I'm gonna state this harshly: if you’re reading this article, you probably suck at Flesh & Blood. Don’t worry, I do too- as much as I may like to think otherwise! Like many TCGs, Flesh and Blood is a dense, complicated game, and one that will time and time again humble us as experience breakthroughs in our understanding and mastery of the game.
I spend a lot of time with Flesh & Blood. Outside of the time spent actually playing the game, I'm tweaking my decklists, creating content, and managing my Patreon and community. And still, combos and lines of play and nuances of strategy escape me! There are only so many hours in the day, so it's important that I get the most I can out of every moment I spend engaged with the game. Every time I sit down to play, I want to use it as an opportunity to get better.
Here's the thing: even proven, high-level Flesh and Blood players struggle with mastery of mechanics, of the game, and of how new cards fit into their understanding of ‘what works and what doesn’t’- the concepts and mastery these players use to dunk on other players of lesser skill.
Flesh & Blood is always evolving, always changing. What worked well and won games yesterday may not work well and win games today. Many high level players- myself included- will tell you the same thing: the average player of today is much better than it was yesterday. Their strategies and decks are more refined, and the overall skill of the community is only going up.
Before we get into the meat of this piece, I want to give credit where credit is due. This article series would not be possible without the hard work and carefully crafted ideas of Magic: the Gathering pros like Reid Duke, Mike Flores, Paulo Vitor Damo Da Rosa, and Jeremy Neeman. Their articles were instrumental in changing my thinking about card games, and I’ve worked hard to incorporate their lessons into my own understanding of how Flesh & Blood works- despite being a completely different game with very different mechanics from Magic: the Gathering. So too, you can take these lessons well beyond the confines of Flesh and Blood.
Today's Lesson: Probability, Risk, and Fate
If you’ve been playing Flesh & Blood for a while, you’ve probably had this happen to you personally.
You spend time honing a deck: how the cards interact together, and the cohesive whole of its strategy. It's a good deck with a good plan. You show up to your locals- or maybe a Skirmish, ProQuest, or Calling- and it's working just like you planned. Only, there's that one game where you get absolutely dunked on, and there's no way to attribute the loss to variance, bad hands, or even misplays on your part. Your opponent just seemed to know something you didn't. Whether it's some clever trick, an airtight interaction, or simply expert piloting, it just feels impossible to do anything to stop it. About halfway through the match, you know in your bones that you're going to lose. Worse yet, you get the sense your opponent knows it too.
At lower levels of play, the outcome of a game is often decided by who made the fewest mistakes; at higher levels, when mistakes are much more rare, it’s who made the best decisions with each hand of cards they drew.
It's a hard thing to stomach, and it’s the easiest thing in the world to feel demoralized after getting your ass handed to you on a silver platter- especially after putting in so much hard work! By all rights, you should have won that tournament! What happened?
Chances are, you’re not thinking about Flesh and Blood the correct way. I truly believe that it’s damn near impossible to win a game as complex as Flesh and Blood by mistake or simple chance. At lower levels of play, the outcome of a game is often decided by who made the fewest mistakes; at higher levels, when mistakes are much more rare, it’s who made the best decisions with each hand of cards they drew.
Storytellers and Gamblers
As humans, we tend not to think in statistical probabilities, but in hypothetical outcomes and stories that can become over-dramatic and more sinister in our heads than they are in reality. Card games like Flesh & Blood have inherent variance. If you have a deck of cards that’s randomized, you need to be thinking in statistical probabilities, not hypothetical narrative outcomes and stories to tell our friends.
How can we reasonably expect to win a game of statistics and probabilities if we’re thinking about it as a story or narrative rather than a game of numbers?
Here's an example from one of my games:
I’m playing Guardian (Bravo, Star of the Show) against my opponent, who is on a midrange configuration of Runeblade (Viserai). It’s been a close, neck-and-neck game where we’ve traded blows and have both found ourselves approaching a low life total: I’m at 15, he’s at 10.
I’ve seen a total of two Unmovable (Red) from my opponent throughout the game- and I suspect the third copy is in my opponent’s arsenal, since they've had the same card there for a couple turns.
My opponent is coming in with a big offensive turn, and I need to decide if I want to take a hit to try to play the Crippling Crush I have in my Arsenal by pitching three cards; or take a more defensive turn, blocking for nine with three cards from hand and settling for a simple swing back with Winter’s Wail.
In my head, I’m immediately thinking, “It will be really bad if I take this 10 damage, drop to 5, then play my Crippling Crush into the Unmovable (Red) that’s likely sitting in my opponent’s arsenal! They’ll only take three damage, and will be able to come back at me with a three-card hand after I’ve conceded my 50% lead in life."
I’m looking at it through the lens of the worst case scenario, one that would be devastating and put me in a position where I have to play from behind to recover- rather than one of statistical probabilities where I’m likely to gain significant traction in the match by taking the hit and swinging back hard.
My opponent had roughly 30 cards in their deck, four cards in hand, and one card in their arsenal. I’ve already seen two copies of Unmovable. Rough mental math tells me they have a 1 in 7 chance (14%) of Unmovable being in the five cards in their immediate possession.
Mathematically, the decision should have been clear. My narrative was obscuring that.
Stats before Stories
The situation is actually more complex than it seems on paper. When you’re ahead in a game of Flesh and Blood, you can afford to take less risks- you can fall back on your bread & butter plays and do the ‘safe’ things that your deck is designed to do. There's no reason to take chances, because you aren't really at risk of losing the game on the spot. Blocking out, preserving life, and swinging Winter’s Wail is the ‘safe’ and conservative thing to do in my game above. Taking a lot of damage and playing the Crippling Crush from Arsenal is a risk- albeit, one that could be favorable to take, as it could cement my lead in the game and help me close it out for the win. Playing the Crippling Crush is also a play that could have caused me to lose the game on the spot.
So how do you start thinking with statistical probabilities instead of stories? With expected value!
The formula for expected value in statistics is stated as:
∑(xi * P(xi)) = x1 * P(x1) + x2 * P(x2) + ... + xn * P(xn)
Don’t let the math intimidate you. I’m not asking you to complete complex math during your games- they’re hard enough to play in the first place! But you should have a very rough idea of the probabilities of an outcome in crucial moments when you need to decide between taking the safe play or the risky one. If it’s more helpful or easier for you to think about probabilities in terms of percentages rather than fractions, you can commit 1/6, 1/7, 1/8, and 1/9 to memory: 16.66%, 14.2%, 12.5%, and 11.11% respectively.
By thinking about games with expected value, you can quickly determine the expected outcome to making any individual play, based on the state of the game and your knowledge of Flesh & Blood.
If I were to ask you to bet me a dollar on the outcome of a coin flip, would you be interested? Probably not. It’s a zero-sum outcome. With enough starting cash on both sides of the table, we’ll both net zero dollars of profit over an infinite number of bets. Half the flips will be heads, the other half will be tails.
How about we roll a 10-sided die. If it’s a 10, you win $20; anything but a 10, you give me $1. Are you interested? This one’s designed to be tricky, but you should make the bet. You’re going to miss 9/10 times and pay me $1 90% of the time, but you can expect to earn $1.10 for every $1 you bet under this model thanks to the fact you’ll win $20 every time you high-roll a 10. Over time, I’ll go bankrupt, and you’ll laugh your way to the bank.
That's how you make decisions based on expected value.
When you make decisions based on the probability of specific cards appearing in a hand of unseen cards, you are trying to make the best decision you can based on your understanding of how to hedge your bet- one way or another- against the odds you’re facing down.
In Poker, an ‘out’ is any unseen card that, when drawn, will drastically improve a player’s hand and their odds of winning the round. Poker simplifies the equation: you know that every deck of playing cards used in Poker will have the exact same 52 cards. In Flesh and Blood, that clearly isn’t the case. You may know what cards to expect from your opponent based on their hero and class, but what if they’ve included something in their deck composition that’s atypical or ‘spicy’? Unless you’ve explicitly seen them pitch a card and you know it’s coming up in the second cycle, you have to be mindful of hidden information when making decisions.
- You're facing down an attack action card from your opponent with cost two or greater. Your opponent has two resources floating, and one card in their arsenal. Do you think it’s a red Pummel? If you’ve played enough games of Flesh and Blood, it sure smells like one. How bad does your turn look if you have to discard a card from the Pummel’s effect?
- You are at four life, and Katsu is attacking you with a Harmonized Kodachi for one. Your opponent has at least one resource floating and at least one card in hand. Do you think it’s a red Razor Reflex that will just kill you on the spot if you don’t have a defense reaction?
When you mindfully and actively think about the probabilities of your opponent having their ‘out’ in a certain situation, you can use that knowledge- and your intuition and experience- to make better decisions.
Pro Tip: When making game-losing or winning decisions, don’t hesitate to ask your opponent how many cards remain in their deck and how many copies of certain cards are in their graveyard. This is public information, and having the exact numbers will drastically improve your ability to calculate mental probabilities in your head in these super crucial moments. I’ve won games by choosing to do this that I would have lost otherwise, had I just made a decision based on my gut instinct.
Know When to Hold, and When to Fold
I believe players can actively choose what kind of player they will be in a game like Flesh & Blood. They can play to win, or they can play not to lose. Lean too far into either mindset, and you can self-sabotage. The best players in the game can adapt and change their mindset on the fly, reacting to the facts of the game and what their opponent is doing rather than remaining siloed and rigid in their own lines of play. They can play not to lose or play to win, and do both of those different things correctly without making mistakes.
If you are playing to win, you get aggressive, take chances, and try to relentlessly seal in and solidify your advantage. You know when you smell blood in the water, and how to twist the screws of pain on your opponent when you see the opportunity. You do whatever it takes to advance the game forward in your favor, realizing your approach may be flawed or your opponent may simply have their out to the situation. This doesn’t mean you are reckless- it just means you aren’t afraid to take the chances that can win you the game on the spot and have expected value outcomes that favor you, knowing they could still backfire. When you play to win, you know that mistakes and miscalculations- even if they cost you the game- are just an opportunity to improve in your next game.
If you are playing not to lose, you’re cautious of what could go wrong. You’re looking for the holes in your play and thought process, and sensing danger hiding behind every corner. Unless you’ve switched to this mindset in response to a situation in the game and know how to do it well, you’re probably still thinking in narratives and stories rather than statistics and probabilities. You’re more inclined to play it safe and not take chances, even if the outcome favors you. If you play too conservatively and with too much fear, you’ll miss the opportunities you have to win the game. But play well with the mindset of trying not to lose, and you’ll play around the hidden threats that would have cost you the game if you hadn't thought them through.
Flesh & Blood is a game of statistics and bets, both small and big. You need to know which bets and risks to take, and which ones to pass up. You also need to know how to think with both mindsets- of playing not to lose and playing to win. Learn how to channel those at the correct time, without being either overly brazen and reckless, or stiff and conservative.
Pass on the bets that equate to coin flips, and make more bets like the hypothetical dice roll where you’re slightly favored. Winning the bets that grant small, incremental advantages is key to victory. Over the course of the game, the outcome of those small bets adds up in a big way. Make enough small bets that should be slightly in your favor, and you’re almost guaranteed to come out on top. How many games have you won or lost that came down to the wire and the difference of 1-2 points of life? I’d wager quite a few.
When you’re ahead in the game, you can afford to take less risks. You can make the plays that should help you advance the state of the game, without risking a loss on the spot. But you can also take risks that are in your favor and further press your advantage, creating a desperate situation for your opponent where they’ll begin to make Hail Mary plays or do whatever it takes to stay in the game another turn.
Inversely, if you’re behind in the game, you usually need to take more risks. You can’t afford to do what’s comfortable when the opponent is ahead and the game is nearing its end. You need to try to identify the most favorable bets you can make, and take them. Play your risky plays, take chances, and try to flip the tempo on your opponent.
This isn’t to say that you should be blindly playing Hail Mary plays that could work. Take your time, think it over, and try to identify the play that has the best expected value. Unless your situation is extremely grim, you’re better taking the play that has the higher expected value- but lower ceiling- than the play that could either be fantastic or terrible with no in-between.
In my game against the Viserai player, I knew I didn’t have to take the hit and play the Crippling Crush. I could just play it safe, protect myself, and continue to advance the state of the game. But I also knew I could place a bet that was strongly (86%) in my favor to pile on the advantage and try to close it out. I took the hit, dropped to five life, and played my Crippling Crush on the following turn. In line with the expected value, my opponent did not have his third copy of Unmovable in arsenal and was forced to block with three cards from hand to prevent the crush effect from my attack. I was able to follow up on winning my bet with another strong turn to close out the game and win it all.
Would I still have won if I took the safe play?
I was still ahead in the game, all things considered, so I probably would have still won the game by taking the safe play and protecting my lead in life. I didn’t have to take the flashy/risky play that I knew would bring me extremely close to victory if my opponent didn’t have their last remaining copy of Unmovable (Red) in their arsenal. But what if they did have the copy of Unmovable? Well, it would have been a much closer game regardless, since they would have had their out and I would have conceded my lead in life.
My decision to play the Crippling Crush was made when I was in the mindset of playing to win. I took a calculated risk, pressed my lead, and hedged my bet. Ultimately, it won me the game.
To build this skill, and to know when to play to win and when to play not to lose, you need experience. You need to play more games, and you need to make these types of decisions in action and understand the consequences of your decisions. After your games, perform a debriefing on the bets you took and try to analyze their expected value. What led you to make the decisions you made during the game? What mistakes did you make that you can learn from? What crucial moment or moments led to your victory or defeat? What did you learn from the game?
All of this boils down to the oxymoron that you will lose less games when you are playing not to lose, and you will win more games when you are playing to win.
Stay tuned for part two, where I’ll expand on this article and introduce more actionable concepts that I use to get better at Flesh & Blood!
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Drew Cordell has been casually competing at high levels of Magic: the Gathering for over a decade before discovering Flesh and Blood and playing obsessively. While he specializes in Guardian, Drew also writes about a wide range of Flesh and Blood concepts and classes across all skill levels. You can get full access to ALL of Drew’s decks, one-to-one mentoring designed to take your play to the next level, and much more at: https://www.patreon.com/DrewJCordell
Our narrator, Mark Chamberlain, is a long-time card game player-- but they're all sitting on the shelf while he practices Guardian in Flesh and Blood. Mark is based out of Colorado Springs, USA.
Excellent article. It’s content like this that make me support via Patreon. Superb and enhanced thinking/strategy.
Thanks so much for the kind words, Josh! And thank you for supporting Rathe Times! I couldn't do what I do without awesome readers like you!
You said to commit 1/6, 1/7, etc to memory but never really explained what those percentages mean?
Hey Jason, these fractions/percentages are very small in difference, though every percentage point can add up in a very dire situation. I like to have an understanding of the rough odds I'm facing down when making a crucial decision, but the differences between 1/6th through 1/9th often isn't enough on its own to change my decision. I'm inclined to take most bets where I perceive I have a 80+% chance of success in a game of Flesh & Blood if I'm in the market to play to win and want to take a chance to cement my win. Hope this is helpful!
He's wondering what specific decision you are evaluating in which those odds apply. Are you talking about the odds of a particular card being in his hand?
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