Thursday, September 27, 2012

Return to Ravnica - First Impressions

Everyone's excited about Return to Ravnica and I'm no exception. My optimism has dulled a bit since the entire set has been spoiled, but mostly just because I don't think they hit the flavor as well as I know they can. I'm hoping actually playing with the cards will make me forget all about that.

If you look at just the commons, Return to Ravnica bears more resemblance to Rise of the Eldrazi than the original Ravnica in a few ways. There are more expensive spells than usual, more ramp and more defenders to help you get to them. RtR appears to be another iteration on Battlecruiser Magic. 
It makes sense… The biggest weakness of multicolor magic is the difficulty of getting the specific colors you need for your 2.5—3.5-color deck early in the game. ETB-Tapped lands like Golgari Guildgate and artifact fixers like Azorius Keyrune help you to get there, but further reduce early game action. So it makes perfect sense to skew your gold set toward the slower end of the spectrum. That way, many fewer games will end with one player never casting a spell.

I'm just going to skim briefly through the commons and share some of the interesting things that stand out to me.

Armory Guard—Was Pillarfield Ox good enough to reprint but bad enough to make a new common that's strictly better on two separate axes? I'm not actually worried about that because it wouldn't even break the game at two mana (though it would skew further, ob). What really surprises me is that there are 8 cards that have or give Vigilance (and 2 more than untap) in Selesnya colors. For contrast, there are 11 cards with Populate. Vigilance slows things down by preventing your opponent from attacking. Yes, you are by definition attacking, but only 2 points at a time, given the big-butt nature of vigilant creatures. If both sides have it, welcome to stalmate city. I guess this plays into the battlecruiser philosophy by slowing the game down until the heavies hit, but it still makes me nervous.

Avenging Arrow is simpler than Avenge. Well played, R&D.

Azorius Arrester is the poster child for how bad detain looks and how good it really is. The card (and the mechanic) looks poor because it's such a marginal ability, but I'm confident it's not. I grant that this is speculation, but think about how many cards where you'd be happy to play a deck with just the card and land. I would gleefully play 24 Arresters .deck.

I originally thought Ethereal Armor would be ishy, but now I realize just how many enchantments white players are meant to run. I guess this a callback to the aura sub-theme from the original (seen in Bramble Elemental, Auratouched Mage and the Magemark cycle).

Selesnya Sentry is another hint that this set is aimed at the established player base in favor of new players (not unusual for an expert set, just saying). It's very easy to say "5G is too much for a regenerate effect" and miss how big a 3/2 for 3 is in a slow format like this.

Trained Caracal == Soldier Spirit

Chronic Flooding ~~ Forgetful Sleep. Combined with Crosstown Courier and Doorkeeper, you have the new mill deck. I'm guessing Vedalken Entrancer was in this file originally and when it had to be pushed, they put it in M13 so we wouldn't cry about it's absence.

Funny how I almost never played Hydrosurge or Hysterical Blindness but will likely play Downsize. Options are good.

Voidwielder sure makes Aether Adept look good, right? Had to, considering all the tempo Azorius is already bringing.

Catacomb Slug is a black 2/6. You don't see that.

Unleash might have just been "can't block" or "must attack if able" if Wizards didn't specifically need a new keyword for each guild.

Deviant Glee marks the first use of R: Gain Trample. Get used to this, folks.

Ogre Jailbreaker and the other cares-about gates cards feel quite forced. They couldn't make the ability too strong, or people would be stealing off-color gates for non-color reasons just like they did Karoos in the original block. That leaves us with anemic abilities that kind of benefit us for running a land we wanted anyhow. All to justify the subtype and keep them from being strictly worse than whatever. The distraction isn't worth it. Gatecraft should have been omitted entirely. 

Gatecreeper Vine is the only exception to my displeasure with Gate-matters cards. The effect is perfect. Why it's on a 0/2 instead of a sorcery is unrelated.

The Defender subtheme is right out of Rise of the Eldrazi. Maybe they felt players need more options for the All Defender decks.

So there's a cycle of Enchant Land cards. Why? to make land destruction better? We did something like that in M13GA but I'm not feeling it here. Especially since 3/5ths of them are usually unplayable.

Cobblebrute makes me happy.

I'm surprised Dynacharge wasn't made a sorcery to keep it from being strictly better than both Trumpet Blast and Bull Rush. We'll survive.

Electrickery is an amazing name. If only there were something tricky about the card.

Glad to see Explosive Impact finally see print. So good.

I'm forced to assume Viashino Racketeer was a 2/2 in Design and Dev somehow determined he was too good. Hard to imagine, but it's the only explanation.

Why is Axebane Stag an Elk? Too distract us from how bonkers a 6/7 common is. If so, they were successful. I would have loved this card as a dinosaur or something, but as an Elk that eats Alpha Tyrranax and Vastwood Gorger for breakfest, I hate it. Total flavor fail.

Stonefare Crocodile gains lifelink if you have black mana. Because it's a necrocodile. But not a Vampire or Zombie Crocodile. It's far too early for me to judge how successful the set was for Limited play or Spike/Timmy/Johnny appeal, etc but as a Vorthos I already know I could be so much happier. What happened creative team?

Towering Indrik instead of Giant Spider? Because, screw you Giant Spider. For some reason.

Search Warrant is a stapled card. It looks like the effects relate, but they don't. Couldn't I have gained life equal to the biggest card's CMC?

Vassal Soul couldn't have been 2W/U?

Chemister's Trick is awesome, but I don't know why it's in the same set as Downsize, both at common. Reminds me of Chah's Sirensong Rapture.

Essence Backlash does everything this set doesn't want. Disregarding players flipping tables, it's great design.

Skull Rend is for multiplayer. Yea, a multiplayer card.

Have you noticed the change in standard templating from "Target creature gets/gains X until EOT" to "Until EOT, target creature gets/gains X"? I hope someone writes about this change because it's quite curious. Seems like they've gained twice as much awkwardness as clarity.

I'm surprised how few reprints there are from the original block. I count just the five shock lands. It's obviously imperative to give the set a new identity, but when you're banking on nostalgia to sell a set, don't you think a few old nuggets would be welcome? They don't have to be money cards like Dark Confidant. What about Transguild Courier or Vedalken Dismisser (which they nearly printed anyhow)? Why can't I Last Gasp your Veteran Armorer or Ogre Gatecrasher? I has a sad.

Having said all that, I'm really looking forward to the Return to Ravnica prerelease. Should be awesome. What card am I most hoping to open? I wouldn't spit on a Vraska, but I'd really like to make two 5/5s for six or Search the City for value.


  1. Search Warrant is just a stapled effect? No, you just get to be really, REALLY sure how many cards they have in their hand.

    Vassal Soul couldn't have been 2W/U because they are pushing 2 colored decks much more heavily this time through Ravnica. Hybrid mana allows for a ton of flexibility, and it's a flavor fail not to really have any benefit for being in a dedicated Azorious deck.

    Viashino Racketeer was probably on the receiving end of development balancing, but it's also good to note that R&D has been actively working to reduce common creature toughness to make 1 drops more relevant. Moving filler to 1 toughness makes the 1 damage removal more relevant and the 1 power guys much better.

    1. Jay didn't mention this, but I think Vassal Soul is a failure because, unless they plan on introducing a significant Spirit theme later on, Vassal Soul being worse than Sunspire Griffin is just weird.

      If you consider what the costs of Vassal Soul represent (1WW, 1UW, or 1UU), you should always end up with something equal to or greater than the Sunspire Griffin, especially when you consider that the hybrid cards were being used to highlight intriguing facets of their guild. I feel like they must have added a colorless mana late in development without really thinking about how it looked in context.

    2. I would guess that Sunspire Griffin has an extra point of toughness because it's _harder_ to cast. Your argument about mana costs seems backwards to me.

    3. As flexible as hybrid is, it never results in a cost that is less difficult to achieve than Sunspire Griffin's, especially with regards to the format they are both in.

      Vassal Soul is not playable in a deck that doesn't use one of its colors as a base.

      Note how the other hybrid commons are designed:

      1. Goblin Piker/Dakmor Scorpion w/Haste
      2. Naturalize/Disenchant w/Populate
      3. Discount Flowstone Aquamoeboid
      4. Better Zombie Goliath / Worse Hallowhenge Beast

      And Azorious gets a card that is commonly found at the SPLASHABLE costs of 2W (Wild Griffin) or 2U (Wind Drake).

      That strikes me as odd.

    4. I believe you're mistaken, or perhaps I'm misunderstanding your claim. If you're only running lands that produce W/U, Vassal Soul can be cast with any combination of lands. Sunspire Griffin requires WW, which you might not have on turn three.

      In fact, even a card that costs 1WU is easier to cast than one that costs 1WW, provided that you're playing a WU deck with a relatively even land split.

      The reason Sundering Growth beats Naturalize is because HH is not strictly easier than 1C- you might not be playing both colors of the H. But 1HH is always easier than 1CC. There are times you can cast 1HH but not 1CC, and there are no times you can cast 1CC and not 1HH.

      If they'd wanted Vassal Soul to be similarly stronger than a 1CC card, they'd have to make it cost HHH, which I'd assume looks too restrictive on a common. But I don't buy the idea that it once cost HH. You can't print a 2/2 flyer for UU at common!

    5. You can print a 2/2 Flyer at common for WW (Leonin Skyhunter) and WU (Azorious First Wing) and 2U (Wind Drake) and a Welkin Tern for 1U, Blue and White share primary flying, but a 2/2 flyer for UU is somehow inappropriate?

      And I'll concede the statistical reality of their costs, but in the context of RtR I don't see a deck in which Vassal Soul offers some ease-of-casting that validates its existence. Yes, I could play it in an Izzet deck, unlike Sunspire, but that seems like a dubious purpose considering its guild alignment.

      A pure 2/1 flyer for HH should at least be something we can agree on, reflecting the structure of the Longlegs in which you see a compromise of existing constructs. Plus, it'd be weak to Electrickery and Izzet Staticaster for, you know, added guild-relevant antagonism.

    6. 1HH is definitely easier to cast than 1CC and 2H is definitely easier than 2C (though it becomes a debate when you compare 1HH to 2C).

      I'd agree that the soul's 1HH cost makes it more likely Azorius players will get it instead of W/!U and U/!W players, though I'm curious about this statement: "They are pushing 2 colored decks…" What makes you say that? What have they done differently from the original where three-color decks were the norm?

      A UU 2/2 flyer is definitely printable—even at common—but would be a bold move indeed and it would be a rare set that wants it, much less can justify it.

    7. White is #1 for small creatures, and blue is #5. Flying is primary in both, but white gets Stormfront Pegasus where blue has Welkin Tern, which is significantly worse. Leonin Skyhunter is one of white's better common weenies. It's hard to extrapolate from incomplete data, since CC doesn't get printed much at common, but I just don't think it makes sense in blue.

      But they are definitely pushing two-color decks more than last time. Old Ravnica had Signets + Bouncelands, and new Ravnica has Gates, so the fixing is substantially worse. Old Ravnica's common hybrid cards each cost ?H, and new Ravnica's cost ?HH.

    8. Stormfront Pegasus and Welkin Tern are effectively the same thing; chump-blocking is not a dramatically powerful ability, and if you're playing maindeck Tern or Pegasus, your goal is to attack, attack, and then attack some more.

      And let's not pretend Delver of Secrets isn't a thing, even if it's a thing that probably shouldn't have been printed.

  2. Ogre Jailbreaker and the other cares-about gates cards are forced, but for good effect. Especially in limited, new players are often loathed to pick the mana fixing early enough. This was especially true the last time we were in Ravnica, where the format literally changed overnight once Karoos became a known quantity. Gate related cards give new players a non-intrusive reminder that "hey, these lands are pretty good".

    1. It doesn't hurt that the flavor of the Gate-centric cards is quite good. In fact, most of the top-down designs in this set are awesome.

      It's just then you have terrible flavor faux pas like "Arresters".

    2. Why does Wizards care whether mana fixing gets picked 6th or 12th? As long as it gets picked, players will play them and their decks will work.

      Does knowing that Ogre Jailbreaker and Armory Guard exist actually make you pick a Gate higher than if they didn't? I'm skeptical. I think instead you pick the Ogre higher when you've already got a couple gates (and you take Armory Guard regardless).

    3. Development would certainly care about where fixing gets picked, as the prioritization of fixing impacts the general complexion of decks being built. If, as Wobbles posits above, Development strove to design a format in which two-colors are best, it's reasonable to presume fixing should not go as highly as it would in a format in which 3+ colors are the ideal.

      As to your second question:

      Gatecreeper Vine means you take Gates higher.
      Having Gates means that you take Ogre Jailbreaker higher.
      And you never take Armory Guard unless there's nothing better.

    4. Well, there's a lot of difference in a draft enviroment where you have to spend the first few picks on lands (Original Ravnica) or where you have the opportunity to draft a 5 color deck because the ample fixing comes around late enough were you don't have to worry (Alara). Wizards wants a middle ground here, so they've provided pretty strong incentives to stay two color (more restrictive mana, less fixing), but because mana bases need to be more evenly split than a Cc-style core set enviroment they need more fixing. So they give you little incentives to up the fixing like Gates maters cards.

      It's also possible that the gates are important plot points, as Maro has suggested. Certainly the name of Gatecrash is a sign in that direction. This could foreshadow an open civil war on Ravnica come set 3, or it could hint that Ravnica somehow opens "gates" to other planes (Jace and Giddeon recruit the guilds to fight the Eldrazi). Who knows? The point is that "gates-matter" has lead to some interesting Top-down cards as metaghost noted, and it certainly lends a clear hook into the next set.

  3. Little bit off-topic.

    I really love this blog. The articles are very well written and fun to read. (not to mention the card of the day <3)

    But the fact that mentioned cards are only underlined and not hyperlinked is so sad... I don't know most cards by heart. It would be so fantastic if a little card-popup would show up (like on most large magic blogs) if you hover over a card. Then this would probably become my n°1 blog to read about MTG. xD

    Or did I miss something and is this function already in, but it just doesn't work for me?

    1. Any card that's underlined should function as a pop-up. If pop-ups don't work for you, it's either a browser issue that Jay may know the solution to, or it's because someone misspelled the name of the card.

    2. Thx. I tried it with Opera and Chrome. Nothing works. I'll try a different PC next.

    3. Hmm, can you make sure you have JavaScript turned on and script-/ad-blocking for the site turned off? (We don't have ads anyway.) Please let me know if that helps or not.

    4. Mhm, I tried a different PC on a different network and it works. It's probably because I'm on a heavily restricted government network here.

      The problem is entirely on my side.

  4. I think the "Until end of turn" thing was done because some new players may assume that the stat bonus is permanent and the keyword is not. The mystery is in how incredibly inconsistent they were in applying this template. I see no reason that Izzet Keyrune should have it, and even less that Korozda Guildmage and Mizzium Skin miss it. I'm not sure if the charm structure made them avoid the extra comma in Selesnya Charm though.

    1. Lee Sharpe confirmed on Twitter exactly your suspicion, "'Until end of turn' gets frontloaded when there are multiple effects with that duration. It's backloaded if only one." But you're right that it seems to have been applied inconsistently. Curious.

    2. I would guess that the reason Izzet Keyrune has it is that the original template tacked the third ability onto the effect of the second ability (notice that all other Keyrunes only have two abilities). When they made it its own ability, they forgot to change the templating back.

      One "gets" and one "gains" seems to be their limit before they swap "Until" around to the front, hence Mizzium Skin.

  5. Search Warrant also fails to have very much to do with an actual warrant. I search your bag/home/office and I . . . get healthier?

    I think you make a good point about Unleash that could equally be made about Detain.While it's not exactly the point you made, I would add that all the keywords and associated reminder text make the set feel complicated and intimidating. I don't have any nostalgia for Ravinica, not having been playing then, and the walls of text are reinforcing the sense that newer players aren't welcome in this set.

    1. Modern design tenets did at least simplify some aspects of what made the original Ravnica very complicated, as there are much fewer on-board activated abilities (especially repeatable abilities without any cost) and much more vanilla creatures. And among the keywords, nothing is as complicated as Dredge or something like Haunt.

      But yes, there's a reason they don't regularly put 10 keywords in a block.