In order to consistently win Flesh and Blood games at a high level, you need to be able to know your own game plan and figure out your opponent’s. When I’m playing I like to think of it in terms of “what are the paths to victory for my opponent and me?” This goes beyond the basic premise of dealing 40 (or 20 in Blitz) damage or fatiguing your opponent (running them out of cards), requiring consideration of how you plan on executing your strategy against a variety of different decks. In this article I’d like to break down this process into components and provide both theoretical examples and some from my personal experience.
Deck construction is the first step in the process. You need to be thinking about what your deck wants to do and how the cards you’re including contribute towards this. A basic example is a deck like Dash (Mechanologist) Control in Classic Constructed. Your standard plan is to get out multiple Induction Chambers / Plasma Purifiers and slowly chip away at your opponent’s life total until they’re forced to start blocking and giving up cards. You need a lot of resources to make your engine work so this requires playing 25 to 30 blue cards. Most of these blue cards should be Mechanologist cards as this gives you the option of playing Attacks with Boost in the late game to strip the final card from your opponent’s hand or get through for lethal damage.
A key point to realize at this stage is that your deck is not good at pressuring the opponent. In order to give you the time to set up your Items, you’ll want to include a large number of defense reactions such as Sink Below and Fate Foreseen, as well life gain cards like Sigil of Solace. Efficient red Attack Actions such as Enlightened Strike, Command and Conquer, Zero to Sixty and Zipper Hit give you some offensive firepower while also helping to buy you time by forcing out blocks at critical stages in the game.
Dash Control is one of the more simple decks to explain in this way, but similar lessons can be applied to decks like Runeblade Control/OTK and Ira Control in Blitz. For a more in-depth look at deck construction, I highly encourage you to check out some of the articles on this topic by my fellow CFB contributors.
Knowing Your Metagame
Knowledge of your local metagame is a key factor that ties into deck construction. In the New Zealand metagame, three of the most common decks going into Nationals were Dash (Midrange or Control), Ninja and Warrior. This presented a bit of a conundrum when it came to deck construction.
The critical consideration here was balancing the number of defense reactions in your deck. Defense reactions are generally very good against Ninja and Warrior as they tend to rely on on-hit effects, such as Dawnblade, Mask of Momentum and Katsu and Dorinthea’s Hero Abilities. They also have a number of attacks that hit for four, five or seven damage which are classic “break points” as most cards block for three. Defense Reactions help to mitigate these issues and provide insurance against blowouts from Attack Reactions. Dash, on the other hand, relies almost exclusively on vanilla damage and has no Attack Reactions. Defense Reactions are less useful here and serve to clutter up your deck. Striking the right balance to have adequate defense against the faster aggro decks while being able to “sideboard out” enough defensive cards to run close to a “clean 60” against Dash was part of the metagame that players had to consider.
The wider point here is it pays to know what you have to prepare for and how much respect you need to give each deck. If your deck is too defensive in a control/combo meta, you risk being grinded out by the value other decks can accrue value over the course of a game or giving a combo deck too long to set up. If it’s too aggressive in an aggro meta, you may find yourself on the backfoot too often to execute your core strategy or leaving too much of the game open to chance.
A similar dilemma with different problems is currently playing out in the Blitz metagame in New Zealand. The Blitz format requires a set 40 card deck for every game, so knowing what to expect is all the more important. Ira Control and Wizard are both Tier 1 decks that play in a totally different way. Whereas Ira Control looks to grind out opponent’s with Harmonized Kodachi and pressure with efficient red line attacks, Wizard wants to burn you out with arcane damage. Finding a deck that can beat both is very difficult as a deck that can out-grind Ira tends to lose to Wizard, while a deck that can out-aggro Wizard loses to Ira inversely. Defense Reactions are also dead cards against Wizard, with red versions being particularly bad as they’re terrible for blocking Arcane Damage. Knowing what to expect, however, at least gives you a fighting chance. If you’re confident there will be a lot more Iras than Wizards or vice-versa, you can tune your deck towards one and accept a worse matchup against the other.
Identifying Your Paths to Victory (and Your Opponent’s)
So you’ve identified the key decks in the metagame and built your deck, now what?
First of all, you need to understand your role in any given matchup. Are you going to be on the offensive or defensive? What key cards is your opponent relying on? What are the turning points in the game to watch out for? Most importantly though, how do you intend to eventually win the game?
For example, if I’m playing Brute against Katsu in Classic Constructed, I know that I’ll generally be on the defensive in the early to mid game. Ninja has efficient cheap attacks, powerful combos and on-hit triggers that force you to block to avoid being blown out. What’s important to realize is that their deck becomes progressively weaker as they run through key red-line combo openers such as Leg Tap or Surging Strike and attack reactions like Ancestral Empowerment and Razor Reflex. Rather than exchanging damage early, it’s more beneficial to block out as much as possible and try chip in damage or apply pressure with things like a single Barraging Beatdown into a Romping Club attack. If they block with two cards you’re happy, and if they don’t then you’ve gotten through five damage.
You generally only need to get off on or two big turns during the game to put the Ninja player under enough pressure that they’ll eventually be forced to block and start running out of threats. Maintaining a life buffer allows you to pick your spot to take damage when you’ve set up a big turn to try and turn the corner and close out the game. An absolutely key aspect of this matchup is often saving your two Reckless Swings for the end game. If you can maintain a decent life buffer, you only need to get them down to four life to have effectively won the game as you can then sit back and play your Reckless Swings to deal the final four points of damage.
Whilst the above is a highly specific example, the concepts can be applied to any given matchup. Identify your opponent’s strategy and what your strategy is to beat it, then play the game in a manner that allows you to execute it. Katsu’s path to victory involves using their efficient threats and pulling off combos to gain enough momentum to eventually finish you off with Harmonized Kodachi hits and any form of Go Again attack. Your path involves surviving the early onslaught to maintain a life lead, keeping up pressure with one to two card hands, pulling off a few big turns when you can and ending the game with a final big Intimidate turn or Reckless Swing if needs be. Blocking early and often gives you the best opportunity to execute this strategy.
The most important thing is to have a plan in place before the game starts and play towards that over the course of the game, rather than simply playing individual hands. It doesn’t have to be super complicated! Playing Dash Midrange against Warrior, your strategy might be as simple as “I’m happy to take some damage in order to get down two or three Induction Chambers, then slowly grind my opponent out while sitting behind a wall of defense reactions.” Knowing that Warrior is a deck that generally relies on having key cards like Warrior’s Valor/Spoils of War and Attack Reactions to push through damage enables you to play towards a game state where they’ve used a lot of these threats and start to run out of gas. Furthermore, they often need three or four card hands to actually threaten real damage. Induction Chamber with Teklo Pistol can, with enough time, place them in a position where they’re either forced to take damage with average hands to try hit you back or start blocking and significantly lower their potential damage output. The Warrior player knows this also and will be keeping an eye on your defense reactions used and will look to punish the Dash player on turns where their shields are down without a card in Arsenal (representing a potential defense reaction).
Practice, Practice, Practice
Yes, Allen Iverson, I’m talking about practice. Getting in ‘reps’ (repetitions) against the key decks is the best and sometimes only way to get used to identifying paths to victory in a variety of situations. You may need to adjust your strategy on the fly at times, while still playing towards a clear game plan. Knowing when to block, when to take damage, what key cards you should keep an eye on and how far behind you can fall to set up a series of plays that will eventually win you the game are all things that become more intuitive the more games you play. As I’ve discovered first hand from playing tournaments where I was underprepared, it’s very easy to let a game slip away without realizing until two or three turns too late that your opponent knew their lines of play and you didn’t.
The Ira versus Kano matchup in Blitz is a classic example of a very close matchup where knowing your basic plan and adjusting to evolving circumstances is absolutely critical. If the Wizard player falls too far behind on life early, they lose the flexibility to take damage to set up turns where they can either deal a large amount of damage or strip multiple cards from the Ira player’s hand. This can result in getting stuck in a death spiral where you end up being forced to block with three or four cards a turn just to stay alive, progressively losing more and more threats and running out of options to get back into the game.
On the other hand, the Ira player has to walk a delicate line between putting on pressure to stop Kano setting up, while leaving enough resources open to not be blown out by something like an instant speed Cindering Foresight into Sonic Boom into Voltic Bolt, dealing 10-plus damage and suddenly changing the entire pace of the game. Dropping below 10 life against a Wizard with Storm Striders up can make it very hard to play aggressively, which makes it very difficult to know when to take damage and when to play it safe. Preventing damage with multiple cards on one turn can leave you open to a blowout the next, adding another layer of complexity to an already difficult decision. Often the player that wins this matchup is the one who knows it the best!
The concepts in this article can come across as relatively simple, but in actual games they can often be difficult to implement effectively. Before your next tournament, or even practice games with friends, have a shot at developing your game plan for multiple decks in advance and make a conscious effort to stick to it, even if it feels a bit counterintuitive at certain times during a game. It may not necessarily work the first few times (and hey, maybe you’ll need to adjust your plan), but in doing so you’ll put yourself in a better position than those playing one turn at time instead of having a comprehensive 10 or 15 turn strategy!