People tend to go through a honeymoon phase when they take on a new interest. Whether that interest is a new relationship or a new hobby, the initial period feels enjoyable, effortless, and carefree. As time goes on, the honeymoon phase passes, and its memory lingers on in our minds in the form of nostalgia. We have a deep, sentimental longing for the good ol' days.
It's unsurprising that many players believe Yu-Gi-Oh was a better game in its early days than it is in the modern era. People cite different reasons for this that I'll address at the end of the article, but for now, I'll concentrate my discussion on the most quantifiable metric that duelists use when they reminisce about the past: skillfulness.
In defense of old school Yu-Gi-Oh as the more skillful Yu-Gi-Oh, players often liken the game to chess. Indeed, there are strong similarities between old Yu-Gi-Oh and chess: the average game took many turns, and victory was often earned through attrition rather than an instantaneous blowout. However, that comparison conveniently ignores the fact that old Yu-Gi-Oh possesses the limitations of chess as well.
Is old Yu-Gi-Oh a more skill intensive game than modern Yu-Gi-Oh? Let's evaluate.
In my previous article, I defined skill as the ability to make conscious decisions that raise your win rate against a baseline opponent. The more decisions you can make to influence the outcome of games, matches, or tournaments, the greater your skill. Not all decisions are equal; deciding between four options might require twice as much reasoning power as deciding between two. For the purpose of our definition, let's assume that "more" decisions also implies "harder" decisions.
In addition to defining skill, defining what "old" means is another important first step. There are players who identify as old school, who believe that the game was fine until the release of Synchros. There are others who believe that Xyz Monsters "ruined the game." The same in turn applies to Pendulum monsters, and finally to the new Link rules. Just as there's always a bigger fish, there's always a more recent cutoff year that players use to divide the classic and the modern.
For the purpose of this discussion, let's separate the timeline between pre-Synchros and post-Synchros. The same arguments for and against the skillfulness of modern Yu-Gi-Oh are true of the Synchro, Xyz, Pendulum, and Link eras, so while a single division might not capture everyone's viewpoints, moving the dividing line won't change the fundamental issues I'll address. On a personal note, I see the Tele-DAD format that was played at the dawn of the Synchro era as one of the first formats where modern deckbuilding principles became essential, which is why I tend to use 2008 to divide classic from modern Yu-Gi-Oh.
Now that we've defined key terms, let's use the lens of the four perspectives to work through the arguments.
Top-down analysis looks at results. As explained in the thought experiment from my previous article, we should expect that the most skillful iteration of Yu-Gi-Oh is the one in which we see the most lopsided tournament outcomes: the same people should be topping and winning over and over again.
What we see is that this occurs in all ages of Yu-Gi-Oh, both old and new. Every era has its dominant superstars. Holding to the assumption that less variation of player names in Top Cuts correlates with less variance determining the outcome of tournament matches, we could in theory run an analysis to determine which era saw more superstar dominance.
While this may seem like an objective way to reach a conclusion, it would be difficult to account for the context of the difficulty of the opposition. The average player today knows more than the average player yesterday and is therefore more difficult to beat. That's why NBA analysts generally consider Michael Jordan a better player than Bill Russell; even though the latter has more championship wins, he played in an era where winning championships was measurably easier.
Even if we had all the data needed to conduct the aforementioned Top Cut analysis (we don't), it would be inconclusive because we lack an objective way to account for resistance. While I personally believe that the top-down argument favors the modern era as the more skillful iteration of Yu-Gi-Oh, that's only my instinct. Objectively, this angle of analysis is inconclusive.
Bottom-up analysis looks at the fundamental pieces that are ultimately responsible for results. When applying the four perspectives, not all perspectives will hold equal weight nor will each be equally productive, as we're about to find. In the case of the old versus modern debate, bottom-up analysis will prove the most useful.
Bottom-up analysis asks questions such as:
Which era of Yu-Gi-Oh presents a player with a greater number of decisions per game?
...a greater number of decisions per turn?
...more complex decisions?
...more information to memorize?
...more opportunities to make mistakes?
When it comes to the number of decisions per game, formats like Spring 2005 (Goats) may win out over some modern formats. That's because games in the post-Synchro era can be much shorter than those before. However, just as with our top-down analysis, context is key. A two-pronged decision simply isn't the same as a decision about a long sequence of plays, so it'd be unfair to look solely at the number of decisions per game. Another problem with using only this approach is that it doesn't take into consideration how many decisions must be made during deckbuilding, which takes place before the game.
In my 2017 article Goats Is Not The G.O.A.T., I broke down all the ways in which Yu-Gi-Oh had become more complex than it was in Goat format. There are more decisions per turn, and those decisions are on average far more complex. That's in large part due to card text becoming longer than ever. The average metagame relevant card in the modern era has multiple lines of text, which contrasts with the simple one-line effects printed on most cards from older formats.
A less obvious detail to keep in mind is that the impact of additional information is multiplicative. If Card A has one effect and Card B has three effects, Card B is not simply two "points" more complex than Card A just because three minus one equals two. The two additional effects of Card B need to be multiplied by all the interactions they have with other format-relevant cards. Having two additional lines of text can easily translate to having a dozen additional interactions to memorize – and all of that is just the result of one card!
Apart from the complexity of cards, changes to Yu-Gi-Oh's ruleset over the years further strengthen the bottom-up argument in favor of the modern game. The first Master Rule introduced Synchro Summoning, which effectively added unwritten lines of text to nearly every monster in the game. The second Master Rule repeated that with the introduction of Xyz Summoning. The third Master Rule created Pendulum Zones, which multiplied a player's options by that much more. Lastly, the fourth and fifth Master Rules further added to a player's options with Link Markers, the Extra Monster Zones and the ever-complex mechanics and regulations that accompany them.
Decisions in old school Yu-Gi-Oh often boiled down to solving binary puzzles such as which monster to Normal Summon and in what order to attack. As Yu-Gi-Oh evolved the number of decisions multiplied, as did the average complexity of each decision. While old Yu-Gi-Oh shares the long, methodical war of attrition that chess has, it also shares the limitations of chess, having fewer "squares" and "pieces" compared to the modern game.
To drive the nail in the coffin, I'd like to address the most important biases that distract players from accepting that modern Yu-Gi-Oh is the more skillful game. No one, no matter how smart, is free from cognitive bias. It's therefore crucial that we employ humility in debate and consider how our experiences might shape our perception of what we consider true.
1. "The more skillful format is the one I did better in."
Psychology 101 teaches that we think of our own good fortune as the result of smart decision making and the good fortune of others as the result of getting lucky. As humans, we're wired with an inherent bias that makes us think we're rock stars. What I commonly see is that veterans of the game who experienced success in a former era use this line of reasoning as a defense to justify either their inability or their unwillingness to adapt to the modern game. It's natural to be defensive about your accomplishments.
2. "Old Yu-Gi-Oh was deeper because it involved more mind games."
I don't think this is true to begin with, but even if we accept this premise, the mental tactics were a part of the game as a response to the lack of skillfulness of the game, not because the game was skillful. Suppose you had to play rock-paper-scissors as if your life were on the line. What would you do to maximize your chances at winning? Since the game involves so little in the way of actionable tactics, you'd resort to mind games to reduce the luck factor. Mind games may have been relatively more critical to success in older forms of Yu-Gi-Oh, but that's only because there were so few other ways to gain leverage against an otherwise capable opponent.
3. "Old Yu-Gi-Oh was more technical."
While this might be sometimes true when your metric for "more technical" is more total decisions per game, all the arguments raised in the previous section contextualize that justification as inaccurate. Now here's the plot twist. I actually made a false concession earlier when I ceded the "more decisions per game" metric as an argument that favors old Yu-Gi-Oh! I did it just to make the point that even with that metric, old Yu-Gi-Oh doesn't win the argument overall.
The reality is that Yu-Gi-Oh has always had degenerate blowout strategies and long, Goat Control-esque games in all formats. This has held true for as long as the game has been played competitively. This tongue-in-cheek video I previously shared highlights this reality. Even as far back as 2004, the year I first played competitively, I had a test partner who always won when he went first, due to Blasting the Ruins FTK. Let's also not forget that Cyber Stein OTK, Tundo FTK, and Dragon Exodia Turbo shortly followed Goat Control. Die-roll formats are much older than you may recall.
The converse is also true. While power creep has created lots of blowouts and auto-wins in the modern era, most games still take multiple turns and present hundreds of options over the course of those turns. We see it even in the game's most recent history. Sky Striker, one of the most technically precise and turn-eating decks of all time, held dominance for the past couple of years and still isn't completely gone. As I shared in my previous article, our memory is selective. This leads to survivorship bias, which in turn nudges people to remember the data that confirms what they want to believe.
What People Really Mean By "Better"
I want to end on a sympathetic note toward those who long for the good ol' days of Yu-Gi-Oh. I completely understand the different ways in which they may feel that the game was "better" in the past. Enjoyment doesn't scale with complexity. While having more options may favor more skilled players, even those players have some limit to what they can enjoy. Chess might be a more complex game if it had a couple of new pieces, but would anyone want to play a version of chess that has 400 new pieces, each with a unique set of rules? Enjoyment and complexity don't necessarily correlate.
Sometimes, the enjoyable thing to do is to exercise fundamentals and clear out all the clutter and complexity of combo Yu-Gi-Oh, and slow formats are great for that. I'd be a hypocrite to say that I see nothing of value in older formats; it was precisely my experience playing Goat Control that gave me my first ever top. In 2013, the U.S. held its first YCS in which Day 1 of Swiss was played using sealed packs. My training in fundamentals from the old era gave me a considerable advantage throughout Swiss that won me round after round because my opponents hadn't developed those same fundamentals.
Celebrated duelist Ed Acepcion is the largest advocate I know for being a student of Yu-Gi-Oh history. He once said to me, "History is so important. I got good at Yu-Gi-Oh because my coach used to make us watch these old, old volleyball videos. She told us that to be good at anything, you have to be a student of the game. You must learn its history."
There's a lot to learn and appreciate from history. There's something of value that we can extract from the oldest of eras to improve our approach to the modern game. However, we shouldn't let rose-tinted lenses color our objectivity when evaluating the game of the past.