Top 10 Yu-Gi-Oh Rules You Should Know But Probably Don't
The standard rules of Yu-Gi-Oh are familiar to anyone playing the game with a rulebook at their side. You start by drawing five cards. The first player doesn’t draw, and there's Draw Phase, Standby Phase, and so on. However, some rules in the game are only touched upon briefly in the rulebook, while others aren’t mentioned at all.
Scouring forums and hoping someone became as curious as yourself may lead you to the douchebag of the week, who’s happy to answer questions at the price of your self-esteem. There's also the "learning through experience" method, but as a wise man once said, “Fools learn from experience; wise men learn from history.” Therefore, this writer is willing to share his history by explaining ten Yu-Gi-Oh rules you should know but probably don’t.
10 Commonly Missed Rules in Yu-Gi-Oh
- Missing the Timing
- Priority (Fast Effect Timing)
- Activation vs. Resolution
- Effect Speed
- When . . . Can, If, and When
- Quick Effects
- Cost vs. Effect
- Targeting vs. Non-targeting
- Damage Calculation
1. Missing the Timing
Ever summon a monster with a cool effect on its summon, only for that summon to be interrupted by a Torrential Tribute or Bottomless Traphole, then your opponent has the nerve to say, after you lose your beloved monster, "You can’t do that"? You can thank your monster’s effect missing the timing for the lost effect.
The culprit of missing the timing is usually optional monster effects, the ones that say “When this happens . . . you can do that.” When you choose to activate such a monster effect, the last thing that needs to happen is the condition for the action.
For example, let’s say you have an effect stating: “When an Insect type monster you control is destroyed sent to Graveyard, you can special summon this monster from the hand.” In order to gain this effect, no other effects can occur before this effect begins. If an Insect type you control is assaulted by a card stating, “Destroy a card your opponent controls, then they draw 1 card,” then destruction isn’t the last thing happening—drawing is.
Also consider the infamous Bottomless Traphole, which banishes a monster after destroying it. Since banishing is the last thing to happen, not the destruction, our Insect-support monster would miss its timing.
The writer gave you a quick summary of Priority's transformation into Fast Effect Timing. For a more detailed description of the mechanic, for when you find yourself struggling to survive 47 meters down in a tank of rule-sharks, click here.
2. Priority (Fast Effect Timing)
The definition of priority changed drastically since the ancient times of Yu-Gi-Oh. In the olden days, it meant a turn player’s monster effects could only be responded to by the opponent, meaning if one summoned a Black Luster Soldier—Envoy of the Beginning, unless you negated the ascent of this paradoxically named soldier, your monster was getting banishing. Fun times, right?
Nowadays, Priority deals with the turn player determining the chain order of you and your opponent's effects activating simultaneously. You might be thinking, “Who cares who gets their effect first when we both are getting what we want anyway?” This can be the case when two searchers are destroyed at the same time, but what happens when you and your opponent both control monsters that resummon themselves once per turn upon destruction, but your opponent’s destroys everything on the field upon its summon while yours is a beater (Yu-Gi-Oh jargon for a monster with high attack power) sans effects?
When both of your monsters are destroyed, and if it’s your turn, the order in which you resolve the chain will determine which monster has the last laugh. (In this case, you’d make your effect activates first, then your opponent’s, so after the chain resolves, your monster would grace the field after your opponent’s has destroyed it. Who said chivalry is dead, right?)
3. Activation vs. Resolution
The writer hates to complicate even the simplest matters of our beloved pastime, but even activating a card effect doesn't "just happen." A three-step process lies behind every card’s effect: The declaration of the activation, the cost (if any), and the resolution. Usually, this three-step happens for one’s Spell, Traps, and Monsters without issue, but your opponent will always try and make a mountain out of your road to victory.
The first issue, and the more obvious one, is what happens when your opponent negates your card’s activation, like with a Counter Trap, but another card you control needs that activation to get an effect. For example, if you control a card that gains Spell counters every time a Spell is activated, but your opponent Dark Bribed your Spell, then that card was never activated, so you don’t get the Spell Counter.
However, if your opponent just negates the effect of the Spell, like with a Trigger monster effect or a Trap, then you still activated the card: Its effect just didn’t resolve. Therefore, it counts toward you activating the card, but you still don’t get its effect.
The second issue, the less obvious one, is sometimes a card may not activate and resolve in the same place. This is how monster cards still get their effects beyond effect negation. If you have monster with its effects negated on the field (like with Skill Drain or Fiendish Chain), but the text reads, “When this monster is destroyed and sent to the graveyard . . . ” the effect activates on the field, yet resolves in the graveyard, enabling that monster to gain its effect.
Smart players can even use this mechanic to dodge effect negation by changing where their effect resolves. Stardust Dragon dodges negation by tributing itself so it resolves in the Graveyard, while ABC—Dragon Buster can chain to its banishing-an-opponent’s-card-ability by banishing itself to summon its three material, making its effect resolve while it itself is banished.
One of the easiest concepts to learn in the game, chains determine the order in which effects resolve when a player plays one card effect to immediately respond to another. You determine which card effect applies first by resolving the cards in the reverse order in which they were played.
Consider the following scenario: Your opponent plays Mystical Space Typhoon to destroy a facedown Breakthrough Skill, but you activate that Breakthrough Skill to negate the effects of a Hot Red Dragon Archfiend Abyss, only for it to activate its effect on your Breakthrough Skill.
In this level 3 chain, you would apply the effects activated backwards: The Hot Red Dragon (pun intended) will negate Breakthrough Skill’s effect, Breakthrough Skill’s effect will do nothing because it was negated, then Mystical Space Typhoon will “destroy” the Breakthrough Skill. Also, Summoning a monster, unless it's summoned by a card effect, does not start a chain, nor does attacking.
Understanding how chains resolve seems simple enough, but not all cards were crafted equal in Yu-Gi-Oh. As explained in the following section, Spell Speed determines what types of effects can and can’t be chained to another.
5. Effect Speed
The first thing to know about spell speed is that it is not a concept exclusive to Spell cards (confusingly); it influences Monsters, Traps, and Spells. Three different types of spell speeds exist in Yu-Gi-Oh: Spell Speed 1, 2 and 3.
- Cards of Spell Speed 1 cannot respond to a chain. These cards are usually slow monster effects and regular Spell cards.
- Cards of Spell Speed 2 can be chained to each other and Spell Speed 1 cards. These are going to be your Traps, Quickplay Spells, and Trigger monster effects.
- Finally, your cards of Spell Speed 3 are the Counter Trap cards, the fastest gunslingers in the West. Only other Counter Traps can chain to each other.
The following table clarifies Spell Speeds more for the visual thinkers among us:
Spell Speed 1
Spell Speed 2
Spell Speed 3
Regular Spells, Continuous Spells
Ignition Effects (Once per turn...)
Regular Traps, Continuous Traps
Trigger Effects (When... Can / If / When...)
Quick Effects (During either player's turn...)
6. When . . . Can, If, and When
Trigger effects in Yu-Gi-Oh represent another concept duelists lack knowledge of, especially when it comes to missing the timing. The three primary culprits of this confusion are these three phrases:
- “When . . . you can . . . ”
- “If . . . you can . . . ”
- “When . . . ”
Out of the mind-juggling three, only “When . . . you can . . . ” makes you miss the timing (one of the mechanics mentioned above) if the first condition (the When) isn’t the last one happening. Naturally, the “you can” also gives the player the choice to activate the effect.
Unlike “When . . . you can,” “If . . . you can” never misses its timing, meaning the effect will always happen even if its condition wasn’t last to happen. The tidbit you’ll need to remember is that the effect will happen in a separate chain from action that would normally disrupt the timing of a “When . . . you can” effect.
The final trigger effect type “When . . . ” means when something happens, there is no “you can” about it. The player has no choice but to activate the effect when the condition is met. It may seem like always a positive to have an effect happen, but what if your deck is running emptier than a beach on a winter’s day and the card whose effect you must activate searches, or the card’s condition activated destroys a monster on the field, yet the only monster gracing it is your own?
Knowing the benefits and repercussions of these three trigger effects can mean the difference between gaining advantage guaranteeing you victory, or a bad decision leading to defeat.
7. Quick Effects
A mechanic always existing in Yu-Gi-Oh yet only abused in its modern iterations, quick effects are the beloved Trap card version of Monster effects. Basically, if a monster effect has the key words “During either player’s turn” in it, then that effect not only functions like a Trap card, but also has the Spell Speed of one too (Spell Speed 2).
You can chain such an effect to an effect just like any other Spell Spell 2 card; however, even if a quick effect isn’t limited by the “Once per turn” clause, you can only use a quick effect once in a chain if the effect can loop on itself and if it has a cost. Therefore, a card like Apex Avian can negate a card effect only once per chain, because it can use itself as fodder to negate a card effect. On the other hand, Herald of Perfection lacks such a limitation, since it can't banish itself to the great beyond to halt your progress.
8. Cost vs. Effect
A good question: If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? For our given article, an even better question: If you activate Solemn Strike and someone negates the activation with the Counter Counter Trap, do you still pay 1500 life points? The answer to the second question is always yes.
Cost is something that must be paid for you to activate a card, so even if the activation or effect is negated, you still have to pay the cost. The trick to understanding a card’s cost versus its effect lies in the wording.
- Most cards indicate a cost by stating the requirement first, then the effect; others follow the general context: You can (discard 1 card, tribute 1 monster, etc) to do such and such.
- Cards without a cost but with a usual requirement in the effect will either do the reverse by listing the something considered a cost second (like discarding, tributing, or paying life points) or use and between what would otherwise be a cost and the effect.
Understanding what’s considered a cost and effect on a card is invaluable to one’s strategy, especially when one wants to use a cost to one’s advantage in a restrictive situation or when baiting (Yu-Gi-Oh jargon for making an opponent attack one’s play so the actual strategy can progress untested) one’s opponent. The following table lists common phrases used for cards with costs and cards without costs that appear like they do.
It does have a Cost...
It does not have a Cost...
Discard 1 card; (The use of a semicolon is key)
Both players draw 1 card, then discard 1 card (Discarding is stated second, so it is not a cost)
Pay 1500 lifepoints. (The period is the indicator)
Both players discard their hands and draw five cards from the deck (The "and" conjoining the statements indicates the 1st is not a cost.)
Return 1 faceup monster you control to the hand to... (The last "to" before the effect)
9. Targeting vs. Non-targeting
A mechanic not as influential in the past as it is currently, the difference between effects that target and effects that don’t can make or ruin plays depending on what effects you or your opponent has. In early Yu-Gi-Oh, cards existed that could change the target of your cards’ effects, like Shift and Remote Revenge. In the current game, many monsters exist that cannot be targeted by card effects, rendering them immune to any effect that targets. Therefore, to dispel the root of any player’s confusion, the question is: What determines whether a card targets or not?
Just as in determining what is a cost, the key lies in the phrasing of the text. A card downright telling you to “Target” a card, or any number of cards, naturally targets. Also, the word “Select” might also be used, or the card will show a specific number after a verb dictating the action to perform (Destroy 1 Spell or Trap on the field/Tribute this card to destroy 1 monster on the field/etc.)
Just to make you scratch a spot in your cranium, a myriad of phrases exists to determine cards not targeting. Cards which don’t target will either:
- Give a condition to perform an action that changes depending on what’s on the field (Destroy the monster on the field with the highest attack/Destroy Spell or Traps on the field equal to the number of Blackwings you control/ etc.)
- Have a trigger effect responding to another effect (If your opponent activates a monster effect, you can negate that effect and destroy the monster)
- Have an effect affecting a broad group of cards (Destroy all your opponent controls/Return all Spells and Traps on the field to the hand).
- Have monster effects during the battle phase omitting a specific target (If this card battles a Dragon type monster, destroy that monster before damage calculation/If this card battles a non-Wind monster, return that monster to the hand after damage calculation/ etc.)
Knowing what cards target and don’t target becomes critical when determining how to overcome efficient strategies.
To understand the greater intricacies of the Damage Step (for when, you know, those times you'll go snorkeling with those rule sharks) click here.
10. Damage Calculation
Most card effects can be applied during any phase of the duel, granted the card has the effect speed to do such; however, one “phase” in Yu-Gi-Oh is more limiting when determining what cards can be activated during it. Damage Calculation, the part of the battle phase when damage is determined by opposing monsters clashing, but before their destruction, is an aspect of the game only a few cards influence.
Usually, if a card can be activated during damage calculation, it will say it can, like with Honest. Unfortunately, not all cards indicate whether it can be activated during damage calculation. Cards that can be activated during the damage calculation either:
- Are Spell Speed 2 and influence attack and defense stats (Shrink, Limiter Removal).
- Have effects that negate card effects occurring during the damage calculation that are Spell Speed 2 or 3 (Mist Valley Apex Avian, Divine Wrath, Solemn Strike, etc.).
When in doubt, always asked a more experienced party or a judge, because, by understanding what cards can be used during this step, you can determine what cards can bypass your opponent’s strategy without a negative response.