elcome to Azorius Week. This is the second of our guild theme weeks for Return to Ravnica block. (Selesnya Week was about a month back.) As I explained during Selesnya Week, we had a series of ten guild theme weeks during the original Ravnica block (you can see all my guild columns here) where I talked about the color philosophy of each guild. This time out, I'm talking about what it takes to design for each color pair in general and for the guild specifically.
I've chosen to make these ten weeks orderly by asking the same questions of each guild and then talking in depth about the design of the two guild mechanics, the one from Ravnica block and the one from Return to Ravnica block. Let's get started.
What's the Easiest Thing About This Color Pairing?
Both white and blue have a very defensive nature. As such, both their creatures are a bit more on the defensive side (they are the two colors, for example, that most often have toughness greater than power), they tend to have more controlling qualities (for instance, tapping creatures as a creature-activated effect is white and blue—blue usually also untaps them), and they often have evasion (for example, white and blue are the top two colors at flying).
When it comes to spells, white and blue have the most reactive cards. White tends to protect itself and its creatures while blue fiddles with the natures of magic, countering spells and the like, but the two have a similar feel in that they often sit back and wait for the opponent to act first. In mechanics overlap, white is closer to green, but in overall feel, white is closer to blue. It's not hard to get each color to push toward the other.
What's the Hardest Thing About This Color Pairing?
While white and blue each have a defensive aspect that aligns perfectly with the other, they both have a more aggressive side that doesn't match up quite as well. White has a weenie attack strategy (blue, Delver of Secrets notwithstanding, traditionally has the weakest weenie creatures) while blue has a tempo style of play that white can't add a lot to. What this means is that the overlap between the two colors has to concentrate on a smaller sliver of design space than some of the other color combinations.
Also, the area that the two mesh the best in—the "sit back and be reactive, preventing everything from happening" style of play—is not the most fun Magic, so development is reluctant to push it, powerwise. This means design is always on the lookout for cards in white-blue that feel good yet don't make the game screech to a halt.
What's the Mechanical Heart of This Color Pair?
From a color-pie philosophy, white and blue are the two colors that plan ahead most, white with its orderly strategizing and blue with its thoughtful reflection. This means that the key to white-blue is control of the game. Note that I mean control in the broader sense and just not counterspells (although that is one of the things blue brings to the white-blue table).
White and blue want to take control of every facet of the game they can. They want to dictate what the things on the battlefield can and cannot do. They want to control how and what gets played. They want to grant themselves options while taking away options from the opponent. When designing white-blue, and Azorius in particular, the designers have to always ask, "What is white-blue doing to push the game toward its agenda?"
This means there are a lot of reactive and proactive cards. This means things on the battlefield like to either affect other things or be unable to be affected by other things. White-blue wants to set the rules.
What's the Focus of This Color Pair?
Controlling the game is a good strategy but it doesn't tend to win. Part of having a focus is having a route to victory. For white-blue, this route is through creatures. There are two different ways that white-blue uses creatures to win.
First is the evasion strategy. As I said above, white and blue are the top two colors for creatures with flying. White also has protection while blue has unblockability and islandwalk. White-blue's strategy is to take control of the game and then use its evasive creatures to peck away at the opponent. White then uses protective spells while blue uses permission and hexproof to keep these evasive creatures safe.
Second is the big flier strategy. Both white and blue get big fliers, especially at higher rarities—most iconically Angels and Sphinxes. A different way to win is to get a large flier out in the mid- to late game and then protect it while it single-handedly wins the game.
Regardless of the choice, control + creatures + protection of those creatures leads to a white-blue and Azorius victory.
Let me begin by explaining where the Dissension design team (Aaron Forsythe as lead, with Mark Gottlieb, Brandon Bozzi, and myself) was when we designed forecast. From time to time, the head developer comes to me and explains that some deck is doing well and could design please not push in a certain area? Right before Dissension started, Brian Schneider, the head developer during the Ravnica block, came to me and said that white-blue control had gotten a little stronger than he was comfortable with. Could we avoid pushing in that direction in Dissension?
Look up above where I talk about the mechanical heart of white-blue. Brian basically asked the design team to make Azorius without, you know, playing up its defensive nature (i.e., use its mechanical heart). Brian did understand the awkwardness of what he was asking and he wouldn't have asked if it wasn't important, so we did our best to make Azorius feel like white-blue without pushing the control aspect too hard.
Our solution to this problem was to play more into what I listed as the focus above. We played up the flying aspect of Azorius and made the guild a little more aggressive. I feel Azorius was the guild of all ten in the original Ravnica block that deviated the most from expectation, but now you know that was because we needed to avoid the obvious answer. As you will see, we corrected this problem in Return to Ravnica.
So, we were looking for a mechanic that felt Azorius but wasn't super defensive. For some reason, my mind went to a card that wasn't white or blue. Can you guess the card that inspired me to come up with the forecast mechanic?
Think about it. When you're ready click here.
What if, I suggested, we had a mechanic that lived in the hand so that white-blue had something to do with its handful of cards? The idea with the mechanic was that it would generate a small effect. This would allow the player to choose between repeatedly getting a small effect or casting the card for a one-time large effect.
The mechanic was very choice heavy but I felt like the style of player attracted to Azorius would actually appreciate the choice and would have fun trying to figure out when to abandon the small forecast effect for the larger spell effect.
Once the team accepted forecast as an idea for the guild mechanic, the next step was figuring out how to properly execute it. Originally, the plan was to have the cards trigger at upkeep, but the rules don't like triggers originated from a non-public zone (i.e., a place all players can't see). In the end, we ended up making it an activated ability but one restricted to your upkeep.
The bigger design issue was figuring out how to design the forecast cards such that the forecast effect seemed a natural part of the card. In the end, we ended up with three main ways to do this:
The Combo: Some of the cards, such as Pride of the Clouds, have a forecast effect that has synergy with the spell effect. For example, if you use the forecast on Pride of the Clouds to make a flying Bird token, when you cast Pride of the Clouds it is +1/+1 larger. On these cards, the two effects are linked only by how they work together.
The Lesser Effect: Other forecast cards have a forecast effect that is basically a smaller version of the spell effect. An example of this would be Skyscribing. Skyscribing can use forecast to allow all players to draw a card. If you play the spell it will allow all players to draw X cards.
The Ability Sharing: This last example can be seen on Spirit en-Dal. The forecast effect is to grant target creature the ability the creature naturally has, such as shadow on Spirit en-Dal, to a target creature for the turn.
Ideally, all of the cards would have been the first category, as from a design aesthetic, the combo was the most satisfying. The second type came about because we simply couldn't make that many clean combo versions. The final category came into play because it was very hard to do the second category on creatures.
With 20/20 hindsight, I think forecast was merely a fair mechanic. It was a bit of a stretch for Azorius, flavorwise, especially given that we had shifted away from a more controlling style that would have synergized more with forecast. Second, the mechanic was very restrictive and I don't feel all the cards were able to meet the standard set by Pride of the Clouds.
The final issue with it is a common Ramp;amp;D issue called repetitive game play. In general, we tend to shy away from mechanics that make the same thing happen every turn. Constant repetition simply makes the game less fun and lowers the variance that is one of Magic's strengths.
All in all, I feel like forecast was a B-, which is lower than I like to hit with mechanics. Luckily, when we returned seven years later, we fared a little better.
The very first meeting we had for Return to Ravnica design (the team was Ken Nagle as the lead, Alexis Jansen, Ken Troop, Zac Hill, and myself) started by Ken saying the following: "Last time, Azorius wasn't really what you expected white-blue to be. We're going to fix that problem this time."
For those who don't remember, after we broke down the possible guild splits for Return to Ravnica and Gatecrash, we ended up with two choices. I had already had a chance to work on most of the guilds in Ravnica block (remember, I was the lead for Gatecrash—I later ended up handing over the reins halfway through to Mark Gottlieb) so I let Ken pick which combination of guilds he wanted. Ken chose the Return to Ravnica mix partly, he said, because he wanted to do Azorius right.
The first idea we had for Azorius came from me. I too wanted to capture Azorius correctly and had an interesting idea how to do that. In the end, though, my idea had two problems.
One, it was too insular. Knowing the guilds are going to be drafted together come "Sinker," we wanted to make sure there was some synergy between them and this idea just didn't play nicely with others.
Two, it was messing in a space mechanically that we wanted to explore in a future block. If it panned out, we were willing to let the future block fend for itself, but with the other issue, it became clear that we were messing with the future for not enough gain. It took us a while, but eventually we backed away from our first take on Azorius's keyword. When I finally get to the future I'm talking about, if I remember, I'll fill you all in on what Azorius was up to.
After that, we experimented with a bunch of different mechanics, but none really stuck. So when the set went into devign, a sub-team was put together to come up with Azorius guild mechanics. For those who are unaware of what I mean by a sub-team, let me quickly explain: Sometimes, when a set needs a little help on a specific problem, we put together a separate design team to tackle the problem. Usually a sub-team will just meet for a week or two to help attack the problem from a different vantage point.
The Azorius sub-team was led by Mark Globus and included Dave Humpherys, Billy Moreno, and Ken Nagle. Ken was there to represent the needs of Return to Ravnica. Humpherys was there to give a developer perspective, while Mark and Billy were there to design lots of cards. (While Billy is a developer, he has a strong design sensibility.)
When the sub-team started, it used as inspiration a request from the developers. The development team had looked over Return to Ravnica and felt the set needed a tempo-based mechanic. The sub-team came up with two ideas, one a little too simple and one a little too complex. The complex idea never got solved (although I am optimistic it might get solved one day so I'm not going to talk about it).
The simple idea was building a mechanic around the idea of "tap a creature." The team knew that Azorius wanted to gain advantage by stopping the opponent's creatures, but only temporarily. The trick, though, was how to turn "tap a creature" into a full-blown mechanic. Eventually, the team came across the idea that the creature would be affected much like being tapped but without the actual tapping. The affected creature just couldn't attack or block. The team called this ability "jail."
As the sub-team played with it, a few issues came up. First, shouldn't jailing a creature also stop it from doing other things? The spell Arrest, which had a similar flavor, prevented activated abilities. The team decided to add that in as well. Second, the team had to figure out a duration. Playtesting showed that "until your next turn" was short enough to be remembered but long enough to have an impact on both your turn and your opponent's, making both not blocking and not attacking matter.
Third, there was the question of what could be detained. After some experimentation, the team came up with the idea that monocolored cards with detain worked on creatures while the multicolor ones would affect permanents. This idea stuck around all the way to print.
When the team was done, it offered up the mechanic to the design team as its official recommendation. There was some concern from outside the team that detain was too dry and not very sexy. I was one of its defenders because I believed it did what a guild mechanic should—(a) it flavorfully reinforced the feel of the guild and (b) it would be liked by the style of player who likes playing Azorius. Hit those two points and all is good as far as I'm concerned.
And that is how detain ended up the Azorius mechanic.
Any Final Thoughts?
I feel that Return to Ravnica did a good job of meeting Ken's goal of "doing Azorius right." I like how it controls the game but in a means that helps the game progress rather than dragging it to a standstill. I'm also happy how well the guild has been received. White-blue has the potential to be a little dry, so it's nice to see the guild being so embraced by the fans.
Control and Order
Like green-white, white-blue is combining two colors with a lot of overlap. The challenge of its design isn't finding spells that feel right but rather finding ones that are fun but flavorful. Capture that and you have a guild players can rally around.
Join me next week when I talk about how my other job affects this one.
Until then, may you enjoy taking a little control.
Drive to Work #5 – Ravnica
This week's podcast is about the design behind the original Ravnica set. I talk about the design team and explore how we designed each of the four guilds (Dimir, Selesnya, Boros, and Golgari).
- Episode 5: Ravnica (12.9 MB)
- Episode 4: Invasion (14.2 MB)
- Episode 3: Planeswalkers (15.0 MB)
- Episode 2: Zendikar (15.3 MB)
- Episode 1: Tempest (13.8 MB)