Thoughts and Baubles: February 2023
My name is Alex Truell. I'm the editor for the Rathe Times. I'm a casually competitive player overseeing the growth of a Flesh and Blood scene in Ripon, WI.
Strategically, I try not to follow trends, instead fixating on cards and tactics just outside the mainstream. I view this game through the lens of a player who cares about the competitive environment, but doesn't have to live in it; an optimist who loves the game, but can take a step back to critique it; and a deckbuilder who revels in novelty.
Thoughts and Baubles is an editorial space for the Rathe Times, where I discuss the game and respond to the community.
On February 3rd, I attended The Calling for the first time. I'm almost ashamed to admit that. I have this idea in my head that, as a content creator, I'm supposed to be in the room where it happens; but we all come to this game with fully realized lives and the obligations that come along with those, and competitive TCG travel just hasn't been compatible with mine. As such, it should come as no surprise when I tell you a made a few mistakes in how I approached the event.
For those who know me - at least insofar as they've read my articles here and perhaps encountered my opinions on Discord (saturnflight) - you know my predisposition toward janky decks and off-meta heroes. I love to test out every corner of the game, maintaining decks for every class and switching focuses often. If you nailed me down to a 'main' hero, my heart lies with Azalea, but I'm also inclined toward the themes and play patterns of Dash, Iyslander, Dromai, and most likely Arakni (though I haven't had time to put him on the tabletop yet).
Anyway, I spent the month leading up to the Calling exclusively playing Fai.
When Uprising released, I was incredibly excited about Dromai and Iyslander. The former was an Illusionist who wasn't Prism, and I'd loved the themes of the Illusionist class but not the execution, so this was a shot at correcting for that. Iyslander had become my favorite Blitz deck during Everfest, and as the first Blitz-only hero to 'grow up', I felt ahead of the curve having put in so much work with her already.
Fai, in contrast, was not on my radar. When I examine my inherent strategic disposition, it is not aggro. That's just not me. And Fai was a Ninja, a class I'd thus far found no alignment with (outside of meme Benji decks). With every set release, I attempt to de-emphasize one hero, so that I can use any good pulls for that character toward acquiring the cards I need for the others. That was Fai.
But as often happens with me as time passes and my wants list shrinks, Fai's gameplay eventually caught my eye - specifically, in the form of Daniel Rutkowski's U.S. Nationals list. I watched Dan's streamed gameplay with rapt attention, fascinated by the depth and decision points I saw on display. These were aspects of Fai that I'd never considered before, and I soon became enamored with the deck. I brought my own variant to our local Armories, and it performed incredibly well into a field of players who were already quite used to what Fai could do - just not what my Fai was doing.
Fai is well known for his explosive aggression, but equally well known for poor blocking. That wasn't how I was approaching the deck, however. I viewed Fai's gameplay in pivot turns, perfectly capable of taking time to heavily block out key turns and simply reset, knowing I could resume my aggressive pressure quickly and fiercely. Aiding my strategy was the vast quantity of other Fais in the field, all reinforcing that the Draconic Ninja simply comes to race - I was hiding my tactics in a sea of faces.
To me, Fai was the new hotness - even if he'd been an established contender for months now.
I didn't approach my first Calling with the expectation that I was going to Top 8. But I was on the Fai train now, and from all indications that was a fast track to solid results. That's not to say I believed anyone could pick up a Fai deck and make Day 2. But I felt like I could make Day 2, and I felt like Fai could make Day 2, and between both those factors it seemed probable.
Once those dreams had taken hold, they forced out practical considerations that I'd usually have given greater credence to. Things I've literally written articles about. Here's a painful flashback from last summer.
If I sign up for a Road to Nationals event tomorrow, I'm going in as an underdog because:
- I've had no major FAB tournament experience,
- I come from a small FAB community without a dedicated testing team, and
- I'm going to be playing Azalea.
I can only change one of those things; and if I swap out my tried-and-true Azalea deck for a Prism Aura build I've not gotten the reps in playing, that's just trading one underdog attribute for another.
Let's keep running with that example. Let's say I'm a week away from RtN. I'm reading the Discords and everyone is talking about their bad matchups into Aura Prism. I'm lacking confidence because this is my first big event. I think, "I should bring a deck with a strong reputation." So I swap decks, play a couple games against my locals (which I win), and trot off to RtN with my own copy of the top deck in the format...
It goes on, and it's poetic in just how self-indicting it is.
To be fair to myself, I hadn't picked up Fai with a month to go, nor had I picked it up because the internet said it was strong. But when it came time to choose one deck for the big event, I let the validation of public opinion hold greater sway than I should have, and neglected the decks that naturally resonate with me in favor of one that met public approval.
(I also put too much weight on the risk of 'tournament fatigue', but that's a topic I'd love to explore further in another piece.)
So I dedicated myself to Fai, and for the month of January put all of my work into honing his deck and strategies.
Enter: The Banning
I stand by LSS' decision to ban Belittle and give the meta a fresh coat of paint. I don't begrudge them pushing that out ahead of the Calling: Indianapolis either. But boy, did it screw over my decklist!
And the funny thing is, I didn't think it would have all that much of an impact. But it turns out one of the ways I was successfully living the aggro life was by the consistency that Belittle > Minnowism (B) was giving my pitch curve. Increasing my blue count undercut my ability to accelerate after defensive 'off turns', but letting my blue count lay low led to compromises on my aggressive turns. I often found games ending where I'd only used the Emberblade one or two times. In my final Armory before the Calling, I went 1-2 with my rebuilt Fai, and I was out of time to reinvent the decklist.
And so, on Friday February 3rd, in my hotel room in Indianapolis, I abandoned Fai.
It's actually not all that dissimilar a story...
Rhinar has been a hobby deck for me since Arcane Rising, when I joined the game. His core gameplay doesn't resonate with me, nor do his themes; but he has a consistency and a versatility that I truly enjoy while playing him. I like to think I have a good understanding of what makes him work - his FAB101 is built on one of the first pieces I ever wrote for the game, back when FABDB hosted articles.
But this past fall, I went through a Rhinar renaissance thanks to Nitya Kalaichelvan and Clay DeAngelis. Nitya's approach to a less random Rhinar (intentionally avoiding feelsbad moments) and Clay's sound logic for rolling Scabskins more often sent me into a strategic deep dive that resulted in a Rhinar deck that I loved to play and could thoroughly rely on.
And as I fumed at Fai, the reliability of Rhinar seemed like exactly the balm I needed.
Thankfully, I'd had the foresight to bring all of my Brute cards to Indianapolis as an insurance policy, should I feel the need to back away from Fai; but I'd not updated Rhinar from Dynasty's release, so the deck needed some adjustments before it was ready for the Calling.
Yes, it was 11pm and I was now submitting a decklist I just built for my first Calling event. It was truly amateur hour at the Indiana Convention Center.
In Which Alex Gets His Inevitable Comeuppance
It will not surprise you to hear that I went 2-4 before dropping out of the Calling. I don't blame that on Rhinar; he did indeed offer me the consistency I was lacking, and kept most of my losses close. But I hadn't put in the reps with this build, and I didn't know my matchups well.
I find myself fixated on the fact that I had Rhinar along, and wondering what I'd known - but not admitted to myself - that lead me to bring a backup deck. What if I'd been honest with myself that Fai wasn't harmonizing with me? What if I'd committed to Rhinar earlier, and given even a portion of that prep time to that deck?
The big truth of the matter is that I could have gone 2-4 with Azalea just as well as Rhinar - and I would have walked away with a much better story. I also could have taken Rhinar on a better run than I did, had I been more prepared. I honestly don't believe it was delusions of grandeur that caught me up, but a fear of feeling that I'd 'thrown away my shot'. It was a desire to be seen as competent, not competitive; but in moving away from the core competencies I'd spent years developing, I voted against myself before I'd even been paired with an opponent.
Live and Learn
Lest you take this as a meditation on failure, let me take a moment to point to what went right - and illustrate how even in our mistakes, we can learn more about ourselves.
I told myself preparing for the Calling that my number one goal was to lose to some of the best players in the world, and I did. Yuanji Li showed me why Briar was still a force to be reckoned with, and Joshua Lau and I had a 'Classic Battle' between Rhinar and Dorinthea.
After dropping from the main event, I switched to Azalea and Dromai for side events, and found so much joy in playing the heroes I loved at a big event. That's a lesson I'll remember for the next time; it's easier to stomach a loss when you're the underdog, and the wins - and even the narrow losses - are infinitely more satisfying.
Even as Rhinar, I got a taste of how open the community is to everyone's tastes. I never got a questioning look from another player, nor an end-of-game indictment of my deck choice. In fact, it was often respect that opponents offered me, and at times my off-meta selection even came with caution that perhaps I knew something they didn't.
In one side event, I faced a series of opponents who, in small ways, got under my skin by their comments and behavior. When recounting these incidents to my friends, it dawned on me just how amazing the larger FAB community is, that these minor failings in social graces were all I had to complain about. By and large, the people I met were awesome, and shared my values for the social contract of a great game.
There's more than one way to make the most of a major event, and next time, I'll make sure to check my preparation to ensure I'm prioritizing what I, personally, will find the most rewarding.
Alex Truell is the editor for the Rathe Times. Alex is a casually competitive player overseeing the growth of a Flesh and Blood scene in Ripon, WI. Alex is a player who cares about the competitive environment, but doesn't have to live in it; an optimist who loves the game, but can take a step back to critique it; and a deckbuilder who revels in novelty.
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