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Friday, July 14, 2017

Ascension War of Shadows

A year ago more or less at Origins Stone Blade Entertainment released Ascension X: War of Shadows. I knew that it would come out one day but I had no idea when that would be available here (and so far still hasn't seem a copy of the game). There is also a way how to play the game online and since the iOS version is way better than the Steam version I tried to run that one.

Ascension the game

If you are unfamiliar with Ascension the game here is a description I wrote for my review of one earlier Ascension games.

Ascension has a very simple rules and can be setup really fast. Each player gets a starting deck containing ten cards. There is a central row which contains a pool of cards from which you either buy cards or defeat monsters. After a card is bought or destroyed a new card fills the vacant slot. To buy a card you need a certain amount of Runes. To defeat a monster you need Power. Your starting deck contains 8 Apprentices (Runes) and 2 Militia (Power). You start the game with five cards.

On your turn you can buy anything as long as you have runes and you can also defeat monsters as long as you have Power. At the end of each turn you discard the remaining cards you did not use and draw 5 new cards.

In the center row there are three types of cards - Heroes, Constructs and Monsters. Constructs, after being played, stay in play. Monsters can be defeated in order to gain a reward. Heroes are one time effects that can be used on the turn they are played.

Each player has access to some common cards - Mystics, Heavy Infantry and Cultist. The first two are unaligned Hero type cards that give you Runes (Mystic) or Power (Infantry). Cultist is a monster that can be defeated if you have at least two power (you gain one honor when you defeat him).

The game ends when a pool (depends on the number of players) of Honor points is depleted.

When the game ends each player counts the number of honor points they have (cards in your deck have them and you also get them after defeating a monster).The player who gets the most points wins the game.

Ascension: War of Shadows - Components

  • Cards (177)
  • 50 Honor tokens
  • Game board
  • Rules

Ascension X: War of Shadows

Ascension: War of Shadows is the tenth game in the series suited for 1 to 4 players. Each new set brings new mechanics and this one is not an exception. There are two new things - Day and Night mechanic and dual-cost of heroes/constructs.

Day and Night mechanic

The cards in the center deck are either Day cards or Night cards. Day cards have a white/gold border with an icon of a sun on them, night cards have black/silverish border with a crescent moon icon. Some of the cards have different effects during the Day and Night. There are three states though (not just two) - Day, neither Day or Night, Night. If there is more Day cards in the center row, it is Day and you can use the Day effects. If there is more Night cards it is Night and thus can use the Night effects. If the number is the same, it's neither and none of the Night or Day effects can be used.

If one starts to buy control cards for a construct base deck, they need Day to make the constructs work. If this is achieved this deck can't be stopped by any means. Other decks do not rely on Day or Night that much and thus one can look at it Night and Day effects as nice bonuses. These don't usually turn the game around unless something like this happens (that was my turn 1). There are two cards (one for Day and one for Night) in the set that can be acquired/defeated using alternate cost. Ta'hyr the Sun can be acquired for free when all cards in the center row are Day cards.

Constantly checking the Night/Day can be straining at first because one needs to get used to it. Using Day/Night to your advantage and using it to make things worse for your opponent is quite tactical and the timing of playing cards and acquiring cards is important. Sometimes it is better to risk to gain the effect of a card later (keep it in hand) and sometimes it is better to play safe and play the card. This depends on the overall power level of the cards having Night/Day effect.

Dual-cost
Next new change is that some cards have a cost that requires the player to spend both Runes and Power to acquire a card. This is a feature I liked since it makes Heavy Infantries more relevant early game and not just for mid- to lategame. This creates a different balance between the Rune heavy decks, usually control decks and Power heavy decks that were fast aggro decks. The balance of Runes/Power in each set is different. In the first game it was the Power deck in favor, in Storm of Souls there was a good balance. In this game the balance is taken to a different level but is more dependent on the actual cards and their power level (or how they were acquired).

1 Power Monster
This isn't a new feature like the dual-cost or Day/Night but is notable change. This is one thing that the previous Ascensions really lacked. The cheapest Monster was Cultist but for that one needs 2 Power. This way the singleton Militia that ends up in your hand can be used. In this set it's not that relevant since there you have more use for Power than in the previous sets. I find the addition of this Monster a good thing though and hope there will be more of these in the future.

My experience

The changes done in this version are nice and I like them. Tracking of Night/Day in paper means either moving Day cards little but up and Night cards down (as drawn on the game board) or just looking at it and figuring it out without any help. Both of this can make the game a bit longer than usual game of Ascension.

Dual-cost cards make you, the player, count more. For people like me who have problems with basic numbers it can become a problem. Keeping track of one number is easy and natural, but keeping track of two numbers can be difficult at some point when you need to sequence acquiring certain cards and defeating certain monsters. For me playing Ascension is already tiring and this makes it exhausting sometimes (this is a hyperbole but both of these things are to be considered depending on how good you/your group are at these things, not usual 'skills' needed)

As for deckbuilding. I probably still haven't explored everything. The set seems to be limited in cards (even though it's a big one). So during a relatively short games you end up seeing the same cards over and over unlike in some of the bigger sets when this doesn't necessarily happen. This also means that the number of combinations is limited and the fact that some cards are seriously over powered doesn't help this because they get the priority to be acquired/defeated because they are a win condition on their own (Legion of Aklys, Vyrak, the First). These cards still require a certain strategy used or deck tweaked but it is a relatively simple thing to do, compared to a whole deck built.

When I first played the game I tended to play a heavy construct deck because it seemed the best way to win the game. The deck would then either try to buy Night cards in order to keep Day 'online' or acquired Shade Converter that allowed its controller if they had 3 or more constructs in play to treat their turn as Day. The players I played against just got terribly crushed by his strategy and that wasn't a good sign because it was suggesting the game is unbalanced. For that when I started to play with my flatmate that tends to play these kind of decks I tried to beat him with a different kind of a deck (aggro). I had no idea how the deck should look like though. Usually Lifebound/Void combination was good at this, sometimes Enlightened cards were capable of accelerating such a deck. In this set though Lifebound/Void is not fast enough and does not generate bigger amounts of honor points constantly nor it is capable of producing a lot of honor in the last few turns (not even with Deadeye Assassin in a the deck). Enlightenment on the other hand can really be the fastest deck.

I wasn't really successful with my strategies fighting against good players who played this kind of a control deck so I started to play against the AI on iOS version of the game to explore more decks. Usually I won by 5-10 points which wasn't a result I wanted to see because this could easily mean I'd lose to a random Day/Night effect for example or just the fact that someone ended the game a turn sooner (against human players I mean). When I played my first few games against the AI I was surprised to actually lose (doesn't happen in other sets). This suggested that my understanding of the set is either wrong or the set is truly unbalanced (note I was pushing non-Mechana strategies). In the end I tried a different strategy that I avoided right from the beginning because I didn't like it. I started with getting few Heavy Infantries and cards like Bringer of Hope and Shrine Attendant (Arha Historian and Searing Askara are cards I instantly liked but Bringer of Hope didn't seem good to me at all, I didn't realize the tempo swing though). I added some Void cards to the mix and occasional Lifebound card like Marsh Ranger and finally started winning by 50-70 points. It didn't make much sense to me because in my eyes this was not supposed to work but it did. This was a good wake up call to go back and review the set and see if I can't find other strategies I dismissed because they couldn't possibly keep up with Mechana control.

I had to reevaluate all the cards in the set in context and forget about past experience gained. For example Inspired Templar effect was very solid in the previous Ascension games but not in this one. Banishing cards which was often stellar or very much needed feels totally different. There is only one deck that really needs it and often having 3 cards that can banish other cards is too many. In many games I nervously stare at my deck because I know there is too few of them (in what other Ascension did this ever happen, in none). Ironically in this set 'the more cards you can get' is actually often better. I mean the original 'the more cards the more diluted deck' is still valid but we can experience huge swings that are often the result of acquiring a bigger amount of cards in one turn and being able to play them.

Searing Askara is by far my favorite card. It is one of the true control cards while gaining value which seems to be a very good card and it turned out to be even better than in the previous sets. The reason is that the dual-cost cards create a certain imbalance. If you are a Magic player and ever cast Bust with Goblin Dark-Dwellers or via Brain in a Jar you probably can see what I mean. The problem with this was that cards asking for a mana cost could check one half of a split card while playing the other half. This way Goblin Dark-Dwellers could play Bust which is way stronger effect than destroying a target land (2 lands) vs all lands. Similarly in Ascension the dual-cost cards with rune cost being 3 and lower are checked as cost 3 and lower. This means that a card like Isha, the Pursuer can be acquired with Searing Askara. That is a hell of a value compared to let's say Mystic. I also find Marsh Ranger to be a very solid card that should cost 6 and certainly shouldn't be allowed to be acquired with Searing Askara.

Verdict

So far I still can't make up my mind about this version. While I knew instantly I wouldn't be a fan of Rise of Vigil, I can't make up my mind about this one. I liked the game when I played it the first time, liked it even after long hours of our trip to a Grand Prix far away and I still enjoyed the games I played with my flatmate. There were times of frustration I didn't experience in the previous versions, not even in Rise of Vigil (I don't like it because I find it too swingy). I have difficulties evaluating the power of cards and seeing a good deck, or rather the deck that I expected to be broken, actually is. This makes it less enjoyable for me because I don't feel like picking cards at random or facing the same deck all the time. I'm usually very good at seeing the whole picture and knowing what to play. From those possibilities I chose the ones I like usually and play those. War of Shadows though doesn't give me that much of a freedom to choose something I like in this case and for that I will have to give the game a rating of 3 out of 5. The game is still solid, offers a nice change and offers enough depth and complexity to keep a player interested. I find this set rather unbalanced primarily due to the dual-costed cards and some cards that really stand out with their effects.

It is the most unique Ascension game out there but its uniqueness alone doesn't make it the best game which could possibly result in the love or hate scenarios. I'm torn somewhere in between. Due to its uniqueness and difficulty of tracking other stuff (runes/power/day/night) I wouldn't recommend it to new Ascension players. If you are considering trying out Ascension the game it's always the best to start with the base set - Ascension: Chronicle of the God. The following block (Storm of Souls, Immortal Heroes) is very good. The complexity is already very high but the game is still very similar to the first block (Chronicle of the God, Return of the Fallen). If you want to play a more unique version of Ascension and you are not familiar that much with Ascension I'd go for Dreamscape which is easy to play but has a lot of depth on various levels (and if needed these can be omitted, not playing on a higher level won't punish the player and has quite high variance). War of Shadows is way more compact and everything is more entwined. This means that a new player trying to figure out one aspect of the game won't be able to concentrate on another aspect that is needed in conjunction to the first one. I don't really know how to describe this but it is something that is certainly not beginner friendly, it requires a quite vast understanding of how this deckbuilding game works and seeing many things at once. The games are fast (in terms of turns) and solid plan has to be executed right from the beginning and requires a different skill set. There is no 1-3 turn set up to start doing something like in the previous games. One could say the games are more intense (or condensed?). A player can get punished for his misplays in this game (if you are wondering how a player can misplay in the first place don't attempt playing this before you get familiar with the first 4 Ascensions at least, or just don't play with players that have years of experience). Ironically this version of the game seems to have less depth than Dreamscape though due to this. It is a very good base for an expansion that can quite easily make this version a way better one though. On the other hand I do not see this version mix well with other sets even though there are cards I'd happily put in my cube (that I can hardly fit in the box it is in now).

Rating: 3/5