Pulse of the Phoenixborn | The Ashes Reborn Meta, One Year In
With the relaunch of AIL, the massive success of AshCon earlier this year, and the conclusion of a 5th season of the Shufflebus Tournament, it feels like competitive Ashes is really starting to hit it’s stride. Die-hard competitive Ashes players are seeing tons of new names popping up across Ashes tournaments. It is awesome.
As that’s happened, we’ve seen more and more players asking questions that the Ashes community has traditionally been pretty cagey about answering- namely, questions about the Ashes meta. This article was inspired by those questions. It’s meant to survey, quickly and clearly, some of the patterns we’ve observed in competitive Ashes.
A few caveats:
1. I am just a guy. While I’ve been fortunate to be involved in lots of competitive Ashes play to date, I wouldn’t put myself on the short list of truly great players, and this article shouldn’t be taken as an insinuation that I am an authority on competitive Ashes. What I do bring to the table is fast typing fingers and a passion for helping new players. I’m writing this because I think it could be helpful and I feel like I have a decent grasp of the subject matter- not because I think I’m an Ashes genius. Do take this article with a grain of salt.
2. When Ashes players insist that the Meta isn’t solved, I believe that they’re right. We’ve not had a single Ashes tournament go by without something new or off the wall surprising everyone with it’s performance. We know what’s generically strong, and we know what boxes a deck has to check to do well, but definitive 30 card lists within archetypes simply do not exist, and they might not ever.
3. Because of the above two items, I believe that playing what you want to play is still very much what Ashes is all about. There are so many unexplored ways to express yourself even within the portions of the cardpool that we already know are good.
With that last item in mind, my hope is that this article gives you a good overview of what to expect when you bring your beloved new deck into a competitive game. I think it’s fair to say that being able to gameplan around the concepts, cards, and archetypes I’ll talk about here is very important to getting better at Ashes.
So let’s get better. Here’s where Ashes stands after over a year of exploring the Reborn meta and the two expansions that have been released within it.
THE BIG BOOKS
These books are in a whole, whole lot of First Fives out there. Let’s explore why.
Summon Frostback Bear
Even amongst this lofty group, Frostback Bear stands apart. It’s occupied a dominant position in the meta for a long time now- basically, if you plan on having unit-based swings be part of your deck’s win-condition, there’s very few reasons not to consider running Bear. It’s aggressive cost, built-in bypass ability, and status as a significant threat that is summoned rather than played from hand are the major factors in it’s continued ubiquity.
Also of note- Bear’s bypass has such good synergy with Summon Mind Fog Owl that this tandem (which the community has dubbed FoggyBear) shows up all over the place, sometimes regardless of deck archetype. Mind Fog Owl is so rarely run without Bear that it tends to be thought of as a companion piece to it, and it’s such a prevalent partner to the venerable Bear that it’s worth mentioning here.
Summon Salamander Monk
Salamander Monk is more than meets the eye- while getting two bodies for one die is inherently strong, what it offers players in terms of lines of play is sneakily great too. A Salamander Monk book in the First Five represents four potential main actions- playing the book, summoning the Monk, attacking with the Monk, and attacking with the Monk Spirit if it dies. Sally’s ability to let players cheaply “wait and see” helps them find more opportunities to outplay their opponent without overcommitting dice.
Summon Three Eyed Owl
Since you picked that First Five, it’s safe to assume all 5 of those cards are important to your gameplan. And that means when your opponent plays that Owl book- or heck, is simply running Charm dice- you have to go into the round with a plan to handle Three Eyed Owl. Some decks do this better than others, but the power of Owl is that the vast majority of decks must do something against it, and given that it only costs a single die, there’s just not that many good trades available to deal with it.
So the Round 1 impact is enormous. In the midgame it can feel like a waste of a battlefield slot, but as games come to a close Owl comes roaring back into relevance again, potentially sniping some of the last cards your opponent has available to use. Owl is a terrorist. Ignore it at your own peril.
Summon Light Bringer
Good Ashes play is almost always about forcing your opponent to do certain things, but the opportunity to actually mandate that they do something is too good to pass up. Light Bringer has a very high-skill ceiling and it’s effect can feel marginal if not timed well, but when rock bottom on a card is “spend one dice to exhaust one of your opponent’s units and gain a 1/1 unit”, you’re doing pretty outstanding.
The dual-color nature of Gilder is the only thing that keeps it from being everywhere. It’s so good that it’s Inheritance effect doesn’t even have to make sense for your deck in order for it to earn a slot. Players happily use their Nature power die to ping units for 1 damage all the time. Gilder gives you the same thing, but as a main action…and for a class die instead…and you get an 0/2 Unit Guard…and when it dies you get a status token. More than most units in the game, Gilder is pure value.
THE BIG ALLIES
Allies are stronger than conjurations of the same cost, a balance maintained by their reduced consistency and the additional resource cost of needing the card in hand. Their ubiquity and the amount of them that show up even in decks with spellboards full of books goes to show just how little their restrictions matter in practice. Good allies are a staple of most Ashes decks. Here’s the ones you’ll see most.
Featured in more decks by percentage than any other card in Ashes, Raptor Herder is a staple. It enables swarm attacks with the Hatchling’s Group Tactics, it can slow the bleeding after a board wipe by putting out two bodies at once, it can be recurred for more unit density with fewer dice than can seem possible. And on top of all of this flexibility, it’s also flex-costed between two already strong, versatile dice types. It’s not really a mystery why this guy is everywhere. He’s almost as easy to slot as he is hard to cut once you’ve included him.
The downside of burn damage is that it often comes at the expense of the board, taking away dice that could have been spent making sure you were in control of the Battlefield. Fire Archer’s unique schtick is that it’s here to do both, getting some damage in over the top while also putting a body into play. It’s ability as an Ally to be recurred from the discard and to trigger cards like Chant of Revenge are just icing on an already efficient cake.
Hammer Knight/Sonic Swordsman
I’ve paired these together because they’re quite similar units despite sharing no colors- both are 3/4 Alert, making them powerhouses on defense, with a strong triggered ability if they destroy something. It speaks volumes that, assuming your opponent doesn’t immediately cast a spell to kill it, the most common way to deal with these units is to save your Phoenixborn Guard for them, taking three damage just so as to not trigger those abilities.
These are not the only commonly played Knights- that list also includes Master Vampire, Grave Knight, Hunt Master- and it’s worth talking about these big units briefly as a whole. While HK and Sonic stand above the crowd because of their flexibility, all of these units are threats. Any deck without the ability to consistently get these big Knights off the table can often just lose, unable to keep up with the value they put out round after round. 3 dice is a risky investment for one unit. But when they stick, they win games.
Skald’s place on the Chained List means it doesn’t show up as much in decks anymore, but it’s important to talk about it because of how it ended up on that list in the first place. A 2/2 for 2 class is a little awkward, but fine. Drawing the card is a solid bonus. The discard effect in conjunction with that draw is where things go off the rails, giving Skald the ability to trade into equally valued cards without even using the unit itself.
The value for money here is off the charts, and that’s why this card has maintained the largest presence of all the Chained cards, still showing up fairly often despite it’s Round 1 restrictions. Skald is the gold standard for value in Ashes.
Essence Druid has seen it’s stock rise sharply lately. It’s most famous for First Five tricks, using it after meditating an exhausted Summon book to recur the book back to hand and get two of that unit out. This has been used to great effect on Salamander, Ruby Cobra, and Three Eyed Owl, in particular. But even after that splashy entrance trick, Essence Druid also leaves behind a pretty tricky problem for many decks to solve, with Tame 2 making conventional attacks both against the Phoenixborn and the Druid itself pretty unattractive. More than most units, getting a Druid off the board feels like a major accomplishment, but the grim reality is that well before you spent whatever resources it takes to get Druid dead, it had probably already gotten tons of value on you. A great unit.
THE BIG SPELLS
Ashes is definitely a unit-focused game, but the game’s best Action Spells have huge ramifications as well. Fittingly, the major theme amongst these spells is board control…with a major exception to that rule right here at the beginning of the list.
The subject of endless balance discussions, Molten Gold is an iconic card and Ashes’ most reliable game closer, despite being merely okay when used as a removal tool.
The impact is there all game long. Seeing 2+ Nature dice across from you means you have to be more careful with how you use your Life as a resource. Winning the board may not matter if it takes you getting down to 3 Life- or maybe even 6 Life if your opponent can pay for two in a single round. Molten Gold punishes careless life management and shortens the sprint for burn decks. It must be respected.
Slotting Nature’s Wrath into a given deck is just stupendously easy. Some decks have even chosen to do it with just a single Nature die, and it’s not hard to understand why. It’s a blowout versus big swarms of small units, sure, but careful timing of Nature’s Wrath also lets you clear your own Battlefield slots and set up advantageous unit trades. Like most great Ashes cards, it’s Wrath’s flexibility that makes it show up all over the place.
Fester/Blood Chains/To Shadows
As you recall, when talking about Knights I mentioned that not being able to deal with them sometimes means you just lose. Well, good news- these are the premier spells to kill them with. Fester’s combo with the Nature power die is well regarded, but Blood Chains and To Shadows have enjoyed somewhat quieter success.
Chains in particular can often be better than killing a unit outright if you manage to trigger the extra exhaustion and thusly leave the victim clogging their battlefield. It belongs here with it’s brothers, as the premier options for ensuring major threats don’t stick around any longer than they have to.
Depending on the state of the Battlefield, these enormous, terraforming cards can range from oppressive to unplayably awkward. Their power is in the hands of the beholder, who is expected to actively engineer the oppression and steadfastly avoid the awkward if these cards are to earn their slots. But make no mistake- those players are out there, and when they maximize these two cards, there is often no coming back.
Gates Thrown Open
Illusion is a much maligned color, but the respect for this card has only grown over the last year, and it’s effect is so dramatic that I didn’t feel it could be sensibly left off this list. It is particularly potent when used to double dip on units that were of great value anyway, such as Light Bringer and Salamander Monk, and it can be a huge blowout in Round 1 if you’re not prepared for it. This is a flexible card, and it’s value goes beyond playing swarm. Be wary of it if you see cheap books and an Illusion die across from you. It’s entirely possible your opponent plans to wait you out and hit you with an encore of all their books in the back half of the round.
THE BIG REACTIONS
Timing is everything.
As the meta has shifted to include more and more removal, it’s shifted to include more Veil as well. Sometimes Golden Veil singlehandedly saves a key unit and keeps it up into the next round. Sometimes it just buys you the single turn you need to get value out of your investment before a persistent oppoent eventually gets it killed. The beauty of Golden Veil is that you often don’t care which scenario you get. As long as big threats continue to have any viability, players will reach for GV over and over again to make sure the hits connect.
Being able to clear a blocker when heading into an attack is well, well worth that single die and discard cost. It’s also in a damage sweet spot for dealing with Frostback Bear, the most commonly encountered large threat in Ashes. In a game with relatively few blowout cards, the fact is that Crescendo wins games.
Redirect is often the answer that gets you out of a jam when nothing else will do. Particularly potent in the matchup versus Silver Snake, Redirect is a heal and an anti-Battlefield clog tool all in one. It’s not a card that shows up everywhere, but it is incredibly impactful just the same and has shown up in top cut often.
As more 2 Life units enter the game, Ice Trap’s utility only continues to rise, and it’s already one of the most popular Reactions. It’s not just about dealing two damage, even though that’s occasionally superb value versus things like Mind Fog Owl and River Skald. It’s also a timing play; your opponent likely spent a Main Action to get that unit into play, and now they’re one unit short of where they thought they’d be and they’ve only got, maybe, a side action to get out of the situation you’ve just put them in. Ice Trap has a lot of ceiling left to find.
Summon Sleeping Widows
Reactions are all about timing, and Sleeping Widows is one of the most potentially devastating timing plays in all of Ashes. Made most famous by Brian B’s Herder/Widows open out of Brennen, it has since shown up a lot more in other decks. Having to play around Widows can be exceedingly aggravating, and it’s even a potentially great defensive tool if your opponent uses their side action or Crescendo to try to clear a blocker. Widows is pricy, but it’s impact can decide the game.
THE BIG ALTERATIONS
Doubling down on a unit is often not a great idea, and so Alterations can be tough to utilize effectively. Here’s the ones that show up most.
Far and away the most impactful alteration in Ashes, Root Armor can make a large threat very difficult to remove indeed. In fact, for some decks it is virtually impossible to kill something with a Root Armor on it. That’s an awfully attractive offer for one class die and a side action, and it (along with Root Armor’s amazing utility as a First Five flex) is why Root Armor gets paid the big bucks.
Massive Growth/Explosive Growth
These two are buddies. For my money, I think Explosive is the better card, but Massive Growth still shows up a lot despite being chained due to a nasty First Five combo with Shining Hydra. These cards usually grow in value as the round progresses, and demand respect lest you open yourself up to a last-minute huge hit because you didn’t leave a blocker behind. Massive Growth is outstanding when combined with bypass unit compositions like FoggyBear, and Explosive Growth likes units that use or scale off of status tokens. Either way, they can both make an innocuous threat into a huge one, and that’s why they see play.
While it can’t stop the unit right away, it’s certainly a losing play to let a big threat remain round over round, and Fade Away very economically puts a stop to that scenario. One of several criminally underrated Illusion tools, Fade Away does a lot of work for very cheap.
THE BIG DECK ARCHETYPES
This list is by no means exhaustive, and there are many, many fine examples of each archetype that I’ve not linked here. And aside from the first two, archetypes are not at all limited to the Phoenixborn I cited as examples.
It’s also worth noting that I’ve left intentionally these archetypes very broad- just as one example, Philly’s Four Book Aradel from Season 3 and Season 5 are functionally very different because of a switch in secondary win condition from Burn to Mill. For the sake of clarity, I’ve not chosen to dive into that, and Four Book is only here once.
So this is just meant to function as a broad overview, but a lot of the most devastating openings and gameplans are represented here. Feel free to use it as the beginnings of a checklist for what to test your decks against. It stands to reason we haven’t seen the last of any of these decks.
Key Cards: Silver Snake, Gilder, Golden Veil, Explosive Growth, Hypnotize, Three Eyed Owl
Example List: Carl Diaz, Shufflebus 3
An impossible deck to ignore- Snake has won three seasons of The ShuffleBus tournaments with two different pilots. The decks all had their differences, but the core, noted above, remained throughout. Snake gets impossibly big for doing the thing you wanted to do anyway, and combined with Explosive Growth and Hypnotize the unblockable damage threat can rapidly ascend. Golden Veil is there to protect Snake from spells, Gilder and Maeoni keep it safe from units, and that really just leaves you. And you, my friend, are not safe from the Snake. Few of us are.
Key Cards: 2+ Attack units, Consume Soul, Three Eyed Owl, Nature’s Wrath, Fester, Crescendo
Example List: Inquisitor, Shufflebus 4
You have Harold to thank for time limits in competitive Ashes. Shufflebus 4’s final was an infamous three hour mirror-match slugfest between two decks in this archetype. Harold’s Hunter’s Mark makes playing big units tough, and it turns out big units do a lot to accelerate the game, which is why that final match drug on so long.
Ironically, however, Harold can and often does play a control-oriented game while going fast and hitting hard. Ashes is a game that’s almost always about the Battlefield, so it’s fitting that a Phoenixborn so good at controlling the board would be an archetype unto himself.
Phoenixborn: Aradel, Lulu
Key Cards: Frostback Bear, Gilder, Fester, Various High Value Summons (Salamander Monk, Three Eyed Owl, Mind Fog Owl, Ruby Cobra, Emberroot Lizard, etc.), Redirect
Example List: Phillycheaz, Shufflebus 5
Always strong and only getting stronger, Four Book’s unit composition is super varied based on the pilot and the Phoenixborn. Aradel really loves using Water Blast + Gilder to deal 3 damage in a single turn, Lulu gets such good usage out of Emberroot Lizard that it’s hard to turn him down. Four Book is insanely flexible, giving you enough power right on the spellboard that you can usually use your hand more surgically, only spending cards when you need to. While it’s got weaknesses, it doesn’t have very many truly bad matchups, and that’s why it’s remained so prevalent.
Phoenixborn: Odette, Xander, Echo
Key Cards: Hammer Knight, Sonic Swordsman, Master Vampire, Frostback Bear, Light Bringer, Salamander Monk, Raptor Herder, Crescendo, Fester, Blood Chains, Nature’s Wrath
Example List: ImpossibleGerman, Shufflebus 4
Forgive the nepotism- this is the general gameplan that I’ve been playing throughout all of my Shufflebus seasons, and my build for SB4 felt archetypal enough to cite as an example. These decks are basically “good stuff”, featuring a buffet of stuff from the above lists of great Ashes cards and seeking to combine them as harmoniously as possible. There’s a lot of flex to them, but they usually focus on winning the board through pure Knight-led muscle and swinging for the win, often with some burn to back things up.
These decks haven’t made it to the final tables yet, though- piloted well they can be a nightmare to kill, with answers to almost everything, but unlike other archetypes represented here their Plan A can feel less robust than something like Snake or 4 Book. It’s a great archetype for learning the Battlefield though, and the unit-focused approach makes it likely to be a consistent contender through the game’s life.
Phoenixborn: Brennen, Leo, Lulu, Odette
Key Cards: Salamander Monk, Fire Archer, Raptor Herder, Molten Gold, Final Cry, Sympathy Pain, Summon Sleeping Widows
Example List: Brian B, Shufflebus 3
The narrative surrounding Brennen for a long time as that she didn’t have enough legs to get consistent wins in competitive play, and that led many to question Burn as an entire archetype. Those concerns have mostly been squashed- Brian B’s excellent and innovative performance with Brennen in SB3 was just the beginning of Burn being more consistently represented across Ashes. The heat is on.
Phoenixborn: James, Jericho, Noah, Koji
Key Cards: Fallen, Open Memories, Raptor Herder, Summon Sleeping Widows, Meteor, Immortal Commander
Fallen is so brutally efficient, especially in tandem with Meteor, that many players assumed Swarm as an archetype belonged to it entirely. This has turned out to not be true, with Kaukomieli’s James Swarm making a huge splash in SB4 and tons of Noah swarm in the field for SB5. The dream is still alive for those of us who like to live dangerously by fielding tons of little units. Make sure you have an answer for when you’re up against a large crowd. You’ll likely need it.
Phoenixborn: Saria, Odette, Orrick, Leo, Echo
Key Cards: Meteor, Kneel, Three Eyed Owl, Essence Druid, Enchanted Violinist, Light Bringer
Example List: Matt Bauers, Shufflebus 3
The arrival of Orrick and his insane endgame means this category is likely to flesh out a lot more, but we’ve actually already seen solid control decks in the field from the likes of Bdwain and Mbauers, just to name a few. Of particular note is the tandem combo of Meteor and Kneel, already mentioned above, which can make life very difficult combined with other options that reduce the opponent’s lines of play. Not very many archetypes are truly of the “no fun allowed variety”, but this definitely qualifies. Best of luck against these monstrosities.
Phoenixborn: Leo, Rimea, Orrick, Aradel
Key Cards: Abundance, Orchid Dove, Ruby Cobra, Three Eyed Owl, Enchanted Violinist, Law of Fear, Heal
Example List: Stefanos, Shufflebus 1
Pure mill is usually centered around Abundance, an incredibly strong card. It hasn’t been an archetype that’s seen a ton of utilization, but it’s amazing showing in SB1 from Stefanos proved that it was good enough to compete. It’s hard to build, and hard to pilot, but it’s been done, and that’s enough for lots of folks to try it out. Newer cards like Ruby Cobra and the rise of Law of Fear mean this archetype has lots of room explore as well.
I hope this has been informative for you! The game of Ashes is always evolving, and as more cards come out I’m sure these lists will change some. Hopefully this has helped you get a baseline for what’s been historically considered good enough to be widely played, but the real beauty is going to be finding new ways to use this stuff in tandem with something under the radar. The next weird, awesome deck is out there, and it’s up to you to go find it.
But just as a heads up, that deck does not include Cut The Strings. Promise.
Happy hunting, Phoenixborn!