Fight or Kite: Deckbuilder Ascension is far better as a video game than as a physical one


I mentioned at the top of the Fight or Kite piece about HEROish that I’ve been hankering for some card games. I haven’t spent a ton of time in this sub-genre, but I’m interested and eager to give more of them a shot. Whether it’s a trading card game, living card game, or straight deckbuilder, I’m here for it. Plus, most of these games fall into a category of dueling in one form or another, so I know I’m going to scratch that competitive itch.

So I decided this week to give one of the straight deckbuilding staples a chance in the digital realm: Ascension. It’s over 10 years old at this point, so it may as well be a classic. I’ll give it a nod for the golden cardie awards next time nominations come up. I played the original physical edition several years back, but it didn’t really stick with me. Honestly, back then, I felt as if I may as well have been playing Solitaire.

But now, having played it on mobile, I have to admit… I still kind of feel that way. But as a digital card game, it’s much more appealing. It’s just so much easier to play and gets rid of some of the annoyances actual card upkeep.

I’ve already dropped a fairly heavy hint on why Ascension doesn’t grip me, but why not make this fun? Take a guess on what the misses are going to be, write it down on a sticky note, and send it straight to MOP HQ. We won’t ever receive it or do anything with it, but it could be a fun exercise.

Gameplay involves a fair bit of strategic choices, but not a lot in the way of direct PvP interaction

I won’t got into all the details of the rules to the point of teaching you how to play since that’d be boring as all get out (and I don’t think my editor would appreciate the snoozefest that a rules write-up would deliver). But this is a card game, so we do need to cover a bit of the basics to understand the gameplay loop as well as how it differs from other card games.

In Ascension, every player begins the game with the same 10 basic starter cards. That’s your whole deck. In the middle of the table, five cards are placed faced up for purchase from the supply deck. Some of the cards are meant to be purchased (heroes or constructs usually) and are added to your deck, while others are meant to be defeated (monsters) and grant immediate rewards. While typically everything you purchase goes to your discard to be shuffled in later, there are effects on the cards that can make them play immediately or perform some other action.

Heroes are generally played from your hand to some immediate effect before you move on, while constructs act more like gear; you can basically equip them in a place of your play area. Playing a hero card will give you either purchasing power or killing power. These points have to be used on the turn in which they’re earned or be lost. There are also some slight upgrades to the always-available basic cards that you can purchase as a fallback if everything in the market row is too expensive and you have some leftover points.

The last thing to mention is that sometimes there are events that will stay in play until their condition has been met or a new one comes from supply to replace them.

The goal of the game is to earn more victory points than your opponents – not trying to kill your opponents. See, every card you buy or kill during play earns you victory points. Rather than run set number of rounds, the game has a pool of 60 or more victory points available. So every time you earn points, they come from the pool. When it goes empty, all the other players get one more turn, and the game is over. Players add up the points they earned during play to the value of the cards they’ve collected.

That’s the whole game. It’s rather basic, and it’s a game that I believe even non-gamers could enjoy.

However, my big hangup with the game is the lack of direct PvP. That isn’t to say that it’s nonexistent, but it is very minimal. In something like HEROish, or even Magic: The Gathering, you are constantly butting heads with your opponent. It is literally me vs. you. Nearly every move I make is going to be directly geared toward hindering you or straight up dealing damage to you. If I’m adding up mountain resources, it’s so I can be ready to unload some DPS on you.

In Ascension, you can very literally play it as if you were solo. You don’t have an HP pool to manage or attack; you simply gather the cards you like to empower yourself. You start building an engine that plays together perfectly and just won’t quit. You can play the entire game, earning victory points without ever sabotaging or being aggressive to your adversary.

Lots of players like that kind of card game! But I do not.

I want to power myself up. I want to steamroll you and that smug look on your face. I want that rush of adrenaline that comes from a clutch play at just the right time. That’s me. That’s what I love. But we just don’t really get that from Ascension.

Now, I mentioned that there is some interaction between players, even if it is minimal. I believe it largely depends on which expansions for the game you are playing. But there are some sabotage cards that you can acquire or make use of. Typically, they come from defeating monsters if at all. For instance, there are some monsters that, when defeated, force other players to discard or destroy one or even most of their constructs. There are others that allow you to put a trash card into their deck that just takes up space. You’ll rarely make a play that causes the other players to marvel at your skill. However, you can mess with them, a little, if the “mess-with-them” cards happen to show up in the market row.

The digital version includes a few different ways to play, so you’ll always have a chance to keep a game up

Ascension was brought to life as a physical card game back in 2010, but the digital edition is where it actually shines. It gets rid of a ton of upkeep that otherwise comes from physical card games. You don’t have to shuffle anything yourself, so the decks and cards automatically go exactly where they are suppose to when played. You don’t have to do much math either. When you play a card, the game adds up your purchasing powers and even highlights the cards that you have the resources to buy for you. You’ll rarely forget to use one of your equipped abilities since they’ll automatically add up. It’s really much, much better.

I also appreciate the various game modes. I’ve largely played it as a 1v1 dueling game, but it does support up to four players. Moreover, you can choose how long the matches will take. So if I’m wanting to just sit and play straight out, I can set a 10- or 30-minute match. But you can also set the time as long as 28 days. This mode is kind of cool because you can essentially just take a turn when you’re free and wait until it’s your turn again. I am currently playing one of these with someone who tends to play very late my local time, like midnight, so I’m guessing we’re on opposite sides of the planet – or maybe he or she is just busy and has just a few free moments a night to play. I’m not sure really, but it’s neat.

You can also play completely offline, both with AI opponents or even with a friend sitting next to you by passing your device over. To be honest, this was kind of a lifesaver for me recently. I got stuck on a plane for a couple of hours, so being able to take turns right there next to each other was fantastic.

Ascension is actually free-to-play on iOS or Android, and mobile is where I’ve been playing myself. There are some in-app purchases for the expansions, but the game is actually really generous. You get a few of them for free, and even if you want to buy others, they aren’t overpriced; it’s about $4 or $5 to get an expansion. Other than that, though, everything in the game is open and free – just play to your heart’s content.

I did try to download it on Steam and saw that it’s about $13 on there instead of being free-to-play. It looks like that’s because the Steam version comes with six of the expansions included. It’s probably a fair cost, although I can’t say I understand why it’s modeled so differently from the mobile versions when Steam does support DLC.

Ascension isn’t exactly my type of card game, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad game in any way. If you are a fan of competitive deckbuilding with low player combat, then Ascension is certainly for you.

Every other week, Massively OP’s Sam Kash delivers Fight or Kite, our trip through the state of PvP across the MMORPG industry. Whether he’s sitting in a queue or rolling with the zerg, Sam’s all about the adrenaline rush of a good battle. Because when you boil it down, the whole reason we PvP (other than to pwn noobs) is to have fun fighting a new and unpredictable enemy!
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