Strategy Article: Managing the Center Row. "Managing the center row is about minimizing opportunities for your opponents" A good illustration of these principles is Runic Lycanthrope. Haughty observers have been known to claim this card is strictly better than Mystic. Using the term ‘strictly better’ has always invited rebuttal! What the cognoscenti fail to realise is that Runic Lycanthrope is often worse than Mystic. This is all due to the invisible ability Runic Lycanthrope has that could read ‘when this card is acquired, give your opponent a new card to acquire/defeat’.
Every card in the centre row has this text, and until the final play of the game this ability presents important repercussions. Could that next card be Avatar of the Fallen? Could it be a dangerous Mechana Construct? Could it leave honor points open ready to be claimed by a power-hungry opponent? Does it leave Arbiter on the table on the second turn? These are all game-winning opportunities for your opponents, and you need to weigh up whether your play is going to be worth those risks. Of course, you probably can’t win at Ascension without buying cards from the centre row. Often what you buy will be worth the probability of turning over a more dangerous card. Once you have a working valuation of the cards, this is the other critical skill you need to master to be a consistent winner at Ascension. For those who think the game lacks skill, every turn is a battleground for small advantages, and for every turn you can deny an opponent a net honour win, you are improving your chances of victory. Managing the centre row is also about maximising your own opportunities. A skill crucial to success at Ascension is precision. In my opinion this is where the competitive Magic influence shines brightest. Magic has its share of luck, but the best tournament players are able to precisely execute turns over and over even when complete accuracy seems unnecessary. Nine times out of ten it won’t matter that you bought Wolf Shaman before Arha Initiate, but that one time the Burrower Mark II you wanted in the endgame turns up could be all the difference.
Good Ascension players execute turns to maximise their opportunities. When they have to buy cards from the centre row, they buy the cheaper cards first or they rationalise acquisitions they have to make. Good players don’t put their entire hand on the table before they have to. Good players understand that automatically buying Tormented Soul or Samael’s Trickster when you have three power is a bad move. Good players manage the multiple decision points in a turn and accumulate tiny advantages turn after turn. Precision turn-play is what separates Ascension from many of the other deckbuilders. Ascension is a game of efficiency, whereas games like Dominion are about creativity. It’s much easier to have fun in a creative game, because you are trying to be innovative. When you make mistakes in Ascension, there’s nowhere to hide; when your opponent capitalises, their edge can balloon into a runaway freight train of a lead. Managing the centre row to maximise your own opportunities through precise play is such a subtle skill that many disparaging commentators haven’t seemed to notice it! Managing the centre row is about assessing when the row will peak. Ascension has been derided as a game without strategy. Glass half-full detractors patronise Ascension as tactical. Personally I’m not sure whether a meaningful consensus on the practical differences in these terms exists anymore. What I do know is that while the game-state is always changing, at some point in the early to middle game you will need to make an assessment about how the row will peak. By peaking I want to introduce what I consider an advanced concept, even if some of the more self-regarding gamers think it obvious. Something many players don’t seem to understand is that you it is next-to-impossible to win without defeating the bigger monsters more often than your opponent. Yggdrasil Staff is the only card from the base game that allows you to simply hit Cultists and drain the honor pool. If you can’t influence the honor pool, you are going to fall too far behind, as players defeating monsters just score more points than those acquiring cards. I’m sure in later sets the balance will shift, but for now an important line is drawn.
Peaking is when the game ceases to value cards for their abilities more than it does for their honour. In the early game that Snapdragon can be amazing, but it loses its lustre pretty quickly. Lots of players like to avoid Arha Templar and its clunkiness, but pretty soon it becomes great value for runes. In my first article I taught you how tempo alters card valuations, but the corollary is to understand whether this centre row requires you to take Runes, Power or a flexible combination of both. If you are hellbent on acquiring all of the big sixes and sevens, you aren’t trying to win at Ascension. What you should be doing is assessing how much time you have to go after a few big cards that will give you better prospects of defeating monsters than your opponents. This is why card-drawers and deck-thinners are not the be-all and end-all; they are great early on, but in the middle game the humble Avatar Golem or Voidthirster will be needed to take your greater deck access and convert it into honour. I will go out on a limb and say Ascension is generally such a quick game that you only ever need one Arbiter of the Precipice. Flames welcome! In Ascension you spend the early game improving your access to your better cards or you increase the average power or runes per card. Both of these methods can win; the second-level AI is a good example of the second option being viable (I think people lose to it much more than they like to admit). When you look at the centre row in the early game you need to decide what is going to stick around. Have we seen several Seer of the Forked Path or Mistake of Creation? Best to stay flexible. Is the centre row clogged with Cetra, Hedron Cannon and Master Dhartha? Buy Mystics for four. Are you staring at four different Tyrants? Value power.
Ascension is a game with many interesting decisions to make. Understanding the deck makeup will help. Playing your turn precisely will help. Evaluating the center row will help. Of course, sometimes you will get blown out by an opponent 3-5ing into Wolf Shaman, Flytrap Witch and get buried under optimal Apprentice draws, but for the most part there are umpteen decision points in a fifteen minute game of Ascension, you just haven’t noticed them yet!.