Ashes: The Gathering
A specter is haunting card games — the specter of Magic: The Gathering. It’s an inescapable, all-consuming glutton, and it leaves hardly any room at your friendly local game shop, just a few leftover tables at the rear. But perhaps, just perhaps, Magic will one day be vanquished. Maybe somebody will come along and beat it at its own game, and we will cheer and celebrate and share candied yams and forever be as one, for all men are brothers. And then, years later, we will complain about how beloved this usurper is, and how universally available, and how it only leaves us the tables with the most pronounced corn dog stains, and we will look back on the days of Magic as those of a golden age.
Sadly, Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn is probably not the title that will unseat the king. Though that has nothing to do with how awesome it is.
In so many ways, Ashes feels like someone took Magic: The Gathering down from a high shelf, beat it like a dirty blanket, shook out the moths, put colorful patches over the threadbare bits, and started snuggling with it again. I’m sure there’s somebody out there that will feel frustrated with me for saying so, somebody who knows the name and favorite breakfast food of every planeswalker or who lovingly arranged spreadsheets of Ashes’ extensive lore, but even in terms of story they’re functionally identical. You’ve got a super-wizard to protect, an enemy super-wizard to defeat, and a whole lot of units and spells to make it happen. This isn’t Netrunner, Doomtown: Reloaded, or even Conquest. It isn’t trying to stagger us with its uniqueness.
Instead, it hopes to dazzle with its coolness. And it’s very, very cool.
Its greatest accomplishment — and we’ll talk more about its technical side in a minute — is that everything in the box, from units to accumulated spellbooks and terrifying reactions, feels weighty. This base set comes with six pre-assembled decks, and each of them hits hard in their own way. In Ashes, there’s no such thing as a “baseline” deck, nothing stuck in the middle of the road, no vanilla. The deck that starts out like it’s doing your average swarm-of-wimps thing then hands you spells like Root Armor and Massive Growth, and staffs your hordes with Butterfly Monks who get stronger in numbers. Suddenly, you’ve got a swarm of WHAT THE HELL barreling across the board to slap your nemesis silly.
And that’s just one of six pre-built factions. There’s the guy who summons powerful units for cheap, with the caveat that they’re illusions and get dispelled upon suffering so much as a scratch. Then he casts Bring Forth, and those illusions get even stronger and stick around for good. Or the general who’s all about keeping his soldiers alive, so he outfits them with Spiked Armor and performs Chants of Revenge when they die, discouraging anyone from touching them. There’s the voodoo queen who gives special gifts to her opponents — except those gifts are worthless Blood Puppets who hurt their owner every turn unless he wastes resources getting rid of them. And the Egyptian lady who doesn’t field regular units at all, relying instead on special conjurations who get obscenely strong over time. To prevent them from being killed off before they’re ready for an unblockable attack, she’s armed to the teeth with spells that make it impossible to for her opponents to do much of anything on their turn.
Man. I could keep going. There’s just so much cool stuff going on here.
One of the biggest departures from the Magic: The Gathering formula is the absence of resource cards. Rather than taking up space in a deck, resources are handled by rolling dice. Each side gets ten, rolls them at the start of the round, and is given a bunch of tools to manipulate their outcomes in the event they don’t get enough of what they want. There are four flavors of dice, each bestowing unique powers like fishing dead soldiers out of your discard or drain their own supply of dice, and the riddle of how to best spend them makes up quite a bit of the gameplay.
Of course, one could imagine any number of complaints about this system. A bad roll can severely disrupt your strategy, though Ashes is aware of this and gives you plenty of ways to mitigate a flub. You can, for example, use the “meditate” action, which lets you discard cards to switch your dice to whichever face you prefer. This might sound like a waste, but ensuring a steady stream of powerful resources is often a higher priority than using every single card that enters your hand, and most of my matches have seen both players making two or three careful uses of this option.
Perhaps more damning, this system sacrifices Magic’s sense of growth. Your Phoenixborn strides onto the field with ten dice. When the smoke clears, you’ll still have ten dice. Then again, I’m not about to defend Magic’s resource system, and in practice one of the best things about Ashes is its sense of flow, so I’m offering this more as a statement about potential complaints than about one of my own.
Speaking of flow, Ashes is fantastic at it. Turns alternate quickly, only letting each player do one or two things before their opponent gets a chance. It isn’t possible to summon a monster, give him armor, cast a boosting spell, and attack all in one go. You’ve got time to do one of those things, maybe two, then the turn flips and you get to wring your hands and wonder how your nemesis is going to wreck the plot you’ve set in motion. It plays fast, relentless even, and encourages constant participation.
Ashes isn’t the sort of game you’ll get bored with, is what I’m saying.
And yet, despite being one of the best games I’ve played this year, Ashes leaves me just a tiny bit worried. Not in game terms — truly, it’s enormously fun, very clever, and feels like a version of Magic that I could actually stand to engage with over the long haul. The starter box is jam-packed with great stuff and stands on its own as a fantastic card game, and I wholeheartedly recommend it. Even so, this game’s success will come down to the level of support Plaid Hat can offer it. If it gets consistent releases, and if Plaid Hat show a willingness to fix problems as they crop up, then it has a chance of thriving. If not… well. That would be a pity.
As for replacing Magic, Ashes doesn’t stand a chance, though that’s only because no one does. But for the rest of us, this is a fast-paced, ultra-smart wizard duel that takes a tired formula and makes it fresher than a pine forest in winter. Give it a shot.