Building Allegiances, Part 2

Posted in Making Magic on January 7, 2019

By Mark Rosewater

Working in R&D since '95, Mark became Magic head designer in '03. His hobbies: spending time with family, writing about Magic in all mediums, and creating short bios.

Last week, I began Ravnica Allegiance previews and got through Simic and Orzhov. Today, I'll be talking about the other three guilds: Gruul, Rakdos, and Azorius. I'll explain what guild mechanic was handed over from Vision Design and then get into what ended up being used in each guild. As with last week, I'm going in reverse order of how we normally list the guilds. Along the way, I'll also have a preview card for you all to see. That said, let's get to it.

Gruul

As guilds go, Gruul is probably the most straightforward of them all: play creatures and attack. The guild tends to be a midrange deck that spills out ever-increasingly large creatures (red and green are the two colors with the most access to mana creation) and wins by overwhelming the opponent's forces with its aggressive beasts. In original Ravnica block, Gruul had the bloodthirst mechanic where new creatures got bigger if you'd dealt damage to the opponent that turn. Return to Ravnica block had the bloodrush mechanic where you could discard certain creatures to turn them into spells that boosted one of your creatures on the battlefield. That meant we wanted something that was both creature- and combat-centric for Gruul.

We talked about a bunch of existing mechanics that could work in Gruul but decided to explore some new things. We tried out a whole bunch of mechanics, none of which captured Gruul in a way we liked and played well. Finally, we found one we really liked. It was a mechanic that went on creatures and then triggered when they were damaged, doing various spell effects. This seemed perfect for Gruul as it worked best on larger creatures, which Gruul had plenty of, and it encouraged attacking. It turns out, though, it was a perfect mechanic for larger aggressive creatures and was created in parallel design by the Ixalan Development team for Dinosaurs. You all know it as enrage.

The rule in R&D is that the set further along in design has priority for new cards and mechanics, so Ixalan was able to claim it and force us to find something new. (There are exceptions when the thing is more crucial for the set earlier in design.) Having worked on Ixalan, I knew that Dinosaurs were proving to be a difficult group to design around and was happy that the Ixalan team found something that worked. While it's always frustrating to have to give up something that accomplishes the goal of the set you're working on, part of any collaborative process is making decisions for the greater good of the product. Anyway, I had faith we'd find something else for Gruul.

The new ability we designed was called turmoil. It could go on any permanent (although, we mostly put it on creatures), and it had a "beginning of your end step" trigger that would happen if any opponent had taken damage that turn. The idea was if you successfully attacked (or dealt damage in some other way), you could generate effects that would either help you or hurt your opponent. We liked it because it was a different way to approach Gruul, and it made cards that played in Gruul's play style while looking a little different from past Gruul designs. A few of the cards helped you get creatures in your hand onto the battlefield as its effect.

This is the guild mechanic Vision Design handed off for Gruul. The Ravnica Allegiance Set Design team liked the mechanic but thought that it felt a little more Rakdos than Gruul, so they moved the ability over to Rakdos. I'll explain how turmoil became spectacle when I get to Rakdos. What this meant for Gruul was that it needed a new mechanic.

At the time, Simic was using proliferate as its mechanic, and Rakdos was using turmoil. Could Gruul find a creature-centric mechanic that played nicely with both of those mechanics? Well, Simic would obviously like it if it somehow used counters, most likely +1/+1 counters as it was going to go on creatures. Rakdos wanted something that would help your creatures deal damage to the opponent. How could a mechanic do both of these things? I believe the inspiration for riot came from unleash, the Rakdos mechanic in Return to Ravnica. Unleash was a creature mechanic that allowed you to choose whether to have the creature enter with a +1/+1 counter. If it did, it couldn't block. What if Gruul's mechanic did the same thing but gave you a bonus for not having a +1/+1 counter rather than a drawback for having one?

After some exploration, the Set Design team decided that haste was the perfect candidate. Do you want to attack now or wait a turn and be a little bigger? This felt like a perfect choice for Gruul and played well with both Simic and Rakdos. It even had the advantage of being a keyword that you didn't have to remember after the turn you played the creature as haste is (almost) never relevant on later turns. There was only one small problem. Haste is primary in red, secondary in black, and tertiary in green. That means that green gets to have a little bit of haste but usually more geared toward Constructed than Limited, and never at a high as-fan (aka usually not at common). There was no way to make the mechanic without making a high as-fan.

So, the issue got brought to the Council of Colors. Would it be okay if green got more haste? The issue started as a special exception for Ravnica Allegiance but eventually became a larger issue. When we'd decided to put haste secondarily in black (back in Future Sight), it was mostly about trying to branch out how our keywords overlapped. Red and green were going to overlap in trample, and, at the time, black and red needed an overlapping keyword. It was clear for Constructed reasons green needed haste, so Erik Lauer and I came to the agreement that haste would be secondary in black, showing up more in Limited, and tertiary in green, showing up more for Constructed.

The argument raised was that green could really use having more access to haste. Black didn't end up using it all that much, and, because of the creation of menace, black and red had another overlapping mechanic. In the end, R&D decided to move green from tertiary to secondary in haste, meaning that riot (what the new mechanic got called) could be used in Gruul. We talked about moving black to tertiary but ended up keeping it secondary to allow it to be used where neither red or green would, mostly on fliers and creatures coming from the graveyard to the battlefield. Haste was used commonly enough that being in three colors seemed okay.

The Simic mechanic would later change away from proliferate, but, as the guild still had plenty of "+1/+1 counters matter" effects, it was decided that riot worked well enough with Simic and could stay. And that is how Gruul got riot.

Rakdos

Rakdos is one of those guilds that we've never really nailed with its guild mechanic. Hellbent (permanents that give you a bonus if your hand is empty) was flavorful, but a little too hard to execute on. Unleash, which I just explained above, was a bit of a feel-bad as you were forced to take a drawback to get your advantage (one of the reasons riot gives you a choice of upsides). Was there a way to capture the recklessness of Rakdos in a way that was fun to play?

Art by: Daarken

This was another guild that had a high miss rate as we experimented with new mechanics. Rakdos didn't quite have the simplicity of Gruul's "cast creatures and attack" strategy. It was about taking risks that often paid off for you. For a while, we experimented with a mechanic that gave you a reward based on the top card of your library. One version cared about the converted mana cost (CMC) of the top card (for instance, getting +X/+0 for the turn where X was the CMC revealed), but the existence of lands with a CMC of 0 made you miss a lot. We tried flipping until you got a nonland, but it was a lot of words. We liked that it created this suspense every attack, but its inconsistency made it hard to play with and didn't quite create the excitement we were hoping for.

We then shifted away from an unknown reward to one where you knew what you were getting, but there was a cost for using it that felt reckless. This got us to a mechanic we called finale. The way it worked was it went on creatures and gave them a big bonus, but just for one turn (usually granting +N/+0, where N was different numbers and one or more abilities). At the beginning of the end step, you sacrificed the creature. It was an activated ability you could use only once, so you got to know whether you were blocked before you had to decide to use it.

The mechanic had some fun gameplay, and it felt very Rakdos. This was what we handed over from Vision Design. Set Design correctly identified that it was still a bit feel bad as you had to lose your creature to use the ability. We'd designed the cards to have a big enough impact (usually killing the other creature in combat or doing a bunch of damage to a player) that we hoped we could offset this, but, in the end, I agree with Set Design that we hadn't succeeded. That meant Set Design needed to look for another mechanic. It turned out we'd already made one—for Gruul.

I think turmoil was moved to Rakdos because Set Design understood that Rakdos was harder to design a guild mechanic for than Gruul. Both of Gruul's keywords had been a bigger success than Rakdos's two keywords. (Both Vision Design and Set Design played around a little with "heckbent," a variant of hellbent where you needed to have one or fewer cards in hand.)

As Set Design played around with turmoil, they realized that the aspect they liked most was the cards that helped you get other creatures out, so they shifted turmoil into spectacle. Spectacle was an alternate cost that a player could use to cast the creature if the opponent had lost life this turn. (Somewhere along the way, damage turned into the player losing life as it created more synergy.) Playtesting showed that the mechanic played a lot like bloodthirst, but, instead of bigger bodies, you got cheaper creatures. Bloodthirst had been one of the most popular mechanics from original Ravnica block (it was later brought back for Magic 2012), so we felt it boded well for the mechanic.

My preview card for today is from Rakdos, so before we move onto Azorius, I want to introduce you all to the Theater of Horrors.

Click here to see Theater of Horrors

Theater of Horrors

For all the Rakdos fans out there, I hope Theater of Horrors provides lots of fun.

Azorius

Of all the guilds, I think Vision Design got the most adventurous with Azorius. That probably seems like an odd statement as Azorius is definitely one of the more straight-laced guilds. For instance, its most successful guild mechanic, detain, basically kept things from happening (the ability kept the targeted creature from attacking, blocking, or using activated abilities). Forecast, its mechanic from original Ravnica block, which allowed you to create effects from your hand, was a little more on the inventive side, but it was wordy and tricky to design for.

Return to Ravnica had messed around with enchantmentfall (later printed in Journey of Nyx as constellation) playing into the guild's fondness for setting rules, but the lack of synergy with other guilds kept us from doing it. I liked the space that enchantmentfall had played around in and was wondering if we could make an Azorius mechanic that felt like Azorius using its mastery of the system as a means to control things.

The mechanic we created was called precedence. Here's how it worked. The mechanic went on creatures that all had an "enters-the-battlefield" (ETB) effect. When that creature entered the battlefield, it could copy the ETB effect of any creature you controlled on the battlefield. For example, I have an Owl Seer, a 1/1 flier with precedence and "when this enters the battlefield, scry 2." Also on the battlefield, I have Mill Man, a 2/2 with "when this enters the battlefield, put the top two cards of target player's library into their graveyard," and Helping Cleric, a 1/1 with "when this enters the battlefield, put a +1/+1 counter on target creature." As Owl Seer enters the battlefield, I would have a choice between three effects: the Owl Seer's scry effect, the Mill Man's mill effect, or the Helping Cleric's +1/+1 counter effect. Precedence allows me to change the ETB effect into anything any of my creatures have.

This mechanic was a lot of fun, and we were able to blend it into the two connected guilds, Orzhov and Simic, by making sure that both guilds had a number of creatures with ETB effects (both proliferate and debt, the two mechanics we handed over, wanted to do a lot of them anyway). We knew there were issues with the mechanic, but we enjoyed it enough to hand it off to Set Design.

Precedence ended up having two big problems. One was a rules issue. Copying other ETB effects might sound simple in overall context, but making it work within the rules is actually quite tricky. One of the things I've learned over the years is that what sounds simple to understand and what's simple to template, and what may work within the rules, do not always overlap. The workaround was to only be able to copy ETB effects of creature with precedence, but it made the mechanic parasitic and created synergies that were a lot less fun, especially with neighboring guilds.

The second problem was a Play Design one. The mechanic tended to always default to the best ETB effect on the battlefield. That meant we had to be very careful about how much variance we had among ETB effects, not just in Ravnica Allegiance, but within Standard generally. Designing all of them to be within a narrower band of effects just didn't seem worth having precedence as a mechanic. For both these reasons, precedence was killed.

Rakdos, Gruul, and Simic all had guild keywords that only went on creatures (and Orzhov was making creature tokens), so it was decided that Azorius really needed a mechanic that could go on instants and sorceries. Sam Stoddard and his team decided to look back at previous mechanics (named and unnamed) that went onto instants and sorceries, and they came upon this cycle:

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  • 109685
  • 109709
  • 109731
  • 109691

This is a cycle I'd designed during Time Spiral because I was trying to find different ways to play with the concept of time. (Time Spiral block had a time theme.) I remembered back to a cycle of sorceries we'd made in Invasion (Rout, Breaking Wave, Twilight's Call, Ghitu Fire, and Saproling Symbiosis) that allowed you to pay two extra mana to play them essentially as an instant. Instead of changing when you could play it, I liked the idea of a cycle of spells that changed their effect based on when you played it. You could cast it on your opponent's turn, but if you cast it during your main phase, it got better.

The Set Design team felt that the Time Spiral cycle could be expanded into an entire ability word and use it as the Azorius guild keyword. There was a little skepticism at first, but as they played with the cards, they found that the mechanic played well and could be designed such that the cards created synergies with the other guilds. I believe addendum was the last guild keyword finalized in Ravnica Allegiance.

Guilding Up

And that, in just two columns, is how the five Ravnica Allegiance guilds ended up with their guild keywords. As normal, I'm interested in hearing any feedback you have on today's article, any of the guilds, or on Ravnica Allegiance as a whole. You can email me or contact me through any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Google+, and Instagram).

Join me next week as I start telling Ravnica Allegiance card-by-card stories.

Until then, may you figure out which guild in Ravnica Allegiance is your favorite.


 
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