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How Playing Yu-Gi-Oh! Changed My Life

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Shattered Rift

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I got home from school one day and sat down at the computer. It was part of my normal routine to flip on the TV for some background noise, so I did. Color buzzed to life and showed Yugi staring down Kaiba's Blue-Eyes Ultimate Dragon. It was a classic story of a protagonist facing hopeless odds against a superior opponent. But it reminded me of of Dragon Ball Z, full of the same verbal banter occasionally interrupted by fierce action. The villain had his own motivations, however flawed, that made him believable, and even our protagonist cared about him. That was what it was for me: Yu-Gi-Oh! had tapped into that same kind of drama that Dragon Ball Z had, and I suddenly understood what so many of my classmates saw.

Then, one day at school, a friend of mine was talking about playing a Yu-Gi-Oh! game on Neopets where the characters were throwing duel discs at each other like frisbees. I had only seen a few Flash Games before, and that was what I envisioned as she described her role playing experience. Someone had made some kind of crazy game inspired by what I was seeing on TV. Her enthusiasm showed how good it was, and it sounded too crazy not to check out.

So I signed up for Neopets and jumped onto the Role Playing Chat as fast as I could. Finding out that the game was text-only was a little off-putting, but soon my character Ryuen was born. His Millennium Star gave him the power to become a warrior out of Legend of the Dragoon. That's how it was back then. There were all kinds of crossovers. Final Fantasy, a lot of Inuyasha, and anything else we needed or just wanted to include on a whim. Stealing and killing for more Millennium Items was the great challenge, and we all lived in fear of Crowley, the great demon who had killed and stolen more than anyone else. I remember my first role play where Puck joined in. (Crowley's role player was a different Puck from the one on Sparkbomb.) I commonly started with Ryuen sitting on a park bench, and two others joined the role play where I would quietly watch as Crowley had some interactions with the other character and Ryuen was mostly ignored.

It was so simple, and it was completely insane. I don't remember my first role play with Nebiros, but I had thrown out a neofriend request to her afterward, and when I started a guild she was the only person to accept the invitation. Nor do I remember my first role play with Liz, but it was around this same time. She included a nutty Eternal Darkness inspired plot for Ryuen and Tallakahath that spanned several months of back-and-forth neomail.

I became so enthusiastic about role playing that I went through my entire AIM contacts list and asked all of my classmates if they were interested in joining the fun. Only one was interested, and she and I went on to be good friends for several years that followed.

I finally got my first cards at the end of November. My childhood best friend had gotten both the Yugi and Kaiba starter decks, and I paid him about ten bucks for the crappier half of the cards. It was enough to get me started playing on the bus and during lunch. We were all bad, the rules were murky at best, and the threats of cheating and stealing lurked around every duel. After all, the anime was chock full of cheating and stealing, so why wouldn't that carry into real life? Add in the King of Games element on top of that, and you had a group of kids all clamoring to be the best. And I needed to prove I was the best too.

I remember one of those early games. A good friend of mine had me against the wall, his field full of monsters ready to wipe me out on the following turn. But he had summoned a Time Wizard. There was one card in my deck that could save me: Change of Heart. That was the first time I used the so-called 'Heart of the Cards' from the show, promptly yelled, “Someone give me a quarter!” and wiped out his field.

My first improvement at the game started with a friend who had played Magic: The Gathering before getting into Yu-Gi-Oh. A group of us were over at his house one day, and he said that forty cards in a deck wasn't enough. You needed another ten or so for more options. It made sense. We rarely questioned things like that back then, because none of us really knew what we were doing, especially if we weren't active in the tournament scene.

But then one day I read something completely different on Edo's website: “Every card over forty is one more turn until you draw the card you need.” That made sense, too. Which was right? I asked myself a simple question: if I was going to cut down to forty, which ten cards would I take out of my deck? As fortune would have it, almost every one of them was a stall card. (I still remember Labyrinth Wall and The Shallow Grave being included among them.)

That was when things changed for me and I became one of the 'good' players. I still ran bad cards, including a full playset of Solemn Wishes and a one-off Sanga of the Thunder, but I could consistently beat most of the players at lunch. That sort of thing meant respect, of a sort. I made a couple of lucky trades along the way, too, scoring a Mystical Space Typhoon (that I thought would negate cards it destroyed) and a straight across trade of my Mage Power for a United We Stand.

The allure of a real tournament was inevitable. One day I walked into Batcave Games and paid my entry. It was one of the most intimidating experiences of my life, filled with older teenagers and adults who were so serious and seemed effortlessly confident when they played the game. Round one had me paired against the man who had won the tournament the week before, and this tournament was single elimination (meaning a loss here would knock me out of the tournament). All I remember is that I had him on the ropes in the third game, he set a monster, and I activated Shadow of Eyes to flip his Magician of Faith into attack and negate its effect. Somehow, I had beaten the player who had won the week before. It was beginner's luck to be sure, but it made for an unforgettable beginning.

I went on to lose the next round. I attended tournaments when I could. I remember the release of Legacy of Darkness, watching someone pull and auction a Yata-Garasu while the store quieted and watched with interest. I remember the shift to Advanced Format, requiring a whole bunch of cards that I didn't own that cost much more money than I had, that took several of the fun cards out of the game while simultaneously lowering their prices.

Each night was filled with role playing. I wrote two and a half terrible fanfics. My grades suffered. I became the best player at lunch. The school year was filled with more drama than I ever had or ever would experience again.

The friend whose Time Wizard I had turned against him had his deck stolen four times that year. Everyone knew who the thief was, yet he went unpunished. I was the best duelist at lunch, but it was still a sort of wild west where some things were known, some weren't, and most people didn't care about anything besides themselves.

One day I finally had a chance to duel the best player in the school. We had had different lunches for most of the year, but an opportunity finally came to play against him. I won a closely contested duel, but it easily could have gone either way. He had done well in real tournaments, after all, and despite some beginner's luck I had not.

High School

Yu-Gi-Oh! set the course for my life. It got me onto Neopets, which in turn got me onto IDB and through IDB led to Sparkbomb. I continued to role play. I reconnected with Liz shortly after Sparkbomb was created, and during the coming years role players made up a fair but often passing minority of Sparkbomb's membership. I played in the occasional Traditional Format tournament.

I also spent a lot of money on cards. I regret not picking up a few more PSX games back then (that are now so cheap on the Playstation Network that it doesn't matter in retrospect). I remember dropping $30 on a playset of Spear Dragons. During one Fourth of July weekend, I swept a small tournament with my favorite Scapegoat plus Mataza the Zapper plus United We Stand combo, beating out the riffraff and the one good player at the event. When the good player pulled a Spear Dragon from his single prize pack and I pulled jank, one of the kids commented, “He pulled the Spear, so it's like he won anyway.” I could only respond, “I already own three.”

Role playing changed as I started to engage in fairer 'Shadow Games' to compete for fictional millennium items. I would play against players at games on Neopets, or I would even play in online duels. There was no way to completely prevent cheating in those duels, but I did have my opponents state how many cards were in their hand and on their field at the end of each turn. It limited their cheating, and most of them didn't play in tournaments in real life so I had an edge.

At the end of freshman year, the last week or so of PE left us to do whatever we wanted without much supervision, and I stumbled across a kid (Tyak) talking about the Memory World arc, which was still a couple of years from airing in the US. I didn't know whether or not to believe the story—it was easy enough to make things up with little way to fact check—but it was fascinating to listen to, and he was the first person I had met at the school who expressed any interest in Yu-Gi-Oh.

During sophomore year, I hosted a Werewolf game at lunch. To make things interesting, some of us pitched in money and cards for the winners. One day I was at the card shop at the mall, talking to the manager when Futureguy (James) walks up to me, hands me a couple of cards, and says, “This is for the pot.” I'll never forget that moment.

During my junior year, I gambled my Legendary Ocean deck in a mirror match against a friend. The match got split up awkwardly due to lunch schedules and skipping classes, tallying life points and starting the game over with current life counts when we needed to, ultimately leading to a third game loss where I had drawn into a full playset of the deck's signature card. I never gambled cards after that.

Most important of all was how playing Yu-Gi-Oh! steadily changed the way I was looking at games and at life. “Every card over forty is one more turn until you draw the card you need” was the beginning. By the end of my eighth grade year I had realized the simple fact that “speed kills,” which to me meant excluding tribute monsters from my deck. That summer I applied the same concept in the original Final Fantasy, realizing the strength of a team of Fighters and Red Mages at the exclusion of other classes was the superior approach. Those are all basic concepts today, but reliable knowledge was scarcer back then, and I was reinventing the wheel in my own little intellectual corner.

My high school was arguably the worst in the district, and coming out of Challenge in middle school (a program for so-called “gifted” children), I was stagnating intellectually. Yu-Gi-Oh! had fueled my direction for a time, but playing Traditional Format wasn't teaching me things in the way that the Neopets Battledome and Sparkbomb were. It wasn't until Yu-Gi-Oh! World Championship 2007 was released on the DS that I fully embraced Yu-Gi-Oh! again with the mindset of being the best.

In the middle of the Demise/Chimeratech format I had developed an anti-meta deck that trounced the major decks of the format. Demise burned through its own life points. Triple Solemn Judgment (still disregarded in the competitive scene) among other cards I ran dealt with the single-card monster threat of Chimeratech. In the bubble of WC07, I had a deck that could win.

Instead of gaining the confidence to purchase the deck in real life and compete in Shonen Jump Championships, I descended into an obsessive rage. Disconnecting opponents were common, Monarchs were a bad matchup, and online games were single duel affairs. In a fair system, I was certain that I would dominate the standings, but with opponents disconnecting, Pulling the Rug sitting in my useless side deck, Sparkbomb's Winter War in my recent past, and my senior year of high school going poorly, it all boiled up into an eventual rage where I had to walk awat from the game completely.

College

I never expected to get back into the Yu-Gi-Oh! card game after that. Once in a while I glanced at the card section of the local Target, I think I bought another DS game or two, and Rex and I enjoyed playing the Demise format on occasion, but otherwise Yu-Gi-Oh! was a part of my past. It was Swing Club of all things that brought me back into the game. One day we walked upstairs in the PUB Building, and there was a group of Yu-Gi-Oh! players sitting there at the table.

Getting back in the game came with a goal: it was January of 2011, and the Portland regionals were in April. Part of me still needed to know that the deck I had created back in 2007 wasn't a fluke and that I had been right about its potential. It didn't matter that it was four years later and formats had come and gone. I had to know that I was right.

Learning four years' worth of cards was another matter. Instead of doing practical research online and playtesting against Rex over YVD and Lackey, I started trading for cards that were in the decks being played locally at Batcave. My anti-meta deck was dated, but it could still keep up with most of them, losing out a little more often than it won.

I was nervous about regionals, but I managed to persuade Tayler (Shadow) to go with me. We both went 3-4. Despite poor performance (not that we expected to do better), it was a great experience and ultimately contributed to the tight-knit group of players at Clark College. When Batcave closed for the summer and Dice Age Games opened, it became the go-to store for Team Sparkbomb.

At the time, there was no question that I was the best player on our side of the river. I played the best, I knew the metagame the best, and I knew the rulings more clearly than anyone else. When we started clamoring for tournaments, small as they were with only seven or eight of us showing up, it was natural for me to assume the role of player-judge. I started running Sorosh Saberian's Fabled Ragin OTK deck from YCS Providence 2011, and its combo-based nature prevented me from winning every tournament outright, keeping things fair because I was limited by my deck choice.

There was no contract, no arrangement, no deal involved in hosting tournaments for Dice Age. I later realized that Roy, the owner of Dice Age, had offered a 20% discount on related products to other event organizers, but that discussion never came up between us, and it only mattered a couple of times. I didn't buy many cards. I had already been conscientious of how much money I spent on the game years ago, and I was keeping careful track of my finances now.

I read Ryan Murphy's articles about making money in Yu-Gi-Oh! at the end of 2011, and I vowed never to lose another dollar on the game again. I also set myself the lofty goal of making back all of the money I had spent by the end of the year, as well as the “impossible” goal of profiting as much as I had spent. Breaking even was easy. When Dice Age became an Official Tournament Store, I couldn't play and judge simultaneously, but with such a small crowd (about a dozen at the time) judging gave me more opportunities to trade and thus make money.

Tournament attendance started to increase around March, and that was the point where I really gained momentum and started filling in the financial hole that I had dug. The players were mostly respectful, Chris (Aramil) and I alternated judging when necessary so that both of us had opportunities to play, and the game was expanding in Vancouver for the first time in years.

If I had gotten into eBay around that time and started making money faster, things probably would have happened differently. But I wasn't really thinking that I could do Yu-Gi-Oh! as a self-employed gig. Roy mentioned the possibility of a job down the line, and I naively believed that he might deliver on that someday. In the meanwhile, I was only earning a little more than enough money to sustain my hobby. It would eventually become a modest income while remaining too small to compare to formal employment. All the while I was doing enough work to earn more than my pay for an employer.

Another store, Hero Support, opened that summer and offered a reprieve of casual tournaments and easy trades where I could play with less competitive decks and still handily win. The downside was that it, like the Portland stores, was just too far down the freeway to really be practical on a gas tank.

Chris and I got accepted to be floor judges for Sam during Portland's April 2012 regional, the last regional the Portland area would have. Both of us made good impressions, Chris with his cool composure and me with my comprehensive ruling knowledge, that we were easily accepted at the Seattle regional that followed in September. Our goal was to get on the team for YCS Seattle/Tacoma in November.

I got into Magic: The Gathering around the same time, hoping to improve my marketability to a potential employer. I experienced some modest local success but never quite enjoyed playing the game.

Meanwhile, Dice Age's tournaments had boomed, eventually peaking around 32 players. I could uncomfortably manage twenty-some on my own, but the larger tournaments absolutely required Chris's assistance. Disrespect and raucous behavior became the norm for the players. I had started using eBay and was on the verge of breaking even. Meanwhile, Dice Age was making a modest income from Yu-Gi-Oh, much of which came from my work in running events and telling Roy which products to order and in which quantities.

Increased attendance pressed the question of whether I could continue to play or had to judge every tournament. It was a decision I felt that I had to make, especially looking at it as a potential job, and the decision to judge felt inevitable.

The tournaments were a toxic environment, and none of us realized it. Chris and I valued freedom of speech on the Facebook group and didn't care to censor anyone. The store was Roy's, so as long as players did what we asked as judges, we left it to Roy to solve other problems or occasionally ask us to tell the players to calm down, which we did. I had been running tournaments for the store for about a year by this point, and I was privy to the inventory numbers. While Roy continued to complain about the Yu-Gi-Oh! players, about their bad manners and how they didn't bring in any money for the store, I silently ran the numbers to see for myself.

In the beginning, Chris and I had always been consulted about store policies as they affected Yu-Gi-Oh! players, but in the space of a month or two we were handed two new rules without being consulted. The first was that all players would pay to enter tournaments, a fair decree that we disagreed with. The second was that players would no longer be allowed to buy and sell cards to each other inside the store. In a store with its own singles inventory this kind of thing made sense, but Dice Age had no such inventory and would not for months to come.

With so much of my income coming from my personal purchases and sales, that was the last straw for me. I was a few months out of college with no plans to go back for more education, and I had hit break-even with every sign pointing to an increasing income doing something I enjoyed. Roy's attitude made it clear that one of two things was happening: either he had no idea how much money Yu-Gi-Oh! was bringing into his store, or he was blatantly lying to me about it. Out of respect for him, I assumed the latter and walked away.

Players, former friends, criticized my decision, and to some degree it's true that I could have handled the situation more maturely and helped transition events to a new judge. But the fact is that you get what you pay for, and I hadn't been paid a dime for over 300 hours of work that had earned the store more than ten-thousand dollars in profit.

Memories

On a whim, I wrote an article about a Watt deck that had topped the European Nationals and sent it off to Jason Meyer. Months passed before I sent a followup email asking if he had read it, shortly before YCS Seattle/Tacoma, and he ran with the article and posted it on TCG Player.

Meanwhile, I didn't have a locals, and I was enjoying the reprieve now that I was out of the toxic environment. Rex and Nebiros used YCS Seattle/Tacoma as an excuse to fly into Portland to meet me, and I spent two of the best weeks of my life with two of my closest online friends. We drove up to Tacoma with Team Sparkbomb, getting there in the middle of rush hour and needing to head straight for the venue instead the hotel room that Chris's parents were kind enough to cover.

When pre-registration ended and it was time to clear out players for the night, I remember shooing them out somewhat bluntly alongside other judges doing the same. One of the players pointed out that if we would ask politely, explaining our reasons of wanting to get some sleep before the event, it would have been nicer and made more sense. I did that for the rest of the evening, and it's a small detail I've never forgotten.

I was very nervous that night, and I was even more nervous when Chris and I went to the judge dinner. Sitting there at the table with a wonderful meal in front of me, I felt the same intimidation that I had felt over a decade earlier when I had first walked into Batcave and encountered experienced players for the first time.

And then, as Chris and I were leaving the restaurant, I called the other half of the group so we could meet back up with them. While I was on the phone, Sam and Jason walked by. Jason said hello, I automatically replied in kind without thinking much about it, and it wasn't until I got off the phone that Chris said, “Jason Meyer just said hello to you!” My greatest regret of the weekend was not finding the opportunity to shake Jason's hand.

We had an awesome split-level hotel room. Nebiros claimed the king-sized bed upstairs while Rex and I took the queen downstairs and the others took couches and cots. I thank Chris to this day for letting us have the beds.

Saturday was an unforgettable blur. Seven-hundred some-odd players filled the convention center and the event served as my first insight into the highest competitive level of Yu-Gi-Oh. I also got some insight into judge politics, hearing and learning about things going on well above my head that impacted the game in ways the average player knew nothing about. At one point on the floor, I remember a player walking up to me carrying a booming mini-speaker, seemingly without a care in the world, and I politely smiled and asked him to turn it off. I want to believe he had that song playing just to make me smile.

I didn't judge on Sunday, so I missed out on the true judging experience of the full weekend, but it was nice to relax during the slower day. I got to just hang around with friends, watch people trade, and veg out in a place that I really enjoyed being at. Rex clearly remembers Sorosh Saberian walking away from his loss in top four muttering, “Forty-three card deck... forty-three card deck...” and I wish I could remember it too. I got some insight into how desperate some of the pros were to make sufficient trades and sales to cover their travel costs, under pressure from their sponsors to prove their worth. I also watched vendors dump valuable cards on the cheap so that they didn't have to carry too much inventory back home.

It was never quite that good ever again, not that I could expect anything to compare to two of my best friends flying into town for a major tournament. I was immensely proud of being published on TCG Player, and I enjoyed each article I wrote, but I never quite managed to write the articles that I wanted to write and eventually gave it up. Hero Support was too far from Vancouver to become a suitable locals for me. CCG House, the local store where I had played Magic, was unwilling to host Yu-Gi-Oh. And the Portland stores were too far away to convenient.

Somehow, despite my loss of connections from cutting ties with Dice Age, I was still making steady income from the game. I set new ambitious profit goals for 2013 and met them. I briefly judged at a store out in Gresham before realizing, for no reason I have been able to identify then or since, that it wasn't where I was supposed to be. I judged two more Seattle regionals. Despite a strong reputation with Konami employees, my unwillingness to work Sunday kept me from flying to future YCS events.

The lack of a local store, combined with the steady realization of how toxic the Dice Age crowd had been, was what ultimately took me away from Yu-Gi-Oh. Time passed, the game changed, and it all shifted from a day-to-day part of my life to become memories. Years later, I would come to find that the experience and skills I had developed in Yu-Gi-Oh! would help me with my job as a dance instructor. The professionalism I developed while judging had become a part of my character. Business savvy learned from trades and sales was second-nature. Showcase and competition events ended up being surprisingly similar to regionals, and I spent most of my first showcase on a nostalgia trip feeling like I was back home at a regional.

Getting into Yu-Gi-Oh! in eighth grade was integral to everything that followed. Getting into Neopets eventually led to Sparkbomb. I started to rethink the ways I saw the world. I developed a foundation of professionalism that has carried into my career. I was published and paid for my writing, something that had been on my bucket list growing up. And I experienced one of my favorite hobbies from both the consumer and retailer standpoints. The person I am today is a result of flipping on the TV and happening upon one of the greatest Yugi vs Kaiba duels. Yu-Gi-Oh! may be in my past, but I'll never forget it.

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