I’m going to start this post off with the disclaimer (warning, perhaps?) that I have played Magic the Gathering for 23 years, since I was ten years old. You do the math. In these past 23 years, I’ve played it with varying degrees of dedication; my fondness waxed as I entered high school and again as I found myself with an increased desire to spend time with old friends and siblings who also love nerdy things, and it waned during different times when I became too busy with ‘more important’ things in life. But it’s always held a special place in my heart.
Now, it seems that special place is slowly being taken over by another, younger, more attractive lover.
Ashes Rise of the Phoenixborn by Plaid Hat Games is an Expandable Card Game (ECG) that hits all the nerves that Magic the Gathering hits, while offering its own fresh take. Gone are the power-gaming tendencies that Magic fostered, as Ashes aims to reward players for interesting choices, rather than min-maxing. Ashes achieves this through three primary differences: a closed resource economy, measured actions, and purposeful deck construction.
Closed Resource Economy
The economic engine in Ashes is less prone to getting out of control, as it’s essentially a closed system where players start the game with 10 resource dice of their choosing. That’s it – no more, no less. There are–in the core game so far–four different types of dice: Illusion, Charm, Sacrifice, and Nature. The symbol that’s rolled on each of your 10 dice allows you to do different things. A “Basic” symbol can be used to power spells of the… you guessed it… basic variety. Think of it like colorless mana in Magic. A “Class” symbol on a die can be used to power the more specialized spells. Think of these as the colored mana in Magic. Lastly, a “Power” symbol (of which there’s only one on each die) can be used to power highly specialized spells AND also used to activate a special power surge that’s specific to each type of die. The beauty of the system, however, is that there’s no need to fill up your deck with resource cards and hope to draw one, only one, and only the right one each turn. Players get 10 dice that they roll every single turn. So there’s no worry about being screwed because you had a streak of bad luck and didn’t get any resources. Let’s face it – there’s nothing worse in Magic than being land-screwed and essentially just sitting there while your opponent bullies you to death. The economy in Ashes isn’t without its intricacies, however. After you’ve rolled your dice, you can use your side action (more on that later) to “meditate” which allows you to discard cards to flip dice in your dice pool to the face that you want.
Aside from being an interesting feature, the dice-based resource system in Ashes is extremely streamlined. Players are always on a level playing field, and it’s all about the choice of how to use your dice and whether or not you want to spend actions to manipulate your dice.
The second thing that sets Ashes apart is its handling of player actions. Instead of players simply taking a full “turn,” back and forth, back and forth, wailing on each other at full intensity, players have smaller turns that consist of a single main action and a single, optional side action. Main actions tend to be things like playing a card, activating an ability, or attacking; whereas side actions are generally activating less potent abilities, or the always-available “meditate” action that I described above. These smaller turns force players to think more carefully about how they want to measure out their actions, since after performing your own, your opponent will get to do theirs. It’s a back-and-forth, but on a more granular scale than in Magic. All in all, this sort of gameplay allows for a much more tactical experience where you’ve got to make interesting choices, and oftentimes are forced to pivot the choices you thought you were going to make to the ones you ought to make. Additionally, players are limited by the resources shown on their dice in their dice pool. As actions are performed, the dice spent to use them become “exhausted” and are moved to a separate pool where they’re out of play until the next round, or until they’re un-exhauted through some special means.
Purposeful Deck Construction
In addition to resources not taking up valuable deck real-estate, decks in Ashes are more carefully and purposefully constructed. Decks must be 30 cards in size, and only 3 copies of a single card are allowed. This means–if you want to go full-tilt on all your card choices, you’ll only be pulling 10 different cards into your deck. Now, this may seem like a small number, but what I’m about to tell you may surprise you… Summoned units are not part of your deck. That’s right. Not only are your resources kept out of your deck, but the bulk of your fighting troops aren’t included in your deck either. Instead, each of your summoning spells (which are part of your deck) allows you to add unit cards into a separate sideboard of cards that you just keep on hand for when you need them. There are still “ally” units which are part of your deck, but these are a minority, and represent the much more powerful troops at your disposal. Ashes requires players to construct a much leaner deck where players must make more thoughtful choices about how they want to shape their strategy.
Oh – and I almost forgot to mention. Players get to pick the first 5 cards they put into their hand at the start of the game. That means no more crummy first-turn draws! This should come as an obvious boon to any current or former Magic players out there.
Ashes has several expansions out already, and I’m going to be buying them as soon as I make it out to my FLGS next. The cards that come in the core box are great, but aside from the “recommended” six decks they give you, there’s not much reason or incentive to construct your own custom deck. Until I have a greater diversity of cards at my disposal, I likely won’t deviate much from the recommended decks. This could be a bit of a problem, but I’m completely certain Plaid Hat Games will be supporting Ashes for quite some time with regular robust expansions. I really shouldn’t complain. Ashes is a relatively young game, and I’m just spoiled by 23 years of Magic expansions… 😛
In any case, I simply cannot recommend Ashes enough. If you’re into card-battling games – CCG, ECG, LCG, or otherwise – you should give it a spin. And even if you’re not into this type of game, I’d challenge you to give it a try anyway. It may just surprise you.
Until next time, gang! Keep it plucky,