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Flesh and Blood – 2021 Year in Review

It has been just over a year since The Calling in Las Vegas took place last September. To me, Vegas is what I think of as the inaugural event to the modern era of Flesh and Blood. Even though it’s only been approximately one short year, I feel we’ve grown so much as a community, with many storied events and champions emerging. As such, I would like to pay homage to the many champions of the year past and look back at the events that have culminated in crowning our world champion, Michael Hamilton. 

But first, a word to every competitor in the community. Always remember that TCGs are designed in such a way that it is mathematically improbable you will find success at any given event, no matter how thorough or good your preparation may be. So, whether your success came early in the year, late in the year or is still to come, be proud of where you started and where you are today.

As a funny aside, I had the primary goal of meeting James White since the start of the year to thank him for making such an amazing game and perhaps even talking theory. Unfortunately, I’ve never found the proper chance. I thought I may have finally had my chance on Sunday of Worlds and lined up for close to 45 minutes before being turned away. I consider this my biggest failure of the year.

 

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Calling Las Vegas – September 10-12th 2021

Cover image credit – Corbin Hosler (@Chosler)

The Calling: Las Vegas took place over the weekend of September 11-12th 2021, marking the return of professional level Flesh and Blood Organized Play to the USA for the first time since December 2019 and the COVID-19 pandemic that ravaged the world. More than that, it also marks what I consider the first event of the “modern era” of Flesh and Blood and boy, what a spectacle it was. Over 1000 people attended the world premier of Tales of Aria and the Calling! The metagame was completely foreign by today’s standards but was marked by the domination of one particular hero, Chane, Bound by Shadow. Take a look at this crazy metagame breakdown! 

Image credit – LSS (Fabtcg.com)

It’s always fun going back through the archives and seeing names like Dante Delfico, Rob Cygul, Brendan Patrick and Alexander Vore all kicking butt and taking names during another era! At the end of swiss, almost half of the Top 8 are now considered familiar names among the competitive scene and would go on to continue their pattern of success throughout the year! These people included Canada’s #1 Dante Delfico, Tyler Horspool,  Joe Colon and Sebastiano Cavallo.

Image credit – LSS (Fabtcg.com)

Despite Chane being public enemy number one, he wasn’t the hero to champion Vegas. Then dark horse Tyler Horspool ended up winning the whole event with Prism! I’m going to be honest, that I still have no idea how he managed to pull off this feat in a room packed with Chane! This showcased just how far ahead of the curve Tyler was to win time and time again with a deck that was considered to be lunch meat for the best deck of the format! 

Image credit – LSS (Fabtcg.com)

The Calling: Dallas Fort-Worth

The next event was Tales of Aria Sealed, and my first true taste of competitive Flesh and Blood. This event was special to me for multiple reasons. It was my first paper event back after almost two years of quarantine and it reminded me of how special the camaraderie and experience of paper events are. It was also the first time I met Matt Rogers which happened at a chance dinner encounter. 

One of my favorite memories over the past year was a team draft the night before the Calling. I brazenly challenged Matt, then world #1 player, to a $50 money draft, and easily won, obviously. He still hasn’t paid… definitely not because I refused his money so I could lord it over him until the end of time. 

Another funny aside was at that first night dinner, the cocktails were flowing steadily (thanks Saint) and Rob, who I had been playing with in Florida, exclaimed to Matt, “You better watch out, Tariq has broken the metagame!” Matt smiled back and replied with “Don’t worry, so have I!” The rest of the night was Matt and I discussing theory and smack talking whose deck was actually better. It turns out Matt and Nick had come up with what we now know as the Viserai OTK deck, where I was sitting on Lightning Briar. My one question to Matt was, “Is your deck one of the new heroes?” When he told me no, I remember making a mental note of trying to figure out which boomer hero was broken when I got home. 

The event itself was a bit of a blur. I ended up placing 9th but what was more interesting is the fact that no one had yet realized the best hero in the format (for draft) was Oldhim, Grandfather of Eternity! This led to Nam Vo being the only Oldhim drafter in Top 8 and easily taking the trophy! Other notable names in the Top 8 included Arsenal Pass host Brendan Patrick who drafted a pretty insane Lexi deck but was absolutely savaged by Nick Zimmerman in his Top 8 match. It also marked the first time I had met Brendan as he gave me quite a thrashing in the swiss rounds.

I was a bit bummed out about placing 9th and was on the fence about traveling to Cincinnati the next weekend to compete. Luckily the Tannon Grace and Brendan both convinced me to fly out and it ended up being the best decision I made in FAB. It’s always sobering when you think about the marginal probability of occurrences in our lives and the resulting butterfly effects. Had Brendan and Tannon not been near me after standings were posted, I likely would not have gone to Cincinnati, meaning I would not have played the USA Nationals in 2021… crazy to think about. 

Image credit – LSS (Fabtcg.com)
Image credit – LSS (Fabtcg.com)

Calling Cincinnati

Following on the heels of the Calling: Dallas Fort-Worth, the Calling: Cincinnati was another great weekend of Sealed and Draft with Tales of Aria! Unlike Dallas, the power of the Oldman was quickly becoming recognized in draft, leading to one of the most balanced and fun draft formats that I have encountered in any TCG. During the draft portion of the event, I actually ended up Lexi in both my pods even getting a clean 3-0 with one of the stronger Lexi decks I’ve ever drafted. 

A brief tangent regarding our current World Champion, Michael Hamilton. When people/coverage talk about Michael’s dominant reign in Flesh and Blood, they usually cite the Calling: Orlando as the start to his domination. While it is true that the Calling: Orlando was his first win, it was not his first Calling Top 8! Michael Hamilton entered his first Flesh and Blood tournament only a couple weeks before me, in August 2021, and Cincinnati was his first major event, having only previously played in weekly Armory events! Take a look at this absolutely stacked Top 8 and who is standing front and center!

Image credit – LSS (Fabtcg.com)

We ran into each other twice during the course of the tournament and it would be the only matches Hamilton and I would play over the course of the next year. Although I managed to draft a solid Briar deck and was just barely able to fell the current World Champion, I ran into the cold hard hammer of another Guardian-wielding Michael, Shuo (Michael) Feng. This would be the first of two final showdowns Michael and I would have in the upcoming weeks, but like in Dallas, Oldhim came out on top, dealing me the final blow with a red Glacial Footsteps and claiming his place as winner of the Calling Cincinnati!

Image credit – LSS (Fabtcg.com)

UK Nationals 2021

When looking back on the pre-Briar metagame, it was almost like looking through a window of some magical FAB world where any deck was playable on any given day. Just take a look at this metagame breakdown from the Battle Hardened in Dallas! Perhaps this is what the FAB boomers long for? I wouldn’t know…

Image credit – LSS (Fabtcg.com)

Although Lightning Briar officially made her first appearance at the Cincinnati Battle Hardened, piloted by Chris Higashi, its first major stamp on the metagame came in the hands of none other than Pro Tour Lille winner Matthew Foulkes. Matt ran through the event like a hot knife through butter going 15-0, showing no signs of weakness on his route to victory and establishing both himself and the archetype as a formidable force in the game. 

US Nationals 2021/Calling: Orlando

US Nationals 2021 weekend will personally go down as the most memorable event of my life (to date). The week started out with Matt Rogers flying out to Orlando to spend four days leading up to the event testing/hanging out in Orlando with me. He was followed soon after by my long time friend Joel Repta. This will become relevant later. 

With Lightning Briar now firmly on everyone’s radar, we were faced with the decision of either switching over to Matt’s Viserai OTK list, which was very much not known at the time, or sticking with Briar. Throughout the course of the week, we were often finding the block value of Viserai was just below the threshold needed to properly block out Briar/Chane before reaching the critical mass of Runechants required in order to pull off the OTK combo. Matt did figure out during the course of the week an optimal number of defense reactions that would be needed in order to achieve survival until combo, but the issue we were facing was a then extremely diluted deck when resolving our Sonata Arcanix. Ultimately, I ended up sticking with Briar due to the fact I felt my list was much more finely tuned than the lists publicly known at the time. Additionally, I had been playing the deck for close to a month at that point where others likely learned about the deck only about one or two weeks prior, so I felt that I had enough of an edge in the mirror. Ironically, for the same reasons, Matt also decided to stick with his Viserai OTK deck, as it was consistently beating the clunkier versions of the Briar decks that people were running with a multitude of Coax of Commotions and a lower aptitude for “go again” opportunities. 

Day 1 went very well for me as I ended up with an insane Oldhim draft deck going 3-0 in my Pod and going undefeated during CC. The Top 8s of events prior were all stacked with now familiar mainstay names in the scene and this event was no different! 

Image credit – LSS (Fabtcg.com). Top 8 from left to right: Tariq Patel, Jacob Baugh, Michael Feng, Tyler Horspool, Cody Williams, John Siadak, Dagan White, and Isaac Jessen.

Jacob Baugh now has two National Top 8s to his name, and along with a Top 8 finish at Calling Indianapolis, was an absolute beast at Magic the Gathering that shows no signs of stopping his continued trend of domination in another card game. 

Calling Vegas winner and Nationals top 8 competitor Tyler Horspool was my first round opponent in the elimination rounds. Mr. Consistent, Dagan White, also made Top 4 and can be spotted in the above photo. Isaac, co-host of the Attack Action Podcast, probably had the most innovative deck in the Top 8, wielding Ice Lexi to crush multiple Briars on his way to a Top 8 finish. Out of all the players in the Top, 8 Isaac is the person I wanted to play the least and I’m extremely thankful Dagan was able to best the icy Ranger. 

After all was said and done, I found myself in a rematch with Shuo (Michael) Feng for all the marbles and the title of USA National Champion. For all his results, I believe Michael to still be the most underrated player in NA. If you get a chance, check out his nationals deck list here where he piloted Chane. Notice anything saucy about the deck list? That’s right. Michael was running Belittle/Minnowism all the way from the start, even before Belittle/Minnowism stan Matthew Foulkes, in a very scary/modernized looking version of the shadow hero.

At the time, Chane was largely written off after the Seeds of Agony ban, wrongly seeing very little play in the metagame, despite retrospectively being one of the best Hero’s people didn’t play at the time. This ability to take a concept that has been deemed “worse than” by the metagame and correctly adjusting it to fit a new form is something Michael greatly excels at. Most recently, he has taken the Ice Guardian Oldhim, and reinvented it after the Pulse of Isenloft banning. This has resulted in several recent Battle Hardened Top 8s and a win in Minneapolis. It’s by no fluke that Michael is a champion, and given enough time, it is only a matter of when, not if, his brilliance will overcome the inherent nature of TCG variance so that we may see him as a champion once again. 

Ultimately I did end up winning the USA Nationals title, but what made this weekend so special is that I was able to share the success with my friends. I had two other people crashing at my apartment that weekend, Joel Repta and Matt Rogers, who both placed second and third place respectively at the Calling: Orlando. Unfortunately, they did meet in the Top 4, but one of the funniest stories from my year in Flesh and Blood emerged. After I finished my Top 4 match, I walked over to watch my two friends battle it out in Top 4. I walked over to the below board state and just assumed Matt had won once the fist bump occurred. After all, how does Viserai lose when you have double digit dice on your Runechants? 

Well, it turns out back at the apartment, when we were discussing potential weaknesses for the Viserai OTK deck, we threw Chains of Eminence on the table as a potential card that might be considered. Being a cheeky bugger, Joel actually ended up running a single copy in his deck list found here. On the last turn, Mr. Rogers needed to survive before comboing off, Joel drew his one copy of Chains of Eminence and named Bloodsheath Skeleta, buying him exactly enough time to strip Matt of his entire hand to deal the killing blow. It was a brilliant strategy save one fact: Chains of Eminence does not stop Bloodsheath Skeleta’s activated ability, a very nonintuitive and easily missed fact that neither player was aware of until we were recounting the events of Top 4 at dinner! Since then, it has given Matt unlimited complaint equity against Joel, as had the match played out as James White intended, it would have been Matt in the finals against Michael Hamilton in what likely would have been a repeat of the AUS National finals featuring Hayden Dale.

Alas, it was not meant to be and Joel’s lightning fast Briar deck met a swift end to the icy cold hammer of now World Champion, Michael Hamilton. This event marked the first win of his year-long historic run, but already Michael was separating himself from the heard in terms of knowledge and understanding of the game. Some readers may not be aware, but Oldhim was not the popular Guardian at the time. The metagame was largely dominated by boomer Bravo, and Michael was one of the first people to set us straight on what the metagame should be. A trend that has continued to this day.

Canadian Nationals and German Nationals 2021

In reality, there was an entire spectrum of EU Nationals, each with their own storylines and champions. Unfortunately, coverage was sparse so the information I have to work with is largely through deck lists and social media stories.

By far the most compelling story of the season comes from MTG super star Christian Hauck. Just 10 days out from the end of the 90-day XP qualification period, not only did Christian Hauck decide to, and succeed at, qualifying for Nationals, but the man went out and won the whole damn thing! You can find the full story here and I recommend giving it a read as it is a fascinating tale. Although we saw Earth Briar builds from the likes of Zach and Brendan on social media and Battle Hardened events, I liken Christian Hauck for taking the deck and modernizing it to what we now understand to be the optimal form of the deck. What made Hauck’s list so optimal is that he took the power of Channel Mount Heroic and combined it with the concept of free attack actions of Lightning Briar to create a near unstoppable force, even beating an Ice Lexi in the finals to claim victory!

Image credit – LSS (Fabtcg.com)

Speaking of Ice Lexi, we can’t forget about Canadian Nationals 2021, which  took place a week after American Nationals. Lightning Briar was out in full force but not enough time had passed for most people to fully grasp the power of the Ice heroes in the metagame. Enter Yuki Lee Bender, who is the definition of exceptional and was not afraid to blaze her own path with an innovative Ice Lexi deck that carved through the Lightning Briar metagame on her route to victory. Yuki’s brilliant innovations, and courage to stick with her gut, have made her not only a champion, but a beloved figure in our community, and has served her well with deep runs with her Ice heroes at both PT NJ and the World Championships. 

Yuki had quite the story leading up to her nationals win and it’s a fascinating tale that I think everyone should read, found here. 

Ultimately, she was able to dispatch three phenomenal Canadians, all on Lightning Briar, in the top 8, starting with the #1 ranked Canadian and two-time Calling Top 8 player Dante Delfico. Her semifinalist opponent was no slouch either as she had to beat the stone cold PT NJ Top 4 competitor Isaak Krut on her way to facing a Shawn Dhaliwal in the finals. Shawn is no slouch of a player, and easily the most beloved person in the community. While Shawn may not have a Calling Top 8, a Skirmish win, an Armory win, a Canadian Nationals win or a USA Nationals win, what he does have is an undefeated record against me in all things gaming, from DanDan to on demand Drafts, and never ever misses a chance to throw it in my face. He also stole my fidget spinner. As such I take my daggers where I can get them in. <3 Love you Shawn.

Image credit – LSS (Fabtcg.com)

Australian/NZ Nationals 2021

Rounding out the first half of the “year” was AUS and NZ nationals. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Oceanic Nationals were put on hold for several weeks, allowing the metagame to evolve to a matured state. As such, we saw quite the evolution when compared to their EU and NA National counterparts. The domination of Lightning Briar saw the rise of Oldhim, the natural counter to the aggressive menace. We also saw a shift away from the more redline versions of Briar towards the more Earth-focused version of the deck to try and adjust to the new frostbitten metagame. 

Among these frosty Guardians was a familiar face, 2020 New Zealand Nationals Champion Matt Rogers, who was looking to defend his title. The Top 8 cut included notable players such as Matt Rogers, Kieran Carnegie, Rohan Kanna and Cayle McCreath. Special shout out to Cayle who is the OG grinder, and the first player in the world to reach 1,000 XP! Quite a feat.

Rogers made quick work of Top 8, quickly showing the power of the unmovable object that was Oldhim. However, it was not meant to be a back-to-back title run for Matt as his immovable Oldhim deck was met by the unstoppable force that was Prism piloted by Nicholas Holding. Prism was my dark horse for the event and may have seemed a strange pick in a field filled with aggressive Runeblades, but the logic is sound. If you expect an over correction of defensive heroes to combat the aggressive Runeblades, all you have to do is survive long enough for the metagame to take care of your bad matchups and you are home free. This is exactly what happened and Nicholas slayed the Oldman guardian with a flurry of Auras to take the crown and title of 2021 New Zealand National Champion.

Image credit – LSS (Fabtcg.com)

In an interesting turn of events, where Matt put down the now-banned Viserai OTK deck in favor of the frosty Guardian, Hayden Dale picked up the purple menace and absolutely tore through his Nationals. Hayden self admittedly wanted to play the purple menace back at the calling Orlando, but decided to put down the boomer Runeblade in favor of zoomer Briar. He was not going to make that mistake twice, as the Calling Sydney champion made short work of the field in a confluence of OTKs with the original Runeblade hero on his route to becoming the New Zealand National Champion. 

The final match of the event saw Roy Lai on Oldhim against Hayden on Viserai OTK, one of the most lopsided matches you could expect in the format. It was definitely one of the more interesting games I’ve ever seen and one that I feel is a bit under appreciated. Early in the match, Roy used Sigil of Solace in combination with Tome of Fyendal to work his way up to 53 life, never attacking Hayden. This strategy may seem strange, but the logic is genius. If you assume this matchup is near unwinnable under normal circumstances due to your lack of offensive prowess as a Guardian, then you must turn to alternative routes of victory. Roy identified early on that his best route to victory was to turtle up and try to survive the onslaught and fatigue the Viserai player once he had drawn out the powerful combination of Bloodsheath Skeleta and Sonata Arcanix.

This strategy had an additional benefit of playing to a Viserai fail rate where Hayden could be faced with a hand of four attack actions with no way to cycle through his hand by blocking, as Roy would not present an attack. This would subsequently force Hayden to prematurely go off with a suboptimal number of runechants which Roy would easily be able to deflect. Ultimately, the plan fell just short with no damage landing until Hayden drew first blood with Sonata Arcanix during a devastating turn where he paired Ninth Blade of the Blood Oath with Runechants to deal 33 damage. From there, he whittled Roy down to four life, pushing through damage with one last Rattle Bones to claim the title of Australia’s first National Champion.

Phew, that was quite a write up to cover the major events over just the first half of the year. If you’ve made it this far I hope you’ve enjoyed it. I think ending part 1 before the release of Starvo is appropriate.  I hope you join me for part 2 where I will cover 2022 up until worlds featuring the Michael Hamilton show. I think we’ve come a long way as a community with a bunch of really cool story lines and people emerging in the scene and can’t wait to see what 2023 has in store!

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