“I feel like my entire career I’ve been fighting this fight to bring recognition and respect and validation to tabletop,” James White said, staring intently back at me through his computer screen. Thirty minutes into our conversation, the co-founder of Legend Story Studios had quickly burned through his elevator pitch material for Flesh and Blood, the trading card game he launched from New Zealand in 2019. He was well off script now, digging deep into the emotions surrounding the hobby that had become his life’s work.
In his hands he held up a tiny plaque to the camera, an award he won in the Deloitte Fast 50. To him it is proof that his company is gaining ground against its biggest competitor — the multibillion-dollar giant, Magic: The Gathering. Data shows that Legend Story’s revenue is up 6,416% over the last three years, making it one of New Zealand’s most successful new companies in 22 years. Flesh and Blood is a hit, a card game now played on virtually every continent and sold at more than 3,200 game stores, a hobby in and of itself that is played weekly by more than 2,500 different local communities all around the world.
Flesh and Blood may never be as popular as Magic, but it is an undeniable force to be reckoned with — and so is White.
“I don’t really care that much about accolades in general,” he continued. The former Magic pro player, who has represented New Zealand four times at the game’s world championships, looked away for just a moment to gather himself. “This one really means a lot because for me, this was validation. It was about sending a really strong message to the business community, and to the government in New Zealand: ‘You guys need to respect gaming and gaming culture as a very critical industry that deserves respect, that deserves recognition, and that deserves support.’”
Three years after it was born, Flesh and Blood is going strong, and White wants you to know that there is a place in this community for you, too.
In Flesh and Blood, players take on the role of fantasy warriors engaged in head-to-head combat. Players declare what weapons and armor they’ll use before a game even begins, and then draw a small hand each round from a deck of moves. These moves are then played, together with your opponent’s moves, in the center of the table. These cards form what is called “the combat chain,” and that’s where the real action happens.
Along the combat chain, players trade melee blows, defensive strikes, offensive spells, and other moves to foil their opponents’ strategies, break their guard, and do damage. Where a game of Magic can feel like two powerful wizards squaring off from distant mountain tops, throwing titanic spells into the valley beneath them, Flesh and Blood feels far more intimate. To name-drop another famous battle that also took place in New Zealand, if a game of Magic tells the story of the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, Flesh and Blood zooms in on just the fight between Éowyn and the Witch-king of Angmar. And for White, that sense of intimacy was the entire point of creating the game in the first place.
“People typically have work, they have home, and then they have a third place,” White said. “For some people there’s a sports club, or it’s church, or it’s the pub, or maybe it’s like a music club or something like that. But for gamers — for tabletop gamers — traditionally it’s been the local game store.”
When he was a teenager, White’s local game store played a big role in his life. It’s where he made his best friends, people he could rely on to help him out when he was in a jam. Later, as Magic began to grow into more of a corporate machine with dozens of releases each year, he began to worry that the fixture of a local game store might be on the decline. That’s partly why in 2012 he began developing Flesh and Blood.
We have our first #fabtcg World Champion!! In an intense battle Michael Hamilton has come out victorious against Christopher Iaali.
Michael was the World #1 Ranked Player coming into this event, is the reigning US National Champion and has won two Callings, and a Battle Hardened. pic.twitter.com/lqAh9PhldC
— Flesh and Blood (@fabtcg) November 7, 2022
“The local game store still played a really important role in my life,” White said. “It kept me grounded and surrounded by good people. […] I’ve worked with other publishers in the past in the TCG space, and I started and operated a national distribution company, distributing pretty much everything other than Magic in New Zealand. What I started to observe was this trend to migrate customers and fans out of the local game stores and onto the online platforms. And don’t get me wrong, technology is great, and online gaming is great. But I really started to notice and feel like we were eroding that function of the local game stores serving as these community hubs.”
That’s where the name for Flesh and Blood came from, in fact — it’s a game that can only be played in person, one that White vows will never have an online version.
“I actually decided I want to try and do something to preserve that culture,” White said. “Going down to the store on a Friday night or Saturday and catching up with your mates, and meeting new people, and forming these local communities.”
The growth of Flesh and Blood communities, combined with the lack of a digital implementation, has created a diverse and thriving competitive circuit — but also a very healthy ecosystem of stores and dedicated casual players, White said. Today, as the game’s next major expansion goes up for sale, different parts of the world are playing the game very differently. Singapore and Southeast Asian countries, for instance, favor draconic warriors like Fai and Dromai. Meanwhile, devotees in Poland favor Bravo and Viserai.
On one hand, that means Legend Story’s lore team is doing the hard work of making its game appealing to players from different cultures. It also means that when players from those different cultures meet in the real world, the different techniques that have emerged in each local scene go head-to-head. Different heroes and different strategies are constantly coming together in competitive tournaments — the results of which actually change the future course of the game.
“When a hero wins a premiere event,” White said, “they get a certain number of Living Legend points. The more prestigious the event, the more Living Legend points are up for stake. When a hero gets to 1,000 Living Legend points, they become a Living Legend. Essentially, they’re retired [from the game], inducted into the Hall of Fame, and you can no longer use that particular hero anymore.”
All of the other cards — including weapons, armor, attacks, and spells — stay in the mix, waiting for the next new hero to literally take up the mantle and wield them in battle once again.
“That’s how we kind of create this evolving, dynamic, flexing metagame,” White said. “You get this metagame where there’s constantly a new level of heroes rising to the top, and then where the holes end up being — because a certain type of hero becomes a Living Legend — we can introduce a new kind of variant of that hero in the future.”
It’s a novel way of rotating cards out of the game, but it’s one that White feels is more equitable for players and collectors alike.
“We want our fans to have utility of their collection,” White said, rather than asking them to chase after the newest, rarest cards on an annual basis. It’s a business model that rewards players for their devotion, one that incentivizes them going forward with new opportunities rather than simply the fear of missing out. White hopes that kind of attention to detail will help the game continue to earn new fans well into the future.
Flesh and Blood’s latest release, titled Dynasty, goes up for sale on Friday. You can find it — where else? — at your local game store.