The Rise of the Specialist

by Isaac Jessen 27th September 2022 6 : 07

Since I first started playing Flesh and Blood, there have always been die-hard players, famous for being loyal to their beloved class: Cayle’s Bravo, The First Dracai, Yuki’s ice arrows, Ethan with his League of Levia, and many more. Everyone has their local legends as well, players who are notorious on a certain deck and warp their scene despite current trends. From my own scene, Tao Tao on Katsu and Shin on Dorinthea both Top 8'ed recent Battle Hardened events. Oliver was not only runner up in a Calling, but has made Guardians unwelcome in the Bay Area since Prism’s debut.

These admirable players shirk the meta and hone their craft. Against all odds, they have had impressive success battling through a sea of Runeblades and Starvos. But their feats were few and far between, since most metas have been dominated by an oppressive force, pushing out all competition save for their direct counters.

That is, up until now.

The Changing Landscape

Following a number of bans and heroes achieving Living Legend status, we seem to have emerged into a wide open meta, where many decks are not only playable, but competitively viable. Having three new heroes injected into the fray seems to have helped this rather than hindered it, and it has become increasingly difficult to target or spike an event.

Gone are the days when your Ice Lexi can prey on the unsuspecting Briars. Instead, you may find yourself sitting across from a Dorinthea or Bravo, making you the one who is unprepared and fragile. The bottom line is that you have a much greater chance to play a random hero at a large event than at any point in the past couple years.

For the first time in a long time we have seen success from Rhinar, Dorinthia, Bravo, Katsu, Dash, and a number of other previously left-behind heroes. It is certain that some heroes are still superior to others, but the gap has closed enough that experience and player skill with their particular deck has often been the deciding factor in most matchups. It has become increasingly difficult for professional players to explore every possible hero and matchup in order to break the game, oftentimes leaving them lacking the reps to truly perform well with any given deck.

Gone are the days of silver bullets as well. With so many potential opponents, sideboards no longer have room for heavy tech against a single foe. Instead, I find myself having two or three sideboard packages that get slotted in and out depending on my role in a certain matchup. Every card is considered not only based on its performance, but by the number of matchups in which it is effective. More important is my knowledge of my hero versus their hero, rather than extensive counters to shut them down. This means that familiarity with your role in a game is paramount; relying on taking advantage of hard counters is less relevant.

The Unexpected Enemy

At larger and more competitive events in the past, we have seen the vast majority of the population tend to gravitate to the hot new powerful deck of the moment, rather than independently innovating. This can still be the case- to some degree. However, with Oldhim, Iyslander, Briar, Fai, Dash, Dromai, Viserai, and even Rhinar having very strong performances at the top tables recently, it can be a bit more difficult to simply gravitate to the most powerful deck. The odds are much greater that you will get countered or punished for being under-prepared.

Let’s look at it from a preparation standpoint. Approaching an upcoming tournament, there may be around five different heroes you are considering. There are 16 legal heroes in Classic Constructed, with around 10 being viable and having a decent chance of sitting across from you.

So how many reps does it take to understand a particular matchup? That’s a pretty tough question, but let's say 20 for the sake of argument. At 20 reps per hero, that means you need to play 200 games, for each of the five heroes you’re considering, in order to determine what the best deck in the meta is. That doesn’t account for what you’ve missed, the quality of the games, your initial games perhaps being poor measures, and so on.

By this metric, it would take you 1000 games to choose which hero you think is the strongest. How many more reps until you have an ironclad list and are playing it at 95% efficiency? I’ve seen a number of professional level players hop around too much and end up ill-prepared for an event with the deck they eventually land on.

Meanwhile, if you simply play the same deck (or two or three decks) for a year, you will become intimately familiar with its play patterns. Every puzzle you’re presented with, every exchange, will become familiar. When piloting your deck becomes muscle memory, you no longer have to agonize over every decision mid-tournament and inevitably make small inefficient mistakes. When you are facing a new meta, the only task at hand is to learn several matchups, tweaking your deck slightly here and there to optimize. You will also force yourself to try and solve a difficult matchup, rather than dismissing it too easily and moving on to another hero, which can reward you with inventive tech passed over by everyone else.

I have personally been rewarded for my dedication to the ranger class. To be fair, I had a number of poor performances, but my commitment and experience paid off. I had the same experience with Levia, but was unfortunately outgunned by Chane no matter how hard I tried.

Lately I have been dedicating my time to Dromai. With no new tools available to any of my favorites for many months, I decided to dive into one of the new heroes. I love playing a deck with an engine, and have found playing Dromai very good for my FaB brain as it plays much differently than other heroes. In the past two or three months, I have gone from terrible to proficient, or even skilled on the deck. I have a lot more to learn still, and look forward to truly unlocking the hero.

I am mentioning this to illustrate just how much time and effort it takes most of us to truly master a hero, to perform so well that misplays and inefficiencies are rare. I could not imagine attempting to master four or five heroes within the same time frame leading up to a major tournament.

The Payoff

In my experience, one of the most rewarding periods is the progression from 90%-100% efficiency on a hero. This is where the most intricate interactions are analyzed and optimized, where growth and learning come in incremental steps. Playing confidently through your bad matchups, knowing your outs and windows, and always feeling like you’ve been here before is the mindstate I crave. The nerves and uncertainty, the insecurity and doubt, all melt away when you know every line your deck can take.

Having a specialized skill set brings a lot of value to a testing group, whether your group is professional or casual. Getting reps against a hero always has value, and can teach you a lot about the matchup and your role in it. But when it comes down to it, you won’t truly know if you are favored or if your tech is working unless your opponent is a master of that hero. When prepping for an event, having the opportunity to test into each hero played expertly is invaluable. Without it, you can easily get run over by a deck you were not prepared for, or overly confident into.

This type of dedication does come with a downside. Some metas will be unfriendly to your hero. Rangers in Guardian metas, Wizards in Illusionist metas, and everyone else in the Chane meta all know this struggle. I do think it’s important to play more than one hero in order to keep the game fresh and not get too bogged down in your own frustrations.

However, the upside of specializing is that you will be well trained to attack a meta that is vulnerable to your skill set. Players playing fragile decks that have never seen the attack patterns of Katsu or Dorinthea will be heavily punished on a level playing field. 

There will always be players gravitating towards stronger decks, but at this moment in the game it seems that the specialists are being rewarded. I would argue that at no time more than now, knowing your lines is more important than the list you bring. And you get to play the deck you love!

Isaac Jessen

Isaac Jessen has been an avid Flesh and Blood player since Arcane Rising, and is the co-host of The Attack Action Podcast. A Northern California native, he loves underdog toolbox decks like Ranger, Levia, and Kano.

Discussion (1)

Isaac Jessen
6 months ago

I failed to mention local Viserai legends on an absolute tear lately Nick Snyder and Jon Ho, so wanted to shout them out here!

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