Talking Games with Justin Gary, creator of Ascension

Just before Thanksgiving, I was given the opportunity to talk with Justin Gary about his upcoming release of Ascension: Storm of Souls. Having grown up reading about him in issues of Inquest during his stint on the Magic Pro Tour, Justin Gary is still regarded as one of the most successful Magic players  in the world! So Castles & Cooks took the opportunity to talk about designing games, influences, favorite foods and super powers with Justin Gary, the CEO of Gary Games.

CnC: Having grown up playing Magic since ’94 and your personal involvement in the game, how has the Magic community responded to Ascension?

Especially when it comes to people like us who used to play Magic, now it’s like Ascension gives you that bite-sized experience that is much more accessible. At the Magic Grand Prix in San Diego last weekend, we brought Ascension so it was a really cool thing to see the crossover with everyone so excited. I got asked like 40 times questions like, “When is the expansion coming to iPhone? When is it coming out on Droid?” The level of enthusiasm was really cool to see.

I was in Seattle and got to hang out with Richard Garfield who is now a huge fan of Ascension. For me it was such an honor. I mean, he created Magic and basically dictated the course of my life. Now the fact that he plays Ascension every day is a great honor and very rewarding.

CnC: Oh wow! That must have been amazing.

It’s definitely one of those personal checks letting me know I got there.

It’s all very cool, we have a bunch of different variety of products that we’re working on. Now with Redakai being more of a CCG, like Pokémon style, or the skateboarding trading card game, we’re also working on new digital game initiatives. We’ve got the dice game coming out next year. We’re trying to do a variety of interesting projects.

Ascension is my favorite because it’s the game I made for me. It’s a game I made for my friends and me, but the fact that so many other people have fallen in love with it is just a very cool feeling.

CnC: I loved Dominion, but Ascension gives me both my Magic fix and Dominion fix while still being a game that my girlfriend is willing to play with me without feeling like I have to teach her.

We get that a lot! There are several key features we built into the design to make it more accessible for the significant other / girlfriend component that helps the game play out well. The fact that the type of interaction you have isn’t much direct conflict – it isn’t I’m Lightning Bolting you or I’m attacking you. It allows everyone to play their strategy and build it. It lets the players see where the interactions are and know how to manipulate the center row while watching the honor pool is really important.

But for players who just want to sort of casually play and build their deck while making a strategy, the game is still accessible.

CnC: We’re looking forward to the iOS version of the game getting the expansion released. Do you know when we will be seeing it?

I would be shocked and disappointed if it wasn’t out by Christmas. I’m playing the beta now and it’s very, very close to done. Actually, all of the cards have been implemented and work well. We’re dealing with a couple little interface things and adding in a few new features to the game as well, which I think people will really like. But we still need to see how many will be ready for this release and how many will wait until the next release.

CnC: Do you see Ascension as a card game with a digital version or a digital game with a card version?

For this game, it’s a card game at heart. That’s where I started with it, that was the original vision of it. The digital game has allowed us to explode in a way that we had never anticipated when we first started. I play probably as much digitally as I do physically – not counting playtesting. I think it’s still a card game at heart that has been very well ported to the digital landscape. I have other projects that I’m working on that are more digital games inspired by card games and are designed for the digital space specifically. Ascension was designed as a card game and we ported it over very well.

CnC: We saw the most recent promo card: Vortex, the Chaos Orb of Ascension and immediately thought, “That isn’t going to work unless you force people to flip their iPhones…”

There are ways when you can randomly pick things to destroy on the board. In general, that card is not planned for the digital game. Promos in general are the cards I feel like we can have the most fun. We can do things that we can’t really do in the main set. I don’t think I would put a card like Vortex into a main set ever because some people don’t like that kind of experience or don’t like the physicality of it.

I know a lot of my audience is like you and me, either current Magic players or former Magic players so having that little Chaos Orb feeling was sort of a fun thing. So we do a lot cards as promos that we think people will like and our next round of promos get pretty wacky. The nice thing about promos is that if you don’t like what we’re doing, don’t play with that promo. As opposed to an expansion which might not have cards people like, that could really turn people off to it. We try to watch that line and do the crazier stuff in promo packs opposed to the main sets.

CnC: Just recently we got the play with the Rat King promo pack, and after getting two on the center row at once, it got a little crazy. As gamers, we loved the change to the depth of the game but understand that some players might be turned off by it.

Have you gotten to see Storm of Souls yet? It is going on sale December 16th, just barely in time for the holidays. We’ve been selling preview copies at Essen and the convention at the Grand Prix last weekend. The reaction from people has just been fantastic but it’s definitely a step up in complexity and depth from the previous expansions.

It was very important to me when designing Ascension that it is as accessible as possible. So girlfriends, wives and people who haven’t played Magic would be able to come into this world. For some people that have now played Ascension for over a year, they’ve gotten hold of the mechanics of the base set and Return of the Fallen, so now we’ve added a new card type: the events.

Events are sort of like global enchantments. When the come up on the center row, they create new game modes that affect everybody. We’ve also added new always available cards like the Fanatic who is like the Cultist but costs 1 more to defeat but introduces the trophy mechanic.

The trophy mechanic is our new monster mechanic. Now when you defeat a monster, you put it in front of you as a trophy and then you can banish them to get the reward later instead of getting it right away. It adds a lot more strategy and timing to game. It ends up giving the buying side of the game a lot more strategy since you are not forced to use what you get as soon as you get it, you can instead wait for right moment. I think people who are into Ascension and have been playing a lot are really going to like Storm of Souls.

Storm of Souls is also an entry point for people, if you wanted to you could start with Storm of Souls since it is a stand alone. But in general, I think it is more for the advanced players.

CnC: Going forward, what is the expansion model for Ascension? Will there be another smaller set released about six months after Storm of Souls or will it be something different?

Nope, you’ve got it exactly. It’s been inspired by the Magic block set, so you’re getting a big set and a small set that are designed to be played together. So everything is compatible in terms of support and allows it to be manageable. Like one of the things I found with Dominion that was problematic was once I had gotten an expansion or two, the ability to combine everything and how to play them and even manage them became cumbersome.

The idea is you can take Chronicle of the Godslayer and Return of the Fallen and combine them play, and also be able to combine Storm of Souls with its expansion to play– but if you wanted to change things up, you could still mix and match. The set icons make it easier to divide them out for when you didn’t want to mix them.

What I’m really interested in is seeing how fans customize their center decks since I want to see what they come up with. There really weren’t enough tools with first two expansions, but with Storm of Souls now you have enough cards to really start customizing the center deck to make the kind of experience you want which is like another aspect of Magic where you can craft a custom game experience. I can’t wait to see what people come up with.

CnC: We got in the habit of playing a lot of Munchkin, but reached a point where the decks felt almost over saturated. We would pull out a stack of 500 cards, knowing that we might only get through a fifth of them in a single game. That’s part of the appeal of knowing Ascension isn’t a game where everything gets mixed together, since it will be clearly marked as what stands alone while still being cross compatible.

That’s our current vision for it and we have a couple different ways to change it up. I don’t want to talk in too much detail, but we have some side projects and interesting ways to play the game. But for the most part, it’s going to be “big set, small set” each year as our current vision for it. I don’t want it to be like Dominion where it felt like they were releasing a set every month or two, it just became too much and you couldn’t follow it any more. Since the beginning, I created this as being the kind of game that I wanted to play and my friends wanted to play. My goal is to keep that experience going through the life of the product.

CnC: After spending nearly an entire weekend playing to the point where our arms started to hurt from shuffling so much, we noticed a trend that many games seem to devolve into Lifebound versus Mechana battles with Void and Enlightened taking on support roles. Do you feel like Void and Enlightened are secondary factions to the others or are we missing out on more in depth strategies?

I don’t think that’s true. It certainly isn’t with Void. They have their own path to victory through combat and banishing cards out of your deck, which are both viable strategies to win the game. You can be relatively Void focused, and not worry about focusing on other factions and still have a very strong chance to win.

Enlightened doesn’t have its own sort of core victory path because, as you’ve noticed, Enlightened doesn’t generate power or runes, it manipulates the board. It also has ways to auto-kill monsters and generate honor that way. If there was one faction that could be argued as the poorest faction, you could make the argument that it is Enlightened. But Enlightened-style strategies give you an early Templar or Isiah and not worry about power.

Things like Dhartha’s Temple or Treasures of the Study, which allows you to discard cards to gain honor, provide new core strategies to Enlightened game play that you really can’t get elsewhere.

CnC: I’ve seen Chancellor’s Study and that seems like a card that Lifebound would absolutely love.

Yes, the different factions being able to work together is a core component of the game. With Lifebound wanting to gain honor directly and Enlightened providing the ability to do that, they have different ways of using cards like Arha Sensei to upgrade your cards. It allows for some very power plays. Enlightened is one of the more powerful factions with regard to what the cards can actually do, but usually it needs another outlet to convert actions into points.

CnC: As someone who has probably played more than anyone else, do you have a favorite faction and favorite card?

I won’t stick to a single strategy. When I started playing, I definitely found myself always playing around what showed up on the board and what the people around me were doing. One thing new players don’t realize is how much, especially in a multiplayer game, your seating order matters. Having the person to your right be heavy into the Void power strategy means they’re usually going to get the first picks like in a Magic draft, so you’re much better off switching to a different strategy where you will have access to more cards that aren’t going to be as good to them.

Alternatively, you have a much greater influence on what the person to your left is doing. Or when you’re dealing with multiple players, you want to try and take a different strategy that allows you to take the best cards with the least competition.

I do have favorite cards though and ones I enjoy are like Two-Fold Askara which is one of my favorite cards. It’s not going to directly win games, but can create these scenarios where you do things like copy Master Dhartha to really build up your hand. I like Raj, Psionic Master for the same reasons since you can get anything potentially by turning your hand into something awesome. The ones I like the most are the ones with the open ended possibilities. But that’s a pure fun preference and not a strategic preference.

CnC: When we play, it usually seems like Tom is always going hard Lifebound while I struggle to assemble the Mechana Doomsday machine to little or not effect.

Building the giant Mechana machine is a powerhouse and so funny because many people are like, “Oh my god, Mechana! It’s terrible, I could never play it,” and I’m forced to just chuckle because people play such different strategies. If nobody else picks up Mechana cards, then you’ve got one person who picks them up then there is a good chance that person is going to dominate the game.

But once people realize that those cards are good for pretty much everyone to buy at a certain level because they are worth so many honor points, then people won’t let each other buy them. Then you won’t have any player becoming the dominate Mechana player that some people want to be. In the end, it all balances out and that’s one of the key points of the game that strategies are adjustable and correctable based on what other people do.

CnC: As someone who grew up playing Magic through the depths of Combo Winter, I tend to notice when a game actually has balance. How was the game developed?

As far as development of the game is concerned, I am very blessed to be working with such unbelievably talented friends at the company now. We have multiple Magic hall of famers: Rob Dougherty, Brian Kibler, John Fiorillo is our Lead Developer. We have a very high caliber of testers who have played competitive gaming at its top level. So we were able to bring that in and I’m willing to put us up against any board in terms of well developed balanced strategies. That’s our area of expertise. Our main goal of course was to make sure the game is fun, but our next concern was making sure that the game is balanced.

I honestly did not think that Ascension was going to be any kind of success. I made it because I had been making games for a long time having worked at Upper Deck on the VS System, World of Warcraft TCG, and a whole bunch of other games that I’m proud of but they were always working with a major license and having to answer to other people. And Ascension meant I could just make my own game, I just wanted to do whatever I had to do to make it the way I wanted it by working with talented friends and just putting it out there. I expected that every dollar I put into it was going to be a lost dollar. The fact that we have had such success is a dream come true really. So I’m really blessed that I get to talk to fans that have had the kind of reaction you have had to the game. I really can’t wait to show off the new stuff because I know people are going to love Storm of Souls and the next expansion we’re working on. It’s exciting, rewarding and I can’t wait to show off what is coming next.

CnC: Since Castles and Cooks is also all about food, what is your favorite food to eat while gaming?

I like the classic having a pizza and playing D&D thing, it will always have a warm place in my heart but lately I’ve been on a health kick myself. I tend to make a mean turkey chili now, it’s a hearty thing and I can just have a pot of it out for people to grab whenever they want.

CnC: Final question – if you could have any super power, what would it be and why?

Whoa, another big question! I have spent a fair amount of time contemplating this question. In general, I would go with the power to read minds. I have always been fascinated with how the mind works. As a game designer, I’m always trying to think about how people think and have fun. How you can influence peoples’ behavior and let them have fun and being able to directly impact that would be pretty awesome.

Once again we, would like to thank Justin Gary for taking the time to talk to us about Ascension. Ascension Storm of Souls is released on December 16th and can be preordered for $39.99 here. For more information on Storm of Souls and a look at the exclusive promotional card Soul Collector, click here.