There are many lessons that can be learned from watching the original Yu-Gi-Oh series. Friendship is more powerful than ancient magical jewelry, Seto Kaiba has a questionable attachment to dragons and playing children's card games can both end or save the planet. So to that end, the greatest duelists on the show are the ones who control the fate of the world. Do you know what that means? We have to rank them!
Just to be clear, this isn't a ranking of how powerful these characters' decks would be in real life or anything like that. This is more how these characters perform within the context of the show with some attention paid to their strategies and how they stack up to other characters on the show. We're also focusing on the original series and none of its later follow-ups. No card games on motorcycles here.
The often forgotten about stepbrother of Seto and Mokuba Kaiba, Noah was the main antagonist of the "Virtual World" arc in season 3. While for the most part, he lets his henchmen The Big 5 do his bidding, he does engage in one of the show's most cinematic duels versus Seto Kaiba (with Atem taking over in the duel's conclusion).
It is true that Noah is able to defeat Kaiba, but that is only because of underhanded tactics involving mind control and the"deckmaster" mechanic in the Virtual World being random in its effects. While he is certainly talented being able to contend with both Kaiba and Atem, he ultimately scrapped by Kaiba and lost to Atem who started the match with a measly 400 LP.
Despite being only a minor villain in the early days of season 2, Rare Hunter (his real name never unveiled) is one of the most dangerous duelists in the show due to the show's lack of a forbidden/limited list present in the real-life card game. Without this, this henchman of Marik is able to have 3 copies of each piece of Exodia The Forbidden One. Yup, the same cards used by Atem to obliterate Kaiba in the first episode.
With his strategy of drawing several cards per turn and stalling until he assembles Exodia, he could have likely decimated many of duelists on the show. In fact, if not for Atem's play of "Chain Destruction" in their duel, he likely would have crushed the King of Games. Alas, he's now chilling in the Shadow Realm for his failure.
The main villain of season 2 and 3, Marik and by extension Yami Marik's sins against Yugi and his friends were some of the most sinister in the show's history. On top of that, he was quite the duelist in his own right.
Like his schemes, Marik's playing style had fail-safe on top of failsafe. He also focused heavily on dealing effect damage rather than outright attack power in all his monsters. With a combination of skill and dark arts, he gave all his opponents on the show tons of trouble at every turn. His failure to crack the higher spots comes down to his reliance on shadow games, but he is still an amazing card player.
Yugi Muto's best friend, Joey Wheeler starts off the series as a complete rookie who could barely play without instruction from Yugi. By the end of the series, however, he is one of the most skilled players.
Despite the gimmicky nature of his deck, Joey always manages to have luck on his side. Cards like Time Wizard, Skull Dice, and Graceful Dice would realistically be risky cards in real life, but Joey's success rate with these in the show is staggering. Joey is able to handle himself against all but the toughest of duelists. It is also worth noting that he totally would have beat Marik in Battle City if he managed to stay conscious for 10 more seconds than he did.
While Atem/Yugi is far from undefeated on the show, many of his losses come under weird circumstances. Rafael from season 4 however, remains one of two people to legitimately defeat the ancient Pharoah (Joey vs The Pharoah from the end of season 3 never had a clear result).
With that in mind, it should be recognized that Rafael is one heck of a duelist. His dedication to his "Guardian" and their equip spell cards gave Atem a major headache in both their duels. What keeps him out of the higher spots is his lack of wins against other notable duelists. The money we'd pay to see him go up against Seto Kaiba though...
In perhaps the most surprising entry in the top 5, you would be shocked at how powerful the youngest duelist on this list can be. Unlike many other duelists on the show whose strategies are mainly "summon big monster and smash" or "have no strategy at all", Rebecca Hawkins actually seems to understand how combos work.
This can be seen in her first duel with Yugi where she combines Ring of Magnetism, Millenium Shield and Cannon Soldier to bring the Duelist Kingdom champion to his knees. Later in the "Grand Championship" arc, she utilizes an excellent strategy of locking down her opponent as she whittles down their life points with effect damage. If she had more chances to duel on the show, she might have rivaled even the mighty Yugi Muto.
Although Kaiba himself might not like to hear this, he isn't the strongest duelist on the show. That isn't to say that he is bad by any means, but he falls short of the top three.
Let's start with Kaiba's main two strategies: blasting through his opponents with ultra-powerful monsters and infecting their decks with virus cards designed to cripple them. For the most part, this is an effective strategy as Kaiba's resources give him access to some of the game's best cards including the only three copies of Blue-Eyes White Dragon. But while he can defeat almost anyone, there are times when power wasn't enough. Namely, to the three above him.
Perhaps a controversial choice, the villain of the season 4 Dartz only played in one duel in the entire series. However, it was against arguably the strongest duelists in the entire show: Atem and Seto Kaiba in a two on one match no less. And how does he fare? Remarkably well.
For starters, Dartz begins the duel by laughing in the face of Kaiba and Yugi's most powerful monster the Dragon Master Knight. He then manages to knock Kaiba of the match before finally losing to Atem after the Pharoah somehow manages to defeat a monster with infinite attack points. Yes Atem had to break math itself to beat this guy. Talk about a menace.
He may have been a tenant in the body of Yugi Muto. but Atem (the spirit of the Millenium Puzzle for those who didn't watch until the finale) is one of the strongest duelists to ever draw a card. While it may be difficult to separate the spirit and Yugi when it comes to dueling, there are enough duels to show that Atem on his own is mighty.
Rather than excelling at one specific type of strategy, Atem is quite the all-rounder capable of hitting you with big monsters, insane spell cards or traps that will ruin your day. This lets him adapt to any opponent that comes his way. In fact, he is nigh invincible losing only two in legitimate fashion on the show. Once to Rafael and the other to...
The series protagonist is the strongest duelist on the show? Who would have guessed! While earlier on in the series it's clear that he needs his partner Atem to bail him out of tougher duels, Yugi shows his mettle solo in a few key situations like when he held off a mind-controlled Bandit Keith and defeated Yami Bakura.
The biggest proof that Yugi is superior to Atem is right in the series finale. In that episode, Yugi accomplishes a feat that nobody else has done before or since; he defeated all three Egyptian God Cards and beats his partner fair and square. That right there is why Yugi is the greatest duelist in the original series.