At the slightly delayed conclusion to the 2021 National Championship season, Australia crowned its first National Champion, a face which was already familiar to many in the Flesh and Blood community, both for his history as a competitive player, and for his involvement as a content creator.
Hayden Dale first burst onto the Flesh and Blood competitive scene at its inception, just a few short weeks after the release of Welcome to Rathe. On November 9th, 2019, he won the Calling: Sydney with his Rhinar deck, currently the only entry in Rhinar's Legend page, but there's been nothing reckless about his history as a competitive player.
Hayden played competitively in TCG's for a good portion of his life, attending major competitive events before eventually choosing to dedicate more time to work and his career. Flesh and Blood ended up serving as his reintroduction to competitive TCG play, and the Calling Sydney was his first major event in a number of years, as small as it was at the time.
"I heard about [Flesh and Blood] from an acquaintance, actually, at another TCG event that I was at, and that was before Welcome to Rathe had even launched. I went and checked it out at a local store, I went and played with the Ira decks and was pretty hooked immediately, that was even before we knew about pitch cycles or equipment or anything like that. And then as soon as Welcome to Rathe came out, I went and bought all the hero decks, played the hero decks at home with my partner and learned the game. Did some sealed decks with some boxes with people, and then just went along to the Calling here in Sydney, in Australia, I just haven't looked back since. As much as I've been able to play both pre- and post-Covid, I've been doing that."
He went into the Calling Sydney with just one Armory event under his belt, at a store that had only just picked up the game - one of the first in Sydney to sell Flesh and Blood.
"They were actually where I tried the Ira demo decks and bought my first lot of product from. They had an Armory a week before, and I did really badly, like I think I went 1-2, and then I went to the Calling and did a bit better."
"I was lucky enough to go to Orlando for the Calling back in November, and it's like a real contrast to the first Calling, which was basically two years on the dot from the Sydney Calling [in 2019], I think, between that and Orlando. I mean at the first Calling in Sydney, I didn't really know what to expect. The game was obviously so, so new, I know almost half of Legend Story Studios at that time were at the event.
You know, I think the player base was about 40-50 players at that event, so it was a really small event, but the thing that hasn't changed from that to Orlando, where there were over a thousand people in the venue, is just like the passion that people have for the game. I think that's the one thing that hasn't changed, is even when it was a new game and people didn't know a lot about it, people were just immediately kind of invested in it. It's just now on a larger scale, with more communities and more people involved. Which is just a really cool thing to see, to be honest."
Hayden put it best when he described the Calling: Orlando a "real contrast" to the 2019 Calling events - our largest Calling event during that season was our very first in Auckland, with a grand total of 69 players. The following event in Sydney was, as Hayden said, quite small - 41 players registered for the event, including both Hayden and Roy Lai, other long-running players such as Matt Rogers, Leigh Fletcher, and Luke Fletcher, and at least two players who have since become part of LSS.
Compared to the Calling: Orlando, which ran as part of a massive weekend that also featured the United States National Championship, and featured 750 players at the Calling alone, the contrast in size and scope is striking. What was the experience like for someone who had played at one of Flesh and Blood's very first events, and what brought Hayden to Orlando in the first place?
"It was kind of a bit fortuitous, really. So me and my podcast partner, Brendan Patrick, we have a podcast called Arsenal Pass all about Flesh and Blood. He lives in the U.S., he lives in Texas, and he'd been travelling to the Callings throughout North America for that season, and here in Australia, the borders opened up three, four days before the Calling: Orlando, but we knew that they were going to open up. So about two weeks before, I'd booked my trip. I just kind of had the opportunity to go in and make it work and make it happen, so I just did it.
In terms of preparation, I didn't really prepare for the event, outside of a bit of testing, and playing with the wider sort of testing team who were going to the Calling. It was kind of last minute, and it was an awesome experience. I'm glad I had the experience, because since then we've had a bit of a lull with where we are in the Covid situation, so I'm glad I got to do that at that time and I'm glad I took the opportunity."
Brendan Patrick is also a very well-established player in the community - he attended another of our 2019 Calling events, coming second place at the Calling: Austin. Hayden and Brendan have become familiar faces to the Flesh and Blood community in the time since, particularly after starting their podcast, Arsenal Pass, and starting to write freelance articles for ChannelFireball.
They first met through the player who Brendan lost to in the finals of the Calling: Austin, asked to work together on their first collaboration.
"Our meeting was pretty chance. It happened through former Calling Champion Sasha Markovic, who now works for Legend Story Studios. He asked if I could do some remote casting for the Auckland Calling back at the start of 2021, and I said yes. So he asked if he could bring on Brendan, who he met at the Callings in the US in 2019. And then after that, we just kind of started talking about the game, and Brendan was just getting back into the game at that point, after having not played since the Calling in New Zealand a year prior, almost."
"So he was getting back into it, we were talking a lot, and then I started writing some articles for ChannelFireball on the game, and started doing some coverage - and I just talked to Brendan one day and said 'there's not really any sort of podcast out there right now, and they're really covering the game in a verbal manner, they're not really talking about how to get better at the game, do you think there's an opportunity for us to do something? These conversations that we're having together, should we just be recording these, and making these for other people?' and that's really kind of how it started. We just kind of stumbled into it. We started doing the podcast, we started doing it weekly, because we felt like we had enough to say, and then it just kind of evolved from there into a YouTube channel.
It was a very chance encounter, and it's just become - first of all, a friendship, but then also what we do, and what we love to do."
Living in different hemispheres, Hayden's trip to Orlando was the first time that the pair could meet in-person.
"It had only been about five or six months since we'd been introduced to each other, but it was nice to finally meet each other in person. We had an awesome weekend. After the Calling, we spent a couple of days in Orlando, we recorded a video in-person together for the first time, we just went and hung out, really. It was great."
The Calling: Orlando took place alongside a National Championship, soon after the release of Tales of Aria, when the metagame was rapidly shifting as players figured out how to best utilise heroes and cards from the new set. In discussing the event, Hayden confessed that this exact time period after the release of a new set is one of the most exciting times for him, and was part of the setup for Australian Nationals.
"I think the experience of a new meta is the most exciting time to be someone who wants to play competitive Flesh and Blood, because you have a clean slate, or at least a partially clean slate, to try the things you want to, to try and innovate and build decks and explore the new metagame. So that's always exciting. And I got to do that with the testing group that we have with myself and Brendam and some of our friends in our group. In terms of how that helped for Nationals, it was just an extension of that post-Calling - come back from the Calling [Orlando], found out that Nationals was going to hopefully happen in January for Australia and New Zealand, and then we just kind of kept testing from there. We just kept on trying to progress and innovate as much as possible, or just continue to learn as much about the format, keep playing games."
"So... at the Calling: Orlando, I had Viserai in my backpack. I took two decks to the Calling: Orlando, I took Viserai and I took Briar, and I'd been playing Viserai since Tales of Aria came out, since I saw Spellbound Creepers, actually, I knew that... Viserai is a hero that I've played in the past, I really like him, and I wanted to play a hero that I really liked, but because I didn't feel like I'd had enough time in testing with Viserai, I ended up playing the Briar deck.
Then coming back, a good friend of mine, one one of my testing partners, Dan, who played in the New Zealand National [Championship], was really keen to play Viserai as well. So we just kind of decided that we were going to play it, and just tested it and tuned match-ups, and tweaked game plans, and we were both happy to play a deck that we really enjoyed, because we both liked that hero a lot."
Going from the Calling: Orlando into the Australian National Championship, Hayden expected to see a number of changes from a meta where Briar had featured prominently.
"We did see some changes from Orlando, I think, where we saw a lot of Briar, of course. I expected to see some balancing of that, with players reacting and adapting, and I think we did see that to a degree.
We also felt that with Viserai, we did have a pretty good matchup against Briar, especially the kinds of decks that people were playing, but we also expected to see the balance to be guardians, so I expected Oldhim to be pretty prominent, to try and combat Briar. We felt like a really good game plan in the matchup against Oldhim, so we felt pretty good about what we expected the meta to be, and I think it was about what we expected, which was nice.
There were some surprises, in terms of the hero conversions, I think - I don't think a Lexi made it to Day Two,which surprised me a lot. Neither did Prism. But I think otherwise, what we expected to show up did show up, maybe I might have expected one or two more Prisms, maybe one or two more Lexi's."
Expecting a meta with a strong presence from both Briar and Oldhim, Hayden quotes his core game plan as the key behind his preparation for the event.
"When deckbuilding, I'm kind of always just thinking 'what's our core game plan?' And I think we wanted to make sure that we had a core plan that could line up well into those heroes, and that was probably the more setup-based combo style. That really came from the list that Matt Rogers had played in Orlando. and then I had also played a more tempo-based list, which we thought was really good into other matchups that we might encounter, like Prism, or even brutes.
So I think we kind of wanted to have both aspects of those game plans, and I think that allowed us to have quite strong matchups across the board. That's where we focused our attention, to try to make sure that we had the right preparation, had the right list and the right plan. I think even more important than that list was the plans that we had for those matchups."
When I asked whether there was any particular matchup he was worried about, Hayden said Prism was the one on his mind.
"Although we had a plan, and we'd tested it, I still felt the matchup was pretty poor, so I didn't want to play it. I actually played against a Prism in round two, was a bit fortuitous and drew pretty well, and managed to win the game, but I definitely didn't want to see it, and was happy to not see [another Prism] past that round."
Of course, Classic Constructed wasn't the only format featuring at the National Championship. With his Viserai decklist prepared, and a keen analysis of where the metagame was likely to sit on the day, how did Hayden feel about the drafting portion of the Championship?
"Limited's my favourite format. I love Booster Draft, I always have in other card games as well, I think the strategy behind the game, before the game, is such an interesting thing to me. So I felt really prepared., I did a lot of drafting, as much as I could, with a lot of local players, and at some stores that were really great, supporting us and organizing drafts for players that were going to be at Nationals, so they could get practice in.
My drafts on Day One felt okay. I felt really good coming into the draft portion, and I think some of my fundamentals kinda went out the window, when you get in the seat, and when you're sat there and the judge is calling the countdown timer. So I felt okay, but my first draft and my second draft kind of went pretty poorly. But I was lucky, I just needed one win in the draft pod to clinch the Top 8, so I managed to get that in the first round and breathed a sigh of relief."
With the dawn of Day Two, Hayden quotes his overall event preparation as carrying him through. There's a reason he won the Calling: Sydney in 2019, and has remained a strong contender in the Flesh and Blood competitive scene - his mindset.
"When I get to these events, I think my mindset and mentality is just one game at a time, one match at a time, just keep playing until you can't play any more, and you can't win any more.
My Day Two draft wasn't... wasn't good. I put myself into the wrong hero pretty early, I I got into Briar when I probably shouldn't have been, and I think there was five Briars at our table, so it was really heavily over-drafted. I think there was three cards left in the pack, and I managed to get a playable [card], otherwise I would have been playing a Cracked Bauble in the last pack. So. Not great.
I knew I needed to get one win in the draft on Day Two to make the Top 8, so my first goal was just win the first round of the draft, and then was luckily able to win the first round, so there was less pressure for the next two rounds. And then just the same in the Top 8, just kind of take it match by match. I knew the matchups that I was encountering, I had tested against those and I'd practiced against those, so it was kind of just- try to treat them as any other game if I can, and just try to relax and keep the pressure off."
"The final ended up being a really interesting match against a player who I think is very good player, Roy Lai, and I had an idea that he had a different approach to the Oldhim vs.Viserai matchup than most people did. So that one I was a little bit worried about, but I kind of knew the game plan, and knew what Roy was probably going to try and do. I think if I didn't, the result probably would have gone a different way, and it would have been a much tougher matchup. I think preparation was just kind of what got me through the Top 8, to be honest."
The final match of the Australian National Championship was a sight to behold, and several people have made jokes about the "most epic battle in FAB history". While the game seemed to almost stand still, with Roy Lai utilising Tome of Fyendal to get Oldhim to 53 life, Hayden was steadily building Runechants in preparation for his combo turn. I asked Hayden about the strategy behind these first few turns, and the key moments in the game where he was planning ahead for his spectacular move, bringing Roy all the way down to 4 life.
"The key moment is really turn one, to be honest. It's when Roy decides not to attack me, and arsenals a card, it becomes really clear that he's on a plan of not attacking, and not allowing me to filter my hand. Which- that's really difficult for me to deal with, because I want to be able to defend with my attack actions, so that I can draw my non-attack actions and make runechants. So by Roy doing that, there's a really big possibility that I draw all attack actions and I brick my hand, and I'm going to be unable to continue with my combo plan.
So instead, I think the first five turns ended up being really important in that game, and were really sort of key moments for me, where I'd end up just dumping my hand to return into my Grasp of the Arknight to make Runechants. From there, it gets a little bit more doable, and I was just trying to build Runechants from there, Roy's gaining life at the same time. And then the pivotal moment just becomes the turn I have 30 Runechants, I don't really feel like I can make any more without ruining my combo turn, so I just have to go for it there. And it just works out, which is nice.
I think that that point, 30 Runechants and the hand I have is generally enough to deal 50 damage, and I think it does, I think it does 49 and leaves Roy on 4 life.
My initial thought was 'I don't think this is enough, he might be able to survive this'. And then when he went from 8 to 4 [life], I think it was, I thought 'I can probably do this next turn, as long as I draw an attack and a non-attack action that says go again', and luckily I drew those two things and a blue [pitch card], and was able to do it. But yeah, definitely my initial thought was 'oh no, this isn't enough' to 'I think we're okay'."
Hayden laughs, describing the moment where he realised that he'd officially won the first Australian National Championship.
"The immediate thing is kind of relief, kind of, weirdly. You know, you do all this preparation, and then you go to this event, and it's such an amazing time, and you're in the moment, and then all of a sudden the moment starts to pass, and you're almost reflecting on the finals, and the 12 rounds that came before. Which is an interesting feeling. And then I guess, my thought after that was just that I was happy to have done it, happy to be the National Champion, and now it's time to go share that with my friends who are in the hall, and yeah. It was great."
Near-OTK turns aside, I asked Hayden how he felt looking back on the tournament as a whole. Whether he would have done anything differently, whether he would have made any changes to his deck, based on the matchups and decks that he faced at the Championship. Overall, Hayden said he was happy with his choices and the decklist he'd taken to the event.
"I think it's easy to say no, when it goes well, right? When you win the event, it's easy to just say 'no, I'd do the same thing again'. I think we had prepared for wizard, we were worried about people playing Kano, and maybe kind of spiking the event with people not playing Nullrune, so we found slots for Nullrune, which meant that I didn't play Reaping Blade, which is really good against life gain strategies. So maybe you could say... maybe I should have played Reaping Blade, and I would have been more prepared for that final, but I think the list that we had was right for that event. I would probably change it moving forward, but I think the deck that I had felt really good for that event."
With multiple announcements about competitive events in 2022, including a Pro Tour, and more on the way in coming weeks and months, I asked Hayden about his plans for the future as a competitive player, and what he's most looking forward to in a post-Everfest world.
"I'm just excited about how diverse it seems like [the metagame] is going to be, with some of the recent banning and errata, and Everfest coming out, you know. From a personal standpoint, I really want to play Rhinar, if I can, and it feels like a more open format where I might be able to do that. I think I'm just excited, because it feels like we're going to be able to enter into a format pretty early on where people are going to be able to play the heroes that they want to, and they might not be able to play the exact strategies that they want to, but it does feel pretty open in like- we might play in a bit more of the middle ground as opposed to maybe the extremes of the fatigue and hyper-aggressive, which has me excited.
I'm really looking forward to the first Pro Tour, that'd definitely be top of the list for getting to, and then the first World Champs. I think that's something that, when I played the first Calling in Sydney and got the PTI, I wanted to use that for the World Championship. So now I've got two PTI's, I'll be able to go to the first Pro Tour, and at least the first Worlds, so that's kind of my goal. And I'd also like to go to one or two Callings internationally this year, but we'll just see what happens with travel and how possible it is, but that's definitely top of the list."
What would be the most exciting part of the World Championship, for Hayden? He says, first and foremost, the experience.
"I would love to say going and trying to win, but I think if going to the Calling Orlando showed me anything, the actual experience itself is just so worthwhile and so rewarding. I had one of the best times I've ever had traveling, just to go to Orlando for literally four days to go and play in the Calling. I think also having the best players in the world, all show up to the World Championship at some point, when it happens, is going to be an awesome thing to see.
Also to meet a lot of people that I've heard about, that I've spoken to, and I think that's going to be honestly probably the most rewarding part of it. And then we get to play some games as well, and compete, which is the next step.
I really want to play against Dante Delfico, who I actually test with, but we haven't played a game outside of testing yet, we haven't played a game against one another. I also want to play against Brendan! We've played a lot for testing, we've played a lot for our games on-camera, for recording, but we've never played in an event, so I think those two have got to be top of my list. I've got to beat them, you know, I've got to show them who's boss [laughs].
I think outside of that, another match against Matt Rogers, always top of the list. We played in Orlando at the Calling, we've played a few times now. And then probably- there are some European players who are really coming up, you know, you've got the Polish champion, and the German Champion, I'd love to play against them. There's a few people on the list, for sure."
As someone who has been involved with Flesh and Blood since before the release of Welcome to Rathe, and particularly someone who is involved with the community both as a content creator and as a competitive player, it's inevitable that our discussion would turn to local community, and the experiences Hayden has had, watching the FAB community change and grow over the last two and a half years.
"It's been such a cool thing to watch, because the game started out really as a seed. Not a lot of people knew about it. One or two stores here in Sydney had the game and were stocking the game, and then by the time we got to the Arcane Rising prerelease, there was a lot of stores, there was probably seven, eight stores who had picked it up- and then we went into Covid, unfortunately. But basically, as we came out [of lockdowns] and Unlimited released, and then we got Monarch, I think the community locally has really thrived, and even until recently - since Tales of Aria - the scene has tripled since then in terms of stores.
Now almost every game store in Sydney has Armory nights and stocks the game, even being at the Nationals at the weekend, seeing so many new players that I hadn't seen before from around New South Wales and Sydney, you can just really see the strength of the local scene, which is great. There's just so many new players coming in and learning the game."
For those players new to the game, and who might be interested in joining the competitive scene, Hayden's advice is straightforward.
"I think that the most important thing is that when you learn this game, when you start to become more competitive, is to really focus on the fundamentals of the game. I think that Flesh and Blood has really core fundamentals that when you start to understand those, your skill level can rapidly increase; how to defend, how to play turn cycles, how to understand points in the game and pivot turns. I think these sorts of things are really important to understand, and if you do you get a really big edge.
I don't think it even matters how long you've been playing the game, you know. If you get three months under your belt and you really focus on those things, I think you can learn a lot. I think in terms of selecting a hero or picking decks, I think there's a lot of viable things, and I think affinity towards playstyles or heroes can reward you a lot. You see that with Cayle McCreath, who is so consistent with one hero, whereas we see other players who might play a different hero at different events, because they test those matchups and game plans, it also rewards them. I don't think there's any one cookie cutter way, which is great, so I think just do what feels best for you."
And, naturally, to end out the interview, I asked whether Hayden wanted to give anyone a shout-out, and his first thought was the community.
"To the community, who support what Brendan and I do, with Arsenal Pass, we have an amazing community of listeners and viewers, and people who interact with us. And then just to my testing team, who I could not have won a National Championship without, to Brendan, to Dan, to Dante, to Tim and Zack. Just a big thank you."