Whether it’s the Gary Oak to Ash Ketchum or the Vegeta to Goku, the most popular character in an anime is almost always the rival. There’s something about that character type that speaks to all of us. As the stories progress, they’re defeated by our hero, undergoing a crisis of confidence before rebuilding themselves anew.
It’s a great formula that almost never disappoints, and this is just as true in Yu-Gi-Oh! as anywhere else. With seven distinct series so far, the Yu-Gi-Oh! anime has its fair share of rival characters. Not all have been created equal, either as duelists or compelling characters, so just how do they rate in relation to each other?
As rivals go, Luke stands out for being dominant for basically his entire series. First introduced in Yu-Gi-Oh! Sevens, he maintains an almost perfect win-streak for the entire show, establishing himself as a dominant duelist in the mind of viewers. That is actually why he is one of the least interesting rivals though: he misses out on that classic arc of losing and building himself back up.
Luke is so talented that his character doesn’t struggle enough to develop in interesting ways, and his deck is also less memorable than other rivals. He’s not a bad character by any stretch, and the idea of a rival who stays dominant right through to the end is an interesting shake-up for the formula. Sadly, he just falls short of being as engaging as the other rivals.
Whether going by Revolver, Varis, or Ryoken Kogami, this is one of the more unusual rivals in the anime’s history. Instrumental to the plot of Yu-Gi-Oh! Vrains thanks to his parents’ creation of the AI Ignis and with a clear motivation to put a stop to it, Revolver feels relevant from start to finish. He has an unusual design, and a fun deck, so what stops him from being on top?
Revolver has the unusual honour of losing to one of the ‘sidekick’ characters, which usually isn’t something that happens. The rival character generally only loses to the main character or major villain to show how much of a threat they are, losing to anyone else dilutes their image as a strong competitor. That said though, the loss to Soulburner is narratively appropriate and creates some fascinating character development for Revolver, so it isn’t all bad.
6 Edo Phoenix
Edo Phoenix, or Aster Phoenix if you prefer the dub, is introduced relatively late into Yu-Gi-Oh! GX but slides smoothly into the role of the second character in that series who qualifies for the rival title. A professional duelist undefeated in the pro league, he actually loses his first on-screen duel, against protagonist Judai Yuki no less, but he performs this loss in the most impressive fashion possible. He duels well, and does so using a deck of completely random cards, displaying his natural talent.
Once Edo switches to his real deck, a Dark Hero mirror to Judai Yuki’s Elemental Hero deck, he becomes the dominant force his pro record suggests he should be. He loses relevance as the show moves past the Society of Light story arc he’s deeply connected to. Edo also gets replaced in the new-best-friend role the second Johan Anderson comes onto the scene, pushing him down the rival rankings.
5 Reiji Akaba
Renamed Declan Akaba for the English dub, Reiji is the youngest competitor to ever be certified to duel in the professional circuit and the main rival from Yu-Gi-Oh! Arc-V. Not only that, he also founded the Lancers, an organization that fights interdimensional invaders. That should make him one of the coolest rivals going, but it isn’t enough.
Reiji receives far criticism for being a clear attempt to recreate the glory of fan favorite character Seto Kaiba. The CEO of a company, with a younger brother they dote over and a problematic father? It all sounds just a little too familiar. Even with being a partial copy of a previous character Reiji is still a strong rival in his own right, one who grows and develops as the series goes on.
4 Kaito Tenjo
Kaito Tenjo, from Yu-Gi-Oh! Zexal, has hair indecipherable enough to qualify him as a protagonist but is firmly in the rival category. First appearing as an antagonist with the understandable motive of wanting to help his sick brother, he later switches sides to join up with protagonist Yuma.
Kaito has a memorable deck, great design, a compelling arc, and a unique accolade to his name. He’s currently the only main rival to never lose to the protagonist of their series, ever! No other rival can claim that, and it sets Kaito apart in a meaningful way.
3 Jun Manjome
The English dubs of anime have committed various crimes, but perhaps none more so grievous than giving Jun Manjome the absurd name of Chazz Princeton. That second ‘z’ has a lot to answer for, primarily robbing dub viewers of getting to chant the “Majome Thunder!” victory cry. “Chazz it up” just doesn’t have the same ring.
All of that aside, Manjome is more character than just about any other rival in the anime history. Beginning as an entitled, elitist rich kid, he falls from grace and has to rebuild himself multiple times. As a character, he finds his heart as a duelist and forms genuine friendships, while as a duelist he learns to win top-level duels with the weakest cards available. It’s a huge transformation and one that feels genuinely earned.
2 Seto Kaiba
The one who started it all, Set Kaiba formed the mold for what a Yu-Gi-Oh! rival should look like. He entered as a villain, but after a transformative shadow game with Yugi, he began a slow and gradual change into a better person. On the surface, Kaiba never changed. He remained a seemingly cold and uncaring CEO, but experienced a quieter development beneath the surface that impacted how he approached the world.
Kaiba is one of the greatest and most iconic anime rivals of all time, bar none, and his signature card remains the series mascot to this day. He’s the strongest duelist in the first tournament arc and remains a powerhouse duelist for every appearance he makes. Even among the few losses he experiences, many can be explained away by his opponent cheating.
Kaiba also deserves credit for being the character in canon responsible for bringing the Solid Vision system to the world. Outside of supernatural duels, this holographic technology is what allows people to see visual representations of the duels. Pegasus might have created the modern-day Duel Monsters but Kaiba-boy is the one who brought it to the masses.
1 Jack Atlas
Jack Atlas is widely regarded as not just the best rival characters from Yu-Gi-Oh! but one of the best characters overall. Introduced as a ruthless duelist on top of the world, willing to steal his best friend’s key card and leave a child to drown so he can snag their D-Wheel as well, Jack isn’t the sort of character you expect to transform as dramatically as he does.
He eventually realizes that the title of King, which he sacrificed so much for, isn’t what matters to him when compared to the bonds he has with the likes of Carly and Yusei. This development feels earned and, unlike other rivals who soften their harder edges, Jack never becomes any less impressively cool for it.
The fact that the style of dueling he was champion of, Riding Duels, isn’t where he excels is a fantastic narrative device. He lost sight of himself to reach the top in that fast-paced world, eventually spinning out and losing the empty title he sacrificed his bonds for. Compared to Standing Duels, Jack Atlas never loses once he has his two feet planted firmly on the ground. He may have left behind the Duel King title, but Jack will always be the King of Rivals.
Next: Yu-Gi-Oh!: Cards That Are Better In The Anime Than In The Actual Game