Ascend: If you control ten or more permanents, you get the city’s blessing for the rest of the game.
Ascend is a new mechanic from Rivals of Ixalan, and is the most recent of Magic’s threshold mechanics, mechanics with strengthen cards once a certain threshold is reached. (Hence, threshold cards.) These mechanics serve an important role, increasing the power level of cards as the game goes on, and giving players something to work towards and achieve. Ascend follows the same general guidelines, but has some very notable differences compared to previous threshold mechanics.
For reference, some of the most notable threshold mechanics from Magic’s past are: Threshold, metalcraft, and spell mastery. The original threshold mechanic, which is naturally called threshold, strengthens cards when a player has seven cards in graveyard. Metalcraft strengthens cards when a player controls three or more artifacts. And spell mastery strengthens cards when a player has two instant or sorceries in graveyard.
Two Steps Forward
Explore enough lands, gather enough allies, keep putting one foot in front of the other and players are guaranteed eventually to reach the golden spires of Orazca. Once they do, Orazca leaves them forever touched by its power with the city’s blessing, strengthening their cards with ascend.
This is notably different from previous threshold mechanics in a few ways, most importantly being that once a player gets the city’s blessing, that player keeps the city’s blessing forever as opposed to previous threshold mechanics which only work for as long as a player maintains that threshold. Changing to a gated threshold, where once players pass a gate they keep the threshold forever, notably improves how ascend plays. Once players have the city’s blessing, they don’t need to keep counting permanents every turn to make sure they still have ten. Gameplay becomes simpler to calculate since players don’t have to worry about what would happen if they lost the city’s blessing in the middle of a turn, and players also don’t have to go to the trouble of playing defensively to keep enough permanents alive for ascend.
Gameplay becomes simpler to calculate
Something else important to note about ascend is that it doesn’t matter what type of permanent a player controls, only that a player controls ten total permanents. This is another case of simplification, since it’s easier for players to count everything rather than just a subset of permanents. It also rewards players for playing any type of permanent, whether it be a land, a creature, and enchantment, etc. Which both gives players more freedom in how they build their deck, and also helps make ascend more predictable since any non-instant or sorcery card a player draws will put them at least one step closer to ascend.
Caring about any permanent type has another benefit as well, since it makes ascend less parasitic than previous threshold mechanics. For example, the original threshold mechanic all but requires players to use cards that specifically fill their graveyards, an effect which only matters with other cards that can use cards in the graveyard and which creates a web of cards that are only useful if a player has another card which makes it useful. Metalcraft and spell mastery also have specific deck building requirements, requiring enough artifacts or instants and sorceries respectively to work. Comparatively, the effects in Rivals of Ixalan which support ascend also support players who aren’t playing with ascend, making their inclusion more natural. For example, Rivals of Ixalan made some of the best common removal spells Auras, it continued using Treasure tokens which allow instants and sorceries to also count towards permanents, and it also included cards like Strength of the Pack which reward players using ascend who end up with larger board states.
One Step Back
One of Magic’s greatest strengths is how resonant its mechanics are. For example, it feels right that a creature with metalcraft gets +2/+2 when a player controls three artifacts, since that creature is using the power of those artifacts to grow stronger itself. Most threshold mechanics do very well connecting flavor and mechanics this way, though ascend is only partially successful at this.
It does make a certain amount of sense that having more permanents leads to stronger spells, but where ascend really stumbles compared is why controlling ten permanents matters for getting the city’s blessing. Orazca itself has no connection with the number ten, and if ascend didn’t specifically give the “City’s blessing” but instead used a more generic name like enlightenment, there would have been nothing connecting the ability with Orazca itself. (What I would have liked to see is some connection between the number ten and Orazca showing up on some of the cards, for example with a reprint of Tower of Eons as one of the spires of Orazca to connect it with gaining 10 life.)
Another concern I have is less with ascend itself and more the standard environment it’s in. Standard is supposed to be the easiest constructed format to approach, but in this standard format players could realistically play a deck that requires tracking the number of permanents each player controls, whether a player has the city’s blessing and how soon a player could reach the city’s blessing, how many energy counters each player has, +1/+1 counters on some number of creatures, -1/-1 counters on some number of creatures, and tokens which have been made either with embalm, eternalize, God-Pharaoh’s Gift or The Scarab God.
Too Much Of A Good Thing
But of course, ascend’s greatest weakness is its greatest strength taken too far. Ascend is easy to play with, and any deck can use it reliably. But, by making ascend so ubiquitous and reliable, it also becomes less exciting and interesting. Players can expect to ascend every game, making it less a question of if and more a question of when. Which makes ascending itself feel less like an achievement that players need to work towards, and more like something given to players just for reaching a certain turn. Also, because ascend is in all five colors and spread across all the different archetypes, in any draft each deck almost always ends up with a few ascend cards and no deck ends up with a lot of them. In total, ascend feels less like the big exciting mechanic that it should rightfully be as the single new mechanic in Rivals of Ixalan, and more like a small workhorse mechanic that just adds a little bit of seasoning to the format.
Overall, ascend is a simplified version of previous threshold mechanics, which is easier to build around, easier to predict, and easier to play with. For all of this, it is undeniably a success. But, it is not a complete success. All of its simplification has left it easier to use, but left it feeling less satisfying and less exciting, and its use leaves it feeling more diluted than the single new mechanic in a set should.
Lastly, if somehow my 1,200 words or so on ascend haven’t been enough for you, here are some other articles on ascend to sate your appetite with: