As a competitive player, have you ever felt irked by your deck, your results, or even your entire hobby being dismissed as lacking in skillfulness?
If you play Yu-Gi-Oh for a while – competitive or otherwise – you inevitably hear the phrase "children's card game" used at some point to describe it in a derogatory way. Those who've put the effort into improving at this game may already appreciate its depth. Those who haven't may be in doubt. In this article, I'll address those doubts and analyze the evidence for whether or not Yu-Gi-Oh is skillful. Send this article to the naysayers in your life!
What Is Skill?
We must first agree on a definition of skill. There are so many valid ways to think about it. Deckbuilding (the strategy you choose) and technical play (how well you execute the strategy) are the two most prominent skills in TCGs. However, some players are better at one than another. How can we unify skill into one singular concept when it shows up in more than one metric? I offer the following resolution.
Skill is the ability to use a conscious decision to change the percentage of victory against some baseline opponent. The more correct decisions a player makes, the greater their win rate – if all other factors are held equal.
In turn, skillfulness is a characteristic of any game or competition, a metric that measures the number of allowable conscious choices that can alter the win rate of players. For the purpose of this discussion, "win rate" can be substituted with any suitable proxy. For instance, in Yu-Gi-Oh we often track the career achievements of a player by the number of tops that they have. Number of tops doesn't equate to win rate, but it strongly correlates and is therefore a valid metric. Whatever you choose won't change the fundamental logic of the arguments I make in this discussion.
I'll now illustrate how this definition works in practice. If you look at a game like tic-tac-toe, you'll never make more than four decisions over the course of a game. If I were to break up players into skill levels for it, I might assign them into one of four groups: players who've mastered the one decision, players who've mastered two, then three, then all four. The player who makes all four decisions perfectly at all times would play at a theoretical maximum skill level. Humans of average intelligence can reach max skill level at tic-tac-toe, so it serves as a great illustration for a relatively unskillful game.
In contrast, chess is a game with over 1,300 tactically legitimate openings in the early game. As a consequence, a player who only learns to make four correct moves won't begin to approach even mediocrity at chess compared to their tic-tac-toe counterpart. While four "units" of knowledge led to mastery in one game, thousands and thousands are needed in another. The more of those units a player acquires, the more their win rate increases against a baseline opponent.
The most unskillful type of game is one in which zero decisions affect win rate. Games of pure chance are thus not skillful. If I toss a fair coin, and my opponent must call heads or tails, their decision would not affect their win rate; it would plateau at 50% over time. Even if I changed the rules of the game to involve 1,000 coin tosses and 1,000 decisions from my opponent to call heads or tails, my opponent can't raise the win rate past 50% by changing any of their decisions. The game isn't skillful.
An increasing number of correct unconscious decisions should increase win rate. The greater the number of these types of decisions a game makes available to a player, then the more skillful that game is.
The Top-Down Argument
My previous article taught four perspectives to analyzing a problem. Let's put that tool to use as we kick off our analysis, starting with top-down.
If a game were skillful, then we should expect to see disproportionate outcomes in the performance of players. If a game weren't skillful, then we should see the opposite. For instance, if you put 1,024 people in a room and had all of them play the coin toss game I described above for 5 rounds until 32 players remained, you would expect that a variety of people would appear in the top 32 if we ran the tournament multiple times. That's because the coin toss game is completely chance.
What if instead, we gave half the players a coin rigged 60/40 in their favor and had them play? We'd of course find that most of the top 32 in any given tournament would have been one of the players given the advantageous coin. The more iterations of the tournament we run, the clearer a pattern we'll see in the difference in outcomes.
In a skillful game, players give themselves the metaphorical 60/40 coin in their favor through the development of skill. We can therefore estimate how skillful a game is by reverse engineering the long-term results of players and seeing how disproportionate the win rates are for its top performers. The closer the win rates resemble the results from the fair coin toss, the less skillful the game and vice versa.
As it turns out, we see a tremendous performance disparity in Yu-Gi-Oh. The same players continually top events at both the premier and Regional levels. If Yu-Gi-Oh were very close to a coin toss, then we should expect to see mostly unfamiliar names in the top cut of any tournament. In practice that doesn't happen. The same strong players do well on a fairly consistent basis, and the very best players have career records that could never possibly be explained by chance.
I was really into tennis in high school, and I remember having an "Aha!" moment that helped me to appreciate just how deep the game was. In tennis, winning a set 6 games to 0 is quite the feat; it implies that you're a significant cut above your opponent. As I got to meet more talented players who were nationally ranked (and at one point, even Pete Sampras himself), I learned that there were players who 6-0 the players who 6-0 the players who 6-0 the players who 6-0 the players who 6-0 the players who 6-0 me (there are probably more 6-0s needed in that chain). This is another top-down indicator of skillful games, and one that I've observed in popular e-sports like Smash and Yu-Gi-Oh.
Johnny and Pete in 2006
The Bottom-Up Argument
We can invert the analysis and examine the game's skillfulness in bottom-up fashion by looking purely at its mechanics.
While defining skill, I illustrated how a great number of conscious decisions should affect the win rates of players by comparing tic-tac-toe to chess. We can ask ourselves, then, where along that spectrum Yu-Gi-Oh might fit: closer to tic-tac-toe, or closer to chess?
Consider the sheer number of openings possible. As I've previously shared, it's normal for a deck in a trading card game to present a number of openings in the double-digit million order of magnitude. As a game unfolds, there are so many unique outcomes that most games that take place in competitive Yu-Gi-Oh are one-of-a-kind.
The sheer knowledge required to even play Yu-Gi-Oh without breaking the rules is yet another facet of the game's overwhelming volume of information. Whereas a chess player must memorize the actions and regulations that pertain to six pieces, a Yu-Gi-Oh player must memorize the equivalent to hundreds of pieces (cards) in order to be competitive: around 30% of which are their own pieces, and the rest, the opposing pieces used in a given metagame.
To further complicate things, the average card in competitive Yu-Gi-Oh has more lines of text than the actions of the average chess piece, and even more rulings in both quantity and complexity. To make it more complicated still, Yu-Gi-Oh has rotational metagames, which means that players must learn new pieces on a regular basis, typically monthly. Imagine playing a version of chess where your pieces move in new patterns and start in different places on the board every month!
More experienced players may further appreciate that Yu-Gi-Oh's psychological components add even more decisions to the tree. In a game as objective as tic-tac-toe or chess, it may not say much whether you place a piece quickly or after deep contemplation (other than telegraph a level of confidence). In card games, the manner in which you make your plays itself constitute strategy. The difference between playing a card quickly as opposed to after a pause can mean the difference between revealing to your opponent the exact contents of your hand.
The Back-Front/Front-Back Argument
The skillfulness of a game correlates with its exposure. For instance, we've never seen a prestigious Mighty Morphin Power Rangers tournament, yet even two decades after the fact, there are tournaments for Street Fighter games from the same era as SNES Power Rangers. This is in large part because Street Fighter is a complex and technical game.
Difficult games attract larger crowds. Checkers will never overtake chess in popularity. Meanwhile, while they may exist in niche communities, tic-tac-toe and rock-paper-scissors tournaments will never evolve beyond a gimmick. While marketing and other factors unrelated to skillfulness can help to boost a game's popularity, in the long run, games don't tend to have lasting competitive followings unless they are sufficiently deep in skill.
If we examine the trajectory of Yu-Gi-Oh, its competitive presence has only grown since its inception. In 2012, a Yu-Gi-Oh tournament shattered the world record for trading card game tournament attendance, eclipsing the previous record held by Magic: The Gathering by nearly twice the attendees. In the years that have followed, the game has continued to grow its organized play program at the local, Regional, and premier levels to meet an ever-increasing demand from the player base.
A more pressing matter for organized play in recent years has been lack of venue space sufficient to accommodate all the people who want to play Yu-Gi-Oh. Last year, at YCS Dusseldorf 2019, we saw a premier event tournament have to divide its competition into two separate tournaments for the first time in history because a substantially large number of entrants exceeded the roughly 2400 player cap placed on the event.
The sustained growth in Yu-Gi-Oh's competitive playerbase is a pattern that closely resembles what we observe with the most skill demanding games and e-sports.
If you've played competitively for a while, you may have repeatedly heard some common objections raised for why Yu-Gi-Oh isn't skillful. In this section, I'll address some of them.
1. Yu-Gi-Oh is a "children's card game."
In 2006, YouTube content creator Martin Billany, widely known as LittleKuriboh, began releasing a parody of Yu-Gi-Oh in which he dubbed over the original dialogue of the show with entertaining scripts of his own. This led to a number of widely popular catchphrases that circulate among casual and competitive Yu-Gi-Oh fans to this day, the most popular of which is to describe Yu-Gi-Oh as a children's card game in a derogatory way.
While the original spirit of Billany's joke was comedic, many often rely on the phrase when denigrating the validity of Yu-Gi-Oh as a serious pursuit. But that argument crumbles against the reality that the vast majority of competitive art forms were not originally created for the audience that they're popular among today. James Naismith invented basketball because his boss at the YMCA needed an activity to keep people in shape during the cold months; his original intent wasn't to design a game for a professional sports league. And yet, we revere the NBA.
There's also the glaring fact that almost no competitive Yu-Gi-Oh players are children. The average tournament player is in their 20s, and the vast majority of the top 100 players of all time are closer to 30 than to 20.
2. Yu-Gi-Oh is too fast/full of auto-wins and OTKs.
Fast-paced wins that meet little to no resistance have been a feature of Yu-Gi-Oh since the early 2000s. A German YouTube channel has made a humorous video poking fun at this pattern. If you look at any one game that was decided by an auto-win hand, it can put Yu-Gi-Oh in a bad light and make the game seem as if it doesn't require much skill. However, there are flagrant flaws in that reasoning.
First, that type of reasoning zooms into an extremely narrow scope to make its point. It fails to consider the broader context of Yu-Gi-Oh: that individual duels themselves aren't entire rounds, that rounds aren't entire tournaments, and that tournaments aren't entire careers. Yu-Gi-Oh has plenty of moments where tossing a proverbial coin and calling it right results in victory, but we've never seen a player coin toss their way into becoming one of the most highly ranked of all time. Local maxima and minima are just that: localized data points that don't speak to the nature of the game across time.
Second, that reasoning is the product of survivorship bias. We remember the duels that came down to degenerate chance because they're inherently memorable. Feeling like you couldn't do anything because your opponent opened the nuts is an emotional memory, and that memory is therefore more likely to survive and stand out in your head than more typical duels. I've personally conducted my own little experiment where I record data to assess whether I lose more than one match per tournament at the premier level to bad luck. To date, I think I've had only one or two tournaments out of dozens where I lost more than one round to luck. The vast majority of matches are in your control, whether that means the decisions you make about your deck before you register, or the decisions you make during the match itself.
Lastly, that sentiment is often the product of Dunning-Kruger bias, which I'll write on in a future article. Not only are the luck-based games narrow in scope and less frequent than our unreliable memories realize, but they are often not even luck-based at all. Lower level players believe that a larger percentage of games are unwinnable because they don't yet understand how they could win them. Just because you can't see the misplay doesn't mean it isn't there.
3. The same strategies win all the time in Yu-Gi-Oh.
This sentiment has two major flaws, the first of which is also borne from the aforementioned Dunning-Kruger bias. People who aren't experts on a subject matter generally have a hard time discerning between minute differences within that subject matter. For instance, players who are less competitive often complain that one-deck formats offer little room for creativity. While I can certainly appreciate why someone might think that – those players often have a favorite deck that isn't viable during such formats, and feel paralyzed from being unable to improve that deck – during those one-deck formats, tech tends to evolve at a rapid rate. Builds are dramatically different from one week to the next, because of an ever-evolving arms race to win the mirror.
However, those differences are difficult to appreciate outside of the highest level of play, making it seem as if Yu-Gi-Oh never changes. To use an analogy, that line of reasoning is flawed in the same way as saying, "Basketball has no skill because everyone always does the same thing: dribble, pass, and shoot."
The second major flaw in that argument is that it holds Yu-Gi-Oh to an unfair standard of diversity. What does it mean to say that the "same" strategies win "all the time?" There are several valid metrics to use to measure that. You could look at what percentage of top decks win tournaments. You could look at how evenly distributed those percentages are. You could look at the quantity of top decks in tournaments. You could look at the ratio of top decks to uncompetitive decks. You could look at how frequently the top strategy rotates out. You could look at how differently players use the same core strategies.
Across virtually any valid diversity metric, you'll find that there are one or more highly revered competitive games that don't match up to Yu-Gi-Oh's diversity. After all, chess players have been using the same pieces for a century without complaint!
When evaluating the skillfulness of any game, it's important to consider patterns in tournament results, the objective and quantifiable complexity of the game, plus the size of its community and its rate of growth. Before dismissing a game as unskillful, you should consider whether other games that are regarded as skillful fall under the same reasoning, and also take into account your possible beginner's bias.
Practice empathy by reversing your perspective: do you ever feel frustrated that a subject you're an expert in is underappreciated because its critics are too uninformed to see its depth?