Our last discussion was devoted to big trends and big issues that were specific to the current environment in today's Advanced Format. We drew on the opinions, thoughts, and reflections of some of Dueling's best to outline a range of perspectives - sometimes cohesive, sometimes conflicting - about what's going on today, at this very point in Dueling's history. It was a detail-focused look at the nitty-gritty of competitive Dueling as it stands.
Today, in the wake of YCS Toronto, we switch it up. While some Duelists I spoke with were more interested in the specifics of the new format, others concerned themselves more with general play philosophy and techniques. They largely centered their dialogue on the unique challenges and opportunities that are present at the beginning of any new format - including, but not limited to, September 1st here in 2011. This time around we're taking a bit of a step back from specific cards, combos, and controversies to discuss the universal approaches you can take to find success on a more global basis: regardless of deck choices, playstyles, or what is and isn't on the Forbidden list. Big thanks to the contributors who made it happen: YCS Indy top finisher Marc Paternoster; repeat YCS top finisher Alex Vansant; and YCS Indy Champion, TCGPlayer's own Robert Boyajian.
Innovating To Win Frankly, whenever I see an old format roll into a new one, all I see is opportunity. With no top decks defined, and no metagame yet crystallized, the sky is the limit for creative deckbuilders and Duelists with wider experiences in the game; Duelists whose knowledge bases extend beyond whatever the popular strategies from the past Format or two were, and that can identify which under-the-radar strategies are now ready to shine. It's my favorite time to be Dueling, because there are no rules. There's nobody who can say with any authority that a particular idea isn't viable, and even those who normally play solely by netdecking - and who actively insulate themselves from ideas they don't consider “tier 1” - are forced to keep an open mind. I was happy to hear that some of my favorite duelists agreed, starting with an exuberant Robert Boyajian.
“Do not be afraid to innovate! The beginning of a format is just like a blank piece of paper,” explained Boyajian, “a clean slate ready for you to make your mark. Have you ever wanted to try out a deck that you were a little scared to try? Fish? Psychics? Wind-Ups? Now is your chance!” Boyajian might sound excitable, but he's got the Championship win and countless YCS top finishes to back up his opinion on the importance of out-of-the-box thinking. As I'm fond of saying when we discuss Boyajian's credentials, this isn't just the winner from YCS Indianapolis talking: this is also the dude who made Top 16 of YCS Orlando short months before, taking Worms to their first impressive showing. If that performance - made mid-format when innovation is tougher - doesn't back up Boyajian's statements, then I don't know what could. When proposing an example of successful innovation, he drew on a different example entirely: “Before YCS Atlanta last year, everyone thought Gravekeepers were forever to be considered a casual player's deck. If it wasn't for brave innovators that deck could have easily remained a sleeper. They took time to read cards from the newest set at the time, which other players simply overlooked, and realized the power hidden beneath a once-forgotten archetype. Because no one knew how to play against the deck or what kind of cards it played, they were easily able to take the tournament by storm capturing 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place.” Boyajian's statement is of course a reference to the massive showings last December, from Ronald Mack, Sean McCabe, and Frazier Smith, the latter of whom you'll remember from his contributions to our last two articles.
Alex Vansant was another successful innovator this year, making his most memorable mark at the same event where Boyajian topped with Worms. It was at YCS Orlando that Vansant played Ultimate Offering Gadgets, using Reborn Tengu; Gadget monsters; and Effect Veilers with Glow-Up Bulb to kick out multiple copies of Trishula, Dragon of the Ice Barrier and make tremendous wins. That deck carried Vansant all the way to the Top 32, and would go on to become the template for the current Ultimate Offering Gadget deck, which functions by Xyz Summoning a flood of Rank 4 Xyz Monsters. Vansant played his deck before Rank 4 Xyz Monsters even existed, and he still made Top 32. I'm not sure the sheer balls of his achievement was fully appreciated that weekend back in May, but looking back, the ridiculousness of Vansant's performance is pretty obvious. I mean, sure. Pioneer a deck before it can even be fully built, and take it all the way to the top cut tables on Day 2.
Why not, right?
Vansant had alot to say about the opportunities provided by a new Advanced List: “New formats are the best for displaying your overall skill. Deck building is a major part of this game. The creativity that goes into your main and side deck strategy makes Trading Card Games unique, and is just as important as [on-table performance].” For many like Vansant, that opportunity for creativity means more than just a chance at success: it's why they're here in the first place. “At times I consider switching over to Texas Hold Em full time, but even though the payout is that much greater, I would probably get bored. I am fairly certain that they aren't planning on releasing any new Queens in the near future. At the beginning of formats, creativity plays a much bigger role since nobody is certain as to which decks will be the best. Even if decks are winning at a regional or locals, it only shows the strength of that deck in the local metagame.” That's an important point that doesn't really get talked about enough. Over the past two years there have been some really hyped strategies that dominated in Regional Qualifier tournaments leading up to YCS events, but flopped once the first YCS hit. The biggest example I can think of was the Flamvell Cat strategy, which topped countless Regionals by combining Rescue Cat, Super-Nimble Mega Hamster, and Flamvell cards to Overwhelm the opponent with Synchro Summons. The Regional-level success that strategy saw is infamous for driving Hamster from 4 dollars to 20 on eBay - overnight - when a handful of dealers and hoarders caught wind of the emerging Regional lists. But when the first YCS of that era finally rolled around, the deck was nowhere to be seen. It was demolished by superior strategies that had played much more subtle roles in the weeks leading up to Championship-level competition.
Vansant continued: “When it comes to the main stage of a YCS, it comes down to not only what decks will be able to perform for 9-10 rounds in a row, but which will be able to handle the constant side decking. It is also a factor of how good your deck is against every other deck. If you can create a good match up against every deck you think you'll play, you have a good shot of doing well. Without deck lists to provide a template for what people would consider 'good decks', early format tournaments are always the most skill based and interesting.”
If you have the skill to be creative; to look beyond; and to really apply yourself to testing and creating new strategies, this is your time to shine. Even in the wake of YCS Toronto, the format is still in its infancy - nothing is locked in place, and while the general population starts herding in one direction, it's your perfect chance to start outflanking them. Straight-up, not everybody can do this. Not everybody has the knowledge, the history in the game, or the critical thinking skills to make awesome new decks. If it was easy, everybody'd be doing it. They aren't. But you can't start building the skills you need to get to that level without trying, and there's quite literally no time like the present. Get Cracking.
Playtesting And Precision Card Choices: Note that I'm not saying creative genius and brilliant ideas are enough on their own. It takes a lot more than guts, know-how, and testicular fortitude to get real results: it also takes practice, hard work, and hours of dedication. You have to make the right choices, both on the table and in the lab perfecting your list. And that means practice, practice, practice. Marc Paternoster shared his thoughts.
“Strength in Yu-Gi-Oh! isn't always about card advantage. Most of the time, it is about card choices.” Paternoster drew on an example from his recent successful showing at YCS Indy to illustrate: “Running two Herald of Orange Light over one, or the popular zero, was a big reason for my success at Indy. It is in my opinion, a trick that is an absolute minus most of the time, but when activated is always unexpected and can seal a Duel. Don't have Warning and want to attack for game, but you fear Gorz? Offer them some Orange drink.” While most Agent Duelists were backing away from Herald, Paternoster did the testing; put in the time; and made a choice that set him apart from the rest of the field. He was the only Agents player to make the Top 16 at Indy.
Boyajian backed him up, reiterating the tie between correct card choices and putting in the time: “Play test, play test, play test! Just because it is the beginning of the format, does not mean that you can be careless and just throw some cards together and hope they work. Theory will always be theory until you put it into practice. The one thing that I make sure is a factor when I play in an event is that I am completely comfortable with what I am playing, and you can only do that by playing it yourself. Brainstorming what you want to do with a deck is an important step, but sometimes that can lead you into a trap. You begin to just make choices based on the idea that it is good, and not the fact that it is good.”
And don't misunderstand - it's not enough just to know your own deck inside out, and to know which are the ideal choices for your strategies. Paternoster continued: “The average player needs to have an idea of what cards to expect from any deck. For example, someone playing against Lightsworn might want to Synchro Summon Ally of Justice Catastor, choosing it over the draw potential of T.G. Hyper Librarian, to outplay a card such as Honest. Or against Tech Genus, the awareness of a card like Horn of the Phantom Beast if your opponent summons a weaker monster in attack mode is really important.” On one hand, reading event coverage and discussing decks amongst your fellow Duelists can really help you achieve that level of awareness. But if you're serious about competing, these possibilities need to be a lot more than vague ideas you think about, and then grasp for as needed mid-Duel. It needs to be reflex. It needs to be something you've experienced already, so that when it happens, you've been there before. It needs to be hardcoded into your brain. And the only way to get there is to have done it many times before.
Amateurs practice until they get it right. Pros practice until they can't get it wrong.
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Diversity in Side Decking: One of the toughest challenges in a new format comes when you've finally got your perfect strategy; a topnotch build; and the practice and confidence to start thinking about real competition. That challenge is side decking. Long-time readers will know that I regard side decking as one of - if not the - toughest parts of this game. To build a great side deck means knowing not just your strategy, but everybody else's too, and creating extensive plans for what to do and when. It takes a lot of insight to master that, and I frequently express my belief that side decking is the difference between good Duelists and truly great ones.
The problem? It's really tough to outplay a given metagame, when that metagame is all over the place because everybody's playing something different. It's tough enough to side deck well when there are five or six proven strategies. But at the beginning of the format, when you could literally come up against anything you can imagine? It's a daunting task. Luckily, the solution is as broad as the problem.
“Stop worrying about one deck too much!” suggested Boyajian. “Do not waste space in your main or side deck for tech cards that can only combat one matchup. Even though you think that deck 'X' will be the next best deck in this new format and you are trying to prepare for it, that does not mean that everyone else has the same view point.”
Perspective is a big part of this issue: when you don't have previous YCS events and Top 32 deck lists to go off of, we tend to try and replace that information with whatever we have on-hand. Often, that means localized experiences confined to singular, smaller metagames, or even internet hubbub from sources of questionable experience and judgment. Boyajian continued: “The area that you play in holds a large part in what you think may be the next deck: just because players in your area think that Twilight is going to take over the format, does not mean that everyone at an event is going to play Twilight! Preparing too much for a single match up can lead to you causing your own demise. Why side a card like Ally of Justice Cycle Reader when D.D. Crow can do the job nearly the same way, and against a wider variety of decks? By generalizing decks into groups you will be able to find cards that will be more useful to you in more situations.”
Paternoster hammered that point home: “In a game where deck diversity is huge, side deck choices are key. Fifteen cards need to be chosen wisely. While a popular side deck card like Royal Decree is useful against many decks, try to minimize the deck-specific cards in your side.” The key to combating a broad, diverse metagame like the one that's always present in the early weeks of a new format, is to take a broad-spectrum approach to building your side. This can be counter-intuitive, because as more and more information is factually established about a given format, and deck choices become narrower and more refined, the right move is to ride the razor's edge, getting as specific and specialized as you can in your side decking. It's a balancing act between versatility and efficiency, and as the months go on, it tilts in the favor of precision targeting. But early on, in days like these, that's not the right approach to take. You want to be ready for the top decks you have factual reason to expect, but you also need to be as flexible as possible while you do that. That means devoting fewer cards to specific matchups where single-deck tech is necessary, and seeking out versatile cards that can address an array of competitive decks in every other case. It's alot of ground to cover with just fifteen cards, and as Boyajian suggested, the key is to find the common strategic ties between groups of several decks, and then side the card that takes out that shared lynchpin. That way, you can use one card to accomplish a bunch of different goals across an array of matches in a single tournament.
Play philosophies are different at the beginning of a format from what they are in the middle or sunset phases. You need to be aware of the cyclical nature of those philosophies: if you aren't, you can't prioritize your decisions appropriately. Playtesting and making correct card choices is always important: there's nothing unique about that fact in the context of a new-format situation. But the work you do, putting in practice and making those choices card by card, inform different decisions and perspectives - provided you're knowledgeable enough to even be thinking about the choices you need to make.
When you make your deck building decisions in these current weeks, remember that there's no better time to innovate and outplay the herd than this period. And when you turn from your main deck strategy to your side deck, take what lessons you can from YCS Toronto, but remember that the Dueling landscape is still in a state of flux. Diversity and flexibility is key, and recognizing that fact will have a positive impact on your performance. Of course, keep in mind that the importance of diversification will diminish to some degree as the weeks wear on. Adjust your processes accordingly.
That's it for today, but join us one more time as we round out this giant discussion with some of North America's best Duelists! Next week we bat cleanup on the details, as our star Duelists cut loose to vaunt some of their favorite cards and decks here in September. Some of them are pretty surprising, so be sure to check back!
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