Jeremy enjoys dueling in between working as a chemical analyst and campus building manager.
While I recommend watching each Yu-Gi-Oh series in Japanese with English subtitles (trust me, it's much better), the original season still managed to gather flocks of fans. Back in those days, Yu-Gi-Oh was still figuring out its rules and had yet to develop cards like Synchro or Xyz monsters.
A worldwide phenomenon, even non-fans could recognize characters and cards from the anime. Which duelists reigned supreme? These are the six best original duelists!
6. Mai Valentine
Style: Harpie Swarming
Harpies have continued to receive support throughout the years, making them a surprisingly effective modern option. Mai only had access to the original cards, and while her win record is shaky, she has pulled off some impressive victories.
- Defeated Joey Wheeler (she's lost to him too)
- Defeated Maximillion Pegasus
- Should have beaten Yami Marik
Mai defeated former villain Pegasus and would have defeated Yami Marik except for a plot convenient technicality: after obtaining his famed Winged Dragon of Ra, she couldn't use it because (in the anime) its owner has to read Egyptian text.
Mai's deck focuses on summoning multiple Harpies and boosting them with appropriate Equip Spells. She later adds the powerful Seal of Orichalcos to her repertoire, providing an automatic 500 Attack boost to her monsters.
Style: Guardian Equip
Not the most prominent character, Rafael nonetheless showed great aptitude with two impressive wins:
- Beat Mai Valentine
- Beat Yami Yugi
That's right, Rafael was a reminder that our protagonist wasn't quite invincible, and is one of only two people to fairly defeat Yami Yugi. Yami eventually won the rematch they had, but even that was a forfeit on his part; the jury's out on who would have won had the contest continued.
Rafael's deck emphasizes summoning Guardian monsters and bolstering them with Equip Spells.
4. Yami Marik
Style: Effect damage and Graveyard-reclamation of Ra
Often cited as the series' greatest villain, Marik wields the famous Winged Dragon of Ra. In real life, the God Cards are downgraded to make them actually fair, but my goodness, is that thing a monster in the anime.
- Beat Mai Valentine
- Beat Joey Wheeler
- Beat Yami Bakura
Marik's unusual in that his most impressive duel is the one he actually lost. While Marik defeated Joey and Mai thanks to flukes, the reverse happened with Yugi, where Marik technically lost but only because he forfeited. Had things played their course, Marik would have been one of very few to defeat Yami Yugi.
His cards disrupt the opponent by dealing effect damage, lowering their monster's Attack, and forcing them to discard. He, of course, wields the formidable Egyptian God Ra, and also runs cards to revive Ra from the Graveyard.
3. Joey Wheeler
Style: Luck-based beatdown
I know I'll catch some flack for this because Joey admittedly loses several duels, but he also pulls off some surprisingly impressive wins. In fact, series creator Kazuki Takahashi considers Kaiba and Yami Yugi weak when compared to Joey, likely due to his caring and brave nature. Additionally, Maximillion Pegasus once rated Joey as the world's third-best duelist behind Kaiba and Yugi.
Read More From Reelrundown
- Defeated Mai Valentine
- Defeated Marik, but lost due to a plot-convenient technicality
- Implied to have beaten Yugi once
Joey's deck evolves throughout the series, but he typically uses Warrior-typed monsters, occasional Fusions, and many luck-based cards with huge payoffs if fortune favors him. His signature cards include Time Wizard and Red-Eyes Black Dragon.
Though somewhat spotty, Joey is truly formidable when playing at his best.
2. Seto Kaiba
Style: Blue-Eyes beatdown
The arrogant and self-assured Seto Kaiba wins the vast majority of his matches. While Kaiba has yet to fairly defeat Yugi, he's attained more than his fair share of wins. Here are some of his best:
- Defeated Joey Wheeler (multiple times)
- Defeated Ishizu Ishtar
- Defeated Yamu Yugi (through cheating)
After the Battle City arc, Kaiba dueled less and less, but Battle City was by far the most popular arc anyway. Kaiba's skill and haughtiness made him the classic jerk rival for Yugi and Joey, and his near-limitless funds ensure he always has an impressive assortment of formidable cards.
In the early days of Yu-Gi-Oh, beatdown strategies were common, and Kaiba takes advantage by brandishing several powerful Fiend and Dragon monsters. His most famous cards are the Blue-Eyes White Dragon and the Egyptian God Obelisk the Tormentor.
1. Yugi Moto/ Yami Yugi
Style: Versatile Magicians
Technically these guys are two separate people, but they're fused together for the vast majority of the show. Like any good hero, Yugi wins by rocking a ridiculously implausible hairstyle and letting his cooler alter-ego handle the heavy lifting. He's won just about every match he enters, and here are some of his best:
- Defeated Seto Kaiba (multiple times)
- Defeated Joey Wheeler
- Defeated pretty much everyone
As tough as Yugi and Yami are, they have lost in fair fights before, but never without also claiming a victory in a subsequent rematch. In Yu-Gi-Oh GX, Yugi also duels protagonist Jaden, but the result of the match is never revealed.
Yugi's deck evolves over time, but he consistently utilizes Fiend and Spellcaster cards. His two signature monsters are the Dark Magician and the God Card Slifer the Sky Dragon.
Yu-Gi-Oh has cheesy cliques of characters and an unfinished rule format, but it somehow managed to captivate millions of people across the world. Is it a "good" show? Probably not. But is it fun? It definitely has its moments, and helped usher in a phenomenal real-life card game.
Vote for your favorite duelist, and I'll see you at our countdown of the best duelists in the next series: Yu-Gi-Oh! GX. And trust me, you really, really want to watch that subbed, not dubbed.
© 2017 Jeremy Gill
Jeremy Gill (author) from Louisiana on September 12, 2020:
Not sure where you're getting your information from. As I understand it, Rafael is canon, at least to the anime. Mai was shown to have beaten Pegasus in a flashback (episode 151), and Pegasus ends up fine anyway (he appears in YGO GX).
Vajra on September 10, 2020:
Rafael isn't canon so he shouldn't be on the list. Also Mai never beat Pegasus, since he died at the end Duelist Kingdom. So again not canon... Based on the original series the List would go Yugi, Pegasus, Seto, Marik, Joey
Jeremy Gill (author) from Louisiana on May 27, 2020:
That's a fair point, and it's a complicated issue, because Atem is using the effect of "Catapault Turtle" to sacrifice monsters and inflict direct damage, but having too many monsters in his graveyard ends up costing him the duel (when Rafael uses "Guardian Eatos").
Would Yami have done that without the Orichalcos influence? Maybe, maybe not, but there was some tactical benefit to the strategy, it just ultimately backfired.
After all, Rafael has "Swords of Revealing Light" out, easily one of the best spells at that point in time, giving him three turns of protection from attacks, so it makes sense for Yami to tribute his monsters for damage when he can't attack anyway.
James on May 23, 2020:
I get a little aggravated when people use the Rafael fight with Atem and don’t examine why he lost. Atem only lost because he was being poisoned by the Orichalcos the same way Mai was until Joey removed it from her neck. And in the rematch Atem was clearly the winner. Even if Rafael did not forfeit, Atem could have revived another monster that could have destroyed him. He forfeited because he knew he was going to lose.
Norris on May 25, 2019:
yugi only lost once in a fair match. it was when was dueling rafael. the other times was not a fair match. like kaiba he said he would suicde if he didn't win.
Jeremy Gill (author) from Louisiana on September 04, 2018:
Many of the duelists you list did technically beat Atem, but under unfavorable circumstances, so whether the wins should count depends on your perspective. For instance, Kaiba only won through cheating, and I believe the loss to Rebecca was an intentional forfeit (as parents often do against younger kids).
I appreciate your mentioning them, though, because if you count matches like these, Atem's record isn't as spotless as it appears.
No Name on September 03, 2018:
Atem lost to the following.
No Name on March 10, 2018:
All of them are weak. The true duliest uses random luck to win duels and doesn’t mark their cards to cheat. Seeker the rare hunter is the winner in Yugioh. He could easily wipe Dartz and his master. Exodia would crush everyone. Weevil could have taken 5 pieces of Exodia in that episode where they both were choosing cards by Paradius by Dartz. I saw it’s head on display in that episode. Dartz could have gave Slifer to Rafael, Obelisk to Allister, and Ra to Valon. That old man Gurimo used Obelisk it would have been wiped out clearly cause the mans deck is all weak warriors and a stupid circle that gives 500 points to all monsters. Anime sucks big time card designs are awesome and intriguing. Game is worth the play for free time and I respect you calling me any name.
Atem yugi on December 18, 2017:
He wins every time and lost only 3 to 5 times In all five seasons!!!
Jeremy Gill (author) from Louisiana on August 30, 2017:
The implication isn't the strongest, but it's there. Here's a quick explanation from the Yu-Gi-Oh wiki:
"Later on, Joey met up with Yugi for a Duel they promised each other. Joey claimed he was going to win back his 'Red-Eyes Black Dragon'. The Duel's result was not shown, but Joey did use that card in later arcs, which means he may have won it back."
as140 on August 29, 2017:
@Jeremy: It was never implied Joey had beaten Yugi. Obviously he is weaker than Kaiba. He might have had a draw with Yugi, but in no way beaten him.
Also I want to point out that in the movie, Kaiba would have won if the duel wasn´t interrupted.
Jeremy Gill (author) from Louisiana on August 06, 2017:
Kenneth, Joey is stronger than most people think. In the direct anime sequel, Yu-Gi-Oh GX, Pegasus himself lists Joey as the third best duelist of all time (after Yugi and Kaiba).
It's also implied Joey's beaten Yugi; don't think he couldn't hold his own in a match against Rafael.
Kenneth on August 03, 2017:
Nidakiwe, in what world would Joey win a duel against Rafeal