Monday, December 31, 2018

What I've Learned from Guilds of Ravnica's Mechanics (Part 4)

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

Lesson Four: Surveil and liberating the jank

Mark Rosewater and other Magic designers are pretty open about the challenges of designing for blue and black together. They've been allied colors from the start, but the relationship between the blue and black is thematic and not mechanical.

Blue and black's shared thematic identity is "cheating." I'm only barely joking. There is no color combination in Magic less interested in playing the game the way the rules describe. When blue and black play together there's nothing in any zone of the game (including sometimes exile) that they cannot manipulate and use for their own ends. They have no concept of property rights. Wait, that's not true; they do… Everything is theirs. Your deck, your graveyard, the cards in your hand, your permanents in play. There's nothing out of blue and black's grasp. The art on Doom Whisperer in Guilds of Ravnica is about as on point as you can get explaining what the color pairing is about.
It's a fun and powerful theme if you're into that play style. But it's not represented by any particular keyword and a lot of blue and black's machinations together are too powerful to present at common. They generally have to be priced at a higher mana rate so they don't come out before the opponent can react.

Black and blue's native environment tends to be Constructed formats and is a top theme park destination for devoted Johnny and Jenny combo janky players (myself included). It can be a challenge to design for a Limited format, and much like red and blue, some sets just simply aren't built around playing the two together. This doesn't mean players can't draft them or that the colors won't play well together. It just means that the set isn't pushing for any particular playstyle in black and blue beyond what the cards generally bring to the table.

What makes the surveil mechanic so interesting is that, on the surface, it does not advance blue and black's thematic identity. It's an extremely simple card filtering mechanic that doesn't even so much as nudge the player into any particular type of play. It is not weird. It is not janky. It hits the sweet spot where Jenny and Spike intersect because they both need to dig for cards to make their decks work.

Surveil is the only mechanic introduced in Guilds of Ravnica that doesn’t direct you to play your deck a certain way. It's a mechanic that serves as your personal assistant. "Do you need this card, sir or ma'am? No? In the bin."

Because of the utilitarian nature of the mechanic, Wizards felt free to load Dimir with surveil without feeling like it was going to unbalance the game. Surveil shows up on far more cards than any of the other guilds' mechanics. House Guildmage is the only guildmage in the set that actually uses its own faction mechanic. Surveil is everywhere, stapled to everything. It plays well with Golgari and especially with Izzet. In draft, Izzet players can poach a few blue surveil spells to increase their pool of instants and sorceries without hamstringing Dimir drafters.

There are cards that reward you when you surveil, but what's interesting about them is how varied they are. Some of the creatures (like Blood Operative) foster aggressive play. Others like Thoughtbound Phantasm and the incredibly oppressive Disinformation Campaign want to go in slower, controlling decks.

That variability in the rewards for surveillance hints at a fascinating personal design discovery about Dimir in this set. A thought exercise: Pretend for a moment that surveil isn't in the set and go back and look over all the cards intended for play in the Dimir guild. What do these cards have in common? What are the designers of Guilds of Ravnica telling players to do with Dimir?

You might come back from this exercise scratching your head. There's lots of flying and evasion and … that's it. Everything else is fun and familiar types of blue and black concepts, and a greater number and variety of them because of the set's emphasis on this color pair. There's no connective theme here.

Here' s the amazing of reality of Dimir in Guilds of Ravnica: Rather than trying to streamline or limit the jankiness of blue and black, they steered the car directly into it and stepped on the gas. Dimir is a complete mess in this set! You've got Nightveil Sprite and Dimir Spybug flying around the city together, breaking into people's houses. You've got Thief of Sanity, doing the same to their brains.  Lazav is wandering around in the graveyard playing "Game of Thrones." Etrata is off playing commander. Dream Eater is sending people fleeing in terror, and then Doom Whisperer is snatching them up and strangling them. Nightveil Predator is just doing whatever the hell they want and you're not going to get in their way if you know what's good for you. Mnemonic Betrayal is so much jank it's actually too much even for me. Disinformation Campaign meanwhile is busy being the most hated card in Limited.

There is no "Dimir deck" or preferred play pattern. There is a parade of possibilities that the players have to sort through and figure out what they want to do on their own.

This is not a criticism. It's wonderful. Whether it's intentional or not, it's brilliant set design that works because of the specific color combination and the type of people who play it. A Dimir deck—even in Limited—can end up in wildly different places, meaning that a person who is playing against the deck can't be entirely sure which way it's going to go. How much surveil did they actually get? Did they get the fast flyers? Did they get the big bombs? Did they get Disinformation Campaign? Should I use a removal spell on this Nightveil Sprite or wait to see what happens? (A: Yes, use removal.) A color pair with a wide, unrelated collection of cards creates a sense of inscrutability and unpredictability. Wouldn't you know it, that's what Dimir is supposed to represent in Ravnica. In order to give the Dimir its identity, designers actually had to resist the urge to mechanically standardize how it plays.

Surveil is the glue that holds this crazy, maniacal house together. Because once you start looking at this collection, the natural question of an experienced Magic player is going to be, "Well, okay, this all seems fun, but how do I get to the card I actually need?" Your assistant, surveil, is here to help you find what you're looking for. The higher frequency of the mechanic makes a lot of sense.

In the end, this incarnation of Dimir is like a massive love letter to the Jennies and Johnnies of Magic, and it is without a doubt my favorite iteration of this color pair in recent years.

The lesson here, is that when you're looking to facilitate the creation of janky combo decks, create a bunch of fun different payoff cards and a simple, easy-to-use utility mechanic to help get from here to there. Free them up to find their own win conditions.

Next time: Undergrowth and the gap between identity and gameplay

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 probably could have gone on for another 1,000 words on the design for Dimir in this set. I focused a lot on the Johnny perspective, but many of the cards also appeal to Tammy and it's just a very "fun" color combination. I think the scattered nature of it also kind of pushed away Spike, though, and U/B doesn't seem to be terribly popular in constructed, though cards with surveil definitely are finding home in many different decks.

    My own Dimir deck is nicknamed "Dark Skies" and incorporates the set's fliers with some of the support cards from the Ixalan Block, including Favorable Winds and Curious Obsession (which is AMAZING on the Nightveil Sprite. It's like a free Opt every combat). It's not the best, most efficient expression of U/B available right now, but it's mine and feels like my own personal Johnny/Tammy combo creation.

    1. Sorry when I said U/B isn't popular in constructed, I meant standard constructed.

    2. I think Surveil is a great Spike mechanic.

      Spike can appreciate "goodstuff" or looser themes if the alternative is being railroaded into specific play patterns that don't also have lots of things Spike likes (lots of decision points, options, WINNING). In particular, I think Innovator Spike had a field day with the open-endedness of surveil. There were tons of "what's the best Surveil deck?" thinkpieces when the set first came out, Dimir is one of the "good guilds" in the Limited format, individual surveil cards are great, and my anecdata says that the Spikes I know only didn't like surveil because it's a "scry knock-off", which is hardly a bad thing when 1) scry itself is a great mechanic and 2) the same criticism can be leveled against a lot of the Ravnica 3.0 mechanics, only with less popular base mechanics.

      That U/B isn't good in Standard right now is a function of the power level of the cards that are in it, not necessarily whether Spike enjoys them. U/B is bad because other color combinations are just better. Blue likes to pair with white for Teferi or with red for Niv-Mizzet/Phoenix shenanigans, while black likes to pair with green for midrange creatures and Golgari-specific recursion. I'm sure U/B will have its chance to shine in the future, and when it does, it will be with the usual U/B shenanigans, lots of removal and a light sprinkling of evasion.

      Also worth noting is that WotC is deliberately trying to nerf the presence of "kill all the things, one wincon" styles of gameplay in Standard, which means that Play Design might have powered down the Dimir control deck juuuuust enough that it flipped from "Tier 1" to "Not worth bothering with" on Spike's radar. (Anyone remember Nephalia Drownyard? Was that fun to play against? I don't think so.)

      On the flavor side, Dimir itself is also a guild that dips into a lot of mechanical identities - you've got stealth, disguise, information gathering, information concealing, assassination, and that's before you get into any of the stuff that only makes sense with magic.

    3. Smoothing mechanics are très Spike.

    4. That was one of my biggest lessons understanding Spikes from watching them play draft and sealed. You want them to play your creature? Attach scry to it somehow.

    5. Heh, literally right after I made that comment, I noticed one of the spoilers for Ravnica Allegiance out today is a rare sphinx that lets you scry if it's in your opening hand and then scry on your upkeep.