Friday, October 12, 2012

Return to Return to Ravnica

Flavor, focus, fun. Those are some of the initial questions that designers ask when setting out on their independent set design. What's the flavor of the set? What elements of the game are going to come into focus? What makes the set fun? One of the reasons to attempt to "pre-design" Gatecrash is that Wizards has already provided us with the guidance to those questions. But to see it, we'll have to Return to Return to Ravnica.

Even with our M13 project, which had at least three well designed core sets to draw on for inspiration, Return to Ravnica actually informs our design of Gatecrash even more.

Return to Ravnica by the numbers:

  • 18 multicolored cards per guild
  • 29 cards per color
  • Most guilds have another 8+ cards in their respective monocolors, but this is looser.
  • 19 Lands, 13 artifacts
  • 15 Mythics: One for each color, Two for each guild.
  • 2 Planeswalkers
All of these things help to inform the set skeleton for Fakecrash. Now, it's by no means certain that the actual Gatecrash will follow these ratios exactly. One of the most surprising things is really the imbalance of "guild"  cards within the colors themselves. After all, it's obvious they followed pretty strict guidelines on everything else. However, for our convenience, the set skeleton I've created to work on Fakecrash will follow these guidelines as closely as possible. That makes it easier on multiple levels to focus more on "hole-filling" than having to create a guide from scratch. That said, to each guild their own.

Which brings us to the Guilds

If we were designing this all from scratch, one of the most difficult choices would be how to divide the guilds. Problem solved here. Let's look at the themes the original guilds brought to the table:


This guild is fascinating, especially because they don't have a "unique" feel from UW limited decks in traditional sets. Their guild mechanic, Detain, is basically a version of the Kor Hookmaster ability, and most of their creatures are just that: efficient tempo-style beaters backed up by flying. As Chah put it so well in his previous article, "Detain are mundane."

Detain is also interesting in that it isn't a "stand-alone" keyword. Unleash, Scavenge, and Overload all stand out on the cards; as keyword abilities, they often have costs associated with them or are immediately proceeded by reminder text. However, Populate and Detain are keyworded actions, which means they are used within the context of card or ability. But unlike Scry, Proliferate, or Populate, Detain requires a target. That buries it even more into the card text! It's an interesting choice that opens up opportunities to do something similar in Fakecrash.


Scavenge is interesting because it actually draws focus to two different aspects of the game: +1/+1 counters and the graveyard. The graveyard focus leads to cards like Cremate and Rest in Peace being generally useful, while the +1/+1 counters lead to actually focus the Golgari decks "away" from Rakdos. That's part of the oddity of this set, the two color push actually makes the guild mechanics want to be less synergistic rather than more. After all, scavenging onto a creature with unleash actually makes it unable to block, even if you didn't unleash it to begin with. (Strategy Tip: You can scavenge onto your opponents creatures ;) )

That isn't to say that you aren't playing Dead Revelers in your Golgari deck—you probably are, it's a very good threat—it's just that these things push you towards some decks more than others.


Izzet went with Overload. Or to use the GDS nomenclature: dispersion. As Ken Nagle pointed out, this mechanic was part of his original submission in the GDS he "won". Part of the Fakecrash project is thinking about how we would design Gatecrash, but another part of it is using the hints dropped from Wizards to guess how they put it together. Why do I bring this up? Because looking at the design team can really inform what kind of mechanics appear in the set. Gatecrash was even Ethan Fletcher's first design team after winning GDS 2. GDS 2 was actually right during the design of RTR, so it's easy to think that the contest may have informed some of the choices for the block.


Selesnya's mechanic is deceptive in that it isn't actually Populate. Sure, that's the word that appears on the cards, but the true heart of Selesnya is tokens. Look at the numbers: Golgari has 5 green cards, 3 black cards. Selesnya has 3 white cards and 2(!) green cards. At least that's from the watermarks. The actual number of Selesnya cards is much higher, with 8 non-guildmarked cards producing tokens in green and white. Those cards play an important role in allowing a do-nothing mechanic be relevant. While tokens might not be as major a theme in the White/Green guilds of Gatecrash, drafters will want a few token-producers to bridge between "Sinker" and RTR once full-block drafting is in effect.


Unleash is a very clever mechanic, but one of the most important aspects is that it isn't parasitic. In Nagle's article about Scavenge and Overload, he pointed out that these mechanics will appear on maybe dozen cards or so. Detain: 9, Scavenge: 10, Populate: 11, Unleash: 11, Overload: 12. So they can't rely on having a lot of them to work. Rakdos is a poster child of this, with Unleash creatures being independently strong and having too many of them resulting in some fairly anemic blockers.

Odds and Ends

Defenders, Auras, Milling, and Gates are all other minor themes that get facetime in Return to Ravnica. Because of their "unaligned" role in the set, it doesn't seem that far fetched to believe that all of them will play a role in Gatecrash. That said, the role they play is pretty ambiguous. Sure, Dimir's going to get Milling of some kind, but what kind? (My mental jury's still out on Espionage being too parasitic.)

A lot of this is trying to put together the clues and leap to wildly unjustified conclusions. That said, I wonder if anyone in the comments can guess which mechanic I'm leaning towards for Simic based on the hints dropped in the article already.


  1. Evolve for Simic does make a lot of sense actually. Build your own monster!

    For those who didn't follow GDS2:

    Evolve (Whenever a creature with power greater than CARDNAME's power enters the battlefield under your control, you may put a +1/+1 counter on CARDNAME.)

    I think the Gruul could get Enrage that Mad Olaf made here:

    (I don't really know how to hyperlink xP)

  2. Evolve is interesting and Simic-y from the outside, but doesn't (to me) feel particularly "blue". Combine it with "U: Target creature with a +1/+1 counter gains flying until EOT" and I guess it works well enough, though. (Helium squirter mk.II being an obvious choice).

    As a full-blooded Orzhov, I'm excited/curious to see what the design is there.

    1. I'll get more into what I'm thinking for each Guild specifically in a coming article. But I really like Evolve (Ding, Ding, Ding!) as a Simic mechanic. I think if you flavor it as U/g researchers studying G/u monsters for things to splice onto themselves it works better. Instead of the original flavor of "keeping up with the Jones" style evolution, it's more like "huh, I bet those claws would come in handy".

      But again, more card designs will come in the next article.

    2. Evolve certainly has merit. It trucks in +1/+1 counters, so it synergizes with Graft; Forced/Accelerated evolution is what the Simic are all about; and Ethan was on the team. Could Evolve be the mechanic MaRo is most excited about of all ten new keywords? It did win Ethan a job at Wizards.

  3. I think it would be interesting to pick up on some POSSIBLE clues from RTR about Gatecrash, make some assumptions about them, and run with them for Fakecrash.

    The most obvious one is probably a mill theme for Dimir, but another one I haven't seen much discussion about is the presence of big vanilla fatties like the massive antelope and other friends at 7 mana and above[%22Return%20to%20Ravnica%20Block%22]&type=+[Creature]&power=+%3E=[6]&cmc=+%3E=[7]

    Since there seem to actually be a couple in red as well as green, I think we might want to consider a mechanic for Gruul that is about ramp, maybe including pieces that work with Axebane Guardian... maybe Cultivate or Sylvan Ranger or Harrow or Realms Uncharted or Frontier Guide...

    1. Gruul seems more geared towards a fast deck than a Ramp deck... maybe those big Antelopes are in there to help Evolve, and Evolve is the ramp deck?

      The reason I think Evolve might be the ramp deck is that, Evolve might be swingy and dependent on card-draw order in Limited if it's on low-drop Commons. It also creates some games where you're saying, "You can't afford to ignore my 2-drop. But you can't ignore my 3-drop, 4-drop, or 5-drop either! You can't have removal for all of them!" Evolve might be more balanced on creatures that enter play later in the game, where you don't evolve it as quickly but you get more stable results.

      Maybe a mana guy like:

      Simic Researcher 2G
      Creature - Human Wizard
      T: Add G to your mana pool.

    2. An Ondu Giant with Evolve would be such a sick uncommon.

  4. I didn't even think about Evolve for Simic, but it fits perfectly! Even the name fits. If they don't do Evolve or something equally awesome, I'll be disappointed.

  5. Thanks for the shoutouts, btw. :)

  6. Also just to toss something else out there for Simic, the one thing that really strikes me about UG having in common is card draw, but in green's case somehow conditional on creatures.

    What if we evolved evolve into:

    Evolve (Whenever a creature with power greater than CARDNAME's power enters the battlefield under your control, if CARDNAME has no +1/+1 counters on it draw a card. Then put a +1/+1 counter on CARDNAME.)

    Is that just too good? Or could it be costed appropriately?

    1. I could definitely see that on a rare, but no idea how we'd cost that on multiple cards, much less commons.

    2. True. Any card draw mechanic is probably too strong to appear on multiple commons without overwhelming them. That said:

      Whenever a +1/+1 counter is placed on ~ draw a card.

      Feels like a perfectly reasonable Uncommon or Rare (Think Garruk's Pack leader).

  7. Some other clues:
    - There seems to be a budding sacrifice theme in RtR, maybe it's there to support a full-blown one (Orzhov?) that appears in Gatecrash.

    - Each Guild in RtR can support multiple strategies. Azorius can also be about delaying the opponent while setting up control, or playing spells on opponents' turns for synergy ("If my opponent passes to avoid my counterspell or arrow, I just cast my flash guy or Inspiration.") I have a feeling that Golgari is actually good for a fast deck with 2-drops and Giant Growths, since Scavange gives your low-drops a second shot at being relevant in the late game. Izzet has some Overload cards that are good for control, and some that are good for a blitz attack.

    1. Unrelated, but you reminded me that there is very much a Draw-Go Selesnya deck. (More so if you splash blue, but still). So many instants!

    2. -Sacrifice. I had to go back and look at that my self. There are 17 cards that sacrifice in RTR, there were 18 in Innistad. Zendikar has 27, while Scars (which has a significant sacrifice subtheme) had in the mid 30's.

      - Maro has said that each guild was designed for both a more aggressive and controlling play style. I'd like that to be possible with Fakecrash as well.

    3. The number of sacrifice cards might not be high, but Launch Party and Slum Reaper are removal, and would have serious impact if your deck consistently had free creatures to sacrifice.

      Maybe those cards are just there for sacrificing Scavange creatures or for giving a Selesnya + Black splash deck its own identity, but I think it's going to combo with something in Gatecrash.

    4. I read those two as largely being "good" with Scavenge, but I could see where you're going with that. Both Fleshbag Marauder and Bone Splinters were used to similar effect in Alara to both enable GBR token strategies and UBR unearth plans. I certainly think that well see more token creatures in Gatecrash, even if they don't get another dedicated mechanic after populate. Either would play well with these, especially if some Orzhov cards give you cheap thrull tokens.

  8. There could be blink effects to combo with Evolve, Detain, and Unleash. There could be some kind of Izzet Chronarch thing at common to help Izzet.

  9. I'm sure it'll come up more with the designs you post, but do you (or other commenters) have an opinion on whether Evolve cards should be "square" with equal P=T?

    All but one of the Scavenge cards are; the only Unleash cards that are are Splatter Thug and the two 1/1s; and each of the tokens in RTR are (though tokens tend to be, for good reason). From a Design (not-development) point of view, is this something we should be considering?

    1. Most should definitely be square. Like the exceptions you pointed out, not all need to be.

  10. My only problem with Evolve as the Simic mechanic is that the guild mechanics were chosen because they didn't have all that much design space. I could be wrong, but Evolve feels like it has a lot of space to mess around in.

    On that note, here's an idea for an Orzhov mechanic:

    Possess (At the beginning of your upkeep, you may return CARDNAME from your graveyard to the battlefield. If you do, sacrifice a creature.)

    While development would have to keep an eye on it, I think you could make fair creatures with this mechanic. It has limited design space (in my brain). Note that it can trigger ETB/LTB/dies effects while not changing the board state. And on an empty board it does nothing.

    Also, Possess isn't really the right word for it. I want the flavor of body-hopping or taking someone's life as your own. Someone with a debt to the Orzhov pays with their life so that a more worthy member can keep living.

    1. I think that would be a problem mechanic, since a) you want it at common, b) you would create situations where they would mill champions in their graveyard and use posses along with tokens. It is a very fine line to thread, and reminds me of dredge way too much.