The creation of Return to Ravnica block is a long and strange one. But before I tell you that story, I have to tell you this one. (For all my readers with kids, that one was for you.)
One of my jobs as the head designer is to put together design teams. I thought today I'd introduce the Return to Ravnica design team by walking you through how exactly the team got put together.
The first thing I always do is figure out who the lead designer for the set is going to be. For those who have been reading "Making Magic" for at least five years, you have been following the story of Ken Nagle. Ken first got on my radar as one of the finalists for the first Great Designer Search. Alexis Janson (who we will get to in a second) won that first GDS, but Ken so impressed me that I also gave him a six-month design internship in R&D as well as Alexis (the internship was the prize for winning).
Ken managed to parlay the internship into a full-time job and went on to become my design disciple. (Interestingly, the last person to fill this role was Aaron Forsythe.) Ken was put on many design teams. Eventually, he got to lead his first set, Worldwake. He also did a bunch of smaller products like Archenemy and Commander. Ken's biggest assignment was being put in charge of the design for New Phyrexia.
I'm not sure how apparent this is from the outside, but large sets are much harder to do than small ones—especially fall sets. Not only are there more cards to deal with, but there's a lot of block-defining things that have to get solved. I'd been looking for a good place for Ken to do his first large-set lead design and Return to Ravnica felt like a good opportunity. While the set had many issues to solve, the fact that it was building on a known quantity meant that some of the structure and much of the set identity would already be known.
I remember the day I told Ken I was going to have him lead his first large set. I said to him, "Okay Ken, time to throw you into the deep end of the pool."
I was on the design team for several reasons. One, I'm on every expert expansion set these days, as I've discovered it's the best way as head designer to keep abreast of what is going on in all the designs. Two, I was going to be leading the next set, Gatecrash, and we always include the design lead for the following set on a design team. (I would later go on to split lead design duties with Mark Gottlieb for Gatecrash, but we'll keep that story for the first Gatecrash preview week.) Three, if you're going to throw someone into the deep end of the pool, it's only fair to have a lifeguard watching. I was on the team as a resource Ken could use (both to make cards and to ask questions of) but the job of bringing the set together was Ken's.
Alexis has made it known from the very first day she stepped into the office that she wanted to lead design a set. She's been very patient (there are a lot more people wanting to lead designs than there are opportunities—remember, everyone starts with a small set—so it can sometimes take a while). "Sinker" (the third set in the block) was finally Alexis's chance to grab the reins.
We don't always have the lead for the third set on the first design team, often choosing to include him or her on the second design team, but we realized early that the Return to Ravnica block was going to be a little different. The block structure required that the third set's team have very close knowledge of what the first and second teams were up to. That meant we had to plan ahead to figure out all sorts of logistics—which meant we needed to start "Sinker" design early to allow us to draft all three sets together while we still had time to change Return to Ravnica.
This meant we wanted Alexis on the Return to Ravnica design team. She's always been a heavy hitter on any design team she's been on, so having her on board was a plus for multiple reasons.
R&D has what we call core designers and core developers. These are the people whose main job responsibility is to do Magic design or development. For many years, I've made it a policy to always have a core developer on every one of the design teams. (Recently, we also established the rule that every development team has a core designer on it.) The core developer is there because it's important to have someone with development sensibilities on the team. I need to have someone who can say, "Guys, this isn't going to work" and prevent us from wasting a lot of time. The core developer also is in charge of making sure the mana costs on the cards are fair.
Zac Hill (who recently announced he has chosen to leave Wizards for other opportunities) is one of my favorite developers to have on design teams. He and I share a similar big-picture sensibility and we tended to have the same take on how sets should be put together. I am always happy to have Zac be my development rep (and am sad that I won't have that chance anymore—at least in the near future; I'm hoping we might get Zac back one day).
These days, we have five people on a design team. The final slot is what we refer to as the "fifth slot." The idea behind the fifth slot is that there are a lot of people at Wizards (many in R&D but some elsewhere) who want the opportunity to be on a design team. We feel it's good for them to get the opportunity and good for us to get some fresh blood onto every team. Sometimes, the fifth slot works out wonderfully and the person is a major contributor; sometimes, it doesn't work out, but the team is created so there is little pressure on the fifth slot if that happens.
Ken Troop is in charge of the R&D Magic Digital team overseeing things like Duels of the Planeswalkers and Magic Online. He was a perfect example of a prime candidate for the fifth slot. He was eager to see how design was done and we were eager to get his input. Ken ended up being one of the fifth slot successes.
So we had our team. Then it was time to start designing Return to Ravnica—except the design had started many months earlier, before Ken was even involved. What? That's the next story.
The Brian of the Operations
Art by Yeong-hao Han
The Return to Ravnica story actually starts long before Return to Ravnica design began. No, I'm not talking about Ravnica block, although obviously that had a huge influence. No, I'm talking about the design of Avacyn Restored—or more correctly, the set that existed in that slot before Avacyn Restored. Let me explain.
When the 2011–12 block was being planned, we had decided to try something completely different. The fall set would be large and the winter set would be small. The two would be set in the same world. The spring set was going to be large but it was going to take place in a completely different world than the fall and winter sets. We'd talked a bit about how there are some mechanics that work better in blocks of different sizes, so we were going to try a two-set block linked to a different one-set block. At least, that was the idea.
The large spring set was going to be the world that I wanted to build on Gothic horror. The fall and winter sets were going to be based on a world/mechanics design that Brian Tinsman had come up with. (Why was Gothic horror just one set? Because there was doubt it could fill up an entire block; they weren't even sure about a two-set block. I seriously couldn't make this stuff up.) Somewhere along the way, the point came up that we were missing an opportunity if we did our horror set in the spring rather than in the fall, near Halloween.
Art by Clint Cearley
The powers that be decided that a swap would be made and the Gothic horror world ended up getting the fall and winter slots (after I promised them that the world could fill up two sets' worth of cards). This meant that Brian was then in charge of the large spring set.
Meanwhile, also going on at this time, I was finalizing my five-year plan (which quickly became a seven-year plan) with Aaron. This plan is used to map out where I felt design was going to go so we had a better handle on what was coming. It was at this point that everyone realized I was planning to return to Ravnica after Innistrad block. This decision happened shortly after Ravnica's release (which was the very first full block I oversaw after I first became head designer), when I realized we had captured lighting in a bottle and was eager to tap into again. I didn't want to come back right away, so I said we would return on the second gold-themed block after Ravnica.
Everybody was so pumped for Ravnica's return that a crazy idea was floated. What if the large spring set was some kind of precursor to Return to Ravnica? It was a bit before the spring set's design was scheduled to begin, so Brian and I started riffing of what a precursor set could do. We toyed with a set that was chronologically between Ravnica and Return to Ravnica. Perhaps, we thought, it could show the Guildpact being reformed. We toyed with a set revisiting all the guild mechanics from Ravnica, as a way to reintroduce the ten guilds, as many players had not been playing when Ravnica came out. We thought up lots and lots of ideas, but they all had the same problem.
We knew there was going to be pent-up demand for Ravnica's return, but if we made a set before that set we were only going deflate that excitement. There was no way to hint at Ravnica's return yet not step on the toes of Return to Ravnica. At this time, Doug Beyer had an idea about the Helvault and an angel named Avacyn and it became clear that the third set could take place on Innistrad.
Brian, though, had spent too much time thinking about Ravnica to rest. You see, one of the crazier ideas Brian had was to turn the Return to Ravnica block into a four-set block, starting with the spring set. One idea he was very fond of was to have four guilds in the spring set, four guilds in the fall set and then two guilds in the winter set. All of this would be followed by ten guilds in the last spring set.
Brian felt that, while Ravnica was very successful, it had one flaw: We never gave the players a chance to pick up any extra cards. Each guild showed up in one set in the block and then that was it (Dissension did cheat a tiny bit with the gold split cards.) In fact, back in the day, Brady Dommermuth had pushed hard for what ended up being Coldsnap to be a fourth set in the Ravnica block that revisited all ten guilds.
I told Brian that the large spring set was going to become the third set in the Innistrad block, but with a mechanical reboot. That meant his 4/4/2/10 plan wasn't going to work. Never one to give up, Brian came up with a new plan. The block would be the normal large/small/small with the following guild breakdown: 6/4/10. (For those unfamiliar with original Ravnica block, it's model for including the various guilds was 4/3/3.)
Brian even went so far as to mock up a draft using cards from the original Ravnica block to fill out his sets. The draft didn't go well, as there was just too much stuffed into too little space. The problem was simple to identify. Brian had upped the guild presence by 50% while the size of the fall set was smaller than Ravnica. (Ravnica had 286 cards, not counting basic lands, while modern fall sets have 229.)
Brian wouldn't give up. He tried building a different mix of cards. Finally, I said to him that I didn't think we could fit more than five guilds in a large set, and even then we would have to get creative. The only way to end with Brian's final ten-guild small spring set would be to turn the winter set into a large set. If we did that, I said, we could do 5/5/10. That would probably work.
We took this idea to Aaron and Bill and they both liked it. My biggest concern was this: would the large sets have enough space? We experimented and, in the end, decided to add ten uncommons to give both of the large sets a little breathing room. Note that the difference in the number of cards between Return to Ravnica and Gatecrash is twenty-five. Those are all basic lands, because we didn't feel a need to make new ones for Gatecrash, since it takes place on the same world. Why five of each land instead of the normal four? Jeremy Jarvis, Magic's Art Director, thought it would be nice to bring back one image for each basic land from the original Ravnica to help play up the nostalgia.
Art by Howard Lyon
The Guild (And the Other Nine Guilds As Well)
Once everyone agreed on the 5/5/10 model, the next big decision was figuring out which five guilds went into which set. The first thing we did was to set down some rules:
Rule #1) Each set had to have each color represented twice.
While there's much positive to say about the 4/3/3 breakdown in Ravnica block, the biggest headache about it was what it did to color balance. Each set rewarded certain colors more than others. We filled out the sets by including more of the colors with less representation in monocolored cards, but it was a bit ugly. Having five guilds per set meant we could clean up this problem as long as we made sure that each color got two guild slots.
Rule #2) Each set had to have some ally and some enemy guild combinations.
Why not have the first set have all the ally-colored guilds and the second set have all the enemy-colored guilds? Because we had already done that shtick once in Invasion block. We try hard to not repeat ourselves when we can, so this option was off the table. Also, ally and enemy affiliations don't mean anything in Ravnica, so it seemed odd to use it as a delineation.
Rule #3) Any groups of four or three guilds that appeared together in Ravnica block could not all appear together again.
This meant that Boros/Dimir/Golgari/Selesnya (Ravnica) weren't supposed to all be together, as well as Gruul/Izzet/Orzhov (Guildpact) or Azorius/Rakdos/Simic (Dissension).
Rule #4) All the fast guilds and all the slow guilds couldn't be together.
Draft works best if there are various options at different speeds available. To help make sure each set had this, we listed the guilds by order of speed and then made sure cards from each half ended up in each set. Because there's no way for me to mention that such a list existed and not show it to you, here's the list we used (from fastest to slowest):
Note that this was the speed for original Ravnica and that the middle is rather arbitrary.
Rule #5) Start with two Dissension guilds.
While all the guilds showed up in Ravnica block, we didn't feel all of them got an even shake. The Dissension guilds, in particular, had a lot less time to be played, so we decided to make sure that two of them showed up in the first set (all three of them would have broken rule #3).
Once all these rules were thrown into a blender, there ended up being only two options. At that point, I told Ken that he could pick between the two choices. I'd already designed Ravnica guilds once and it didn't matter to me. Ken's two favorite guilds are the Izzet and the Golgari, so he chose the option that allowed him access to both.
And that is how the guilds were chosen for each set.
How we jumped in and started designing for each guild will wait for Part 2, next week.
Art by Zoltan Boros
A Little Less Inscrutable
Before I go for today, I wanted to make sure I showed off my preview card. One of the goals when we returned to Ravnica was to make sure we both hit the nostalgia of the original Ravnica block but also did new things. My preview card is one of the ways we mixed old with new.
Isperia showed up in Ravnica block (specifically, in Dissension). She was just another member of the Azorius Senate.
When we return, Isperia is still there, but now she has moved up to become the guild leader for the Azorius. As such, we've made a brand-new card for her to represent this change.
Without further ado, I introduce
We've already met Jarad, Golgari Lich Lord, the guild leader for the Golgari, in Duel Decks: Izzet vs. Golgari (while not in the original Ravnica card set, Jarad did show up in the Ravnica novels).
And in today's feature, Ken Nagle will introduce you to one of the returning guild leaders. Check it out.
Isperia, Supreme Judge | Art by Scott M. Fischer
More To Come
Whew! I've filled up an entire column and I haven't even gotten to the start of the design yet. Come back next week when I start explaining how we designed each of the five guilds in Return to Ravnica.
Until then, may you enjoy revisiting a beloved land.