Yu-Gi-Oh! is a legendary anime. It inspired millions around the world to invest heavily in the trading card game the show is based on, even though the characters on the show rarely follow the rules of the real world game. Even so, the show certainly put forward its fair share of impressive dueling talent, each one with their own diverse deck and personality.
Through the series’ various tournaments and story arcs, there were certain duelists who stood out and made a lasting impression. These were the craziest, most competitive, and smartest duelists that the show ever introduced. This list confines itself to the original series, so now’s the time to give the duelists of GX and the 5D’s their due. There are plenty of extraordinary duelists on those shows as well, including Jaden Yuki, Zane Truesdale, Yusei Fudo, and many others. With that said, here are the 15 Most Powerful Duelists In Yu-Gi-Oh!
15 Mako Tsunami
An exuberant duelist who fights valiantly against his opponents, Mako may not win very often during his time on the show, but he certainly manages to make an impression. During his duels with both Yugi and Joey, Mako distinguishes himself not only because of the challenge he poses, but also because of his moving backstory, and the way he is truly connected to the sea, which is the theme of his deck. Although he loses in both of these duels, Mako is a noble warrior, and he is more respectful in loss than almost any other character.
Mako’s deck evolves slightly over the course of the series, but its most iconic card is probably The Legendary Fisherman, who actually bears a striking resemblance to him. Mako’s deck is powerful, in part because Water cards actually work really well together. During his duel against Joey especially, it becomes clear that Mako isn’t exactly a pushover. He’s actually quite the challenge.
14 Rex Raptor
Rex may not win many duels on Yu-Gi-Oh!, but that doesn’t mean that he isn’t fun to watch. He pops up several times throughout the show’s run, and he’s always equipped with a more powerful deck than the one he had previously. By the end of the series, Rex has a seriously competitive deck, one that ranks him among the top duelists in the series.
During his first duel against Joey, Rex loses his Red Eyes Black Dragon, which becomes Joey's signature card, but that's far from Rex’s only contribution to the series. In addition to providing some much needed comic relief throughout, Rex, alongside Weevil Underwood (who may as well share this spot with Rex), always manages to interfere with the story Yugi has embarked on. He may not ever be an enormous threat, but Rex always manages to be a nuisance, which is, in its own way, admirable.
13 Mai Valentine
Mai spent a lot of time on Yu-Gi-Oh!, and for the most part she lost. Even so, Mai made it into or close to the finals of almost every dueling tournament the show offered, and she eventually becomes a potent threat as a member of Dartz’s gang. Of course, Mai is also Joey’s love interest, and an enormous part of what Joey is often fighting for.
Mai’s signature cards are the Harpy Ladies, a group of dangerous female warriors who prove to be as potent as Mai herself. Although Mai often finds herself in danger throughout the series, she’s never helpless. Mai knows how to take care of herself, and she doesn’t need Joey, or anyone else, to help her. What Mai ultimately learns is that codependence isn’t a weakness, it’s a strength. Friends are often helpful, especially when you’re in a tight bind. If there’s any show that wanted to drive that point home, it was most definitely Yu-Gi-Oh!.
Although he’s only featured for one duel, what a duel it is. Possessed by Marik, this heavily-pierced duelist pinned Yugi pretty deep before ultimately being bested by the King of Games. Of course, Strings was helped along by his borrowed Egyptian God card, Slifer the Sky Dragon, and has built a deck around using all of that card's many effects and abilities.
Of course, to say that Strings is really in control is likely misleading. It’s really Marik pulling the strings, executing his plan to take Yugi’s Millennium Puzzle. Ultimately, Strings fails to beat Yugi, but only after a lengthy duel that almost takes Yugi down before his time.
Strings also proves to be one of the more physically intimidating characters the show offers, not because of his actual size, but because of the vivid design he is given. With the numerous piercings and the enormous boots, Strings makes an impression even without his duel disk.
Joey Wheeler’s most serious challenger during the Duelist Kingdom storyline, Bones, completely misuses Call of the Haunted, and claims that the card turns all of his monsters into zombified versions of themselves. These zombified versions of Bones’ cards have a debilitating effect on Joey, and he only barely manages to pull out a win in the duel, and retain his star chips.
It was in his duel with Bones that Joey faced the first legitimate test of his skills, and discovers that he needs to use his entire deck to beat his opponents. Bones has one of the most overwhelming advantages of any duelist on Yu-Gi-Oh!, and it’s only thanks to luck of the draw that Joey is able to win the day. Bones is underrated. He plays a good game and, unlike his boss Bandit Keith, he plays it fairly. Although he only appears on the show a couple of times, those appearance makes a heck of an impression.
Odion’s single duel against Joey is a pretty excellent one, and it’s only made better by the fact that Joey, along with the rest of the people watching the duel, believes that Odion is actually Marik. Odion’s deck is one of the more fascinating on the show, using tons of incredibly specialized cards that are never seen anywhere else. Perhaps the most notable of these are his trap monsters, which prove to be among the cooler surprise reveals on the show.
Of course, Odion’s most important role came outside the dueling arena, where he was tasked with keeping Yami Marik at bay. When Odion is knocked unconscious and Yami Marik is released, we come to realize how much power Odion must have exerted to keep that darkness at bay. He only gets to duel once, it’s true, but his appearance is a memorable one, and he’s stopped by Joey’s crafty skill. Besides, Odion never really cared about winning. He was just trying to protect Marik.
The fourth season’s main antagonist, Dartz, used a deck that put both Yugi and Kaiba on the ropes for quite a while. Of course, Dartz’s ultimate plan involved summoning a monster called the Leviathan, and the result of the duel really bends the logic of duel monsters. Even so, Dartz still proves himself to be an incredibly difficult foe, and one who requires the talents of both Yugi and Kaiba to beat.
The duel between the pair ultimately comes down to Yugi and Dartz, but Yugi is only able to defeat Dartz’s impossibly strong Leviathan using all three of the Dragon cards that he, Joey, and Kaiba have used throughout the season. Other than the Leviathan, Dartz deck is primarily focused on the Orichalcos, and uses cards that reinforce the ultimate power that that card brings with it. All of his monsters earn insane amounts of extra attack points, and he gathers a force that was initially overwhelming for both Yugi and Kaiba.
The duel between Yugi and Noah, the third Kaiba son that no one remembers, is one of the better entries in the series as a whole, and that’s because Noah plays the game in a way that few other duelists on the show choose to. Instead of working to debilitate his opponents, Noah spends part of his duel stalling for time and building up a massive life point advantage that becomes difficult for Yugi to overcome later.
Noah’s victory strategy ultimately includes Shinato, King of a Higher Plain, and a series of spirit cards designed to replenish his life points. His deck is focused on the theme of the Earth’s creation, which is appropriate, given his biblical name.
Noah begins his one duel against Kaiba, but Yugi eventually picks up where he left off, and is only able to defeat Noah through the power of friendship. Of course, that’s pretty much how everything gets done on this show, so props to Noah for holding out as long as he does.
Perhaps the show’s most important villain, Marik possesses the hugely powerful Winged Dragon of Ra, which is reason enough for his presence on this list. Even without that card, though, Marik proves to be an incredibly potent enemy, and his arc as the villain lasts longer than any other characters. Because he’s entered in the Battle City tournament, we also get to see Marik duel far more than we see the show's other villains, and the frequency of his duels does little to dissuade audiences from the notion that he’s a master of the game.
Although Marik certainly has ulterior motives, his deck is also filled with monsters designed to debilitate his opponents quickly and pull out his Winged Dragon of Ra as rapidly as possible. Marik is often equally matched with his opponents, and uses his knowledge of Ra as a trump card, defeating his opponents by revealing the cards many hidden abilities, which only he is fully aware of.
6 Maximillion Pegasus
Pegasus created duel monsters, so he deserves a spot fairly high up this list. Pegasus has an enormous advantage over his opponents thanks to his Millennium Eye, an item that allows him to read the minds of his opponents and anticipate their next move. Even without the eye, though, Pegasus’s fearsome Toon Deck is terrifying enough, and it takes down several fierce opponents.
Of course, Pegasus has other tricks up his sleeve, including his Thousand Eyes Idol and Thousand Eyes Restrict, two cards that also pose enormous problems for Yugi. Yugi wins out in the end, but only after one of the hardest-fought duels of the entire series. Pegasus’s deck is created to take advantage of his Millennium Eye, and it’s not until Yugi realizes that he can hide his thoughts from Pegasus that he’s able to win the day.
Pegasus was the king of games before Yugi came along, and he deserves some respect for that. On top of that, he created the show's central game.
5 Yami Bakura
Always a presence on Yu-Gi-Oh!, this character gets several moments to shine through its five seasons, perhaps most notably during the last arc of the final season. Bakura’s deck is constantly evolving, but it’s always among the creepiest and most sinister on the show. Bakura often works to weaken his opponents, using their natural instincts against them in ways that are both cruel and deeply effective.
Although Bakura only makes it to the quarterfinals in Battle City, his duel against Marik proves exactly how powerful Bakura can be. That duel is one of several occasions where Marik is able to win because of his knowledge of Ra. Bakura really comes into his own during the final season of Yu-Gi-Oh!, when he almost beats Kaiba before leaving the duel early, and proves to be a worthy adversary for Yugi.
Bakura loses his fair share of duels, it’s true, but his constant presence on the show suggests that he may be the most potent foe that Yugi faces. He’s always there, just waiting to strike.
4 Joey Wheeler
Oh, Joey. Joey loses a lot more duels than he probably should, and that’s usually because he’s far too noble for his own good. Whether he’s fighting to protect his sister or his friends, Joey always has some cause worth defending, and he always finds a way to fight for it. What’s remarkable about Joey is how weak his deck often is. He doesn’t have the best card, but he always manages to pull out wins with both heart and, eventually, some brains as well.
That’s not to say that Joey doesn’t have his challenges as a duelist. His duels in Battle City are all fairly difficult for him, but his deck gets stronger with every victory. Although he never gets his hand on a God Card, Joey still manages to compete in Battle City into the semifinals, and almost bests Marik even without a God Card of his own. Joey’s scrappy. He’s the perpetual underdog, and that’s the way he likes it. No one ever sees him coming.
Yami Yugi doesn’t lose many duels. He’s the protagonist after all, and that means that, on a show about dueling, he’s going to win most of the duels he’s in. Other than his very first duel against Pegasus, Yugi’s only other legitimate loss comes from Rafael, who is able to best Yugi by beating him at his own game. Rafael’s back story is truly tragic, and it’s one that mirror’s Yugi’s connection to the cards in his deck. When Yami Yugi chooses to activate The Seal of Orichalcos to keep himself from losing, Rafael exploits his decision in order to defeat him.
Rafael’s deck, which is filled to the brim with Guardian monsters, is something he treasured above all else after he lost his family during an accident at sea. He sees the capacity for evil inside of Yami Yugi, and his suspicions are confirmed by Yami Yugi’s behavior during the duel. Despite activating the Seal of Orichalcos, Yami Yugi loses anyway. Rafael is just that good.
2 Seto Kaiba
Yugi’s consummate rival, Kaiba gives our hero a run for his money every time they face off, which is quite often. Of course, as the series progresses, Yugi and Kaiba also team up for some of the show’s most important duels, and it’s only together that the pair are able to defeat whatever force they are fighting against. Of course, Kaiba’s signature card is the Blue Eyes White Dragon, one of the most powerful monsters in the game, and a stronger card than the Dark Magician, Yugi’s signature card.
Even so, Yugi always manages to find a way to defeat Kaiba’s super powerful decks, and emerges the victor almost every time they face off. Kaiba’s rivalry with Yugi is fierce and impressive, and his deck also happens to be one of the best constructed on the show. Kaiba clearly cares about defeating his enemies, and his deck reflects that brutality. Kaiba often gets the win he so desperately desires.
1 Yami Yugi
Yugi has a potent force on his side every time he faces off with an opponent, and it’s one that almost always drives him to victory. Yugi’s deck is full of a variety of monsters and magic cards, although Kuriboh and Dark Magician are two of the mainstays. Over the course of the show’s five season, Yugi always seems to find himself in a pinch, and also seems to have a remarkable skill for drawing exactly the card he needs.
Eventually, Yugi adds Slifer, the Sky Dragon to his deck, and often finds a way to incorporate the card’s ability into his deck as it stands. Usually, Yugi is characterized by the care and respect he has for the cards in his deck. He believes in playing the game with honor, and is always searching for the “heart of the cards.”
Yugi’s the protagonist, so he’s forced to lay out many of the show’s themes. Even so, he still manages to be a rich, complicated character who makes his fair share of mistakes.
Who's your favorite duelist in Yu-Gi-Oh? Let us know in the comments!