Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Is R&D Pushing Two-Color Decks in Return to Ravnica?

Wobbles commented on Jay's earlier article on Return to Ravnica, saying something I found particularly insightful:
"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 Azorius deck."
To which Jay responded:
"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?"
I said a few things in reply, but then realized that Jay's question deserved a more thorough treatment.  So, here we are, and I claim that Wobbles is quite correct: they are making a deliberate effort to push two-colored play in Return to Ravnica.

First, let's look at the mana fixing.  The original Ravnica had both signets (e.g., Selesnya Signet) and bouncelands (e.g., Dimir Aqueduct) at common.  It's hard to overstate just how amazingly good these fixers were.  Both of them saw plenty of constructed play.  And in draft, the correct thought process was usually, "Is there a first-pickable card in here?  No?  Okay, taking the bounceland."  Playing fewer than three colors in Ravnica-Guildpact-Dissension draft was foolhardy, and splashing a fourth or fifth was easy.  When Time Spiral came out, most of the players I knew were afflicted by what we called "Ravnica hangovers": we'd run Pentarch Paladin, Stronghold Overseer, and Draining Whelk, splashing Squall Line as a finisher.  (NB: never do this.)

By contrast, Return to Ravnica has Azorius Guildgate and its counterparts, plus Transguild Promenade.  (I'm ignoring the usual green goodies.)  Rupture Spire is a bit on the slow side, and the Guildgates are only marginally better than Coastal Tower and its ilk.  So, the mana fixing situation in Return to Ravnica is distinctly worse, which will make it harder to run three-color decks.

It is also enlightening to consider the first-pick commons in each color.  Limited specialist Rich Hoaen rated the top ten commons of Ravnica: City of Guilds as follows:

Compulsive Research
Civic Wayfinder
Galvanic Arc
Last Gasp
Vedalken Dismisser
Faith's Fetters
Viashino Fangtail
Peel From Reality
Golgari Rotwurm

Eight of these ten commons require only a single colored mana!  Then there's Fangtail at CC and Rotwurm at CD.  Let's keep that in mind as we consider Return to Ravnica.

Naturally, it's far too early to assemble a pick order for a new set.  However, I think it's pretty obvious that Annihilating Fire, Sunspire Griffin, and Auger Spree are in the top ten.  It also seems reasonably likely that Centaur Healer and Hussar Patrol might make the list.  So that gives us two CC cards and between one and three CD cards.  That's roughly twice as many first-pick commons that require heavy color commitment.  What's going on here?

The answer is that Ravnica: City of Guilds was designed not just to be draftable as a triple large set, but as the first set of Ravnica-Guildpact-Dissension.  The distributions of guilds in the three sets put major constraints on viable draft paths.  Therefore, it was important that players could stay somewhat uncommitted for the first pack.

For example, if you committed heavily to Selesnya in Ravnica, there was no third color that would leave you with a guild to draft in both Guildpact and Dissension!  Or if you wanted to play Simic, there was no combination of guilds in Ravnica and Guildpact that could get you there; your best option was to pick quality RUG cards in Ravnica, then go Izzet into Simic.  That's why Ravnica's powerful commons almost never required heavy color commitment.

But Return to Ravnica has no such constraint; it will be drafted either by itself, or as the third set of Sinker-Gatecrash-RTR.  Triple-set draft should work fine with five guilds to pick from, and there's no great need to preserve flexibility in pack three.  (Just ask Alara Reborn.)  However, the heavier color requirements will definitely push players into two-color decks.

Consider, too, the hybrid commons from each set:

Ravnica: City of Guilds
Boros Recruit
Centaur Safeguard
Gaze of the Gorgon
Lurking Informant

Return to Ravnica
Frostburn Weird
Rakdos Shred-Freak
Golgari Longlegs
Sundering Growth
Vassal Soul

The original Ravnica used only a single hybrid mana on each; one could very easily play Centaur Safeguard in a Boros deck.  But the new cards use double hybrid, which is much harder to splash; Rakdos Shred-Freak is quite a lot worse outside of B/R decks.

Lastly, look at the uncommon cycles.  The old guildmages were worth playing if they were only half on-color.  If you were drafting Golgari and opened up a Selesnya Guildmage, you thanked your lucky stars and windmill-slammed it!  But Vitu-Ghazi Guildmage and his friends require both colors to play and use.  So does the Izzet Charm cycle.  Azorius Keyrune is technically playable off-color, but require WU to activate.  And so on.

Why are they pushing two-color play so much harder?  I suspect it's because guild identity is a good way to get players emotionally invested.  The overwhelmingly positive reaction to the Prerelease certainly testified to that.


  1. I think it's also to give less experienced drafters more cues on what to take so they have a better chance of building a playable deck. RGD was a trap for new players that way: if you locked yourself into a color too soon, you'd end up with an unplayable deck.

  2. "I suspect it's because guild identity is a good way to get players emotionally invested."

    I'd say it make s a whole lot more sense from a flavor and general experience point of view too (if you want to draft a certain guild, then the set should allow you to do so without impairing yourself), not to mention they have had a block (Alara) that pushed broader multicolor in the meantime.

  3. Good read, Havelock. Thanks for following through on this line.

    I absolutely agree that the color-fixing in Return supports fewer colors than Ravnica's. A card that can produce C or D is very different from a card that produces C and D, even if you ignore the inherent card advantage of the karoos. A single karoo or signet of a guild gives me the colors needed to cast almost every spell from that guild where a guildgate only gets me half-way.

    While Selesnya-splash-Golgari-and-Boros was still more consistent back in the day than Selesnya-splash-Dimir, the latter was very much an option as long as you got two or three Dimir karoos/signets. With Return's fixing, Selesnya-splash-Golgari-and-Azorius is tricky but doable while Selesnya-splash-Izzet seems hugely optimistic because drawing or Gatecreeping into a single Izzet Guildgate will only let you cast your C Izzet spells and not your CD or CC spells.

    I don't agree with your list of contenders for top ten commons of Return. Every card on the old list is removal or card advantage which Sunspire Griffin is not. I also don't think it's coincidence that most of the original list is single-colored; their flexibility is part of what got them on that list. I think Explosive Impact, Trostani's Judgment, Essence Backlash, Gatecreeper Vine and Stab Wound are likely contenders and those are all C or CD cards.

    So, I agree completely that Return is pushing players to run fewer guilds/colors than the original, but I'm not convinced it's pushing us to two-color decks specifically. Sticking to two colors seems like a viable option in this set where it seemed laughable before, but I don't think three-color decks are any less viable. Four- and Five-color decks definitely seem crazier this time (though not impossible).

    I think you're right that part of the motivation for that is letting players identify with a specific guild. I would add that pushing players toward more cohesive decks results in fewer games lost to bad draws (and thus more fun / less frustration overall), and that they need this set to play differently from the original so that it doesn't feel like just a re-tread.

    1. To clarify, I wasn't listing all the contenders for top pick commons in RTR- just the CC or CD ones. I'd pick Stab Wound over Sunspire Griffin any day of the week.

    2. I think Wobbles and HV are correct that two-colour play is more pushed this time round, but I do find it interesting that there are two great five-colour fixers at common - Transguild Promenade and Axebane Guardian - where Ravnica only had Terrarion, which was a oneoff. I think Selesnya-splash-RBU is pretty doable this time round (and I'm looking forward to drafting it), as long as your splash cards only have one non-GW mana symbol.

  4. I have this strange feeling that RtR is pushing 2 color decks as well....this strange feeling. What a minute, most of the cards are 2 colors!

  5. I drafted a kick-ass two-color deck last night. It was strictly white-blue, with a minimal 16 lands, a low-curve and no mana fixing. The only match I lost was due to consecutive games where I got land /flooded/.

    1. Clearly the Gods of Magic felt the need to punish you for your Kaijudo-advocacy.

  6. The original Ravnica pushed 3+ color decks even though it was a Guild set, Shards of Alara pushed 4+ color decks even though it was a Shard set, but now the world flavor matches the set game play.

    Also, when the set makes you focus on 2 colors, it promotes deck diversity. You're not drafting "the best of each color" decks.

    2-color decks, 2-color+splash decks, and heavily multicolor decks each seem to have their own advantages:

    I suspect that 2-color + splash decks will be the mainstream. I hope each splash color combination will have its own identity for even more deck diversity. (Such as Selesnia + Dynacharge?)

    Strictly 2-color decks have access to less power, but can be faster and more consistent.

    Cards like Pyroconvergence (reminiscent of cards like Burning Vengeance or Furnace Celebration) make me think that heavy multicolor is a gimmick to pursue rather than the default. But I like the way that heavy multicolor also seems doable (even if not mainstream), by having lots of Keyrunes (which are slow but never wasted slots in your deck) or fetching a Gate with a Gatecreeper Vine.