The last few weeks leading into the release of Breakers of Shadow have been pretty cool. While Pendulum variants and Kozmos continue to lead the pack, we've seen the rise of Artifacts in decks like Heroes and Kozmos and beyond, fleshing out narrow strategies and giving them an edge over the biggest decks. Meanwhile we've seen everything from Burning Abyss and Tellarknights to Madolches, Fluffals, and Different Dimension Demons taking Top 8 finishes at Regionals.

It's kind of a golden era. There's literally too much material to write about all of it, and with BOSH set to remold the shape of competition yet again, everything's changing at a pace that sees ideas rise and fall before they can be properly documented.

That said there's no way I'm not going to try, and with that goal in mind I want to highlight one of the coolest strategies of recent memory: a new Lightsworn variant that capitalizes on modern releases and the latest YCS Prize Card, to take old Lightsworn play patterns to new heights.

A lot of competitors might have been introduced to the deck only recently, thanks to Chris Watton's Top 8 finish at the Seattle Regional Qualifier toward the end of last month. That build looked like this:

DECKID=103904But others will have seen the deck piloted before, by fan-favorite competitor Alyxander Lisgathe. He played it to a Top 16 finish at the ARG Circuit Series in Anaheim on November 21st, and then repeated with a Top 8 finish at ARGCS Las Vegas three weeks later. You can click through here to check out Lisgathe's build from Vegas and see that Watton's build, played on the following weekend, was just a few cards off from Lisgathe's.

This strategy's hugely different from anything we've seen this format, so I figured what better way to understand it than to speak with Lisgathe himself. He was generous enough to give me a long interview detailing how the deck works, where it comes from, and how Lightsworn could make such an unexpected comeback.

"The build was first showcased by European professional duelist, Alpay Engin," Lisgathe explained. "Later it was adopted by Calvin Tahan and showcased even more on DuelingNetwork. I never thought it'd be plausible to use Minervas, however, until professional duelist Ching Feng Chen showcased two Minervas at our local tournament store in Southern California. I took his build, made a few adjustments, and took it to ARG Anaheim."

The deck actually had a lengthier heritage than I'd guessed, and Lisgathe was quick to give credit where it was due. While this is a new strategy in the eyes of most players, a lot of work from a lot of great players clearly went into it before it started gathering mainstream attention. That was intriguing to me – when people like Lisgathe, Engin, and Tahan start showing considerable interest in a rogue deck you have to ask why. And that was my first question for Lisgathe – why Lightsworn, and why now?

The answer was closely tied to one of the core characteristics of the Lightsworn theme: a factor that's been a hotpoint since the first Lightsworn cards were released nearly eight years ago. As Lisgathe put it: "Lightsworn's notorious for being a powerful deck revolving around the inconsistent mill mechanic." For over half a decade, the deck's lived and died depending on what it could luck into the graveyard; sometimes it would demolish your opponent with a flood of cards, and sometimes it would leave you with middling mills and a brick hand of mismatched cards.

Lisgathe called out Wulf, Lightsworn Beast, which has always been high-risk high-reward and a bit of a problem card for Lightsworn players. But he also noted challenges surrounding the newer Felis, Lightsworn Archer, as well as the deck's original boss monster. "Judgment Dragon… does very little going first and in most practical scenarios cannot even be played until your Turn 2 at the earliest." If you missed it, this new breed of Lightsworn runs double Felis and triple Wulf, but skips Judgment Dragon entirely.

How does it afford to run five copies of those cards? The big difference-maker was Minerva, the Exalted Lightsworn; a highly accessible Rank 4 that offers so much milling and draw power that she borderline solves the age-old problems facing Lightsworn. A generic two-Material Xyz with 2000 ATK, Minerva detaches to mill three cards and then awards you draws equal to the number of Lightsworn she hits. Then if she's destroyed by battle or an effect, she mills three more times and then destroys cards, again up to the number of Lightsworn milled.

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That changes everything. The more cards you mill and draw, the easier it is to field free threats and the better your chance of making plays when you draw a Wulf or Felis. The fact that Minerva punishes your opponent with an unpredictable removal effect when they try to fight it off is just brutal icing on the cake.

The Performage suite was the other half of the picture, making it easier to Summon Minerva while working in tandem with the cards she enables. "While Damage Juggler provides more defense to lean on, the clowns generally offer more ways to make Minerva or any other Rank 4." Instant Fusion and Soul Charge are similar: they put more pressure on your opponent, offer more ways to make Xyz, and you see them more reliably thanks to the added draw power of Minerva's effect. Lisgathe went into detail: "While Soul Charge lets you create powerful, mind-blowing boards, Instant Fusion's a more practical draw that gives you a strong foothold in the game, generally with PSY-Framelord Omega. In my opinion, Omega's the most powerful Level 8 Synchro in Yu-Gi-Oh, only comparable to the likes of Scarlight Red Dragon Archfiend."

In a nutshell, Lightsworn are more powerful and consistent than ever, thanks to Minerva and new cards that support her. That made Lightsworn a strong option in a vacuum. But I still needed to know why it was a strong option now, at this particular moment in the game.

Lisgathe Continued
"Patrick Hoban pointed out that with the limiting of Nekroz of Unicore, more Extra Deck strategies will be significantly more viable. Lightsworn, now revolving around Minerva, is no exception. The limiting of Unicore as well as the release of Norden and the Performage clowns really set the stage for Lightsworn." While most rogue strategies tend to succeed because they can offer unique advantages against the most popular decks, a big part of Lightsworn's viability now was simply the removal of problems that had once kept the deck in check.

"The deck's designed to put cards on the table in a continuous flow to overwhelm the opponent," stated Lisgathe, beginning to explain the strategy's actual sequencing. "The most common winning board I construct is two copies of PSY-Framelord Omega alongside Minerva." You have numerous ways to gather the monsters needed for that kind of set-up: Minerva can mill Felis, Lightsworn Archer, or Wulf, Lightsworn Beast; you can Special Summon Performage Hat Tricker from hand, or mill Performage Damage Juggler or Performage Trick Clown; or simply play Instant Fusion into Elder Entity Norden for another Special Summon.

"The deck can also play a longer game with Minerva's second effect, and PSY-Framelord Omega's ability to recycle Damage Juggler. Since Minerva only needs to be destroyed 'in your possession,' she can grind through most trap cards on her own. She can even grind through the more powerful traps coming out in Breakers of Shadow, such as Solemn Strike!" Later in the discussion I'd ask Lisgathe about what he felt were the deck's most misunderstood cards, and he'd be quick to point out that Minerva, the Exalted Lightsworn doesn't need to hit the graveyard to activate her trigger. In fact, her Summon doesn't even have to resolve. "If your opponent chooses to activate Bottomless Trap Hole, Horn of Heaven, Grand Horn of Heaven, Black Horn of Heaven, Solemn Warning, Solemn Scolding, or even Solemn Strike, Minerva's second effect will trigger."

But the deck's real edge right now comes from a more familiar place. "Lightsworn… has one of the best floodgate strategies in the game." Lisgathe explained the familiar challenges that keep floodgates balanced: you can wind up drawing too many copies beyond your first, you can fail to draw them at all, or you draw them too late in the game to matter.

"This deck eliminates two of those three problems. Going first, Minerva can thin the deck and [help you] draw a necessary floodgate. Going second, the deck's so aggressive that it can kill your opponent anyways, even with a floodgate in hand, due to the free resources secured from Minerva, Wulf, Felis, and so on." Lisgathe went on to draw a comparison to Burning Abyss at its peak, another deck that had so much raw aggression and such an efficient resource base that it could often cushion the dead draw of an unneeded floodgate.

Breaking Down Match-Ups
With an insider's perspective on the deck's basic functions, I wanted to know how it worked across a breadth of common match-ups. First up, Pendulum variants.

Lisgathe was quick to note that this sort of Lightsworn deck's actually a lot like current Pendulum builds. "You try to constantly push cards onto the table and overwhelm your opponent. But since the Pendulum mechanic's so much more consistent than milling, the deck still needs an edge. Enter Anti-Spell Fragrance, the Yankee Candle of Yu-Gi-Oh!" Seriously, he said that. And he wasn't finished. "Designed to bless you with the sweet smell of victory and to grant your opponent the disgusting musk of defeat."

Someone remind me why I'm only interviewing Alyxander Lisgathe for the first time now?

Moving on. "[A lot of people think the deck should] play Glow-Up Bulb, since Naturia Beast functions the same way, but reaching Glow-Up Bulb isn't consistent; your mills are generally random. Drawing Anti-Spell Fragrance lets you win the duel instantly versus Pendulum decks, whereas Glow-Up Bulb requires your Normal Summon if you draw it, and you still need access to Performage Hat Tricker."

While Pendulums and Lightsworn achieve their goals in very different fashions, the end result is in many ways the same – big boards that feed Xyz and Synchro Summons. With Anti-Spell Fragrance as the difference maker, the Lightsworn build gets a distinct advantage that compensates for its lower longevity across the long term.

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From there, I wanted to hear about Kozmos.

"Minerva's second effect doesn't target! It's beautiful. Maxing out on Instant Fusion makes Abyss Dweller and Scarlight Red Dragon Archfiend much more accessible as well." The modern Lightsworn strategy has a mix of surprising twists and strong access to a toolbox of limiting effects in the Extra Deck; enough to get you through Game 1. Once Games 2 and 3 roll around, Lisgathe could swap out his Anti-Spell Fragrances for Imperial Iron Walls and leverage the same floodgate routine. "It's the same strategy you use on Pendulum decks. Performage Damage Juggler serves as a powerful anti-aggro card as well, to prevent kill combos from Kozmo Farmgirl."

With strong methods for handling the two top decks, I wanted to know what the new Lightsworn struggled with. And as much as this article's about Lightsworn first and Lisgathe second, that kind of question is often a tell-tale sign that divides the good players from the true greats. Someone who really studies the game and knows where their strategy stands in it will usually have a very realistic view of their unfavorable match-ups, while a less competitive player will make nothing but favorable comments. Lisgathe didn't disappoint.

"Infernoid's a notably weak match-up," he explained first, "as Infernoid Devyaty can negate Minerva and outright banish her. Infernoid Seitsemas can banish Minerva too. The floodgate strategy isn't actually very efficient against Infernoids." Infernoid Decatron and Lyla, Lightsworn Sorceress put a lot of pressure on Imperial Iron Wall in Games 2 and 3, making the match-up difficult. "Really, you just have to pray."

Lisgathe called out Tellarknights as a difficult match-up next, largely on account of Stellarknight Triverr. "It's a natural out to Minerva," since it bounces her back to the Extra Deck and dodges its destruction trigger. But it doesn't stop there: Triverr's hand disruption is a problem as well. Lisgathe remarked that aside from Performage Damage Juggler and Performage Trick Clown, the in-hand cards you lose to Triverr's effect are hard losses of card economy. "Each hit with Triverr is a real card."

He suggested that a heavy Magician build could be difficult as well, for similar reasons. "Pure Magician decks can strong-arm Lightsworns out of the game by using cards like Majespecter Unicorn - Kirin with stuff like Odd-Eyes Absolute Dragon, Odd-Eyes Meteorburst Dragon, and Odd-Eyes Vortex Dragon." Like Triverr, those cards can all stop Minerva from triggering.

"Saving the best for last, the Elemental Hero match-up is unwinnable." Masked HERO Dark Law was a big concern for Lisgathe heading into ARGCS Anaheim and Las Vegas. "I sided Raigeki and two copies of Dark Hole exclusively for that match-up," he explained. "But even then, you can't rely on Minerva to draw you extra cards, so once Dark Law reaches the field, you lose unless you draw one of the three outs."

With those different match-ups all defined, I asked what felt like an obvious question: which cards stood out as MVP's. It gave Lisgathe a chance to add some interesting details about Minerva, which he said was "by far, the win condition and MVP."

He explained that "it's very important to activate Minerva's first effect before using other mill effects like Solar Recharge, Charge of the Light Brigade, and Raiden, Hand of the Lightsworn, if possible. That allows the pilot the best chance to draw into cards and accumulate more resources from Minerva." On a broad level, the more cards you mill the higher your chance of sending key cards to the graveyard. You can't draw into stuff like Instant Fusion or Soul Charge off Minerva if they're already gone. Since Minerva's effect can grant extra draws, you want to take a shot at nabbing those cards before you lose them to the graveyard.

In addition, Charge of the Light Brigade eliminates a potential hit for Minerva's draw ability by searching a Lightsworn to your hand, while some of the plays that lead into Minerva – notably Performage Damage Juggler – can remove "misses" and improve your chance at free draws. That's a much finer point, but sequencing your plays properly will bring small rewards that add up across the long term. If you're going to do something, it's generally smart to do it correctly no matter how small.

Speaking of the correct way to do things, I was curious about Lisgathe's view on the slight differences between his build and Watton's Top 8 entry from Seattle just days later.

Watton played a third Lyla over Lisgathe's third Anti-Spell Fragrance. He also played another Minerva and an Odd-Eyes Meteorburst Dragon over Lisgathe's second Abyss Dweller and Stardust Spark Dragon.

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"At one point, I said a second Minerva isn't actually necessary to play Lightsworns." Lisgathe had originally found that he only ever wanted to play one copy, and that led him to run just one in Las Vegas. "However, I was wrong. A second Minerva's very important because if anything ever happens to the first one, you don't want to waste an Xyz Summon on the worst card in your Extra Deck – Daigusto Emeral. [It's best to just] make a second Minerva immediately." He remarked that he didn't feel Lyla was as important as a third Anti-Spell Fragrance either, but recognized that it might have just been the right decision for Watton's particular Regional. "Maybe it was the correct call for Seattle. Congratulations again to him!"

Lisgathe continued, describing that you can make Odd-Eyes Meteorburst Dragon pretty easily with Lumina, Lightsworn Summoner. "It's a powerful card against both Kozmos and Pendulums, since it shuts off Damage Juggler's ability to prevent kill combos and prevents the usage of the big Kozmo ships." But he said he felt Abyss Dweller could do the same thing, and was easier to make. "Abyss Dweller's also key in other match-ups, like Burning Abyss." He called out its superior performance against Mermails once the deck's revived by Breakers of Shadow, too.

…Which led to the final question: can the strategy survive after BOSH?

"Absolutely not," stated Lisgathe, resolved. "The backrow floodgate strategy's suboptimal due to Twin Twisters." He noted that since the Performage Pendulum deck will finally reach full strength, and since Traptrix Rafflesia will give that deck and others an easy counter to Minerva, the Exalted Lightsworn via Time-Space Trap Hole, Lightsworn would have a tougher time. He commented that the deck could be reworked to focus on Tellarknight Ptolemaeus, playing for Cyber Dragon Infinity… but at that point you'd effectively be playing a less consistent version of Performage Performapals anyways.

The short reign of Performage Lightsworns may be over next weekend when Breakers of Shadow debuts, but it was cool while it lasted. Not only will the strategy stand as a fascinating footnote in the history of the game, it marks a turning point for Lightsworn, and it's a great example of a certain kind of rogue philosophy; the strategy's not diametrically opposed to the big deck it tries to beat, but it hugs close to that deck's philosophies instead, and then ekes out wins with a tech-driven advantage. That's a technique that remains valuable moving forward.

Big congrats to Chris Watton and Alyxander Lisgathe for their achievements, and a special thank you to Lisgathe for all his time explaining the strategy! While Lisgathe's a big name in competitive circles, he's only been playing Yu-Gi-Oh! since 2013 – I'd taken it for granted that he'd been around longer. Despite his successes I can't shake the feeling that he's only getting started, and I think 2016 could wind up being a huge year for him.

-Jason Grabher-Meyer