After being away from article writing for a few years, I'm excited to return as a contributor to TCGplayer's newly revamped platform. As always, my goal as a writer is to teach you principles that are more timeless and less format specific, to provide you with resources you can bookmark for value long after this is published. Perhaps years from now, you'll be introducing a friend to competitive Yu-Gi-Oh. Hopefully my writing will be useful to such an audience!
In my first few articles I'd like to talk about how we build decks in modern Yu-Gi-Oh, and how that process has changed over time. In the past couple of years, we've witnessed a few new deckbuilding terms enter the duelist lexicon. The most everyday ones you've likely heard are "starter" and "extender." Do you feel that those words are confusing? Are they perhaps overused at times because the community doesn't seem to agree on their meaning?
Today, I'll start you off with a primer on contemporary deckbuilding terminology. I'll share the history of these modern terms we now use and where they came from, and then I'll clarify their definitions.
First, Some History
I believe that it's important to be a student of history if you want to learn any activity on a deeper level, so let's start with a little review. In 2013, Patrick Hoban won the North American World Championship Qualifier in Chicago, a 17-round tournament that hosted 2012 entrants. That weekend, I asked him how long he thought it would take to surpass Adam Corn to become Yu-Gi-Oh's #1 player. He guessed about five years. He did it in two.
Before 2013, Pat had already made a name for himself in both SJC and YCS achievements as well as his online presence as a writer. However, that first Championship would spark a three-year winning streak for Pat that made him a household name in Yu-Gi-Oh. By some metrics, one could consider Pat's dominance the greatest of all time. Under a third party ranking system called ChampRank, he held the position as Yugioh's #1 for some six odd years, and his lead over 2nd place was so large of a gap that it wasn't until last year, two years after Pat's 2017 retirement, that another player overtook him as the clear-cut #1 player in history (Galileo Mauricio De Obaldia Soza).
The quantitative measurements aside, you'll find that many players still feel that Patrick Hoban was Yu-Gi-Oh's greatest of all time, and even the naysayers who disagree still concede that his legacy changed the game forever. So what exactly did Pat do that was responsible for his meteoric rise?
As it turns out, he wrote a book about it! In 2016, Pat published Road of the King through Amazon, a summary of lessons and tactics he learned throughout his journey that teach how to win tournaments. The work, on which I served as chief editor, reached #1 in Amazon's Games category within the first week of publication. Of the many lessons that Pat wrote on in his book, his deckbuilding tactics have been the most central to his success.
The innovative breakthrough that Pat came across boiled down to a new method of categorizing cards. In "old school" Yugioh, it wasn't typically necessary to think of cards in terms of their roles. To use the 2004 chaos format as an example, you didn't need to narrow down which starters, extenders, or so on were the most important for your deck, because there were only about 60 viable cards to choose from anyways. However, as pre-packaged deck themes became a standard part of competition, there grew an increasing need to choose ratios according to functional roles rather than according to the printed categories of monster, spell and trap.
Think about it this way: does it make sense to categorize a card like Maxx "C" as a monster when you almost never summon it? Similarly, is Dust Tornado more like Dimensional Prison because they're both trap cards, or is it more like Mystical Space Typhoon because they share a similar functional role destroying backrow? As you can see, thinking about card categories solely in terms of where you put them on a deck registration sheet is limiting your strategy. In Patrick's journey toward the top, he thought of a new way to identify cards according to functional role. In addition, he found the ideal ratios for those cards to build tournament-winning decks.
Although Pat had devised an ingenious framework for deckbuilding, only a small subset of the community in 2016 was aware he'd published a book, much less that he'd reinvented card roles behind closed doors. Every great message needs a messenger, so in the year that followed I played the role of herald and conducted all my deck profile videos in the format of those redefined card roles rather than in the order of monster, spell and trap.
While Pat played less and less leading up to his retirement in 2017, I did my best to spread the word about his framework. I too left the game shortly after, in 2017 (to join him on a startup venture). When I returned in 2019, I was delighted to find that Pat's card roles had become commonplace terms. The rest was history.
Defining Modern Terminology
Where else to start but with starter cards? Starter cards most often initiate your plays. They require almost no setup or activation requirements to do what they do best. Starter cards may have costs, but they're generally easy costs to pay. Dragon Ravine is a starter in most decks that play it, because you can discard anything for it.
Extender is the next most common term, and one you've probably heard. Extenders work alongside starter cards to complete your strategy or combo. But not all extenders are created equal; something you've probably realized intuitively. Why's Mermail Abyssturge a worse draw than Mermail Abyssgunde? Extenders that are easier to activate are superior extenders, while extenders that require more game development to activate are additional extenders.
There's a third type of extender that's lesser known too, because there aren't many examples in the game's history; reactive extenders, cards that help you access your deck's engine later on. Reactive extenders operate on such a slow timeline that they aren't even played when you draw them, which is why we call them reactive. Often, reactive extenders have a defensive component to their functionality. Examples include Maxx "C", Abyss-sphere and Fantastical Dragon Phantazmay.
Bombs are the next piece of the deckbuilding puzzle. They're cards that require even more setup than additional extenders. They're the epitome of high maintenance, trading any semblance of playability in your opening hand for the potential to absolutely devastate your opponent and turn the game around in the mid or late game. One of the classic bombs in Yu-Gi-Oh! history is the almighty Judgment Dragon, as well as his dark counterpart, Dark-Armed Dragon.
Starters, extenders, and bombs make up the bulk of the engine cards in a deck. "Engine" can be a subjective term at times, but it generally describes cards that are central to creating your combo or strategy. Often, engine cards have the name of the theme in the card name or the card text. Some engine cards are generic, such as Foolish Burial. Generally, engine cards are the monsters in your deck that you summon, as well as the cards that access them.
Non-engine cards are more often the cards that protect your setup. They're often generic cards, but they can be theme-stamped on occasion. For instance, Void Seer and Elemental HERO Honest Neos are included in their respective decks only to protect their engines, yet they're still a part of their respective themes.
Defense is the most common form of non-engine. When a beginner duelist thinks of defensive cards they typically think of traps, but defense can take a host of other forms. Ash Blossom & Joyous Spring has been the most played defensive card of the past few years, yet it's a monster. If the card's chief role is to protect your strategy or keep you in the game, it's probably a defensive card.
Defense can be further divided between responsive defense and chainable defense, both of which are exactly what they sound like. Responsive defense must be used in direct response at the time a threat appears, such as Ash Blossom chaining to a card that summons a monster from the deck. Meanwhile, chainable defense has more flexibility at the cost of lower functional strength, and can still do something when you draw it after the threat's already appeared. For instance, you can draw Compulsory Evacuation Device the turn after your opponent summons a Stardust Dragon and still use it to deal with the monster.
Re-Raise Ceiling is a description for a type of non-engine card that removes some sort of barrier that's keeping you from playing . Most of the time, you can think of this card role as identical to removal. For instance, Cosmic Cyclone on There Can Be Only One or Lightning Storm on Masked Hero Dark Law are both ways to remove an opposing card that's restricting your options. In uncommon instances some cards that re-raise the ceiling are engine cards, like Lyla, Lightsworn Sorceress. In rare instances, cards that re-raise the ceiling aren't removal, such as Forbidden Lance.
Engine Requirements are cards that are horrid to draw because they do almost nothing in most situations, yet you must play them because some powerful piece of your engine exploits the requirement's existence. The most classic example of this is Gem-Knight Garnet. By including a copy of Garnet in your deck, you can play the all-powerful Brilliant Fusion. That example's so common that the term "Garnet" itself is often used interchangeably with "engine requirement."
The last category is one Patrick designated as Placeholder; cards that, in effect, let you break Konami's rules on deckbuilding by effectively shrinking the size of your deck. It's the smallest category yet one of the most important. Of the thousands of cards printed throughout Yu-Gi-Oh's history, only two cards in my view serve the role of placeholder. The first is Pot of Greed, which has been forbidden for some 15 years at the time of this writing. The other is Upstart Goblin, a card so unique that it will get its own article in the near future. Upstart Goblin's so dear to us that it even inspired the name of the company that Patrick and I co-founded!
Hopefully this explanation of card roles and their history gives you a foundation for your own deckbuilding. In my article next week, I'll build upon this foundation and show you how categorizing cards according to these roles leads to tournament-winning decks!