This week I wanted to talk about a different aspect of the Ravnica block that Guildpact had to deal with. (Yeah, yeah, I ended a sentence with a preposition – don't tell the English teachers I said this, but it's okay. Really.) I'm talking about the cycle. Normally, cycles in Magic are five cards with one card in each color, all in the same rarity. But in a guild world, five is not the magic (or should I say Magic) number. The magic number is ten. So what does this mean? It means that if we want to give all the guilds the same thing, we have to make a cycle of ten. And following the 4/3/3 structure set up for the block, it means that none of the cycles all appear in any one set.
Now, we've done this before (splitting cycles across sets or even blocks). Odyssey, for instance, had an alternative win enchantment cycle that ran through the entire block (Test of Endurance, Battle of Wits, Mortal Combat, Chance Encounter, and Epic Struggle). Mirrodin had a three-card cycle of equipment that ran through its block (Sword of Kaldra, Shield of Kaldra, and Helm of Kaldra). And we must not forget the mega-mega cycle of legendary lands that were created one a block for five blocks (Teferi's Isle, Volrath's Stronghold, Yavimaya Hollow, Kor Haven, Keldon Necropolis).
What sets Ravnica apart is that all the guild cycles, which are the vast majority of the cycles in the block, take place over three sets. For the first time, it isn't the exception, it's the norm. So, what's the big deal? There are a couple of issues. I thought I'd use my column today to examine the challenge of making these ten-card cycles and give some hints about what it means for Guildpact. And then before we're done, I'll let you in on a new Izzet card that's part of a cycle. A really cool one. So, stick around. (Or scan down if you have the patience of a housefly – see, they only live twenty-four hours so they have to pack everything in – yeah, I know explaining the joke just killed it – a few moments to mourn…………………………… that's enough. Let's move on. The joke would want it that way.)
A Cycle Built for Two (Million)
Before I get into the pros and cons of ten-card cycles, let me first present you with the required reading. In July of 2002, we had a Cycle Week. During that week, I talked about the design of cycles (“Zen and the Art of Cycle Maintenance”). If you haven't read it yet, I recommend you do so before we continue. As usual, I'll wait. For those of you that have already read it, I'll fill you in on a little piece of trivia. This column's title is named after a somewhat unmemorable sit-com from the late 80's that was a spin-off of “Growing Pains”, a slightly less unmemorable sit-com from the mid and late 80's. Why do I name my columns after such things? Because that's how the mind of a Magic designer works. (I can see it now, scores of letters from want-to-be designers asking what bad old sit-coms they need to watch.)
To understand the ten-card cycle, let's begin by looking at its restrictions.
#1 – Ten Is a Big, Big Number
One of the challenges of making a cycle is finding an idea that has enough oomph and card design space to fill up five cards. This is kind of difficult (which is evidenced by the fact that some cycles' oomph doesn't even make it to five cards – Oath of Mages, I'm talking to you). A ten-card cycle is twice as much. And as a father of twins let me let you in on yet another little secret – twice as much is actually more than twice the amount of work. When you get to the second twin/five cards you've already been exhausted by the first twin/five cards.
There are two ways to approach this. One, make all ten the exact same (with a slight tweak usually addressing color). The examples of this type of cycle in Ravnica would be the dual lands, the signets and the “karoos” (the common multi-lands). Two, create a cycle complex and deep enough that the designers have a lot of design space to play around with. Examples of this from Ravnica block would be the enhanced spells (you get an extra or more powerful effect if you spend a certain other color mana in playing the spell), the guildmages and the guild halls (the uncommon land cycle). But each of the two options has its own problems. Which segues quite nicely to…
#2 – Predictability Ain't What It Used To Be
Since the ten-card cycles run across three sets, they have a unique problem. One of which we've never really had to deal with before. Here it is. If you make all ten cards the same but make the players wait for the last seven, you've kind of spoiled the suspense. Most cycles are presented all at once, so it doesn't really matter if the five cards cover similar ground. But players want their new sets to have new things. Seeing the same old-same old too many times is, to be frank, disappointing.
This was a huge obstacle to the ten-card cycles. If all of them were straightforward, we'd be giving away a significant percentage of the later sets in October. What this meant was that R&D had to be very stingy with the “all the same” ten-card cycles. In fact, we were so stingy that we only used them on pure utility cards that on many levels were never meant to surprise anyone. A rose is a rose and a dual land is a dual land. This meant that all the ten-card cycles other than the few utility ones had to avoid category one. Which leads us to category two's issue.
#3 – Complexity Is Hard
It's all good and easy to say “build ten-card cycles that all hang together with a similar theme yet vary enough as to be unpredictable”.
It's another thing to actually build them. Here are just a few of the thornier issues. One, each card in the cycle is a different two-color combination. Any idea has to find space within every two-color combination. And the way Magic is designed, some colors just don't do certain things. Quite the challenge. Two, many subsets of mechanics don't have ten items in the subset. For instance, let's say a cycle was interested in using everyday creature keyword abilities. Flying (1), first strike (2), trample (3), haste (4), vigilance (5), fear (6), landwalk (7), protection (8) regeneration (9) and, um, double strike (10). You're exactly at ten without any guarantee that the ten will match up. Plus, there are little issues like the fact that first strike is strictly weaker than double strike.
Three, is the extended version of the predictability problem. If the structure of the cycle is too obvious we have the problem of the cycle being too easy to figure out before the second and third set came out. And by extension comes problem four. To satisfy the public's desire for evolution through the block, you need to be able to build some cycles that evolve. What does that mean? It means that some cycles have to add new twists as the cycle plays out. I'll explain a few examples of these before the column finishes.
#4 – The Guilds; Remember Them?
On top of everything else, the cycles exist because they are the most efficient way of showing contrast (aka definition) between the guilds. Yes, not only does the cycle have to be interesting and not too predictable, but each color combination has to represent what its guild is all about. Luckily, the designers love a good challenge.
I can talk until I'm blue in the face (or in the fingertips as I'm typing this). The best way to explain ten-card cycles is to talk about them. Not all of them, mind you. But I thought I'd hit the higher profile ten-card cycles in the Ravnica block to show you how Guildpact is going to handle them. (Aaron talked about these cycles in his column “Reinforcing the Structure” if you want to read even more about the structure of the cycles.)
The Dual Lands
Also the same.
The “Karoos” (common multi-lands)
The Guild Houses
These are the uncommon lands that represent the home of each of the guilds. Each land taps for a colorless mana (we have rules that all lands nowadays either tap for mana or have the ability to get lands that can tap for mana). Each land also has an activated ability that requires one mana of the relevant type from each of the two colors (plus an undefined amount of generic mana). The ability either has a tap effect or creates an effect that is not beneficial if used twice. The effect is something that fits the flavor of that particular guild. Guildpact follows this guideline. Because the abilities are allowed to be all over the map it was felt that the subset of possibilities was broad enough to keep all of you guessing as to what the abilities might be.
Once again, these are spells that have an added or boosted effect if a particular second color is used when playing the spell. In Ravnica, all of the enhanced spells were instants and sorceries. Guildpact puts a twist on this cycle by attaching the enhanced ability to creatures creating comes into play effects. (And this is tame when you see what Dissension does with its portion of this cycle.)
The Legendary Creatures
The guild legends are actually two ten-card cycles. The first is the guild leader. The guild leaders are designed to simply be awesome, impressive rares. The only mechanical connection is that they each have CCDD (meaning two of the first color of the guild and two of the second) in their mana cost. Their main connection is one of flavor as they are the pinnacles of what the guild represents. The mechanics in each case were chosen to play into the style and mood of that particular guild. Guildpact continues this theme. Niv-Mizzet (as previewed in last week's “Taste the Magic” column by Matt Cavotta) is one such guild leader. The Orzhov leader (or should I say leaders) shows up later this week in Zvi Mowshowitz's “The Play's The Thing”.
The second rare legendary creature cycle is more mechanically linked. Each creature is designed to reward the playing of the two colors of that guild. It does so by having two abilities that each reward the use (sometimes permanents and sometimes spells) of each of the two relevant colors. These cards are always created such that multi-color cards hit both colors trigger both abilities. Like the guild leader cycle, the “henchmen” cycle plays out similarly in Guildpact as the mechanical requirements still allow significant flexibility..
The Off-Color Activations
This grouping of cards is also really two ten-card cycles. The idea behind it is that every color has a card with a colored activation in another color. (Note that Elves of Deep Shadow breaks this by having a card that creates an off-color mana rather than making use of one.) This activated ability allows the card to have access to some ability not available in the first color. In any one set each guild has two such cards, one in each color with an activation using its affiliated guild color. All the cards in this uber-cycle in Ravnica were creatures. Guildpact shakes things up by using non-creature colored permanents. You might know them better as enchantments.
The Guild Artifacts
The guild artifacts were designed such that they all had a base ability that anyone could use and then a second ability that required the mana of the colors relevant to the guild. The idea was that these artifacts belong to the guild and thus are only optimized when used by the correct color combinations. As with many of the ten card cycles, they were designed with enough flexibility to allow Guildpact to follow suit without having to resort to some big twist.
Finally, we come to the granddaddy of Ravnica ten-card cycles, the guildmages. Other than the cycles that are all identical, the guildmages have the tightest parallel construction. Here's what each guildmage must do. One, it must cost two (and exactly two) hybrid mana of the relevant colors. Second, it is a 2/2. Third, the creature will have exactly two activated abilities with equal cost except one uses the first color while the other uses the second color. Fourth, the two abilities have to capture the essence of the guild. And fifth, these two abilities must connect aesthetically.
This last task can be accomplished in several ways. First, the two abilities could intersect in utility. The Selesnya Guildmage is a good example of this – creating creatures and granting all of your creatures +1/+1 overlaps in functionality. Second, the two abilities can work on two similar aspects of the game. The Dimir Guildmage is a good example of this category – drawing a card and forcing a discard are working towards the same goal from different ends. Three, the two abilities could workin parallel. Unfortunately, none of the Ravnica Guildmages really do what I'm talking about. I'd like to give you an example though. Oh yes, I forgot that I can invoke the power of the preview card. Oh mighty gods of previewing, bring forth a card of such example so that I might educate my reader.
If this guy doesn't impress/excite you then I recommend you avoid playing Izzet because the Izzet fans out there should be doing a little happy dance. I know I am. (I'm a fan of Izzet. Who didn't see that coming? Hi, welcome to my column.)
Not only is this guy a cool card, but he even has a cool little story. One of my roles as Head Designer is that I always have to look over design files before they're turned over. And usually I do a little tweaking where necessary. Anyway, the Izzet Guildmage at the time had some sucky pair of abilities. Something like.
Creature – Human Wizard
5U: Lose the game.
5R: Rip up all your cards.
Okay, it might not have happened that way, but that is the way my mind works. Anyway, I realized that a good way to make use of instants and sorceries was to copy them. And so, I took the repeatable forking of Mirari and combined it with the “cares about little spells” quality of Isochron Scepter and mashed them together into a cool little guildmage.
And that, my friends, is all I got for today. Hopefully, this has given you a little better insight into the world of Ravnica cycles.
Join me next week when I stop hinting about Guildpact and just talk openly about it. It'll be fun, I promise.
Until then, may you take a moment to stop and smell (or at least notice) the nuances.