The original Duel Monsters is the most memorable Yu-Gi-Oh! series of them all for a number of reasons. It was the first, it hit during the childhood and early teen years of millenials everywhere, and it also contained a cast of relatable high school kids who happened to exist in a world where, despite revolutionary tech advances and the existence of shadow magic, card games were more important than anything else.

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The series was still trying to figure out the rules of what would come to be a game that would exist for nearly two decades after the show aired, but despite that, it still managed to have some great matches in its 200+ episodes. In the interest of fairness, though, it also had some real stinkers too. Let’s have a look at some of the very best and the very worst!

10 WORST: MAKO TSUNAMI VS. YAMI YUGI

“I Attack...the Moon!” The Duelist Kingdom duels were really only good because of how hilarious they were. It was obvious the show’s game didn’t have any rules, and things pretty much worked off creativity. This duel features Yugi trapped for much of the game because of his Spell Card Full Moon, which created more water for Mako’s Monsters and almost no land to Summon his own.

He gets out of it by blowing the moon up, eroding the tide, and leaving Mako’s Monsters stranded. Afterwards, he destroys them with Burning Land and wins with a single attack from Curse of Dragon.

9 BEST: YUGI VS. JOEY (BATTLE CITY)

Marik was probably the most devious opponent Yami ever came up against. Pegasus is wasting time trapping people in Betamax tapes and Kaiba’s trying to talk Yami out of winning, but Marik?

Marik starts with games where losing means getting your legs cut off, then graduates to brainwashing Yugi's best friend Joey, forcing them into a tense duel where the loser is dragged to the bottom of the ocean by an anchor. This allowed us to see both of the show’s main characters go at it against one another, leaving us wondering who was going to survive at the end.

8 WORST: YUGI VS. KAIBA I

Though this duel is responsible for about half the memes that come from the first season, it’s frustrating to watch for anyone who knows anything about how the game is played. Not even the current game—the game as it was when the show was airing in America.

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The rules are basically non-existent at this point, so Kaiba’s Summoning three Blue-Eyes in the same turn, which would’ve been literally impossible. Then it just winds up leading to an Exodia victory...which also doesn’t matter because Exodia is tossed in the ocean never to be seen again afterwards. We remember this for the memes, not for the duel.

7 BEST: YUGI AND JOEY VS. THE PARADOX BROTHERS

The Duelist Kingdom matches were generally terrible, but there are always some exceptions to the rule. This match doesn’t make sense from a rules perspective, but it's creative so we go along with it. The Paradox Brothers rely on the Monster Labyrinth Wall to create a literal labyrinth Joey and Yugi can only explore by sending their Monsters inside, where the deadly Gate Guardian lies.

It becomes something of a game within a game, while this duel introduces us to the awesomeness of tag duels and the power of random fusions of specific ace Monsters that shouldn’t exist.

6 WORST: JOEY VS. KAIBA (BATTLE CITY)

Joey vs. Kaiba occurs more than once in the series, but the most frustrating one is the one that occurs during the Battle City arc. Unlike Kaiba or Yugi, Joey’s character arc is more compelling to follow because he’s not “destined” to be great. He becomes great by learning to play the game better, taking losses in stride and improving from them.

He challenges Kaiba to decide who will be the third place victor of Battle City, and while it’s a good back and forth between the two, in the end Kaiba is given a win he doesn’t need. He isn’t forced to acknowledge Joey’s continuous growth as a Duelist, either.

5 STRINGS (MARIK) VS. YUGI

Up until this point, it had always felt like Yami had a grasp on what he was doing in a Duel. People trying to kill him? Bush league losers who end up Mind Crushed. Someone who can read his mind? No sweat. Marik (working through Strings), however, had Yami on the ropes, thanks to his Revival Jam combo increasing Slifer’s ATK to some truly ridiculous numbers.

Yami had almost given up until Kaiba and Mokuba show up to bring him back to his senses. The best part? His victory results in Strings decking out, the worst possible way for a player to lose.

4 WORST: TEA VS. MAI VALENTINE

Tea vs. Mai happens when Yugi gets frightened of Yami’s willingness to sacrifice anything and anyone in order to help out Yugi. Having lost all of his star chips, Mai offers to give him some chips but Yugi’s too shellshocked to respond, so Tea duels in his place.

Tea has virtually no dueling skill on her own, and in the end isn’t even able to beat Mai. Instead, Mai surrenders and gives Yugi the chips anyway. This duel feels like a waste of time, and almost makes it feel like Yugi doesn’t deserve to get Solomon back. It’s one thing not to kill Kaiba, quite another to refuse free help from a person he’d saved earlier.

3 YUGI/SETO KAIBA VS. NOAH KAIBA

This is the best filler match in the series. It starts out with Kaiba facing off against the digitized version of his brother Noah. Confident as usual, he has no problem battling Noah until Noah uses Kaiba’s brother Mokuba against him. Kaiba eventually surrenders, but Yugi battles in his place.

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Things go poorly for him as well, leading to Noah having 10,000 Life Points while Yugi only has 100, leaving everything riding on one last turn. Yu-Gi-Oh is known for epic comebacks, but the odds were stacked extra high this episode, as Yugi finishes off Noah in a single turn thanks to the help of Kaiba’s Blue-Eyes Monsters.

2 WORST: MAI VALENTINE VS. MARIK

This might be the worst example of plot armor in all of Yu-Gi-Oh! As the only major female dueling muscle in the original Yu-Gi-Oh! series, Mai is seen fairly frequently. Though most of her wins come from off-screen matches, every indication we’ve been given is that she’s an excellent duelist. When she goes up against Marik, though, it’s obvious she’s not going to be allowed to beat him. It just comes down to what has to happen for her to lose.

You’d expect him to have some totally cheap card that gives him an easy win, but no. Mai steals the Winged Dragon of Ra... but only the “chosen ones” can read the text on the card, which ends up costing her the duel. Lame.

1 BEST: YUGI MUTO VS. PHARAOH ATEM

All of the original Duel Monsters built up to this final duel, a match between Yugi and the Pharoah Atem. If Yugi could win, it would mean Atem could finally pass on. If he lost, it would mean being stuck as a spirit for another 5000 years. This duel is worthy of being the last one on the show, as it sees both characters pull out all the stops against one another.

Atem summons all the God Cards in two turns; Yugi destroys them in one. The two go back and forth, exhausting all of their strategies until a victor emerges. It’s a great match, full of callbacks to prior eras of the show, and is thematically the best duel in the series.

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