Riddle me this: If you could boost your winrate by 10%, but it would cause some of your peers to think that you were worse at the game, would you do it? Given that conscious decision, I think nearly every competitive player would say, “Hell yeah I would.” And yet, everyday I see many competitive players making the unconscious decision to prioritize looking good to their peers over being good.
A Brief History of ACP
In my breakout era as a competitive player (2010-2011), most of my work was very well-received by the community, but at the same time my tournament results were lacking. I was frequently in discussions of “best players who have yet to top32 a YCS.” By the time that I retired from the YCS circuit in spring 2013, my results were quite strong. In the last three YCS tournaments that I had attended, I had made top32 in two of them, with the other being a near miss (7-1 into 7-3). In the last year of my career, I was one of the most controversial players in the game. People online were insisting that my performance was a fluke, and I was frequently in discussions of “most overrated players in the game.” What changed?
The Curse of Playing to Win
Unfortunately, decent performance is rarely controversial. I was exceptionally good at doing one thing at YCSs in the 2011 era: making day2 with an 7-2 record and then barely missing out on the top cut. This was the sweet spot in terms of peer acceptance; my record was strong enough that it demonstrated that I was clearly a skilled and knowledgeable player, but my performance wasn’t strong enough to elicit backlash from how I got my wins.
All of my best YCS performances were built upon a foundation of fairly innovative but also very simple theories.
I never got any feature matches with any of these decks. In fact, when I was using Gishki FTK, I was told by Jason from the coverage team that Konami had specifically told him not to give me a feature match. Can’t blame them, because none of these decks were particularly fun or interesting to watch. Rather, they were quite boring. I just executed my gameplan, and as long as I didn’t make a huge blunder, I would win. But I did win quite a bit. Which brings us back to the big question, given the choice, which would you prioritize looking good or being good? Are you totally sure?
Fancy Play Syndrome in Goat Format
A big flaw that I see in mid-level Goat Format players is that they aren’t boring enough. They far too often make plays that would be described as “creative” or “tricky.” What do I mean by this? Here are some examples:
I’m not saying that you should never do these plays. I have done all of them before. But I see people far too eager to do plays like these and finding a way to blame their luck or their opponent for these plays not working out. Of course, when they do work out, they share their replay with everyone to brag about their “pro” plays. This is a looking good mentality that often stems from their preconceived notion of how Goat Format is supposed to be. They want to show everyone how smart they are.
Poker players actually have a name for this, “fancy play syndrome,” and it costs a lot of poker players a lot of money. In both Yu-Gi-Oh! and poker, the standard play is usually just the best play. There are far less good opportunities to outplay your opponent with a super cool next level play than you might think there are.
The Big Secret to My Success in Goat Format
I’ve consistently maintained one of the highest winrates in Goat Format, with a record spanning hundreds of matches played over more than a year. How did I do it? Here are some plays that I find myself making far more often than my competition:
These plays are quite boring and obvious. They also work the majority of the time. You might protest, “Well ACP, how do you win so much by making boring plays? Anyone can do that.” It’s largely through not blundering, planning for the future, exceptional reads, solid deckbuilding, and knowing when the time is right to make a creative play. My straightforward playstyle means that when I do go for a creative play, it’s far more likely to catch my opponent off guard.
This is not a unique phenomenon. As of writing, I am currently ranked #2 on GoatFormat.com’s discord ladder. Noelle is ranked #1, and rey is ranked #3. Neither of these players are known for their fancy play either. Despite consistently being ranked far above everyone else, I have never seen them get complimented on their creative play. That’s because their play isn’t all that creative. They realize they don’t need to constantly outplay their opponents to win. They just need to play tight and not get outplayed themselves.
Why the Boring Play Works
What many people don’t realize is that the vast majority of the decisions made in a game are based purely upon the cards drawn. For example, recently someone criticised me for playing a turn 1 Breaker the Magical Warrior on his single spell/trap, saying that “Most players will respect Breaker and set a Scapegoat turn 1.” I begged to disagree, “The fact that my opponent respects Breaker doesn’t magically allow them to always open Scapegoat.” They will only do so about 26% of the time. Out of that 26%, there are still some hands where they will set the nonchainable instead. The worst case scenario in which my opponent chains Scapegoat is not even that bad. My goal is to make the play that maximizes my chances of winning the game, not to show my opponent how talented I am by holding my power cards until I can guarantee that they will be a +1.
Similarly, people used to debate whether or not it was correct to activate Delinquent Duo on the first turn of the game. People would exclaim, “My opponent will open Sinister Serpent 1/8 times!” Of course that also means that they won’t have it 7/8 times. You can maximize the value out of your Delinquent Duo by activating it before your opponent has a chance to play their most powerful cards. Did you know that when you activate Delinquent Duo on turn 1, you have a 7.5% chance to hit your opponent’s own trinity piece? By holding Delinquent Duo you also allow your opponent to discard Thunder Dragon if they play it. There are far more reasons to shotgun Delinquent Duo than there are to hold it. It’s boring, but it’s also correct.
Why the Fancy Play Doesn't Work as Much as You'd Like
Players will typically justify their fancy play using one of two lines of reasoning:
The issue with the first line of reasoning is simple. These creative plays often have risks associated with them. If you think your skill edge over your opponent is significant, then the easiest way to win is to just pick the most solid and risk-averse plays possible and wait for your opponent to make a mistake and hand you the game. While he might be easily fooled, you also have to remember that the actual cards that he’s holding might not allow him to fall into your trap, even if he has a propensity to do so.
The issue with the second line of reasoning is that you’re probably underestimating your opponent. Everyone wants to be the guy who can say they outplayed Kris Perovic with a next level play, but the reason that he’s Kris Perovic is because he doesn’t fall for those plays very often. An example is a recently uploaded match between Siwski and Dale Bellido. In one of the games, Siwski is presented with an opportunity to Torrential Tribute Dale’s field of Tsukuyomi and Spirit Reaper while he is already well ahead. This is a golden opportunity. When you are solidly ahead of one of the most talented players in the history of the game, it favors you to press your advantage. Instead, Siwski decides to save the Torrential Tribute for a better opportunity, which of course Dale never gives him, and Siwski almost loses the game as a result.
The Mix-up Fallacy
Some will resist doing the standard play in order to avoid being predictable. Unfortunately, being unpredictable is not the same thing as winning. To go back to poker for a moment, low-level players will play almost all of their hands. This makes it difficult to know precisely which cards they have. This “advantage” is offset by the fact that many of the hands that they are playing have such low expected value that they are guaranteed to lose money in the long run. Poor play is not something that your opponent will usually expect, but that’s no excuse for playing poorly.
Someone once observed that I always mix-up my plays with my Angel Chaos Control deck. I corrected him, “Actually, I don’t try to mix-up my plays at all.” For example, here’s a hard rule that I use with this deck: When going first, if I have the choice to set either Magical Merchant or Shining Angel on turn 1, I will set the Magical Merchant. Since it’s a hard rule, I’m clearly not trying to mix-up my play. However, my openings will appear mixed regardless because I will not always have the choice to set one or the other. Remember, the vast majority of the decisions made in a game are based upon the cards drawn. In fact, I only have a 6.81% chance to open a hand that contains both of these cards. I will open one of my three Shining Angels without Magical Merchant about 32.62% of the time, compared to the 28.08% of the time that I open one of my two Magical Merchants. My openings will appear almost perfectly balanced (1:1 ratio of both) despite the fact that my mental decision tree has a clear preference for Magical Merchant.
The Time for Creative Play
When you ever catch me streaming some unranked games, a phrase you’ll often hear me say is, “I’m not sure if this is a good play, but I’m going to try it.” This is me experimenting when there is nothing on the line. It’s my sandbox so to speak. Sandboxing is a good thing; it helps us grow as players and develop what someone might consider a “standard play” next year. However, if you’re constantly making wacky plays and having nothing significant to show for it, I would consider changing your tactics.
If you seem stuck in at a mid-level winrate (45% to 55%) I would highly recommend reviewing some of your own games and see if you are succumbing to fancy play syndrome. Does it happen more often versus certain players? Does it happen more often when you have watchers that you want to impress? When you are presented with decision, examine all of the possible options, and then logically determine which one places you into a universe where you are mostly likely to win the game. Most times, this will not be a flashy play, but rather a solid one. Your play won’t earn you a lot of compliments, but so what?
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Jazz has written a great article on Risk in Goat Format, which is related to some of the concepts discussed in this article.