Triggering Value: Triggered vs Activated Hero Abilities in Flesh and Blood
Embodying a hero in Flesh and Blood to battle it out against an opponent is one of the core appeals of the game. Playing as different heroes and different classes feel unique and satisfying. Loading an arrow as a Ranger feels thematically correct, as does unleashing a flurry of blows as a Ninja, or smashing through defenses with reckless attacks as a Brute. The game pairs flavour and feel very well with design. Outside of core class mechanics, this is done primarily through hero abilities. Playing as a hero comes with its own boons and banes and their abilities come in two main forms: activated and triggered. Most hero abilities are triggered, and it its my opinion that triggered abilities are generally stronger than activated abilities. In a game that is generally limited to having four or five cards each turn, paying the cost to activate a hero ability usually costs one of those cards. This puts constraints on one’s hand or arsenal, and can mean taking additional damage to hold the card to pay for the activated ability. In contrast, triggered abilities lend power to a given hand without taking cards out of it, at the cost of deck building constraints. A key to consider in your deck decisions are the relative power of a hero’s ability versus their access to power through cards in their decks.
Two of the most powerful hero abilities in the game are triggered abilities that come with relatively high requirements and even higher payoffs. Katsu and Bravo, Star of the Show both have very high value abilities. Looking at the math of Flesh and Blood, and evaluating average cards, it can be seen that Go Again is worth roughly 1.5 to 2 attack power, Dominate is worth roughly one or two power (depending on if it is attached to a playable card or a hero ability). Using these conversions, the new Bravo’s hero ability gives him roughly five points of value, without costing a single card form his hand. This turns otherwise average three-card hands into 13 total damage with Dominate on the attack card and an on-hit effect from Winter’s Wail. This ability is very flavourful, as Bravo sees the benefits of Go Again from Lightning, Dominate from Ice, and a two-power buff from Earth, all of which are in line with what cards of those elements do.
The other part of his ability (being able to run cards of all three elements) would likely have made him a viable hero on his own, as he sees the strength of Guardian cards, Crown of Seeds, and Action Points and Go Again via Lightning (to help deal with Spectra auras, one of Guardian’s few weak spots). But that point is mostly moot as he is about to hit Living Legend status. Katsu can see just as much value from his triggered hero ability, but only as a ceiling. Firstly, Katsu’s hero ability is dependent on the opponent letting an attack action card hit. Already this is worse than new Bravo’s because you never want to rely on your opponent to do something for you to see benefits. Once that attack does hit though, Katsu still needs to have a zero-cost card in hand to discard on the trigger. If he jumps through those two hoops, he can get up to five or six points of value from it. Upgrading a one-power blue Ninja attack for a Rising Knee Thrust with Combo is the furthest this ability can stretch, and it can be a devastating power swing (and hand fix). In a lackluster situation, Katsu is probably discarding a two-power blue attack to find a four-power zero-cost red attack, which is still valuable. While these two heroes have similar power ceilings on their ability, Katsu’s comes up short because of the numerous requirements he has to fulfill. Where new Bravo only has to meet this in deck building (ensuring a mix of element cards), Katsu needs to fulfill deck building requirements (zero-cost cards and Combo cards), a hit requirement, and a discard requirement.
In direct contrast to the high power ceilings above, there are triggered abilities that provide consistent and incremental power throughout the game. The likes of Dash, Ira, and Kassai all see the benefit of their hero ability every single turn. Dash starts the game with her best item on the field, effectively saving her two resources, an action point, and having to search for the card. Kassai and Ira each receive one free point of value each turn, so long as they can meet the low requirement of attacking twice. Although these are much less flashy, they have proven extremely powerful, with both Dash and Ira dominating their respective formats for months. Consistency is very powerful in Flesh and Blood, and these abilities provide the most consistent value possible.
Moving on to some of the activated abilities held by heroes, we see that they generally do what cards do. They do these things at a higher price as a trade-off for being on-demand. As with all hero abilities, they are designed to synergize with other elements of the deck, and these activated abilities are generally weak in a vacuum. Bravo, Showstopper’s hero power would be useless if he didn’t have high-power Guardian attacks to use it on, and Prism’s would be barely usable outside of limited formats without the power of Luminaris or Phantasmal Footsteps to back it up. Prism’s power nominally makes a Spectral Shield at the cost of a card in your pitch zone and a card from you soul.
However, anyone who has played a Prism deck learns very quickly that unless those Spectral Shields are enabling other combos, like turning on Luminaris’ Go Again ability, they are profoundly lackluster. Oldhim’s hero ability effectively gives alternative uses to the (generally awful) Ice and Earth cards in his deck. This lets a slow Guardian deck maximize its utility and defensive options while being able to Fuse massive attacks. Each of these activated abilities effectively requires one card to be pitched, reducing the number of playable cards in a hand to three, which can leave heroes just short of combos that would otherwise be possible (such as a Pummelled Crippling Crush from Bravo). Despite these hero powers being generally expensive, the described heroes are all quite powerful and have seen success in many places. However, this power and success is largely due to the strength of their class cards rather than the strength of their abilities. Bravo, Star of the Show is what happens when you give a strong class and talent card pool to a hero with a strong ability, and I think we can all consider that a lesson learned.
As always, Runeblades need a mention. Not only because of their rotating metagame dominance, but also because there are just so many of them, making up nearly a fifth of all Adult heroes. For the purposes of this discussion, I am going to consider Chane’s hero ability to be a triggered ability. While the strength of activated, on-demand Go Again is impressive, the real power of the Shadow Runeblade suite of cards comes from the triggered Soul Shackles. Additionally, the activated portion of his ability has no cost that taxes the hand or arsenal and effectively works as a deckbuilding restraint. While the “cost” of it is creating a Soul Shackle, that is only an upside, as the deck always aims to generate as many as possible as fast as possible. No one is currently playing a low-shackle game, and I doubt that anyone will unless some way is found to abuse the powers of Dimenxxional Crossroads while not automatically losing to fatigue against high-pitch decks). Overall, this is another powerful hero ability because it functions in tandem to a four-card hand limit, rather than taxing it.
Due to the nature of Viserai and Briar’s triggered abilities, mediocre non-attack actions become much more valuable. Generating a Runechant or half an Embodiment of Lightning token is worth at least 1 point of value, more if the decks are looking to integrate that trigger into a combo. I think that Sonata Arcanix would be weaker as an instant, despite the fact that it becomes a strong way to end the game at instant speed (ignoring its current part in the too-strong Bloodsheath Skeleta-Sonata Arcanix combination). The value of a non-attack action card to Runeblade’s triggered abilities is very strong, especially when those non-attack actions cost zero and have Go Again.
Overall, hero abilities can’t be fully evaluated in a vacuum because each one comes either with restrictions that are often hidden in the deck building process, or strong synergies with class weapons and equipment. That being said, it is clear that hero abilities are not all made equal, unlike the majority of in-deck cards in the game, which tend to follow patterns. Although the patterns of power for cards seem to be getting pushed slightly in some of the more recent sets, the general rules still hold true (red zero-cost attacks will hit for four, only defense reactions can block for more than three, etc.). Hero abilities seem to be a difficult crossing of flavour and balance, and nowhere is that more on show than with Bravo, Star of the Show.