Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Going Rogue: In Defense of Scrubs

Few things seem to bring out the ire of good players like the doolist who insists on playing a rogue strategy.  The most vociferous comments come from anonymous posters. However, castigation has also emanated from some of the game’s biggest names. The longest and most articulate of these arguments is by Johnny Li, an ARG writer who posted a three part treatise that drew heavily on David Sirlin’s Playing to Win. Since this post is something of a rebuttal, I would encourage you to read it for yourself. 
Mr. Li’s attack on rogue decks is part of a much larger thesis on competitive play.  The central premise is that players lose because they handicap themselves with restrictions that go beyond the rules.  Sirlin refers to such players as “scrubs”, a term that Mr. Li recognizes as inflammatory.  Scrubs, in this sense, have a moral or aesthetic code that keeps them from playing certain cards or taking advantage of certain situations.  For example, a scrub may refuse to play Qlipharts because their mechanic is unfair.  While some may disparage the deck, playing it is certainly within the rules of Yugioh.  Other players may feel it is immoral to watch their opponent shuffle because they might reveal one of their cards.  Again, this is a game. There is no moral and immoral, only permissible and impermissible. 

The most succinct summary of Li’s writing is that only scrubs play rogue decks. Though he seems somewhat baffled by the practice, he does offer the following explanations:
  • Scrubs value originality over winning.  They would rather impress others with their creative deck list then their number of tops.
  • Scrubs value fairness over winning. Scrubs like to hide behind a moral veneer by disparaging unfair decks as sacky or helmet.
  • Scrubs don’t want to face their shortcomings by playing mirror matches. Playing a rogue deck gives them an excuse for losing. 
  • Scrubs are hipsters who think the less popular decks must be better.
  • Scrubs believe in player preference.  They feel that there is no “best” answer when it comes to defining the best deck. 
Such reasoning is not without merit. After all, it is easier to get props for creativity than it is to top a YCS.  I know.  Somewhere in the bowels of the Yugitube universe is a profile of the deck I took to Nationals.  While the feature was flattering, it was not my intention to be original.  I wanted to win. 

I would posit that there are legitimate reasons for doolists to choose rogue decks.  Despite Mr. Li’s protestations, not all of us are scrubs.

Top tier decks are expensive.  You can spend $300 and have little more than five cards from the Burning Abyss Extra Deck.  Successful players will counter that their investment is a sign of their desire to win. Nevertheless, an investment that you will not likely recoup is a major impediment.  Many players will go rogue simply because it’s all they can afford.

Price pressure has an impact on archetype choice the moment the cards are released.  Players are often forced to choose a deck early before scarcity drives the price beyond their means.  Dante was a $25 card for about one week.  By September it was in the $50 to $60 range and many doolists were locked out.  Again, one could rightly argue that good players saw value in the archetype and took advantage of the release price.  Nevertheless, Mr. Li does not consider economics in his characterization of rogue players. 

Strategic Edge
A color commentator at the World Series of Poker noted that expert players would occasional make a lower percentage play because it throws off their opponent.  Rogue decks can have the same effect.  Many players use rogue strategies because they know how difficult it is to win a straight-up mirror match against an elite player. By introducing an element of unpredictability, they hope to even the odds.  This strategy is not completely relegated to unknown scrubs. Billy Brake’s YCS success with a 60 card deck qualifies as a rogue strategy.  It is worth noting the length of time between this win and his previous YCS successes. 

Rogue players may also get a strategic edge by using a deck they know very well.  One of our locals is attended by a doolist that plays Six Samurai to the exclusion of all else.  His cards are almost worn past legal play.  Nevertheless, he plays the deck amazingly well.  His familiarity with the deck frees him up to concentrate on his opponent.  While you are trying to decide which BA monster to summon, he can pick up on your tells.  Again, I would not advocate taking Six Sams to a YCS.  However, this type of reasoning seems to escape Mr. Li.  

In Search of the Best
I have certainly met many players that fit Mr. Li’s description of a scrub.  In fact, I share some of his bewilderment when local doolists describe their latest “broken strategy”.  While I do try some unconventional builds, my deck choices are not far from the mainstream.  That said, I recognize the impossibility of knowing the best build of the best deck.  

To put Yugioh into context, consider Heads-Up Limit Texas Hold’Em, a simpler variant of the popular Poker game.  This game was recently “solved” using the language of game theory.  (The best example of a solved game is Tic-Tac-Toe, where no one over the age of 8 loses.)  The solution only took a cluster 200 2.1 GHz AMD cores and 900 core years of computing. That game had 1.47x10e13 information sets.  Yugioh has 1.67x10e106 40 card combinations.  The number of information sets is several logs higher.  This game is not getting solved anytime soon. 

On a more practical level, most statements about builds do not incorporate sound statistical reasoning.  In a previous post, I pointed out that statistical significance required sampling 384 hands. Deck lists (including my own) get changed with sample sizes that are far below this threshold.  This is not a criticism of the game so much as a statement of fact.  Given these uncertainties, players will continue to seek for an advantage by experimenting with unconventional choices.   Most will fail, but some will succeed and define the next meta.

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