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 Core Theory: The Three Levels of Dueling

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Divine Phoenix

Number of posts : 177
Location : Cedar Rapids
Registration date : 2007-01-30

PostSubject: Core Theory: The Three Levels of Dueling   Thu Jan 28, 2010 9:45 pm

Core Theory: The Three Levels of Dueling
Jason Grabher-Meyer

On one hand, it can be said that the worldwide community of Duelists is made up of countless individuals; hundreds of thousands of people, each with his or her own unique style, tendencies, likes, and dislikes. It is impossible to generalize or categorize them all, for no effort to do so could encompass the complexities of their personalities and experiences.

On the other hand, this community is also subject to a number of imperfect truths, the recognition of which can become a powerful tool in the hands of the open-minded competitor; one willing to accept that though not infallible, systems of perception exist that can simplify the competitive interaction between two Duelists and give one an edge, both on and off the table.

It is while recognizing the truth in both of these concepts, and tempering each with the other, that I set before you today a risky proposition certainly discussed, but perhaps not loudly vocalized before: that all Duelists, of any amount of experience, from any country and with any level of interest, exists on one of three levels of play. I propose this not to laud a self-righteous elite, permit a sense of entitlement, or to encourage arrogance or empty “me-too-ism”. We discuss this topic only because it is real, and useful to any player who would count winning and understanding the game as part of their pleasure in playing it, regardless of how new, experienced, casual, or competitive that player may be.

The Purpose of the Proposition
If you can look at a competitor and quickly get a base understanding of his or her play habits, tendencies, and deeper desires within the game structure, you can understand a a lot of things that will help you during your Duels. From reading set and in-hand cards, to guessing how an opponent will react to a field wipe, or a simplified or complicating game pattern, understanding your opponent will help you interpret moves made and predict moves currently in the making. The alternative is to play in a vacuum, judging your moves strictly through understanding of your own strategy, which while important, offers no balance and little room for adaptability.

The purpose of categorizing all Duelists into one of three levels is to make understanding any given opponent an easier task. How often have you made “the right moves” in terms of card economy but lost to an opponent unafraid to commit his entire hand to the field on Turn 2? How often have you misread a facial expression, or a sudden push of attack, only because you interpreted that action in terms of your understanding of the game – and not your opponent's? How often have you lost to a player who you respected as a person, but felt you were more experienced than, and wondered to yourself “how the heck did that happen?” Or to flip the tables, how often have you beaten a player with far more experience than you, and had him respond with frustration and confusion instead of a smile and a handshake?

On a macro level there are three distinct player groups in this game. Understand each, and you'll be able to identify them, play accordingly, win more, and handle your losses with more grace. That's the goal here: to understand common trends and use them not only to play better, but to keep a cooler head and get more accurate reads on our own losses. With that said, let's look at our first group.

The Level 1 Duelist
Our first group covers a diverse spread of individuals, all with different desires and backgrounds. He or she could be new to the game, experienced but only interested in casual play, or a long-term player who's just relatively new to Core Theory issues like card economy, simplification versus complication, and utility versus synergy. He or she might have a complete understanding of those theories too, but may simply decide that's not how he or she enjoys playing the game. As long as this Duelist is having fun, his or her goal is probably being met.

This player tends to have most, if not all of the following habits:

-Aggression: A Level 1 doesn't expect to win consistently, won't beat himself up if he loses, and feels relatively no pressure when Dueling. That emboldens him: there's no real penalty for failure, but there's a generally good feeling that comes with success, so he'll grab for it whenever he thinks it's a possibility.

-Mimicry: The Level 1 isn't -----, and he doesn't fail to register the results of his own actions or his opponent's. If he does something once and it works well, he'll often do it again. If he does something and gets punished for it, that too can shape his immediate decision-making. The Level 1 Duelist lives and dies by his personal experiences, moreso than guiding rules and pieces of theory.

-Reads: The Level 1 player usually makes few reads on his opponent's cards or goals. He's more concerned with his own strategy than anybody else's.

-Deck Choices: A Level 1 Duelist plays what he wants. This could be a theme deck, a personal pet deck long in development, or just something netdecked that he believes gives him enough wins to satisfy him. Expect the unexpected.

Without being judgmental, we can say that in the strictest competitive sense, a Level 1 Duelist plays the game poorly. There's little room for meaningful adaptation in his playstyle, he's relatively predictable, and he doesn't adhere to the long-term methods that give consistent results. And that's perfectly Fine – no one should be looked down on for having fun, and we all have our own goals.

The catch is that Level 1 players don't just sit around losing all the time. Despite a lack of “higher learning” or a desire to win consistently, they still win quite often for two reasons. First up is that aggression I mentioned: the aggressive pace of a Level 1 Duelist's playstyle can catch a more experienced competitor off guard, or simply punish a higher Level Duelist that catches an unlucky hand. Playing just one or two cards each turn and looking to eke out those +1's may not be enough to beat this guy, since he could very easily hurl his entire hand onto the table and beat the snot out of you.

A Level 1 will often play a deck that a higher level Duelist would never deem worth playing, too; one that wins often enough to be attractive but that isn't sufficiently consistent for an experienced tournament player. A Level 2 player may look at a Burn deck or the old Demise OTK and think “That deck might win six out of ten rounds, but I know that won't get me to the Top 16.” A Level 1 player could look at the same deck and think “Six wins? HELL YEAH I'LL PLAY IT!”

The Level 2 Duelist
Our second group covers the vast majority of competitive-minded players. These are the guys who show up to their local or Regional with the goal of making Top 8. Winning is fun. Prizes are fun. Creating something new and cool can be fun too, but the Level 2 Duelist may notice that creativity often costs them victory and loot. The Level 2 may solve this conflict by developing two sets of attitudes: one casual, and one competitive. Regardless though, a certain level of value is placed on victory. Not just wins alone, but consistent results that can be leveraged in tournament tops.

This player is usually pretty well-versed in core theory: at the low end he or she will at least understand the basics of card economy, sometimes to the point of getting carried away with it and ignoring other important fundamentals. A general understanding of utility and synergy will probably be present also, whether this is understood and verbalized with the proper language or simply something innate (“that's a dead card” being an innate understanding, versus “that's low in utility”, et cetera).

Watch for these behavioral patterns in this group:

-Conservation: This player knows all about card economy – or at least he thinks he does. Unless he's having a really bad day or is totally on-tilt, he lives and dies by the rules he's learned, and makes decisions based on over-arching game theory. He wants +1's – a whole bag of them, and he doesn't want to give you any. Towards that end he will often play more conservatively than a less experienced Duelist, offering the opponent fewer opportunities to gain card advantage or information while hoping to nab both himself.

-Mimicry: Like the Level 1, the Level 2 Duelist often learns through mimicry. The difference is that while the Level 1 competitor often mimics specific plays or situations in the short term, the Level 2 Duelist usually mimics tactics in a higher sense, analyzing those plays within the framework of core theory. A good Level 2 Duelist knows how to see the similarities between his plays and his opponent's, even if they're running different decks entirely.

-Reads: The Level 2 player usually makes reads based on review of facts and math. He'll check his opponent's graveyard to see whether or not Mirror Force or Torrential Tribute have been played. He might run some numbers to get a general impression of whether or not his opponent can rebuke his attack. He'll look at his options, figure out the chances of his opponent making certain responses, and act accordingly. He may also consider the further ramifications of each option he presents to his opponent in each scenario he envisions, but the reads are usually a bit more one-dimensional. “Is that a Bottomless Trap Hole” or “what are the odds of me getting hit with Mystical Space Typhoon and Goyo next turn” are the types of reads most commonly made at this Level.

-Deck Choices: A Level 2 Duelist plays what he thinks will win, or plays what he thinks he can have fun with, depending on if he's in competitive or casual mode. He won't play just any old deck – there's a purpose to his decision and it's been tempered by matchup knowledge and (hopefully) testing. He won't just play “A Spellcaster deck.” Instead he'll play “A Spellcaster deck, because they have the Apprentice engine and good special summoning effects and...” and so on, and so on. He probably plays a deck acknowledged as competitively successful or “Tier 1”. If he doesn't, he probably made his deck choice based on a mix of personal preference and specific gameplay reasons.

-Metagame Knowledge: A Level 2 Duelist knows what the most competitively successful decks are (or at least he knows what has won so far in this format). This knowledge shapes his deck decision, individual tech choices within that deck, and his side deck decisions.

In terms of core theory and technical play, we can say that while the Level 1 Duelist “plays the game poorly” the Level 2 Duelist plays it well. This guy knows core theory and can discuss the game intelligently with other players. He probably reads tournament coverage of JUMPs or at least skims the Top 16 deck lists and the Day 2 coverage. He knows the “right” move in terms of card economy, and will almost always make that move. A deeper understanding of the game and his own strategy drives his on-table decisions, while a knowledge of matchups and potential pitfalls drives his deck building choices.

At the same time, a Level 2 Duelist may not understand why he loses certain games, and even after digging deep for the answer, he comes up with “bad luck” as the reason more often than is perhaps warranted. He may lose to Level 1 players and become frustrated when that happens. He might play his cards “the best anybody could play them” and still fail.

A solid Level 2 Duelist will top at most locals, will get his Nats invite if he wants it, and may have one or many Regional tops. A good Level 2 Duelist might even have a JUMP top or two, and on the right day he can walk away a Champion in any tournament. Again, most Duelists fit into this category.

The Level 3 Duelist
The Level 3 Duelist is a rarity. While a Level 1 Duelist plays the game badly, and a Level 2 Duelist strives to play the game well, the Level 3 Duelist is more concerned with playing the metagame and playing the dude across the table. In a “Searching for Bobby Fischer” sense, this is the guy who knows how to “play the game” and is now far more concerned with “playing the man.”

He enters tournaments to win, and may get to a point where he sees winning smaller tournaments as no longer worthwhile. He may not be interested in playing a Level 1 or Level 2 player, especially if the option of trading or just hanging out with another Level 3 is an available alternative. This player is usually looking for two things: profit and practice. If you're not offering either of those, don't take offense if he doesn't have time for you. This Duelist is one of the true greats and is actively seeking self-improvement in Dueling so he can remain that way.

What attributes does this class of Duelist usually display?

-Conservation Versus Aggression: A Level 3 Duelist can switch his style appropriately, and while he may adhere to conservative playstyles early on in a Duel, he has no problem answering the door when opportunity knocks. A Level 3 competitor's on-table decisions are made according to a lot of different balanced factors, but one of the big ones is the conflict between action and inaction. While a Level 2 Duelist often believes that the first Duelist to tip his hand, make a big commitment, “play his Chaos Sorcerer”, or whatever usually loses, a Level 3 Duelist knows that that's what most of his competitors believe, and will adapt to that belief in order to take advantage. In short, he knows the book a Level 2 Duelist lives by. And he knows that he can pick it up and smack a Level 2 player to death with it.

-Mimicry: A Level 3 Duelist outgrew mimicry a long time ago. He may borrow tricks from other successful competitors on occasion, but he does so with the understanding that eventually those tricks will get around and everyone will know them. The Level 3 Duelist stands at the cutting edge: he's the trend setter, not the follower, and mimicry isn't the type of honor he bestows on just anyone. Actual learning experiences are rare, and ones he can leverage and internalize into something useful are even tougher to come by.

-Reads: Math and review of factual information are only the beginning of the Level 3 Duelist's reads. He's very good at prioritizing what reads he needs to make, and this prioritization is the first step in his personal process: his reads are structured and concerned with specific things depending on his situation. Once reads are prioritized he reviews not just the math and revealed information that can still be accounted for (like on-field cards or Graveyard contents), but situational information as well. How long has a set card been on the field? What happened in that time, that the set cards was not used to respond to anything? Does that lack of action give a read on the card (could the card be one that could have been activated or not), or could the opponent's own priorities have taken precedence (maybe it just wasn't worth it for the opponent to activate the card at that point).

These kinds of deductive reads are one of the big strength's of the Level 3 Duelist, because not only can he use this deductive process on a wholesale basis, but he can tailor it to different Level 1 and Level 2 Duelists. This is a big part of why we're discussing the difference between the three Levels of competitors right now – so Level 2 Duelists can understand both that this process of deductive Reasoning exists, and that it's irrelevant unless you have a good understanding of your opponent in the first place. The Level 3 Duelist understands this process so well that he can also send false signals to other highly experienced competitors, taking risks to influence the opponent's play in big, often uncommon ways.

Deck Choices: Unless the Level 3 Duelist is goofing off (and they do – everybody likes to have fun sometimes), he or she chooses decks that he knows will win. He's either running an acknowledged deck that he's highly proficient with and that is well-teched (either in the side, or both side and main), or he's playing something new and creative that he knows will win. Not a deck that he believes will win – but one that's been tested, weighed, measured, and developed into a killing machine.

A Level 3 Duelist will rarely accept a Deck that he or she believes is a coin flip in a major matchup – especially the mirror match. A great player wants a deck that can take full advantage of his or her skills, so he spends a lot of time concerned about the mirror match and what that matchup is like when the opponent is a Level 2 or Level 1 player. Often a deck is challenging enough to give the Level 3 Duelist confidence in the mirror. Diamond Dude Turbo in the first months of 2007, Gladiator Beasts from May 2008 to September 2008, and TeleDAD from October 2008 to early 2009 are examples of such decks, and even then, both Gladiators and TeleDAD saw significant innovations so Level 3 Duelists could stay ahead of the curve. Remember that Gladiator Beasts themselves were an innovation in the beginning of their run – Paul Levitin won SJC Minneapolis by dominating a field of Dark Armed Return decks, long before the release of Gladiator Beast Gyzarus in Light of Destruction.

Metagame Knowledge: The Level 3 Duelist is hugely concerned with the issue of metagame knowledge, not just on the level of individual matchups and what the successful decks are, but how those decks can be innovated, tweaked, or defeated via fringe tactics. A Level 3 may make comments even in casual conversation that just aren't being stated very often by the bulk of the Dueling community, ruling out decks from consideration that others consider competitive, or noting strengths in less popular decks that others may not notice. For this Duelist, a great deal of the important information in the game has nothing to do with singular decks, but instead with how they interact in a predicted field, and what that field might look like in the first place.

Dedication: I've never met anyone with the skills that would make them a Level 3 Duelist, but who had no personal stake in this game. Whether they admit it or not, a Level 3 Duelist loves Yu-Gi-Oh. They don't play for the prizes anymore. The prizes are nice, and they certainly want them, but at the end of the day they aren't dedicating ‘X' number of hours per week strictly because this was the best secondary job they could come up with. A Level 3 has tasted success, and loves it. He's made friends through the game, experienced a ton of emotional ups and downs, and knows that this hobby offers opportunities and thrills that stuff like stamp collecting and baseball cards just don't quite manage to offer on a consistent basis. They might not watch the TV show, they might wish competitive players were given bigger rewards for what they see as hard work, and they might ***** from time to time, but at the end of the day they love this game on some of the deepest levels possible.

Level 3 Duelists are the guys you see topping SHONEN JUMP Championships over and over. They're usually the innovators, creating new decks or taking them to new levels. They aren't always the winners, and can drop a game to an aggressive push or a lucky hand just as easily as the next guy. But they always strive to better themselves, and many strive to better the game in general.

Whether you're a Level 1, Level 2, or Level 3 Duelist you're here for similar reasons: the game is fun, you like playing it, and it gives you something you haven't found elsewhere. If it didn't, you either wouldn't be here now or won't be here for long. Today we've discussed what defines the three Levels of competitor under this system. See if you can find yourself amongst them, and if your answer is “OOH! OOH! THREE! I'M A THREEEE!” consider the possibility that you're actually just a very good Level 2, and then consider where else you could improve. This ranking isn't about self-entitlement, arrogance, or feeling superior. It's about understanding where other people are coming from, and waking up tomorrow knowing that you're a little better at this game than you were yesterday.

Next week we're going to get to the good stuff as we continue on, looking at specific deck examples and feature matches that demonstrate the difference between Level 1 and Level 2 Duelists, and detailing the interactions on and off the table between the three categories of player. See you then!

-Jason Grabher-Meyer
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