Strategy Article: Tempo (Article by Alex Brown, strategies pertain to CotG card pool only)
Tempo is the rate at which a game is reaching its conclusion. In Ascension, tempo is measured by the rate at which the Honor pile is being depleted. This is the primary reason why the values of Ascension cards are not static. Accurately measuring the tempo of a game of Ascension will help you make better decisions about the worth of particular cards in a game state.
Arbiter of the Precipice is widely considered the best card to purchase on the first turn. It’s text, allowing you to draw two cards and banish a card from your hand, combines two mechanisms to reduce variance in your draws, improving future access to more powerful cards. The drawback is that it only gives you a single honor point. At the same cost, Rocket Courier X-99 gives you four honor. If both cards are available to purchase, you have to decide whether the access granted by Arbiter is going to be worth the greater contribution to your final score the Rocket will make.
Vaguely competent players will tell you in a heartbeat that this is a no-brainer: in the early game, what the Arbiter gives you will generate more honor over the course of the game than what the Rocket can do. Just as quickly, they will tell you that in the late game, the Rocket is easily the pick. Maybe the commentators are right, and Ascension is really a simple game with automatic decisions for familiar players. What else could there be?
The superficial value of a card is its honor score. Arbiter is worth one, Rocket is worth four. We can compare these cards when assessing one obvious capacity and another more subtle capacity. The obvious capacity is the abilities printed on the card. Can those abilities be used to generate more honor? For example, Flytrap Witch might notionally be worth two honor for five runes, but the first time you play it you already have two more honor and an extra card to boot! Clearly, printed honor values aren’t everything.
The more subtle capacity is the potential for a card to obstruct your potential to buy cards or defeat monsters by clogging your draws. Mechana Constructs like the Rocket are worth a lot of points, but they rarely have useful text, so when you draw them they limit your ability to generate significant amounts of the currencies of Ascension, runes and power. Similarly, buying three cards for four runes might give you three honor, but that’s three other cards preventing you from accessing your cards with stronger abilities.
The nuance comes when deciding the stage of the game. When is the early game? Is it when the honor pile is less than half empty? Is it when players have only bought two or three extra cards? What about the late game? Is it when players stop buying Mystics and Heavy Infantry? Is it when Avatar of the Fallen is defeated?
It is likely that it is none of these things. Instead, we can measure the stage of the game, and the relative worth of our options, by assessing how quickly the honor pile is being depleted. This involves looking at how much honor is being collected now and how much is likely to be collected in the future. If a player has just put Murasma into play, the pace has just gotten that much faster!
Strong players understand this concept. For those without experience winning at Ascension, a more accessible notion would be to think about deck cycles. The tempo of the game determines how many more times you will cycle through your deck. As you can always play every card you draw in Ascension, this then mandates how many more times you will be able to play a particular card. In turn, this then alters the value of the card.
To return to our first example, if you are only going to draw the Arbiter one more time, it is unlikely to recover the three honor points lost when foregoing the Rocket. In short, the more times you can play a card, the more you should think about purchasing for its abilities. The inverse is that if you foresee being unable to play the card many times, you should value it more by its honor score.
Understanding this leads to a more detailed understanding of how advantage is created from turn-to-turn. Each turn will leave one player with a surplus or deficit in honor. A player buying a single Rocket will have won the turn by plus-three from a player buying a single Arbiter. Plus-three is a large advantage gained when only considering purchased heroes and constructs. Still, it isn’t affecting the honor pool at all. What is?
The honor pool is mostly depleted through the defeat of monsters, with the ever ready Cultist taking the bulk of the pain. While heroes and constructs can provide powerful abilities leading to turns with large quantities of power and runes available, they also must take space in your deck, and not all can replace themselves or give you the same hand every turn. Similarly, monsters have an obvious capacity and a subtle capacity: they increase your overall honor while also hastening the end of the game.
Honor tokens seem to have no drawback. They give you points that directly lead to winning. Still, they are a double-edged sword. Acquiring ever-growing amounts of honor tokens are great when you are winning the honor race, but can be troublesome when you are losing. This is because the faster the honor pool is being depleted, the less turns you have to overcome the disadvantage.
What this means is that while you are managing the acquisition of cards with powerful abilities, you also must make sure understand the tempo of the game created by the rate of honor depletion. Monsters not only provide honor that doesn’t obstruct your deck, many have useful abilities that limit opposing constructs or provide banish effects. You must make sure you are acquiring enough power to compete for monsters as much, if not more in the base game, as you would acquire runes to purchase cards for building a deck. The Cultist mechanism is more dangerous than the supply of Mystics and Heavy Infantry, as players with too much power on a turn can gain honor without diluting their decks, while too many runes often leads to inefficient point-gathering.
Understanding tempo, and how to measure it using deck cycles, is the fundamental skill behind Ascension. Unenlightened commentary has suggested there are only certain cards worth buying: card-drawers, deck-thinners and Mechana constructs. The reality is that these are the easiest choices you make at particular points in the game, but those cards rarely make up more than a quarter of your overall purchases. Instead, winning in Ascension requires astute judgement of how tempo affects the value of abilities and honor on a card. Once you begin to understand how quickly cards can change in value, regardless of cost, you can improve other decisions you make in the game.