It’s that time again! With the post-Aphelios metagame solidified, it is the perfect time for a new set release. And as luck would have it, Riot Games has us covered with tomorrow’s release of Empires of the Ascended. I got to go hands-on with the set recently, and I am happy to say I walked away extremely impressed. This set introduces several game mechanics that bring a unique feel to the already mechanically diverse landscape of Legends of Runterra while still organically melding with what has come before. While I’m eager to talk about champions, keywords, and cards, I want to take a moment to talk about the themes that have been baked into this new expansion.
Sun, Sand, and the Ascended
Before I got my hands on the new cards, Mark Sassenrath, Design Lead for Empires of the Ascended, walked us through the major themes that the cards are intended to reflect. These themes are time and inevitably, the glory of the Ascended, and the grandeur and brutality of the desert.
These three pillars are captured in some truly unique ways. Through several of the new mechanics, these themes are utilized superbly to give the expansion both focus and a recognizable identity within the larger game. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of how these three core themes are integrated into Empires of the Ascended is in the way they weave through each other. It’s not like a third of the set is strictly devoted to one of the three pillars. Rather, some cards bring two or more of these pillars together, forming the set into a multifaceted whole.
Now that we’ve touched on this expansion’s broader themes let’s look at how the new mechanics aim to bring these themes to life.
The first new mechanic I want to talk about exemplified that first design pillar, time and inevitably. One of the first spoilers we got for this was the new landmark Buried Sun Disk, which introduced players to the new countdown mechanic.
The way this mechanic works is pretty simple. When a landmark with Countdown enters play, it has a certain number of counters on it. At the start of each round, one of these counters is removed. When the last counter is removed, the card effect will trigger.
Several of the new landmarks in this set feature this new mechanic. With countdowns ranging from the release of previously captured cards to champions’ leveling up, the game’s awareness of time becomes acute.
The new predict mechanic brings the concept of inevitably to the forefront. When a character with this ability enters play three, random cards from their deck will be revealed to the player. They will then pick one to go to the top, and the other two will return to the deck. This allows players to plan for the future and make their next turn’s draw inevitable.
Among the new champions seeing release in Empires of the Ascended, some are designated in the game as ascended. Ascended are currently unique among the champions in Legends of Runeterra for being the only ones with a third level. While these third levels are challenging to unlock, doing so all but guarantees a victory. If you thought opponents surrendered quickly when you leveled up your Aurelien Sol, you might get whiplash if you ever pull off a level three animation.
When asked if Shurima’s Ascended champions would be the only ones ever to get a third level, the devs at the preview event were only able to comment that the current plan was for third levels to be extremely rare, but they couldn’t speak to what future design teams might decide to do.
The last two new mechanics both speak to the design team’s final theme, brutality. These two abilities are slain and reputation. Slain abilities count the number of creatures that have been killed by attacks from creatures or because of card effects that you control. An important note is that slain abilities do not care whose creature is doing the dying. Also, effects like ephemeral do not count towards slain.
Reputation abilities go online when your creatures have struck for five or more damage a total of four times. There are some surprisingly high attack stats on cheaper cost creatures in this set, so getting a card’s reputation requirement met might not be as hard as it first appears.
With all the tracking of units slain and damage dealt, these last two mechanics also weave nicely into the focus on time from the first design pillar we talked about. As I said, the team took those concepts and baked them into the DNA of Empires of the Ascended. And it is all the better for it.
The last thing I want to talk about here isn’t a wholly new mechanic as much as a rebranding of a previous concept. There is a new spell speed coming in this set. It is called focus speed. This speed functions just like the Gem, as well as the trio of blade fragment cards. Focus spells happen at burst speed but can only be cast when no other spells are waiting to resolve and when the player is not in combat. I think the streamlining and expansion of this style of spell is a great addition to the game. It gives the designers more ways to fine-tune a spell for better balancing and eliminates some unnecessary wordiness from the cards.
As is always the case with Legends of Runeterra expansions, the most looked forward to new cards are, of course, the champions. With the new region of Shurima getting five champions and a new champion coming for Noxus, Demacia, Shadow Isles, and Freljord each, there are plenty of these exciting cards to go around. While I’m not going to go into each champion in detail, I will say that the design team has made it a point to create heroes that will appeal to every player’s style. Whether you like to play for the long game with hard control elements, or you are like me, and you think only of how often you can hit the enemy nexus, there will be a champion here for you.
Of special note, though, are the four champions for the older factions. While these characters have been designed to feel like pieces of the Empires of the Ascended set, they also augment the established design concepts of their regions. This allows these champions to function as a bridge between all the newness in this set and the game’s established concepts.
With 110 new cards being added to this set, there is so much one can talk about. While the bulk of them belongs to Shurima and its new themes, there are several new cards for the preexisting regions that look like they will be great additions to decks. Cards like the Shadow Isles Spirit Journey will kill a unit and then revive it, making it a great utility tool for either triggering their many last breath cards or taking the starch out of a buffed-up attacker.
Some exciting combinations can be found in how some new cards interact with the old faction themes. The new location Inner Sanctum and the spell Payday each create copies of the fleeting spell Lucky Find. As a big Piltover & Zaun player, one of my quick playtest decks was a Shurima/P&Z deck combining these new cards with some of the augment cards from P&Z. My quick tests definitely held some promise.
These little tastes are just a sampling of what Empires of the Ascended brings to the table. There is far too much to go into detail here. But suffice to say, I cannot wait to see all the new decks the community will build with all these new cards.
The last thing to note about Empires of the Ascended is the continued improvement in the visual effects and animations. All of the Champion level-up animations are gorgeous here. I struggle to say which is my favorite. They are all of them among the best the game has produced yet. And the gorgeous visual work doesn’t stop there either.
Numerous card effects have their own eye-catching visuals assigned to them. Legends of Runeterra has always been lavish with its visual presentation, but Empires of the Ascended raises its game to a whole new level.
As a lifelong brewer, it was a special kind of thrill to get to experiment with so many never-before-seen cards. During my roughly three hours of play, I experimented with a Sivir/LeBlanc deck, a Sivir/Vi deck, and lastly, an Azir/Taliyah deck.
As one may surmise from the champions chosen, my first two decks were pure aggro, which is my preference in general. And there is a lot of aggro to go around. Starting a game with a 3/1 Bloodthirsty Marauder on turn one and just never looking back was fun.
Also, Sivir’s 35 damage dealt requirement to flip was not a huge struggle with the decks I built. In both of the decks I played her in, she consistently flipped within a couple of turns. And playing her with P&Z so I could Sumpworks Map her and proceed to make my entire board elusive on attack was amazing. Especially when the board included an 8/4 Vi. Did you know Vi stands for victory?
And perhaps the biggest star in these decks was Ancient Hourglass. Several times it saved those buffed attacks from instant death at the hands of Vengeance or preserved key elements of my board from a Ruination. Ancient Hourglass is going to be an auto-include in any Shurima deck I build.
The final deck I ran was a bit less in my wheelhouse. I wanted to try my hand with the landmark-focused Taliyah, and since there is a landmark that feeds into Azir’s Sand Soldier theme, I figured combo time! While this was my least successful of the three, I still enjoyed playing it a lot. Balancing my creatures with landmarks was a fun new puzzle to work on.
While the archetype will need more practice and refinement than a handful of quick playtests, I don’t think it’ll be as clunky as originally thought. Though whether or not it can be tier one is beyond my Platinum ranked skills to determine.
But Wait, There’s More!
Players who enjoyed the KD/A Event Pass a while back will be pleased to hear that Empires of the Ascended will be having one of its own. Filled with all kinds of goodies, including Guardians, emotes, card backs, and even a couple of prismatics, this pass will be giving players yet another reason to get hyped for the new set tomorrow. And just like the previous Event Pass, there are both free and premium options. So those not wishing to pay can still partake of the challenges and fun.
Also coming to Legends of Runeterra tomorrow is the first-ever Co-op Lab. That’s right! Two vs. two battles await as players take turns playing cards and managing their boards. To add a little more interactivity between the two players, the devs have added an exclusive card to the Lab that allows a player to hand off a card to their partner once per turn.
And there you have it. Tomorrow is a big day for Legends of Runeterra as the new Empires of the Ascended set, along with a new Event Pass and Co-op Lab, arrive. With an exciting new region, new mechanics, and themes adding a bevy of new strategies to the game, this new expansion looks to really shake up the meta in an exciting way. There is so much to talk about, and I wish I had the time and space to dive into all the cards. But luckily, they are almost here! But if you can’t wait to see them, be sure to check out everything that has been teased here. Good luck, everyone! And may all your brews be tier one!
Empires of the Ascended goes live on March 3rd.
Legends of Runeterra: Empires of the Ascended
- Rating - 9.5/109.5/10
With an exciting new region, new mechanics, and themes adding a bevy of new strategies to the game, this new expansion looks to really shake up the meta in an exciting way.