Deck Stacking: Leaving the Casual Sphere

by Steven Young 10th December 2021 9 : 21

It goes without saying that Flesh and Blood is incredibly unique among TCGs. But there is one thing- from a design, flavor, and gameplay perspective- that has always been at the center of what sets it apart.

In practically all other TCGs, your side of the board grows in strength over the course of the game, whether that be through adding more mana to your pool, building a wall of minions to overwhelm your opponent or any other means.

However, in the 1 vs. 1, fight-to-the-death aesthetic of Flesh and Blood, the opposite is true: Your hero walks into the fight at their strongest, with all of their best cards available to them; but as the game progresses and each hero expends their energy, they start to feel the wear of their wounds. From a flavor perspective, this is an exciting, gritty and almost story-driven way to play a game. But examining the way Legend Story Studios mechanically implemented this idea leaves you in awe.

The Pitch System

At the core of this design is the pitch system, where instead of designated cards that generate resources, every card can be converted into resources with different efficiency. The weakest cards provide the most resources, while the strongest ones provide the least. It makes sense, then, that you pitch your weakest cards in order to play the strongest ones- it’s just the most efficient! But this is where the second half of the system comes in.

Pitched cards go to the BOTTOM of your deck.

Not discarded. Not in a zone of their own. Right back into your deck. Each weak card you pitch becomes a weak card that you inevitably draw again and have to find a use for. Whatever it is you pitch becomes part of your second deck cycle; and if you find yourself pitching nothing but blue, low-power cards, then you will find your late game lacking.

Whether or not this is important depends on the format, matchup, and meta. In a faster meta, its very likely for a lot of decks to not even make it to their second deck cycle, in which case playing your strongest cards in the most efficient way is absolutely the correct way to play. But in a slower meta, games can and do regularly come down to who can build a better late game for themselves, not through the strength of their tempo but from the strength of their pitch.

Each weak card you pitch becomes a weak card that you inevitably draw again and have to find a use for.

Flesh and Blood saw a huge influx of players during the Monarch meta, which was possibly the fastest meta this game had ever seen. With pre-nerf Chane running rampant alongside aggro Katsu and Boltyn decks, very few non-Chane players were making it to their second cycle. As a result, a huge amount of these new players may not have even been exposed to the idea of consciously setting up your late game through your pitch. This series aims to fix that hole in the knowledge of the player base, and run through step-by-step how to improve your gameplay by literally stacking the odds in your favor.

Part 1 – Leaving the Casual Sphere

Conservation of Threat Density

The first step in your journey of mastering deck stacking is to break out of the habits of your casual roots and focus on Conservation of Threat Density. Do you have the urge to play Steelblade Supremacy on turn 1? Harden your spirit against the temptation and pitch it instead. You have now conserved threat density.

Threat density is as simple as it sounds: it is how many threats you have left in your deck. If you have sixteen important red cards in your 40-card blitz deck and play every single one of them on your first deck cycle without finding lethal damage, you now have a threat density of zero and you are barely playing at a whisper of your starting strength. If you only play eight on your first time through, pitching the other eight, your threat density has stayed almost exactly the same and you can power through the late game.

Threat density is as simple as it sounds: how many threats you have left in your deck.

Consider this situation:

You are playing Rhinar, and have a hand of Alpha Rampage, Smash Instinct yellow, and Wrecker Romp blue after blocking, with a defense reaction in arsenal.

It's turn 5. You are at 32 life and your opponent, Dorinthea, is at 31.

On the surface, the most powerful play is to pitch Wrecker Romp to play Alpha Rampage, discarding Smash Instinct to attack for 9 while intimidating 2 cards from your opponent’s hand.

Nothing wrong with that, but these matchups often go quite long and you’re almost guaranteed to see the second cycle of your deck. Let's take a moment to consider alternative courses of action:

  1. Pitch Wrecker Romp blue, play Alpha Rampage, discarding Smash Instinct yellow.
    (Damage: 9, Intimidates: 2, Floating resource: 0)
  2. Pitch Wrecker Romp blue, play Smash Instinct yellow, holding Alpha Rampage for next turn. (Damage: 6, Intimidates: 1, Floating resource: 0)
  3. Pitch Alpha Rampage, pitch Wrecker Romp blue, play Smash Instinct yellow.
    (Damage: 6, Intimidates: 1, Floating resource: 1)

In this situation, you should be asking yourself, “Is Alpha Rampage better now or during the endgame?” If the answer is now, you should play it. If the answer is during the endgame, you should try to find a way to get it back into your deck by pitching.

This question is at the core of every threat density-related choice you’ll come across. In this situation, the difference between attacking with Alpha Rampage and attacking with Smash Instinct is three damage and one intimidate trigger. In a slow game such as this, trading 3 immediate damage to keep an Alpha Rampage in the deck should be an easy trade to make.

Why not hang onto Alpha Rampage?

Holding the Alpha Rampage in hand can also be a mistake this early in the game, as it reduces the number of cards you draw at the end of the turn. As such, the choice that will most often be correct is option 3, where you pitch the Alpha Rampage for later, even if it wastes a resource.

Pitching red power cards is, by definition, resource inefficient- but if you expect a game to go longer than your deck can easily handle, such as against Bravo or club Rhinar, it is almost necessary to put yourself in a winning position later in the game. As a newcomer to the idea of deck stacking, it can feel counter-intuitive- but your late game will thank you, trust me.

Practice Tip: The best decks to play to practice conservation of threat density are the more traditional midrange decks – such as Rhinar, Dorinthea and Viserai – but all decks are capable of adding this into their game plan.

Pitching by "Vibes"

This is a pretty strange idea, but it's an easy and intuitive way of consciously building turns in your late game up to 10 or 12 turns in advance.

The basic idea is to loosely keep track of what types of cards are near each other, and then instead of remembering every card individually just remember if groups of cards had good vibes or bad vibes (were they strong or weak). If you're not paying attention to how your deck is cycling and simply "believe in the heart of the cards", and the heart of the cards goes ahead and forces you to pitch three red defence reactions in a row, then you're gonna get caught off guard when that unfortunate pitch comes up again later. At the other extreme, if you go a few turns pitching 2 blues to swing with Anothos for 6 and pitch a Crippling Crush somewhere in the middle, you can play confidently knowing that, when you see Crippling Crush again, you’ll have the resources to pay for it.

Instead of remembering every card, loosely keep track of if groups of cards had good vibes or bad vibes

The idea of pitching by “vibes” helps your gameplay in two ways: prompting you to set up stronger turns on the bottom of your deck, and informing your decisions on turns leading up to your endgame. Simply being aware of whether or not the cards in your pitch zone are good together- and possibly pitching cards in groups to see them together in the end game- can radically push your play from simply maintaining a strong deck to making informed decisions about your plays in the late game. No memorization or card-counting required!

The next step further still, just like the threat density theory, is deliberately taking the inefficient play just to build a good vibes hand for the late game. To get a better understanding of this idea, let's take a look at some case studies with everybody’s favorite (or if not, definitely second-favorite) Guardian, Bravo.

Header Bravo

Bravo is an excellent candidate for practicing the theory of vibes because the cards for his late game usually fall into three simple categories: blue, powerful, or useless. This makes it exceptionally easy to read the vibes of your pitch; if you pitch three blues and a Spinal Crush next to each other, you have a good vibes hand set up for the future. If you have to pitch a Crippling Crush next to a yellow Zealous Belting and an Unmovable, that’s usually a bad vibes hand.

If you see or create one or more good vibes hands in the early game, and are coming to the end of the first cycle of your deck, here are a few things you can do to maximize the power of that hand:

  1. Start playing more defensive earlier. The more life you have, the more of a buffer you know you’ll have to work with when your good vibes get back to you so you can tilt the game in your favor.
  2. Try and snatch tempo just as you move into the late game, even if its just one or two cards out of your opponent’s hand. You already know you are building to stronger hands, and giving your opponent something to deal with in the meantime makes sure those hands go off without a hitch.
  3. Avoid cards that shuffle your deck unless you have a very good reason to play them. Playing shuffle cards sets the quality of your end game to average, and if you know your late game is already going to be great then there’s no need to jeopardize yourself.

On the other hand, if you’re forced into pitching some cards that are just awful together- such as a group of too many reds together or too many cards with no threat- there are a few things to do in order to mitigate that:

  1. If the matchup is fast and you have the means, try to end the game before the end of the first cycle of the deck. You can be pretty confident your late game will be of lower quality than your opponent’s, so anything you can do to avoid running back into your bad vibes hands can go a long way.
  2. In the opposite vein, sometimes it is possible to tank through a bad hand in the late game so long as you prepare yourself to take some damage and lose some tempo by giving yourself a solid life buffer and making sure you still have the cards in your deck to swing the game back into a win.
  3. If you know the bottom of your deck is awful, especially if there are too many powerful red cards back-to-back that can’t be played in tandem, do your best to shuffle your deck with a card like Show Time! or Sand Sketched Plan. This has a double benefit of removing your late-game bricks and re-distributing your threatening cards throughout your deck where you’re going to need them.

Pitching by vibes is a super simple way of “tracking” your deck without needing to memorize card order or count cards. Bravo is an excellent hero to practice this theory with, but some other great candidates are Dash (for setting up those Tome of Fyendal and High Octane turns), and Ira (to practice avoiding drawing 4 defence reactions in the endgame).

Next Stop: Competitive Play

Just by consciously preserving threat density and knowing the vibes of your late game by reading them when you pitch, you can be informed when you make late-game decisions about when to block or when to shift tempo. Even vaguely knowing what the future has in store can be enough to take your gameplay to a competitive level. Of course, like any skill, these require practice to know the intricacies of each game state and matchup, and to know what the best decision is. No amount of words I write could prepare you for everything Flesh and Blood has in store, but I hope that you find here a foundation to leave the casual sphere and start taking on those pesky control players at a high level.

If they're still causing you trouble, stay tuned for Part 2, where I will cover setting up specific “buckets” of cards and tracking the turn cycles until they return. In the meantime, get those late-game wins that the meta has been so sorely lacking!

Steven Young

Steven Young (@WizardofAlf) has been playing Flesh and Blood from November of 2019, and has been casually growing his collection ever since. He is an avid Wizard main, having played the class since before the release of Crucible of War, and is an advocate for its viability in the Classic Constructed format. He loves picking people's brains for opinions and new ways to think about the game, and is an active community member on both the community Discord and Facebook pages.