Friday, December 28, 2018

What I've Learned from Guilds of Ravnica's Mechanics (Part 3)

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

Lesson Three: Mentor and simple complexity

I have to start by confessing that I have a hard time designing for the red and white color identity, and Boros is the guild I have the least connection with as a player. I'm a lover of weird and crazy combos, and the Boros Legion has no time for the shenanigans of Johnnies and Jennies. They're too busy busting the skulls of miscreants.

When I was playing along at home with the Great Designer Search 3 design test, the demand for a RW card just wrecked me. I can't even remember what I came up with (some sort of rare modal mass kill spell), but when I posted it here in a discussion thread for the contest, somebody else had to point out to me that it didn't even work the way I wanted it to. Even if I had made it past the multiple choice test, that card would certainly have bounced me out of the competition.

Making cards for red and white has even tripped up Wizards' designers. The first mechanic associated with the Boros Legion, radiance, was combo-centric, color-focused, weird, and unrelated to attacking. According to Mark Rosewater, players hated it. A lot. The mechanic didn't match the psychology of the guild.

The primary identity for Boros revolves around domination during the combat phase. And even though combat is generally how people win games of Magic, the actual act of fighting in the game is surprisingly mechanically narrow if you think about it. Without combat tricks (both on the creatures and in instants), the actual smashing of creatures together is kind of boring (this might be why I can't get into Hearthstone).

The point here is that designing mechanics for the players who live for that combat requires that you specifically think about the attack step. Mechanics like raid and battalion and now mentor do exactly that.

While mentor seems simple and straightforward, it does add some subtle complexity for a devoted Boros partisan to think through. It asks Boros players to think a little bit more about one particular quality of a creature when adding them to their deck. In this case, their power. You need to make sure you have creatures of lower power for your mentors to give counters to, and/or combat tricks to jack up your mentor. You have to attack with more than one creature, which is something a Boros player wants to do already. It can even have a cascading effect when you have several mentor creatures, though in practice, this probably doesn't happen very often. Boros may share Santa Claus' colors, but they're not interested in a visit to Magical Christmasland.

It's not hard to use mentor, and that's just fine. It wasn't hard to use Path of Mettle from Rivals of Ixalan either, but it did something interesting by telling red/white players to pay attention which combat skills their creatures have rather than tribal identities. Note how well mentor works with first strike and particularly haste, two keywords you'll find frequently in the color pair. And most importantly, the reward for triggering a mentor comes during combat itself—when attacking—thereby potentially affecting the outcome in Boros' favor. One of the things that bothered me about raid during the Ixalan block was that it rarely helped you win combat. A lot of the time it rewarded you after the battle was over.

The lesson here is, first of all, know where your design blind spots are and work on them. Ever since that disaster of a card I tried to design, I've been paying extra attention to red and white and really trying to watch what happens with them in each set. I never would have come up with mentor, but I think it's great, and examining it will help me think about how to design specifically for combat-oriented players.

And second, all players like to be rewarded for the way they play. That does give you the opportunity to nudge them into thinking a bit differently and challenging their expertise about the part of the game they like most. Just make sure the reward is worth it.

Next time: Surveil and facilitating jank

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 have a non-combat-fiend friend who actually likes mentor because it makes you think about combat in a way that's more nuanced than "curve out and swing." It might be actually advantageous to hold the ground for a while to build up your mentor army, saving a combat trick for an opportune time when you can get the most out of your triggers (or bluffing one).

  2. I love mentor.
    The additional combinatorics are a welcome challenge for established players and the payoff is well worth it.

  3. From now on whenever I'm trying to come up with something for RW, particularly when thinking about a new mechanic, it's going to be along the lines of "Have them think/do x, and if they succeed, it helps them win combat."

  4. I'm really impressed by both mentor and riot, since both of these guilds could have had brainless mechanics, but instead were given mechanics that offer meaningful choices whose answers change as the game goes on. Both are still aggressive, and it would be bad if they weren't, but they challenge the player to make better choices throughout the game.

    1. I really like riot on paper and am very curious to see how it plays out (even though I now have to rename a B/R mechanic I was thinking about). I do worry a little bit that 95 percent of the time players will choose haste, but we'll see. That does raise the interesting question of what the right ratio of outcomes should be when giving players a modal choice. Is it okay if it ends up haste 70 percent of the time? 85 percent? When does it stop actually being a "meaningful" decision?

    2. Oh, right after I wrote that they spoiled an enchantment that gives all your creatures riot. Which I think stacks? Which means that if you play a creature with riot and you have the enchantment out, you don't have to choose. I don't think I like that.

      Oh, and the enchantment is only three mana, is uncommon, and also stops opponents from countering your creature spells. So it's going to see play.

    3. I don't think stacking changes how interesting the decision is. +1/+1 and haste or +2/+2 is probably as much of a choice as the base version (haste or +1/1)