Let’s wind back the clocks, all the way to August of 2003. Eighteen players from all around the world traveled to New York City to compete in the first ever world championship for Yu-Gi-Oh!. Out of those 18 players, there was one dominant deck strategy which would be the first proven meta deck in the TCG’s history: Hand Control.
Table of Contents
As I discussed in my overview of Beatdown, Yu-Gi-Oh! in its early months lacked a lot of the complexity of cards and strategies that it would gain later on. However, as the game passed its one year mark outside of Japan, the move towards a higher level play started to occur. This was due to a combination of the TCG card pool’s rapid expansion and increasing accessibility of power cards to a portion of players than was possible in the earlier game. The result of this advancement in the player base’s overall skill was a rise in the focus on combos and card advantage over pure damage as a deck’s goal. Beyond this increase in more complex strategies, Hand Control is particularly notable for being the dominant deck at the first ever large sanctioned event in the TCG. Before the 2003 World Championship, the largest tournaments were those held at local game shops. Because of this, the overall level of skill that a player could find at any given tournament was largely limited by their local player pool. By there being a tournament with as high of a skill level and as large (at least for the numerous side events) as the World Championship, Hand Control truly got to shine as the superior deck of 2003.
The Age of the Yata-Lock
The immense power of Hand Control lay in its ability to demolish an opponent’s card advantage through a variety of different cards focused on forcing the opponent to discard. However, because of the immensely swingy nature of the game at the time caused by all of the extremely powerful cards that existed such as Monster Reborn, Raigeki, and Fiber Jar, destroying an opponent’s hand was oftentimes not enough to guarantee victory on its own. That’s where one single card comes in: Yata-Garasu. Yata-Garasu was released in the 6th TCG booster set, Legacy of Darkness, in the summer of 2003. With its release, players soon realized the immense potential of the combo that it enabled: the infamous Yata Lock. This lock involved being able to attack directly with Yata-Garasu while your opponent had no cards in hand, preventing them from ever drawing again as Yata-Garasu could simply be re-summoned every turn. While this lock was a guaranteed win for the player performing it, it was not something that was easy to do without a dedicated strategy for destroying the opponent’s hand.
The first set of cards used to destroy an opponent’s hand were a trio of Spell cards from the 2002 set Spell Ruler: Delinquent Duo, Forceful Sentry, and Confiscation. Forceful Sentry and Delinquent Duo saw extremely widespread play in almost all decks. However, Confiscation was less common outside of Hand Control decks at the time. To supplement these three cards, most Hand Control players also ran at least one Magician of Faith, allowing the player to maintain the pressure on their opponent’s hand. The other main cards used to deplete an opponent’s hand were two monsters released in the July 2003 booster set Pharaonic Guardian: Don Zaloog and Spirit Reaper. Both of these monsters discarded a card from the opponent’s hand when they inflicted Battle Damage, but they both also held additional utility beyond that. Don Zaloog had an alternate effect that allowed it to choose between discarding a card and sending the top card of an opponent’s deck to the Graveyard, making it so that Don Zaloog kept his usefulness even after an opponent’s hand had already been depleted. Spirit Reaper, on the other hand, had the extremely powerful effect of being unable to be destroyed by battle. This made Spirit Reaper tough for a lot of more simplistic Beatdown decks that relied heavily on destruction by battle. White Magical Hat also saw some use on the locals level and in Side Decks, although he had been power creeped by Don Zaloog by the time that Hand Control truly gained popularity. He mainly saw usage at the locals level because card accessibility was still difficult for many players, making the Ultra Rare Don Zaloog not as attainable in large quantities like White Magical Hat was. The final card Hand Control employed to maintain card advantage was Drop Off. Drop Off is interesting in that it didn’t see usage in all Hand Control decks, but many of the higher ranking decks at Worlds used multiple Drop Off in their main deck, while many others used them in their Side Deck. Drop Off had use in that it could replicate the effect of Yata on a smaller scale, allowing for a more consistent lockdown of the opponent’s hand.
The Consistency Factor
While almost all decks ran Sangan and Witch of the Black Forest, along with Pot of Greed and Graceful Charity, Hand Control was one of the first decks to truly capitalize on the concept of floaters. Floaters refer to monsters that, when destroyed, summon or “float into” a replacement monster. The main floater used in Hand Control was Mystic Tomato, a monster that synergized very well with the two main Hand Control monsters, Don Zaloog and Spirit Reaper. By having a monster that could maintain field advantage and also more consistently get out some of the deck’s key tools, Hand Control more consistently was able to make the plays it wanted to when it wanted to. This was something that happened far less with decks like Beatdown which relied entirely on drawing into the right monsters and power cards when they were needed largely through random chance. Many Hand Control decks also took to putting two or three Mystical Space Typhoon in their main deck, something that was not common before this point. The main advantage of this was largely to synergize with Mirage of Nightmare, an extremely powerful draw Spell from Pharaonic Guardian. Mystical Space Typhoon also had the additional use of being able to fight back against all of the extremely powerful traps that existed at the time such as Torrential Tribute and Ring of Destruction. The combination of these various different consistency boosting strategies definitely played a major role in why Hand Control was the first deck to truly shine through at larger events where a deck’s performance over numerous rounds became much more important than at a 3 or 4 round local tournament.
Because Hand Control is a deck with verified results from a high level event, unlike Beatdown, we can look at some example decklists from the 2003 World Championships.
The first deck that we will be looking at is Ng Yu Leung’s 1st place World Championships deck.
In his build, we can see many of the options I discussed above such as Mystic Tomato, Don Zaloog, and Drop Off. While his main deck choices were not excessively unique, what set his deck apart from many other builds at the time was how many cards he ran at 3 copies. While it is very common to see players running as many copies of their best cards as possible in the modern game, running 3 copies of a card in 2003 was not usually seen. Running 3 copies of many of his most important combo cards allowed him to more consistently draw into the cards he needed to win.
Something else interesting to look at is the contents of his Side Deck. While almost all competitive players today are very familiar with the concept of the side deck, this was far less common back in the early days of the game. However, we can see that Leung focused his side deck on 3 main cards: Torrential Tribute, Book of Moon, and Electric Snake. While Torrential Tribute seems apparent as a card to wipe the board and prevent Beatdown decks from gaining field advantage, Book of Moon was more of a response to the increase in powerful effect monsters like Don Zaloog that could be prevented from using their effects with Book of Moon. Book of Moon also allowed for the abuse of Magician of Faith without having to run more copies. Finally, the inclusion of Electric Snake is something that a direct response to other Hand Control decks by being a card that allows a player to gain card advantage instead of lose it when their hand is being attacked by the opponent. He also ran cards like Exiled Force and Scapegoat for their potency against Beatdown decks that focused on swarming the field with numerous high attack power monsters. While there isn’t any information on the effectiveness of Leung’s side deck, from an outside view they all seem to be relevant responses to the meta of Beatdown and Hand Control that he faced at the time.
The other deck we’re going to look at is that of Mike Rosenberg, the 3rd place player at the 2003 World Championship, and one of only 3 players from the United States that reached the Top 8.
Immediately you will notice some of the similar basic choices in the deck such as Spirit Reaper for discarding in monster form, Mirage of Nightmare, and Drop-Off. However, Rosenberg’s deck is interesting for its lack of Mystic Tomato, dropping overall consistency. He did utilize Nimble Momonga as a floater, but only to maintain field presence and not to search out his key combo pieces. He also ran Guardian Sphinx, a card which definitely saw use more on the the locals level but was still a powerful card in the 2003 format due to its ability to provide massive non-destruction removal. However, its effect did go somewhat against the idea of trying to consistently pull off the Yata Lock by keeping the opponent’s hand full of their own monsters.
As far as his side deck is concerned, the decks it is meant to address are noticeably different than the ones that Leung’s side deck was seemingly designed to counter. While Leung’s side deck seemed primarily focused on defeating Beatdown and other Hand Control decks, Rosenberg’s sideboard focuses more on additional Hand Control cards as well a variety of cards designed to counter Burn and Exodia decks. While these decks saw a decent amount of play on the locals level in 2003, they were far too inconsistent in their ability to win and did not see much usage at the World Championship. One last card of note in Rosenberg’s side deck is Trap Dustshoot. While this card became widely used in future formats, it was very underused in the early months that it was out despite serving as a very powerful additional hand depletion card. Its lack of widespread use at this time can likely be attributed to the wide array of other discard outlets making the minimum hand limit difficult to reach consistently as well as large numbers of monsters not being as common in Hand Control decks as they were in Beatdown decks. However, it was definitely an interesting choice for a side deck card, especially against Beatdown decks that ran a lot of monsters, as it could remove powerful monsters from a player’s hand without letting the mgo to the Graveyard where they could possibly be revived by something like Monster Reborn.
Where Is It Now
While Hand Control was the first truly meta deck and stood on top of the Yu-Gi-Oh! world for the second half of 2003, it would soon be surpassed by the next major meta deck type: Chaos. Chaos decks utilized a lot of similar strategies to Hand Control, however they had to run Light monsters in addition to Dark monsters making Mystic Tomato less viable as a searcher for all of the deck’s important combo pieces. Chaos also had many more explosive and powerful plays at its disposal, leaving Hand Control in the dust.
Going into future eras of the game, Hand Control was officially put to rest by the banning of various pieces of the original Hand Control spell trio as well as the banning of Yata, killing the Yata Lock. With these combo pieces dead and with the increasing prevalence of the Graveyard as an extended resource for many decks, the viability of decks focused entirely on discarding the opponent’s hand became less and less viable. As such, it is no longer playable in the modern game, although many powerful modern deck strategies have focused on depleting an opponent’s hand to gain advantage, proving that the ideas behind Hand Control never truly died.
Hold tight for next week when we go into the deck that invented the Forbidden portion of the Forbidden and Limited List: Chaos.