Yuanji Li has now competed at five Calling events, starting with the Tales of Aria World Premiere weekend in Las Vegas. He joined the Flesh and Blood scene before the release of Monarch, competing in Skirmish seasons, Road to Nationals events, several Callings, and made the Day Two cut at the United States National Championship. In the new year, he entered the Battle Hardened Philadelphia, fell just shy of the Top 8 cut at the Calling: Indianapolis, and made his presence known at Skirmish events throughout Season 4, blazing a path to victory at two events with his Kano deck.
With his long-standing history in trading card games, Yuanji is no stranger to competitive play, spending several years playing 'pretty seriously' on the tournament scene.
"I first started playing trading card games when I was a little kid. From 2013 to I think March of 2016, I traveled to all the tournaments. I didn't have huge success, but I did get pretty good finishes at a couple of [tournaments], like Top 16."
"I started playing Flesh and Blood when my friend Michael Feng introduced me to it. I think it was right before Monarch came out, in around January. We were at a friend's apartment playing Arcane Rising sealed because that was the only boxes we had available. At first, I didn't really like the game because I thought it was a little too straightforward."
When I asked Yuanji what made him change his mind about Flesh and Blood, he said that the deckbuilding was what convinced him to continue playing the game. In previous card games with online clients, he'd seen deckbuilding evolve to a point where it came down to number crunching.
"It's then usually just pretty known what the best decks are and how to configure it. Obviously, you can still make adjustments, but I felt like the environment for Flesh and Blood reminded me a lot more of what it was like playing five or six years ago, when the information that was available wasn't as prevalent... so it becomes a lot more of discovery and trying to work out creatively how to solve problems. I like to do a lot of deckbuilding and optimization preparing for tournaments."
This is, in fact, one of Yuanji's favorite things about competitive events - deckbuilding, theorizing, and putting your money where your mouth is.
"Everybody has their own opinions of how good XYZ deck is or whatever, but I think being able to come together, go to high-level events, and just putting your money where your mouth is, right—being able to prove whether what you think is correct or not. And if you're not correct, you're learning from your experiences. I think that process is really fun for me."
Community forums, group discussions, and sharing ideas are how Yuanji became a part of the Flesh and Blood community. While he describes getting sucked into the community 'by chance', his involvement with the game goes beyond competitive play.
"I'm working on a couple of YouTube channels - I work on Fabled Hunters, and then I also actively participate in a lot of the discussion forums and such. I don't know. I think whenever I get into something, I get sucked in and very involved, and I just want to share the information that I find. I think that, to me, it's more worthwhile than just keeping everything to yourself. If I can help somebody, or if they can become more interested in the game because of something that I've made, that's pretty rewarding."
Coming off the back of four Calling events and one Battle Hardened, Yuanji had a year's worth of play experience at his back, but he laughs when I bring up specific preparation for the Calling: Krakow.
"Oh, that's funny, I joke about this, but I think that Krakow is the event I prepared for the least. At least in terms of playing the actual deck that I [took to] the event. I mean, I had played Viserai in Classic Constructed and then also in Blitz before Everfest came out, quite a bit. Before, I guess, it was agreed on that he was the best deck. So prior to all the other Callings, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what to play. In the Skirmish seasons leading into Krakow, I was playing a lot of Kano, just for fun. I mean, I tend to treat Skirmish and Armories and such like... I don't view it as practice. And not a lot of the people that I was playing with were that interested in preparing for Blitz, just because there wasn't any planned high-level Blitz tournaments in the U.S. So I kind of just took it easy.
I guess it was a good opportunity for me because I got to try everything out. I tried playing Kassai; I tried playing... I didn't play Iyslander, but my friend Michael played Iyslander against me a couple of times. I played quite a bit of Kano. So it ended up being that I played against or played with all the decks that weren't Viserai, which I think helped me get a better understanding of what was good, what wasn't good, and how to play against those decks."
Returning to Viserai post-Everfest, and playing Kano throughout multiple Skirmish seasons - is Arcane Rising a favorite set for Yuanji?
"I think Arcane Rising is kind of- a lot of the heroes that are in the set tap into the type of decks that I like to play, which is more so like... instead of the cards just being good among themselves, you've got to put together the pieces to the puzzle. Viserai is kind of the same way where- and Kano, I guess they're pretty similar, where it's not that any one of their cards is singularly good, but if you draw the right combination of cards. And I kind of like the fact that, both of those heroes, you have a lot of space to figure out different ways that you can play different sequences of cards together. I wouldn't say that Arcane Rising is necessarily my favorite set, but for Classic Constructed, it definitely has some of the heroes that I like playing the most."
Speaking the morning after the latest Banned and Suspended announcement was released, where Viserai became the first hero in Flesh and Blood to reach Living Legend status in either format, I asked Yuanji what his thoughts were on the format and Blitz metagame now that Viserai was out of the picture.
"I think that they did a pretty good job with the bans. They took into account a lof the player feedback that it wasn't fun that games were ending in one or two turns. That being said, I think we're going to shift back to heroes that want to play for a little bit more value-based longer games. I think Oldhim is still pretty good, even though Awakening got hit, he's still pretty strong. I think the most interesting part about what the Banned and Restricted announcement did for Blitz is that Kano got a lot of his power taken out. It used to be that you couldn't really play defense reactions in Blitz, and so now that you can... I think some heroes like Bravo or Ira, Katsu- like, heroes that have powerful defense reactions in their class might get some more play."
Oldhim and Kano both had a strong presence at the Calling: Krakow metagame, something that Yuanji had anticipated and planned for, expecting the two to be the strongest contenders after Viserai.
"It's pretty funny, we had a - I guess, a staff slash featured players dinner, and I actually snuck in because I was travelling with Michael [Feng], who got to sneak me into the dinner as his plus one. At the table, people were asking 'what do you think the meta is going to be like tomorrow?' I said it was probably going to be around, like, 1/3 of the room is going to be Viserai, and then Oldhim, Kano, whatever the other decks were that ended up playing out. I knew that Kassai was going to be somewhat popular but in our testing, we found that it wasn't going to be really good against some of the stronger decks. So I think everything kind of played out how we thought it would. Actually, the way that Michael and I ended up building this Viserai deck was specifically to have just a little bit more edge in the mirrors. So I think it ended up working out pretty well."
Pretty well, indeed. The three opponents Yuanji faced in his Top 8 matches were Kano player Martin Hechtberger and Viserai players Matthew Light and Christian Huack. One match against a hero Yuanji is familiar with from playing Skirmish events, and two mirror matches that Yuanji's deck was specifically engineered to tackle.
"I think I was also advantaged because I had the top seed, so I got to pick whether to go first or second, but overall, I think that the choices that I made were pretty good throughout the Swiss rounds as well."
Where to next, now that Yuanji is a Calling Champion?
"I actually live like five minutes from where the Pro Tour: New Jersey is going to be held, so I'm very excited to be playing at home. I am excited to meet a lot of the international players. That's one of the more fun things about going to Krakow, is meeting all of the European players - we don't normally get a chance to... you hear these players are good, but to meet them in person and play them, I think, is going to be very exciting at New Jersey. I'm looking forward to that- looking forward to France, as well."
When I ask about his preparation for the Pro Tour events, Yuanji brings the conversation back to this week's announcement, having waited to see the final decision and results from recent competitive events.
"I have done almost no preparation for the first Pro Tour, prior to the Banned and Restricted announcement coming out, because we were just kind of waiting for Viserai and what was going to happen. So I think it's pretty good that the announcement released a week early, and we have a little bit more time to prepare. Right now, the group that I'm testing with... I think a lot of them are on Chane, so it was just... trying to figure out what decks are going to be prevalent post these changes.
I was playing Viserai before, but I don't think that's going to be very possible anymore post the bans. I want to get a little bit of experience playing all the different decks, that's how I like to prepare the most. I don't really find it that helpful to just keep playing the same decks over and over again, I would rather just have more perspective going into the event."
Looking forward to the Pro Tour, particularly with the recent changes, Yuanji says that a certain star of the show is a hero he'll still be keeping his eye on, and one particular hero he thinks will break through at the event.
"I have a list of heroes that I think people should probably be looking out for. I think Bravo, Star of the Show is still potentially pretty good. He just has a little less block now that they've banned Autumn's Touch, but I think people still shouldn't sleep on the fact that they've banned cards from him." [NB: in Classic Constructed, Awakening is banned, and Autumn's Touch is suspended. You can read the full details here.] "Chane, Oldhim, Prism, and I think my dark horse pick is going to be Lexi, which I think is going to be pretty good.
There's been a lot of friendly banter, back and forth, between us and like, players in Oceania. So I think I'll be watching out for Matt Rogers, all the New Zealand players who want to come over, the Australian players... I think that'll be very interesting to see. I think also all the players I test with in the Hyperloops community - Joe Colon, Cody Williams, Michael Feng, these are all really strong players. Yongji Yang also won a Battle Hardened, and Dan Ratkowski made the finals of the Philadelphia Battle Hardened; so all these players that I play with are really strong."
Michael Feng won the Calling: Cincinnati and made the finals of the U.S. National Championship, Yongji Yang won the Battle Hardened: Indianapolis, Cody Williams made Top 4 at the U.S. National Championship and the Calling: Indianapolis, and Joe Colon made the Top 8 at the Calling: Las Vegas. All are highly competitive players, and several - including Yuanji - have earned PTIs through competing in events. So what would Yuanji's advice be to players entering the Calling or Battle Hardened events in New Jersey, aiming for a PTI to kickstart their own competitive journey with professional-level tournaments?
"I think the most important thing when you go to a large event like this is just to make sure you are comfortable with whatever happens, whatever results you get. It shouldn't be the most important thing. Just come out there, have a deck that you feel good about playing, and then whatever happens, happens. If you win, that's great. If you don't, then it's a good experience to step outside of your local play area and meet some new players. I think that's a good approach."
When I asked about the first Flesh and Blood World Championship and what he would be most looking forward to, Yuanji gave a similar response - the experience.
"I think it's just... from experience, watching other World Championships, they've provided a lot of fun and memorable moments. I'm sure really cool things happen all the time, even at the Armory level, but to have it be captured and recorded? I'm just waiting for some crazy turns, some cool comebacks, just things that will generate a lot of excitement for Flesh and Blood organized play going forward."
True to form, when I asked Yuanji about his favorite moment in Flesh and Blood, he had two answers: one for himself and one for a fellow player, showcasing not only the energy he hoped to see at the first World Championship, but also the community spirit he talked about multiple times throughout the interview.
"I think it's hard not to say the finals at Krakow. I think I got very lucky the entire tournament, it just kind of encapsulated in the final game where everything basically worked out. So I think it's hard for me to top that so far. Yeah, definitely my favorite Flesh and Blood moment that I haven't been a part of was watching my friend Michael win the Calling, that was a very exciting moment for me."
Michael Feng, winning the Calling: Cincinnati
"I want to give a shout out to Brendan Patrick from Arsenal Pass because it was by a stroke of fortune and misfortune, I guess, that we ended up acquiring his tech of playing Tome of the Arknight. I want to thank all the people who supported me, they sent me a lot of messages during the event... Fabled Hunters, the YouTube channel I work on. Hopefully, you guys reading the article can watch some of our videos, and it's a little bit- it's not as into competitive Flesh and Blood, but we're trying to provide a more holistic view into collecting Flesh and Blood cards, and have content for people who aren't necessarily just going to the tournament scene.
And Michael Feng, for traveling to Poland on a whim with me. We had to play round 10, and he ended with a record that was good enough to make Top 8 if he had better breakers. If it wasn't me, it was gonna be him!"