Monday, December 24, 2018

What I've Learned from Guilds of Ravnica's Mechanics (Part I)

Please enjoy the first in a series of five guest posts from Larcent about the mechanics of Guilds of Ravnica. —Jay Treat

Lesson One: Convoke as comfort food.

Anecdotal experience tells me that we amateur Magic designers tend toward the Jenny/Johnny play style and are very interested in seeing mechanics and sets that do new and different things. That's certainly my Magic identity.

So I greeted the return of convoke in Guilds of Ravnica with a bit of a shrug. I wasn't disappointed, exactly. I knew it was a popular mechanic for green and white players, familiar and comforting, an interesting and different sort of ramping tool. Timmy and Tammy enjoy it—little creatures summon big beasties!—and Spikes will play it if the advantages of developing the board more quickly outweigh the vulnerabilities that come from tapping down their own creatures. It's a good mechanic.

Convoke's doesn't interest me as a player, but as somebody trying to make sense of Magic's design, I'm pushing myself more and more into trying to understand those other player archetypes to better my own creative skills.

I thought they'd do something different with convoke. They didn't really, and for a bit I was disappointed.

But now that the set has been in play for a while, I've realized that convoke is just what green and white needed for Standard play: Selesnya decks are showing up in competitive Constructed play after a lengthy absence.

Magic has been pushing green and white "going wide" as its central theme for several sets now, if you ignore the attempt at dino tribal in Ixalan block (and you should—even the G/W Huatli planeswalker card in the block wants you to play Legion Landing instead). Granted, this is pretty much always been part of green and white's shared identity, but it's particularly strong right now.

A handful of convoke cards in Guilds of Ravnica have pushed that archetype to the next level and caused it to really take off in Standard:

1. Conclave Tribunal provides some very necessary removal in a creature-focused deck, hitting permanents that Seal Away cannot touch and potentially coming out more quickly and cheaply than Ixalan's Binding. It helps avoid the "shields down" problem that comes from tapping out your creatures by eliminating a threat.

2. Venerated Loxodon escalates the threat of the creatures you tap to summon it, then serves as a blocker and warning to the opponent of a pretty nasty retaliatory response if they attempt to take advantage of the situation.

3. Emmara, Soul of the Accord, doesn't have convoke, but she facilitates it by creating a chump-blocker (with lifelink!) whenever you tap her. And if your opponent doesn't have any blockers, she can actually do double duty and build up your army by simply attacking.

4. March of the Multitudes, convoke's big payoff card, adds a much-needed element of unpredictability and tempo swing as an instant. It's such a simple spell, but it's so important for giving Selesnya players a powerful reactive tool. I have a feeling we wouldn't be seeing so many green-white decks if this card had been a sorcery instead. (It actually was until Play Design got their hands on it. Good call, there.)

Sometimes comfort food is a good choice. I was watching a Magic tournament on Twitch earlier in the week, and some Selesnya players had even brushed off Shanna, Sisay's Legacy, whom I hadn't seen in months (her immunity to Conclave Tribunal makes her great in mirror matches). The lesson here is that a return of an old mechanic isn't necessarily a failure of imagination if it helps facilitate a play style that is pivotal to a set or to the health and variety of a format.

Next time: Izzet and making "Spells Matter" actually matter.

About the Author

Larcent has his own blog where he's been brainstorming a top-down set called Overgrowth, which asks the question, "What would happen if a plane got pregnant?"


  1. I'm very curious as to what other designers learned from this set, so share! I'm particularly very much somebody who cares only about standard and limited, so it's very likely that these essays will miss some interesting relationships with older formats or variations like Commander and Pauper. I'm curious when there's a card that looks like it doesn't belong in the set but has a purpose elsewhere. (I was completely baffled by the new Lavinia spoiled for Ravnica Allegiance until everybody went crazy on Reddit about her implications for older formats.)

  2. I think a lot of people were baffled by Lavinia.

    At least she's a 2/2 for 2, which is a card that performs a function in an average Limited deck, as opposed to a good chunk of the rares in M19 which were actively upsetting to open.

    1. It's so weird that they took up a slot for a rare legend guild leader for a hate card like that (instead of putting her in a core set) that I'm wondering if there isn't something going on in the final Ravnica set that makes her abilities mean something.

    2. She does actively fight the cost reduction mechanics like spectacle on Light the Stage or Convoke (At least on cards that aren't Venerated Loxodon), as well as provide an answer to Omniscience combo in standard. Omniscience is super fringe right now, but I can imagine it's going to get a lot more Simic ramp tools in the new set.

  3. I'm a cEDH and limited player mostly, so Lavinia has me stoked, personally.

    In my designs, I'm definitely one to stretch what's been done (although I always feel like I'm not stretching enough, honestly) so I really like how this article addresses that "needs of the many (players) outweigh the needs of the few" (overly-mel-influenced-designers).

    I think this is partly where Undergrowth failed - it didn't feel right or a fun play pattern, it just kind of happened, or it didn't. It didn't promote an experience, except that you might make an extra double-block and not care. While Surveil was just functional filtering, that is what control decks WANT, so despite just being 'better scry' people loved it. Plus it was randomly supported, because value. Undergrowth could have been better by adding things that actively care about dying (whenever another creature dies, blah blah) because that makes you feel like you're actively doing something instead of just maybe powering up your lurcher.

    1. I'm a Vintage player who loves being the fun police, so Lavinia is my new brew-around target.

      Undergrowth didn't seem to have a "different new thing" that it did - I know the article criticizes that about convoke, but Venerated Loxodon and Busted Mythic Instant make the mechanic feel very different in Limited vs Constructed. Ditto for Arclight Phoenix making jump-start more than just "bad flashback." I can't really think of any undergrowth card that stood out, other than Izoni, which is just a busted value engine and not something you needed to invest a ton of effort into building toward undergrowth-matters.