The Dragon Ruler era: When Yu-Gi-Oh! became a different game


If you are a regular reader (which I hope you are) you might be wondering why I am here talking about Yu-Gi-Oh! today, as all of my articles so far have been about Pokémon. Well, even if I have been creating Pokémon-related content for over eight years, something you must know is that the game of my childhood has always been Yu-Gi-Oh!. I started playing it when I was very little and, like every kid back then, watched the anime series.

I used to play a lot in summer with my friends, even if we didn’t exactly know the rules and we thought that Mystical Space Typhoon canceled Mirror Force’s activation. My childhood memories are about Yu-Gi-Oh! and that is why it will always have a special place in my heart. Once I grew up, I decided to play Yu-Gi-Oh! a bit more seriously and that is how my adventure began. It didn’t last too long though, because in 2014 I decided to make the final switch to Pokémon.

I have to confess that I have always wanted to come back to Yu-Gi-Oh!. In fact, when I left I made the promise that as soon as Blackwing became Tier 1 again, I would come back. But the reality is that every time I look at the game, it just feels different from the Yu-Gi-Oh! I always knew. Sure, TCGs evolve and that is just part of life, but the whole dynamic has completely transformed into just something … something so alien. And I am not talking about the power creep. I am talking about the fact that Yu-Gi-Oh! is now a game where you try to execute your combo for 10 minutes and if your opponent doesn’t have 1 or 2 hand traps, you basically win. It is absolutely unthinkable to consider a "set monster, set two backrow cards, pass" scenario. In fact, trap cards don’t exist anymore because the format just doesn’t allow the time for them to work. And if a deck happens to run trap cards it is basically because they behave like spells or even Quick Plays.

How many summons do you want in your first turn? 10? 20?

Now, I am not saying that this is a bad thing. Yu-Gi-Oh! is still very popular and thousands of people gather to play YCSs around the world. It is just that the game I knew is gone and is very unlikely that it will ever come back. Sometimes, I wonder when this happened. If there was a moment in time where the shift took place. I have been discussing this with a lot of people and it is easy to agree on the fact that it was when the Pendulum monsters arrived. However, the other day, I was on my way to play an Edison Format tournament (yes, I still play old-school Yu-Gi-Oh!) and a friend pointed out that the moment of change was a bit before … it was with the Dragon Ruler format in 2013. This got me thinking for a while and after having considered the implications, I think he is right.

I lived the Dragon Ruler format. I played the Spanish National with that format and remember very vividly everything that happened there, so most of the things you will find in this article come from someone that suffered the utter desperation of facing a deck that could simply not be beaten.

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Sometimes I think that the Dragon Ruler era isn’t far away, but the reality is that it has been almost a decade. And perhaps modern Yu-Gi-Oh! players have heard stories, but don't actually know if they were true or simply can't grasp the impact that Dragon Rulers had back then. I have been playing TCGs for many years and I have seen many wild things happening. But that is why I have decided to write about this. Because when Dragon Rulers came into the picture, they opened the door to a new game and the TCG that we knew disappeared forever. This is the story of the strongest deck I’ve ever seen in a TCG.

Dragon Ruler: Card advantage, aggression, and draw power | Yu-Gi-Oh!

There is something I want to say before anyone can tell me that I am exaggerating: In Yu-Gi-Oh!'s history, there have been some terrible, unfair decks that had become so powerful that they made Konami issue emergency banlists. I am talking about very iconic decks like Teledad, Yata Lock or Cyber Stein back in the old days. However, this was something else. Not because Dragon Rulers were powerful, which they clearly were. It was because they pushed the power-level by introducing something the game had not seen before: a crazy amount card advantage.


Who would have thought this cute little bird would cause the first chaotic era of Yu-Gi-Oh!?

What do I mean by card advantage? In case you are not familiar with TCGs, having card advantage is a decisive aspect that often determines which player is most likely to win the game. Not that this applies in every situation and in every TCG, but clearly, the more resources you have in your hand and on the field, the higher the chances that you can secure a strong position. In Pokémon, for example, card advantage is not the most important thing because players are constantly drawing cards and replenishing their hands (in fact, some decks can even draw 20+ cards in one turn), but it is crucial in Magic: The Gathering and used to be very important in Yu-Gi-Oh!. In fact, I would say that in the pre-Dragon Ruler era, card advantage was so important that a three to four card difference could directly lead to a voluntary surrender.

Well, Dragon Ruler just didn’t care about card advantage. Dragon Ruler was a deck that played with the cards they had in hand and, then, with the cards in their graveyard. Effectively, you could say that Dragon Ruler had two hands and I can't stress enough how powerful that was. Basically, it ensured that it never ran out of resources. And then, in case you consider that this was not enough, they played three copies of a card called Super Rejuvenation, which allowed them to draw cards for every dragon they discarded. Since the deck was about discarding dragons (you guessed that, right?), it could mean a +4 or +5 at the end of the turn.

Let's take a second to look back. The most powerful decks of the past formats have been those capable of setting up a checkmate situation (Yata), swarming the field with monsters (Teledad, Lightsworn), or just executing a combo to leave the opponent without resources (Wind Up, Infinity w/Thrishula). All of these strategies have been really solid and got a very strong reaction from the player base but, generally speaking, they never had the same power in terms of card advantage. And definitely, they couldn’t maintain it throughout an entire game, which was exactly what the Dragon Ruler did.

Blaster, Tidal, Tempest and Redox: The ultimate line-up | Yu-Gi-Oh!

Now that I am thinking of it, I have not explained what Dragon Ruler did. In reality, it was pretty easy so I am going to try to keep the analysis high-level. The cards were based on the four elements (Fire, Water, Earth and Wind) and they featured, as we called them back then, a "mini dragon" and a "big dragon" of each type. You could find players refer to them as "adult dragons" or "baby dragons" as well.  As such, there was Blaster, Dragon Ruler of Infernos (the big dragon) and Burner, Dragon Ruler of Sparks (its smaller version). The smaller dragons allowed you to discard a card from your hand to summon their bigger counterpart from their deck. Then, the big dragons had up to three different effects, but all of them were just insane.

  1. First, they could summon themselves from every place, including the graveyard, at the cost of removing cards.
  2. When they were removed from the game, they all allowed you to add another dragon monster to your hand.
  3. If you discarded them from your hand, you could activate their effects, which basically allowed you to do stuff like destroy cards on the field or summon a monster from the graveyard.

Big Dragon

Mini Dragon

Fire

Blaster, Dragon Ruler of InfernosBurner, Dragon Ruler of Sparks

Water

Tidal, Dragon Ruler of WaterfallsStream, Dragon Ruler of Droplets

Earth

Redox, Dragon Ruler of BouldersReactan, Dragon Ruler of Pebbles

Wind

Tempest, Dragon Ruler of StormsLightning, Dragon Ruler of Drafts
 
 

The fact that these cards had a ton of attack points was not the worst part. Once they were on the field, they just overlayed to XYZ summon a very powerful monster, Dracossack. Dracossack required two level-7 monsters (precisely the level of the dragons) and could destroy cards on the field whenever it wanted at the same time that it protected itself from destruction. The reason why Dragon Rulers were expensive was precisely because of Dracossack. When Dracossack first was released, it cost between 100 and 150€ and every Dragon Ruler deck played 3 copies. I have never fully done the math but I am pretty sure that building the deck from scratch could be around 600€ easily. Not as crazy as other decks in history - but still a pretty big number.


A typical turn from Dragon Ruler would go something like this: they would activate the effects of one or two mini dragons. They will XYZ their monsters into a very powerful Dracossack and then they will remove some cards from their graveyard to keep searching for monsters. At the end of the turn, they would play Super Rejuvenation to get +3 or 4 cards. Just insane.

Players very quickly found an optimal build, which included 3 copies of each big dragon and 2 of the minis. The rest of the cards were focussed on stopping combos from happening with the inclusion of a lot of Hand Traps like Effect Veiler of Maxx "C". 


Patrick Hoban’s WCQ - North American Championship Winner (Jul 2013)

Fighting fire with fire (or magic in this case)  | Yu-Gi-Oh!

It was clear right from the start that there was no deck that could stand in the way of Dragon Ruler, unless it was a deck which had been specifically designed to beat it at the cost of taking a loss to every other potential deck on the format. Konami, however, had a plan, or at least that is what I thought back then. You see, sometimes what a company does the moment they print a very powerful archetype is releasing a counter in the same set so as to keep the balance. Konami opted to take a different approach: Instead of creating a way to stop Dragon Ruler, they decided to create a deck that reached similar levels of power - as crazy as this might sound.

With the release of a card named Spellbook of Judgment, the format didn’t only have to worry about one overpowered deck … but two. The deck in question was, of course, Spellbook. And was the only deck capable of stopping Dragon Ruler. You see, Spellbooks was an archetype that had been - how do I put it - decent at the very best. The deck was capable of some interesting things, focusing on using a lot of "Spell Book" spells, which were inspired by a tarot deck, and Spellcaster monsters. The first cards had been released the previous year and while it was a funny, interesting deck to play at locals, it never was a real option on a highly competitive level. But suddenly, in the same set that the Dragon Rulers appeared, a new Spellbook card was included.

Spellbook of Judgment had the most insane text a single card has had so far in the game. For every spell card you played that turn, you could add the same number of Spellbook cards from your deck to your hand and then summon a Spellcaster-type monster with a level equal or lower to that number. The Spellbook deck was all about using spell cards. So in the first turn, it was very easy to get between 4 and perhaps 7 cards of this type played. At the end of the turn, the Spellbook player could easily get a +6 in advantage. We have already talked about the importance of having a card advantage in Yu-Gi-Oh!. With Spellbook, that didn’t matter anymore. And the worst part? That Spellbook could repeat this over and over because, as you can imagine, it had access to three Judgments. Basically, the feeling of going against Spellbook was … hopelessness. They were getting +5 cards every turn. Unless you were able to stop their combo, the more time you gave them, the stronger set up they had and the more difficult it became.


In case you are wondering how the deck worked, the mechanic was really simple. In the first turn, you basically wanted to set up and play a bunch of cards, which included continuous cards that increased the attack of your monsters for each spell card you’ve played. As such, you will be finishing with a lot of card advantage and, hopefully, a monster that prevented your opponent from special summoning a monster. From that moment onwards, Spellbook would recycle their used Spellbooks and strengthen their board because more and more spells had been played until it reached a point that was unbearable for any deck. In fact, it was easy for a normal Spellcaster monster to end up with +1000 attack.

 



All in all, my point with Spellbook’s recap is: It was the second deck in the format that had so much advantage in a sustained way. And suddenly, traditional techniques were rendered useless because, well, why would anyone bother keeping track of the card advantage when you were playing against decks that could simply pretend that they were playing Pokémon with all their draw and resources?


Chris Bountaloudis - 1st Place WCQ - European Championship (Jul 2013)

Dragon Rulers vs. Spellbooks | Yu-Gi-Oh!

If you are a Yu-Gi-Oh! player, chances that you have heard about the Dragon Ruler era are very high. But despite how strong Spellbook was and everything I have just explained above, fewer players refer to this format as "The Dragon Ruler AND Spellbook era". I think there are two main reasons for that. The first one is that once the banlist dropped (because OF COURSE a banlist was going to drop eventually), Dragon Ruler kept being relevant despite their limitations. Their effects were so powerful that they found ways to evolve into a different variant, less powerful and less aggressive but still very strong. In fact, Dragon Ruler became some sort of "support" package for other strategies. Spellbook, on the contrary, was an archetype and it just couldn’t work without its core cards, so it just kind of disappeared. The second reason is that Dragon Ruler used to win against Spellbook.

Now, I am not saying that Dragon Ruler was absolutely invincible. The deck was nearly, but there were two types of decks that could stand a chance against it. One was, of course, Spellbook and the other was a deck that had been specifically designed to defeat Dragon Ruler. And even they could and did lose to Dragon Ruler, such was its power.

Spellbook basically tried to set up a board that revolved around Jowgen, a card that prevented Dragon Ruler to special summon their monsters. Spellbook tried to protect it at any cost and, if successful, could win the match. However, Dragon Ruler had a ton of outs, especially once it incorporated its side deck. In fact, when the side deck factor came into play, Dragon Ruler suddenly had the advantage since they tended to include a card that literally destroyed spell cards from the opponent during three turns. And it doesn’t take a genius to imagine that Spellbook ran so many spells.


As you can probably imagine, Dragon Ruler literally pushed out every other deck in the format except for Spellbook and dedicated counters. It was a weird meta to play because either you joined them or you went straight against them. The only issue with option number one, which is the one I would have gladly taken, is that the deck was very, very expensive to build. I remember playing the Spanish National Championship in 2013 and literally having no other option than to go for its counter (I was a university student, not much money in the bank!).

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Luckily for me, I decided to take a somewhat risky approach to the tournament that eventually paid off. I assumed that since Dragon Ruler and Spellbook were so expensive and the set "Lord of the Tachyon Galaxy" had just come out, the majority of players were going to play counters, like me. So instead of orienting my deck all against the Rulers and Spellbook, I decided to go against the counters and prepare the mirror match (I was playing Evilswarm, by the way). I ended up facing 2 Rulers & 1 Spellbook and only won 1 round but I did win every single mirror match, which helped me get a very modest top-32 - a result that still makes me very proud, all things considered.

Dragon Ruler and Spellbook kept dominating and it was no surprise when we see that they were the only decks that players have opted for in the prestigious World Championships. And if you look at the lists, you will see that most of them were prepared either for the mirror match or against the other deck. In the end, the inevitable happened and Dragon Ruler and Spellbook faced in the great finals. With the entire world watching, Dragon Ruler got the victory.

The top-26 participants in the World Championships 2013 and their decks

This is the decklist of the event's winner. As you can see, there are a couple of very interesting cards like Vanity’s Emptiness, a floodgate that was ideal for the mirror match, and a lot of side deck cards against Spellbook like Droll & Lock Bird, Tsukuyomi and DNA Surgery. I invite you to take a look at all the decklists of the event and you will see that they are all built around the same premise: Beat the mirror and the other big deck in the format.


Huang Shin En (Taiwan) [Dragon Ruler] World Championships Winner 2013

The end of an era - and the beginning of another one | Yu-Gi-Oh!

What came next was inevitable. The banlist dropped and Konamic tried to limit Dragon Ruler and Spellbook. Spellbook took a deadly hit, but the Dragon Rulers, very interestingly, survived. Not like they used to be, of course. The thing is that Konami only banned the mini dragons but let the big ones free. As such, they paired themselves with other dragons and kept spamming Dracossack during tournaments. Dragon Ruler with cards like Ravine became an instant Tier 1. Perhaps it was not the Tier S of the previous months, but it dominated the format back to back. In fact, I remember that while the variety of decks improved, there were so many of them that still decided to main deck cards that could prevent Dragon Ruler from playing.

Billy Brake’s Ruler Ravine -  September 2013,  3rd Place YCS San Mateo

Eventually, Dragon Ruler took a second hit when Konami decided that it was enough and that they needed to limit its power even more. When this happened and the big dragons were limited to one, they effectively disappeared from the format. If I am not mistaken, they are still limited in 2024, even if I think that they won’t cause that much harm if they were released now, considering all the powerful decks that are in modern Yu-Gi-Oh!.   

Conclusion

All in all, the introduction of the Dragon Rulers will forever be a turning point in the history of Yu-Gi-Oh!. Dragon Ruler was a deck that should never have been printed (and the same goes for Spellbook, by the way). I do believe that the power creep it brought to the game was something that, in other circumstances, would and should have taken a decade. After that, the Link monsters came into existence and they for sure made the game quicker and more combo-oriented, until it reached the point where we are today.

I really hope you had a good time reading this article, whether you are a player that was active during that era or are just discovering this for the first time. And who knows, maybe this is not the last article I will write about Yu-Gi-Oh! ...

Autor: Elena (Gaia Storm)

Elena has been playing Pokémon Trading Card Game since 2011 and has never stopped. With her partner, she runs Gaia Storm, one of the largest Pokémon TCG Youtube channels in the world. She has a problem remembering the names of all the Pokémon but tends to open the most broken Pokémon packs.