Ravnica Design Handoff Document

Posted in Making Magic on August 8, 2022

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.

An important part of Magic design is that the set passes through multiple leads. When Vision Design finishes and hands off the set to Set Design, we create a document known as a vision design handoff document that walks the new design team through all the work of the previous design team. In my column, I've shown a number of these:

As Dominaria United previews begin next week, I thought it would be fun to go back to the start of it all and show the design handoff document from original Ravnica. Note that this was back when R&D had design and development teams rather than Vision Design, Set Design, and Play Design teams. As with all my vision design handoff articles, this is the official document as it was turned in, offset with boxed commentary.

"Control" Design Philosophy

For the last five years (Invasion forward), design has been centered around a theme (multicolor, graveyard, tribal, artifact, Japanese flavor). "Control" is trying to take the next step in design evolution. While the set still has a theme (multicolor obviously), it has what I've dubbed a "core concept." The idea of a core concept is that it interacts with theme, serving as a prism to dictate how all the various functions (mechanics and creative being the two biggest ones) are focused. Mechanics, art, names, flavor text, etc. are all charged with pursuing the theme down a path that best executes the core concept.

The core concept for "Control" is the guild model, or in broader terms, two-color interactions. Each of the ten interactions has been given a distinct identity based on color pie philosophy. "Control's" number-one job is to show off and delineate these identities. As such, the "Control" design team set out to create a design that accomplished this goal. This has played out in several ways:

1) Guild Breakdowns Per Set – Early playtests demonstrated that having too many guilds represented made it almost impossible to communicate the mechanical flavor of each guild. To solve this problem, the team came up with the idea to spread the ten guilds across the block's three sets. Each guild would appear in only one set. After crunching numbers, the team felt that the best execution was 4–3–3.

Taking many factors into account (having a mix of ally and enemy guilds each set, popularity of certain guilds, etc.), the design team chose to the following breakdown:

"Control" – Blue-black, green-white, black-green, red-white
"Alt" – Red-green, white-black, blue-red
"Delete" – White-blue, red-black, green-blue

2) Mechanical Breakdown Within Each Set – As each guild was only appearing once, the team started to focus on how to mechanically represent each guild. It was decided that strong parallel structuring with loose execution (we are strict that every guild must have X but are liberal in how each guild chooses to make X work) would do the best job of reinforcing the identities of the guilds as well as the contrasts between them.

Let me take a moment to stress the importance of the current parallel structuring. The "Control" world is going to live and die on us making the guilds matter and making them interesting. How do we do that? We make sure that every aspect of the game plays up how each guild is unique, that it has its own distinctive flavor. But flavor cannot be defined in a vacuum. As an example, let's look at the single colors of the color pie. Let's say you wanted to make the audience understand the flavor of red. We start by making red cards that embody the essence of red. But ultimately to define the color, we have to show the boundaries. And any one color is incapable of doing that. How does the audience know that a red card is on the cusp of not being red?

The answer is using the flavor of the other colors as contrast. You demonstrate what red is not by showing elements in other colors that do not show up in red. A certain quality is not red because it shows up continually in another color. The strongest way to do this is to create two cards that have a similar element but are represented differently in the two colors. White Knight and Black Knight seem much more white and black, respectively, because their mirror version shows what they are not.

The same principle holds true for the guilds. There is only so far we can get by showing just the guild. We also need to show how other guilds approach a similar idea differently. This is where the parallel structure is huge. If every guild, for example, has a legend and his followers, it is very telling how the relationship works in each group. In one guild, they might be disciples. In another, soldiers. In a third, minions. This is why the design team has chosen to be so tight in its parallel structure. We want a number of items to show up in each guild. The important part is that each guild has to have enough mechanical freedom that it can show vast differences in how they handle the mechanic.

There is a temptation to do this through number (one guild has three of something while another has one). The problem here is that number is a very hard thing to catch when you're looking one card at a time. Simple variance can hide differences for a long time. Thus, numbers only work if you grossly exaggerate (six to one is more effective than three to one), which eats up a lot of extra slots. Parallel structure does the same work but with far fewer cards and with much easier recognizability (assuming of course creative uses its tools properly).

Also, it's important to note that while numbers do a poor job of showing differences, they can do a much better job of showing similarities. Players will more quickly pick up that everyone has the same number of something than they will when things are different. People look for patterns and thus catch on quicker when things have a similar structure.

Once we decided to have a strict parallel structure, we started looking at how to execute it:

Defining Levels – One of the first exercises the design team took was figuring out how cards applied to the guild system. We realized quickly that card interaction with the guilds could vary significantly. As such, we came up with a system of levels to show how close a card is to the guild model:

Level 1 – These are cards that cannot be played unless both colors of a guild are used. This level is basically multicolor cards.
Level 2 – These are cards that require both colors of a guild if they are to be optimized. An example of this is the Guildmages that are playable with one color but far more powerful if you have both colors.
Level 3 – These are cards that only require one color of a guild to play but are associated flavor-wise with the guild. These cards benefit from playing both guild colors only in the fact that there might be synergy in numbers. The best example of this level are the keyword mechanics. For example, if you want to build a crittercast deck, it will be optimized in green-white.
Level 4 – These are cards that are not guild related but have some loose synergy with the larger goal of the guild. An example would be Raise Dead. The card has no connection with the black-green guild, but it does have synergy with the guild's recursive flavor.
Level 5 – These are cards that have no synergy with any guild.

After some discussion, we decided to define the guilds mechanically by the top three levels. (Where creative draws the line, for example, who's in the guild versus who's affiliated with the guild, has yet to be determined.)

Level 1 (Multicolor Numbers) – Once we knew how many guilds existed in each set, we crunched the numbers to figure out how many multicolor cards we could fit in each guild. For starters, we decided that we wanted all the guilds to be of an equal size. A general balance of colors (normally, we deal with single colors, but color pairs work very similarly) is a standard for design, and the guild system only pushes us to maintain it.

The smaller ratio between guilds and overall set size in the smaller expansions dictated our upper size. The team wanted to push multicolor so that it showed up in at a greater rarity in all three rarities than Invasion. Also, experience with multicolor showed that it had to skew toward rare to keep deck building from being too difficult/restrictive in Limited. In the end, we had the following mix:

Common – 4 Per guild, 16 (large set); 12 (small set)
Uncommon – 7 Per guild, 28 (large set); 21 (small set)
Rare – 8 Per guild, 32 (large set); 24 (small set)

While there is a little wiggle room, be aware that a change in any one guild is a change to every guild.

Next, the "Control" design team created a number of cycles that fell within multicolor cards. (I'll be talking a bit more about "Control" cycle philosophy in the next section.) Here they are: (This list contains all level 1 except I've included the keywords—level 3—to give you a sense of how much extra space there is for non-cycle cards.)

Common (4 multicolor cards)

Small Guy (Followers) – Each guild has a mechanic that shows up on a common and rare creature. The larger creature is a legend, and the general flavor is that the small guys are his/her followers. Each guild will flavor this relationship differently.

Keywords (2) – Each guild has two common multicolor cards with the guild's keyword.

Uncommon (7 multicolor cards)

Enchanted Land Seal – Each guild has an enchant land that grants the enchanted land a tap ability that affects creatures of its colors. These cards exist as a means to show the seal or crest of each guild.

Keywords (1) – Each guild has one uncommon multicolor card with the guild's keyword.

Rare (8 multicolor cards)

Guild Leader – One of the ways to give the guilds flavor is to highlight some of the key players in the guild. (This also has a secondary bonus of reinforcing Kamigawa's legend theme.) This card, a legend, is the creature that serves as the leader of the guild. What this means will vary from guild to guild. Creative has dictated who these creatures are.

Other Guild Member – Each guild has a secondary legend. The role of this legend will depend on the structure of each guild. In some guilds, it may be the second in command. In others, it runs the army. In others, it's the bodyguard of the leader. Creative has dictated who these creatures are.

Big Guy – This is the legend that is the companion to the little guy. He has a larger version of the same mechanic. Flavor-wise, he will be the person who the little guys follow. How they do this will, of course, vary by guild.

Keyword (1) – Each guild has one rare multicolor card with the guild's keyword. Note that this is the only rare card with a keyword.

Equipment – Each guild has a piece of Equipment that costs CD or much higher generic cost to equip. The Equipment is flavored to do something that mechanically makes sense with the guild.

Dual Lands – These are essentially tap lands that give the player the ability to pay 2 life to have them come into play untapped. In addition, these lands take advantage of the new basic land keywords to grant the lands both basic land types. This cycle has the highest percent chance of being the same throughout the cycle.

Level 2 (Monocolor Cards With Multicolor Influence) – Once the multicolor numbers were in place, the team started looking at the next level down: monocolor cards that needed a second color to be optimized. After much discussion, we came up with a number of cycles.

Before I get to these cycles though, I want to discuss a little philosophy about how we handled them. Unlike most sets, a cycle in this block is referring to ten cards. If you want to make a new dual land, for example, the public will expect you to make all ten. This means that the first set does a lot to dictate the rest of the block. While some expectation is good, the team was very worried about it removing further excitement for the expansions. We don't want the players feeling as if they know everything about sets two and three just by looking at set one.

This led the team to make two important decisions:

Number one – "Control" cycles have to be much looser. Traditionally when we make cycles, we try hard for as much structure as possible. Let's take Invasion's Guildmages, for example. Each one was a 1/1 for C that had two activations "D, T" and "E, T" (D and E being the ally colors of C). When looking at "Control's" Guildmages, we decided that we didn't want to lock down mana cost or power/toughness. The activations alone we felt (along with creative help) should dictate their Guildmage-ness. This way, while players would anticipate Guildmages, they have a lot less ability to figure out what they'll look like.

Number two – Cycles can be looser in the block than the first set dictates. Or in other words, each set can approach a loose cycle differently. For instance, let's take a look at the common lands. In "Control," the common lands are "filter lands" (the lands tap for colorless and let a player filter the two guild colors). "Alt" has the freedom to do a different style of common lands. The key is that those three must have a common link, and there needs to be one common land for each guild in that set. The only restriction is that "Alt" dictates whether "Delete" follows suit (if "Alt," for example, did filter lands, it forces "Delete's" hand). Which cycles are looser than they first appear (meaning "Alt" and "Delete" will do their own versions) is planned to be decided by the "Alt" and "Delete" design teams.

That said, here are the level 2 cycles in "Control":

Common

Guildmages (2) – The Guildmages in "Control" are creatures who have two activated abilities (currently both for "C, T"). The first is weaker in the in-color. The second is stronger in the off-color. The idea behind these guys is that you might play one if you're playing the base color, but you're almost definitely playing one if you have both colors. Also note that each guild has two Guildmages as they have one based in each of the two guild colors.

Creatures with Off-Color Activation (2) – Each guild has two (one in each of the guild's colors) creatures that have an off-color activation. Like the Guildmages, we've tried to design them such that they will see some play when only the base color is being used, but they are optimized when playing both colors. To distinguish them from the Guildmages, the off-color abilities do not include a tapping cost. As with the Guildmages, each guild has two of these, one centered in each color.

Filter Lands – These are lands that tap for colorless and can filter the two guild colors for two mana. The reason I stuck these in as level 2 and the rare lands as level 1 is that the filter lands are often used when you are only playing one of the two colors (especially when you are splashing the color) while the dual lands are really only valuable if you're playing both colors.

Uncommon

Guild-Friendly Creatures (2) – These are creatures who get a bonus for the existence of another color in play. These are designed so that you are less likely to play these than the commons if you don't have both colors.

Boostable Spells (2) – These are spells that have a second ability if you used the affiliated guild color when playing the spell. These cards were designed such that you quite often will play them without the second color. Having the guild colors turns these from good cards to great cards. This is the kind of cycle that heavily pulls you to play the second color.

Rare

There are currently no level 2 rare cards. If you want to add guild cards, rare is the only place to do it.

Level 3 (Keyword Mechanics) – To reinforce the guild model, the team felt that it was crucial that the keywords for this block were each associated with a guild. That dictated a 4–3–3 keyword structure. While ten keywords is a bit above average (Onslaught and Mirrodin each had around eight, depending what you count), the guild structure will force each keyword to exist in smaller quantities than normal. The team felt that this was in an acceptable range.

Next, we looked at how to execute the keywords within the guilds. Limiting the keywords to multicolor seemed very problematic. This would mean that a player choosing any one guild combination would have access to only one of the block's ten keywords. The next logical option was to allow each monocolor in the guild to also have access to the keyword. This would allow a player playing any one guild combination to have access to seven out of the ten keywords, one of which should be at its strongest as the player has access to every card with the mechanic.

Trying to hold to the strict parallel structure, the team chose to put the keywords in the same allotments in each guild. In addition, playtesting helped give a sense of proper balance. In the end, each guild was given twelve cards with keywords, four in each subsection—monocolor C, monocolor D, and multicolor. The team felt that twelve was weighty enough to be a mechanic but small enough to be managed in only two colors. Because of the weighting of the gold cards toward rare, the keywords on the multicolor skew more toward rare. Here is the breakdown of keywords per guild:

Common – 6 (2 for each of the monocolor cards, 2 for multicolor)
Uncommon – 5 (2 for each of the monocolored cards, 1 for multicolor)
Rare – 1 (for multicolor)

Level 4–5 (And the Rest) – While most of the cycles in the set are guild affiliated, there are a few cycles (traditional five-color ones) in "Control" that have nothing directly to do with the guild model.

Common

Comes-Into-Play Creature Enchantments – These are creature enchantments that have a comes-into-play effect. The cards are designed such that the comes-into-play effect is a larger part of the card than the creature enchantment part. The creature enchantments feel like a nice bonus.

Rare

Bring Your Own Enemies – These are creatures that, when they come into play, give some number of tokens to an opponent. These cards are meant to be flavorful so creative needs to be careful in selecting the creature type and token types. (The design team tried to help in our first pass.) Also, be aware that the design team made it so that one card makes one token up to a fifth card that makes five tokens.

3) Guild Definitions – The most important aspect of "Control" design is using the mechanics to capture the feel of each guild. This was accomplished in several ways.

First, as explained above, a parallel structure was set up, allowing each guild to show how it executes a similar function. This structuring is covered in the last section.

Second, each guild was given a mechanical identity to match its flavor identity. That is, we figured out how each guild would win based upon its overall guild philosophy and the mechanics available to the two guild colors. Here is a brief synopsis of each of the "Control" guilds along with a description of its mechanical identity:

Blue-black (UB) – Blue-black is the sneaky shadow guild. They are power-hungry and secretive. They want to control the world, but behind the scenes. Of all the guilds, it's the one you least want to piss off because they will definitely retaliate, but not in a way you'll see coming. Blue-black is the most mental guild. Their greatest weapon is their mind. They're smart and resourceful. As such, their favorite target for attack is the opponent's mind.

Mechanically, this plays out in two ways. First, blue-black is the king of the library. This means it's the guild with the best ability to manipulate their own library and attack their opponent's. Let's start with the former. The strongest way to manipulate your library is tutoring, the ability to get the card you want straight from the deck. Blue-black's keyword mechanic is a tutoring variant called transmute. Cards with transmute have the ability, while in your hand, to exchange themselves for a card in your library with the same converted mana cost (monocolor cards currently pay 2U or 2B respectively to transmute, whereas multicolor cards cost blue-black).

Besides tutoring, blue-black manipulates the library by either manipulating the order of the top of the deck, optimizing draw options (usually by drawing multiple cards to choose from), or by removing cards from your deck that are unnecessary, thereby increasing draw quality. In all the abilities that aid you in deck manipulation, blue is stronger than black. But because blue-black tries to maximize its cards' ability to go either way (help you or attack them), black has a number of cards designed to attack the opponent that occasionally can be used to help you.

Just about everything that blue-black can do to its own deck it can do to the opponent's. In addition, blue-black does one other thing that it doesn't tend to do to itself. It can mentally deplete the opponent through milling. While both blue and black deplete the opponent's deck, blue tends to do so through milling, while black uses lobotomy-type effects to eat it away from the inside.

Blue-black's second big strategic strength is card advantage, both positive (card drawing) and negative (discard). Blue-black's sneaky, subtle attack is represented in how it gains card advantage over time. Let blue-black do its thing, and your chances of winning shrink over time. Little by little, blue-black will get the advantage. This is how blue-black makes use of some of its other mechanics. Creature removal and permission allow black to fend off the opponent as it builds up its card advantage.

In the end, blue-black's route to victory is as sneaky as the guild itself. Blue-black will use its mental resources to maximize its own draws in both quantity and quality. And it will use its destructive powers to go after the opponent's mind (deck and library). Blue-black is the one guild that can occasionally win through decking. (It was the design team's intent that blue-black win some consequential percentage of the Limited games this way.) If nothing else, blue-black will use its resources to build up card advantage over time such that the opponent can be handled with whatever threat blue-black has managed to put on the table.

Green-white (GW) – Green-white is the guild that most associates itself with the group. The two least selfish colors, green-white thinks of itself as if it were a single entity. Its actions are all aimed toward improving the group. A key factor of this is taking whatever steps it can to enlarge the group and thus strengthen it.

Mechanically, this plays out in two ways. First, green is the best at populating itself with lots of creatures. Green-white has the highest percentage of creature cards. Green-white is the best guild at creating token creatures. And green-white is good at getting creatures from the library into hand or play. No other guild matches green-white's ability to pump out creatures. Remember, though, that green-white's strength lies not in its quality of creatures but in its quantity.

Green-white's keyword mechanic is a perfect example of green-white's ability to let its creatures beget more creatures. The keyword is crittercast. Costs for any spell with crittercast can be partially (or fully) paid by tapping creatures for mana of their color.

Second, green-white is very good at protecting its creature and ultimately its wizard. Defensive second to only white-blue, green-white has a lot of tools to hold off the opponent. Green-white is capable of destroying everything but passive creatures. It has numerous defensive creatures with abilities like regeneration and vigilance. In addition, green-white is best at pumping up its creatures en masse both defensively and offensively.

Green-white's route to victory is two-fold. First, it can simply attack with some or all of its many creatures. Failing this, green-white goes into Plan B, stall and grow. At some point, green-white's army will grow so big that it can simply overwhelm the opponent.

Black-green (BG) – Black-green is the creepy guild that wants to infect the world with its own twisted sensibility. Like a disease or fungus, black-green promotes growth as a means to establish control. Black-green sees life and death as tools in its quest.

Mechanically, this plays out in three ways. First, black-green is constantly pumping out threats, especially creatures. This is the growth part of black-green. This growth is played out in several ways. Green gives black-green access to token creatures, while both black and green allow black-green to grow its creatures with +1/+1 counters.

Next is death. Black-green, particularly the black part, is good at using its creatures as a resource. One side grows them, the other side sacrifices them. Black-green sees this as the cycle of life.

The most potent part, though, is the final piece: recursion. Black-green is the king of the graveyard and thus is the best at getting its cards from the graveyard back into play. You can kill everything that black-green makes, but black-green will just keep getting it back. The black-green mechanic, called reclaim, is a recursion mechanic. Any card with reclaim can be put into the hand from the graveyard in the place of any draw. Cards with reclaim can thus be used again and again.

Black-green's battle plan is simple. Keep creating threats. When it runs out of them, it just gets more from the graveyard. Black-green's threats just keep coming and coming. Eventually, it just wears down the opponent's defenses.

Red-white (RW) – Red-white is the fighting guild. Red-white is always itching for a fight. It likes to solve conflicts with fists. But red-white has a conscience and as such tries to find proper ways to use its force. Red-white tends to find a good cause and then pursue it with any means necessary. They are vigilantes but with heart.

Mechanically, this plays out in two ways. Red-white's greatest threat is its creatures. This means that to win it has to attack. And quickly. Think White Weenie meets Sligh. Red-white doesn't twiddle its thumbs. It goes for the throat from the very first turn. This is where the red half of red-white shines. Direct damage helps clear the path for the creatures to charge forward. And it doesn't hurt to help knock down the opponent's life.

Like green-white, red-white understands the value of the organization. It thinks of itself as an army carrying out its mission. As such, red-white has a number of spells that help the larger army. Sometimes that means enhancing them aggressively, while other times it means protecting them defensively. Red-white's keyword, called radiant, fits this role to a tee. Radiant spells always target creatures. Then depending on which mode you choose (color or creature type), the spell targets the creature and all other creatures that share the chosen characteristic.

Red-white is by the far the fastest and most aggressive guild in "Control." The other guilds all have means by which they can gain strength over time. Not red-white. It wins quickly, or more often than not, it loses.

A third technique was to make sure that each guild that overlapped two guilds (white, black, and green in "Control") was given an ability that played well but differently in each of its two guilds. Here are the key features in each color:

White – The overlap between green-white and red-white is that in each case, the guild has to think in a larger group sense. Both guilds put out a lot of creatures. White's role in each guild is to enhance and protect them. As such, the design team made sure to give white a larger number of spells and abilities that let it enhance all your creatures.

Black – The overlap between blue-black and black-green is its willingness to use its permanents as resources. Blue-black and black-green are the two guilds that create the greatest card advantage (blue-black by drawing cards and black-green by getting cards back from the graveyard) and thus are more able to trade this card advantage for other effects. The design team understood this and made sure to give black more sacrifice costs (especially creatures) than normal.

Green – The overlap between green-white and black-green is the reliance on growth. Green-white overwhelms, while black-green wears down, but each side is reliant on creating a lot of creatures. As such, the design team decided to give green more creature token production than normal.

As you can see, "Control" design has many pieces. Hopefully, this document will help you have some larger sense of what the design team had in mind. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me.

I'm eager to see what the development team does with "Control."

Sincerely,

Mark Rosewater

P.S. Below is a complete list of the guild requirements put together.

Guild Breakdown [38]

Common [13]

Monocolor (8)

Guildmages (2, 1 of each color) – Two activated abilities with tapping; lesser in-color ability, stronger out-of-color ability
Creatures with Off-color Activation (2, 1 of each color) – One activated ability without tapping
Keyword Mechanic (4, 2 in each color) – Creature-to-spell ratio varies from guild to guild.

Multicolor (4)

Small Guy (1) – There is also a bigger rare version of this mechanic.
Keyword Mechanics (2)
Open Spell Spot (1)

Land (1)

Filter Lands (1) – These lands tap for colorless and filter the two guild colors.

Uncommon [15]

Monocolor (8)

Guild Friendly Creatures (2, 1 in each color) – Creatures that get better if you're playing the other guild color
Boostable Spells (2, 1 in each color) – Spells that have a kicker if you use the other guild color to play it
Keyword Mechanic (4, 2 in each color)

Multicolor (7)

Seal (1) – An enchantment that can be sacrificed for an effect
Keyword Mechanic (1)
Random Cool Cards (5)

Rare [10]

Multicolor (8)

Guild Leader (1) – Legend
Other Guild Legend (1)
Big Guy (1) – The bigger legend version of the little guy
Keyword Mechanic (1)

Artifact (1)

Equipment (1) – Costs colorless or CD to equip

Land (1)

Dual Land (1) – Tap lands that can come in untapped for 2 life


I hope you all enjoyed seeing a piece of Magic design history. It's a lot of fun for me to look back and share this with all of you. As always, if you have any feedback on this column or on original Ravnica, you can email me or contact me through any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, and TikTok).

Join me next week as we begin Dominaria United previews.

Until then, may you learn the history of the things you love.

 
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