The unprecedented lockdown worldwide has left players with few competitive opportunities. Secret Slayers and Eternity Code were poised to change the landscape of championship-level events completely, but for now the impact of cards like Eldlich the Golden Lord and Girsu, the Orcust Mekk-Knight are limited to online tournaments. It's a missed opportunity to see how these strategies stack up at Regionals and YCS events. Fortunately there's at least one upside to our current situation: it's a unique chance to see what happens to competitive play if you remove virtually all expenses from the game.

Online events hosted on third party platforms are missing a crucial aspect of the typical Yu-Gi-Oh experience: the cost of acquiring cards, and the expenses of traveling to an event. They're not exactly free, of course, because participants will still need to own a device capable of supporting these apps, and they'll need a stable Internet connection. Neither of those things should be taken for granted, but they're largely separate from the Yu-Gi-Oh hobby. What I'm more interested in is how players choose their cards and decks in an environment where money isn't a consideration.

I think the community – myself included – has made a lot of assumptions about what a budget-friendly game would look like. If cards were more affordable there wouldn't be such a stark difference between the competitive performances of players with seemingly-unlimited budgets and those who have to settle for cheaper alternatives. In a cheaper game you could adopt a new strategy without liquidating your current deck, and you'd have more money to spend on travel to attend larger events. In theory all of these things could be true, but I think the surge in online tournaments has shown us that the cost of cards might not have that much impact on the kinds of people who are topping events.

Does A Limitless Budget Increase Deck Diversity?
What's possible in Yu-Gi-Oh when budget isn't a concern? For the individual player, especially one that's already on a strict budget, the freedom that a limitless budget gives them is incredible. Everyone has had to make concessions at some point, whether that's finding a suitable replacement for a powerful tech choice, or picking a different deck to play because your first choice isn't affordable.

It sucks making those decisions, but it's even worse when you take a loss that's clearly the result of settling for an inferior card. As a community we tend to obsess over finding the best-in-slot card choices, optimal builds, and the best combos. A strict budget can force you to make a sub-optimal choice, and that can easily cost you games at any level of competition.

So what happens when those budget constraints are lifted? First, the available options for any given player at any moment immediately skyrocket. The physical game has all sorts of limitations on the decks and cards you can play – price isn't the only consideration. Anyone who's tried picking up cards the day before an event will tell you that things don't always work out as planned. Virtual cards don't need to be shipped, they don't exist in precise quantities in specific locations, and they can never be damaged or lost. You can swap any two cards at a moment's notice and you'll never have to borrow a card from a friend.

The ability to rapidly change strategies or individual cards in the moments before submitting your deck list is powerful, but does it translate into actual deck diversity? It's obvious that dueling simulators have utility as test environments, and that's a great first step towards getting players to pick up new strategies. Without simulators it can be challenging, if not almost impossible for duelists without consistent access to local tournaments or a pool of friends to test their builds against a variety of matchups. Simulators solve that problem by providing a platform to test any strategy in dozens of matchups against players from all over the world, all in a single evening.

That said, using simulators to test builds isn't some new 2020-specific phenomenon. What is new is that builds aren't being tested for in-person tournaments. So far, the largest online tournament that I've seen is the Luxury Championship Series III. Ryan Yu won the event last week with Sky Strikers, but the Top 32 wasn't a huge surprise. The LCS had a massive showing with 319 players, or roughly the volume of a medium-sized Regional. Adamancipators and Eldlich variants were already regarded as the decks to beat this format, and together they represented 76% of the Top 32. Deck diversity's a complicated issue and entry numbers are an important consideration, but even without those numbers we can get a sense that the Top 32 here isn't much different from what we might expect at in-person events.

The existence of budgets does make a difference, but that doesn't translate into deck diversity. Instead, some players will use the opportunity to build the top decks to beat, which also happen to be significantly more expensive than alternative strategies as a result of their competitiveness. These online tournaments don't show a discernibly different pattern of player choices compared to a typical event, but on a deck-by-deck basis there's one massive change: nobody has to settle for a sub-optimal tech choice unless they choose to.

Can Everyone Compete In An Unlimited Budget Environment?
Johnny Li wrote about the pay-to-win nature of Yu-Gi-Oh last month and illustrated the extent to which money affects a player's ability to compete. Yu-Gi-Oh isn't pay-to-win, so much as it's pay-to-play, but that shouldn't surprise anyone who engages in more than one competitive hobby. If you're buying a video game that doesn't have microtransactions you're still engaging in a pay-to-play system. If the same video game sells a bonus that doubles your damage or lets you earn points at a faster rate, and a similar upgrade isn't available outside of a premium pay path, then that game is squarely in the pay-to-win territory.

Yu-Gi-Oh doesn't offer clear-cut advantages other than an inevitable power creep that drives players to acquire new cards, but decisions made on the margins of a tight budget can make a difference in the long term. You'll be at a disadvantage if you can't afford to pick up a playset of the newest must-play tech card, and that might keep you from winning a game here and there. If you can't travel to an event you'll be trapped behind a monetary barrier to entry. If you don't have a pool of friends to borrow or share cards with then picking up a new strategy or new cards might be a long and expensive process.

Duel simulators are a rising tide that lifts the boats of all players by providing them with a minimum floor: no travel costs, and no barriers to entry outside of a stable internet connection and a device to run the simulator. It's an opportunity for skilled players that can't, or typically won't attend a physical event to participate in a tournament with hundreds of other players. Online events also take less time, especially if you're like me where the nearest Regionals are about three hours away. These tournaments have the potential to bring in an entirely new set of players. The question remains: is it still anyone's game?

Online tournaments have their own quirks compared to in-person events, but the skill gap still exists. Players who have mastered the fundamentals of Yu-Gi-Oh won't find themselves suddenly losing to duelists who have never played above the local level until now. Real life budget players might have access to the full selection of the game's card pool, but that doesn't make much of a difference for top tier duelists. The game's best players are already accustomed to playing against opponents who have little concern for the price of the cards they need. After all, if you're willing to buy a plane ticket to attend a single event you're probably also willing to spend a few hundred dollars finishing your build with the most optimal choices.

Ghost Mourner & Moonlit Chill

Card prices don't make Yu-Gi-Oh pay-to-win, but they might make it exclusionary. You either have the time and money to compete, or you don't. The marginal benefits of owning any single card aren't reflected across tournament results because the players that spend hours testing and perfecting their builds are more than willing to spend a bit more on their decks. There's a very narrow set of players that are actually seeing significant increases in their competitive results in virtual tournaments. Meanwhile, the bulk of players are staying about where their skill level would place them at in a regular in-person event.

Virtual tournaments are surprisingly reflective of in-person events, but this isn't a perfect comparison by any means. There are so many variables that we're overlooking: what kind of player is willing to play in an online tournament? Does the decision to use one simulator over another influence the results in any way? How can we be sure that players aren't cheating in some way when we can't see them? It's hard to know to what extent any of this data is usable, so I'm making plenty of assumptions here.

My hope is that local level tournaments will start back up this summer, and we'll see just how well these smaller online tournaments stack up against the real thing.

Until next time then