It’s no secret that Yu-Gi-Oh! is clearly the best anime of all time.
Okay, I kid. But seriously, it’s a great show. Despite the game being broken and smashed six ways to Sunday, Duel Monsters is a surprisingly thought out game. Sure the card mechanics and convoluted gameplay may bewilder and frustrate even the most veteran gamers, but at the end of the day, it’s really about enjoying the cards and having a good time. The duel becomes not just a game, but a central means of communication between the characters of the show.
Rather than posit the thesis Yu-Gi-Oh‘s takeaway point is that card games are really just a metaphor for life (a topic well worth exploring in a future post), I’ll take the slightly more traveled road and conduct a highly subjective, yet incredibly scientific test to determine the top 10 duels in the Yu-Gi-Oh! anime series.
Note that the sample will draw on duels from the first Duel Monsters series, which excludes the original Season Zero (which portrays an even more broken DM system), and subsequent spin-off franchises such as GX, 5Ds, and Zexal.
Warning: Ridiculously long blog post with many screenshots ahead. Proceed with caution.
The Incredibly Scientific Method
You can view the spreadsheet I created for this extremely scientific endeavor here: AM_YGORankings.
I counted off the number of total duels (80 duels) and for the sake of maintaining a modicum of brevity, assigned each duel to a “Duel Code,” which contains the season/story arc the duel took place as well as the order of appearance within the story arc.
DK- Duelist Kingdom BC – Battle City VW – Virtual World Arc BCF – Battle City Finals
WD – Waking the Dragons Arc GC – Grand Championship DD- Dawn of the Duel Arc
Each duel was given a calculated raw score, scored on the following five criteria:
The Cool Factor: Any cool cards featured in the duel? Egyptian Gods? Blue Eyes White Dragons? Any cards that feature any rare cards with sweet effects, unusual abilities, and/or are just awe-worthy score well in this category. (0-10 points)
The Clever Factor: It’s not about the cards you have, but how you play ’em. Put ’em up if you’ve made envy-inspiring combos, broken “unbreakable” strategies, or just have consistently solid game play. You rule the rules and make them work for you every time. (0-10 points)
The Suspense Factor: It’s no fun to watch when it’s obvious who’s going to win. Close duels are where it’s at–it’s a dog-fight to hold on to those last few points and if you’re going down, well, let’s make sure you take your opponent down with you. (0-10 points)
The Pacing Factor: Trash talking while you’re on the duel is inevitable, but it need not be the focus of the duel. You’re here to play cards, not chat about the weather! With a few exceptions, duels shouldn’t have to run past three episodes–unless it’s really close. (0-10 points)
The Symbolic Factor: It’s not enough to just play for fun. Fun makes a duel enjoyable but not epic. An epic duel requires there be some stakes high enough to keep things interesting (playing for one’s soul or the fate of the world is standard fare, by the way). Even better if the duel also carries some important moral message or represents something significant to the participants. What’s the message? How serious are you going to take this “game”? (0-10 points)
Going by this system, a perfect duel would be 50 points. If you take a look at the spreadsheet, you’ll notice that going by percentage-wise, there are a lot of crappy duels. This is where the data can be a little misleading since having a 50% or a 25/50 looks horrible, numbers-wise (I mean, you wouldn’t want that on a test), but doesn’t actually mean the duel was necessarily a bad one.
Take DK21, which was the duel between Yugi and Rebecca after Duelist Kingdom. It wasn’t a particularly sophisticated duel (Rebecca’s quick discard of low-level monsters to power up Shadow Ghoul is a decent strategy and Yugi’s Soul Release, had he gone through with it, would have been an excellent counter) but the stakes weren’t very high and given that the duel has the limits of pre-Battle-City tournament play, there isn’t much room for a lot of jaw-dropping combos. So, not a terrible duel, but fairly unremarkable.
After assigning each duel a numerical score, I pulled the duels with the top ten highest scores. There were a lot of ties so to break the ties, I gave each of the top qualifying ten (actually, there were eleven, due to several ties) an adjusted “epic” score, which reevaluates duels with the same score and closely looks more at how extravagant or memorable the duels were.
The final number crunching yields the following list, which I humbly present as Yu-Gi-Oh!‘s finest duels.
The List Itself (Part I)
Honorable Mention: Yugi vs Kaiba (2) – Duelist Kingdom Arc
I know, I know. It was a tough choice to make but the intensity of confronting an Egyptian God card edged out over the emotional rush of this Duelist Kingdom duel. A lot of the gameplay in Duelist Kingdom is frighteningly simple or pulls just too many deus ex machinas out of the deck, so most of the Duelist Kingdom duels didn’t get a particularly high score.
But this duel marks high for its creative combo play (Kaiba’s Crush Virus strategy and Blue Eyes Ultimate Dragon pitted against Yugi’s impenetrable wall of multiplying Kuribohs is still an awesome sight) and its heart-wrenching conclusion.
WTF move: Fusing Mammoth Graveyard with the Living Arrow card to reduce Blue Eyes Ultimate Dragon to a melting pile of goo. Yeah…I’m not sure how that works either.
10. Yugi vs Strings – Battle City Arc
Thank God for Battle City rules, which gave the DM game much needed improvements. It meant you couldn’t bust out a Dark Magician in the very first turn or sic a newly polymerized Black Skull Dragon on your opponent without waiting a turn. The variety of decks and deck strategies also expanded, further increasing bold and new ways of winning.
The duel between Yugi and Strings scores particularly high in the cool and clever categories. Slifer the Sky Dragon has a particularly interesting set of abilities. It’s unaffected by spell and trap cards directly targeting it (one of the perks of being an Egyptian God card) and its attack power is determined by the size of its player’s hand. As if it didn’t have enough firepower, its second mouth weakens any newly summoned opposing monster’s ATK by 2000 points.
How Yugi breaks the infinite loop strategy is so thematically perfect. Marik (the guy controlling Strings) is so fully convinced that he’s got the duel won, but hubris proves to be his downfall.
The funny thing about continuous trigger cards is that chaining them together is a great way of maximizing their abilities and under normal circumstances, can be devastating on the field. But the price of relying on a chain is that it requires the player to cede control from the game, a price that Yugi realized and used to his advantage to force Marik to keep drawing cards while his life points remained intact. It’s duel cunning at its best and what better way to take down a man’s pride than to defeat his God card?
WTF move: Yugi using Brain Control to take over Revival Jam and reviving Buster Blader via Monster Reborn to trigger the world’s longest turn ever. What a boss.
9. Joey vs Marik – Battle City Finals
Often overlooked, this duel features some impressive dueling from Joey Wheeler, who’s come a long way from throwing down weak warrior cards without any rhyme or reason. Given that the stakes are pretty high–each time a monster gets weakened or destroyed, the damage is dealt to the monster’s owner–and Joey’s got a bone to pick with Marik for messing with his girl–it’s no surprise the duel runs hot.
Marik hits Joey with everything he’s got, but Joey admirably fights back, showing our insane, face-distorting antagonist that Joey’s no second-rate duelist. Battle City’s proven to be the perfect training ground for Joey, as he dismantles Marik’s strategy with powerhouse cards like Jinzo and Gilford the Lightning.
WTF move: When Joey manages to summon Gearfried the Iron Knight in attack mode after the Winged Dragon of Ra obliterated his Gilford the Lightning. One word and he would have had that duel won.
8. Yugi vs Marik – Battle City Finals
When you have three Egyptian God cards duking it out for the fate of the world, you know the duel’s going to be epic. Throw in some Shadow Game rules to put some innocent human souls on the line and you’ve got yourself a duel! The emotions–vengeance, justice, and just plain rage–run so high you forget that in the end, it’s just a children’s card game.
Children’s card game aside, this game has some fan-tuck-fastic play. I love how Yami Yugi’s not afraid to get down and dirty, pulling Exchange on Marik to swipe his Monster Reborn, or using Soul Taker to tribute Marik’s Egyptian God Slime to activate Obelisk the Tormentor‘s special ability. Whatever it takes to win, eh?
Also, Ragnarok, while obviously a very cool card, has the ridiculous price of removing from play every single monster from the player’s deck, hand, and Graveyard. When you think about it, a Dark Hole is just as effective and way less costly. But maybe it’s good not to take chances when facing the Winged Dragon of Ra, one of the most broken cards in the game.
WTF move: When Yami Yugi drew and set Fiend Sanctuary without looking at it. Still trying to make a believer out of Kaiba yet.
7. Yugi vs Pegasus – Duelist Kingdom Arc
What do you do when your opponent cheats?
Obviously, you cheat right back.
There’s something delightfully entertaining about watching people screw the rules of a game that hasn’t quite figured itself out yet. You get the sense that the creators are making stuff up as they go along, pulling out special abilities and combos out of thin air. You get some of that here but it’s still more grounded than previous iterations (it helps that Kaiba vs Pegasus match laid some of the groundwork for Toon World‘s effects). But even time-honored classic tactics like pairing Dark Magician with Magical Hats or slipping Spellbinding Circle prove ineffective. Because it’s hard to pull the wool over the eye that can read every frigging thought in your mind.
It’s so very satisfying when Yugi’s Mind Shuffling prevents Pegasus from reading his strategy and you realize that Pegasus’s dueling prowess relies almost exclusively on his anticipation of his opponent’s strategies. Without absolute foresight Pegasus falls for the simplest of traps (Mirror Force is old, but still OP).
Of course, once the duel’s taken to the Shadow Realm, the duel steps up a notch. What’s great about this is how utterly symbolic and baring the respective players’ monsters are. In the Shadow Realm, there are no secrets, no pretenses. Strip away Pegasus’s childlike, goon-loving facade, and you have an extremely bitter, parasitic man who can’t seem to stop himself from taking all the things that his opponents hold so dear–their loved ones. Not unlike a certain Relinquished that can’t seem to keep its mouth to itself.
The Magician of Black Chaos clearly represents Yami Yugi, the lone warrior prepared to venue his fallen friend. But victory, like many duels, is not a solo but a team effort. The friendship circle Tea initiates is cheesy but conveys the show’s message of the strength of friendship and solidarity. The Magician of Black Chaos may be the monster to deliver the final blow but it’s the army of kamikaze Kuribohs that cripple Pegasus’s Thousand Eyes Restrict, rendering it powerless.
WTF move: When Pegasus is about to clinch the duel with his exploding Jigen Bakudan but Yami Yugi miraculously activates Dark Magic Ritual, the very card he needs to rescue his Dark Magician and turn the duel around. Yugi didn’t even need a Millennium Eye to foresee the card’s use. You go, Yugi.
6. Yugi-Kaiba vs Dartz – Waking the Dragons Arc
Behold! The longest duel in YGO history!
But actually. Tag-team duels are fairly uncommon in Yu-Gi-Oh! with each season averaging around 1-2 of them. And it’s not hard to see why. Tag-team duels are LONG affairs and can drag and truly test a viewer’s patience. Tag-team duels with an audience are also prone to this pacing faux pas, since tag-team duels are almost always accompanied with twice the chit-chat.
Given that this is the final duel of Waking the Dragons, the writers spared no expense with stuffing us a duel that works well as exposition, metaphor, and just an end-of-the-world stakes brawl. Yami Yugi and Seto Kaiba–much as they might be adverse to admit it–make an incredibly dangerous tag-team. I mean, the first two turns consists of nothing less than bringing out Master of Dragon Knight, a twice polymerized monster with 5000 ATK.
Despite our heroes’ valiant efforts, the duel is grim and bleak, almost oppressive. You can almost feel how heavily the Atlantean past is weighing down on the duel, how old the conflict between dark and light, and just the sheer scale of the battles fought.
If the Seal of Orichalcos wasn’t a cheater card before, it now certainly is when Dartz introduces its multiple rings of BS. Gaining 500 LP for every monster he has on the field? Tributing your own monster so you can destroy an opponent’s attacking one? Your monsters being immune to your opponent’s spell and trap cards? It’s the ultimate cheater’s card (except for maybe Golden Castle of Stromberg).
Kaiba might be a big jerk when both on and off the duel court but he really shines in this duel, pulling fast and well-timed cards such as Cost-Down, Attack Guidance Barrier, and Mirror Force Dragon. More often than not, he’s the one pulling the weight in the duel, especially with Yami Yugi’s hesitance to attack the Mirror Knights for fear of obliterating the souls of his friends.
In fact, it takes Kaiba’s “death” for Yami Yugi to realize that pulling the punches isn’t helping anybody but Dartz and it’s a truly inspiring, and ultimately selfless move that speaks of Kaiba’s desperation and faith in the pharaoh to avenge him.
WTF move: That moment when Yami Yugi drew Legend of Heart, which had up until that point been nothing but a blank card. Now that’s a magic card!
Stay tuned next week for Part 2, which covers the top five duels in YGO history!