Two weeks ago I took a look at the first four Ascension sets, examining the mechanics of each.
In this article, I’m continuing that journey by looking at the most recent four sets — from Rise of Vigil through Dawn of the Champions. I’ll be examining how they influenced the Ascension game and deckbuilding in general. In doing so, I’ll be bringing Ascension up to date — and perhaps I can repeat this exercise in another 2-3 years.
Block Three: Vigil & Darkness (2013)
These two sets also used a simple model for introducing new mechanics: a major mechanic appeared in Rise of Vigil (Energize), and then was ever-so-slightly adjusted in Darkness Unleashed, which also saw a new and related mechanic (Transformation).
New Mechanic — Energy Shards & Energize. Rise of Vigil introduced a third type of currency, energy, which is available through new Energy Shard cards. Instead of being used to buy cards, this new currency is used to activate additional powers on cards. It also works in an unusual way: energy isn’t permanently expended, but instead can be used to power all cards that had an energy threshold equal to (or less than) what the player had available that turn.
Darkness Unleashed then adds a variant sort of Energy Shard: the Dark Energy Shard. This was just a minor change: Dark Energy Shards include a Fate effect (harking back to Block One) that allows all players to filter out a card.
How It Works – Energy Shards. Having even two currencies in a card game is pretty tricky. Thus in Ascension it’s quite possible to muddy your hand if you mix the currencies of Power and Runes too much. Similarly, it’s quite possible to block up the center row if it fills with a type of card that no one can buy because they don’t have the right currency. So how do you add a third currency without totally breaking the game?
Gary did everything he could to make sure that Energy Shards wouldn’t take over space that should house Power or Runes. First, he turned them into a new sort of card — a Treasure — which doesn’t take up a space in the center row. Instead, other things get stacked on it. Second, he also made sure it doesn’t take up a space in your hand. Each Energy Shard card also lets you draw a new card — which again repeats the “surprise” factor that Gary is so fond of.
Unfortunately, the Energy Shards have one big draw back that resulted from them being such a wallflower. You can stack a bunch of them in a single center row space — continuing to draw until you get something that isn’t a Treasure. This can be a big stroke of luck for the next player, who buys whatever is on top of it, and gets a bunch of free Energy as a reward at no cost to him. Because of its various random elements, Ascension has always been sort of swingy. Adding even more swinginess can be problematic.
Having already learned that people don’t play Ascension in the blocks that they recommend, Stoneblade included more Energy Shards than were necessary, and specific rules for how many to add to a game based on how many sets were being used. Progress!
How It Works – Energize. The Energize effect is a nice addition to the game, because it allows the cards to have variable powers, based on a player’s overall card draw. Having cards that work differently in different circumstances is a nice addition to the deckbuilder milieu, and one that creates tactical depth.
New Mechanic — Transformation. With the advent of Darkness Unleashed, some cards gained a very specific Energize effect: if powered up, the cards transform, permanently becoming a more powerful version of themselves.
How It Works — Transformation. So how do you permanently change a card in your deck?
Well, sort of. By default, Ascension uses a simple methodology for its transformations: you remove the original card and set it aside, then you replace it with a new card. However, the designers of Ascension also know that many players use card sleeves. In fact, card sleeving is probably more prevelent with Ascension than most other deckbuilders because of its Magic: The Gathering crossover.
Though some card sleeves are simple, transparent sleeves, some have opaque backs. If you use this type of sleeve, then Darkness Unleashed provides you with an alternate to card-swapping: it includes double-sided copies of the transformable cards. You buy them on their basic side, but if they’re transformed, you just flip them over and replace them in your (opaque-backed) sleeve. Presto! Chango! It’s enough to make me wish that I sleeved my cards.
As for the mechanic itself: I love it. Thunderstone (2009) touched upon this idea first with its upgradable characters, but not many deckbuilders have repeated the idea. Which is a darn shame, because it’s a great mechanic. It’s a way to transform the single dimension of deckbuilding that’s supported through buying cards and turn it into a two-dimension activity where you buy and upgrade cards. I’d like to see it more.
The success of Block Three mainly centers on what you think of Energy Shards. If you think they cause too much swinginess, you won’t be a fan. Otherwise, Block Three has some great variations for the game thanks to its Energize powers and its Transformations — which together will create a totally different sort of gameplay.
Block Four-ish: Realms & Champions (2014-2015)
After the release of Block Three, Stoneblade decided to do away with their small boxes. The development work was too high for the return; it made more sense to only make big boxes. This probably marks the end of their block structure as well, but Stoneblade has said that each box will still share some elements in common with the previous one.
There have been two releases since: Realms Unraveled (2014) and Dawn of Champions (2015). Stoneblade has said that they’re intended to work well together, so they’re going in my personal collection as the fourth Block — which is also how I’m talking about them here.
Revamped Mechanic — Transformation. The idea of Transformation carries over into Realms Unravelled from Darkness Unleashed, but there’s no more energy, so Transformation follows a different methodology. Now, some other in-game effect (like gaining Honor or playing specific cards) causes the Transformation.
How It Works — Transformation. It’s nice see how carefully Stoneblade thinks about their mechanics — that they recognize that each mechanic is made up of multiple parts. Here we had a mechanic (Transformation) differentiated from its input (either Energy or other effects). The result works well — perhaps even better than the original Transformations, because it’s better integrated into the game’s standard mechanisms.
New Mechanic — Multi-Unite. Block Two had the “Unite” mechanic, which gave you a bonus when you played more than one Lifebound card. Realms Unravelled introduces “Multi-Unite”, which applies to all of the factions, and which gives you a bonus every time you play a card from the same faction.
How It Works — Multi-Unite. The Multi-Unite mechanic is somewhat troubled by its name: for casual players, it’s confusing figuring out the difference between Unite and Multi-Unite, because they sound like the same thing. (Actually, it’s confusing for me too.) The mechanic also notably increases complexity, because it’s something you have to account for every time you play another card.
On the other hand, this was the new mechanic to generally encourage building coherent, consistent decks. You certainly might have focused on Mechana Constructs or Uniting Lifebound in previous sets, but the Multi-Unite mechanic extends the idea to all four factions.
New Mechanic — Multifaction. The only new mechanic to carry from Realms Unravelled to Dawn of Champions is the Multifaction card. These are cards that are members of two different factions (such as an Enlightened Mechana card). They were limited to Heroes in Realms Unravelled (and there weren’t a lot of them) but then Dawn of Champions included multifaction Constructs and Monsters as well.
How It Works — Multifaction. In Realms Unravelled, the Multifaction cards were something of a curiosity. They helped out some Transformations and some Multi-Unites, but they didn’t seem like a big deal. It wasn’t entirely clear what their purpose was. Then Dawn of Champions came along, and it had a few new mechanics that made those Multifactions really important: Champions and Rally.
New Mechanic — Champion. The Champion is a card that goes to each player, and that ties him in to one of the four factions. Each one rewards a player for acquiring or defeating cards of his factions or for spending Runes. The rewards come in the form of a character card (which is just a new card added to your deck) and the Rally power for your faction.
How It Works — Champion. Very few deckbuilders give out character cards to differentiate players: Penny Arcade (2011) is one of the scant exceptions until you get to really far-flung deckbuilders like Pathfinder Adventure Card Game (2013). It’s a shame because it’s a mechanic that works great to drive deck development and to keep it moving in different ways for different players. I generally feel like widely differentiated player strategies help to keep games diverse and interesting, and character cards are a great step toward that.
In the case of Dawn of Champions, the Champions serve to direct players to each specialize in one of the four factions of cards (much as Multi-Unite does, also in this pseudo-Block). I wouldn’t want every game of Ascension to be about factionalized deck construction, but it’s a nice variation for a single Block of play.
New Mechanic — Rally. The Rally mechanic affects play when a player acquires or defeats a card in the center row. If the card is replaced with another that meets a Rally requirement, then the player also acquires that next card. Possibly Ad Infinitum. So, for example, the Champions each have a Rally power for their faction. Thus, whenever a Dharta player with the Rally: Enlightened power takes an Enlightened card, if the card that replaces it is Enlightened, he gets that too. Some regular cards that aid acquisition also have a Rally power, while quite a few monsters do as well. Most are “Rally: Some Faction”, but a few are “Rally: Monster”.
How It Works — Rally. This is certainly the most controversial mechanic of Dawn of Champions. The problem is that the Rally can be unbounded. Much as with the Energy Shards, this can increase the swinginess of the game in a way that’s not necessarily desirable.
On the upside, Rally does the same thing as many of the mechanics in pseudo-Block Four: it increases the advantage of going after a specific faction of card (making pseudo-Block Four all around unique).
On a whole, pseudo-Block Four turns out to be a very innovative Block, but also one plagued by increased randomness. That makes it all the more important to put the two sets together because it makes the strong Rallies of Dawn of Champions a little less powerful, as both multifaction cards and Rally cards are spread out more when you add in Realms Unravelled. (This also has the advantage of making the weird addendum of the multifaction cards in Realms Unravelled seem more important.)
I find these last four sets of Ascension to be a bit more uneven than the first four. On the upside you have mechanics that are more creative and that do a better job of stretching the design space of Ascension, ensuring that the game remains one folks want to play. On the downside, the swinginess of three of the four sets (everything but Realms Unravelled) detracts from being able to play serious and balanced games of Ascension. So, is it worth it or not? That’s your call, but the increased swinginess represents a clear line you can draw between the Ascension blocks that I wrote about last time and the ones that I wrote about this time.
Though I’ve grouped the eight Ascension sets to date into their four Blocks and advocated playing them that way, it’s certainly not the only way to play Ascension games. You might instead decide to mix in cards based on your preferred styles of play.
Here’s a quick guide to some of the major Ascension mechanical styles and which sets contain them.
The Complexity Mechanics. These are the mechanics that create more thoughtful and tactical turns that are also longer. They’re better for experienced players than for beginners: Trophy Monsters (Storm of Souls, Immortal Heroes), Soul Gems (Immortal Heroes), Energize (Rise of Vigil, Darkness Unleashed), Multi-Unite (Realms Unravelled), Rally (Dawn of Champions). If you’re trying to avoid Complexity, it seems best to play the first Block or else just Storm of Souls from the Second Block. After that, complexity starts to increase.
The Creative Mechanics. These are the mechanics that best expand the design space of the Ascension game. They’re for people looking for more variability in their games: Events (Storm of Souls, Immortal Heroes), Energize with Transformation (Darkness Unleashed), Champions (Dawn of Champions). To enjoy the most creative mechanics, it seems important to play with the entirety of Block Two or Block Three — or else Dawn of Champions (with another set or not, as you see fit).
The Faction Mechanics. These are the mechanics that support the building of coherent decks: Unite (Storm of Souls, Immortal Heroes), Multi-Unite (Realms Unravelled), Champions (Dawn of Champions), Rally (Dawn of Champions). Obviously, you’ll get the most play of this sort of you play all of pseudo-Block Four.
The Swingy Mechanics. These are the mechanics that can introduce a lot of randomness to the game: Energy Shards (Rise of Vigil, Darkness Unleashed), Rally (Dawn of Champions). If you’re leery of your game being too random, you should avoid all of the most recent four sets other than Realms Unravelled.
The Surprise Mechanics. These are mechanics that go to Justin Gary’s core ideals of minimizing programmed play. They do so by introducing random results in the middle of your turn that could change your tactics: Fate (Return of the Fallen), Events (Storm of Souls, Immortal Heroes), Soul Gem (Immortal Heroes), Energy Shards (Rise of Vigil, Darkness Unleashed). Basically, you find extended surprise in every set except the original and the recent sets in pseudo-Block Four.
And that concludes my look at the Ascension boxes to date. Because of its colorful themes and its careful mechanics, Ascension remains my favorite of the deckbuilders other than the very different Pathfinder: Adventure Card Game. I hope to see another four sets in the next couple of years, so I can write another article like this!