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Yu-Gi-Oh! champion Paulie Aronson on winning the TCG’s first Worlds since 2019 to become its first-ever US victor

Yu-Gi-Oh!’s top player discusses the nerves of competing on the global stage, dealing with human mistakes - and missing his birthday celebrations to practise.

Image credit: Konami

And so, a winner has been crowned. After a year of intense competition, Paulie Aronson from the United States has become the first Yu-Gi-Oh! World Champion since 2019 and the first North American to win the event since 2014, piloting his Dragon Link deck to a 2-0 victory in an intense final against Juan Mateo Augusto Renteria Pastor from Peru.

That’s no minor achievement when only a select few of the TCG’s very best duelists were even invited to compete in such a prestigious event set in the blazing sun of the Tokyo coastline, with nerves of steel and a bit of luck just as important as the right deck and strategy.

Cover image for YouTube video【DIGITAL + TRADING CARD GAME】Yu-Gi-Oh! WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP 2023 DAY 2 (Championship Match)
Watch Paulie Aronson take on Juan Mateo Augusto Renteria Pastor during the Yu-Gi-Oh! TCG finals at Worlds 2023

Yet from the moment that Aronson stepped into the venue on Day 1 to compete against his fellow peers, there was an air of confidence that was impossible to ignore. At the very least, any nerves were well-masked when Dicebreaker spoke to him during Swiss competition on Day 1, and again once he reached the Top 4 stage after his 2-1 quarter-final victory against European champion Jessica Robinson’s Rikka Sunvalon deck, assuring us that preparation was key to their success.

“I just tried to prepare to practise as much as I could for the event for the past three weeks after our North American WCQ [World Championship Qualifier],” Aronson explained before his finals match. “My birthday was actually two days after the WCQ and my friends said, ‘Oh, we should go celebrate!’ And I was like, ‘I can’t, I have to practise!’ I had to practise every single day as much as I could, and I still had doubts because the more you practise the more flaws you see while also seeing the pros and cons. You can never be fully confident in your choice in the end, but fortunately the choice I made was good.”

Aronson utilised his Dragon Link deck's ability to flood the board with dragons. | Image credit: Alicia Haddick

Ultimately, Dragon Link proved the most effective strategy, and the realities facilitating this success become clear when looking over the unique nature of the World Championship format. All players from both the OCG and TCG entered the event on a level playing field, with any cards released following the June launch of Wild Survivors being barred from competition. A special banlist was also introduced, as ever, limiting any card to the lowest number of copies allowed per region.

My birthday was actually two days after the qualifiers and my friends said, ‘Oh, we should go celebrate!’ And I was like, ‘I can’t, I have to practise!’

For all Kashtira had proven itself to be a powerful deck in recent months (and was even the deck Aronson chose to pilot at the North American qualifier), its viability was all but negated thanks to the heavy restrictions in Japan, including the banning of its strongest card, Kashtira Fenrir. On the other hand, Maxx “C” has remained banned for years internationally while remaining available at three copies per deck in Japan. Its legality in Japan requires every deck to warp its play around countering and/or taking advantage of the card, creating a substantial strategic gap that was hard for OCG players to overcome.


Dragon Link (Paulie Aronson, Yu-Gi-Oh! World Championships 2023)

Monsters

  • 3x Bystial Saronir
  • 1x Bystial Magnamhut
  • 1x Bystial Baldrake
  • 1x The Bystial Lubellion
  • 1x Bystial Druiswurm
  • 2x Rokket Tracer
  • 1x Rokket Caliber
  • 1x Rokket Recharger
  • 1x Chaos Emperor, the Dragon of Armageddon
  • 1x Red-Eyes Darkness Metal Dragon
  • 3x Black Metal Dragon
  • 3x Starliege Seyfert
  • 1x Chaos Dragon Levianeer
  • 1x Black Dragon Collapserpent
  • 1x White Dragon Wyverburster
  • 1x Absorouter Dragon
  • 2x Nibiru, the Primal Being
  • 3x Ash Blossom & Joyous Spring
  • 3x Droll & Lock Bird
  • 3x Effect Veiler

Spells

  • 3x Quick Launch
  • 3x Chaos Space
  • 1x Branded Regained
  • 1x Boot Sector Launch
  • 1x Dragon Ravine
  • 1x Foolish Burial

Traps

  • 1x Branded Beast

Extra Deck

  • 1x Borreload Savage Dragon
  • 1x Bystial Dis Pater
  • 1x Baronne de Fleur
  • 1x Scarlight Red Dragon Archfiend
  • 1x Hieratic Dragon King of Atum
  • 2x Hieratic Seal of the Heavenly Spheres
  • 1x Quadborrel Dragon
  • 1x Triple Burst Dragon
  • 1x Striker Dragon
  • 1x Dharc the Dark Charmer, Gloomy
  • 1x Dragunity Knight - Romulus
  • 1x Guardragon Pisty
  • 1x Accesscode Talker
  • 1x Borrelend Dragon

Side Deck

  • 3x Ghost Belle & Haunted Mansion
  • 1x Nibiru, The Primal Being
  • 2x Cosmic Cyclone
  • 2x Triple Tactics Talent
  • 1x Harpie's Feather Duster
  • 3x Solemn Strike
  • 3x Infinite Impermanence

Renteria Pastor’s use of Evenly Matched almost swung the first game in the favour of the Peruvian duelist. | Image credit: Alicia Haddick

Link Dragon’s persevering strength since the deck first emerged onto the scene in 2020 comes from its explosive and persistent on-field presence and ability to flood the board with dragons. Link Summoning Striker Dragon opens up the Rokket engine to flood the field with dragons, and taking advantage of the two field spells run by the deck in Dragon Ravine and Boot Sector Launch can set up powerful endgame boards featuring creatures like Borreload Savage Dragon.

I didn’t end on Savage Dragon because, to be honest, sometimes when you’re up on the stage you make a mistake!

It’s also persistent. Bystials within the deck can chain additional after being sent from the field in ways that set up an escape even from board breakers like Evenly Matched, while the Hieratic Seal of the Heavenly Spheres can also bring out new monsters through its quick effect when chained against such a card’s activation or in other circumstances to build presence on the field. Even with limits on much of the Bystials in the Worlds format and to Rokket, their persistence makes them a threat and helps the deck avoid defeat from just a single card’s effect.

In one of the most exciting and crucial moments of the on-stage live final against Renteria Pastor, this exact strength of the Dragon Link deck manifested itself. After going first in Game 1, Aronson activated the effect of The Bystial Lubellion to kick off the deck’s core combo by bringing out Striker Dragon, uncontested by a calm and collected Renteria Pastor who lay his hand flat on the mat without so much as a second glance as he ended the turn with Sphere, Bystial Dis Pater, Absorouter Dragon and Rokket Tracer.

Cover image for YouTube videoAbsolute beginner tries to understand Yu-Gi-Oh! Master Duel
A Yu-Gi-Oh! beginner plays Master Duel

The board was devastated by the activation of Evenly Matched on Renteria Pastor’s battle phase the following turn, and even by using Sphere’s effect to bounce the Absorouter and bringing out Bystial Baldrake, a second Evenly Match wiped that card away.

Still, Aronson powered on from this to win the game, showcasing a versatility and strength in both deck and player that propelled his victory.

I didn’t make any misplays in the second game, so I’m happy with myself as far as that, but the way the game went, I almost didn’t get there!

As much as Aronson was willing to admit when the stress of the scenario went away, it almost went horribly wrong. “It’s funny, because usually with the Dragon deck I can make Borreload Savage Dragon so that I can negate at least one Evenly Matched or a board breaker like Lightning Storm,” he recalled. “Then when he would use the second, I get to chain my Spheres and I would still have that Bystial Baldrake on the field after the second one resolved.

“But I didn’t end on Savage Dragon because, to be honest, sometimes when you’re up on the stage you make a mistake! I should have had a Borreload Savage Dragon on my end board that turn but I didn’t. Somewhere along the line on that turn I made a slight mistake, so the second Evenly almost got me, but I was able to come back and grind it out.”

Aronson's victory made him the first US player to win Worlds, and the first North American champion in almost a decade. | Image credit: Alicia Haddick

To make a mistake is human, especially on a stage as large as this. For all the confidence Aronson had shown throughout the weekend on both Day 1 and the morning of Finals day, anyone would feel it in such a pressured scenario. A calm face was belied by hands that visibly trembled on screen as Aronson sat just 30 minutes from glory. Yet if making a mistake is human, coming back from those mistakes without letting them phase you, then winning, showcases the mindset of a champion.

The second game was another grinding affair, a fitting finale where the heart of the cards was in Aronson’s favour. In the opening duel, access to negation cards like Effect Veiler, Droll and Lock Bird in the opening hand proved crucial as he was able to successfully negate Renteria Pastor’s Mo Ye and prevent the deck’s Swordsoul engine from kicking into gear to clinch victory.

In Game 2, opening-hand access to another Veiler alongside Ash Blossom and Joyous Spring to negate Pot of Desires was also important, while top-decking into Bystial monsters at the last possible opportunity after repeated direct attacks from Juan’s Grandmaster Swordsoul - Chixiao set the match in motion and tournament-ending antics crowned him as champion.

The final match ended up a 2-0 clean sweep in favour of Aronson. | Image credit: Alicia Haddick

“I didn’t make any misplays in the second game, so I’m happy with myself as far as that, but the way the game went… Argh! I almost didn’t get there!” Aronson said.

“At that point in the game he just attacked me with the Chixiao each turn and I had three plus cards but no live engine pieces,” he continued. “I had Ash [Blossom], Nibiru and another spell that wasn’t like. I drew a Druiswurm and I was thinking, ‘This is good, because next turn I can use this as a link material and clear the Chixiao even if I just have to make a Spheres.’ But I needed another monster to do that, so I still couldn’t play that turn unless I summoned the Druiswurm and crashed into Chixiao. But I chose to hold it and in a worst-case scenario I could summon it next turn.

“Fortunately, he was in a similar boat where he needed to draw a starter to really make a good play, so he just attacked again and passed one more time. My life was getting low but I drew into the Saronir and then I was able to combo from there.”

It’s one thing to reach that scenario and get that card, and another to see the game out. Managing the pressure when you have the cards and strategies needed to pull off a victory? The pressure that was already there increases tenfold.

As Aronson realised Renteria Pastor had Nibiru in hand but he had all the pieces needed to play through it and claim victory, avoiding those thoughts became almost impossible.

I felt my heart rate go up and I thought to myself, ‘Oh my god, I’m the World Champion!’

“There was literally a point where that happened,” he acknowledged. “I felt my heart rate go up and I thought to myself, ‘Oh my god, I’m the World Champion!’ But if you’re in a game and you have that thought, ignore it. Focus on the game. So my next thought was just, ‘Okay, the next step is actually this.’

“Always stay focused, but I couldn’t help but have that thought at one point.”

This year's Yu-Gi-Oh! World Championships marked the return of the tournament after four years away due to the pandemic. | Image credit: Alicia Haddick

As Aronson successfully saw the game out for a 2-0 sweep in the final match, it was time. After spending the weekend with these players, watching them perform, it was hard not to get swept up in the occasion and join the crowd in cheering, screaming and celebrating our new champion. The respect Aronson had earned from his fellow competitors was palpable throughout the event, and it was collective joy seeing the champion crowned at the end of it all.

Months of strategic planning paid off. The perfect draw at just the right time can seem fortuitous, but hardly less than what was deserved for the effort that went into it. I found myself returning home on the train after the event with a smile on my face, holding an internal toast to a much-deserved new King of Games.

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Alicia Haddick avatar

Alicia Haddick

Contributor

Alicia is trapped, unable to escape the addiction of trying (and failing) to be good at Yu-Gi-Oh. Whenever they do take a break from getting their butt kicked, they like to spend time watching and talking about film, anime, games, musicals and Japanese idols.

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