What Does Non-Rotation Actually Mean For FAB?

Flesh and Blood’s competitive formats are all eternal. Aside from banning and hero retirements, all cards are legal forever, or so the sales pitch goes. And, admittedly, this sounds appealing. To paraphrase James White “rotation is just banning several hundred cards at once,” and that’s a really good soundbite, but what is the appeal of non-rotation and does FAB actually deliver on the promise it makes? Out of the gate, I’ll admit that I was personally excited by the prospect of all formats being eternal, but as time goes on, I’m less convinced it actually matters or should be regarded as a real selling point for the game when we try to pitch it to prospective new players. That may sound overly harsh, but, much like the FAB vs Magic discussion from last week, I think it’s worth taking some time to pull back and try to get a bit of a detached perspective on this topic.

The Appeal of an Eternal Format

I want to start by saying that when I was active in semi-competitive Magic, my favorite formats were Legacy and Vintage: eternal formats with massive card pools. It’s very easy to think back to the early 2010s when Legacy was at its peak and the variety of decks was incredibly expansive (even more so than today) and get excited about a similar format as the norm for FAB, but is that actually what a non-rotating card pool means for FAB? I don’t think so, not in the short term anyway. In my opinion, what made Legacy so cool in that era was the combination of it being a largely “unsolved” format and the card pool being so massive made the representation of any single deck so small, that outside of a couple moments when newly printed cards broke the format (I’m looking at you, Mental Misstep), you could pretty much always play your pet deck and realistically have a chance of playing a whole event without ever getting paired against a really awful matchup.

The promise of a non-rotating format for many CCGs is that, in theory, if you pony up for the somewhat high initial prices, your deck will at least be mostly viable in the future. You might have to move some cards in and out over time, but the core of what the deck is and does will likely remain intact for years. However, I don’t think that’s actually true for FAB given the overall size of the card pool. As I noted above, the reason that you could pick a pet deck and play it in Legacy for years was that no single deck accounted for more than 4-7% of the meta during that period, and even now, with years more time to solve the format, the top played deck is Temur Delver at 8.6% (per MTGGoldfish). The same isn’t true for FAB, at least not with the current card pool.

This next point should be made with the caveat that I have not had the opportunity to play enough FAB yet to get to a point where I’d consider myself competitive, so maybe I’m totally off base here, but I have talked to some much more experienced players whose early impressions seem to line up reasonably well with my experience. Anyway, prior to Monarch, I was playing pistol Dash in Classic Constructed. Nothing too fancy, I pretty much just copied Matt Rogers winning deck list, watched him talk about the deck and the game plan in a couple interviews and rolled with it. And things were fine. I won some games; I lost some games, but they all felt like games I could have won. In my first post-Monarch game I got paired up against Prism. The match feels pretty awful.

Obviously that specific deck wasn’t built with Prism in mind, but if you take a step back and look at the Mechanologist card pool, your entire class’ pool lacks 6 attack cards outside of Max Velocity, which, if you’re playing it, you really don’t want to be toss it. That means you have essentially no interaction with Phantasm as a Mechanologist. If you bring in generics, you’re diluting your ability to boost and use Teklo Foundry Heart. In short, Prism feels like a very bad match where you don’t really have access to cards that could help resolve the issue without diluting the deck to the point where you might as well not be playing it in the first place. I’m sure that a good Dash player can beat a bad Prism player, but given equally skilled players, Dash seems to be in a really bad position. If Prism is prominent in the meta, Dash is a bad choice to play because you’re going to frequently have what feel like non-games.

Let’s say you built pistol Dash and Prism ends up being 20% of the meta. If you want to win, you’re probably going to need to change heroes, and since Dash is the only adult Mechanologist, that means you’re also changing classes. This is functionally the same player experience as a rotating meta, and I’m well acquainted with that. Playing years of Standard Magic, I frequently saw a new set come out and more or less invalidate the deck I was playing. You sort of accept that and move on as that’s the deal you agreed to when you bought into a rotating format. However, this really didn’t happen in Legacy outside of some notable exceptions which were usually banned out within a few months. FAB is not at a state to support that sort of deck diversity. Maybe it will be in 5-10 years, but, for now, the top decks are going to be a double digit percentage of the field at competitive events, and your odds of dodging them are likely very slim. If you want to have a realistic shot at winning a competitive event, you have to be prepared to drop your hero and/or class and pick up a new one when the next expansion comes out because having a very bad matchup against a significant portion of the field isn’t tenable. This isn’t a huge deal for me personally as I have pretty much everything for FAB, so I can kind of shrug and just build a different deck. However, if you’re a new player or an extant player on a budget and don’t already have a large collection, you can easily find yourself back at square one when it comes to deck construction. Because of the way class cards are segmented off, you’re going to have another large cash outlay for your next deck, as you’ll need new Ms and Ls to play another class.

In these early years, I think the same thing will also happens with hero retirement, particularly for classes with only one viable hero. What happens if Prism turns out to be really good and then gets retired? Your deck is mostly useless until another competitive Illusionist comes along, and who know how long that will be. While LSS would technically only be banning one card with Prism’s retirement, they’d tacitly be banning all illusionist cards unless there is another competitively viable illusionist waiting in the wings to use them. I think we’re likely many years away most classes having the sort of depth for decks to shift to a different hero with modest adjustments after a retirement. (On the financial side, we also don’t really know how the market will respond to this with singles prices – what happens to expensive Ms and Ls used primarily by a single character when that character is retired?)

Despite the promise of being able to keep playing your chosen deck forever, the reality likely doesn’t reflect that right now, and it seems unlikely that it will in the short term because the card pool is shallow. Is it a problem? No, but also yes. So it’s not a problem in that the game is young and it’s reasonable that the card pool is relatively small right now. It’s not like LSS chose to have small card pool, they just need time to ramp up. However, that means that non-rotation is more of a promise whose impact won’t really matter for several years. It could easily be another five or even ten years before the card pool is deep enough to foster a competitive environment that is sufficiently wide to see the most played decks in the sub-10% range. And, we may realistically never see a point where a deck can survive a retirement in a form that looks mostly like it did before losing its hero. There’s also the possibility that before we get to that 10 year window, the formats won’t be as eternal as promised.

Will Flesh and Blood Rotate?

Your initial reaction to this question might be confusion, and I wouldn’t blame you for that. After all, I just spent like 1000 words talking about how the game is made up of non-rotating formats, but there is an important question here, “Can FAB actually deliver on non-rotation as a foundational principle for its competitive formats a decade from now?” A lot of other games have attempted to not have rotation, and many have even overtly promised non-rotation as a feature, but the longer they’re around the harder it is to continue to make good on that promise. Netrunner promised no-rotation, and it went for years without it, but eventually the glut of old powerful cards forced the competitive formats into an awkward place and it was either ban a ton of key cards and keep doing that every time new top tier cards emerged, or start rotating sets, and so it became a game with rotations. My stance on FAB’s non-rotation policy is that I’m not actually banking on it holding up, and if they manage to pull it off, I’ll be pleasantly surprised. Perhaps it is possible that hero retirement (and probably some bans on generics) will keep things in check, but as noted in the previous section, hero retirement will actually probably look a lot more like a small rotation than one card getting banned. If you are playing the hero that gets retired, you’re likely going to be shopping for an entirely new deck.

Setting Realistic Expectations

The primary intention of this piece is to interrogate how we talk about FAB and how we pitch it to prospective players. The promise of eternal competitive formats has been mobilized as a selling point of the game since back when you could buy a cold foil Legendary for $80. And, as we’ve seen unlimited prices climb (the cheapest unlimited Command and Conquerors on TCGPlayer are nearly $100, the cheapest e-strikes are $65, and the cheapest tunic is $290) I continue to see people justify the high prices of many decks with the argument that you can build a good deck and keep playing it for years, probably with some tweaks, but you won’t need to buy a new deck every year like in a fast-rotating format, such as Magic’s Standard.

And, we should be clear on this, at the current moment, Standard Magic is meaningfully cheaper than FAB. The expensive Standard decks for Magic are around $350 right now, and the cheaper ones are $120-150. If you want to play a deck that uses Command and Conquer (and let’s be real, a big swathe of the field plays it in their 80), that’s the cost of an entire Standard Magic deck in 3 cards. Add a Tunic, some more generic Ms, or Spoils of War, and you can very rapidly be over $1000. Yes, in theory, abundant unlimited reprints and a return to MAP unlimited ARC and WTR would drive prices of their generic Ms down to the pre-boom $15-30 price range, but until LSS proves that they can actually do that, I don’t feel great about assuming it will happen in the short term. In broad terms, as time goes on and more sets come out, keeping older sets in print becomes less realistic. If we don’t see unlimited singles and box prices get in line in the next year or two, it feels unlikely that this will be handed via unlimited edition, and we’ll be relying on targeted reprints instead.

I don’t think any of this is a reason not to play FAB, nor do I think it’s a reason not to recommend the game to people (I am still fairly leery about unlimited ARC and WTR singles prices though), but I do think we, as a community, are doing a disservice to prospective players when we tell them they can pick a hero they like and keep playing them for the coming years. The shallow card pool means every new set can dramatically shake up the meta, and retirement could very realistically leave some classes with no legal hero for an indeterminate amount of time. Flesh and Blood has plenty of things that recommend it, I just don’t think non-rotation is one of them at present. Years from now, I hope to write a piece where I get to link to this one and be like “wow, I’m pleasantly surprised, they actually pulled it off!” but in the meantime, the things that make non-rotating formats appealing are more of an aspiration for the future than an actual reality for the game. So, at least for now, I think it would be prudent to not oversell non-rotation to potential new players, least they feel lied to should their deck suddenly be non-viable when Kingdoms drops.

*Header Image – Shadow of Ursur by Grégory Nunkovics

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