perhaps you'd play whatever is the current most represented deck. Maybe you'd play a strong rogue strategy that has some Regional Top 8s but is mostly off the radar. You might even build a brand new deck that nobody's expecting so that you'd have the surprise factor. None of those decisions are inherently better than the others, but they're all aspects of deck choice that you must consider when you enter a tournament.
Another way that I look at deck choice is whether you need to draw unsearchable cards to beat your expected metagame. Don't get me wrong, even the best decks of the format play powerful unsearchable cards like Dark Ruler No More or Lightning Storm, but they can also win without drawing them. I used to make a lot of decks that could basically only win if I drew Brilliant Fusion Turn 1, but eventually I realized that those decks weren't good if they always needed to draw the same card to have a playable hand. Floodgates are often an example of that. If your deck can't beat the top strategies consistently without drawing Summon Limit, Anti-Spell Fragrance, or Imperial Order then there might be a better option out there.
I think the type of tournament also plays a factor in deck choice. I'm happy to play Amazoness Phantom Knights at a locals 20 minutes from my house, but I'm not going to play the same deck after driving four hours to play in a 10 Round Regional Qualifier. I also won't necessarily play the same deck at a Regional Qualifier that I would at a YCS or WCQ that I've flown across the country for.
As you can see, deck choice isn't about playing whatever's considered "meta" at that given time. Underdog decks frequently top and even win events. I often say that picking a deck you're comfortable with will yield better results than picking a top deck you've never tested, and I believe that mostly stays true even at bigger competitions. Obviously if you have access to two decks where one is clearly superior then you should try and play the better choice, but if you don't have the time to test it than it might end up not being the right option.
4. Did I Properly Predict The Metagame And Prepare For It?
When the average player discusses the current metagame they're often referring to the format as a whole, which usually extends across several months. But shrinking down to at least a month-by-month basis will help out a lot. Honestly, I'd advise going even further and focusing on metagames from event to event, but I realize not everyone goes to events more than once a month.
The truth is that every time there's a weekend with an event, the meta sees a shift. Sometimes these shifts are small: a new tech card pops up that people hadn't previously considered, or a rogue deck topped a Regional Qualifier so now you have to consider your matchup against it. But metagame shifts can also be huge: a new set gets released, a new Forbidden & Limited List drops, or a new deck dominates all the tournaments that weekend.
What can you do with that information?
Well, the easiest explanation is that you shouldn't prepare for the metagame of last weekend, you should prepare for the metagame of the event you're playing in. What does that mean? If there was a clear frontrunner at the last YCS that took a ton of the Top 32 spots then think about what other players are going to do to address that strategy at the next YCS. Many, many times in the history of Yu-Gi-Oh, there have been strong decks that completely destroyed a particular YCS because the average player hadn't figured out a way to beat them yet. But over time people become more comfortable playing against a strategy like that, and they find more tech cards to beat them, so the matchup gets easier. Imagine playing against Nekroz for the first time and not realizing Nekroz of Trishula exists, or playing against Shaddolls for the first time and not knowing about Shaddoll Fusion.
I mentioned earlier that I'd discuss netdecking, or copying someone else's deck. From an ethical standpoint there's absolutely nothing wrong with copying a topping deck list. I think there used to be a greater debate about this subject, but now people generally seem to understand that it doesn't matter if you use someone else's deck. From an advantage standpoint, though, you're hurting your chances of topping if you copy a deck list and change nothing. That deck was built for the event that it topped, not for the one you're playing in. Depending on how old the list is it's likely that the metagame hasn't changed too much since, but it's the little changes that matter over the course of a longer tournament.
Remember that you don't have to be perfect with your predictions! While we can all guess what other players are thinking, it's impossible to truly get it right in every single way. For example, at UDS Indianapolis last August, pure Thunder Dragons were one of the breakout stars. There were three in the Top 16, and David Flores won the entire event with them. I played at that UDS and I also played at YCS Portland the very next weekend. I guessed that a lot of people would be interested in picking up pure Thunder Dragons after they had just won the UDS, so I changed several cards in my deck to better prepare myself for the matchup.
…and after 10 Rounds of swiss I didn't play against a single pure Thunder Dragon deck.
My prediction ended up not being correct, but the important part is that I made a decision based on the results of the previous event!
5. Was I Doing The Most For My Physical Or Mental State?
Finally we have the question that's often severely downplayed, despite being so important.
Fatigue is real. Not a single YCS passes without someone in Top Cut making a glaring misplay, and the watchers are always quick to point out how obvious it was. What they might not understand, though, is that the player in Top Cut played Yu-Gi-Oh! non-stop for twelve hours on Saturday and then had to wake up at 6:30am to start Day 2 on Sunday.
Yu-Gi-Oh! is both mentally and physically draining. Not in the same way as a physical sport, of course, but you're still going out there and expending a lot of energy to make the right plays throughout the tournament.
People have gone undefeated on Saturday after partying all night Friday. It happens. We've all seen the stories about it. But you might not hear the stories about the people who partied on Friday and were too groggy on Saturday to even show up for Round 1, or they did show up but misplayed so bad that they had no chance of making Day 2. You're not obligated to avoid going out on Friday night and having a great time, but I'd highly recommend considering doing that on Thursday before the event or perhaps after the event's over.
More importantly, please remember to eat healthy food and drink water throughout the day! I cannot stress this point enough. Sugary snacks and drinks might help you for a Round or two, but if you're trying to last the entire day at your peak skill level then try and stick to water as much as possible. Convention centers aren't always known for their healthy food and drinks, but you can always see if you're allowed to pack a lunch.
Every player is working with a different set of resources. You might not have as much of a budget as your friend, but you might be able to spend more time deckbuilding and metagaming to perform better than they do at the next Regional Qualifier. Being able to review your matches effectively after they've happened is a great way to improve, and as I've shown in today's article there are a ton of different ways to look at things.
This isn't to say that luck isn't a factor at all in tournaments, but I think that in almost every case there's something else to examine that could have given you a better chance at success. There are certainly times when you want to look for opportunities to use luck to your advantage, but perhaps that's a discussion for another time.
If you have your own post-match discussion points that you focus on, let me know on Twitter! Everybody looks at the game with a unique mindset, so I'd love to read your thoughts on what's most important.