In my previous article, I told you the history of how Patrick Hoban became one of Yu-Gi-Oh's all-time greats by devising a new way to categorize cards. Then I gave you the definitions of those categories. Now that we have that foundational knowledge, we can build strategy on top of that foundation. How do you leverage this new way of thinking to build winning decks?
To answer that question I'll share both quantitative and qualitative guidelines for deckbuilding. The quantitative guidelines will teach you how many cards to play in each role, and the qualitative guidelines will help you with what type of cards to play.
Consistency Through Ratios
No matter what format you're competing in, the fundamental challenge of deckbuilding is the push and pull between consistency and power. Consider this: there are enough 4-star monsters in the game to fill an entire deck with 1900+ ATK beatsticks; enough to ensure that you'd always open with one. But why doesn't anyone ever play this 100% consistent beatdown deck? The answer is of course that the deck wouldn't do enough; it lacks power.
On the other hand, there's no opening in the entire game that can win against a starting hand with the five pieces of Exodia. Why doesn't Exodia win major Yu-Gi-Oh tournaments? The answer's now the reverse; there's infinite power, but insufficient consistency to access it. To maximize your chances of winning, you need to strike the right balance between consistency and power. If you understand contemporary card categories, then the following ratios help to achieve that.
Starter cards are responsible for the consistency of your deck. You should play 11 to 13 of them. If you play 11, you'll see at least one of them in around 82% of your opening hands going first. If you play 13, you'll see one in nearly 86% of those hands. If you care to do the math, you'll find that for every additional starter card you add to your deck, the percentage increase in consistency that card adds is a little smaller than the previous.
The graph plot of consistency (y) vs. number of starters (x) is a curve that flattens out over time. That pattern's called diminishing returns, and it's one of the reasons you'd be silly to run as many starters as possible.
Another reason that it'd be silly is because you need to make room for extenders, which beef up the power of your strategy. It's no good if you make a consistent deck that always opens with the same combo, if that combo isn't strong enough to win. Extenders strengthen the play sequences that starters initiate. You should play 12 to 14 extenders.
Are bombs worth playing? Leading up to his NAWCQ win, Patrick toyed with the idea of playing zero copies of Super Rejuvenation in his Dragon Ruler deck. He disliked that the card required too much setup and took away from the deck's consistency. However, after testing without Super Rejuvenation, he discovered that it was the only way to reliably keep up with opposing Rejuvenations in the mirror match. That lesson taught him the importance of playing bombs.
Pat's decision to name these types of cards "bombs" is rather fitting, because the reason that decks need bombs is to keep up with the nuclear arms race that takes place in Yu-Gi-Oh. If you don't have cards in your deck that can blow out your opponent, then you yourself will get blown out. Bombs help your deck to keep up with the power level of all the other competitive decks and their bombs. They can both counter opposing bombs, or they can outright steal a game that's been developing slowly. Bombs are usually unplayable in your opening hand, so you want to keep their number down to 2 or 3.
You want to use 6 as the baseline for the number of defensive cards to play. Newcomers to competitive Yu-Gi-Oh may feel this number is low, but here's the thing: at lower levels of play, the difference in strength between a monster card and a trap card is small. That's because both weaker decks and weaker technical play can't turn monster cards into growing card advantage. However, at higher levels of play and with stronger decks, monsters can replicate card advantage, whereas traps generally stay at their baseline value of 1 card. The more competitive you get, the bigger the gap becomes between the strength of monsters versus the strength of trap cards.
When you play 6 defensive cards you only have a 58% chance of opening with one or more of them going first. That's ok. The fiercer the level of competition, the less forgiveness you'll receive for opening with a bad hand. You need to keep defense low to keep your hands as consistent as possible and full of engine cards. As Patrick used to say, "You can't use a copy of Mirror Force to attack for game."
Consistency Through Versatility
Now that we've thought about the ratios of cards we should play, let's think about the qualitative factors that shape deckbuilding.
You want to play cards that fulfill multiple roles. A reader made an astute observation critiquing my previous article: I named Dragon Ravine a starter card, while he argued that it was an extender. What caused that discrepancy? As it turns out, I was thinking of Dragon Ravine's role in one deck (Dragunity Ruler), and he was thinking of its role in another (Dragon Link). The versatility of Dragon Ravine is one of the reasons it's been one of the most popular Field Spells throughout the history of Yu-Gi-Oh.
Something that's even better than versatility across different decks is versatility within the same deck. Another reader asked me, "In the Salamangreat deck, is Pot of Desires a starter or an extender?" Without running an experiment*, it's difficult to answer that question. That ambiguity's a good thing! The fact that Pot of Desires can either get an otherwise unplayable hand started, or extend a combo that's already begun makes it an excellent card. Pot of Greed, on which Pot of Desires was based, is the strongest illustration of versatility in Yu-Gi-Oh history. It's a starter, extender, and bomb all in one!
2019 was dominated by the Sky Striker theme. Sky Striker Airpsace - Area Zero was commonly used as an extender to help dig into the deck for spells to generate card advantage. However, Striker players found creative ways to pop their own field spell and summon their starter card, Sky Striker Ace - Raye. The alternate effect of Area Zero served as a great way to find starter cards in a pinch. Can you think of other examples of cards that serve multiple roles?
You want to play cards that work in more situations over cards that only work in niche situations. For example, if a deck's theme allows for the choice, it's better to play more superior extenders than additional extenders as we defined them last week. The former requires less setup. For example, Salamangreat decks favor more copies of Salamangreat Spinny (a superior extender) than Salamangreat Falco (an additional extender). Whereas Spinny's effects only require a Salamangreat on the board, Falco's effects require it to reach the grave plus another condition. For the same reason, you shouldn't play too many reactive extenders - usually 3 or fewer.
It's important to note that what counts as a niche situation depends on two things: both the card's activation cost and the game setup needed for its effect to be useful. It's incomplete to count just one and not the other. For instance, The Beginning of the End draws cards. You pretty much always want to draw cards, so the effect is not niche. However, its high activation cost requiring you to banish approximately six billion dark monsters renders the card's utility niche overall.
Lastly, you want to minimize the number of non-engine cards you play. Earlier, I described why you ought to play as few defensive cards in your decks as possible, using 6 as the baseline count. That same logic is the reason you should avoid playing non-engine cards that re-raise the ceiling unless necessary.
How do you define "necessary" when you're evaluating removal cards? The competitive definition of necessary is often different than what newer players expect. When I teach players new to competitive Yu-Gi-Oh, they tend to reason, "All of my opponents summon monsters, so I should play Raigeki because it destroys monsters and gives me card advantage if I destroy two or more." They're often surprised when I explain to them that removal cards, including the powerful Raigeki, are actually mediocre.
The casual player's idea of necessary removal stems from the idea that if a card can do something useful, it ought to be played. The competitor's idea of necessary removal stems from the idea that your hand becomes unplayable unless it contains a removal card. For instance, El Shaddoll Winda stops a player from Special Summoning a second time while its effect is active. If your 6-card hand contains six ways to Special Summon, you effectively only have one when Winda is present. After you Special Summon once under Winda, the other five cards in your hand become blank. In situations like those, removal becomes valuable, because at the cost of one card you give yourself access to the entire rest of your hand.
Do ALL decks follow the principles I've outlined? If not, what are the exceptions? How do card categories shape your Side Decking decisions? What else do you need to think about when it comes to contemporary card categories? In my next article I'll conclude this series on contemporary card categories with a discussion on advanced deckbuilding considerations.
*The experiment I'm describing is as follows: Place Pot of Desires in your opening hand, and then draw batches of 4 cards to complete those opening hands. Over the course of 30 trials, is Pot of Desires more frequently needed as a starter or an extender? The answer dictates whether the card is predominantly a starter or extender in that deck. My reader ran this test and found that Pot of Desires was a starter in 4 hands and an extender in 26 hands.