Mind Games in Competitive Yu-Gi-Oh: More Than Just Cardboard

Hey guys, I’m back again with another Theory-oh article. This week, I’m going to be discussing how game-changing mind games can be in Yu-Gi–Oh; from conveying information, to simply luring your opponent into a false sense of security, mind games can sometimes be essential to guide your way to victory.

VanitysEmptinessSTBL-EN-C-1EFirst and foremost, I’d like to emphasize the importance of mind games in competitive Yu-Gi-Oh by referring to Patrick Hoban’s YCS Toronto tournament report. For our purposes, round 5 game 3 is the perfect demonstration of how necessary mind games can be. In this game, Hoban is in a situation where his opponent has Emptiness, and Hoban uses mind games to win the match.

“If he flips Emptiness, I outright lose. If he doesn’t, I have a White Dragon in my hand, Shaddoll Beast, and Chaos Sorcerer, but only Darks in grave. I realize that I need him to wait on Emptiness, so I act is if I’m thinking aloud about scooping so he doesn’t think I have anything. He’s not feeling threatened, so he doesn’t flip the Emptiness. I summon Wyverbuster and tribute for Beast. I crash Beast into Winda. When I attack, I look at the life, acting as if I didn’t realize how low I was and that Sephylon could just attack me for game. He thinks me crashing Beast was a mistake and the game is about to end, but in actuality I wanted him to think that and not flip Emptiness. The Wyverbuster gave me a light for Chaos Sorcerer, but I couldn’t summon it until I got rid of Winda since Wyverbuster was special summoned. I banish the Sephylon, and he verbally acknowledges how I had tricked him into letting me clear his field.”

As you can see, Hoban gets himself out of an otherwise sticky predicament simply by luring his opponent into a false sense of security, which ultimately not only won him that game, but that entire match.

While his opponent acknowledged that he had been duped, is this necessarily cheating or unsportsmanlike? Not even remotely! We’re playing a skill-based game that has a psychological aspect to it similar to Magic the Gathering and poker, and those who lack the adequate amount of focus to see through these mind games are destined to fail.

But mind games like Hoban’s aren’t the only types of mind games that can be used in a tournament! In fact, this is already a very well-established topic of discussion in the Magic community. There are dozens of small psychological tactics that don’t need much discussion, but most of them ought to be discussed in some detail.

One of the most important mind games for Yu-Gi-Oh is to convey very little emotion when playing the game, as to not give valuable information to your opponent. This almost needs no explanation, but it could mean a number of things. This entails everything from controlling your vocal tone as to not sound nervous or excited to not getting physically excited when you do/don’t draw the card you wanted. This is a very simple aspect, but it’s also one of the most fundamental for someone new to the psychological aspect of Yu-Gi-Oh.

Another important thing to remember as to not gain an edge over your opponent is to deliberately show them as little information as possible. Here’s the best hypothetical situation:

300px-Mathematician-DRLG-EN-ScR-1EYou’re playing Burning Abyss against your opponent, their deck doesn’t really matter. You go second and your turn consists of summoning Mathematician and sending Shaddoll Dragon to the graveyard. Now let’s say that, for the rest of this game, instead of summoning any Burning Abyss cards, you just continue to control the game until you win with the Mathematician.

Now you’re in a unique situation because of the amount of information you gave your opponent. Based on the cards you played in game 1, you could potentially have led your opponent to believe you were playing Shaddolls. This means that your opponent has to decide what deck they had just played against game 1, meaning that there is room for error on their part, solely because you didn’t blatantly tell them what deck you were playing.

Alternatively, let’s pretend you’re playing Fire Fist. Obviously the startup goal of this deck is to get a Bear, and then to get the Wolfbark so that you can make more shenanigans. During your first turn, if you resolve a Tenki and search for a Wolfbark, it’s very easy for your opponent to assume that you already have the Bear in their hand. While this is a very limited amount of information, your telegraph to your opponent can potentially make a big difference. Similarly, if you’re playing Bujin and don’t search the Crane off the Yamato, it’s pretty easy for your opponent to assume you already have it in hand. Speaking of mind games with Bujins, Honest is awesome because it’s not tutorable; there’s no easy way for your opponent to read an Honest in hand.

Similarly, this is why “smokescreening” your sideboard in between matches is often a successful practice. Players with a conversion sideboard will often smokescreen their opponent; instead of blatantly pulling out fifteen cards and swapping them with your sideboard cards, they’ll shuffle those fifteen cards in with the rest of their deck and then pull out the cards that don’t belong. This is effective because it messes with the amount of information that you’re giving your opponent going into game 2, but it’s also useful going into game 3 because you’re basically able to coin flip your opponent, hit them with the second smokescreen and force them to guess which deck they’re playing against.

300px-XyzUniverse-PRIO-EN-R-1ESpeaking of sideboarding mind games, I’d like to briefly discuss sideboarding extra deck cards. I’ve done this twice in recent memory: once at Nationals 2014, where I sideboarded x2 XYZ Universe, a Dracossack and a Felgrand in Geargia, and last month when I sided x2 Winda and x2 Super Polymerization in Burning Abyss. For both of these instances, I went through great lengths to make sure that these sideboard decisions weren’t completely obvious. I was worried that my opponent would go, “Oh, he’s taking two cards out of his extra deck for two other cards, he must be siding XYZ Universe/Super Poly, so I’m going to play around it.” Maybe it was paranoia, but I was worried this small mistake would end up costing me a match.

What I ended up doing was sleeving both my deck and extra deck in the same sleeves. A simple solution, yes, but it completely emphasizes how important it is to not give information to your opponent. Like I’ve said, these are little things, but could potentially win you games.

Let’s talk about another interesting aspect of mind games which may or may not work on other players: intimidation. While this doesn’t necessarily mean to look physically intimidating (although that does work), I’m talking more about trying to be psychologically intimidating for your opponent. This can be applied in numerous ways:

The first is almost the one I believe in the least. However, I feel that it could be a real thing, and therefore I’d like to discuss its potential existence: Spellground mats and calculator cases. I don’t know if this is a realistic thing, but I think part of the reason for the Spellground mat/calculator case combo is to try to psychologically intimidate their opponent. How, exactly? I haven’t quite gotten that far. Something about money and status, potentially? Like I said, I believe in this aspect the least, since money isn’t necessarily a great intimidation technique. However, the Spellground/calculator case combo might be psychologically intimidating when you’re trying to dominate a local.

Mat-WorldChampionshipQualifier-TrishulaWhile the Spellground/calculator case combo is not necessarily the most intimidating, one could argue that the Konami-official mats convey the same status-based message but in a more effective way. For example, if you have a Trishula mat, you either spent some serious money on having a flashy playmat, or you went through the process of winning the mat for yourself. Like I’ve said above, money isn’t an effective intimidation technique, but having a token of your previous triumphs definitely is effective.

An interesting intimidation technique is the actual use of language while you’re dueling. Regardless of a language-barrier, you’ve probably noticed that it’s very easy to play Yu-Gi-Oh in almost complete silence, only speaking when you need to say things like “effect” or declaring a card name. This ties back to the idea of selectively conveying emotion and information, but also applies it on a psychological level. If you don’t talk much during your match, your opponent won’t necessarily be able to gauge their position in the game on this psychological level; you’re not saying anything when your opponent activates Torrential Tribute because you don’t want them to think one of your backrows might be a Trap Stun. It all goes back to the amount of information you choose to give your opponent. (Of course, I’m not saying Yu-Gi-Oh should be played in complete silence 100% of the time as a means of psyching out your opponent! Save it for when it comes down to the wire, otherwise you’re gonna miss out on meeting some great people!)

Another intimidation technique (or at least that’s what I’d like to think it is) is hand-shuffling. This is another technique that may or may not be effective; while it’s very possible that this technique is more of a boredom technique for idle hands while a player is waiting on their opponent, I think that very quick hand-shuffling has the ability to psyche out an opponent. I haven’t been able to truly figure out why hand-shuffling has the potential to be intimidating, but I’ve narrowed it down to two possibilities:

The first possible reason why hand-shuffling is an effective intimidation technique is because you’re repeatedly making the same noise at a quick rate. In my opinion, the sound of hand-shuffling is somewhat like nails on a chalkboard or something; if you’re the one making the noise, you’re less bothered by it. However, I think part of the idea is that the constant swooshing noise of you shuffling your hand is supposed to disrupt an opponent’s concentration.

Alternatively, hand-shuffling might be intended to be an intimidation technique purely because of the gesture itself. Again, I truly don’t think hand-shuffling is that effective of an intimidation technique, but it’s very possible that players think it’s intimidating simply because they’re able to do a very simple mechanical task at a very quick rate. But has a player ever once said, “He was shuffling his hand so fast, it just got into my mind”? I don’t really think so.

While hand-shuffling might be employed as either an intimidation technique or a tactic to combat boredom, it’s also very possible to analyze an opponent’s hand-shuffling during a game and using their expression to your own advantage. If you’re playing against an opponent who likes to shuffle their hand, start paying attention to the speed that they’re shuffling. When a player is in a complicated situation, their rate of hand-shuffling will often increase greatly. Leading back to the whole “selecting what information you want to give your opponent” thing, your opponent is telling you something through their faster hand-shuffling, and it’s up to you to determine what.

Well guys, this has been my introduction to psychological mind games in Yu-Gi-Oh! But make sure you check back soon, because I’ve barely scratched the surface on this aspect of the game!

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