Thursday, September 6, 2012

Returning to Ravnica: Guild Mechanics

The original Ravnica block is one of my all-time favorite Magic blocks. It might actually be my favorite, but it’s a tough call between Ravnica and the Urza’s block. Either way, Ravnica was the block that finally got me to start playing FNMs and going to actual tournaments and just generally hanging out at gaming shops. I was strictly a casual player before then, and only played with a close, insular circle of friends. Happily, those friends are still the core of my gaming circle and I still prefer to play with them, but because of Ravnica I became much more a part of the local Magic scene for a number of years.

Thus  it should come as no surprise that I, along with virtually the entire Magic-playing population, am positively thrilled about Return to Ravnica. And while it’s still early in the spoiler season, my excitement is practically unbearable. The handfuls of cards we have seen so far have left me with little doubt that, on the whole, Return to Ravnica will be a triumphant sequel to one of the best-designed blocks in Magic’s history.

The question is: Can Wizards beat the sequel syndrome and deliver a set that manages to improve on what is already one of their biggest successes? Or will it fail to live up to the legacy of the original set?

One of the few flaws in the design of the original Ravnica block was that many of the guild mechanics fell a little short. Some were too complex, some were broken, and just didn’t line up flavor-wise with their guild. One of WotC’s stated goals with Ravnica was to do a better job on the guild mechanics. We now know the first five, so let’s line them up against their predecessors and see if WotC managed to deliver on this goal.


Selesnya: Convoke vs. Populate

Convoke is one of the best mechanics in the original block. It’s powerful but not broken or degenerate, which is definitely a key point as the mechanic is one more in a long line of mechanics that let you play stuff for reduced mana costs or even free. Most “free spell” mechanics wind up being broken, but Convoke isn’t actually free, technically, it just allows you to pay with a resource other than mana. Still even those kinds of mechanics can cause problems.
Flavorfully, Convoke definitely matches up with the Selesnya Conclave. It’s all about togetherness and team effort, that sort of cultish hivemind that the Selesnya are all about.

Populate largely plays into the same themes as Convoke, but approaches them from a different angle. Both Convoke and Populate encourage you to play with a token theme, but Populate requires it. That feels a tad more restrictive when viewed in the context of the entire game of Magic – not all Green/White decks are token decks, after all. But viewed through the lens of Green/White specific to the Ravnica block, it makes perfect sense. If you’re playing Selesnya, you’re inevitably going to be making some tokens, one way or another.

So while Populate is marginally more narrow than Convoke, it’s still a great mechanic for the Selesnya. It fits what the guild is doing, both flavorfully and mechanically. I’m definitely excited to see the full potential of the mechanic, once all of the cards are spoiled.

Verdict: I’m going to need to play with Populate to judge it from a gameplay perspective of course, but from a design and flavor standpoint, it seems to be a worthy successor to Convoke. The two mechanics play well together, synergizing nicely. Populate is not wordy or convoluted, and it’s quite intuitive to grasp. I’d say it’s pretty much on equal footing with Convoke.

Azorius: Forecast vs. Detain

Forecast was one of the failures of Ravnica block. The mechanic makes sense as a generic WU mechanic, but it definitely didn’t match the flavor of a gyuild of Lawmakers and Bureaucrats. It also didn’t play all that well. A few of the cards were cool – I personally love Pride of the Clouds – but most of them, you just never wanted to Forecast, you just wanted to cast them and be done with it. Forecast was a stinker, flavor-wise. In no way did it feel like a lawmaking or bureaucratic mechanic. It just felt forced and mismatched.

On top of that, it was a dangerous mechanic that development likely nerfed into oblivion. For one thing, it was yet another mechanic from the block that, if played the way it was designed, let to repetitive game states where the Forecast player just kept doing the same things every turn. It was also built-in card advantage – you never actually had to spend the card  you were Forecasting, so you  could do it forever. Low variance, repetitive gameplay and inherent card advantage all led to development likely being very, very conservative about where and how they used it. Forecast could have been just as broken as Dredge, and possibly even less fun, had Development not being paying close attention.

Fortunately, it’s been replaced with Detain, a much better fit for the Azorius. It matches the flavor of the guild much better. The only possible criticism I could give at this point is that there should be a way to “detain” a spell – stopping a suspect in the street for questioning is fine, but the Azorius are lawmakers too, so detaining a Sorcery on the stack would have been a cool way to execute the flavor of tying up something in red tape to stop it from going happening. Then again, they could just use countermagic for that I guess… (Oh wow, they so need to have a counterspell called “Filibuster”.)

Detain looks like it might be mildly annoying to play against – the mechanic basically just hoses permanents, albeit temporarily. That said, it doesn’t affect lands (wise choice), so you can always play around it by casting more stuff. Eventually the Azorius player won’t be able to detain everything (oh but of course, then you’ve just overextended into their Wrath effect!). But it doesn’t look stiflingly unfun and repetitive the way Forecast was (or might have been, had it seen play). It’s more likely to slow you down and generate a tempo advantage, rather than to lock you out completely.

Verdict: Detain is vastly superior to Forecast. We’re talking light years. Flavorfully, it’s dead-on. Gameplay seems like a big improvement as well.

Izzet: Replicate vs. Overload

Replicate was kind of like Forecast in that it was a great mechanic for Red/Blue in a vacuum, but it didn’t quite capture the flavor of the Izzet League, the steampunk-tinged mad scientists of Ravnica. It wasn’t a huge flavor bomb, but neither was it a perfect fit. Frankly, I think of the Izzet as tinkerers and so, to me, an Artifact-related ability would be ideal. However, for such a mechanic to matter you’d have to print additional artifacts in the set, and that would probably be logistically problematic, if not outright impossible. The Izzet are also notorious spellcasters, though, and so any kind of “Instants and Sorceries matter” mechanic is a suitable alternative.

The problem with Replicate, from a game-play perspective, was that it was repetitive and kinda boring after a while. Whatever spell you were casting, your only option was to get more of the same from it. Also it was a lot like Kicker, and later Multikicker was basically Replicate with a  paint job. So now we get Overload. Overload is basically yet another riff on Kicker, but it’s also a throwback to the awesome jank rare Radiate (which, ironically, the original Boros mechanic was based on, and named after!). Overload seems like they fixed the issues with Radiate (the Boros mechanic) and moved it to a guild where it made more flavor sense. I’m okay with this, though it’s somewhat less exciting that seeing something brand-spnaking-new.

Overload is a good fit, flavor-wise, though not quite perfect. It definitely looks like it will play better than both the original Replicate mechanic, and the Boros’ Radiate, upon which Overload was based.

Verdict: Overload is a minor improvement flavor-wise, significant improvement play-wise, even though it is similar in a lot of ways.

Rakdos: Hellbent vs. Unleash

For the record, I utterly loathed Hellbent. That should come as no surprise, though. If drawing cards is my favorite thing to do in Magic, and being in top deck mode is my least favorite thing in Magic, then a mechanic that discourages drawing cards, and encourages being in topdeck mode is not likely to win me over.

Also for the record, I tried anyway to make a Hellbent deck work. I liked Rakdos Pit Dragon, Jagged Poppet and Infernal Tutor enough that I built multiple decks to try and utilize them for quite a long time after Dissension came out. It even worked out now and then that the deck was fairly good. It’s just that the reward of activating Hellbent never made up for the downside of being completely out of cards.

That said, it was fitting that the mechanic was a do-or-die, go-for-broke, all-in kind of Mechanic. That fits the Rakdos quite well. The flavor was perfect – one of the best fits in the block. It’s just that it wasn’t all that fun to play.  Most people have more fun with a few spells in hand than they do with nothing to fall back on. Hellbent was a skill-testing and rewarding mechanic, if you could stomach the suicidal, aggressive approach, but I never could and most folks I knew weren’t eager to try, either.

Whatever mechanic replaced Hellbent, it would need to echo the flavor and style of Hellbent. Attacking your opponent and murdering all who get in your way, with reckless abandon, no though for personal safety – this is the flavor of Rakdos and the new mechanic, Unleash, hits those notes quite well. You can either have an okay creature for attacking and blocking, or you can have a better creature for attacking but NOT blocking. Rakdos is meant to be vicious, nihilistic and recklessly aggressive, and that is exactly what Unleash delivers. Whether it will actually be any good or not remains to be seen, but the fact that it doesn’t require you to overextend and barf your whole hand as fast as possible seems like it’s moving in the right direction.

That said, nothing I’ve seen so far really makes Unleash look all that compelling or fun. As much as I hated Hellbent, it was still interesting enough to get me to try and like it. Unleash just doesn’t spark even a modicum of creative impulse in me. For that I deem it a failure, but to be fair I think it’s largely an improvement over Hellbent.

Verdict: Still anathema to my playstyle, but in trying to be unbiased, I’d certainly have to rate it a minor improvement over Hellbent.

Golgari: Dredge vs. Scavenge

Finally, we have Dredge. The broken mechanic of Ravnica block. I’ve already called out a number of mechanics for being repetitive and reducing variance in games, but Dredge is the poster child for this flaw. In all fairness, it wasn’t all that bad within the block itself – it took cards from outside Ravnica to truly push Dredge over the top. But the fact remains, it is possible to build a deck that can win without ever adding a single mana to your mana pool. That’s what Dredge did to the game of Magic.

It was certainly a good flavor match for the Golgari, so I can’t complain about that aspect. And it was a very powerful mechanic, even before players broke it in half. For these reasons, I still consider Dredge to be one of the best mechanics in the block – great flavor and balance (within the block). The Golgari has other issues as a whole, but Dredge was not one of them.

Scavenge has the unenviable task of trying to fill Dredge’s shoes. It’s doubtful it can match Dredge’s power level – but I’m pretty sure that’s a good thing! It doesn’t look to be broken in anyway, it’s just good built-in card advantage, giving your creatures one last chance to be useful after they die. It definitely fits the flavor of the guild as well as Dredge did, or at least nearly so. It’s also a bit more narrow, being strictly creature-based. But, from a flavor perspective, even that restriction actually makes more sense. How does a Golgari mage cannibalize an Instant spell?

The main difference between Dredge and Scavenge, though is that Dredge is more of a centerpiece mechanic, whereas Scavenge is a supporting player. Dredge is such a potent mechanic that there’s a deck simply called “Dredge”. I doubt there will ever be a deck called “Scavenge” but I do expect there to be a few Scavenge cards that get played a lot.

Verdict: Scavenge is obviously less powerful than Dredge, but seems far more fun. It’s a great flavor match too, so overall I’d say it is a successful replacement, if not strictly an improvement.


Well, as far as mechanics go, WotC is 5 for 5 in matching or exceeding the standard set by the original block. They seem to be dialed in as to what didn’t work about Ravnica The First, and as long as they’re equally tuned in to what did work back then, we should be in for a real treat. Innistrad certainly seemed to have taught them a lot about lining up flavor and mechanics, as that is the one area where they so far have shown the most improvement – the flavor of the new mechanics fit their respective guilds exceptionally well. They’ve also reduced complexity – so far we haven’t seen anything like “Haunt” – without making the mechanics boring or mundane (well, Unleash is a little dull to me, but that’s my bias again).


  1. I disagree on what you've said about the izzet mechanics. Mainly I think this is due to seeing izzet as spell experimenters not artificers. With this in mibd both mechanics fit perfectly flavor wise. I also found replicate to be one of the coolest mechanics in the set and very skill testing to play with. I agree that multikicker was too similar.

    Hellbent was a tough mechanic. It felt like it was supposed to make up for being in topdeck mode, but I feel like it never really did. Unleash seems really weak to me. It seems like a great idea that got repeatedly nerfed in development and now this is what we have. Hopefully they make good enough cards to utilize the mechanic.

  2. RE: Izzet - I see what you're saying about the flavor, but the art for many of the Izzet cards is rather steampunk-ish and steampunk wizards just makes me think Artifacts. But it is clear that they are also reckless, experimental spellcasters, so Replicate and Overload do also make sense in that regard.

    As for Hellbent and Unleash, I totally feel you. The rewards of having Hellbent active were almost never quite good enough to make having no cards not suck balls. But yet it was still an interesting mechanic.

    Unleash is hard to judge because it literally depends on the strength of the overall creatures. Carnival Hellsteed seems really strong to me, and if the average Unleash dude is of similar caliber I don't think weakness is the mechanic's problem.

    To me it's just uninteresting, both from a deckbuilding perspective, and from gameplay perspective.