YGO Series Championship Interview: Desmond Johnson Part 1

Jason Grabher-Meyer

11/9/2014 11:00:00 AM

The 2014 YGO Series Championship was a pretty small event, with only 66 qualified competitors. That was by design – only about 100 single event qualifications were given out, and projected turnout was actually just 63 players. I know, I know – TCGplayer gave out ten thousand dollars for a 66-person tournament, and that’s not usually how these things go. The Yugiverse really had no idea how to take that the moment the news broke. But for one special tournament that’s what happened, and despite the small scope of the invitation-only Championship, there were some really great stories that came out of the weekend.

If you missed the coverage you can still check it out over on the central coverage page. Doug Zeeff and Kelly Locke absolutely killed it, delivering over thirty pieces of content across fifteen rounds on the team’s first outing. As content coordinator I couldn’t have been happier. But what I’m even happier about were the little moments, the twists and turns, that the reporters managed to capture.

If you’ve been keeping tabs on our post-event coverage you already read about the tragic Caleb Cosby thing, and the 2-0 Finals Feature Match victory by our Champion Mackenzie King Franklin was a huge upset that few would have predicted. That said, one of the greatest moments of the tournament only made a footnote in the coverage despite leaving a huge impression on our team. By now everybody knows that veteran duelist Desmond Johnson made it all the way to the Finals in the Championship. What fewer people are aware of, is that Johnson’s determination and Championship spirit kept the tournament from going to a prize split on not one, but two different occasions. Even after every other big name player lost in the Top 16 Johnson wasn’t ready to compromise, and that made for some intense competition. It also made one killer line of refusal when he declined to split first in the Top 16, then in the Top 8.

We’ll talk about that line somewhere in the midst of all this, but here’s the point: that moment in Day 2 where Johnson refused to split inspired me to interview him. Frankly I’m not a huge fan of tournament reports. Franklin King Mackenzie did a great job writing up his Championship-winning experience, but anything more than the winner’s report can be a drag. An interview’s different: it gives you a chance to get into the head of a top competitor, ask them about the most interesting parts of the event weekend, and then go way beyond that to cover other topics that are more relevant going forward.

Sometimes neat stuff happens that you don’t even predict: in this case, that meant cameos from Patrick Hoban and the Leverett brothers as I dropped in on one of their playtesting sessions. Johnson took over an hour off from testing new strategies from The New Challengers to share his thoughts with me, and the entire TCGplayer community, and I think the results are really worth reading. After some chatting about Qliphorts and their competitive potential, we got down to business.

JDG: So for those at home who aren’t familiar with your history in the game, how long have you been playing? You’ve been in the TCGplayer archive since last February, when you topped YCS Miami with Karakuris. But how far back do you go with the game, from the first time you picked up a deck?

DJ: “The first time I picked up a deck? I would say, I’ve been playing… I started when I was in ninth grade? Late eighth grade, early ninth grade.” Johnson’s 22 now. “I was fourteen. I was playing in the worst way, right, I was negating stuff with Mystical Space Typhoon, I’d never read a rulebook, I didn’t comprehend Spell Speeds. I thought I could just Summon Fusions. It was the worst.” Johnson laughed.

JDG: Yeah, schoolyard rules. Everyone plays that way when they’re like, 14, they don’t really know what’s going on. I paused to briefly reconsider. Unless you’re a Leverett, in which case by 14 you’re winning massive tournaments.

Johnson laughed again.

 El Shaddoll Construct
El Shaddoll Construct92378
Set Duelist Alliance
Number DUEA-EN049
Level 8
Type Fusion/Effect Monster
Monster Fairy
Attribute LIGHT 
A / D 2800 / 2500
Rarity Ultra Rare
Card Text

1 "Shaddoll" monster + 1 LIGHT monster Must first be Fusion Summoned. If this card is Special Summoned: You can send 1 "Shaddoll" card from your Deck to the Graveyard. At the start of the Damage Step, if this card battles a Special Summoned monster: Destroy that monster. If this card is sent to the Graveyard: You can target 1 "Shaddoll" Spell/Trap Card in your Graveyard; add it to your hand.

Store Condition Qty Avail Price  
PhantasmGaming Unlimited - Moderately Played 1 $13.86
OverdoseGaming 1st Edition - Near Mint 2 $14.99
Castle Gaming 1st Edition - Near Mint 2 $15.00
PhantasmGaming 1st Edition - Lightly Played 5 $16.52
PhantasmGaming Unlimited - Lightly Played 3 $16.52
PhantasmGaming 1st Edition - Near Mint 36 $18.99
PhantasmGaming Unlimited - Near Mint 8 $18.99

JDG: So you popped up on the press radar last February, but were you going to Regionals and big events before that?

DJ: “Yeah, I was going to Super Games in my second year of college, which was about three years ago. And I was still negating cards with Mystical Space Typhoon, but when I got there people were teaching me the right things and I wasn’t doing dumb stuff anymore. So then I started like, kinda making decks, really just getting into it more. I didn’t really have a creative flair until maybe a year after that.

“Then I had some friends that would take me to Regionals with them, I guess it was 2011 that I really started to do it.”

JDG: And then you really started breaking through in early 2013, I guess.

DJ: “Yeah. [YCS Miami] was my first-ever major event. “

JDG: I was about to say, was that your first-ever YCS?

DJ: “Yeah.”

JDG: Ahh, cool, cool… Man. That’s like, a huge performance for a first YCS!

Desmond grinned, almost bashfully.

JDG: So moving onto the YGO Series Championship, when did you decide to go to the event? Was that last minute for you? Were you planning for weeks?

DJ: Johnson took a moment to consider. “Me, Pat, Ben, and Zach, we’d been thinking about going to it since the first TCGplayer event, actually the first TCGplayer event I topped in Atlanta, the YGO Series Open. We didn’t even know there was going to be a big Championship after that, we just went to it, played it, and then left. We just thought it was going to be something like… We just didn’t think it was going to be a big deal.

“And then later, somewhere down the line, Pat brought up that there was going to be a big ten thousand dollar tournament for the TCGplayer YGO Series. We thought about it, we considered it. We didn’t have enough points, either! I was the only person who had enough points.”

JDG: You got your points by qualifying through the Atlanta tournament.

“Yeah. So, I’m not sure when we decided it, but I think we decided it…” Johnson looked over his shoulder to Hoban… “Probably a week and a half before, two weeks before? But we’d been off and on about it since the beginning. Since Atlanta, [in May].”

PH: “I think we’d always been intending to go,” chimed in Hoban. “We just didn’t finalize our plans to.”

JDG: So Pat’s awareness of it drove that initiative for all you guys to go?

DJ: “Yeah, I didn’t remember it.” Johnson laughed again. I did too.

JDG: So, was it the four of you guys who went up? How many of you went? It was you, Pat, Zach…Was there anybody else in your party?

DJ: “Ben and Mom,” added Johnson. “Ben” being Ben Leverett, and “Mom” being Mrs. Alison Leverett, mother to Ben and Zach Leverett and at this point a more familiar face on the YCS circuit than most actual competitors.

JDG: So, one of the interesting stories coming out of the YGO Series Championship weekend was how small that tournament was, and the public’s reaction to it. On TCGplayer’s, we were expecting a small turnout for that event; that wasn’t a surprise. We only qualified about 100 people through single-event qualifications, and our events lead was expecting 63 people to show up. We got 66. But once people heard, “ten-thousand dollar tournament, 66 people,” there were very mixed reactions. What were you expecting from the Championship? How big did you think it was going to be?

DJ: “Oh no, we came there… one of the driving factors making us go, hell, Pat stressed this a lot: he was like, ‘Desmond, there’s gonna be like, fifty people, we should just go because we’re gonna win.’ And it was true, it was one of the big factors that was really true.”

PH: Hoban piped up, cheerful: “I accidentally slept through Day 2!” Johnson and I burst out laughing.

JDG: I heard people talking about that, but I didn’t know if it was true or not! Because you were still X-2 going into Day 2, weren’t you?

PH: Hoban clarified, grinning and shaking his head at himself: “I was X-3 actually, the highest X-3.”

JDG: Yeah, you still had like, really good positioning for the last two rounds.

DJ: “Yeah, I played him in Round 10,” Johnson continued. “And he didn’t show up!” More laughing on all sides of the conversation.

JDG: Oh wow, I actually didn’t know that. Do you regret sleeping in, Pat, or was that just really good vacation sleep?

Hoban just laughed.

JDG: Okay, so, one of the unique things about the YGO Series Championship was that it was points-qualified, and I think one of the reasons the Championship didn’t have all the word of mouth that we could have had, in those five months that led up to it, was that chances to qualify weren’t available everywhere yet. I think points-qualified tournaments in general are really new: ARG did it, but they did it on the back of a series of really large tournaments.

DJ: “Yeah they had a lot of ‘em,” agreed Johnson.

JDG: Yeah, and I’d have to check how long that lead time was between the first big qualifier and the first ARG Championship, but I feel like it was a good eight months run-up to it?

PH: “Yeah, I think the first one was in September, and then the Championship was in July,” noted Hoban.

JDG: Yeah, so that’s ten months. TCGplayer tried to move really fast on it, which they were okay with doing just to get things established. But overall I’m not sure how viable points-qualified tournaments are for Yu-Gi-Oh! unless you’re doing a long, high-profile series like that. Do you think points-qualified tournaments are going to wind up having a role in the game? Do you think they’re a good idea now? Or are open tournaments just better.

DJ: “Well, I think a good point to that is that most players aren’t motivated to do the things they need to do, to get qualified for tournaments. A big thing is, although I don’t like this: I expected that because it was such a big prize tournament, that people would show up even though that shouldn’t be the motivation for people to show up for tournaments. I don’t think that should be [that way] anyways. But that could be a factor, and I expected people to come.

“But maybe the points system [was discouraging]; when we got there people were having trouble getting points. It was like a really big hassle for people. The byes were… Some people got extra points for byes, but people were having trouble getting points just to enter. So if there were more people, they just wouldn’t have been able to get in, if there’d been maybe 100+.”

JDG: Yeah, what do you think of the bye system, too? The YGO Series Championship offered the opportunity to earn byes, and Konami introduced earned byes just a few days later through the new VIP Qualifiers. They didn’t “take” that from TCGplayer or anything – they’d obviously been working on that for months, but it’s clearly something they’re starting to explore as well.

It’s a big thing in Magic, it was a big thing in Vs. System, but it’s very new to Yu-Gi-Oh. Do you like the idea of being able to earn byes in some way? Do you think it offers an advantage, or do you think it just offers convenience?

DJ: “It’s probably offering an advantage. I don’t want to say, that… there’s two ways to look at it: I don’t want to say that in the first two rounds, I’ll play my easiest opponents so I’d get my [wins] anyways. I don’t want to say that out of eleven rounds, I’m good for going nine rounds, so if I get two of them for free I should be able to do that. I don’t want to look at it either one of those ways, I’m just probably gonna look at it as, in later rounds I play the harder people.

Johnson continued: “Which actually was a big thing this tournament. I have to say that out of those 66 people we had, 20 to 25 of them were well-known; like people who me Pat and Ben socialize with in the Yu-Gi-Oh! community because we respect them as players. There were a lot of good players.”

 El Shaddoll Winda
El Shaddoll Winda92376
Set Duelist Alliance
Number DUEA-EN048
Level 5
Type Fusion/Effect Monster
Monster Spellcaster
Attribute DARK 
A / D 2200 / 800
Rarity Ultra Rare
Card Text

1 "Shaddoll" monster + 1 DARK monster Must first be Fusion Summoned. Cannot be destroyed by an opponent's card effects. Each player can only Special Summon monster(s) once per turn while this card is face-up on the field. If this card is sent to the Graveyard: You can target 1 "Shaddoll" Spell/Trap Card in your Graveyard; add it to your hand.

Store Condition Qty Avail Price  
Limit Break TCG Unlimited - Near Mint 1 $13.70
UltimateCardsTcg Unlimited - Lightly Played 1 $13.95
OverdoseGaming Unlimited - Near Mint 2 $14.50
OverdoseGaming 1st Edition - Near Mint 3 $14.84
Celestial Eatos 1st Edition - Near Mint 3 $14.85
OmegaGaming 1st Edition - Near Mint 1 $14.88
SKYAThatOneGuy 1st Edition - Near Mint 1 $14.90
MagnificentTCG 1st Edition - Near Mint 2 $14.95
Collection Hero 1st Edition - Near Mint 2 $15.00
EllenBaker Gaming 1st Edition - Near Mint 1 $15.00

JDG: To me the interesting thing about earning byes, in any TCG, is that in the early rounds you could be playing a really skilled player, or someone who’s not as skilled; someone maybe more on the casual side. [Byes are going to let you] skip the chance of seeing those really casual and really rogue match-ups. That’s usually how it plays out in other games.

Do you feel that’s how it played out in this tournament? There were very few rogue decks period, but do you think that’s going to be a competitive advantage in the future, being able to avoid glass cannons in the first two rounds that might just deal you a random loss from a player that’s not necessarily as experienced or as skilled as yourself?

DJ: “Well, I probably wouldn’t want to play anyone who’s… I don’t like to make any of my decisions due to byes, but I wouldn’t want to play anyone in the first two rounds. Though a plus to that would be that I wouldn’t have to play them later.” Johnson was clearly feeling his way through the question as he was answering. “I dunno, I…”

PH: Hoban chimed in again: “You’re probably more likely to play someone who isn’t as good in the first couple rounds because everyone’s on an even playing field. There’s no record to determine pairings. If you’re 6-0 the people you’re playing with are 6-0 too.”

JDG: Yeah, I remember back at the 50th SJC in Costa Mesa, where Lazaro Bellido won and Kris [Perovic] took second – just a huge awesome tournament – that was during the Demise, King of Armageddon era. Where if you were not a very good player, you were gonna play Demise, and you were going to beat some good players and knock some people out of the tournament [who were actually choosing consistent decks that could last a long tournament], and it was kind of frustrating.

DJ: “That was a thing?” Johnson laughed. Costa Mesa took place in 2008, before Johnson was really competing. Looking at it from that perspective, the idea of big players losing out on Championships to Demise, King of Armageddon must have seemed quite bizarre.

JDG: Oh yeah! Years ago; it was this really frustrating era for competitive players because you’d pay to go to a big event, and then you’d try to weather your first three rounds hoping for actual match-ups and not just this deck that has a fifty-fifty chance of blowing you out kind of for no reason. The ability to avoid that stuff in early rounds… is that appealing to you? Or… do you just not care?

DJ: Johnson burst out laughing again. “Yeah! Umm. Something that we make jokes about pretty often, is that when I was playing Karakuris all the time, and constantly like, I was probably not as evolved a player as I am now? I was definitely not as evolved a player as I am now. And I can see how if I was ever playing someone with Karakuris, and they were a good player, and they put time into the game, and they came prepared for… not necessarily meta decks, but the decks that you’d expect to see [overall]… I could see how that would make them upset.

“That happens to me! [Every now and then] I’ll be like, ‘I just lost to this deck! What was I supposed to do to it!’ So stuff like that… I’ve learned to accept it. I’m not gonna be mad about it. But I would probably prefer to play against real decks, and if I can avoid rogue decks, like… Hopefully, they’ll do what they’re supposed to do and go X-2 in the first three rounds, and I can avoid them. So yeah, byes probably are just good, if I can avoid [those kinds of decks].”

 Karakuri Steel Shogun mdl 00X Bureido
Karakuri Steel Shogun mdl 00X Bureido59762
Set Gold Series: Haunted Mine
Number GLD5-EN035
Level 8
Type Synchro/Effect Monster
Monster Machine
Attribute EARTH 
A / D 2800 / 1700
Rarity Gold Rare
Card Text

1 Tuner + 1 or more non-Tuner Machine-Type monsters // When this card is Synchro Summoned, you can Special Summon 1 "Karakuri" monster from your Deck. Once per turn, when the battle position of a face-up "Karakuri" monster you control is changed, draw one card.

Store Condition Qty Avail Price  
Cardmonstergamez Limited - Lightly Played 1 $0.38
SuperGamesInc Limited - Lightly Played 1 $0.40
OverdoseGaming Limited - Near Mint 3 $0.44
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MTGFirst Limited - Lightly Played 3 $0.60

JDG: So overall, if you could play in a tournament that’s going to offer you two byes, versus a tournament that wouldn’t, would you pick the bye-offering tournament?

DJ: “Yeah, definitely.”

PH: “I think that if you’re gonna offer byes, I don’t think it should be done on extra points.”

JDG: How do you think that can be done better?

PH: “I think it would be best to have a ranking system, and you actually have a way of determining who would consistently do the best, and rank those people.”

JDG: Yeah, like a ranking cut-off, where you’re 1600 you get one bye, you’re 1800 you get two byes.

PH: “Yeah, I think that would be the best way.” Hoban wound up looping the discussion back to the issue of glass cannons after a bit of back and forth. “It seems like Konami wants to make the [format] where casual players can enjoy competition too. Which of course, they should, they’re a part of the game.”

DJ: “We need them” asserted Johnson.

PH: “Exactly. But if you’re trying to win a tournament, that’ll hurt you a lot. For instance Shooting Quasar Dragon, if you play against that deck and they Summon Shooting Quasar, you’re just like, ‘Oh man, that sucks. I can’t do anything about that.’ You’re not like, making decisions.”

DJ: “Or interacting.”

PH: “Yeah, there’s just no interaction. So I like that the byes avoid that, with the idea of… all those people who want those cards in the game can still play them if they want to, but if they showed up to a competitive tournament they’d be less likely to do well. So if you skipped the first couple rounds, that part has already passed. It keeps both the competitive and the casual players happy I guess. So I think byes are good.”

DJ: Johnson turned to Hoban: “Did you ever look at the link, to where they offered the OTS stores that are running VIP Qualifiers?”

PH: “Yeah, it’s just California for Anaheim,” replied Hoban.

JDG: Yeah, they kept them local to California. Probably just because the event’s in California? And the office is in California. It would give them the option to check in on that [and have more control over the beginning of a new program].

PH: “At the same time, if they had a Qualifier in Georgia for instance, and then someone outside of the house that we’re in won, then they probably wouldn’t show up to the YCS to get the VIP package. So…”

JDG: It’s an interesting balancing act right now. I really want to see where they go with it.

PH: “The ranking system is a good way to kind of avoid that as well, because the people that would be highest in a ranking system are the ones who would be most likely to go to a YCS.”

It felt like a pretty complete discussion about earned byes, so we shifted our focus back to Johnson’s round-by-round experience at the YGO Series Championship: specifically his three losses in Swiss! Hilarity ensued.

Check back tomorrow for the second part of the interview, for that plus some in-depth discussion about the Suspended Player List, Johnson’s deck list, general play philosophy, the role of Mystical Space Typhoon in this format and the game as a whole, and so much more!

-Jason Grabher-Meyer

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