Have you ever felt a disconnect between the way you like to play Yu-Gi-Oh! and the way you're told to play? Have you ever received non-constructive criticism from other players based on your deck or card choices? Do you struggle to reconcile your personal life – whether that's time or money – with the competitive scene?
I'm sure I'm not alone in answering "yes" to all three of those questions. We've all had bad interactions with other duelists – some might have even been our fault. I'd guess that at some point, a majority of players have found themselves disconnected with the way Yu-Gi-Oh's played today, and the kind of game we wish it was. Everyone who's ever criticized an F&L List, thought up a new rule to curb Special Summons, suggested that a card effect should have been worded a different way, or skipped a product release is articulating some sort of disagreement with the state of the game.
And of course, we've all had to seriously consider our budgets: facing the prospect of spending hundreds of dollars to stay competitive while asking "Can I get away with not playing this? Will I be at a disadvantage? Do my opponents have the same budget constraints?"
Yu-Gi-Oh! isn't the same game I picked up in 2003. It's not the same game I got back into in 2008 either. The transformation of Yu-Gi-Oh! into its current iteration has brought more players into the game and radically transformed the way it's played. It's changed in good ways: new, interesting Summoning mechanics have made duels more dynamic. Each year we receive lots of new themes with unique gimmicks, like Plunder Patroll and Megalith. Yu-Gi-Oh! has also become more complicated as a result of these new mechanics, and the capacity of decks to take well over five minutes to play out their first turn is a serious problem in tournament settings.
Last year I found myself struggling to understand why I still played Yu-Gi-Oh. My personal life made attending local events impossible, and I couldn't justify dedicating an entire weekend to a Regional or YCS. That didn't mean I wasn't having fun playing when I got the chance, and it certainly didn't change my desire to engage with and understand the competitive side of the game. That said, it felt bad; like I was doing something wrong or letting my friends down by distancing myself from the game. For a while I thought I was on my way out completely, and I even told a few friends that I was seriously considering quitting in 2020.
Things haven't changed much for me in terms of my personal disconnect between the game we have and the game I wish I could play. I'm still struggling to get out to events, but I'm working on reducing the guilt I feel by effectively resigning myself to casual play. I've made a point this year to not let certain comments get to me, and to embrace the reasons why I love the game regardless of whether that makes me a 'bad' player or not. I went on a personal journey last year to determine if I'd continue playing and writing about Yu-Gi-Oh, and I realized some important things in the process that I'd like to share with you.
Accept What's Fun & Don't Let Others Dictate Your Enjoyment
Everyone has their reasons for choosing Yu-Gi-Oh! as a hobby. There's no right or wrong way to play the game as long as you're respecting your fellow duelists, and there are plenty of ways to engage with the game beyond tournament play.
Content creators like myself often have a disproportionate emphasis on competitive play, and that's largely because it's so visible. There are plenty of alternative formats – official or not – including Speed Duels, Traditional Format, sealed play, and the fan-favorite Goat Format. Some players are attached to specific strategies whether they're competitive or not, and will play them regardless of what's "competitive" at any given time. Finally there are collectors, traders, and investors in the Yu-Gi-Oh! market who are in constant contact with the game… often without ever playing a single duel!
Even within those spheres of play there are any number of playstyles that duelists adopt. Tournament play isn't just a matter of finding the absolute best deck: sometimes it's about proving yourself as the best Salamangreat player in town and owning the mirror match, or flexing your deck building skills by piloting a rogue strategy to a Top 8 finish at a Regional.Whether you think winning is everything, or you put even more value in how you win, you can still find enjoyment in a competitive tournament setting. You can find similar playstyles in the casual realm too, where players are more likely to pick up themes and strategies based on gimmicks, nostalgia, or card art.
Unfortunately there's a sense of division between casual and competitive play that can be a source of pain for some players. The game simply doesn't play the same way at these levels: the best competitive decks will absolutely steamroll even the newest casual strategies. Yes, you can take a rogue deck to a Regional that's packed with expensive tech picks like Pot of Extravagance and do well in some cases, but it's an uphill battle with a number of downsides. Popular strategies aren't just better supported, they're also better built and better tested because so many players are experimenting with them. There are builds of Dragon Link that are incredibly competitive this format, but until recently the deck simply wasn't popular enough to garner enough crowdsourced testing.
The result of the stratification between different kinds of play is that duelists who want to play casually can find themselves excluded from certain tournament spaces, and players who want the true competitive experience find themselves targeted by players with less time, money, or just the desire to play a different kind of game. Last year I was somewhere in the middle of the road: I wasn't attending tournaments regularly, but I was largely discussing competitive play. I faced real questions about the number of Regionals I'd topped, how many YCS events I was going to and performing well in, and my track record at locals.
Here's my great secret: my local card shop hasn't been an OTS in the last twelve years I've attended, and I actually like the more casual setting over the official tournaments that take place about an hour away.
No matter which way you like to play the game, the number of events you attend, or how well you do, you should always focus on the kind of play that's enjoyable for you. There's plenty of negativity to go around, but not everyone needs to be scoring Top 8s to be having fun. Not everyone is hooked on the idea of diversity, and there are plenty of players who would prefer a format with a tiny list of actually viable decks or cards.
The challenge is finding an opportunity to play the game in a way that's most fun for you personally. There are plenty of competitive offerings at Regionals and YCS events, but FTKs, single-deck formats, and budget and time constraints can shut out fans of competitive play. F&L List updates might break strategies that never scored a Top 32 finish at a YCS, and they might not reign in dominant strategies enough to make space for new decks. With millions of players worldwide there are plenty of competing needs going around, and Konami can only do so much in their attempt to please all of their players at the same time.
I found myself enjoying the game so much more when I embraced the fact that winning isn't everything, but getting there wasn't a simple process. So much of my own writing, and much of what I discuss with my friends ultimately comes down to what's successful, what's winning, and where the competitive world is going. It's hard to not have a bank of personal competitive success to fall back on to explain my personal investment in the game. But that doesn't change the fact that when I play the game, even with bad decks, I can still have just as much fun experimenting with Plunder Patrolls or Dragunity as I do with Orcusts.
Find Players That Share Your Idea Of Fun
The real secret to beating that casual/competitive divide and embracing the kind of playstyles you enjoy is to simply go beyond your typical tournament space. Finding groups to play Speed Duels, custom formats, sealed, or draft is a little more challenging to set up, but it's not hard to find players at local tournaments.
At my local store we've created a custom ruleset to give casual players a real chance to compete. Our rules reign in the power of the Advanced Format's best strategies much more severely than the F&L List, and it prevents any one player from going overboard on price investment. Nearly all of the decks we're playing are cheap, affordable, and don't require hours of practice to play effectively. It's a great way to 'pick up and play' while simultaneously giving low-investment players at our locals a fair shot.
Speed Duels are a fantastic alternative if turn-by-turn tactical gameplay is your favorite aspect of Yu-Gi-Oh! There's less build variety in Speed Duels, but the card pool's also not eroded by two decades of power creep. The Duel Links' audience probably has similar reservations about the extreme Summoning power of the Advanced format, but the digital version of Yu-Gi-Oh! is a very different experience from the physical game, especially from a social perspective. For players who love owning physical cards, like myself, Duel Links isn't a substitute for the physical game.
Yu-Gi-Oh! doesn't have to be a game of continual investment unless you're specifically trying to remain as competitive as possible. It's a tough balance to strike: nobody likes losing because they had to play an alternative deck or a replacement card due to budget constraints. Alternative forms of play alleviate some of those issues, but there's no circumventing the price points of the most competitive cards if your only goal is scoring a WCQ Invite or making Day 2 at a YCS. To be clear there's nothing wrong with having that perspective, but if you're anything like me you might be putting too much emphasis on winning. There's a certain sense of pride that players have about their dueling skills, and egos can end up on the line.
There's a theory that players avoid popular decks because they don't want to lose in the mirror, or have their tactical skills exposed and proven to be lacking. I thought for a long time about whether that was the case with me, but instead it let me finally pin down what I love most about this game: solving puzzles. Yu-Gi-Oh's about building a deck that achieves certain goals with specific cards and combos, dismantling boards, and using a toolbox of options to defeat your opponent. On a turn-by-turn basis those options exist at any given moment, but at the deck building level the options are nearly limitless. When a strategy I enjoy playing becomes popular I find it significantly less interesting because a major part of the puzzle has already been solved, not because I was afraid of losing the mirror match or being labeled a 'bad player.'
My personal journey last year reminded me of why I started playing Yu-Gi-Oh! in the first place. It's the power fantasy of summoning a huge monster to defeat your opponent, the tactical play of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat with a surprise move, and the deep level of strategic deck building that isn't always strictly competitive. You don't need to win to have fun. You won't always have fun winning. Yu-Gi-Oh's a game that can be enjoyed in dozens of different ways, and if you can break through the paradigm of the competitive and casual divide you can fully embrace your favorite way to play.
Until next time then
Kelly Locke is a West Michigan gamer and writer. You can follow him on Twitter for more updates and check out his Youtube channel. He also studied marketing at Western Michigan University.