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Getting Better: Ascension, one card at a time

This is a column that helps you get better at your favorite games. Whether it's knowing the odds to draw black trains that are left in the deck in Ticket to Ride, or understanding the ramifications of picking a Rocket Courier X-99 early in a game of Ascension, if you're looking to gain an edge over your friends, this is the column for you.

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If you're a fan of Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer, you know that it's a wonderful game with a staggering amount of replayability. Ascension: Return of the Fallen is the first small expansion, with Ascension: Storm of Souls on the way. In the world of the iPad, however, where you can rather delightfully play the game all day and all night against players from around the world, the game is back at base camp, using the original set of cards found in Chronicle.

If you've played a lot, you know that even getting past the first level of AI can take some time, and the second level of AI can be a real challenge. Then you find yourself going out into the online community, and unless you're a TCG champion, chances are you spend a long time getting destroyed by people who appear to be playing a completely different game to you. It's fast, it's brutal, there are very few mistakes, and you soon realize that there's an awful lot to learn.

This article series is designed to help improve your game. It won't deliver you every answer, but if you're relatively new to the world of deck building games, or are finding winning at Ascension a bit of a struggle, you're in the right place.

Fundamental to success in the game is an understanding of what each card is, and does, and can do for you. It might be helpful to read this with your iPad open, as I'll be wading through the card gallery to talk about the cards as we go along. Let's start with the Common cards:

(R - Runes, P - Power, H - Honor)

Militia - 1P

Heavy Infantry - 2P

Apprentice - 1R

Mystic - 2R

Cultist - Monster. 2R, Reward: 1H

Militia and Apprentices make up your starting deck, and are cards you're going to be happy to get rid of very early in the game, as they quickly become roadblocks to getting powerful hands, and therefore powerful turns. You only have two Militia to start with, and these are usually the first to go, unless there's a heavy Monster presence on the center row. You will often have a choice early in the game when you have 4R / 1P as your resources, leaving you to choose between two Heavy Infantry costing 2R each, or spending 3R to get a single Mystic and then 'wasting' the fourth point. This is generally a choice about where the center row is right now, or where your deck is heading in the future. If you've got a couple of constructs on the early turns - perhaps a Burrower Mark II and a Rocket Courier X-99, then you might want to get a Mystic to up your Rune count. If there are a couple of juicy monsters, something like a Wind Tyrant (which usually is a big early turn), you might prefer the Heavy Infantry route.

Finally, the Cultist. Almost everyone regards the Cultist as the thing you kill when you can't kill anything else. While that's true most of the time, there are occasions when you will deliberately leave better monsters in the center row and kill the Cultist instead. One example would be when you know your opponent has invested heavily in Runes, and you want to keep as many Monsters in the center row as possible, knowing that your opponent will struggle to deal with them, and therefore struggle to get new cards into the center row. An extension of this idea is when they've got a solid collection of Constructs, and are looking for either a Hedron Link Device or Hedron Cannon to complete their machine. At that point, you want as few cards as possible leaving the center row. Let them keep wasting their bonus Runes that can only be used to buy Mechana constructs.

Let's move on to the ten Enlightened cards:

Arha Initiate - 1R. Enlightened Hero. Draw a card. 1H.

There's almost nothing to dislike about the Initiate. It only costs 1R, so you'll frequently have that left over in the early game when you've spent 3R on a Mystic or another three-cost card. It doesn't clog up your deck, since it 'cycles' (meaning it instantly replaces itself). You get a point of Honor from it at the end of the game, and in the last couple of turns when you're no longer trying to improve your deck, but just to get as many Honor into the deck as possible, a straight 1R for 1H is perfect efficiency. The only thing to be careful of is when you take it in the later turns (maybe turn 10 onwards) and you run the risk of letting something truly monstrous onto the center row, ready for your opponent to scoop it up and collect a lot of points. That's especially true if they're heavy on Constructs, but also if there are still a lot of high-point Monsters left in the deck. In general, though, the Initiate is something you'll rarely pass up.

Arha Templar - 4R. Enlightened Hero. Defeat a Monster that has 4P or less. 3H.

This is a card where having one in your deck is usually better than multiples. Because it doesn't cycle, if you ever end up with two of these in your hand, you're clogging up the works, and they're generally only good at killing things regularly until the mid-game, which can be as early as turn 5 or 6. At that point, most of the 3P and 4P Monsters have been dealt with, and when new ones come along after that, they're usually easily dispatched, often as an incidental part of a turn, with Power left over after having killed the 'main' Monster that turn.

Clearly, if the opening center row has three or four cheaper Monsters, then getting one of these is a really efficient way to generate early Honor points. It's also pretty efficient in the final tally, getting you 3H for your 4R investment. Of course, it's never entirely wasted, since even if there's nothing on the center row to target the Templar will still kill the Cultist for you. Nonetheless, that always feels like a disappointment, and that's why it's rarely good to have more than one of these in your deck, even early in the game.

Ascetic of the Lidless Eye - 5R. Enlightened Hero. Draw two cards. 2H.

This is where the idea of tempo first raises its head. The game ends when all the Honor is gone, but when that happens depends on the tempo of the game. Sometimes the players will be very cagey, finding good turns hard to come by, and regularly killing the Cultist and claiming Heavy Infantry and Mystics. Other times, you'll quickly establish a large amount of fighting forces in your deck, and be presented with an endless stream of killable Monsters, each taking 3, 4, 5 Honor out of the pool, and rapidly sending you towards the end of the game.

As a guide, a quick two player game could take 12-14 turns, an average game 15-16, and a long game be 17-18. Going lower than 12 or higher than 18 is rare, but that still leaves a huge range in terms of the tempo of the game. The reason it's important to understand how the game is proceeding is it allows you to work out how much value you're likely to get out of cards like Ascetic of the Lidless Eye. Since it costs 5R, it's possible to acquire on the first turn. That's frequently a very good play, as you'll be able to draw past some of your unexciting cards early, and get to your best cards later.

With each passing turn, the Ascetic becomes less exciting. Buying this on turn ten is rarely the best use of your 5R. It could be, of course, but at that point in the game you might only get to use it once before the game ends.

Master Dhartha - 7R. Enlightened Hero. Draw three cards. 3H.

The 'big brother' of Ascetic of the Lidless Eye, Master Dhartha gets you one card more, one Honor more at the end of the game, and costs two more Runes to purchase. You'll often take this late, because three points is something you won't often pass up. However, if you're into the 'cash in' phase of the game, where you're just trying to ram your deck with Honor points, remember that any one-cost card on the board plus three Heavy Infantry at two each is going to cost you the same as Master Dhartha and get you one more Honor at the end.

Where Master Dhartha shines is when you can get him early, and combine with cards that let you filter away the Militia and Apprentices from your deck. At that point, he becomes the focal point of a small deck that you can draw entirely every turn, making it a complete 'engine'. This doesn't happen very often, but when it does, it's an extremely good feeling.

Oziah the Peerless - 6R. Enlightened Hero. Defeat a Monster that has 6P or less. 3H.

Oziah is almost all upside. Although he can't beat Avatar of the Fallen, every other Monster bites the dust. If an opponent is heavy on Power, reaching enough Runes to buy Oziah is going to be hard for them. You, on the other hand, if you've gone down the Rune path, are probably finding it tough to kill the nastier Monsters, and that's why Oziah is such a perfect fit. Against a center row that has Wind Tyrant, Xeron, Duke of Lies, and an Earth Tyrant, having Oziah can make the difference between coming out even or perhaps ahead of a martial opponent, or getting destroyed as you helplessly watch them rack up the points.

In a Power-heavy deck, Oziah is much less exciting, but in a Rune-heavy deck, it's absolutely tremendous. If you're focusing on Power, you should take the opportunity to banish Oziah as soon as you get the chance - he can really ruin your day.

Seer of the Forked Path - 2R. Enlightened Hero. Draw a card. Then you may banish a card in the center row. 1H.

Certainly not an exciting card, it nonetheless cycles, and gives you the chance to sculpt what the center row looks like. That brings its own issues, however. While getting rid of a Hedron Link Device or an Oziah the Peerless can be an easy choice, a lot of the time there are going to be cards that all cost four or five resouces to acquire or defeat, and knowing what to get rid of can be very tricky. What's left in the deck that you might want to get to? What's left in the deck that you don't want your opponent to see? If you don't send something away, this is just an expensive Arha Initiate. If you do, try to make sure you're taking the right thing.

Tablet of Time's Dawn - 5R. Enlightened Construct. Banish this Construct to take an additional turn after this one. 2H.

One of the most interesting cards in the game, as its usefulness can vary so hugely. Unlike all the cards we've looked at so far, this is a Construct, so (generally speaking) it won't clog up your deck, but instead sit in your Construct row turn after turn. That's a plus, since it's always a setback when you draw these for the first time, since it inherently does nothing. It doesn't buy you anything, and it doesn't help you towards buying anything. How valuable is an additional turn? In terms of Honor, it will generally be worth more points the later you leave it, but you run the risk of your opponent having a huge turn and ending the game with you stuck with this still in your Construct row. Don't wait too long before pressing the button, in other words.

Of course, pushing the button comes at a cost. You've lost the original 5R you spent to acquire it. You've lost the card in your hand the turn you draw it. Then you lose the 2H you would get from it at the end of the game. All of that happens before you get to take an extra turn, so your 'minus' is quite substantial before you try to find the 'plus'. It's possible to play this very aggressively, taking an extra turn in the mid-game. You'd do this for a couple of possible reasons. First, you might want to clear the center row of something your opponent badly wants. Second, you just want something for yourself. So, you might get this one turn, The Grand Design the next, and then use your Tablet to let you get something like Watchmaker's Altar on the 'same' turn.

The time when you absolutely feel you've got the best card ever is when the game is tight. That's when even a moderate extra turn right at the end will almost certainly tilt the game your way. That's a great feeling, and feels a little bit like cheating, because it's that powerful. For the most part, though, the Tablet is a curious card that will often leave you less excited than you feel it probably should.

Temple Librarian - 2R. Enlightened Hero. Discard a card. If you do, draw two cards. 1H.

It's only one Honor at the end of the game, but the Librarian is going to do a lot of good things for you. Although it doesn't actually banish those tedious Militia and Apprentices from your deck, it functions very nicely at skimming the garbage off the top, allowing you to dig for the goodies underneath. It also works really well with cards that allow you to banish from your discard pile, meaning it will almost never be poor for you.

One note of caution - if you have something that's going to draw you a single card, don't use the 'Play All' button, as drawing the Temple Librarian as your card won't let you play it, since you'll have nothing to discard to it. There's very little wrong with the card, and if you can get two of them on your first turn, you're well on your way to some powerful mid-game turns.

The All-Seeing Eye - 6R. Enlightened Construct. Once per turn, you may draw a card. 2H.

Six Runes is a lot. Two Honor at the end of the game isn't, so you want all the value from this to come during the game itself. If you can get this on turn three or four, you're likely to get a lot of use out of it, somewhere between 5 and 10 activations, depending on the tempo of the game. Once you reach turn six or so, this becomes a much riskier proposition. Your deck is probably large enough by this point that you won't see it immediately on turn seven, meaning you play it on turn eight, and there's every chance that somewhere between then and turn twelve your opponent will make you lose it to the ability off a Monster they've just defeated.

At that point, you're on to something of a losing deal. So, see how early you can get hold of this, and work out whether spending a whole turn on it is going to be the value. Part of that is dependent on how aggressive your opponent is being. If they're killing Monsters a lot, you're going to have fewer turns, and that's also true for you. This works best in a deck that wants the game to go long, and that means not taking Honor out of the pool, which in turn means banishing Monsters rather than defeating them, and taking Rune cards wherever possible. The All-Seeing Eye and Power decks rarely work well together.

Twofold Askara - 4R. Enlightened Hero. Copy the effect of a Hero played this turn. 2H.

This card asks a simple question every time you play it. How good are your cards this turn? Copying an Apprentice or a Militia is a miserable feeling for something that cost you four precious Runes, while copying Master Dhartha feels like cheating. The trick, naturally, is to have Master Dhartha ready to copy. Plus, if you're drawing all those extra cards anyway, perhaps you're already winning.

In essence, the issue with the card is that most of the things it will get to copy are at a same or lesser value than you're notionally paying for. Copy a Runic Lycanthrope, and you get the effect for four Runes that you'd get for three if you had an actual Runic Lycanthrope. There aren't many cards where you get to scale up the Twofold Askara, copying a Landtalker, or maybe an Oziah. Still, if you can do it, that's good news.

...

That's the Enlightened cards taken care of. Next time, we'll look at the Lifebound cards. In the meantime, enjoy the game, and see you next week.

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Comments
Great article. Although I'm not having any problems with the orange AI (well, usually ...) and I play constantly online, I'm always interested in informed opinions regarding Ascension. And this series will be a great guide for newer players.
Rich, I think you undervalue the Seer of the Forked Path a bit. Banishing a card from the center row is worth more than you give it credit for. Both as a method to deny your opponent their path to victory, and to give yourself an opportunity to get better cards when you're stuck.
This was a good article and thanks to some of the advice I'm having much better records against lv2 AI in multiplayer. Looking forward to seeing the other factions/domains!
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