Like most competitive trading card games, winning a game of Yu-Gi-Oh! involves a lot of moving parts. Deck building, metagame analysis, fatigue, technical play ability, lucky draws, and lucky matchups are just some of the many factors that go into winning a single duel, but many players simplify these factors into two categories: luck and skill.
A game like Candyland requires no skill to play; it's a great choice for children and parents to play together because it gives all players an equal chance to win. Chess, on the other hand, is almost entirely skill-based. The pieces are always the same, there's no random die rolls or deck shuffling, and the available options for each player is always public knowledge. It's almost impossible for a new player to beat an experienced player because the mechanics of the game don't leave much room for luck. Fatigue is an outside factor that could influence the outcome of an uneven chess matchup, but in most cases the weakest player will lose.
There's nothing inherently wrong with purely skill-based games, but it can be difficult to entice newbies to keep playing if all they're doing is losing. That setup might encourage some players to try to get better at the game, but a casual audience will just move on to something else. Candyland's the opposite: it's casual fun for the whole family, but obviously has no challenge for players looking for more depth.
This concept is relevant a game like Yu-Gi-Oh! because it needs to be accessible enough to let new players pick it up and have fun, yet challenging enough for competitive types to feel like they can boost their odds of winning in a meaningful way. Where Yu-Gi-Oh strikes a balance between Candyland and Chess, though, is that inexperienced players always have a chance to beat even the most experienced opponents, even if that chance is extremely slim.
The better player doesn't always win, and that's okay!
On average, a more experienced player will perform better than an inexperienced player over the course of several tournaments. But on a game to game, match to match, or even tournament to tournament basis that won't always be the case. The most competitive players try to increase their odds of tournament success, but it's not a perfect science. Beyond the fact that the top players often come to different conclusions about the best decks in a format (or how to play those decks), one of the biggest factors contributing to inexperienced players winning is that the experienced players can't possibly prepare for every situation.
It's worth mentioning that there's nothing wrong with being inexperienced, in Yu-Gi-Oh or any game. Everyone starts somewhere, and all the best players used to be new players at some point. The key is recognizing your own abilities and using that knowledge to shape how you approach tournaments.
One way to explain why experienced players don't win every match is through a very simple example: what if an inexperienced player ran all five pieces of Exodia the Forbidden One into their deck? Statistically that's a bad idea because in most cases, the Exodia pieces will be dead draws that don't do anything.
But technically they give an inexperienced player a chance to beat any player in the game if they're lucky enough to draw all five. That's not a realistic example, but it does lay the groundwork for more believable situations.
For example, while there is more of a strategy to them, Barrier Statue of the Stormwinds decks try to do something similar. Those decks are often easy to pilot, and they can catch even the best players off-guard. Most experienced Top Cut players will avoid playing Barrier Statue decks because a lot needs to go right for them to work.
The deck needs to go first pretty much every Game 1 to be effective, your hands need to be balanced between stun cards and protective backrow, your opponent needs to be playing a strategy heavy with Special Summons, and you need your opponent to not have outs to your Barrier Statues. That's not to say Barrier Statues can't win games (or even matches), but they've never been consistently successful.
Floodgates work the same way but have the advantage of not needing to be your deck's entire goal. Cards like Summon Limit, Mystic Mine, There Can Be Only One, Skill Drain and plenty of other cards have all been used in both established decks and rogue decks to much success.
The key is that you don't have to build your whole deck around those cards, but rather they can go into a variety of themes whenever your metagame calls for them. It's a more consistent way to get wins than playing Exodia pieces or Barrier Statue decks, because if you don't draw the floodgate, or if your opponent outs it. you'll still have other cards you can use to win the game.
The final stage of this type of example would be playing a rogue deck that isn't well-known in your metagame. That works for two reasons: first, it means your opponent's decks won't be prepared for your strategy, which can lead to specific advantages; and second, it means your opponents themselves won't be ready for what your deck can do.
A less experienced rogue pilot can often catch even veteran players off-guard, a strategy we've seen used to win entire championships. In this way the less experienced player is able to use their strengths to their advantage, offsetting the imbalance of experience when playing against more accomplished players at bigger tournaments.
A few months ago when I wrote about post-match analysis I discussed some of the many ways that outside influences can affect the outcomes of your duels. I'll try not to retread that information here, but I think that two of the biggest influences on games where there's a skill disparity are bricking and misplaying.
Bricking – winding up with a hand of too many dead cards you can't use – happens to everyone, sometimes multiple times in a tournament. The most competitive players tend to minimize their chances of that through smart deck-building, but sometimes they still won't draw a playable hand. This is especially true right now when so many powerful engines require Gem-Knight Garnet to work. Is it really the fault of a champion if they lose a game after drawing Red-Eyes Black Dragon, Dark Magician, PSY-Frame Driver and two Infinite Impermanence?
That's obviously a very specific example, but every deck in the game's history has always had a chance of bricking. Even if the hand isn't totally unplayable, sometimes you'll draw hands where you lose to one interruption and your opponent has that card to stop your combo.
It's possible to move away from these Garnets entirely, but a lot of the time Konami designs powerful cards that require you to play engine requirements you don't want to draw. You can easily make Predaplant Verte Anaconda in almost any deck, but if you want to summon Red-Eyes Dark Dragoon you'll have to play at least one copy of Red-Eyes Black Dragon, Dark Magician and Red-Eyes Fusion. By cutting that combo you'll increase consistency but lower the overall power of your deck, which makes for an interesting balancing act.
Misplays are inevitable, maybe even more than bricking. Nobody plays perfectly all the time in any game, but especially in one as complicated as Yu-Gi-Oh. Sometimes these misplays won't affect the outcome of the duel because your opponent can't capitalize on the opportunity. Other times it'll cost you the game, and hopefully not the match.
Regardless, if you're a less experienced player then it's important to look for openings where you see a chance to win against an opponent that misplayed or bricked. Misplays are usually more obvious than bricking so pay close attention to your opponent's combos when they look a little strange. Do they look off because of a misplay, or did your opponent draw a bunch of Gem-Knight Garnet? It's a small difference but one that can have huge implications in certain scenarios.
As always, these articles aren't meant to be a step-by-step instruction manual on how to instantly beat all of your opponents, but rather a tool for increasing your knowledge of competitive events. I know there aren't a lot of in-person events right now, but you can use many of these same ideologies when playing online, or when tournaments open up again!