Sometimes you don’t need to have the weight of the entire world on your shoulders to have an epic duel. In fact, fighting for a global cause is hardly a requirement for really intense dueling.
Intense dueling comes from the heart. It’s a battleground to work out family problems and personal issues or to face your personal demons. Dueling takes those tricky, abstract conflicts and fleshes them out into physical monsters.
What distinguishes the following duels as the top five is the deeply personal nature of these duels. Duels can be fun and generally are but they can also be very psychologically scarring. The downside to epic season finale duels is that you tend to already “know” who’s going to win. With mid-season duels that take place in the thick of things, the outcome of these duels are markedly unpredictable. Sometimes, the good guys don’t always win, or if they win, the victory leaves a bitter aftertaste in the mouth.
Yes, even card games can make you cry.
Warning: long post with many self-indulgent screenshots ahead. And card games. Prepare yourself!
5. Kaiba-Yugi vs Noah – Virtual World Arc
Tag-team duels are nothing new in Yu-Gi-Oh! but I do believe this is the first time in the franchise where a second takes over the duel.
Seto Kaiba is such an interesting character. He’s the kind of guy you would hate in real life–arrogant, contemptuous, and full of self-entitlement. But he’s a guy with a lot of emotional baggage and behind the aloof millionaire facade is a pretty sensitive man. He’s prideful but that’s partly because he’s accomplished so much in so little a time. From humble beginnings in the orphanage to speeding his way up the corporate ladder, he’s sacrificed a lot to get the business empire he stands on top of.
Noah might be a victim of circumstance (you have to feel at least a little bit sorry for him when you hear how Gozaburo abandoned him when he pretty much died) but that certainly doesn’t justify his actions. If duel decks are the reflection of their wielders’ souls, the decks say a lot about their duelists.
Kaiba’s key cards, I’ve noticed, especially in this duel, tend to lean towards LIGHT-attribute monsters, like Kaiser Seahorse, Different Dimension Dragon, and of course, Blue Eyes White Dragon. They’re fierce and prideful creatures but are also incredibly resilient. No sneaky roundabouts-just pure, unadulterated power. Kind of like Kaiba. I actually thought that Different Dimension Dragon represented the younger Seto Kaiba: despite having a sub-standard ATK and DEF, it’s as tough as nails and hard to get rid of, thanks to its special ability to protect itself from spell and trap cards targeting it.
Kaiba’s deck aside (clearly built on strength and beauty), Noah’s deck also warrants some explanation as it represents a perfect foil to Kaiba’s deck, which is built around the theme of light, and the “light of the future” that Kaiba vows to grasp (Japanese version Kaiba, as you’ll find, is considerably more eloquent than the 4Kids Kaiba).
If Kaiba’s deck looks to the future, Noah’s deck is hopelessly stuck in the stasis of the past. Featuring classical and ancient figures like Chiron the Mage, Giant Rex, and Shinato’s Ark (I suppose calling it Noah’s Ark would be just way too obvious), Noah’s cards pay homage to the past, mirroring his fixation on his own traumatic childhood. Shinato’s Ark, unlike Kaiba’s LIGHT monsters, is literally a stronghold of surprises and Noah’s strategy of using the card to gain LP appropriately reflects his desire to truly live (as opposed to being stuck in the deathly stillness of cyberspace).
At least in the English dub, there’s a heavy emphasis on Yami Yugi insisting that Noah is “cheating.” Which is a really interesting accusation considering that Noah didn’t actually “cheat” in the game. His conduct beyond the card game, of course, was beyond deplorable but Yami Yugi places great faith in Kaiba’s dueling by implying that Noah’s possession of Mokuba as hostage significantly crippled his chances for victory. The duel for possession of KaibaCorp becomes not just a contest based on the outcome of a children’s card game but also as a contest of moral integrity and worth. Kaiba, despite losing the duel, comes out on top because he 1)despite terrible odds, conducted himself honorably; 2) chose the safety of his brother over a certain victory.
Gasp! Guess it’s not just about winning card games.
But actually, thanks to Noah’s power tripping, Yami Yugi takes it upon himself to finish Kaiba’s duel, to shove it in Noah’s face that Noah is inferior to Kaiba in all ways, including Duel Monsters. It’s an epic brawl, mostly one-sided as Noah’s spirit monsters (again, very representative of him considering their transient, physical existences) make mincemeat out of Yami Yugi (with a 9900 LP difference, that’s hardly surprising).
One inspired hallucination later, Yami Yugi pulls off the most perfect combo, proving once and for all, that friendship is the true victor and that card games are the ultimate test for determining one’s self-worth. (All is right with the YGO universe.)
WTF move: That Card of Sanctity and how it gave Yami Yugi EXACTLY what he needed to pull off that 6-card STATISTICALLY IMPOSSIBLE COMBO.
4. Yugi vs Yami Yugi – Waking the Dragons Arc
Not all duels need four episodes to be intense. Yugi and Yami Yugi duking it out in a desolate spirit circle (in the canyons of America, because America is somehow exotic). Short and simple is sometimes all you need.
Short with a dash of brutality.
I really like this duel because unlike some “filler duels,” it’s a duel crafted with narrative poise and intent. The actual duel itself isn’t anything complicated–in fact, it’s a replay, an echo of the duel Yami Yugi played earlier in the season. Instead of being bored though, the repetition of the moves send chills down our (and Yami Yugi’s) spines.
Probably because it’s really disconcerting to see innocent Yugi playing so cruelly.
From a technical standpoint, the duel they have is not at all elegant or sophisticated. Yugi, pantomiming Yami Yugi mercilessly goads his Orichalcos-boosted monsters to attack. Yami Yugi can only defend, feeble attempts to avoid confrontation. It’s such a painful thing to watch.
The original dialogue exchanged between the two during this duel varies considerably (as par the course for 4kids dubs). In the 4Kids English dub, the focus of the conversation was on Yami Yugi’s fear of the evil inside of him and his fear to discover that he might not have been an honorable and righteous pharaoh as he was led to believe.
I don’t really like how they’ve dumbed it down to Yami Yugi being “evil.” Evil is so commonly used that it’s become a watered-down, almost meaningless word that vaguely destroys immoral acts.
In the Japanese version, the conversation is a little more complex. Yugi accuses Yami Yugi of not necessarily being “evil” but of an arrogance that only the heroic and strong are prone to. He acknowledges Yami Yugi’s dueling skills but that Yami Yugi’s strength actually clouds his ability to empathize with the plight of others.
Pride goeth before a fall and Yami Yugi’s realized how far he’s fallen. Having become far too accustomed to the sweet nectar of victory, Yami Yugi feels lost and powerless. Miserable and believing himself alone, he doesn’t put up of much of a fight. In a way, suffering at the hands of Yugi is a small atonement for his self-centered actions.
WTF move: Yugi playing The Seal of Orichalcos which is pretty much a slap in the face for Yami Yugi, who’s still facing the scars from having played that card against Raphael.
But Yugi’s challenge is not a punishment but a test. The Seal of Orichalcos is not the true mirror of Yami Yugi’s soul–Yugi is. By showing aggression, Yami Yugi gets to place himself in his partner’s shoes–to look at himself truly. Only by realizing and empathizing with Yugi can Yami Yugi master the pain he’s inflicted (on himself and on others) and transform that pain into a strength built not on victory but on the resilience of one who has tasted defeat and is not afraid of it. See how much card games can teach a person?
3. Yugi vs Raphael (1) – Waking the Dragons Arc
Speaking of Raphael…
I was tempted to choose their second confrontation, the one where Yami Yugi faces off for his rematch, but this duel ended up edging out over the rematch mainly because of two reasons:
1) It was very clear what the outcome would be for the rematch duel, so minus points for the suspense factor.
2) Raphael duels WAY better in this first duel. (Seriously, the Seal of Orichalcos must have taken whatever was left of his brain in the rematch duel because that was some seriously bad dueling on his part). What person in the right mind would ditch OP Guardian Eatos for Dreadscythe?
WTF move: Yami Yugi playing The Seal of Orichalcos. Logically, playing it wasn’t even necessary. The duel didn’t even have any stakes. As long as Yami Yugi refrained from playing it, then the duel would have ended in an inconsequential loss.
For King of Games, the guy’s mighty scared of losing.
It’s always interesting to meet a villain that duels smart. It’s even more interesting to meet a villain that not only duels smart but treats his cards so well that he’ll do anything to keep them out of the Card Graveyard. Unlike Alister who’s got some anger management issues to work out, Raphael’s a fairly down-to-earth and very logical guy. Albeit a bit disillusioned and dissatisfied with the world, but it’s a bit of a stretch to call him a “madman.”
But then again, empathy with villains has never been Yami Yugi’s strongest point. And it’s something that forms the central core of conflict in this season–the capacity to not merely fear darkness but to understand and ultimately subdue it when it throws the world out of balance.
There’s more to playing card games than just strategy and use of the cards. The show’s been gradually hinting that the monsters on the cards aren’t fictional beings–they’re real creatures with souls. As such, it’s pretty irksome when your owner has so little faith in himself or his cards that he’s willing to rely on a foreign, clearly malignant force to assure him victory. Which is why I’m convinced that the reason why Yami Yugi lost is not because he was throwing monsters down to tribute them for Catapult Turtle‘s effect, but because of the manner in which he did so.
To keep the series’ moral framework from imploding on itself, anyone, even the main character, who betrays the Heart of the Cards, cannot win. This duel was possibly the most painful lesson that Yami Yugi ends up learning in the entire series and for that, it deserves the recognition of being the third best duel in Yu-Gi-Oh! history.
2. Yugi vs Joey (2) – Battle City Arc
Nothing says passive-aggressive intimacy like chaining you and your best friend to an anchor above the ocean.
A duel between friends would have been a pleasure to watch under any circumstances. Unlike the previous match in Duelist Kingdom, there is no honor in victory, only despair.
Just the recipe for one of the most infamous duels in YGO history (this statement, by the way, is confirmed in YGO GX, where the Duel Academy students actually get a TOUR of the famous Battle City sites).
It’s actually pretty hilarious the lengths 4Kids went to tone down the inherent danger of the duel’s set-up. From removing the explosives attached to the crate hanging above Tea’s head to (unsuccessfully) downplaying the intended outcome of the duel (death by drowning), it’s the closest 4Kids will get to actually admitting that death is a very real possibility in a universe where the worst punishment so far has been a trip to the “Shadow Realm.”
This duel is fascinating to watch because the duelists who start the duel are ultimately not the ones who finish it. You have Marik manipulating Joey (pretty much all him) in the first half. Though Yami Yugi and Yugi are cooperatively dueling, Yami Yugi starts off the duel, only to relinquish control when Yugi insists on dueling Joey himself.
I love how thrown off Marik is when Yugi takes over. He’s so surprised and disappointed-he wants to defeat the Pharaoh himself, not his mortal tagalong. Though he seems to have forgotten that Yugi is just as capable of a duelist as his darker counterpart.
WTF move: When Yugi plays Exchange, allowing Joey to see the Red Eyes Black Dragon he has in his hand.
It’s such a gutsy move, and one that I wager that even Yami Yugi wouldn’t have dared play given their circumstances. The Red Eyes packs a wallop of Symbolic Power and just the perfect thing to shake Joey back to his senses.
Strong and rare cards with powerful effects aren’t everything. The addition of high-powered magic cards like Raigeki, Hinotama, and Meteor of Destruction (all illegal by Battle City standards given their direct devastation on the opponent) fits well with the style of Marik’s attack style- swift, thorough and brutal (and illegal). It’s not too much of a stretch to see how the heavy reliance of magic cards points to Marik’s equally judicious use of his Millennium Rod to enchant and subjugate the wills of others.
Another theme besides the bonds of friendship prevails in this duel (and in the season)-the concept of ownership. You have duelists running around to collect cards and claim ownership over them, but an important concept often taken for granted is the ownership over the duel, and by extension, destiny itself. Yugi calls the refusal of Marik to reveal himself “cowardice,” which is really another way of calling out Marik’s reluctance to take ownership of the duel without a proxy. He wants to reap the benefits but spare himself the humiliation of facing defeat himself.
Another theme that this duel introduces is the idea of Yugi gaining independence to stand up for his friends by himself, without the spirit’s interference. Their conversation during the duel is an interesting one and you can really see how Yami Yugi pressures Yugi into letting him take over to protect Yugi from the danger but how Yugi, to the spirit’s surprise, pushes back and asserts himself so well that the spirit has no choice but to respect Yugi’s wishes.
But there’s more than one way to be defeated, just as there’s more than one way to win a duel. Yugi’s moves are so efficiently, emotionally motivated–every card he plays is armed with the intent of reminding Joey of their bond. Mystical Refpanel (Spirit’s Mirror) is literally a giant mirror, which is just a big GIMME SYMBOL in literature and media.
Just a short list on what Mystical Refpanel really means:
1) As a mirror, it can both reflect and distort light, allowing you to both see yourself truly and untruly. The distortion (swirly colors and whatnot) reflects the Joey’s distorted self under mind control.
2) Mystical Refpanel is a Trap Card, and can negate the effects of an opponent’s Spell. Again, the negation of the spell stands for not just Meteor of Destruction, but also the lifting of Marik’s spell.
3) Mirrors reflect and can be manipulated in different directions, depending on what the beholder’s desires. Yugi chooses to reflect the attack back on himself (purely symbolic because he’s still taking Meteor Destruction’s damage) but the decision shows Yugi’s resolve to take charge of his own destiny and divert the message that Marik was trying to send–that friendship can be broken.
All’s well that ends well. Joey figures out that a tie fulfills the conditions for both boxes to unlock. I would go on about how water’s another GIMME SYMBOL, and pairs well with the mirror symbolism as they’re both reflective substances, but I’ve prattled enough about this duel.
1. Yugi vs Atem – Dawn of the Duel Arc
Fact. This duel never fails to make me cry.
You’ll notice that it’s the only duel I’ve given a perfect score. And in many ways, I do find it an example of the perfect duel. Though it’s certainly not the most sophisticated duel ever (GX and 5Ds go on to advance the gameplay, in mostly positive ways), it’s the most evenly matched and paced duel in the anime.
It’s not just a duel, it’s a duel. The Ceremonial Duel, aptly named, is a rite of passage. Though the 4kids dub reworked the dialogue a bit, it was pleasant to see that the overall message was kept. Atem’s spirit which has led a life of battle for so long has a chance to finally find rest, but he’ll need someone to show him that his battle days are over by facing defeat.
Both decks were clearly built with great care and reflect the personalities of the two. This is not a duel between two halves–but a duel between two twin souls.
One thing I’ve noticed about the English and Japanese versions is the slight (but marked) difference of address for Yugi and Atem. Prior to reclaiming his memories, Atem was referred to as “The Other Yugi” (Mou hitori no Yugi) or “The Other Me” (Mou hitori no boku). Obviously, this doesn’t translate well literally into English, so 4Kids experimented with “Yami” (a name unceremoniously dropped early Battle City) before settling on “Pharaoh.” Following suit, everyone, including Yugi, began to refer to Atem as the Pharaoh.
Such a formal title of address further emphasizes that Atem is not the other Yugi but rather a person in his own right. There’s never any doubt that Atem and Yugi are two different people in the English dub.
In the Japanese version, the “Other me” naming business blurs this divide somewhat. It’s an address that suggests a deeper intimacy, that while Yugi acknowledges Atem as a separate person, Atem is close enough to his heart that he IS part of him.
Naming schemes aside, the duel itself is fantastic. It’s rare to see all three Egyptian God cards out in action (last time was Battle City Finals). Looking back, summoning all three is unwieldy and time-consuming but pulled off with startling grace. While most of the cards Atem uses are familiar and used many times before, there’s no doubt they’re effective.
If Atem’s deck is stacked with familiar cards, a tribute to the past, Yugi’s deck resembles the potential of the future. His cards are decidedly modern–whimsical creatures that appear more appropriate in a child’s playroom than in battle.
But while Yugi’s monsters may be endearingly juvenile in appearance, they’re hardly toys. Not unlike a certain tri-colored spiky haired youth, monsters like Marshmellon, Silent Swordsman, and Gadget Brothers are more than they appear. The fact that Yugi’s cards often rely on each other for support and/or get stronger with each passing turn points to the philosophy of Yugi’s growth throughout the series. Yugi’s grown stronger with his friends and though he’s not as flashy about it, Yugi can think just like Atem, allowing him to read deeply into the game.
The writers spare no expense in pulling all of the strings of nostalgia in spite of the new cards. Besides Battle City favorites like the Magnet Warrior Trio (Alpha, Beta, and Gamma), you also see cards like Summoned Skull and Curse of Dragon–which haven’t seen much play since Duelist Kingdom. And of course, what would a duel be without Dark Magician?
I could talk all day about each and every card played, but in the interest of time, I want to limit my card discussion to one card in particular- Slifer the Sky Dragon (in the Japanese version, Osiris no Tenkuuryuu, often translated as either St. Dragon of Osiris or Osiris the Sky Dragon. I like the second translation better because it doesn’t quite mix religions as much and is a closer translation).
It’s not terribly difficult to piece out that there’s a close relationship between Slifer and Atem. Besides being the first Egyptian God he wins in Battle City, the original name suggests another parallel. For those who may be a little rusty in Egyptian mythology, Osiris is the Egyptian God of the afterlife, the underworld and the dead. Before he became a god, Osiris was a king but was killed by his brother Set, who wanted the throne (nice guy, huh). His wife and sister, Isis, gathered the pieces and lo and behold, Osiris was brought back to life.
Luckily in Atem’s case, his cousin, Seto, actually turned out to be a pretty okay, non-usurping guy, but regardless, the connection of resurrection still holds (I could also get into a tangent on Atem’s Jesus-like tendencies–at one point, he’s shown walking on water–but let’s not go there).
Though never explicitly mentioned, Slifer the Sky Dragon is Atem’s key card. Note that Yugi’s grand strategy to defeat all three Egyptian Gods in one turn (Magnet Force is such a broken card) relies on Slifer the Sky Dragon‘s weakness–its second mouth attack triggered by new summons (a weakness, ironically, previously exploited by Atem during Battle City). A subtle way of showing everyone that immensity of strength isn’t everything and redirecting that strength is an effective means of catching a stronger opponent off guard.
I find it interesting that out of all of the Egyptian God cards, Atem chooses to resurrect Slifer. Practically speaking, it’s the weakest one of the three Egyptian Gods. Summoning Ra is pretty much out of question, considering its special ability requires Life Points that Atem doesn’t have but Obelisk would have been another option, since its default ATK is also 4000.
Of course Atem’s choice of Egyptian God ultimately doesn’t matter, thanks to Yugi’s Golden Sarcophagus, which seals off Atem’s Monster Reborn. It’s a crushing move but so very thematically perfect. And just in case the audience couldn’t catch the metaphorical message of that play, Ishizu explains the message of Yugi cutting off Slifer’s revival:
The dead don’t belong in this world.
Oof. How hard is it to tell someone so close to you, the other half of your soul, that he doesn’t belong here anymore? You can see how difficult it is for Yugi, once Slifer is gone, to call out his last attack. He falters, adrenaline rush gone, at the terribly empty space between his Silent Magician and Atem. But Atem, taking a leaf from his partner’s–his aibou–book gently calls out to him to complete his turn.
The feels. THE FEELS. I won’t admit that I cried like Yugi when he realized that Atem’s time on Earth was done, or that some significant part of me cheered when Tea tried again to get Atem to stay. But Joey Wheeler unexpectedly saves things from a full on sob-fest with some well put words of wisdom:
I guess there are some things we’re not supposed to understand. Just look at me: I go through half my life not understanding what’s going on. But I know that true friends may be hard to leave, but they’re impossible to forget. And even though his stay wasn’t as long as we would have liked, we’re lucky we knew him at all…Hey Pharaoh, I hate to break the terrible news to ya but you’re not going anywhere, ’cause everything you’ve given us stays right here in our hearts!
Cheesy, but it works and everyone finds solace in Joey’s words. I’d like to think that Atem’s realized that though he’s leaving for a different place, his friends are always with him.
Thus concludes AM’s Top Ten Yu-Gi-Oh! Duels of All-Time. The duels never quite follow the legal rulings–and in some cases–they just completely screw over any few rules left in the first place–but you can’t deny these duels were fun to watch. And maybe you learned a little something about humanity in the process too.
Here’s to children’s card games!