Ira dominated The Calling. Six of the top eight decks were Ira, along with all four of the Top 4. A deck that made up 30 percent of the field ended up representing 75 percentof the Top 8. I ultimately chose to play Ira in the final few days of testing before The Calling after reluctantly conceding that it seemed to be the best deck in the format. Despite these facts, I’m here to make the bold call today that Ira is not an inherently broken deck. I may have to look back at this in a few months’ time and eat my words, but for now let’s look at the case for Ira.
The Structure of The Calling was Beneficial to Consistent Decks
The Calling had 11 rounds of Swiss before a cut to Top 8 (where double-elimination was in force). For a field of 157 players, a standard Flesh and Blood tournament would generally have eight rounds. As a likely concession to the inherent higher variance of the Blitz format, the Swiss portion was increased to 11 rounds. I believe this was the correct decision, however it did have the effect of helping Ira get away with the occasional bit of bad luck or gameplay mistakes and still grind its way to the Top 8.
Ira is generally able to play out its game plan by applying constant chip damage through Harmonized Kodachi along with a few big attacks, defense reactions and life gain. Your deck has built-in redundancy and is not reliant on certain key cards (such as Bloodrush Bellow for Rhinar, Steelblade Supremacy for Dorinthea or Stir the Aetherwinds for Kano). This results in a deck that may have a lower ceiling than others but has a much higher floor. Ira rarely suffers from a game that feels totally unwinnable. Whilst variance in pairings or actual card draws does occur, this is more likely to smooth itself out over the course of a longer tournament.
Compared to other decks in the format such as Wizard, the average Ira game also requires fewer critical decisions (including having to take calculated risks). When playing an 11 round tournament, the ability to autopilot through sections of games should not be underrated when factors such as mental fatigue are highly relevant. While a huge misplay can still cost you the game, the average small mistake tends to be less punishing than for other decks.
The Best Decks Against Ira Made Up a Small Percentage of the Field
The two decks that have the best shot at beating Ira are OTK Runeblade and (arguably) Kano. Runeblade made up seven percent of the field and Kano 15 percent. The shared trait of these two decks is that they’re very difficult to play and thus require a ton of time and practice to play at a consistently high level. They’re also both Heroes from Arcane Rising, meaning that many players would have had less experience playing them in formats like Classic Constructed compared to WTR Heroes. The pool of potential Runeblade and Kano players, therefore, was much shallower than decks like Rhinar and Dorinthea. This may have contributed somewhat to their smaller than expected showing, which ultimately benefited Ira.
OTK Runeblade was also a bit of a risky choice when players expected to see a lot more Kano players on the day. The deck is almost an auto-loss to a good Wizard player, making it difficult to commit to playing it. On the flipside, I’m fairly confident that the deck is incredibly good against Ira. Reaping Blade shuts down their life gain, while strong defensive options allow you to play to your game plan of generating Runechants and setting up one huge turn.
Jason Chung, the lead developer at LSS, played this deck at a 55 person Blitz tournament two weeks before The Calling in a field featuring many of NZ’s best players. He demolished a number of top Ira players (reinforcing the strength of the matchup) before falling to a Kano player in the Top 8 (underlining the difficulty of that one). If the metagame continues to be dominated by Ira and features small amounts of Kano players, this deck could be a dark horse to take out a large Blitz tournament.
Kano is a Hero that I believe some of the very best players are still figuring out how to play absolutely optimally. This is by no means a dig at the current Kano players (they’re all much better than me on the deck!), but more an observation of the extremely complicated nature of the deck where many turns contain relatively more potential decision trees than other decks. You’re often forced to make a decision on whether to go for the kill or block multiple times each game, and then work through many many possible scenarios to figure out the best line to take.
While you could probably largely master Ira in 150 to 200 games, to get to the same level on Kano may take more like 400 to 500, and even then you might still be learning new things! There is certainly a debate in the community about whether Ira or Kano is favored in this matchup, but if I had a Cold Foil Heart of Fyendal on the line in a best-of-one between two players equally skilled on the respective decks, I would personally choose Kano.
Ira’s Top 8 Spots Appeared to Largely Come at the Expense of “Rogue” Decks
I want to be clear here that the use of the word “rogue” is by no means a putdown of the other non-Big 3 decks (Dorinthea, Ira and Kano) or the players who chose to play them. On the contrary, I actually commend those who decided to play something a bit different!
I’ve chosen that word to describe these decks for two reasons. First, they all individually made up less than 10 percent of the field, with only Rhinar and Viserai breaking the five percent threshold. Secondly, I believe all of these decks had very difficult matchups against one or both of the two strongest decks in the format (Ira and Kano). Mandible Claw Rhinar was actually a deck that my Session Blood co-host Karol and I put the most of our testing time into before ultimately concluding that it just could not consistently beat Ira.
My personal belief based on testing and conversations with other players is that none of these decks, with the exception of OTK Runeblade vs Ira and the possible exception of Claws Rhinar against Kano, has a better than 50 percent win rate against a highly experienced player on either Kano or Ira.
Looking at the stats breakdown, if we assume all decks had an equal shot at making the Top 8, then the expected Top 8 would look something like this.
- Ira – 2.4
- Kano – 1.2
- Dorinthea – 1.2
- Rhinar – 0.72
- Viserai – 0.56
With the other two spots coming from the rest of the decks played.
Based on these numbers, the Dorinthea and Kano conversion numbers were about what was expected. Ira certainly overperformed by a large margin, but it feels like its additional 3.6 spots in the Top 8 above expectation came from its aforementioned consistency rather than being an overwhelming favourite against the other top decks.
Another way to look at it would be stripping down the numbers to just the top three decks: Dorinthea, Kano and Ira. Using these numbers, we would expect to see a 2/2/4 split for the Top 8. In this scenario, Ira looks even more dominant! When you consider, however, that two Kano players came ninth and tenth on the slimmest of tiebreakers, a few very minor differences could’ve resulted in a 4 Ira, 3 Kano and 1 Dorinthea Top 8. As mentioned earlier, in an 8-10 Swiss round tournament with slightly more variance and less mental fatigue as would usually be the case, the results could potentially have been very different. Even in a tournament very much suited towards Ira, we were very close to having Kano outperform Ira in terms of conversion rate.
Players Expected to See More Kano and Tuned Their Lists Accordingly
There was certainly an expectation amongst many players (including myself) that Kano would make up something like 20 to 30 percent of the total field rather than the actual 15 percent on the day. I spoke to a number of players throughout the day who mentioned that they had changed their lists slightly to have a better Kano matchup at the expense of the Ira matchup.
While this is a very difficult factor to quantify, logically it would seem that, going forward, players are more likely to gear their lists towards a heavy Ira field. This does cut both ways, as with less Kano players, the Ira players are also able to make changes to improve their other matchups. The key difference here is that Ira still needs to consider the mirror match and the possibility of having to play against Kano in the Top 8, while the risk/reward calculation is different for other decks that are happy to take a risk on Kano if it means their matchup against 50 percent of the field is marginally better.
Flic Flak is Often at its Best in the Mirror
This is one of the cards that has taken a lot of “flak” for being too impactful and a big reason for Ira’s success. I wrote down this card in my player profile as the most important card in the meta. Upon reflection, however, I got to thinking: “in a world without Flic Flak, would the current matchups be much different?” I actually believe the answer is most likely a firm no.
Sure, Flic Flak comes in handy at times against a Bloodrush Bellow into Mandible Claw turn, or saving you after using it on the first Dawnblade swing to block out the second with a combo card, but would the overall matchup between Ira and other decks really be that different if you swapped out six Flic Flaks for six Sink Below?
I genuinely believe that Ira would still consistently beat these decks even if they were forced to run Sink Below/Springboard Somersault instead. While this probably appears to undermine my main point about Ira generally, the wider point is that Flic Flak works so well for Ira because of its general status as defense reactions rather than being inherently broken. The same decks that currently lose to Ira would still likely lose to Ira, but that might be more a deck construction and metagame diversity issue (two issues which are intrinsically linked) rather than a Flic Flak problem.
The real problem with Flic Flak in my mind is that it can preclude some decks from even being playable at all. But is this even a real issue? The ones that immediately come to mind are Azalea, Aggro Dash, Katsu and Go-Wide Dorinthea. Again, however, I’m unsure as to whether these decks would be viable even without Flic Flak unless there is a natural metagame shift towards more players running decks that are better equipped to beat Ira.
My take is that, if anything, Snapdragon Scalers is the actual problematic card in Ira but that’s an argument for another day!
Ira is a Great Deck for New Players to Learn FAB Fundamentals
This point may not be strictly linked to the perceived competitive issues surrounding Ira but it’s important nonetheless.
Ira is an excellent hero for new players to learn fundamental gameplay points such as turn sequencing, priority windows in the combat chain, on-hit triggers, life as a resource, incremental value and the concept of tempo. There’s a reason that LSS chose Ira as the original learn-to-play deck! While I acknowledge that these concepts could arguably be learned from many other decks, the fundamental strategy of Ira really boils these ideas down to a point where they can be understood at an intuitive level.
If we were to consider a format where Kano was universally considered the “best deck,” for example, would this really offer the same platform for newer players to upskill and showcase their talents at a competitive level? The answer to that may very well be yes, but I’m unsure as to whether the concepts learned would be as transferable looking forward into the future. Kano is a really fun deck to play, one that requires both discipline and often a knowledge of when to take calculated risks. It also, however, plays in a way fundamentally different to most other FAB Heroes. Requiring players to pick up Kano for a decent chance at winning a tournament might be acceptable to competitive purists out there, but it may not pay the same dividends in terms of player upskilling and game growth.
Having access to an upgraded, highly competitive, version of Ira in a format such as Blitz allows players to gain a solid grasp of these concepts which they can then transfer to other Heroes, both in Blitz and Classic Constructed. It also helps to level the playing field to a certain extent, giving newer players an opportunity to compete without having to play “catch-up” and learn decks that more experienced players have had a chance to learn over the past nine to 12 months.
Finally, it would be disingenuous to not look at the other side of an Ira-heavy meta. Similar to blue control decks in Magic, it’s not exactly the most fun deck to play against. I can definitely see the argument that Ira stifles innovation and might put players off since they’re unable to play the Hero that they actually like the most. While this is a fair point, I believe the same thing could be said about decks such as Kano, OTK Runeblade, or any other format-defining deck. Even considering it from a pure gameplay perspective, anyone who has sat across from a Kano player spending a few minutes going about the business of burning you for lethal damage (while you sit there helplessly) would probably admit that Kano isn’t exactly a paragon of interactive gameplay compared to Ira.
FAB and the Blitz Format are Still Young with a Developing Competitive Scene
To me, this is the strongest point in support of my argument. Unfortunately, due to (necessary) COVID restrictions on gatherings, the Organized Play scene in much of the world has been severely limited. LSS has done their best to alleviate this where they can with the announcement of Online Skirmish events but their options for Premiere competitive events have been limited for much of the world. I would also like to give a huge shoutout to all the LGSs and online communities who have done their best to keep the competitive scene going in their areas with online tournaments over the past year – y’all are awesome!
The consequence of the above is that the Blitz metagame has largely been defined by a relatively small number of players in the New Zealand scene. Once the competitive scene is able to flourish globally, I truly believe that what seems to be a dominant deck in the local NZ metagame won’t equate to a dominant deck in the format as a whole. With access to more players, strategies and deck lists from around the world, there will be a better chance for everyone to adapting to strategies concocted by NZ’s top FAB minds.
I also believe that we as a player base should be wary of requesting “fixes” to a problem based on a small sample size of results. It would set an unwelcome precedent if a deck doing very well in a tournament in one country resulted in immediate restrictions and/or bans. This is particularly true if any such changes did not fix the perceived problem, or that it did not truly exist in the first place.
We’ve Seen This All Before in Classic Constructed
Many of the same arguments about Ira in Blitz have a familiar ring to them, since they’re very similar to issues people had with Chamber Dash (midrange and/or control) in Classic Constructed. I’ve consistently held that there are solutions to that deck in the Classic Constructed metagame if players are willing to seek out and try them.
I still stand by that statement for Classic Constructed and believe the same will ultimately hold true for Blitz also.
Monarch is coming soon!
Monarch is scheduled to be released on April 30 and everyone is HYPED for it! With the release of four new Heroes and a full new set of cards, there’s a good chance that Ira may not be the top dog for much longer. I can’t wait for spoiler season to begin and start cooking up some ideas for decks that have a shot at taking down the current Blitz royalty!
I sincerely hope that players around the world will see Ira as a puzzle to be solved rather than an unbeatable Blitz boogeyman now that there is a greater awareness of the sheer number of Ira players in the metagame.
I’m prepared to put my money where my mouth is on this, so I’ll make a pledge right now that I won’t be playing Ira at the next Skirmish event with a Blitz format here in New Zealand. Wish me luck!