The First Principles of Flesh and Blood

Let’s rewind the clock to approximately one year prior. It was 2021 and I had just come off solid finishes at the Calling Dallas and Cincinnati. During those weekends, not only did I battle against up and coming superstars such as Michael Hamilton and Michael Feng, but I had also become good friends with a world-class player some of you may know as Matt Rogers. During the two weeks of getting to know each other, our conversations were not only in-depth regarding deck theory and Lightning Briar, but the underlying mechanics that made up Flesh and Blood. 

Fast forward two weeks and Matt was crashing at my apartment several days prior to the 2021 USA National championship. “Before we head out to draft camp, I want your feedback on an article I’m working on,” I said to Matt. He enthusiastically agreed and read the rough copy of this very article. His conclusion was one that I worried about, “It might be a bit too scientific and hard to digest at this time in the game.” Even as a budding writer, I’m very aware that content in this day and age needs to be fast, easily digestible and presented in a way that can hold a person’s ever-shortening attention span, something that articles fail miserably at. Over the course of the last year, I have periodically revisited this article, repeatedly failing the task of simplification over and over, despite promising or alluding to releasing it on various podcasts or social media posts. I have reached a point where I’ve accepted that this article will not be for everyone and I’m okay with that, because at the end of the day if something is worth reading, it’s worth writing, even if it’s not popular. So without further ado, please enjoy The First Principles of Flesh and Blood! 

The First Principles of Flesh and Blood

When looking retrospectively at various card games, there are defining articles that lay down the building blocks from which players have built their understanding and approach to the game. If you look back at some of the ideas and articles throughout the tenure of Magic: the Gathering, the game that started ChannelFireball, you will find a history rich with iconic reads such as “Who’s the Beatdown” by Mike Flores and “The Fundamental Turn Zvi Mowshowitz. While these articles were largely anecdotal and a bit outdated by today’s standards, they were instrumental in the development of current day TCG theory and planted the seeds from which modern day theory has flourished.

Enter Flesh and Blood, the hottest new TCG on the market with a revolutionary new resource system, where each player starts at maximum power, slowly dwindling as the game drags on to fatigue. This is in stark contrast from all its TCG predecessors and creates a unique problem where previously applicable heuristics that carried over between games are no longer applicable. Sure, there are tidbits of information that hold true from some of the most brilliant minds to have ever played TCGs, but FAB mostly presents a whole world of new ideas to unlock and explore. 

In contrast to some of my other articles, where I provide a deck guide or specific strategy advice, this article will be me giving you, the reader, nothing more than the tools needed to build your own recipe for success. 

So what’s a first principle? A first principle is a basic proposition or assumption that cannot be deduced from anything else. First principle thinking is one of the most effective tools that you can employ to break down complicated problems in order to generate original solutions. Some problems are more complicated than others and may not always be possible to easily break down to their core concepts. This does not mean that it’s a waste of time as often the exercise alone can prove fruitful if you only go one or two levels deeper than the average person, as different solutions tend to arise at different levels of abstraction. First principle thinking can be extended past just card evaluation and applied to almost any aspect of the game or even life in general.

Although this article may make it seem easy to describe, it’s quite difficult to put into practice. 

One of the primary obstacles and traps to first principle thinking is our tendency to optimize imitation rather than application of the learned basics to novel situations. When most people envision the future, they project the current “idea of what is” forward rather than projecting the “application of what is” forward! Take for example a week -to-week metagame prediction. How many times have you seen a Top 8 deck list and excitedly put it together, only to be disappointed by the results due to a sudden metagame shift at the next event? Without a firm grasp of the basics, there’s little chance of mastering the details that make the difference at elite levels of competition, so let’s start with the absolute basics of Flesh and Blood. 

Back to the Basics

At the beginning of each turn cycle, a player starts with four new cards (ignoring Arsenal). How you use those four cards determines if you win that turn cycle? Win enough turn cycles and you win the game. Win enough games and you become a champion. Sounds simple enough, but like with everything in life, the devil is in the details. Before I can teach you how to win a turn cycle, we must first ensure that the cards in your deck make it possible to win as many turn cycles as possible. 

When I imagine the most generic, stock attack actions that Legend Story Studios could design, I think of the cards below, so let’s use them as our reference point. 

Wounding Blow (Red) (Regular)Critical Strike (Red) (Regular)Brutal Assault (Red) (Regular)Raging Onslaught (Red) (Regular)

To break down what I like to call the anatomy of a Flesh and Blood card, let’s take a look at a card with a little bit more design space so that we may go deeper in our analysis; limited all-star Ball Lightning.

Breaking down the anatomy of the card we can see that it is composed of: 

  1. Pitch Value 
  2. Card Cost 
  3. Effect 
  4. Go again 
  5. Attack 
  6. Synergy 
  7. Defense 

The next part is where it gets tricky. How do we assign objective, discrete values to each parameter to appropriately reflect its relative impact on the game? Given that the fundamental resource in the game is the cards themselves and life total, let’s start there. One of the key identities of Flesh and Blood, unique to any other card game on the market, is the lack of card advantage in the game as each player draws up to four cards at the end of their turns. A person may only truly gain a five vs four-card advantage through use of the Arsenal, but that advantage is usually preceded by a disadvantage of a three vs four-card turn cycle, which in turn usually averages out to a four vs four-card game over several turn cycles. As such, the only true permanence throughout the game is in the form of life lost and gained. By fully optimizing this, you gain a significant deck advantage over your opponents, but in order to do this, we must first discuss what cards constitute “optimal” or what it even means to be an “optimal card.” So let’s first start by breaking down each parameter highlighted within a card. 

#1 and #2: Pitch Value and Card Cost

Originally, I had these sections as their own two separate entities, but the cost of a card is so tightly entwined with the perspective pitch value of your hand that many of the points share similarities in principle. The question is not whether something is expensive or cheap, but rather does the value in damage a card can produce justify its cost? 

As the rules succinctly puts it, pitching resources are used to pay a cost. As such, any card that is used as a resource is functionally lost until the second cycle of your deck, and its value must be recouped by the remaining cards being played during that turn cycle. For example, if you have a red resource in your hand (pitches for one), along with a card with a cost of one, you will functionally be down one card (one card lost as a resource, one card lost to play it). If your opponent is able to fully block that card with only one card, you are functionally down an entire card during that turn cycle relative to your opponent. If you pitch a yellow, you will be either down half a card if the card you’re casting has a cost of one or down one card if the cost is two.

The principle holds true to blue pitches in the same way – down 0.3 cards if paying for a cost one, 0.66 if paying for a cost two and down a full card if paying for a cost three. Whatever the situation, the underlying principle is that you will always be down some percentage of a card when paying a cost, so you must recoup that lost value from the cards being pitched and the cards being played, usually in the form of damage. There is a bit more nuance to this discussion when you start to factor in blocking and turn cycle evaluation that I will revisit in part two of this article series, but for now, when looking only at its attack to cost rate, Wounding Blow stands out above the other options as it is a single card for four damage compared to Raging Onslaught, which would provide seven points or 3.5 points of attack value per card utilized (the two cards total being Raging Onslaught and the blue pitch). This was a fundamental driving principle that was pushed to the extreme in the Lightning Briar deck. 

Flesh and Blood also has a core rule where a card’s value is usually inversely proportional to its pitch value. This means that your reds, which are poor pitch value, will be played for much more value than their blue counterparts and vice versa. As such, blues that have a rate of <3 attack value should often be used in other ways such as blocking in order to maximize their value.

Glacial Footsteps (Blue) (Regular)

Take for example an unfused blue Glacial Footsteps. As a pitch three, it has a cost of six resources for eight points of damage. This means that it takes three cards (glacial + two blue pitches) in order to do eight points of damage, or on average 2.67 damage per card used, which is less than its block value of three. As you are probably starting to see, the card’s cost and pitch value are directly related to how it should be used with respect to attacking or blocking. It should also be noted that these are general guiding principles and doesn’t mean that it’s always correct to use a card for its theoretical value. Sometimes those theoretical values fluctuate based on circumstance or matchup! 

#3 and #4 – Card Effects and Go Again

Card effects are by nature subjective and almost impossible to assign discrete objective values in a vacuum. With that being said, cards that offer a buff or debuff to attack or defense value based on a subjective requirement, think on-hit effect, are usually simple enough to add to the value of the card. The floor of these effects will always be the number of cards required to block it.

Entangle (Red) (Regular)

For example, let’s look at red Entangle that is earth fused. If left unblocked, it’s worth nine points of net damage, seven offensive and two defensive. But it’s lowest possible value will always be a two-card block from your opponent’s hand that involves a defense reaction or a two-card block plus armor, or seven block in total for two cards! Other effects, such as the draw a card mechanic found in cards like Plunder Run and Snatch, are very interesting to look at. At base, you can say they are worth their face value in terms of attack damage + the average attack/block value of your deck, depending on what the drawn card will be utilized for. It is also an excellent way to break the dynamic of 4v4 hand turn cycle averages that was mentioned above. 

Go again is a very interesting “effect” and something that is extremely hard to evaluate, as an action point is so much more relative than a discrete variable such as a physical card or objective point of damage. My personal definition may be primitive, especially in retrospect as we continue to learn more about the game, but I tend to use the below formula when I try to place a value on what a “Go again” or an action point is worth. 

Go again = Average attack value - average block value of your deck.

This means that in the Lightning Briar, a deck with an average attack of approximately four and an average block value of approximately two, each Embodiment of Lightning was worth almost two points of damage! This is because if your deck’s average attack value was four and average block value was two, you’re losing an average of two damage per turn cycle per card blocked versus attacking.

Entwine Lightning (Red) (Regular)Ravenous Rabble (Red) (Regular)

For further illustration, let’s imagine a hypothetical deck with 30 Entwine Lightning red and 30 Ravenous Rabble red. A hand with three or four Ravenous Rabble would be 16 damage, where every subsequent Entwine Lightning you drew past the first would represent a net loss of two damage (as you would be blocking 2 rather than attacking for 4). 

Nimblism (Red) (Regular)Ball Lightning (Red) (Regular)Seek Horizon (Red) (Regular)Seek Horizon (Red) (Regular)

For a more realistic example, imagine a Briar hand of Nimblism, Ball Lightning and two Seek Horizon. Altogether, this hand represents 10 attack damage and two defense value for a net of 12, if you were to use every card during the turn cycle. If you substitute the Ball Lightning for a Nimblism, the attack value of the hand does not objectively increase, but it allows the Briar lightning token to grant go again to the first Seek Horizon in order for you to utilize the second Seek Horizon for its attack value rather than its block value, thus netting you an extra two points of attack value when compared to prior! 

In reality, the average attack and block values will usually be decimals, something akin to 3.5ish. Given that cards don’t attack for values of 0.5, this is often represented with what we colloquially call “on turns” (turns that average four damage net per card) and “off turns” (turns that average three dmg net per card) which average out to roughly that 3.5 value. As such, although it’s convenient to have a nice heuristic about what the average value of “go again” is worth in theory, it should also be constantly recalculated based on a per turn cycle basis relative to your hand for optimal blocking/attacking patterns. 

Wrapping Up Part 1

I think this is a good place to stop for part one, as there is a fair amount to chew on before heading to part two. I want to reiterate that the contextual nature of TCGs means there is a lot more than just objective parameters that determine the outcome of a match or event and that a healthy mix of theory and practice is required for success. However, in order to ensure you give yourself the best chance of succeeding in the subjective aspects of the game, a foundation of understanding must be in place to build upon. I hope that this article is the first step in your journey to elevate your game to the next level and that you will join me for part two!

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