In the Yu-Gi-Oh cartoon, one of the most common ways to add drama to a duel is to make the bad guy a dirty rotten cheater. Over the course of the original series we’ve seen players marking their cards, players drawing extra cards, players spying on their opponent’s cards, players tampering with their opponent’s decks, and just a whole lot of straight-up lying about what cards do.1 Unfortunately, this level of duplicitousness isn’t confined to fiction. Plenty of players in the real-life game have wound up suspended for cheating over the years.
However, it’s rarely as exciting in real life as it is in the show. There’s a strong sense of “we don’t like to talk about such things” coming from Konami about the subject; a player’s first name and last initial2 will be posted to a public list along with their length of sentence if they’re suspended, but Konami will never say what exactly it was that they did. If you were following tournament threads on Reddit or Duelistgroundz or something you might at least know what the hot goss on the street is, but it’s still hard to paint a clear picture.
Plus, 9 times out of 10 real cheating is just boring. Like, one time a player got suspended in the quarterfinals of a YCS3 for asking to see his opponent’s graveyard, a thing which you’re allowed to do! But he did it with just 7 seconds left on the game clock, during his opponent’s end phase, without actually having any plays he could have made that related to his opponent’s graveyard, and judges determined that he was just trying to stall and manipulate whose turn time ran out on.4 A disqualification and suspension for that is really weak (normally stalling just gets you a warning, and perhaps a time extension), but he was already suspected of being a dirty player so that’s how it goes sometimes. Regardless, I doubt “the case of the player who stalled for a couple seconds to manipulate end-of-match procedures” is going to be an episode of the cartoon any time soon.
However, sometimes we get a case with a bit more zest to it. It’s the summer of 2013, and as we’ve covered previously this was a format dominated by 2 decks: the overwhelmingly powerful Dragon Rulers, and Spellbooks, which quickly contorted itself to become an anti-Dragon Rulers deck in order to keep up. Many of the game’s more dedicated players settled on Dragon Rulers as their deck of choice, but the deck presented a conundrum; do you dedicate your build to having an edge on your fellow Dragon Ruler decks, or to having more resistance against Spellbooks? It was hard to do both effectively, so no matter what you chose there would be a drawback. Well, at least there was supposed to be.
At that year’s European Championship, duelist Simon He seemingly had the solution. Simon chose to dedicate his main deck to winning the Dragon Ruler mirror match, using the card “Vanity’s Emptiness”. This card was incredibly powerful in the Dragon Ruler mirror but was usually side decked rather than mained5 because of how useless it was against Spellbooks. However, Simon figured that game 1 against Spellbooks was already so awful for Dragon Rulers that it really didn’t matter if he made it even worse. He was still likely to lose, and would simply have to rely on his side deck to help carry games 2 and 3.
And Simon was really successful! This risky strategy really seemed to be paying off; Simon would pretty consistently lose game 1s to Spellbooks, but then manage to come back after siding. However, he seemed to be getting some help from the Heart of the Cards in these matches. His Spellbook opponents had a nasty habit of opening completely dead hands in games 2 and 3. Now, this was pretty weird; Spellbooks were a notoriously consistent deck. The deck ran a lot of cards that could search out other cards, making it very easy for them to establish the same board state game after game. Sure, some of the cards that you ran didn’t do much on their own; they were there to be searched, not to search. But you could get away with that because the deck had 12 different cards that could search out other cards and get the party started. By my calculations, you had about a 7.6% chance to get an opening hand without any of these 12. Not impossible, by any means. But for it to happen consistently? It’s only a 0.5% chance for it to happen even twice in a row. If every single one of your opponents is having bad luck, it’s probably not actually luck.
And indeed, Simon had more than just his side deck for games 2 and 3. Late in game 1 against Spellbooks, Simon would ask to look at his opponent’s graveyard.6 While looking through it, he would use his long fingernails to make a subtle indentation in every card that was useless on its own. Then, while shuffling his opponent’s deck for game 2, he’d use sleight of hand to group all the marked cards together, and then when cutting he’d make sure all the marked cards were on the top. Then, his opponent would open with a hand that couldn’t do anything, and Simon would be free to make explosive Dragon Ruler plays and finish the game off without interference.
Unfortunately for Simon, this strategy leaves behind evidence, and after several of his Spellbook opponents came to judges with the same marks on the same cards, they became suspicious. They interrupted his next game against a Spellbook player at the start of game 2, and sure enough the top of that player’s deck consisted of 6 marked cards that comprised a useless hand. Simon was caught, disqualified, and suspended, and his “genius” strategy was discarded.
…that is, until the North American championship a month later, where duelist Patrick Hoban also used main-decked Vanity’s Emptiness to claim 1st place. Patrick wasn’t even cheating; it turns out that Simon’s cover story was actually (perhaps accidentally) true; the Spellbook game 1 was so hard for Dragon Rulers to win that it didn’t hurt that much to make it even worse in exchange for an advantage against your fellow Dragon players, and with a strong enough side deck you could manage to take games 2 and 3 even without cheating. And if Simon had just embraced this strategy, the one he was already claiming to use, he could have won the European Championship! Every so often, real life manages to give us a cartoon-ready story, moral and all.