Tuesday, January 1, 2019

What I've Learned from Guilds of Ravnica's Mechanics (Part 5)

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

Lesson Five: Undergrowth and identity vs. gameplay

Green and black decks are doing quite well in Standard right now and are even seeing high-end competitive Magic play. This makes it all the more interesting that the undergrowth mechanic landed with such a thud with players. There's very little of it to be found in these decks. There are cards from Guilds of Ravnica in these successful decks, though, and there's a lot to learn about why those made the cut and cards with undergrowth did not.

I'm not here to dump on undergrowth. In its bones (pun intended) it's not a terrible mechanic. If, in the end, it turns out that undergrowth is the mechanic from this Ravnica block least liked by the players, it shows how much Wizards designers have learned since the first visit. Undergrowth is flavorful and functional and 'fits' in Golgari's identity. It's not like the baffling radiance mechanic for Boros back in the day. But it's a bit underwhelming and doesn't fully engage properly in the play style of those who favor green and black.

So what went wrong? Golgari is the guild that mechanically cares about the graveyard, and undergrowth cares about the graveyard so … what the heck? Why the shrug?

Undergrowth is kind of at odds with the psychology of the Golgari play style. Yes, they "care about graveyards" as an identity. But the mechanics of how that plays out typically is that Golgari likes to reuse the cards in graveyards, either bringing things back or expending them in some way as a resource to make things happen.

Golgari players want to use the graveyard as an ATM. Undergrowth is telling them to use it like a bank vault instead. Deposit your bodies and leave them. Undergrowth represents the dividends or interest you earn from keeping the corpses parked.

So despite being "about the graveyard," the psychological play shift demanded by undergrowth is pretty significant. It's probably more of a mental shift the longer you've played Magic and the more you've experienced green and black's recursion shenanigans. I can imagine that somebody new to the game might not even see a problem with undergrowth.

Undergrowth's flaw is that the set's design did not adjust its psychological play focus to reinforce the vault vs. ATM nature of the color pair for this set. Its most popular signpost uncommon, Golgari Findbroker, undercuts the guild's own mechanic. So does Find/Finality. And those are two of the cards that have become standard staples.

Also for reasons that have not been explained very well, the team decided that undergrowth effects would check once on play and that's it. There'd be nothing like a Crackling Drake for Golgari. Instead they get creatures with +1/+1 counters. That has the effect of making undergrowth feel even less important and have a high variance, pushing its value until the late game. And there's only 12 undergrowth cards. It feels almost like Wizards was afraid of the mechanic or afraid they couldn't sell it. They pretty much did the opposite of what they did with Izzet, which forces players to play instants and sorceries or lose.

The set does encourage you to let your creatures die and has sacrifice outlets and death triggers, and it synergizes with surveil. But in terms of black and green play patterns, the value of sacrifice is partly the understanding that they can recover creatures, not just stick them in the morgue to rot. If you sacrifice your Ravenous Chupacabra, is it more effective to leave it in the graveyard for a slight scale bonus to undergrowth, or is it better to bring it back to your hand or back onto the battlefield? Hilariously, the emphasis on enter-the-battlefield effects on undergrowth creatures suggests you want to somehow replay them as well after they die, even though it weakens the overall impact of the mechanic.

I think undergrowth is actually salvageable, meaning that I don't think it needs to be … um … discarded and left behind in some sort of crypt for failed mechanics. While I was blathering on about surveil for a previous post, I was also watching a pro Magic player streaming online. He happened to be playing an undergrowth-focused constructed deck instead of the explore B/G deck currently dominating in Standard. His games went pretty well, though let's not discount the effect of surprise on his opponent encountering an unfamiliar deck. The way it worked was that he essentially spent much of the game using creatures to keep the opponent at bay and to keep the battlefield as clear as possible, letting them trade and filling up his graveyard. Then later in the game he'd play Golgari Raiders, which has haste (Did you forget that green has secondary access to haste? I did. Gruul apparently will be reminding everybody in Ravnica Allegiance.) and gets loads of counters, and then he'd just slam them right in the face. Or he'd play Lotleth Giant and just slam them in the face without even attacking.

So there's a long-game deck in Golgari using undergrowth that's not taking off because incorporating explore from Ixalan and green and black's recursion spells is just faster.

What could have made undergrowth work better? First of all, they should dump the non-creature spells. There were only two, but they sent a confusing message about what you want to do with undergrowth. Save that for a mechanic like delirium or threshold. There needed to be a greater number of creatures with undergrowth if you're going to commit to enter-the-battlefield mechanics instead of passive bonuses. Each undergrowth creature that died and went to the graveyard increased the value of the bonus effect of the next creature with undergrowth. It feels like it's supposed to snowball as gameplay went on, due to the scaling, but the creatures were slow to play (only a single creature had a converted mana cost less than 4), so really, when they were at their best, they just showed up at the end to close the game out.

How could we 'retrain' entrenched Golgari players to treat their graveyard like a vault? What if there were creatures that actually cared about being in the graveyard and staying there? What if a creature had an anthem effect, but only when it's in the graveyard? Something like Dearly Departed, but with a Golgari mindset. There needed to be supplemental concepts in the set not just to sacrifice the creatures for benefits, but to also encourage players not to dig up their graves afterward.

The design lesson here is that it's one thing to understand a color pairing's identity, but it's another matter to design for its play style. It's okay to design a set that changes that play pattern and approaches that identity differently, but the set also needs to properly push players to change the way they look at the play style. I don't think they met that goal with undergrowth.

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 interested if anybody else has any thoughts in particular about undergrowth that can explain how it all played out.

    It seems like it was intended to appeal to Tammy, but the play pattern to get to the point where undergrowth is impactful just didn't feel fun, and it's not clear to me why Tammy would enjoy it. Charnel Troll was more fun to play with, and again, it undercut the guild's mechanic.

  2. I think you have the right analysis. Maro's described a known problem with mechanics that offer you a late-game reward for casting your spells (I think threshold is his favored example). LSP's especially overestimate the potential upside and end up just never casting the spell, or casting it for less value than they planned.

    Innistrad actually did this much better-- it had a mini-theme where G cared about the number of creatures in the yard (Boneyard Wurm, Splinterfright, Wreath of Geists, Gnaw to the Bone, Kessig Cagebreakers, and of course Spider Spawning). Notice how these cards all scale after they're played! Even the instants and sorceries manage it, by leveraging flashback.

    These days R&D is scared of */* for complexity reasons, so that route was harder to take. But with some creativity (attack triggers? death triggers? "whenever a creature card goes to your GY" triggers?) I think they could have done it.

    1. Interesting to note how all those cards are green, because in Innistrad, it's U/B that's doing all the graveyard shenanigans with zombies. So it's easier to set up a graveyard scaling mechanic without worrying about sending players contradicting messages. And even so, only one is at common.

      After writing this up, I also noticed that most of the undergrowth cards scale vertically (increasing in magnitude of effect) rather than spreading outward (hitting more creatures). I wonder if it would have been possible to make cheaper common ETB undergrowth that did simple things like giving lifelink to X creatures based on how many creatures you have in your graveyard. But maybe they worried how that might interact with the Selesnya and Boros go-wide strategies.

      I'm curious to see whether the new afterlife mechanic in Orzhov might affect undergrowth. It adds a bunch of black creatures that you're okay with dying because of the 1/1 flyer you get.

      Oh, and I was watching some Guilds of Ravnica draft on Twitch and winced when I saw an 8/8 Golgari Raiders get thwarted by a Pitiless Gorgon. Another awkward irony: They put tons of deathtouch in the set for the purpose of encouraging Golgari players to trade creatures. Except that those very creatures can also very easily hold off the big undergrowth beasts when they come out in late game.

    2. All true. Of course, this might be reaching further than you need to for an explanation. The signature enabler (Erstwhile Trooper) and payoff (Rhizome Lurcher) at common are both really lackluster. An extra point of power or toughness for each of those and we'd be having a different conversation.

    3. Because undergrowth scales unbounded, they had to limit the power of the cards to the point that they're merely strong when you've got ~4 creatures in your graveyard, making them weak when you've got 0-2, which is the majority of normal games.

      If they'd gone with a flat threshold (2+ or 3+ dead creatures) they'd have control over the upper-bound, and could make cards that work without it.

    4. Fair point. But that doesn't really apply to the enablers. I'd have liked to see how the Trooper played at other stats. You could try 3/3 +1/+1 or 2/2 +3/+3 or maybe even 3/2 +2/+3.

    5. LOL, so the BW planeswalker in Ravnica Allegiance is actually an undergrowth hate card. Also, token hate, which is a little odd given the guild she's in.

    6. She was a Ghost Assassin before this, though! Killing Spirit tokens is basically her job description.

    7. Oh yes, flavorwise, it's interesting how Nicol has put into place (apparently) a planeswalker that subverts the guild's concepts. That makes it kind of interesting that technically undergrowth subverts Golgari's normal style of play. If only it were an intentional concept, like if Nicol was encouraging it with the plan of eternalizing the creatures upon his arrival like he did with Amonkhet.

    8. Ohh. I was trying to figure out why she had that particular second ability. It really doesn't read as spirit-killing in a vacuum, but yeah, clearly we're meant to kill Orzhov's tokens with it. Which makes the boss of the Orzhov guild their #1 enemy too. Seems legit.

  3. I really feel that Undergrowth was theoretically supported well, but like you said Larcent, it wasn't incentivised well. I would have decreased the number of non-golgari deathtouch, and changed/dropped rise of the undercity's (Almost strictly worse than severed strands, and it's not even multicolor).

    I really like your idea of in-the-yard effects, and I think it could have been fine since people were already paying attention to the yard for jump-start and recursion effects. It's one thing if the rest of the set hadn't cared so much, but with four colors actively doing graveyard shenanigans, having static effects wouldn't be asking too much

    As an aside, Kaya probs had to kill the entire Obzedat (Long shifts working for Bolas these days) and THEN strings had to be pulled to get her to be top dog. Still trying to figure out how Dovin got ratified as Grand Arbiter though - I'm guessing voter fraud ;P

  4. Melissa DeTora just put up a piece today spoiling the CCDD card for Simic and it's very interesting and relevant to this post. They didn't really intend for the CCDD cycles to necessarily be connected to the mechanics of the guild. They wanted to make sure there were good, solid uncommons for those who drafted with high guild loyalty.

    That's interesting and does explain the Golgari Findbroker a bit, but three of the other four CCDD's do play well with that guild's mechanic. Findbroker is the only one that completely subverts it.

    1. To be fair, Findbroker does say "permanent card," not creature. So you could argue its use is to get back one of the non-creature cards you self-milled when you were trying to stock your GY for undergrowth? *shrug*