First Impressions – Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn Card Game

Dan GreenAugust 25, 2020
ashes first impressions

When Plaid Hat Games named their flagship “living” card game – Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn – back in 2015, I doubt they had expected it to embody its namesake mythological bird to the degree that it is right now.

Suffering from production whiplash due to Plaid Hat’s several corporate acquisitions over the years, as well as some of the usual drop off seen in most standard-distribution-model LCGs, Ashes was, sadly, discontinued in 2019, and laid to rest until only just recently.

If you missed the news, several weeks ago, Covenant announced a joint partnership with Plaid Hat Games to pioneer a “player driven production” model, utilizing their experience in gaming subscription services, to resurrect the dead game with Ashes Reborn, a self-proclaimed “1.5” version of the game that will be sold primarly in the US and Canada through a subscription on Covenant’s website, with a delayed “on demand” purchase option exclusively through PHG’s webstore. The first release in the subscription will be an upgrade kit that will provide rebalanced and reprinted versions of up to 30% of the current cardpool, while the rest of the cardpool will remain unchanged – meaning that all old content save one expansion deck (“The Path of Assassins”) is still worth picking up or owning. There are a few other changes to note and some details to get straight – for all of that info, I recommend reading Plaid Hat’s own announcement page!

Ashes was always a game that stuck out to me – the artwork and aesthetic caught my attention, and the combination of dice in a constructible-deck card game is one that always intrigues me, if not always done to my taste. I had simply never jumped to give it a try though, but with the announcement of its rebirth and the exciting new distribution model (I won’t lie, I may be most intrigued to simply see how PDP plays out!), I decided to rectify that. I was able to find a core set on eBay at MSRP, which was good enough for me, and when it arrived we cracked it open to give it a few games, and I couldn’t wait to put some of my thoughts down to digital paper for you all.

So as we jump in, please keep in mind that these are my first impressions on the game after a few core set games only, seeing how all of those decks play out (which, as I understand from my research, feature some distinct imbalances and several of the cards can be seen getting tweaks in Ashes Reborn.) I intend to play more and come back with a more full review of the game when we’ve really gotten to sink our teeth into the full experience, deck building included, but for anyone on the fence about giving it a try right now, I hope this helps you make your decision!

Basic Gameplay

I certainly can’t do as well as one of the many excellent “how to play” videos on YouTube, but in a nutshell, Ashes is a competitive head-to-head battle between two “phoenixborn”, who utilize a 30-card deck (either a preconstructed deck, or one constructed by the player utilizing cards from across many decks) of cards that represent a variety of spells and allies the phoenixborn will strategically use to attempt to reduce their opponent to zero life.

The general play loop is relatively easy to grasp, a definite plus for a card game like this – players begin a round by rolling their 10 resource dice to see what they have to work with this round, then take turns casting spells, attacking their opponent, utilizing card abilities, etc, until both players consecutively pass, the cards in play refresh, and a new round begins. Eventually, through superior tactics and a healthy dose of luck, one player’s phoenixborn – a character card that starts in play and grants them unique abilities – will receive wounds equal to their life total and their crafty opponent will be declared the victor, and the players can choose their starting hands (more on that later!), shuffle up, and prepare for the next game!
The Importance of Action Economy

One thing that became very clear to me after several games is how absolutely critical the timing of your plays are. Costs for your cards and abilities come in two primary varieties – what type of action they are, and what die facings you need to spend. I bring this up in this manner because I want to stress that while a game of Ashes is certainly a fierce battle of summoning illusionary demons and crashing rhinos, it’s also a game of intense economies of time, as in each turn you only have one main action and one side action to work with, and then your opponent gets to immediately take a turn, possibly responding to what you’ve done and disrupting your best laid plans or mounting their own. So, for example, you may wish to conjure up a creature to attack with, but that usually takes a main action, and attacking is also a main action – so you’ll have to wait until your next turn to declare your attack, giving your opponent a turn of their own to decide if they want to mount a defense or play a card to destroy or shut down your vicious critter.

As such, there’s some intense decision making that comes into play on nearly every turn, and you are often torn between trying to maximize your turns, utilizing every side and main action you have to concoct the perfect sequence to force damage through to your opponent before they can respond – or, laying back, conserving your dice, and waiting to see what your opponent is doing so that you can flip the tables and mount an offensive when they’ve run out of resources to respond. It’s the epitome of the classic “Who’s the beatdown?” conundrum, and if all of that jargon excites you, you might want to just stop here and order a copy of the core set, because that trading of action economy is truly the once-again-beating heart of Ashes.
The Role of the Dice

Dice in Trading Card Games (or TCG-like games) tend to be quite polarizing, but of all the Dice-utilizing games I’ve played (including the WoTC Star Wars Trading Card Game, Star Wars: Destiny, and CMGs like Mage Knight and Hero Clix), Ashes feels like the least obtrusive implementation – that is, I never felt like my ultimate gameplay result rested as heavily on those dice rolls as it had in every other game listed. While part of this is certainly due to the super forgiving “meditate” side action which allows you to discard or mill any amount of cards to change that many die facings (yes, not reroll – select the facing you wish), the larger contributor, in my mind, is the method by which dice provide their impact to the game – as your resources, not your results.

I’m going to pick a little on Star Wars: Destiny here, as it’s the most recent and likely popular example – in a game like Destiny, your entire result of the game was usually dependent on you eventually rolling and using dice with damage faces on them. The cards you played in your deck were nearly always cards to either provide you additional dice to roll, or help you control what the die results were. Ostensibly, this was a dice game, underpinned by a card game that helped those dice do what they were supposed to do. Ashes, on the other hand, is effectively the opposite – the result of your game is created by the effects and actions you use with your cards, and your ability to use those cards is facilitated by what you roll on the dice.  This is a card game underpinned by a dice game, and it never feels like it’s trying to be anything but.

To put it in a different perspective, any dice-chucking minis-game, like the aforementioned Hero Clix and Mage Knight, similarly depends on dice for the ultimate result of your actions – you either roll high enough to deal damage to the opponent, or you miss. Destiny’s dice also featured a strong dichotomy of results – most dice featured a total “blank” side, though to Destiny’s credit they also provided a gradient of damage options and other effects, but in practice you can only roll so many “resource” sides before you’ve run out of things to do and need to attack the opponent to win, so those also can be quite swingy in their utility. Ashes, in comparison, has no “miss” results – the worst a die can roll is a basic symbol, which is still used throughout your turn, the most common roll is the die’s “unique” resource type, and the best your die can roll is a face that can be used as a side-action for a small, but useful, power. The game treats this as a gradient of power, where the “special action” side can be used as the “unique resource” for that type, or as a basic resource, and the “unique resource” side can also be used simply as a basic die, giving you a massive amount of flexibility in what you can spend your resources on.

Also, unlike many other dice-chuckers, if your roll is exceptionally bad, you know so at the start of your turn, not at the time when you need to determine if your plans succeeded. And should you need to take a Meditate action to fix your roll, you effectively are giving up a single side action and some cards you don’t need in your hand or field, or bit of ground on your deck size (“milling” can result in a win as well – one of the core set decks is built with that in mind) – in other words, your penalty is that you may lose a bit of efficiency and some long game reach, but you can still make your plans and strategies work. These factors lead the game to feel like you simply have so much more agency than other dice+card games provide, while still providing that variety of turn-to-turn play that TCG-like games thrive on.
The Right Consistency

What results in combining this lovely 10-dice resource system with the tight turn-taking tussle for board position is a game that manages to feel cozy and familiar in its effects and card valuation while still feeling somewhat foreign and explorable in its tempo and gameplay arc. Unlike games like Magic: the Gathering, Dragon Ball Super CG, Final Fantasy TCG, etc, your amount of available resources does not typically grow round-to-round, but instead your board representing which creatures you can conjure and which abilities you have access to will grow, and sometimes the cost to use those effects will cheapen. Importantly, your round 1 will often begin by setting up some of those on-board spells and conjurations, so that every other round they’ll be available for you to fit into your sequence perfectly to try to catch the opponent off guard, or overwhelm them with new units or effects before they have enough time to respond.

This system took me the longest to really wrap my head around – unlike other “play guys and attack” card games, Ashes primary method of developing board presence is these conjuration spells, which allow you to keep summoning the same unit turn after turn – much like putting a token into play in Magic: the Gathering, whether or not the previous one has been destroyed. With both players capable of doing this, it’s hard to get to the point where you feel like the opponent has “run out” of units to fight back with and you can turn the tide – instead, in our experience, both players usually feel completely in-the-game each round, and its through clever timing and optimized usage of your spells, effects, and reactions that you can achieve a turnabout that lets you crash in for big damage. Those moments not only feel fun, they feel earned. For a game with both a randomized deck and dice rolls, the amount of agency and player-skill input needed is actually remarkable.

And in that vein, one last highly unique point of Ashes is the fact that it lacks a mulligan system where you can redraw your opening hand. And that’s because it doesn’t need one at all – instead, players begin each game by selecting their hand of 5 cards from their deck, then shuffling the rest up. As someone who has done some TCG development, I can’t even begin to imagine the amount of development that goes into ensuring that such a system doesn’t break down and result in some insane turn 1 combos. My cursory research seems to indicate that some amazingly cool combos do exist, but equally potent answers also exist, and with the opponent able to select answer cards from their deck as well (they will see your character and dice and have an idea of what you might be playing from the start), one-trick pony decks like that seem highly risky.

But by subverting the norm and allowing players to have full control over their opening hand, Ashes manages to avoid one of TCGs’ biggest pitfalls – bad play experiences created before a player has even been able to make a choice. Not only can you use a conjuration to cast the unit you want repeatedly, but you can ensure you start the game with it in hand! Problems like “mana screw” or simply not getting your most critical cards or most important tech in your first turn hands are simply not a thing in Ashes, and boy, is consistency at that level an exhilarating thought for someone who plays a lot of TCGs!
But Will You Enjoy It?

I’ve waxed for a while on the positives of all of Ashes‘ core systems, and that’s obviously because these are elements that I find very appealing in a TCG. Ultimately, though, I still don’t think this game will be for everyone. If you are on this site, chances are you at least are mildly interest in 2-player competitive card games, so I’ll leave out “people who don’t like 2-player competitive card games won’t like this game”. I don’t think there’s really much of a viable multiplayer option, either, unfortunately!

Players who don’t enjoy the minutiae of a turn-to-turn action system will likely get very annoyed playing Ashes. Your opponent may constantly one-up your attempt at building a board – exhausting your units as soon as you conjure them, redirecting damage elsewhere, countering your unit with theirs to be able to block your attack, etc. Your deck is built with your phoenixborn in mind, and some of them have a lot of built in control options that may start to infuriate you! And reaction spells seem quite common, giving your opponent even faster ways to respond to some of your plays – like even just saying “no” with Golden Veil. If you prefer games like the Pokemon TCG, where your turn is sacred and nobody can invade it, this may not really be up your alley.

Players who like games that are bigger, swingier, and build to a huge climax may leave their first games of Ashes feeling a little unfulfilled. There certainly seem to be ways to “Voltron” together big units and build larger boards, but only the accretion of spell availability and not resources, more games will feature attrition-heavy tugs-of-war than these players may be interested in. Players who love Magic: the Gathering’s commander format, packed with spectacularly flashy finishers, likely won’t find that same vibe within Ashes’ box, at least in the core set alone.

Lastly, players who aren’t into the “trad fantasy” vibe may not find thematic solace in Ashes. I haven’t really been able to dig into the lore yet, so I can’t speak to exactly what’s going on in the game, but just picking up a deck and playing it carries a ton of traditional fantasy vibes, similar to a game like Magic: the Gathering. These aren’t always a hit with everyone, despite the awesome artwork and great character diversity. That said, for players are accepting of the theme, I did feel like each of the decks, after seeing them play out, carried a strong thematic feeling of what type of spellcaster that Phoenixborn was. My favorites were Jessa Na Ni, who’s deck carried a strong “voodoo” or “witch doctor” theme, and Noah Redmoon, who felt like an illusionist who could overwhelm you with hallucinations of swarms of spiders and wolves. For a card game, it was surprisingly evocative – which is good news if you like the theme, but even worse news if you don’t!

If you made it through those three paragraphs without feeling personally targeted, you may just find Ashes a winner, and I recommend tracking down a copy of the core set or waiting for it to see reprint. The core set alone has a surprising amount of substance, with 6 different phoenixborn all with full playsets of all of their cards. And if you enjoy the game, the two deluxe expansions, The Laws of Lions and The Song of Soaksend, provide two additional types of dice and two more Phoenixborn and decks to really pad out your options. There were an additional 14 deck expansions released that you can hunt down as well, and all of them will begin to see reprint as Ashes Reborn hits full release in the coming months.

Personally, I’ll be putting myself down as a subscriber and am looking forward to fully exploring the game, including both playing a variety of the expansion decks as pre-cons, and building my own. I’ll be providing an updated article or video review once I’ve gotten more experience under my belt – so stay tuned to MetaManiacs to catch that when it’s up! Until then, I hope these first impressions have been helpful – let me know your thoughts on Ashes in the comments below!

Until next time, Maniacs!

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