Greetings, duelists! Since events of all sizes are still on hold, now's the perfect time to review some core principles in the game we all know and love. Today, let's dive into a core concept a lot of players take for granted, or try and disregard altogether: volatility. This is going to be a breakdown on the basic concept of volatility, and how you can apply it to your game to boost your odds of tournament success.
In the field of TCGs, "volatility" refers to a short term change in statistical data, as opposed to a wider change experienced in the long term. At their core, card games are all about statistics and probability. That's why cards like Upstart Goblin have been so historically powerful; Upstart helps to minimize the luck-driven nature of the game, which we call "variance," at the most basic level by drawing you one card deeper into your deck.
When you're playing Upstart Goblin and can resolve it without interruption, you effectively reduce the number of cards in your deck by one, giving you a slightly higher chance to see those more important cards that tie your strategy together. The difference is small, but the impact adds up over dozens and hundreds of matches, creating a slightly higher consistency that makes a difference over the long term.
That's widely understood by most competitive players. But it gets more interesting when you add volatility into the mix, taking the concept of the expected spread of data in the long term – the cards in your deck and all the combinations they can produce – and throwing it out the window in a short term context.
We've all heard horror stories of people drawing Gem-Knight Garnet every round of a YCS and then eating pizza by Round 4. Heck, you've probably been there yourself once or twice. Conversely, you've probably experienced the tournaments where it just feels like you can do no wrong; you always draw that Brilliant Fusion plus your combo extenders, your opponents just can't seem to put together their key plays, and you go home with a swanky new YCS Top Cut mat to show for it. That's a very simple example of the power of volatility: in the short term, variance matters.
Many players throughout the competitive history of the game have tried to minimize volatility in a variety of ways. Patrick Hoban famously played Upstart Goblin in pretty much anything and everything, because it gave him that small, but important consistency boost over his opponents. Many successful players such as Joe Bogli have been outspoken about side decking nothing but full sets of cards in threes; players who adhere to that only have five different cards in their Side Deck, but they see them much more frequently than if they sided one or two copies of those cards. Those are two extremely well documented examples of attempts to minimize the impact that volatility can have on the results of tournament games.
So What About The Flip Side?
Are there opportunities where the opposite is true, and players can exploit volatility for gains?
Yes! In fact there are MANY examples, some of which are still fresh in our collective minds from recent formats. Remember Sky Striker Mobilize - Engage drawing you an additional card? That unknown card was an example of abusing potential volatility. Drawing Engage off of Engage isn't TOO common on a statistical basis, but sometimes it would happen like it was on a loop. That's a perfect illustration of the impact volatility can have on the short term. If you played, say, an infinite set of games, you wouldn't see Engage drawing Engage nearly as often as you might expect based on seeing a few games in an actual tournament.
Decks like Lightsworn took the concept of abusing volatility to another level; the success of the pilot was very much out of their control compared to other decks, because so much of the Lightsworn deck's potential power was determined by the cards you randomly sent off the top of your deck to your graveyard. You could get super lucky and hit Wulf, Lightsworn Beast and Felis, Lightsworn Archer off of Minerva, the Exalted Lightsworn; or you could send Raiden, Hand of the Lightsworn and Lumina, Lightsworn Summoner for no benefit and end up drawing Wulf and Felis with instead. It's that point where you'd usually begin questioning why you opened a new pack of sleeves for this hot mess of a deck in the first place.
Those are some extreme examples, and I'm talking about them just to clarify some of the impact that volatility can have on your tournament, but how do you actually use it to your advantage? On the surface, it may seem best to try and reduce the impact volatility can have on your game, your tournament or your deck as a whole, by building your deck purely for consistency.
But I'd argue that this approach is incorrect. Looking back, my favorite decks that showcase the diminishing return of pure consistency are the "Plus 1" Fire Fist deck of old and Satellarknights. Both of those decks fall into a sort of similar category, in that they were incredibly consistent for their time but were lacking the powerful, more volatile cards and plays that would make other decks more successful – think of strategies like Mermails during the Fire Fist era, and Burning Abyss.
Both of those strategies were excellent examples of decks that abused volatility while still having the sort of core consistency that, as a player, you should strive for. Mermails were all about stringing together slightly less consistent but far more powerful plays to create massive pushes, while Burning Abyss would leverage utterly unreal consistency – remember, any two monsters were Dante – and combining that with the high impact effect to mill three cards to potentiall extend your combos.
Now, I'm not saying to go out and buy all the copies of Dante, Traveler of the Burning Abyss you can find. You shouldn't rush to slap a deck together full of crazy graveyard effects, hoping that Dante will get you there. That's just silly. But look at what your deck does consistently, and see if there are ways to eek out a bit more from that.
The Lunalight deck of last format's a great example. Lunalight went from a supporting engine for Orcusts, to being recognized as the game's premiere Rank 4 toolbox deck. While it wasn't as consistent as other builds, I personally tried to make a Lunalight variant with a Number 93: Utopia Kaiser lock featuring D/D/D Dawn King Kali Yuga and The Phantom Knights' Rank-Up-Magic Launch, since the deck had so much access to Rank 4's. If it went off you'd just win the game outright since your opponent never got an opportunity to play. If it didn't work, you were still playing an incredibly consistent deck overall, with a small trade off of consistency in return for a much higher reward.
Thanks to Simorgh, Bird of Sovereignty, Lunalight was also set to run ANOTHER highly volatile combo in their arsenal, summoning Barrier Statue of the Stormwinds and locking the game into Wind Special Summons only. Heck, even with Lunalight Tiger gone the deck may still get there. Go ahead and look at how many wind monsters your deck can Special Summon.
It's cool. I'll wait.
Pot of Desires is actually a hugely under-valued card that fits the mold of high-volatility high-reward. Banishing 10 cards is a hefty cost, especially since you can't really control what's being banished, but the trade-off is a guaranteed +1 in card economy, which can potentially just win you the game. I feel that Pot of Desires is underplayed these days, because so many players have a zero-risk bias; they'd rather take the smaller reward, as opposed to a larger potential reward that comes with a higher risk. But many of the greatest players in Yu-Gi-Oh! have had to take huge risks in tournament play and deck building, because that higher power level can give you that one-in-a-hundred win that could clinch you that Top Cut spot!
Finally there's the volatility of engines. Cards like Magicians Souls', Scrap Recycler into Scrap Wyvern, Speedroid Terrortop and the infamous Brilliant Fusion all come loaded with extremely powerful effects, at the cost of running an "engine requirement" - a card you don't want to draw, but that allows for resolution of the powerful effects. Those are highly volatile engines, which offer high returns in return for the use of the cards they demand. If you never draw the subpar card in that type of arrangement, but instead draw the powerful card you're looking to resolve like Magicians' Souls, your lines of play are much more powerful.
Anytime engines like that pop up, they're instantly recognizable by how easily they can fit into other decks with minimal investment and maximum reward. The core downside is that drawing the engine requirement will happen around 13% of the time, so you'll have to see that card in roughly one in every ten games and know that you have multiple dead draws coming. But that one in ten games is a small sacrifice for the sheer power those engines provide. It's a perfect illustration of volatility in deck making, a concept I'll continually come back to in future articles, when we break down more core concepts of Yu-Gi-Oh.
That's it for me today, folks! I hope you're all staying safe and healthy, thanks for reading and have a fantastic week.