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 Core Theory: The Three Levels of Dueling - Part 2

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PostSubject: Core Theory: The Three Levels of Dueling - Part 2   Mon Feb 22, 2010 4:57 pm

Core Theory: The Three Levels of Dueling – Part 2
Jason Grabher-Meyer
2/18/2010

A few weeks ago I introduced a theory that Duelists from all walks of interest can be loosely grouped into three categories. If you haven't read Part 1 yet, be sure to check that out first, because it lays the framework for further discussion today. While Part 1 was concerned with recognizing the habits and patterns Level 1, 2, and 3 Duelists fall into, today I want to look at practical examples, a real-world incident illustration, and zero in on how you can approach these different types of Duelists for best results.

Let's dive right in, and look at how the same deck could be approached differently by Duelists of different Levels.

Analyzing Builds: Level 1 Versus Level 2
Let's look at a deck that's been extremely common the past few months – Blackwings. While there isn't any “absolutely standard” build of any major archetype, there tends to be less differentiation in amongst competitive Blackwing decks than there is in Lightsworn, Twilight, or especially Zombies, so the deck offers a prime opportunity for comparison. With no further ado, here's a deck that should look pretty familiar – a typical Level 2 Blackwing build.

Main Deck Sideboard
2 Blackwing - Blizzard the Far North
3 Blackwing - Bora the Spear
1 Blackwing - Gale the Whirlwind
3 Blackwing - Kalut the Moon Shadow
3 Blackwing - Shura the Blue Flame
3 Blackwing - Sirocco the Dawn
2 Blackwing - Vayu the Emblem of Honor
1 Dark Armed Dragon

2 Allure of Darkness
3 Black Whirlwind
2 Book of Moon
1 Brain Control
1 Heavy Storm
1 My Body as a Shield
1 Mystical Space Typhoon
1 Smashing Ground

2 Bottomless Trap Hole
2 Icarus Attack
1 Mirror Force
2 Royal Oppression
1 Solemn Judgment
1 Torrential Tribute
1 Trap Dustshoot

Everything here is extremely typical. Blackwings lend themselves well to a monster lineup with three copies each of the deck's high-utility monsters, and this list is packing them all in triplicate. It minimizes the risk of dead cards like Blackwing - Vayu the Emblem of Honor and Blackwing - Blizzard the Far North by not maxing out on them, but plays two of each to make sure that it's getting the most out of those cards.

The spell lineup features few surprises, with all but perhaps two slots being no-brainers: in this case the slots used for Smashing Ground and My Body as a Shield. Smashing is high in utility and low on risk, while My Body as a Shield is lower in utility, but an obviously strong pick given the expected metagame at any tournament in the latter half of this format. The slight room there is for variation here amongst the spells has been used in safe, but productive ways.

Finally, the trap line has no surprises, with six traps commonly played in most decks plus the usual four traps Blackwing Duelists tend to add on top of that: two Royal Oppression and two Icarus Attack.

The result is a deck that's reliable, quick, and that wields a healthy amount of control as well as enough aggression and flexibility to be a serious contender. While it doesn't pack the surprises or quite as many explosive plays as Zombies or Lightsworn, it's reliable, and functions extremely well as a tool to play out the tenets of the Level 2 philosophy. Solid stuff: it's the kind of deck everyone should have been testing against this format to practice their Blackwing matchup.

Next, let's look at how a Level 1 Duelist might approach the same deck. Compare it to the previous Level 2 list – the cards that weren't present in the Level 2 version have a star near their name.

Monsters: 18
1 Dark Armed Dragon
1 Blackwing - Gale the Whirlwind
3 Blackwing - Sirocco the Dawn
3 Blackwing - Shura the Blue Flame
3 Blackwing - Bora the Spear
3 Blackwing - Kalut the Moon Shadow
1 Blackwing - Blizzard the Far North
2 Blackwing - Vayu the Emblem of Honor
*1 Dark Grepher

Spells: 13
3 Black Whirlwind
2 Allure of Darkness
1 Heavy Storm
1 Mystical Space Typhoon
1 Brain Control
1 Book of Moon
*1 Giant Trunade
*2 Against the Wind
*1 Burial from a Different Dimension

Traps: 9
2 Bottomless Trap Hole
2 Icarus Attack
1 Mirror Force
1 Torrential Tribute
*3 Reckless Greed

For further comparison, here's a list of the changes between the two builds:

-1 Blackwing - Blizzard the Far North
-1 Book of Moon
-1 Smashing Ground
-1 My Body as a Shield
-2 Royal Oppression
-1 Solemn Judgment
-1 Trap Dustshoot

+1 Dark Grepher
+1 Giant Trunade
+2 Against the Wind
+1 Burial from a Different Dimension
+3 Reckless Greed

While a total of twelve different cards have been rotated in and out of the Level 2 build, the real difference between this version and the first one is simple aggression. Three copies of Reckless Greed and two Against the Wind make it easier to put together swarms of monsters through the special summon abilities of Blackwing - Bora the Spear and Blackwing - Gale the Whirlwind. Reckless also helps the deck's pilot to accrue more cards with Black Whirlwind (by making it easier to get to Whirlwind and monsters to use it with). Dark Grepher and Burial from a Different Dimension also make for faster, easier, earlier Vayu plays, giving a second avenue by which to swarm the field.

These additions largely come at the cost of more patient, control-oriented cards. Solemn Judgment and Trap Dustshoot are gone. The deck's signature Royal Oppression is removed to make room, costing the deck one of its most fundamental strengths. One copy of good ol' reliable Blizzard gets rotated out for the more explosive Grepher, while defensive spells get traded for a single Giant Trunade and more swarm power. While the Level 2 build balanced aggression, defense, and a few combo tricks, this Level 1 version is far more aggressive and wields more explosive combos, at the cost of defense. It also has a few more potentially dead cards, and can find itself trapped in some bad situations the other deck doesn't have to worry about (for instance, opening with useless copies of Against the Wind, or trapping itself in a dead-end with an unlucky Reckless Greed).

Amongst two evenly-matched opponents, the Level 1 build will prove to be somewhat inflexible across the long term. It will also find itself with poor or mismatched draws more often, with awkward hands and the inability to disrupt opposing plays. It's less consistent than the Level 2 deck, which has been specifically built to do more things with the 40 cards it runs.

That's not to say the Level 1 deck is “bad” or incapable of winning. It isn't a sloppy deck or anything: it's been built with a defined purpose in mind. It just so happens that the purpose is narrow, and won't offer an experienced player as many different options as the Level 2 build is capable of. While the Level 2 deck is hands-down the best choice in the case of two evenly-matched competitors, the Level 1 deck is the obvious choice in the case of an outmatched Duelist versus an average Level 2. If a player doesn't have the textbook know-how to wield the Level 2 deck as well as his opponent, and can't play at that level (or simply has no interest in doing so), then the Level 1 deck makes absolute sense. It's easier to run, presents fewer choices on a turn-by-turn basis, and it offers strong plays that are capable of breaking through a Level 2 deck's average routines. Those plays may not emerge consistently, but when they do, they can let a less experienced player steal a Duel (and sometimes even a match) from a more experienced one.

How do we know that's true? Well, for one, it makes perfect sense: if you can't beat a superior Duelist at his or her own game, then subverting the type of game they're prepared to play is a good strategy. If the battlefield favors your opponent, change that battlefield to try and level the competition. But beyond that basic logic we can also just look at real-world examples. I'm sure that if you're reading this, you've been beaten by big combos and aggression from less experienced players. It's also very likely that at some time, you WERE that less experienced player slinging big plays. But we can also look to one of 2009's most memorable feature matches to see this play out in real life.

Feature Match: A Level 1 In Action
If the Level 1 deck outlined above looked familiar, it might be because you've seen one like it in before. One of the most exciting feature matches of 2009 didn't take place in the SHONEN JUMP Championship main event. Instead, we saw a huge David and Goliath matchup at the Side Event Playoffs of SJC Austin, as first-time SJC competitor Davin Davara went up against SHONEN JUMP Champion and former United States Champion Adam Corn. While Corn played Lightsworn, Davara's deck of choice was Blackwings.

Davara was only twelve years old that weekend, and after winning the Dragon Duel tournament on Saturday he wound up scoring the chance to play for a Dark End Dragon on Sunday afternoon. After handily dispatching his opponent in the Top 4 of that playoff with an aggressive Blackwing build he devastated Corn in the first Duel, popping Reckless Greed and then throwing down Giant Trunade and Against the Wind for game. Corn proceeded to eke out two Duel wins after that, but it was an exceptionally close match that really could have gone either way – Davara came within 300 damage of scoring a 2-0 win. Check it out here – it's a really fast read: http://www.konami.com/yugioh/blog/?p=800

Davara was by no means a bad player. Faced with a high-pressure situation he kept his cool, stuck to his gameplan, and though some of his plays could certainly be critiqued, he played his deck the way it was meant to be played and let the chips fall. In Game 2 he plays to a really aggressive pace, exchanging cards and simplifying the Duel a little bit too much. When he makes his last push of that Duel Corn has the clutch copy of Gorz the Emissary of Darkness to retake control, and winds up taking advantage of that simplified game state with Lightning Vortex (a card Davara used moments earlier to create the simplified state in the first place). He loses with a useless copy of Reckless Greed set. In Game 3 Davara's deck punishes him even more, leaving him in one of those situations where Reckless Greed is locking down his draws and he simply can't push hard enough. Just like in the second Duel, Corn has Gorz to once again seal the Duel. It was exceptionally close though, and the match serves as a great example of how Level 1 play tendencies often lead to victory over more studied competitors.

While a lot of Duelists may disregard the potential of less experienced players, the true vets anguish over these types of matches. Most would rather play an average Level 2 Duelist than a Level 1, because the Level 2 Duelist is more predictable and in many ways easier to read and influence. A Level 2 competitor playing conservatively will put forth a more consistent performance across the long term, but the Level 1 has a higher chance of making unexpected plays or sudden over-extensions that can steal games from a more practiced or competitive Duelist. That can be terrifying: knowing that your fate in a tournament could be totally out of your control, and that the skills you've developed may not even get a chance to be used.

Competing Against Level 1 Duelists
So how do you find an edge against Level 1 Duelists? First, let me recommend acceptance – accept that you will sometimes lose to players who have never heard of card advantage, don't know what the “best” decks of the format are, and who haven't been playing as long as you have. It happens. Don't let it get to you – if it does you can find yourself on tilt, which is bad for your table skills. It can also turn you into a complete jerk, ruining your reputation and everybody else's experience. Don't be that guy – it sucks for everybody.

Moving onto actual on-table strategy, it's important to remember that both players exercises input over the pace of the game. If your opponent plays to a fast pace and commits way more cards to the field than you do, you have to adapt your playstyle. Sure, you don't want your opponent to be calling all the shots and dictating your play patterns solely on their whim, but you need to be sure you're developing your field position in a manner that at least lets you keep up. Against a more conservative Duelist, the more cards you play to the table the more opportunities you're offering for the opposition to make advantageous plays and slowly rob you of options. But the Level 1 player is almost never looking to do that – they'll often throw out more cards just to deal damage instead of influencing higher gameplay, or they may not take the opportunities a Level 2 player would perceive. When you're up against a Level 1 you'll often have to match them card for card, compromising between your knowledge of core theory and your want to not get your face smashed in.

The good news? While a Level 1 player's playstyle may require you to give them opportunities they may or may not perceive, it tends to offer you more opportunities as well. Level 1 Duelists are more likely to subject themselves to 2-for-1 plays with their own discard-costed cards like Lightning Vortex. They may also frequently consolidate cards through Synchro Summons at inopportune times, giving you a chance to grab a quick +1 here or there and then take control of the Duel. Simple 1-for-1's like Smashing Ground are gold, because they let you swiftly capitalize on that kind of consolidation. Spell and trap 1-for-1's can offer similar opportunities, destroying a back-row card so you can capitalize through battle. Remember, you only want to match your opponent card for card and you only want to play their game, until you can force them to start playing yours. Once you do that, you'll almost always win.

You'll find one of the best strategies for taking on a Level 1 Duelist is to tease out commitments and consolidations. While leaving yourself open to welcome bigger plays when you have Torrential Tribute or Mirror Force is exceedingly obvious and needs no explanation, think carefully about how you can abuse your opponent's consolidating plays. Does their deck offer Synchro Summon opportunities? Ask yourself how you can encourage Synchro Summons without granting your opponent too many advantageous plays in terms of card economy – often it'll be as simple as pushing back and forcing the opponent to Synchro Summon just to attack over one of your bigger monsters. Defensive cards like Threatening Roar and Battle Fader are gold, because they can give the illusion that you're defenseless and then draw out big plays that you can then counter on your next turn. Learn which buttons to push to make the Level 1 player play defensively, and which to push in order to get aggressive reactions. You want them playing defensively when your range of options is weak, and aggressively when you can capitalize.

Competing Against Level 2 Duelists
Playing against a Level 2 Duelist is different. The Level 2 Duelist offers fewer opportunities for you to take advantage of as far as basic core theory elements go. They think carefully before over-extending, their decks tend to produce a wider range of effects than simple aggressive explosions, and unless they're desperate they'll give you fewer opportunities to make presses against unprotected plays. For instance, a Level 1 player will likely Synchro Summon Stardust Dragon any time he or she has the opportunity to do so, provided they have reason to believe that you might have a defensive destruction card, and they don't have reason to bring out Colossal Fighter instead. The Level 2 player is different – unless he's got a master plan at work, he's not going to bring out Stardust without protection like Bottomless Trap Hole or Book of Moon, because he knows that's just asking to get smacked with Goyo Guardian. Swiping a Stardust Dragon just isn't going to happen nearly as often against a Level 2, as it might against a Level 1. They've had time to build a long set of experiences that quickly turn into general operating rules.

At the same time though, those rules make them almost as predictable as the Level 1 player in many situations – they just have more behaviors and guidelines for you to learn. Learning the reflexes and reactions that make a Level 2 player tick is more complicated than doing the same with a Level 1, but it's like comparing a plastic elementary school recorder to an orchestra-quality flute – once you learn how, you can play them both. Learn the specific rules Level 2 Duelists play by, and you can turn those rules back on them.

All that learning is a complicated process that takes time, and a lot of metagame knowledge, but to Shift gears, here's an easy tip for beating Level 2 competitors: don't suck at side decking. The average Level 2 player is quite good at making tactical decisions during the game – they think hard and they think intelligently about the choices they make. But by comparison, most players truly suck at side decking. The mistakes can be numerous, but here are the five most common pitfalls I see Level 1 and 2 Duelists making:

-No Plan: Before you even sit down in a tournament, you need to know which matchups you're prepared to side for, and what you're going to side in and out when the time comes. I say it over and over, but it always bears repeating: it's easy to plan what to side in, but planning what to side out is the part most people don't bother with. Then, when a given Duelist loses Game 1 and goes to side for Game 2, bad decisions are made because they're being made on the fly. Emotions and short-term reactions to what happened in the last game come into play and cloud decisions, and the next thing you know the round is over and you've lost. Make robust plans for siding cards in, and equally robust plans for siding cards out. Even if something unexpected comes out of a matchup you've planned for, it's easier to adapt an existing plan than it is to make a new one.

-Incomplete Plan: At the same time, make sure your side decking plan is complete. A lot of players will only plan to side for the top matchups in a given format, and then lose in an early round to something like Macro Cosmos. Worse yet, and even more common, is the Duelist who decides he “doesn't have to side!” for a given matchup because he's “better/smarter/stronger/teched” or whatever else. The latter can be tempting, especially if you're playing an innovative deck or feeling clever about your main decked innovations. But be Honest: is there a single deck you couldn't improve your chances against by siding one or two cards? Sure, it can be tough finding slots for everything, but it's better to side a versatile card that can work in multiple matchups, than it is to disregard a major matchup altogether.

-Poor Card Selection: There are people who side G.B. Hunter against Gladiator Beasts. They exist, and they exist in droves, and they side G.B. Hunter even though it's a far more narrow card than Malevolent Catastrophe or Mirror of Oaths. They side it even though it's a monster and using it actively interferes with the development of their own field position. And they side it even though Legendary Jujitsu Master is more practical.

Those people are victims of their own poor card selection. When you're choosing cards to side, you want to balance effectiveness in the targeted matchup, against versatility across a range of situations and the card's impact on your own strategy. Monsters requiring normal summons eat your normal summon for the turn. That's bad. Effects that limit your opponent's moves but that leave them with their cards can be disrupted later and it's like floodgates bursting. That's bad. Certain cards are highly effective, but near-useless when drawn in multiples. That's bad too. Learn to prioritize versatile cards that don't make you compromise your central strategy, and you'll find your side decking to be far more effective.

-Not Enough Cards: When you do find the perfect cards to side, think long and hard before siding just one copy. Yes, variety breeds unpredictability, but as we discussed when we compared Level 1 play habits to Level 2 play habits, it rarely if ever breeds consistency. This is a balancing act between maximizing your chance to have the right card at the right time, and drawing more copies of it than you need, but you shouldn't err on the side of caution when it comes to siding killer tech. Run enough to get the job done.

-Too Predictable: Learn the patterns that other players rely on when side decking. Why is Royal Decree popular in Lightsworn? Because Light-Imprisoning Mirror is popularly sided against Lightsworn. Why is Trap Hole sided in Zombies? Well, it's good against Blackwings, sure, but it's also because Kycoo the Ghost Destroyer gets sided against Zombies. And so on. In any format there are popular, near-axiomatic side decking strategies. Learn to anticipate them, and you can tear them apart.

While beating Level 1 Duelists is largely about matching their commitments until you can take advantage of easily-recognized play habits, beating Level 2 Duelists is far more dependent on learning more complicated sets of habits and playing accordingly. On a lucky day, it's about playing better than the other guy and leaping on him when he screws up. It happens a lot – a huge portion of tournament Duels come down to who messes up first. But on any other day, these Duels often come down to who really understood the match, and the habits displayed in it, the best.

Competing Against Level 3 Duelists
And really, it's that understanding that makes a Level 3 Duelist a superior competitor. The Level 3 Duelist knows all the patterns, habits, rules, and guidelines, and knows not just how to defeat them, but also how to use them himself as any less-experienced Duelist would to its maximum effect. I'm sitting here and I'm looking at Claudio Kirchmair's Zombie deck from SJC Los Angeles and that's what I'm seeing. Kirchmair went into this event knowing that a number of vocal, top-level competitors believed the Krebons / Teleport build of Zombies to be fundamentally stronger than the Deepsea Diva builds. While Diva's a bit more explosive on the surface level, the Krebons build is a little more versatile and offers bigger plays and more consistent singular draws. So what did Kirchmair do?

He played the Diva build anyways, but augmented it with main decked copies of Royal Oppression and a whopping three Burial from a Different Dimension so he could explode with special summons and then lock down his opponents. This is nothing new – we saw this in TeleDAD decks one format ago, and we saw it in Gladiator Beasts one format before. The kicker here is that Kirchmair mained three copies of Tragoedia as well, protecting himself in those situations where he was forced to flip Oppression before he could explode: that changed his gameplan into something truly multi-dimensional. The side deck is an outstanding example too, making use of popular side deck materials like Kycoo the Ghost Destroyer, while also playing those responsive and anticipatory cards like Trap Hole. He's optimized his side for maximum versatility, and runs a couple cheeky one-ofs to throw people offguard as well. Great Yu-Gi-Oh! on all levels.

So how do you beat someone like that consistently? Even if you stay on the cutting edge, of ongoing trends, practice your heart out, pack all the right tech, and make a number of brilliant creative tactical choices, you won't beat a Level 3 Duelist consistently. At best, it's going to be a coin flip unless you have a serious matchup advantage or your opponent is extremely tired.

The only way you can win consistently against the best this game has to offer is to innovate. Don't get me wrong, if you only want to win say, 20% of the time and think that's the best odds you can get, play hyper-aggressive, adopt a Level 1 style, and spin the wheel. But if you want to actually have a real advantage you have to be doing something so far off the map that these guys just don't see it coming, and your execution needs to be flawless. You need to become a trend-setter, and anything less than that isn't going to give you consistent results. If you can't manage that, then the best advice is to hold on for the ride, do your best, and look at it as a learning experience.

While the Dueling world is a menagerie of thousands of different types of people from all walks of life, understanding your opponent is an invaluable asset. The habits and viewpoints described here won't always be spot-on, but they can give you a starting point from which to grow your understanding. Your judgment about a player's nature won't always be perfect to begin with, but in time you'll be able to test your opponent's appropriately and instantly learn which paradigms they fit into. You'll also find it easier to understand yourself and your own habits too, so you can embrace your nature or seek to change it accordingly. Just remember – lots of different people play this game, and at the end of the day experience, win percentage, or brilliant plays don't make you a better or more worthy human being. Appreciate where other Duelists are coming from, be respectful, and you won't just be more successful in competition – you'll have a better time, and you'll make a lot more friends.

-Jason Grabher-Meyer
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