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Deckbuilding Expansion: Ascension, Part Four: From Elements to Ancients

Ascension Core GameAscension continues to be one of the most popular deckbuilders out there. So, following in the footsteps of my previous articles, A Deckbuilding Look at Ascension (#1), Deckbuilding Expansion: Ascension, Part One — From Chronicle to Heroes (#2-4), Deckbuilding Expansion: Ascension, Part Two — From Vigil to Champions (#5-8), and Deckbuilding Expansion: Ascension, Part Three: From Dreamscape to Shadows (#9-10),  I’m looking at sets 11 and 12, to see how they changed the game, for better or for worse, and how they ended a second era of Ascension, that had big ideas (almost) every time.


Set Eleven: Gift of the Elements

The eleventh Ascension set turned out to be a very traditional one, repeating and innovating old mechanics. As such, it turns out to be a set that can be combined with almost anything, which is nice given Ascension’s move away from the block structure.

New Mechanics — Empower & Infest. OK, Gift of the Elements does actually have some totally new mechanics, but they’re pretty minor. Empower is a keyword on cards that lets you banish a card you play when you acquire the Empower card. Infest is a keyword on monsters that lets you place them in someone else’s deck, where they take up space like a traditional Curse in Dominion.

How It Works — Infest. Ascension has always had a minor element of PvP combat, mostly focused on rewards when monsters are killed. Gift of the Elements nicely complements that with its Infest. It’s monster oriented like the PvP in previous sets, but it goes to the core of deckbuilding, because you’re trying to wreck someone else’s deck by filling it with dross.

This type of “Curse” mechanic can be quite frustrating in some deckbuilders, but it’s sufficiently bounded in Gift of the Elements that this doesn’t tend to be the case. You can only “Curse” if a specific Infesting monster comes out (of which there are 13, four of which continue moving around afterward), so you’re more likely to slightly water down someone’s plays rather than create entirely useless turns.

How It Works — Empower. And Empower can actually offset that, by giving players another option to banish cards. But it goes beyond that: it makes deck filtering somewhat easier, allowing players to focus more on the strategy of deckbuilding than the tactics of individual turns. Finally, Empower manages the trick of encouraging players to take fairly mediocre 1-cost cards. Because they tend to have the Empower keyword, they’re usually replacing an Apprentice or a Militia, so it’s still a step up.

There’s one other pseudo-new-mechanic that goes hand in hand with Empower: a few cards give additional bonuses if banished “from anywhere”. That gives players more tactical possibilities for their Empower acquisitions, and shows how nicely a design can link together a lot of minor mechanics into something that changes the overall strategy of a game.

Revamped Mechanics — Events & Transformation. Along with those pretty minor additions, Gift of the Elements also brings back two classic mechanics. Events appeared back in Block One (2010-2011), while Transformations were originally keyed off energy in Block Three (2013), then returned to be keyed off factions and honor gains in Set Seven, Realms Unravelled (2014). Gift of the Elements cleverly combines the mechanics by introducing events that also can be transformed into a card if a player pays a big sum (8 runes or 8 power) for them!

How It Works — Transformation Events. The events in Gift of the Elements have notable effects, giving free card draws, free Runes, and free Power. That’s the sort of thing you want for an adjacent game element like the events, because they’re big enough that people won’t forget them.

Beyond that, I adore the fact that Ascension figured out a third, very different way to do Transformations … but I’m not convinced it’s successful. First, the transformations are easy to forget since players are excited about buying things in the Center Row, and second … they’re really powerful. It’s great giving rewards for the tough task of getting 8 Runes or Power in a single turn, but some of these transformed cards can end the game, particularly the transformed Cetra, Celestial Body, which gives Honor for all the Honor values in the center row, something that I’ve seen score over 20 points from a single play(!). Nothing else is quite that powerful, but acquiring all the Constructs (Forgemaster Reysa) or taking 2 Honor from each player (Emri, Born of Battle), which is an 8-point swing against everyone in a four-player game, can also be pretty game changing.

Overall, Gift of the Elements is a nicely designed set that’s also quite traditional and so could easily be a great third box for new players after Chronicle of the Godslayer and Return of the Fallen. That’s a nice return to simple form for an eleventh set.


Set Twelve: Valley of the Ancients

Ascension Valley of the AncientsThe twelfth Ascension set returns to introducing notable New Mechanics — here new resources, new victory-point cards, and new keywords. Whew! None of them are particularly connected.

New Mechanics — Keystones & Temples. The new resource is the keystone. It is earned via certain cards, and like almost every other resource in Ascension is ephemeral. The first time a player gets a Death keystone, they can turn it in for the Temple of Death, which originally comes from the supply and later is taken from the current holder. Additional Death keystones while a player is already holding the Temple allow them to banish a card and take the Temple of Immortality. Similarly, the first Life keystone gives a player the Temple of Life and additional ones give them 2 Runes and the Temple of Immortality.

And the Temple of Immortality? If a player is holding it, he can Rally one Faction each turn: if they acquire a card of that faction and that same faction refills in the Center Row, they take the new card too. Ad Infinitum. (Curiously, the Temple of Immortality doesn’t use the Rally keyword.)

Oh, and all the Temples are worth Victory Points: 5 for the lesser temples and 10 for the Temple of Immortality.

How It Works — Keystones & Temples. The Temples feel like a great mechanic that just doesn’t work out. That’s in large part due to randomness. First, only about a quarter of the cards grant keystones, and they’re usually tied to a secondary requirement (like one of the new keywords or a more traditional requirement, such as killing monsters or uniting). That means that a player might find himself in a situation where he can’t practically earn one or other keystone, which is a big disadvantage.

Beyond that, the Temples create a huge, chaotic swing. There’s no way to stop another player from grabbing a temple from you, and if they do, it creates a 10-point swing for the lesser temples and a 20-point swing for the Temple of Immortality. Games are sometimes won simply on who gets to go last.

Presumably, the goal here was to create more player interaction, just like the Infest in Garden of the Elements. And, there was probably another goal of creating an orthogonal way to deckbuild, as players could now collect cards that granted one keystone or the other. But with the randomness underlying both that collection and that interaction, the result wasn’t necessarily fun.

New Mechanics — Echo. The Echo keyword grants additional special abilities on a card if there’s a card of the same faction in the discard pile.

New Mechanics — Serenity. The Serenity keywords grants additional special abilities on a card if there are no cards in the discard pile.

How It Works Echo & Serenity. These new keywords feel like they’re quite similar because they both force players to focus on their discard piles. But, they really couldn’t be more different. The Echo mechanic is both strategic and tactical. It encourages players to focus on factions (strategically), but it can also be used tactically if a player purchases a card of the faction just before playing the Echo. On the other hand, Serenity is almost pure luck. Oh, there are a very small minority of cards that can be used to empty discards, and maybe a player might occasionally need to think about when they purchase a card and when they force a reshuffle, but those are rare enough that the Serenity mechanic mainly feels luck-based (and when it’s not, it’s usually just an arbitrary set of actions to set up the discard pile correctly).

Overall, the Temples and the Keystones make this supplement feel unwieldy and awkward, let alone the huge swinginess of Temple control. They make it one of the less desirable supplements, in my opinion, which is a pity given the interesting new Keywords.

Conclusion

In retrospect, I think Sets 9-12 represented Ascension getting its feet under it as it figured out how to produce singular sets of cards. As I noted when I wrote about sets 9 and 10, they each had a big concept (even if one of those big concepts was returning to great classic mechanics) and some of those big concepts worked better than the others: Dreamscape (#9) continues to be well-loved, but War of the Shadows (#10) is usually too finicky to play in person; Gift of the Elements (#11) was a strong return to form, while Valley of the Ancient (#12) introduced new mechanics that seemed like more trouble than they were worth. I saluted the innovation when I wrote about the previous sets, but now I’m a little tired of a 50% hit-to-miss ratio.

But Ascension was also at a turning point, where they were about to return to more classic mechanics in totally new ways and then more massively renovate the game than ever before. Perhaps those next sets managed to figure out the success of the innovative Dreamscape and the classic Gift of the Elements, because they seem to be more consistently enjoyed than the series of sets from 9 to 12.

But that’s the topic for the next article.

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The original article can be found on the great Mechanics & Meeples