Variance is a Feature, Not a Bug
By: Yuki Lee Bender
Flesh and Blood is a game advertised to reduce variance in card games in all of the best ways and highly reward player skill, without feeling repetitive or stale. In general, it delivers very well on this promise. Cards are flexible and perform multiple roles making no hand truly unplayable. As a result, early on in the life cycle of the game, decks that were highly consistent in their ability to apply pressure and block were well suited for the long grindy games that would tend to occur. Because low variance is often such a big selling point, it is perhaps no surprise that variance has become somewhat of a dirty word in the Flesh and Blood world. The Chane, Briar and Starvo metas have all been critiqued as being “high variance” and having “casino” elements as players feel they are determined heavily by one player’s ability to draw well and string together the right combination of cards. While I think the degree to which this is true is vastly overstated and the game still largely rewards skill even in these metagames, I do think there is some merit to these claims. In this article we will explore why there has been a rise in variance and why I believe that going forward this will largely be a feature of the top decks, rather than a bug.
Flesh and Blood is a Game About Big Turns
The way Flesh and Blood is designed, fundamentally rewards big turns. At face value, many cards are worth about 3-4 damage, this is best seen by most cards blocking for 3 and cards like Raging Onslaught being 2 cards for 7 damage. In early Flesh and Blood games, such as Welcome to Rathe limited. It is very common to be exchanging damage close to these rates for much of the game. Bravo, Show Stopper blocking with two cards for 6, then swinging Anothos for 6 off the remaining two cards is a prime example of this.
So why do these mechanics incentivize big turns?
If we assume every card in our opponent’s hand blocks for 3, the total block value of their hand is 12. If our hand presents 15 damage, even if our opponent fully blocks, they will take 3 damage. However, if our hand instead does 21 damage, our opponent blocking out would take 9 damage instead. This effectively represents three times the chip damage presented by the 15 damage hand. This multiplicative effect of damage leaked on big turns leads to big turns which do 15+ damage to be worth a lot more than smaller turns that can be easily blocked.
Even back in Crucible of War days, decks would try to string together powerful combinations of cards that produced about 20 damage a few times per game. These turns were infrequent as they usually revolved around one or two key power cards such as Steelbrade Supremacy in Dorinthea, or High Octane in Dash. As a result, games were often long and grindy and usually came down to setting up these cards for guaranteed big turns on the second cycle of the deck. This was necessary as it allowed you to present more damage than your opponent can block and produced these big swing turns that dictate the outcome of the game.
As the card pool has continued to grow, we have seen the damage ceiling as well as the consistency of these big turns both improve immensely. This is both due to more power cards being printed as well as specific combinations of cards working together to produce more than the sum of their parts. These makes games feel higher in variance, because the swing turns are large and more frequent, and drawing into multiple big turns can make you a massive favourite to win the game.
While this undoubtedly represents power creep, it is also inevitable that decks get stronger as the number of cards they can choose from continues to grow. This is a phenomenon we can observe across all TCGs.
The Best Decks are the Ones with the Swingiest Turns
One thing Viserai, Starvo and Prism all have in common is the ability to produce very powerful swing turns that can dictate the tempo of the game for turns to come. I believe this feature is a large part of what has made them the top decks in the current metagame and is a feature shared by the former boogeymen of their respective formats Chane and Briar. While the mechanics of how each of these decks swing tempo differs, the advantage gained is very similar across the board.
Viserai, as well as many of the tier 1.5 decks have the common feature of pushing 25+ damage turns in order to swing tempo in their favor. Briar with Channel Mount Heroic, Lexi with Rain Razors and Chane with Art of War are all able to deal 25 or more damage in a single turn in most games. Aggro Viserai is similar in this regard, but has a higher ceiling and is able to achieve these big turns with a wider variety of cards and also has the flexibility to sideboard into OTK which makes him edge out the others. While these high damage turns don’t literally end the game on the spot most of the time, they often functionally determine the outcome of the game. Because the amount of damage is so high and can’t be blocked entirely, it allows these decks to generate a large amount of tempo and forces the opponent to either block and take 10-15 damage, or to not block and be placed at the 10-15 life threshold where the vast majority of turns forces one or more cards from their hand. Usually, the first person who can put their opponents down to these critical life totals and keep all their cards in hand to apply pressure is the player to win the game, so it is no surprise these big turns are so important.
Starvo’s swing turns look a little bit different as they aren’t as much raw damage as Viserai, but nevertheless have a lot of similarities in their ability to dictate tempo. For example, fused Oaken Old followed up by Winter’s Wail is only 15 damage total, and may only connect for about 8 damage if your opponent blocks out and has no defense reactions. However, due to the discard effect, it also allows him to maintain tempo into the next turn which ends up putting him very far ahead in terms of life, especially if this is done more than once in a game. Often Starvo games can feel close until suddenly Starvo strings together a few Crippling Crush + Oaken Old turns that completely shift the game in his favor.
Prism on the other hand can double aura which asks your opponent to either take time off from pressuring Prism in order to clear auras, or to try and race. Clearing auras means your opponent has to spend an entire attack each turn clearing an aura, which in turn gives Prism more space to continue laying down auras, and forces the opponent to try and play catchup. On the other hand, if opponents try to ignore Prism’s board and race, a critical mass of auras can produce a very large tempo swing late in the game, because Prism can have powerful turns off just 1-2 cards, while using the rest to block. This squeeze on action points Prism presents to her opponents, are essentially ways of dictating the tempo of the game, and force opponents to play reactively to Prism’s gameplan. Often just one big turn where Prism is allowed to establish a board presence unpressured is enough for her to effectively take over the game. Only a handful of decks are able to effectively balance pressure and aura clearing to keep her in check reliably.
Because the big turns these decks create can have lasting effects on the game for turns to come, it often feels like one or two turns alone can define the entire game, and for this reason the variance or swingyness of the games played by these decks is also larger. This variance is a very powerful tool as it can effectively allow these decks to “run hot” and give them winning chances even when they are behind or find themselves in an unfavorable matchup. As a competitive player, I actually look at the ability for these decks to swing tempo so hard as a huge asset that these decks have in their toolbox.
Another way of seeing the power of these large turns is by comparing Prism, Viserai and Starvo with Dash. Dash may be very consistent, but she isn’t able to control the flow of the game in the same way because she does not have Starvo’s disruption and most of her turns are very even keel when compared to Viserai’s damage output. Even her big High Octane turns rarely push much beyond 20 damage, unless she has already set up a lot of items first. While on face value it might appear that Dash is similar to Prism because she builds up items. The difference is Prism’s auras control tempo as they force your opponent to interact with them, whereas Dash’s items do not.
I personally don’t believe low variance meta with much slower games favoring decks with consistent output are coming back anytime soon. The incentives in the game just aren’t there, unless something drastic changes. Going forward into future metagames, I suspect we will continue to see results favor the decks which can produce the biggest turns.