Pattern Recognition #73 - Ravnica, Part 1
28 June 2018
28 June 2018
Hello everyone! I am berryjon, your resident Old Fogey. Welcome back to Pattern Recognition, Tappedout.net's most regular article series - barring the occasional week off for work or just because I'm out of energy. I endeavor to provide insightful, thought provoking and educational material for you all. Or at least a convenient target for all of you to aim your Electrolyzes at.
But before we begin, I would like you all to listen to this piece of music.
Now that I think about it though, I should have saved those for later. But what it does do here and now is demonstrate the lasting impression that the Plane and sets of Ravnica have had on the Magic Community, and why it is the place - other than Dominaria - that gets the most attention.
Why is that? Well, this is going to take a little bit of unpacking, and for the most part, it isn't about the mechanics of the sets at all.
Magic's flavour core is very much a generic fantasy setting. Now, yes, I'm pretty sure each and everyone of you just came up with a half-dozen counterpoints. I know I did. But when you get down to it, Magic is Fantasy. Elves and Wizards and Dragons and Vampires. Heroes and Villains. Magic itself.
Now, this is a subject that I could spend thousands of words examining, but not today. Rather, I want to point out that from the beginning of Magic, all the way through to the end of the block previous - Kamigawa - that Magic followed with only minor variation, the scope and accepted tropes of a Fantasy setting.
Ravnica broke that mold, and did it in a very blatant yet subtle manner that stayed true to the core of Magic without actually agreeing with it. We still had the five colours of mana. We still had recognizable creatures, and we still had everything that made Magic what it is.
What Ravnica did, it announced proudly in the title of the first set.
For you see, Ravnica was the CITY of Guilds.
The whole plane was a grand metropolis, a World-City, or to put it more technically, a Ecumenopolis. This is a status shared with such places as Trantor from the Foundation series, and Coruscant from Star Wars. A science fiction concept given a fantasy twist. And it was amazing.
From the ground up though, making this conceptual leap was a challenge for Wizards. One of the first things that needed to be addressed was the visual guide for the Plane. It's something of an open secret, but Wizards put a lot of effort into making sure each set and block has a cohesive presentation and in making sure that all the artists are on the same page when it comes to making sure that at the very least, characters stayed looking the same.
Not naming names here, obviously.
But the first challenge was incredibly basic, and if it couldn't be resolved, then the entire concept would have to be shelved. How basic, you have to wonder?
Er.... That last one is a bad example as I will soon point out. But the concept stands. Magic's Mana system has been tied to nature since the very beginning. So how do you draw mana from nature when there is no nature?!?!?!
By redefining what each of these basic land types mean.
Plains are no longer the wide open spaces between settlements and other terrains. Instead, they are the endless rooftops, gleaming in the sun. Mountains (RAV), worn away by time and mining are not the massive edifices of nature's motion, but of the massive forges that provide the finished goods for the city. Islands (RAV) are not the great bodies of water that stay alongside continents. They are the Aquifers and Reservoirs that keep the people of the city hydrated. The Forests (RAV) are the places of agriculture, where the food to feed the teeming masses is grown. Swamps (RAV) are the refuse piles of the city, the under-side of it that keeps the cycle of life moving.
The Basic Lands were urbanized, and they still retained the same basic concepts that came with the more generic fantasy clichés (and remember, clichés are not bad. They are tools). The hard part was done, and from there, building the City of Ravnica could move to the next step.
As I said earlier, Ravnica was sold as the City of Guilds. While I have covered the City part in some manner, the real core and meat of the sets were the Guild system. Ten factions were created, each associated with a colour pairing. And it says a lot, again, just how deeply ubiquitous the set became that each of these guilds are now the associated name for each pairing. After all, you rarely see someone say Blue-White, when you can say Azorious and get the same information across.
And as the centerpiece of this block, the glue that held the guild system together and made everything just work was Hybrid Mana. This absolutely brilliant idea allowed for cards to be cast in either one of the colours of the Guild or in the other. Riot Spikes or Wild Cantor, Cards that exist in that small frame where colours meet and cooperate.
Please read that article! It was a joy to write, and I cannot Gush over how awesome Hybrid Mana really is. That is was introduced in Ravnica only makes things better and better.
Anyway, let's take this time then to talk about the ten guilds of Ravnica, their colours and their unique mechanics. I'm sure this is what you're all here for, right?
The Azorious are the Guild. They are the lawmakers, the judges and the bureaucracy of Ravnica. As such, they are the pinnacle control faction in the block as they want everything done by the book and nothing else. Their unique mechanic in the Ravnica block was Forecast which allowed them to pseudo-cast a spell by revealing the card from their hand and paying a cost during their upkeep. This mechanic allowed them to act without actually acting, to keep their power in reserve for when it was really needed. It wasn't that bad of a mechanic, but Wizards seemed to not be sure what they were doing with it. Pride of the Clouds was internally synergistic in that it's Forecast ability allowed the player to build a solid base of flying creatures to boost the Pride itself when it finally entered the battlefield. On the other hand, Writ of Passage is an Aura when cast properly, but gives the same effect to a target creature when Forecast, meaning that the card simply has two manners of being invoked for the same end. Come the Return block, this mechanic was dropped in favor of the more pro-active Detain, which when triggered, forces a certain number of creatures to not act until your next turn. Perfect for dealing with those pesky creatures that might dare disturb your perfect plans! It's a more active ability, but at the same time is also less elegant in that you're doing what Blue and While already do, just more directly or as a side effect of something else.
Now, traditionally, when talking about the Guilds, they go in colour pair order, with allied colours before enemy colours, which would make the Dimir next. Instead, I'm going to go alphabetically, which makes the Boros next. As the Plane's police and military force, this guild embraces its identity as the colours of creature based aggression. That's probably why it's my favourite Guild. As an Army, they are that junction of regimented and wild that makes them a hard force to counter. Their first mechanic is Radiance, a deceptively powerful and complicated mechanic that lets you pick out a creature, and hit all creatures that share a colour with it for an effect. And in a block where colour is everything, this means that you can set up or knock down an entire deck with a single card. My personal favourite is Bathe in Light, though Rally the Righteous is a close second. Now, what makes this mechanic so difficult to parse is that it only targets one creature, but affects all the others that share its colour. Which means that this bypasses Hexproof, Shroud and Protection effects. Their second mechanic is far less interesting, and dare I say, boring. Battalion is a triggered ability whenever you attack with three or more creatures, at least one of which has that keyword. This is part and parcel of the idea that this colour combination should be attacking, and with as many creatures as possible. It's boring and derivative.
The Unseen Guild, the Dimir, are Ravnica's guild. Spys, Assassins, Information Brokers and doing everything underhanded and criminal that the Boros and Azorious might object to that needs doing. My second favourite guild, this one deals in deception, lies, and the utterly deck-destroying Glimpse the Unthinkable. It should come as no surprise that the Dimir are not what they seem. In fact, their first mechanic, Transmute, allows them to discard a card in hand with this ability and go searching for an equally priced card in their library and putting into their hand. With careful preparation, you can have more tutors than cards you can tutor with, and the ability to pull out the exact card needed in any situation. On the other hand, Cipher is another mechanic that just feels boring in that it becomes a pseudo-aura on a creature that requires that the creature in question do combat damage to a player to trigger a casting of the spell again. Which, of course, requires that this Blue/Black deck actually attack, and not do other, better things with their time and resources.
Next, the Golgari represent the colours of on Ravnica. They are the other half of the Selesnya Guild, providing waste reclamation for the city, using it to grow more food for the masses, as well as making sure that the city stays functioning for they know that if Ravnica falls - it falls down on their heads. Dredge... Oh my Urza, Dredge. If any mechanic was so perfectly suited to the colour combination, it would be Dredge. It's also one of the most powerful mechanics in the game, fueling several top-tier decks and making Golgari Grave-Troll bounce in and out of the Modern ban list to try and keep it from domination. And to continnue the theme of the Return mechanics sucking in comparison, Scavenge allows you to recycle your dead creatures to power up your living ones. Bleh. Moving on!
The Gruul, aligned with are one of the poorer factions in Ravnica. No, not because of their mechanics, but because they are the Guild responsible for the wildlands on the Plane. And with the expansion of the city, the wilds have become all but extinct and now the Gruul have chosen to fight back in the only way they know how. Bloodthirst holds the distinction of being the first Ravnica mechanic to get a comeback by appearing also in Core 2012. It's pretty simple really. If an opponent has been dealt damage (by pretty much anything can do, or Green's Trample), then creatures come in with additional +1/+1 counters! Looking at you, Doubling Season in the relevant colour.... And if there's anything Red and Green agree on, it's bigger creatures are better. On the flipside, Bloodrush is somehow actually useful for being a one-shot Banding effect. I can't believe I just wrote that sentence, but there you have it. By temporarily adding the ability of the discarded creature to another, you get that other conjoining of Red and Green - temporary boosts for their creatures.
I think I'm going to pause here. This article is already getting a little long in tooth. Join me next week, when I finish up the introductions of the other five Guilds and then talk more about the design of the Ravnica blocks and where they succeeded and failed. Don't worry, I went into this knowing it was going to be a two or three parter, so I'm pacing myself appropriately!
Until then, please consider donating to my Pattern Recognition Patreon. Yeah, I have a job, but more income is always better. I still have plans to do a audio Pattern Recognition at some point, or perhaps a Twitch stream. And you can bribe your way to the front of the line to have your questions, comments and observations answered!
I always thought that Cipher was an interesting mechanic, due to it's similarities with Imprint. It was just underpowered. And in the wrong colours.
Battalion by comparison was actually kinda busted. The effects you got off of triggering it (and you're going to trigger it) were usually really beneficial, like Frontline Medic, Firemane Avenger or Legion Loyalist.
Compare these to the three rare instances of Cipher in the same set- Stolen Identity, Undercity Plague and Whispering Madness. It's obvious they had no idea how to design a Dimir card, they just stapled random abilities on the cards. Whispering Madness is really good, I'll admit, but I've never used the Cipher part of it, and I've never seen anyone else use it either.
Not forgetting to mention that the Boros cards above are quite clearly aggressively costed, whilst the Dimir ones... Ugh.
June 30, 2018 7:56 p.m.
Boros definitely went from "Worst" to "First" between sets. Battalion was just so simple to develop. And Cipher was just poorly designed in the first place. Much like Haunt in the next part.
June 30, 2018 8:33 p.m.
Boros is my favorite Guild too! Radiance is intriguing but too clunky... been trying to get Brightflame to work in EDH with little success.
Battalion on the other hand is fantastic! It serves its purpose well as the definition of what the color pair wants to do. That said, hopefully they'll expand on what Boros can do in the future.
I look forward to Ravnica III for more Boros!
For the Legion!