Ashes Basics: Deckbuilding

Hello everyone! In the last few episodes of my Ashes Basics series, we dealt with the Phoenixborn in the Core Set and with their preconstructed deck. Before we begin addressing the expansions, though, I’d like to talk about deckbilding, because attempting to build and play with a customized deck is a step that, in my opinion, anyone, even who didn’t have any previous experience with this kind of games, might want to take sooner or later. If you are here to discover the secrets behind building a tournament-winning super-deck, I’m sorry, I don’t have the magical recipe for you; but at least I hope to provide you some principles that – still in my opinion – you should always keep in mind when building a deck.

How to Build a Deck in 30 Seconds

You bought the game, you studied the rules and played some games with the preconstructed decks. Many of you most likely cursed a bit when playing Noah against Aradel, but this didn’t stop you. You like the game, but then you begin to know the decks by heart; you want something more. Then you happen to take a look at the sidebar on page 14 of the rules: “Deck Building”. Mmh… sounds interesting… here’s how to create a custom deck:

  1. Choose a Phoenixborn
  2. Choose exactly 30 cards, not one more, not one less, with the following limitations
    • You can include up to 3 copies of the same card in you deck;
    • You can’t include in your deck cards that are exclusive of other Phoenixborn (those that have a picture of a Phoexnixborn different from the one you chose in their bottom-right corner);
  3. Choose exactly 10 dice to form your pool. There are no limitations in the types and distribution of the chosen dice.
  4. Conjurations are not included in the deck, but in a conjuration pile that is created by taking all the conjuration that the cards in your deck could potentially bring into play. Each card will be included in the conjuration pile in a number of copies equal to its conjuration limit.

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Great. Done. That’s all. Next time we’ll begin to talk about the expansion decks. Thanks for reading! See ya!

Ok… fine, that’s not everything. Well… yes, from a certain point of view it is all, these are the rules. With these simple rules, and the cards in the Core Set, you can create a myriad of decks, so have fun! Truth is, among all the possible combinations, a lot would be completely unplayable, and among the playable one, some will be more efficient than others. The purpose of this article is to give you some general criteria to narrow the field and allow you to dedicate only to those combination that could seriously work.

Disclaimer: I listed the following steps in a somewhat logical order, that is the one I usually follow, but that doesn’t mean you should follow this to the letter. Actually, you’ll most likely find yourself jumping back and forth between those steps in an iterative way, adjusting your choices again and again and reviewing what you already decided, polishing your deck until you reach a satisfactory point.

Strategy First

Let’s start with the basics. Game objective? To win. How do you win? By putting as many wound tokens on the opponent Phoenixborn as they have Life.

That’s your deck’s task. There are no other ways to win other than dealing 15-22 wounds on the enemy Phoenixborn and make them stay there, so the first question you have to ask yourself is: how do I fulfil this objective?

The answer to this fundamental question defines your deck’s general strategy. There are many out there, but the most common are the following:

  • Repeatedly attack the opponent’s Phoenixborn with many small units, in succession or as a group.
  • Attack the opponent’s Phoenixborn with medium-high attack units, so that you could close the game with 2-3 well-struck blows;
  • Directly deal damage to the opponent’s Phoenixborn through spells and abilities, thus ignoring any unit that could defend them;
  • Let the opponent’s Phoenixborn suffer damage because their controller can’t draw in the Prepare Phase.

Those strategies aren’t “absolute” of course. On the contrary, since each offers advantages and disadvantages, they could be combined  in varios ratios to gain more flexibility and to mitigate your weak points. For example, you would want to use a mix of large and small units, or you would combine the capability to inflict direct damage with discard, to reduce the number of rounds you need to win thanks to the damage for not being able to draw.

Once you set your broad strategy, you should choose a “package” of core cards that would allow you to lead that strategy to completion. You want to use swarms of small units? Maybe units like Gilder, Mist Spirit, Shadow Spirit, Fire Archer or Sleeping Widows could do the job. Direct damage? You would most likely consider cards as Molten GoldSympathy Pain or Stormwind Sniper.

The Phoenixbonrn could be one of these core cards, but it’s not mandatory: you could choose a Phoenixborn only to support your chosen strategy, there’s nothing bad in that. In picking your Phoenixborn, take into account the exclusive card you’ll gain access to: if that allows you to further advance your strategy, considering to use it makes sense, otherwise you could well do without. There are obviously cases where you would only want to use a given Phoenixborn precisely to have access to its unique card. In such situations, in my opinion, you should attempt to choose a strategy to which your Phoenixborn could at least give a minimum of support, or you would find yourself with a card of limited utility in play.

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The Colour of Magic

Once your strategy is set, and you chose the core cards around which your deck would be played, you should start to take a look at what kind of dice those cards will require, to understand which could be your (approximate) dice distribution. Don’t worry to choose exactly which and how many dice of each type to use, that’s something we’ll get back later at, but theoretically you should have, from just the core cards and your Phoenixborn, a rough idea of which types of dice you’ll mostly need, and which would act as a support or would most likely be cut, which would help you narrow the field of cards you could add to support the deck’s strategy.

If, for instance, you would want to create your strategy around launching unblockable attacks with a Hammer Knight and Hypnotize, you would need at least a Nature, a Ceremonial, two Charm, and a fifth die to set this up in a single round. As a precaution, both to limit meditation and as a countermeasure against Illusion dice, having at least another die of each kind is never a good idea, so your strategy could force you to commit at least 7 of your ten dice: 2 natpower 2 cerpower 3 chapower, which most likely mean Summon Shadow Hound (costing 3 ) won’t be a fitting addition – unless you go heavy with dice recovery – while Summon Gilder (play cost 1 chaclass, activation cost 1 ) could find some room more easily, and could be a good support card to protect your Hammer Knight.

A question you could often find yourself asking, especially at the beginning, would be: how may dice types to use? The short answer is: it depends on which cards you are using. Contrary to what happens in other games that require specific resources to play given cards, having all the resources available from the beginning allows you to include a broader array of options; you’ll rarely run the risk of having a given resource available and not drawing cards that require it, or – much worse – having specific cards in hand that you can’t play because you lack the corresponding resources.

This said, the ideal approach is to go for 2-3 magic types. Even with the “mono-magic” expansions, the card pool is at the moment too narrow to build truly efficient single-die decks especially because of the predictability of the cards you’ll have to use, and the excessive specialization that would lead you to have many weak points in other areas, which more versatile opponents would easily exploit (though you definitely won’t have any problems in finding the right resources at the right time). On the opposite side, diluting the dice distribution over all the 4 types, though feasible, would make managing your deck more complex, and would make you an easier prey for the Hungry Wolves (i.e. Illusion dice).

In the end, like in most other cases, there’s no universal recipe that could be OK in any situation, you should find the right distribution that most fits your play style by yourselves. Seen the most frequent deck types, however, the “standard” dice distribution you could in my opinion start with could be:

  • For 2 kinds of dice: 5/5, 6/4 or 7/3, according to how much you want to dig into one of the two magic types, relegating the other to a support role;
  • For 3 kinds of dice: 4/3/3 (balanced), 4/4/2 (balanced, with a “splash” of one type – one of the most common distributions), 5/3/2, or 6/2/2 (growing emphasis on one of the three magic types).

Bringing It All Together

After choosing the cards you’ll need to put your strategy on the move, and beginning to think about a possible dice distribution, it’s time to think about the side dish, i.e. all those cards who don’t directly advance your strategy but:

  • make the realization of your strategy easier/faster to achieve and/or
  • allow you to exploit their synergy with the “core” cards in your deck to support the strategy you have in mind and/or
  • take care of possible lacks or limits of your strategy

I wrote “and/or” because frequently those aspects overlap, and the same card can cover more functions at the same time.

For instance, if you wanted to enact a “swarm” strategy, cards like Final Cry or Chant of Revenge could show some utility though they don’t directly advance your strategy of putting a lot of cheap units into play and attack the opponent. An overall weakness of this strategy is the fact that such units tend to be extremely frail and will be destroyed with ease: having cards that, with a moderate expense, allow you to transform the loss of units into damage to the opponent is a good help for sure.

Or, if you want to go for strong but expensive units, Rin’s Fury and Hypnosis can both make this strategy easier, giving you extra dice to play those units and the upgrades you need, and a way to directly attack the opponent, but also mitigate some of the deck’s limitations, like the generally high cost of larger units, and the fact the opponent can easily block those units with smaller, cheaper ones, making you waste precious resources.

In general, even if you aim for direct damage or to discard the opponent’s deck, it’s good to have a way to constantly bring units into play, both to attack and to defend.  Ready spells that put conjuration into your battlefield are the most obvious choice, but they are slow and predictable, while allies deal more damage on average, and allow you to put some pressure to your opponent and to somewhat exploit a “surprise effect”, but require to be drawn, and the cost for you to recover them from the discard pile might turn out to be quite steep.

Once you have chosen your strategy, you should think about how to implement it, and about when, during the game, you could be in need of a given card: this might help you to understand how many copies to use. A cart that can help you set the course in the first round, but won’t be of much use if drawn later will probably be enough in a single copy, to include in your First Five. On the other hand, if you want to maximize the chances to see a card you don’t immediately need, but becomes fundamental from round 2 onward, you should include three copies of it.

You should evaluate, based on the average cost on the cards in your deck and the number of drawing effects you have, how many cards you might draw each round, because this will influence the chances you have to see exactly that card you need a lot: if your costs are high, you’ll most likely play less cards per round from your hand, thus drawing less. The same goes if you rely much on ready spells in your spellboard and on those cards that require you to spend dice to activate their abilities. On the other hand, cheap spells and allies in hand will lead you to save very few cards from round to round (with the opposite risk, that’s finding yourselves with a lot of unspent dice, beware!) and  so drawing a lot, increasing the chances to see the cards you need. Last, always take into account the fact that, even if you don’t draw cards that require a given type of magic, you always have access to the dice powers, whose efficiency may vary a lot based on the situation (natpower and illpower have a broader utility,  cerpower and chapower are a bit more situational), but it’s never to be underestimated.

The First Five

Another fundamental aspect is the choice of the First Five you’re going to usually play with, which is something that usually happens when defining the key cards for your strategy. This won’t automatically mean your First Five must all be key cards: it’s possible, especially if you aim for a long match, that the majority of those will stay in the deck, and the First Five will serve to set up a first round that allows you to mitigate the damage and initiate a strategy that will develop in the following rounds.

The choice of the First Five also brings with it a good chunk of the evaluation about which and how many dice of each kind to choose for your deck, and how many dice will you presumably spend in the first round in a “standard” environment” (remember you are not bound to use always and forever the same group of First Five, you’ll most likely want a flexible hand to adapt to your opponent), which in the Ashes lingo is called the “Thunder Number”. Right, just so. Don’t look at me, I have nothing to do with it, blame Callin Flores of The Main Action Podcast. Some time ago I suggested something more scientific, possibly something that could be summarized with a nice acronym, something like Theoretical/Heuristical Unified and Normalized Distribution of Expected Rolls, but no one listened…

Anyway, however you want to call it, the Thunder Number is a fundamental concept for the Ashes gameplay and strategy, thus I invite you, if you didn’t already do it, to read Christopher “Papa” Pratt’s Hidden Power article, which addresses the topic much better than I could ever do.

Let’s Assume the Deck is a Sphere…

Your deck won’t obviously be flying alone in the intergalactic void, but will be put to the test against an opponent, who has a strategy of his or her own, which you can’t know in advance when you sit down and plan your deck construction. A further step forward is, thus, considering the possible threat to your deck, how common they could be in your “meta” (the group of players with you will habitually play) and to think during deck building about which tools you have to react to those threats. These situation can be extremely various, and the answers to them even more, so I can’t give you a solution that works for sure against anything, but you should always ask yourselves questions like:

  • What do I do if the opponent opens with Hammer Knight + Frostback Bear and goes directly at my throat? How can I stop such an attack?
  • How do I react to an opponent who tries to slow down my game by exhausting my dice and cards, or forcing me to fill up battlefield slots with unusable stuff?
  • How do I protect cards that are fundamental for my strategy and prevent them from being blocked, discarded or more in general made useless by my opponent?
  • How do I create a breach in the defenses of an opponent who hides between a wall of units?

The answer to these questions will vary a lot depending on which cards you chose, and on how significant is the threat posed by this or that strategy. Consider this a sort of costs-to-benefits analysis: how big is the risk to ignore this or that card/ability/effect? How much do I spend, in terms of resources and advancement of my win condition, to prevent that?

Unfortunately, you can’t prevent every risk, on the contrary, this may be counter-productive, as you might find yourself with a deck full of answers to issues that will not materialize. Each of those cards will remove oxygen from your strategy, which has the sole purpose of doing damage to the opposing Phoenixborn. Not exhausting their units, nor cancelling their abilities, nor removing from play their alteration spells: those should only be means that allow the other cards in your deck to fulfil your main objective of destroying the opponent’s Phoenixborn, they should never replace it. To be true, in some cases the answer to a potential threat could be, to quote the proud hierarch Gaetano Maria Barbagli, a sound “I don’t care!” followed by a meaner counter attack on the opponent’s forces.

The evaluations made above should always integrate with the choice of the First Five: the more your starting hand is “locked”, the less room you’ll have to deal with threats from your opponents’ decks, so is usually a advisable to keep at least one “flexible” pick, to make at the beginning of the game, after seeing the opponent’s Phoenixborn and (following competitive rules) dice. Some choices can be quite obvious: if you see a bunch of Illusion dice, keeping your Thunder Number low and not relying much on cards which require power symbols is probably a good idea, while if your opponent shows 4  natpower and 4 cerpower  expect an aggressive start, which could most likely feature a Hammer Knights and/or Frostback Bear. Other considerations will be harder to make, and depend a lot on how much you know your about your opponents’ play style, but just on the Phoenixborn they chose you can already expect a kind of gameplay: relying of frail units against Coal or Aradel is quite risky, the same goes with putting a lot of resources in a single big unit against Jessa, while if you see Leo across the board, you should take into account the incredible annoyance posed by his Glow Finch.

…and, Cut!

Good, it’s almost done. We set a base strategy and choose a “core package” of cards to implement it, we integrated this strategy with support, synergy and disadvantage mitigation cars, we thought about suitable answers to the opponents’ threats, and finally we decided which cards could form our hand of First Five and evaluated the costs and dice distribution. Cool. Our 38-cards deck is ready to be tested. Or is it? Mmhh… there’s something wrong here…

Right, because you’ll most likely find yourselves with more than the 30 mandatory cards. A few, let’s say 3-4 extra cards, is fine. It usually means smoothing the deck to cut a copy here and one there, evaluating the implication of each modification one by one: Do I risk not having enough units by cutting a Summon Frostback Bear? Do I really need three copies of Molten Gold or are two enough?

If you find yourselves with 35+ cards in the deck, however, you’ll probably have to be much more heavy-handed, retrace your steps and thoroughly evaluate if one or more cards are really that necessary, until you have just a few cards in excess of the required 30, so that you can then polish and refine your deck.

Ok, now here we are. The deck is over, at last!. 1 Phoenixborn, 30 cards, 3 copies of each max, the respective conjurations, and 10 dice. Now deckbuilding is over, and we can finally play.

The Crash Test

Well, actually this is true up to a certain point. Technically, yes, deckbuilding is complete and you have a ready-to-play deck, but is it efficient? Does it manage to realize the strategy you wanted to use? Is is satisfactory to play? Since no plan survives first contact with the enemy, there’s only a way to find out: play, play, play.

When you test a new deck, pay attention to each and every detail: which cards you tend to use and which you don’t, whether the dice at your disposal are the right ones to play everything you need in every situation, or if you often find yourselves thinking “ah, if I had that card now…” or “one more Nature die would have been useful here”. Do you often find yourselves with unspent dice? Maybe your costs are too low, or you have too many resource-generating cards you don’t really need that much. You jump-start, but then after 2 rounds you can’t deal any more damage and lose in the long run? Maybe you are not applying the right pressure onto your opponent, and you need something to put them in a tight spot more frequently. Don’t underestimate any aspect, and train to analyze any game situation with critical eye.

Do not stop at a single game, try the deck repeatedly, against different opponents, to evaluate which kinds of deck give you a hard time, and which ones you can beat with ease, but play also against the same deck, adjusting the strategy from time to time to understand in which measure the final outcome depends on the deck construction and in which on the way you play.

After the match, think about what you did good and what you could have done better. What would have changed if you chose this card instead of that in the First Five? Were there any cards you realize you didn’t have the chance or the desire to play or, worse, when you drew them, you wished you didn’t? Reverse your point of view: don’t be afraid to talk with your opponent in an attempt to understand what they found an issue to deal with in your deck, or which situation they would have a hard time with, if you just did this move instead of that. The Ashes community is full of great people that are more than eager to discuss in a constructive way and provide advice and opinions. The more info you get, the better you could adjust your deck, especially when approaching an important event like a tournament.

An useful advice – not an idea of my own, it was hinted some time ago in an episode of The Main Action Podcast as something used by Erik Rodriguez and Christopher “Papa” Pratt to prepare for the Tulsa tournament, but since it’s a wonderful idea I think is right to post it here – is that of trying your First Five, repeatedly playing the first round, and then resetting the game, choosing your starting hand each time. This will allow you to understand if you have a solid opening, and if there’s something you could improve in the first, crucial, phases of the game. Remember that a good opening won’t make you automatically win, but if you start bad, you’ll have a high chance to lose.

Wrapping Up

To recap, in order for you to create an efficient deck, you need to:

  1. Choose a strategy, and a core set of cards that will allow you to put it into completion;
  2. Begin to define a possible dice distribution based on the core set of cards you chose;
  3. Choose cards that allow you to support or accelerate your strategy, to exploit the synergies with it or to mitigate the disadvantage it entails;
  4. Evaluate the potential First Five and the costs associated to them, and in general, the more useful dice distribution to use every card in your deck;
  5. Evaluate which can be the most likely threats you’ll need to address when playing, and which are the ways your deck is going to deal with to them;
  6. Evaluate which cards to cut if you chose more than 30;
  7. Play. Play. Play. Test the deck repeatedly, improving it from the feedback you received in the test games;
  8. Repeat the above steps iteratively, further refining your deck until you reach absolute perfection!

That’s all. I hope my advice would turn out to be useful, and allow you to build decks that, if not efficient, are at least satisfying to play. Because if it’s true that the object of an Ashes match is to defeat the opponent’s Phoenixborn, the purpose of playing Ashes is (as with any other game) to have fun, so whatever deck you may want to use, whatever strategy you wish to follow, the first and most important question you always have to ask is: will I have fun in playing this deck?

Thanks for reading! Until next time

Giovanni

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