Designing for Gruul
Here's how the columns from this series work. Each time, I answer the same four questions and then I explore the creation of both the Ravnica block mechanic for the guild and then the Return to Ravnica block mechanic for the guild. For those of you who are reading this explanation for the eighth time, I'm sure you've got it memorized.
Gruul Guildgate | Art by Randy Gallegos
What's the Easiest Thing About This Color Pairing?
Red and green have a common pursuit. Unlike their shared enemy, blue, who likes to sit back and examine every option before taking action, red and green focus on getting things done. They want to attack. They want to play their creatures and hurl their spells and get in the opponent's face. This shared emphasis makes it easy to push red and green in the same direction.
Red and green share the trample ability, they boost power, they destroy lands, they both have some access to mana ramping (green's are more permanent while red's are one-shot effects), both can have access to haste (although green only occasionally), they both have access to the fight ability, and they have the highest average of power on their common creatures. While red doesn't overlap with green as much as it overlaps with black, their unique abilities tend to work well together. For example, both red's direct damage and green's Giant Growths help make sure they destroy any creatures that get in their way. Red's direct damage, along with its Panic effects, also are good for removing blockers, allowing green's giant beasts to break through and hit the opponent.
The thing that separates red-green from red-white or black-red is that red-green tends to rely a lot more on larger creatures, which it is able to quickly ramp into. Red-green isn't the fastest of the aggressive guilds but it has the largest punch. Once its stable of creatures gets rolling, there's not much that can stop it.
What's the Hardest Thing About This Color Pairing?
Red and green's single-mindedness makes it difficult to create a wide swath of different abilities. Sure, red-green can help win fights and do more damage, but after you do the few obvious things, the mechanical space dries up much quicker than many other color pairs.
The trick to making red-green work is finding a lot of nuance in the area where they want to work together. There are numerous ways to help red-green strategy, but when designing them, you have to take extra care to keep them separated from one another.
Another problem is that their flavor pushes heavily toward bluntness. Gruul is the guild that thinks things through the least, so the top-down flavor pushes you to make more blunt cards. Trying to capture this feel while also giving the player interesting strategic choices can often be a challenge. I feel that bloodrush managed to strike a balance here, but it's not an easy task for design to deal with.
Skarrg Guildmage | Art by Aleksi Briclot
What's the Mechanical Heart of This Color Pair?
Red-green's mechanical heart lies in its creatures. More specifically than that, red-green's mechanical heart lies in its attacking creatures. Red-green is driven not just to win with its creatures but to do so aggressively. Other color pairs might sit back, but not red-green. Red-green's focus is on its relentless pursuit of its goals through combat.
What this means when you're designing for red-green is that you have to always be thinking both about its creatures and how it's going to attack. Notice that both Gruul mechanics not only make a creature bigger but encourage attacking as well.
What's the Focus of This Color Pair?
The mechanical heart is centered on attacking creatures. The color pair's focus, on the other hand, is more about how to build up the forces such that it can win through aggression. You see, here's the problem: Red-green is not a fast color pair. This stems from the fact that green's creatures are more about quality than quantity. (White is the creature color of quantity.)
Green is good at both summoning giant creatures and having the mana ramp resources to be able to cast them. Red, with its direct damage, is actually a color capable of stalling. Add in that red has a little mana ramping of its own and its share of high-power creatures and the two colors have a common goal. Red-green isn't going to win by getting there first but by getting there with an attacking force that's difficult to stop.
What this all means is that when designing red-green, you have to think about how the color pair is going to both grow and survive the early game to get to the point where it becomes its most potent. At this point, this blunt color pair requires a little more sophistication in design.
As a designer, I find Gruul extra tricky because what it wants to accomplish and the feel the color pair needs to have are not completely in tandem. As you'll see in a moment, designing the mechanics for Gruul requires a subtle hand—something that, interestingly, Gruul is not.
To start out our story of bloodthirst's creation we have to jump into our Wayback Machine and travel back to 2004, to the design of Guildpact. The design team was led by Mike Elliott (for those unfamiliar with the name, Mike has led the design of more Magic sets than anyone other than yours truly) and included Aaron Forsythe (current director of Magic and ex-head developer), Devin Low (also ex-head developer), and Brian Schneider (a third ex-head developer, although at the time of this design team he was the then-current head developer).
The team had the challenging task of finding the guild mechanic for Gruul. I say challenging because, as I talked about up above, trying to make a mechanic that has the simplistic single-mindedness of Gruul while also actually allowing interesting strategic game play is a tall order.
The team started by examining the other guilds it had to build: Izzet and Orzhov. Izzet clearly wanted to focus on instants and sorceries. Orzhov wanted a slower style of play that plinked away at the opponent—what R&D calls a bleeder deck. This meant that Gruul clearly wanted to be the aggressive guild of the set. (In contrast, as I'll talk about below, Gruul in Gatecrash isn't the most aggressive guild.)
The team quickly decided that it wanted Gruul to be about attacking with creatures, which meant that its mechanic had to reward that behavior. After a little playtesting, it came to the conclusion that the mechanic needed to go a step farther. Not only should it reward attacking, it wanted to actively encourage it. The earliest version of the mechanic, which the team called paincast (and yes, paincast was also the name for the initial Rakdos mechanic in Return to Ravnica—note that it was a completely different mechanic) worked a lot like morbid from Innistrad. It merely asked if an opponent had been damaged this turn. If so, it enhanced the spell with the mechanic.
I don't have the notes from the early design so here's a card I've made up to give an idea how it worked.
More Pain, My Gain
Target creature gets +2/+2 until end of turn.
Paincast—If an opponent has already been damaged this turn, that creature gets +4/+4 instead.
The problem with putting the ability on spells, though, was twofold:
- The mechanic wants a deck full of creatures because it needs the opponent to have taken damage. If the mechanic is sitting mostly on instants and sorceries, it creates conflict because some number of cards in the deck can't be creatures.
- The Izzet mechanic wanted to focus on spells, so its mechanic, replicate (the Izzet mechanic was the first one the design team found), sat solely on instants and sorceries.
These two points pushed hard for the paincast ability to appear solely on creatures. The team felt that this could be seen as a feature because it would create a nice contrast between the Gruul and the Izzet (the only two guilds in Guildpact to share a color). The question was what abilities to grant the creatures?
The team messed around with various versions but, in the end, decided it would be best to have one unified effect. This would both help make the Gruul feel focused (remember that you want to give the Gruul the feeling of single-mindedness) and lower the complication. The most obvious choice was to turn the reward into +1/+1 counters. I believe the team talked about cost reduction (interestingly, what the initial Return to Ravnica Rakdos paincast mechanic was doing) but it seemed both a bit scary developmentally and a little too complex of a feeling for the Gruul.
After some more playtesting, the design team realized that each bloodthirst creature essentially had two states: one slightly under the curve and one slightly above it. There was some talk of whether or not the damage wanted to be any damage or just combat damage, but the team felt it would be wrong to not let the color with direct damage interact with the mechanic.
The design team also figured out that it was interesting to put bloodthirst on some creatures with rules text that cared about their power. This interacted not only with the +1/+1 counter but also with the power-pumping spells that existed in both red and green.
Finally, the existence of bloodthirst encouraged the design team to impact the mix of the set around the mechanic. Certain cards that are traditionally weaker in Limited, such as one-drop creatures, became stronger when working in combination with bloodthirst.
Predator's Rapport | Art by Matt Stewart
The Gatecrash design team (Ethan Fleischer, Mark Gottlieb, Joe Huber, Dave Humpherys, and myself) started in a similar place as the Guildpact design team. We knew red-green was centered on its creatures and that its route to victory was having bigger creatures than the opponent. Remember that Gatecrash also has the Boros guild, which was taking up the "weenie rush" slot. This led us to ask ourselves—how can we reward red-green for having the bigger creatures?
The first obvious answer was fight. For those unaware, fight is a keyword action added to the game during Innistrad (although the first card to have its function was a promotional card called Arena that came out with one of Magic's early books in 1994) that allows two creatures to get into a pseudo-combat where each deals its power in damage to the other.
Fight was attractive for several reasons. First, it was flavorful for Gruul. Second, it was primary in green and secondary in red, matching up perfectly to Gruul colors. Third, it made size matter in an elegant way. The next step was figuring out how to use fight to help create a new keyword.
After some thought, the team designed the first Gruul mechanic, called rowdy. Here's how rowdy was done:
Rowdy—When CARDNAME deals combat damage to another player, CARDNAME may fight with a creature controlled by that player.
The mechanic worked well. A little too well, actually. It was efficient at killing the opponent's creatures. Once the Gruul player got ahead, rowdy made it almost impossible for the opponent to come back. Dave Humpherys, who was the development representative on the team (and, interestingly, also the lead designer for the set), expressed concern. The mechanic was a little too overpowering, it created unfun game states, and it often made it impossible for the opponent to play creatures.
Trying to keep the keyword revolving around fight, we took another stab at a mechanic that used it. This mechanic was called kickboxing:
When CARDNAME enters the battlefield, you may pay the kickbox cost to have this creature fight target creature.
Kickboxing was quite simply a cross between fight and kicker. (Thus, the cutesy keyword name.) If you paid the kickbox cost, the creature would fight as an "enters the battlefield" effect. Kickboxing wasn't as devastating as rowdy but it still turned every creature with the ability into a potential two-for-one. Part of New World Order is that we've made two-for-ones default to uncommon or higher. We want our guild mechanic on common cards so, once again, it didn't work out.
We tried a bunch of other mechanics that all encouraged attacking. Some of them showed promise but none quite had the Gruul feeling we were looking for. By this point, we were into a part of the process we call devign. Devign is the part between design and development where design still controls the file but development starts raising issues. This gives design time to address concerns that would potentially cause problems in development. By catching them early, design is able to think how it would rework the set to fix the problems development identifies. (Sometimes, by the way, design's job isn't to fix the problem but to explain to development why a certain thing needs to be done a particular way.) The design team brainstormed a bunch of different ideas for Gruul and passed a number of them by development. One that caught development's eye was bloodrush, at the time called ambush.
The basic idea of a creature you could throw away to be a Giant Growth was solid, but it needed some tweaking to make it feel right. Here are a number of decisions that got made:
- The power/toughness of the creature had to always match the power/toughness bonus. This was key because otherwise the two abilities wouldn't feel linked.
- If the creature had a keyword ability, that ability also had to be granted to the creature that was targeted by the "spell" effect. A creature with trample, for example, would grant trample.
- For various reasons, we didn't want any two bloodrush creatures having the same power/toughness combination.
- In general, we wanted the "spell" effect to be cheaper to cast than the creature. We did make two exceptions (Wasteland Viper and Wrecking Ogre), but both of these require the same amount of mana (although the Wrecking Ogre requires more red mana).
- For New World Order reasons, we chose to make all the commons vanilla creatures (meaning no rules text other than the bloodrush). The uncommons are all French vanilla creatures (only creature keyword abilities other than the bloodrush). The rares are also French vanilla creatures with only one exception (Rubblehulk). The reason we mostly kept to vanilla and French vanillas? Bloodrush takes three lines of rules text and we didn't want the cards too texty.
- The red "spells" tended to lean more toward power greater than toughness while the green "spells" were more all over the board. This reflects how each color uses Giant Growth effects.
- We tried to keep the "spell" costs on the low end because we wanted to make sure they could be used without majorly telegraphing that the "spell" was coming.
- Finally, we had to be careful that the granted keyword meant something along with being a power/toughness boost and being cast as an instant during combat. For example, green has access to vigilance, but that didn't work well with a Giant Growth. The time you would have to use vigilance-granting would prevent you from surprising your opponent with it.
Finding the right power/toughness and keyword mix took a lot of time (and continued through development). The cards might seem simple on the surface but getting the feel and game play right was the result of countless playtest iterations.
Scab-Clan Charger | Art by Rob Alexander
Gruul The World
That's all the time we have for today. I hope this gave you a little insight into what designing for red and green is like. As always, I would love to hear any feedback in my email, in this column's thread, or on any of my social media (Twitter, Tumblr, and Google+).
Join me next week when we'll get ready to rumble.
Until then, may you know the joy of doing without that pesky thinking getting in the way.
Drive to Work #23—The Color Wheel
This is the second of my three podcasts on the Golden Trifecta—what I believe are the three genius ideas Richard came up with when he designed Magic. This week's podcast is all about my favorite part of the game and what I consider to be its foundation, the color wheel.
- Episode 23 : The Color Wheel (10.2 MB)
- Episode 22 : The Trading Card Game Genre (9.81 MB)
- Episode 21 : Innistrad Part 3 ()
- Episode 20 : Innistrad Part 2 (14.6 MB)
- Episode 19 : Innistrad Part 1 (10.1 MB)