I hated the new F&L List the moment I saw it.

Yeah, that's a strong statement. And long-time readers may recognize it as being even stronger than it may read, since I don't normally write on new formats, nor do I tend to make blanket negative comments – not in my work, nor my life elsewhere. But after seeing several "small tweak" F&L Lists over the past year and a half, I really got to like the idea of a game where innovation was driven chiefly by new card releases, and clever ideas from the playerbase.

To me, the last three months of competition was a golden era. Shaddolls, Qliphorts, and Burning Abyss had been winning tournaments for over a year. Nekroz had been the deck-to-beat for roughly half a year. And sure, standard builds had largely been accepted as the norm for these strategies months ago. You generally knew what to expect when you headed to a tournament.

But it was also an amazing time to be an innovator. Infernoids won YCS Dallas. Heroes, Kozmos, Tellarknights, Ritual Beasts, Igknights, Clownblade, and a wealth of other strategies were all topping Championships and Regional Qualifiers on the reg. Even amongst the biggest strategies, tech-driven innovation and interpretation of individual themes was creating lots of variation. Burning Abyss was being played with conventional trap lineups, or with a focus on The Traveler and the Burning Abyss and Fire Lake of the Burning Abyss; some players chose to run Absolute King Back Jack, and built their decks accordingly. Others did not. Shaddolls were played with and without Performages, sometimes featuring Elder Entity Norden and sometimes without. Some played Mathematician. Nekroz saw drastically different Performage variants as well, and could also choose to play Norden.

That's the kind of environment I love. It's fun to play in, fun to write about, and more than anything it feels natural instead of forced. It was an awesome format. Time and time again over the past year, the R&D team at Konami let things take their course despite popular opinion. And things worked out. When players called for Royal Magical Library to be Forbidden, because Chicken Game OTK's were supposedly going to ruin the game, Konami did nothing.

What happened? Chicken Game OTK's never accomplished anything, while the powerful Field Spell now features as an optional tech pick in stuff like Kozmos. The card's singlehandedly made Terraforming more viable by lending it more options. By keeping Royal Magical Library around, Igknights were afforded a powerful variant as well. When Elder Entity Norden debuted and players clamored to see Instant Fusion Forbidden, that didn't happen either, and Norden in turn failed to destroy the game. Policies of non-intervention like that create opportunities and let players take center stage building the game they love.

And that's awesome. The problem?

People Still Hated It
I really liked the widespread player-driven innovation we saw in the last format, so when I saw that the new F&L List was going to make seventeen changes and kill at least four of the top decks I was far from happy. I wasn't just displeased, I was momentarily confused. After establishing a new, dynamic system of dropping F&L Lists only when needed, and gently corralling the direction of the game instead of shoving it around, why shatter everything that had been built so meticulously? Not just the balanced format, either; it was a big risk to take with the trust of the players who were beginning to see their investments in big decks as more secure.

The truth is, despite the incredible level of innovation we saw in high-end competition the past three months, the average player's experience was different. Not everybody's deeply competitive, and not everyone spends hours every week trying to find that one innovative trick to win their next big tournament. Most are casuals on some level: casual players, whether they aspire to win tournaments or not, far outnumber truly rigorous competitives. And those casual players don't just spend the bulk of the money that supports the game, they also make up the majority at almost any local game store; they're the core fundamental audience in any Yu-Gi-Oh! community.

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And those players were tired of playing against what they saw as the same decks over and over. When you're up against Nekroz and Shaddolls again and again, you tend to reach a point where you don't really care if your opponent's running Performages or not. It all starts to feel like one big grind, and the moments of innovation and creativity hardly make up for the slog. One only had to go to the official Yu-Gi-Oh! facebook page and look at the hundreds of people responding to every post with the word "banlist?" to get an impression of the average player's stance.

At the same time, the high-end competitive side of the game was suffering from some inevitable trends as well. With the format's biggest decks having been played hundreds of thousands of times in thousands of tournaments over six to twelve months, all of those strategies had become tremendously sophisticated. It's a phenomenon we've discussed here before on TCGplayer, and we refer to it as "global testing" – when thousands of players are all playtesting one deck, they wind up creating a far better end product than you could ever hope to make yourself with a few friends sitting around your kitchen table, or plunking away on DN. At some point it just becomes a numbers game, and the big decks that got big because they have inherently powerful cards get even better, solely because so many players are working to perfect them.

It's not often we see that allowed to continue for an entire year. But that was the situation we were in. If you wanted to run something that wasn't Nekroz or that didn't debut in Duelist Alliance, you were effectively fighting an uphill battle from the start. I'm actually still shocked and impressed that we saw so much success from rogue decks over the past ten weeks.

Konami's proven this year that they're capable of creating stable play environments and then leaving players to sandbox in them, not forcing new releases too hard on one hand, and not jumping to conclusions that cost us cool opportunities on the other. When it was first announced that KDE would only make changes to the Advanced Format as needed instead of on a scheduled basis, a lot of concerned players took that to mean drastic changes at random and frequent intervals, making it unsafe to invest in the cards they wanted to play. But until this latest list, that just never happened. And it makes sense: everyone at KDE wants players to feel secure when they spend their hard-earned money on Yu-Gi-Oh.

But with a general player base clamoring for change in a play environment that had existed for over a year, and a competitive scene where inevitable growth and concentrated playtesting was creating imbalanced super decks, a shakeup clearly had to occur. And even I can admit that, despite my first reaction to the new format. That said it all begs one question, and the answer is really important to the future of the game.

Is This All Just Block Rotation?
If you're not too familiar with TCG's beyond Yu-Gi-Oh, the term "block rotation" refers to systems used by Magic: The Gathering and several other big collectible games to phase out older cards from primary forms of tournament play. A "block" is a set of expansion sets, usually anchored by a big first release that establishes the tone for design, and two or three more expansions that build off the themes and mechanics in the first, to make competition more sophisticated and interesting.

For a time during the block's lifespan, the block is placed front and center in tournament play. A given format may consist of something like the current block as it's being released, plus the previous block that came before it. Then, when a third block is introduced, the oldest block is rotated out of tournaments and becomes illegal for play. It's a more sophisticated version of simple set rotation, in which players are only allowed to build their tournament decks with [X] number of the most recent sets. Cards from sets older than say, the last five releases, suddenly rotate out of competition and generally lose most of their value.

The benefits there are clear: players get to compete in formats that are never allowed to get stale, while the producers never have to worry about players refusing to buy cards because they're leaving them no choice but to buy the new stuff. The drawback is that players are forced to buy the new stuff whether they want to or not, and the value of their previous investments quickly implode, usually never to return. Beyond the monetary concerns, set rotations means that if you have a favorite card or a favorite deck, you're probably going to have to let go of it when the time comes. This is standard practice for almost every TCG out there that lasts long enough to care. It's standard operating procedure.

Except it's not the standard for Yu-Gi-Oh. One of the reasons Yu-Gi-Oh's so good at retaining players for years and years is that if you quit, you can come back and play with the cards you had before you left. There's no guarantee those cards will be good, but R&D does a pretty great job of keeping old cards relevant with legacy support, new mechanics that make dead cards live again, and managing power creep. We might complain about power creep pretty frequently, but think of it this way: even ancient cards like Mystical Space Typhoon, Raigeki, and Call Of The Haunted have yet to be straight-up outclassed. And even with new entire monster classes like Synchros, Xyz, and Pendulums, boss monsters from over ten years ago are still relevant today.

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So earlier this year, when players started speculating that we might be headed toward something resembling block set rotation, it threw up a lot of red flags for players in the know. The idea of losing all of your cards in one fell swoop – literally all of them – was a nightmarish thing to consider, and as decks like Shaddolls and Burning Abyss were allowed to continue growing and winning tournaments, it certainly looked as if "The Duelist Alliance Block" was going to be allowed to run wild. But if that was the case then a fall had to come at some point, and thus something akin to block rotation was anticipated. The conversation died down long before the latest F&L List debuted, but it sparked back up once the big changes finally arrived.

And boy did they ever arrive. But is killing all the big decks really block set rotation?

If you draw back and look at the big picture, the answer's obviously no. While the biggest decks from the last year have largely been knocked out of competition save Burning Abyss, true block rotation would've swept away everything else from those releases as well. Tellarknights, Yang Zings, newer HERO cards, newer Infernoids, and countless others are still viable, and will no doubt deliver better performances now that the high end of competition has been flattened.

And that's the beauty of it. By not committing to real block set rotation, we still get to keep the majority of our cards, and some of them even wind up rising in value instead of being demolished like they would under a true block system. While anyone who just invested in Nekroz or Shaddolls is probably feeling a mean sting, players who followed those decks from their beginnings got six to twelve months out of them. And players who ran Tellarknights instead? They can keep running Tellarknights, because there's no reason to make them stop.

It's a great system that hybridizes solutions to a lot of the big problems frequently plaguing TCG's. It's not perfect – there is no Nekroz buyback program, and at the end of the day somebody who bought in late is always going to get bushwhacked. But in the grand scheme of things it's a very strong approach, especially if KDE sticks to it and returns to releasing nothing but minor tweak-lists that let players and new releases guide competitive growth instead of format changes.

Personally I think they will. I don't have sales numbers, but the grand experiment that was the past year of Yu-Gi-Oh! really seems to have worked. Despite my first reaction to the F&L List – which I've now come to see from a broader, more positive perspective – most players were quick to praise the new list, casuals and competitives alike. And as long as R&D continues to cultivate an Advanced Format where players feel like their investments can last, those players are going to continue to feel better about the game. Konami's got a winning combination, and all they need to do is stay the course. The next step from there is probably to embrace alternate formats. Right now, there's definitely value in how the ARG Circuit Series' proprietary format generates interest in cards that are no longer trending in the regular Advanced Format.

The next four months will be telling for the future of the game. If we continue to see the Advanced Format run the way it was in 2015, I think it spells huge things for the game and effectively heralds great assurances for players of all interest levels.

Fingers crossed.

-Jason Grabher-Meyer