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Vs. System

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For Rent


Written by Marvin “DRaGZ” Choi

Note: While this guide is designed for all trading card games, the majority of gameplay observations have been derived from the Yu-Gi-Oh! Trading Card Game.


Playing is not even half the game. You’re going to spend more time working on your deck than actually playing with people. Why? Because it’s your arsenal, it’s your weapon, it’s your tool for play. And we want to be as prepared as possible when we play a game, not to mention the fact that deck-building is the most difficult part of any trading card game. It could take hours of research and dedication just to get your deck right on paper, and even when you play with it, it’s initially just going to be for play-testing, another essential part of deck-building.

There is no formula for making a deck. The impulse and inspiration for a deck can spring from any number of sources, and the process for developing a deck is a long and arduous journey with no way to anticipate the problems which will arise. Using abused crutches such as “staples” and copying other people’s decks only work to an extent. Resorting to “tried-and-true” tactics of copying a deck may give you an idea of what to do, but you will ultimately have to adapt to a playing style that is not familiar to your own and lose respect for leeching off of other people’s ideas. Using “trusty staples” may give you powerful effects, but you’d only be using them for the fact that they are “staples” not because they fit in your deck, compounded by the fact that you’d grow too reliant on them and be unable to get out of difficult playing situations should your precious “staples” not be not available to you, they’d end up just being a crutch.

Like I said, there is no formula for making a deck. But it’s not a trudge through unknown territory either. While it’s not scientific, there are steps you can take to classify and start off a deck, a strong and stable foundation to build on. And while the first time’s never the charm, starting off with a strong foundation will make sure your deck reaches its peak efficiency as quickly as possible, whether you’re playing for keeps or for fun.



The first step to building a successful deck is to classify what you want your deck to be. This also works for decks which are unfocused or disorganized. Decks are classified in three tiers: intention, methodology, and style. If your deck cannot be classified in these tiers, you’re not running an effective deck, whether it is for tournament play or casual playing with friends.

Tier 1: Intentions

If your deck is designed to be played at all, then it is without dispute that there are two intentions a successful deck can follow: implementing a strategy or implementing a combo(s). Strategy decks are built around what you want to do to achieve victory while combo decks are built around what you want to use to achieve victory. While these two intentions appear to be the same thing, they are very different.

Strategy decks – This is the easiest type of deck to think of and to construct, and therefore is the most common type of deck out there since anyone can easily play it. At its basest form, you decide what you want to do (for example, in Yu-Gi-Oh!, deplete all of the opponent’s Life Points) and then basically build a deck around it, focusing more on the output than the process. The deck is then consisted of many small combos and tactics to fulfill this intention, none of which, individually, are wholly important to the deck itself. The deck utilizes all of these otherwise limited combos together to create an overall desired effect. This is completely different from a combo deck, which relies on key combos to function, while a strategy deck does not require every single one of its combos to function properly or successfully. More complicated strategy decks implement elements to anticipate the opponent and different playing situations. This is possible because the self-sufficient nature of the cards required in a strategy deck makes room for other cards to be added to the deck. Because of this, strategy decks are generally very stable and dependable and don’t require much effort to be successful, begin able to change objectives on the fly, but because the offensive value of these decks are generally based on waves of “block and jab” attacks, they are not very potent and usually take very long to achieve victory.

Combo decks – This is the more difficult type of deck to think of and to construct and is harder to find, although the skill level of a player is irrelevant to its success. At its basest form, a winning combo (the combination of specific cards in a specific manner used to create an overall effect which is propelled towards winning the game, focusing more on the process rather than the output. For example, in Yu-Gi-Oh!, the Magical Scientist and Catapult Turtle combo) is implemented, and the entire deck is based around that combo, getting it out, making it run, and maximizing its abusability before the combo has to be reset. This is very different from a strategy deck in that the deck could not function without these combos, whilst strategy decks uses their arsenal of smaller combos as stepping stones towards victory. More complicated combo decks can implement several combos in the same deck, usually using cards which are cleverly immersed within other combos, so that a slight change in the cards for the combination can have a similarly desired overall effect or a supplementary one. The deck requires that the opponent reacts a certain way (usually no possible reaction) and as such its success is wholly dependent on how well the player anticipates the opponent. Unfortunately, because of the dependent nature of the deck on the combo(s), the deck must dedicate all (or at least the greater majority) of its resources to the combo(s), making it vulnerable to variations in expected opponent response, dubbing the combo deck a difficult and tricky deck to play successfully, but very potent and speedy if all goes well.

Tier 2: Methodology

Now that you have your intentions for running your deck, it’s time to get into the nuts and bolts of it and into how you’re going to fulfill those intentions. Your methodology differs depending on your deck’s intentions.

If you’re playing a strategy deck…you either have a theme deck or a jigsaw deck.

Theme decks – Theme decks have their structures based on a concept or a gimmick. A theme for the deck is chosen and the deck builds itself around that theme while fulfilling the predetermined strategy. For example, in Yu-Gi-Oh!, if I want to deplete the opponent’s Life Points and I want to use a water theme, I could do so by building an Atlantis deck based on rapidly getting out water monsters to do damage. Oftentimes the cards which fit the theme of the deck tend to work together. Theme decks are the easiest decks to plan out, since you literally just have to go through a list of related cards and just implement them, but the actual method for fulfilling the deck’s intentions may not develop until after play-testing. Also, because these decks follow a structured theme, they are the easiest decks to build, but room for variety is scarcer than other decks.

Jigsaw decks – Jigsaw decks, called so because thematically unrelated cards fit together, are based totally on tactical motivations, and as such don’t have a tightly knit theme or gimmick to hold it all together, just strategy. Jigsaw decks have cards which aren’t thematically related to each other in any way, but function together to form effective combos with more free reign than a thematic deck could. For example, in Yu-Gi-Oh!, if I want to deplete the opponent’s Life Points and I want to do it quickly, I could do so by building a Beatdown deck consisting of high attack monsters such as Gemini Elves and Vorse Raider which have no connection to each other. Jigsaw decks are also generally easy to construct, since the cards which are required for the proper strategy are generally not hard to think of or utilize, but they do require play-testing to confirm that they do actually work together. Because these decks do not follow a structured theme, you’re in kind of an open realm for building them, which, while gives you a lot of space to experiment in, mean that you’re basically on your own and that your success is determined completely on your own manifestations.

Theme decks are based on structure while jigsaw decks are based on open interpretation, both of which have pros and cons. Theme decks and jigsaw decks are not totally separate of each other. They can overlap, and the best strategy decks often do. However, the motivation behind the deck is always something totally different, whether it’s thematic motivations or tactical motivations. As such, you could have a thematic jigsaw deck or a jigsaw-like theme deck, but the core of it will always be a jigsaw deck or a theme deck, respectively.

If you’re playing a combo deck…you either have a recycle deck or a one-turn kill deck.

Recycle decks – Recycle decks cannot hold onto its winning combo(s) until its achieves victory, and as such need to reset its setup over and over again. They often do this by reusing the same element which set it up in the first place, hence the name. For example, in Yu-Gi-Oh!, if you’re running a simple Needle Worm and Tsukuyomi combo, you’d have to resummon Tsukuyomi each time you flip Needle Worm, which means you have one Needle Worm flip per turn. Obviously this is limited, but the combo itself can be deadly if you can keep it going. Recycle decks are generally very difficult to construct since, while their combos are powerful, they are fragile and can easily be disrupted. They will require a lot of defensive capabilities for both the player and the combo(s) itself and may be very slow in getting out the necessary combo(s). Also, because of the very specific natures of the combos, if the opponent manages to anticipate it in some way, it will be easily stopped. However, because of the vast variety of different powerful combos, there is much room for experimentation in this field, even if the rest of the deck must be dedicated to the combo(s)’ success, and recycle decks can be deadly if played correctly.

One-turn kill decks – One-turn kill decks, like the name suggests, end games in one turn, although not necessarily on the first turn. One-turn kill decks use winning combos which are either powerful enough in itself to do the deed or can recycle itself over and over in the same turn to achieve victory. For example, in Yu-Gi-Oh!, If you had the Exodia set in your deck, you could implement the two Manticores of Darkness and Card of Safe Return combo, drawing out your entire deck and eventually drawing the Exodia pieces, thus achieving victory. As you can see, such combos are overtly complicated, making it difficult to build around as a deck. And, unfortunately, since the entire deck must be dedicated to bringing the combo out, there is little to no room for defense from enemy response, which is why it is imperative that the deck functions as quickly as possible. These reasons, along with the fact that there are a limited amount of one-turn kill combos in any trading card game, makes these decks the most difficult decks to build and master and the trickiest to play. However, whenever they work, it is a near-guarantee victory. WARNING: One-turn kill decks are notorious for being copied over and over again, simply because cheap players keep abusing them. Be warned: do not run one-turn kill decks as serious competitive decks or you will be seriously disdained and quickly become unpopular.

Recycle decks are based on steady reuse of a combo(s) while one-turn kill decks depend on speed to win. Like strategy decks, recycle decks and one-turn kill decks can intermingle and share qualities, however, winning combo decks don’t do this. Recycle decks, because of their repetitive and steady nature, must focus on defense and not speed. One-turn kill decks, because of their high level of vulnerability, must be as fast as possible and nothing else. Otherwise, you’re going to have out-of-control decks on your hands which will scarcely do what it’s supposed to.

Tier 3: Style

This is what gives every deck its unique flavor and its purpose. This is the final step in laying a foundation for your deck. Now that you know what your intent and your methodology is, it is time to determine how you’re going to use that process.

Now there are many definitions of style and many ways that you can create style in a game. But, the most basic and most important question of style is this…

Do I take this seriously or not?

Well do you? Are you going to play just to win, just for fun, or a mixture of both? Trading card games have a measure of flexibility so that you can either go all hardcore competitive with them, experiment and have some fun, or find a happy medium in-between. Remember, jigsaw decks and recycle decks lean towards experimentation and fun while strategy and one-turn kill decks lean toward serious play. But whichever deck you work with, knowing how seriously you’re going to build your deck either makes it more refined or gives it more room to experiment.

Beyond this, there is no need to develop it any further. Style develops best through play-testing and real life experiences. If you do have a certain type of style in mind, say if you want to be extra annoying or be defensive, then go ahead. But, as most players soon learn, it’s just too unpredictable



Believe it or not, you’ve got the toughest part down. Once you know for sure what you’re going to do, it’s easy to actually build the deck for it. All you have to do is decide what you want to put into the deck and how you’re going to do it. This is the reason why copying decks and other people’s strategies just won’t work, because they won’t be tuned to your own playing style.

There are two basic ways to build a deck: browsing, and listing. Both serve different purpose, work differently, and have two distinct products.

Browsing – This is the quickest and sloppiest method for constructing a deck, so if you don’t have a lot of time on your hands this is the method for you. It basically consists of rummaging through your collection of cards and choosing which cards you want to put into your deck. To do this, you have to have at least a mindset on what you want to play, thus choosing the cards you feel will amount to the strategy you’re going for and accumulating a deck until you reach the desired amount. More refined versions search through the deck and choose out relevant cards to be sorted out. Combos for the deck are usually created along the way, but it’s difficult to create them if you don’t already have something in mind. Because you need to rummage through your collection to build a deck this way, this only really works if you have a small collection, since it’s too easy to overlook cards in a large collection. However, because you can just browse up cards as you choose them for the deck without looking into other cards, players which have limited knowledge of cards or cannot buy more cards (or prefer not to) use this method. Since the focus of this type of construction is on the output of the deck, it’s best suited for building a strategy deck.

Listing – This is a very precise method for constructing a deck, but it requires a lot of time and effort and a great deal of knowledge of the card game. It basically consists of listing cards to plan out a deck before actually gathering the cards to construct it. Because you’re listing the cards out of memory, you really have to know what you’re doing to do it right and have a clear focus on what you’re trying to do, which usually requires the accumulated experience of an advanced player. However, because you have the whole deck clearly laid out in front of you, it is much easier to construct complicated combos and have a sense of how your deck will flow, thus creating a perfected deck. Players usually assist themselves by looking through lists of a list of cards which exist in the game so they can see the variety of cards they have to choose from. However, this usually leads to the listing of cards you don’t have, meaning unless you want your perfect setup to get screwed, you’re going to have to spend some money. Since the focus of this type of construction is the process of the deck, it’s best suited for building a combo deck.

Tips to follow while constructing the deck:

ˇ         Always write up a deck list and maintain it. It’s the only way you’ll be able to manage your deck.

ˇ         It’s a good idea to look to others for inspiration, but not to copy them. Doing so restricts your own playing style, not to mention ruins your reputation for originality. If you were meant to play that kind of combo or emulate that kind of style, it’ll happen naturally. Don’t try to force it.

ˇ         Stick with cards you’re comfortable with. Make the deck your own.

ˇ         But don’t automatically resort to “staples” either. Not only does it make the game boring, but it restricted your playing style.

ˇ         Allow yourself to try new things. The mere act of  trying new combos can lead to new winning strategies. Don’t be afraid to mix it up.

ˇ         But don’t be overzealous either. For example, unless you have a good reason to, don’t use “vanilla” monsters (monsters without effects) or cards that are too hard to use. Keep your mind open, but keep a focus as well.

ˇ         Speaking of focus, make sure all of your cards are focused on fulfilling your intention and methodology. Any sidetracking will surely disunify your deck, and disunity leads to a failed deck.

ˇ         Don’t build a side-deck yet, but try to keep an idea of what you have in mind. The side-deck should be built after much play-testing.



No matter what method of construction you choose, however, you’re going to have to tweak it anyway. You’re never going to get a deck right the first time, no matter how hard you try or how precisely you’ve perfected it. You also never know how good a deck will work until you play with it. Don’t ever let anyone tell you your deck sucks unless it’s been proven in a game. Every person plays a deck in his own way, and your deck in the hands of another player is a completely different deck. That’s where play-testing comes in, where you try out your deck on several degrees to see how it’s going.

There are three steps to play-testing: testing the draw, hypothetical play, and live play.

Step 1 – Testing the draw: Every trading card game is based on luck, but luck is based on statistics, and you can control those statistics to your advantage. For example, in Yu-Gi-Oh!, if you want your hand to consist of half monsters and half spell/traps, you’re naturally going to make your monster to spell/trap ratio of the deck 1:1. Make several draws from your deck after it’s been thoroughly shuffled to get an idea of what kind of hand you’re going to start out with. If you’re not getting what you’re expecting or you want to have something show up more or less, now’s the time to go back and modify your deck. A bad opening hand isn’t a guaranteed loss, but it’s still an indication of how the duel is going to go. Although you can’t always control whether you have a band hand or not, you minimize the chance of it happening by modifying the ratio of cards you want in your deck, a ratio which should then be theoretically reflected in your hand. Once you’ve got your hand down to regular satisfactory draws, you can go onto the next step…

Step 2 – Hypothetical play: How do you think your deck is going to play? What do you expect your opponent to do? This is where you can make those concessions before facing an actual player. For the most part, it’s playing against an imaginary opponent. But what’s different is that you have to anticipate what the opponent will do. Naturally, you will make yourself win by having your imaginary opponent create convenient situations for you. It is important that you resist this temptation and make your imaginary opponent as difficult as possible. Make him counter everything you do as much as plausible. Make him a heavy hitter, bringing out the advanced moves and tricks of the game. If your imaginary opponent lives up to his role, he will be the hardest opponent you’ve ever faced, and you’ll probably never win a game against him. But this will allow you to spot the weaknesses in your deck, so you can make changes now instead of in a real duel, or to discover different strategies you didn’t know your deck could implement, some of which may be the deadliest secrets of your deck. Once you’re satisfied with your performance against your imaginary opponent, find a real one…

Step 3 – Live play: Now you’re going to actually play, and you’re going to play with a focus on what to do. You should’ve developed a style with your deck during hypothetical play, which you can now implement here. Play as you would always play with the deck, following your familiar routines. Don’t be afraid to stray from your strategic style, but not from your goal. Initially, you should play a diverse variety of decks to make sure it can handle them all. If you find a weakness, work on your deck until you strengthen it. Then play the other styles again to make sure your modifications haven’t weakened them with the other types of decks as well. You’re never going to get out of this step because you’re always going to encounter changes you want to put in your deck. You may keep your deck structure a certain way, but you’ll never truly finalize your deck.

One thing you must understand, however, is that no amount of play-testing and deck modification will get rid of the natural weaknesses of your deck. Every type of deck has its own unique flaws, and no amount of change will get rid of them. The only real way to counter them would be to have a set of cards set aside so you can switch them out as soon as you need them. Huh…isn’t that a side-deck?



Whether you’re competitive or casual, no deck is truly complete without its side-deck. A side-deck is the main deck’s back-up, providing it with utilities when the main deck needs help against a certain strategy, restrategizing it between games or when the player wants to try something new without changing the actual function. The side-deck presence of a side-deck is the mark of a truly prepared player, to say the least, and it can make sure that you’re ready for anything that comes your way. Even if your trading card game doesn’t support a side-deck system, it’s still a good idea to set aside a small deck of cards which can function as an unofficial side-deck between duels.

There are two types of side-decks: supplementary, and tactical.

Supplementary side-decks: This type of side-deck is to your deck like the utility belt is to Batman. The deck can handle itself, but sometimes it needs a little boost or change to deal with certain situations or against certain styles. That’s where this side-deck comes in. It consists mostly of cards which would usually be situational but are useful tools against a certain strategy. Thus, you wouldn’t main-deck these cards but rather store them in your side-deck until the need for them arises. Because only a few cards are needed for such a modification, several types of these cards can be included, allowing you to hold a variety of cards to be prepared for any situation. Because of the versatility of these side-decks, they are best suited for competitive decks or decks which have several weaknesses which need to be covered.

Tactical side-decks: These side-decks make huge changes to your main deck. Many decks have similarities or core functions to other types of decks. As such, swapping out a few cards here and there can completely change the style and focus of the deck. That is the purpose of these side-decks: to provide a secondary strategy for your main deck. Tactical side-decks generally don’t affect the core working functions of the deck, such as drawing or destroying cards, rather it changes the active elements of the deck to create a new strategy (for examples cards designed to attack are designed to attack directly are replaced with cards which discard the deck). Because you need several cards to shift-out the existing strategy to the side-decked one, it’s difficult to have one, let alone more, of these alternative strategies side-decked away. Because of the lack of variety in this type of side-deck, thy are best suited for fun decks or for decks which do not possess many weaknesses to be covered.


Whatever type of deck you choose, however you decide to construct it, or however you decide to develop it, always make sure that you have fun and try to be unique. Originality is the essence variety, and variety is key to the survival of trading card games. Lack of it have lead to the deaths of many a trading card game, and the only way to keep them alive is to try new things. Don’t be afraid to be different, to be unique, to break the status quo. For in breaking the status quo, you may discover new techniques and styles to bring to the game, to add to its variety. And who knows. One day, the strategies that you developed yourself may become the status quo themselves!

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