Blood Math | Making Good Decisions In Ashes Reborn
Like most card games, there is a grim arithmetic at the heart of Ashes: Reborn.
The real magic of a good game is that it can so easily make you forget about that- after all, most of us don’t realize we’re thinking about numbers when we giddily swing that Hammer Knight in, ready to kill their Frostback Bear and ping off their Salamander Monk in one well-timed attack. Thanks to Ashes’ amazing art and engrossing gameplay, you’re probably just thinking “hammer go brr” instead of seeing it as a math problem.
But the reality is that in many cases, though not all, Ashes is a math problem, and for better or worse, competing well requires an understanding of that. I’d love to see the broader player base develop more of that. Usually the games I play that are blowouts are that way because the other player misses out on some of this value-oriented thinking.
I’ve been trying to think of how best to impart this information, and this is where I ended up. As a side note, I highly recommend newer players head over to Ashes.live and use the card search feature to follow along with which cards I’m using as examples. And as always, shoutouts are due to the amazing Ashes Discord and Team Covenant Discord, whose communities give me so much joy every week. You folk are the reason I write.
So buckle down, pick that First Five, and roll those dice- let’s talk about value.
1. GETTING VALUE FROM YOUR 10 DICE
For the love of all that is holy, you must use all 10 dice in your First Five.
It is impossible to overstate how important Round 1 is in Ashes. If you do not eke every possible unit of value out of the first round, it is likely that your opponent’s advantage will snowball and you will lose.
The obvious first step for this is to ensure that your First Five and any relevant abilities add up to ten. Here’s an example First Five from my Shufflebus 4 Echo deck-
- Salamander Monk (1)
- Light Bringer (1)
- Turtle Guard (2- 1 for the unit, 1 for the book tax)
- Sonic Swordsman (3)
- Grave Knight (3)
Echo’s Gravity Flux is free, so that makes a nice round 10 dice First Five- but let’s throw a wrinkle in and say that my opponent starts Three Eyed Owl and I don’t deal with it. Now I have to discard a card. What do I do?
There’s several options, but my point is that your answer cannot be that you just discard a card and don’t use 10 dice. You need to account for what your opponent will do to you in Round 1 and have a backup plan.
Dice powers are fantastic for this. Assuming my opponent discards a card with Owl, here’s one potential backup plan.
- Discard my Sonic Swordsman
- Use a Ceremony Power die to recur it
- Use a Divine Power die to boost a unit
- Use a Sympathy Power die to draw a card
Those uses put me back at 10. I don’t get to play Grave Knight this turn, and overall this kinda feels bad, but I’ve minimized the impact of Owl and gotten value out of all 10 dice.
This is just one example, and it may not be the correct line in the given situation, but the thing to take away is to have a backup plan to use all 10 dice somehow if something doesn’t go as planned. Of course, the best Ashes players do occasionally end up with a dice stranded in Round 1, but it does not happen often, and it is usually a result of an unexpected pivot.
This is not always easy to figure out, but some pre-planning to ensure that all of your dice have their best chance to get spent can help prepare for the unexpected.
2. GETTING VALUE BEFORE REMOVAL
Units, usually, are only getting their value if they’re being used. What this means is hopefully obvious, but I see it left undone far too often- if you have a way in your hand to remove a unit before it gets exhausted, you should probably do it.
There’s such a huge mathematical difference between removing a unit before and after it’s been used. Let’s take an example that happens a lot- Frog/Fester on a Sonic Swordsman.
- Frog/Fester (aka using a Natural dice power as a side action to deal one damage to a unit, and then using Fester as a main action to destroy that unit) costs 2 dice.
- Sonic Swordsman costs 3 dice.
That’s a one die advantage! This is, on paper, a great trade for the Fester player…but it becomes much worse if the Sonic Swordsman has already been used.
You really don’t want to let that happen if you can help it. If you remove the unit after it’s done something and exhausted, the Sonic player has kind of already cashed in, and what you’re really stopping is the extra value that would accrue from Sonic still being alive for either the end of round refresh or another method of being used again. This is not nothing- a Sonic off the board is always a good thing- but strictly speaking it’s not ideal.
This mindset leads us to a couple of things. One is that if you have removal in hand, it is an excellent idea to prepare ahead of time to be able to cast it at a moment’s notice. If I First Five a copy of Fester, whether I intend to use a Frog to combo with it or not, I’m almost certainly going to go ahead and meditate a Frog and a Goat on my first turn. If I have a Blood Chains, that means I need to meditate into a Knife and have a good sacrifice target on my board. If my opponent plops down something nasty, I want the option to deal with it right away, before it’s gotten value out of it’s first activation.
This applies in reverse too with sacrifice effects- I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen a Brennen player plop down their first unit and Spirit Burn it immediately. That unit could have attacked before they burned it off, getting them additional value! The same principle applies to AOE. While it can be tempting to wipe the board as soon as you can with Meteor or Earthquake when your opponent has unit advantage on you, if you think you can get advantage out of using some of your units that will die from the wipe anyway, it’s prudent to do so.
To sum it up, think of it like this- “If my unit has to die, I would usually prefer it to be exhausted”. This way of thinking will almost always positively impact your lines of play.
3. GETTING VALUE FROM PASSING
Let’s break Ashes: Reborn together. Hypothetically, what if there was a single action that, under the right circumstances, did all of the following-
- Refreshed up to 10 dice
- Drew you up to 5 cards
- Removed an exhaustion from every card on your board
- Dealt direct damage if your opponent couldn’t draw cards
Busted, isn’t it? This action, of course, exists. It is the humble Main Action Pass, and plenty of players do not respect it enough.
I was very lucky to have made the Top 8 in Season 2 of the amazing Shufflebus series of tournaments. Watching the footage of game that eliminated me from that Top 8 is, to put it mildly, painful. I made a ton of mistakes, but the one I learned the most from was this.
During the first round, I had played two books to my board, while my opponent, Ashes legend Matt Bauers, had played and used Abundance. I had some tricks up my sleeve, and I wanted to exhaust a unit of Matt’s with my Light Bringer early, so I passed, just to see what Matt would do.
Matt only thought about his move for the briefest of moments before laying down a Chant of Revenge as a side action and then passing his own main.
Here’s what I gained from that double pass and the resulting turnover of rounds.
- The option to reroll. I had spent no dice, so I just rerolled a basic die. It ended up basic again, which is funny, but neither here nor there.
- That’s it. Thanks to Abundance, my hand was full, so I didn’t even draw.
But Matt on the other hand?
- Matt had spent 2 dice, on Abundance and Chant. He got them back.
- Matt had also already exhausted Abundance, so he got that back too.
Matt is a good enough player to not let cheeky passes like that slide. He saw that he was able to get vastly more value out of the pass than I had. Getting 2 dice refreshed and an unexhausted ready spell may not seem like much, but in Ashes, so many games are won by such small margins that value like that is a very big deal.
What this means in terms of Ashes strategy is this- you should briefly consider, almost every turn, whether passing could be advantageous for you, especially if your opponent passed their main action and you thusly have the option to initiate the round turnover. If you’d gain substantially more from a round turnover than your opponent would, and you don’t have a pressing need to get a unit out or do something else to maintain tempo, passing might be your very best play. There can be immense value in it- don’t leave that unused because you’re too focused on your plan.
4. GETTING VALUE FROM SEQUENCING
Play sequencing is incredibly important in Ashes, and alas, only so many examples are sensible to include. Here’s some brief pictures of what I mean when I talk about sequencing...
- At the top of a round, you could swing your units into your opponent- but if you’re not pressed for time, you could instead summon a Light Bringer, exhausting one of their units and giving you another. This could potentially mean 2 more units would hit then if you had swung first thing.
- You could swing with a bunch of units at once- but if your opponent has dice left, maybe it would be best to develop your board further, or attack only one unit at a time. This can make sure you don’t get surprised by something when you just exhausted your entire battlefield.
- You could swing your big unit at your opponent’s most important one- but what if you instead poke it with several little units and threaten to kill it that way? It’s possible to force sub-optimal Phoenixborn blocks by carefully choosing what attacks and when.
There are many examples like this of ways to gain little advantages from sequencing, and really, I think they’re best learned through experience and watching great players play. I highly, highly recommend watching the final rounds of the Shufflebus Tournaments over on the Shufflebus YouTube. There are some outstanding players in those tournaments, and playing with them and watching them play is what makes great Ashes players.
One thing I notice a lot watching those players- they almost always spend their dice slower than their opponent does. There’s so much value in knowing that your opponent’s options are limited, and it helps you choose your lines of play better. If you can help it, try to sequence in such a way that you keep as many dice and cards open to yourself as you can. Letting your opponent exhaust themselves can be awesome.
Suffice to say this- Ashes is a dance, and the order of the steps you take in that dance is incredibly impactful to how well you do. Try to think ahead as you attack, block, and activate cards. It will go a long way.
I love Ashes: Reborn, and I have loved seeing new players build better and better decks and execute better and better games.
It can be hard to know what plays to make. Ashes has a very high skill cap, and it can be frustrating when you’re starting out to know what’s good, what’s bad, and what the right move is as the round progresses. Just know what we’ve all been there. Hopefully, this article is just the first of many steps to helping you evaluate cards and plays in a better way. Practice makes perfect- and Ashes is so, so much fun to practice.