Friday, October 17, 2014

kill reviews: ravnica block

There’s not much that’s unique to Magic. By design, the setting of Magic emphasizes things that anyone remotely familiar with fantasy is going to recognize: elves and goblins and wizards and spells, and no pesky electronics or guns or anything. It is purposefully generic.

The largest exception to this, the idea that makes Magic distinct from other fantasy properties, is the color system. Sure, there are lots of things that have some similar ideas (Star Wars with its childishly simple “Light Side” and “Dark Side,” or any number that theme sorcery around the elements, even if one kid gets stuck with Heart), but the way that everything under the sun can get classified according to color is rather interesting.

The colors of Magic can even be used to classify oneself or other people, in a way that’s certainly way better than the Harry Potter houses (Hufflepuff got nothing), and rather comparable to the Myers-Briggs personality test, in that they’re both interesting thought experiments with next to no applications outside of being sort of interesting. I know that I’ve certainly been incensed by something silly like, for example, Rosewater saying that Ozymandias from Watchmen is white-aligned.[1] This is only possible because the colors have such a richly-imagined definition.

[1] He’s so blue! He’s the bluest ever, are you kidding me? The aspect it keeps highlighting of him, over and over, is his intelligence and planning, not his strong moral compass or whatever. He constructs this elaborate plan, secret from all the governments of the world (definitely not white), with elaborately-constructed monsters and story from writers and artists (totally blue), based on a cold calculus that it will, by the numbers, benefit humanity despite acknowledging how horrible it is to do what he’s doing (literally the bluest course of action I can come up with). How the fuck would he be white?! UGH.

Ravnica’s greatness starts with its usage of the colors of Magic to create something unique. The guild system, the basic idea behind Ravnica, is that instead of defining simply what one color does, it would define what a pair would do. This is remarkable because it means that Magic is the only medium that this could possibly be expressed: no fantasy world would have such a guild system based on color pairs, because those colors were only necessary in the context of the game. Magic found a story that only it could tell.

While the colors themselves are extremely general, capable of fitting the role as either hero, villain, or somewhere in between in any situation, the guilds created some specificity for what pairs of colors would do together. It led to a lot of thoughtful-but-lighthearted conversations about what guild best defined people, and even those like me that didn’t care in the slightest about the storyline or setting of Magic were entranced by the various guilds of Ravnica.
But it wasn’t enough that Ravnica had the most interesting lore concept of any block made up to this point. They had to find a way to get ten guilds’ worth of cards printed in three sets, and to do that, they settled on the 4-3-3 split: Ravnica had Dimir, Selesnya, Golgari, and Boros; Guildpact had Gruul, Orzhov, and Izzet; and Dissension had Azorius, Rakdos, and Simic.[2] While the sets did have some unique aspects to them beyond the guilds, like the Nephilim in Guildpact and the return of split cards in Dissension, the ten guilds are the important parts, and what people remember. So then, I’ll be talking about this block not as a group of three, but a group of ten.

[2] This was mostly a test to see if I could place them in the right sets off the top of my head. Easy.

Dimir had a lot to live up to, as blue-black has historically been the most powerful color combination in Magic, as evidenced by Psychatog and the price of Underground Sea. It had a lot of hype leading up to it, but theming the guild around milling doomed its most notable cards to casual play (or elevated them past the competitive tables, depending on how you look at it). Transmute was kind of eh, and printing a lot of tutors led to the most obvious of outcomes: they ended up in a few combo decks, duh. Despite all this, blue-black control was the best deck for a while when Ravnica was in Standard. What Dimir cards did it use? The lands. That was enough. It relied on Teferi, Mystical Teachings, Remand, and exactly zero spells with a Dimir watermark. It was called either “Dralnu du Louvre,” or Dralnu, or Mystical Teachings. It was never called Dimir. For this to happen can only be considered at least a mild failure of Dimir to deliver to the people that want to play blue-black.
Selesnya fared a lot better. Convoke is a great mechanic that lays somewhere in the middle of linear and modular, leading sensibly to a convoke-based deck that makes token after token to pump out cheap spells. You can also just throw a couple cards with the mechanic into any deck where it would be naturally good, and not feel bad about it at all. The cards played off the colors historical strengths while pushing them further together than they could go separately (including Selesnya Guildmage, one of the all-time greatest limited blowouts), and cards like Glare of Subdual and Vitu-Ghazi could even lead the colors into an interesting board control-type strategy (Ghazi-Glare was the deck’s name). And doing all this didn’t sacrifice the colors’ aggressive potential, nor the capability of going full casual with a thousand 500/500 creatures. This is probably the block’s best-executed guild.

Golgari cards got a lot of play as soon as the set was released, as it was the only guild in the set to overlap with two other ones. This led to a lot of rather uninteresting Rock-style midrange things. True to the guild’s nature as the lords of death and rot, the dredge mechanic had to lay there unwanted and festering for a year and a half before Future Sight came around to give that mechanic a reason to go in tournament decks. Then it was all over.[3] Extended was dominated by dredge decks until Odyssey block rotated out, and then it became “just” another combo deck that would consistently win turn three or four every game. Can the guild be faulted for those cards that came so much later (and ~from the future~)? Well… sort of. It’s pretty obvious, in retrospect, that after all the combo decks whose starting point is “put a lot of cards in the graveyard,” cards that could do that for free would be pretty useful. There was very little usage of dredge in a “fair” context outside of Life from the Loam, one of the block’s coolest cards.

[3] This also happens to be the best deck I’ve ever designed, by quite a bit. Back when I used to playtest online regularly against Gavin Verhey, I would make new decks and he’d demolish them. Then, I started tuning a Standard dredge deck that was slightly different than what everyone else was making. I’m pretty sure this was the list:

4 Overgrown Tomb
4 Llanowar Wastes
9 Forest
1 Swamp

4 Greenseeker
4 Llanowar Mentor

4 Golgari Grave-Troll
4 Stinkweed Imp
4 Golgari Thug
1 Darkblast
1 Life from the Loam

4 Dread Return
4 Bridge from Below
4 Narcomoeba
4 Leyline of the Void

2 Bogardan Hellkite
1 Akroma, Angel of Wrath
1 Voidstone Gargoyle

Everyone else was trying to get way too cute, going with cards like Magus of the Bazaar for the ultimate combo turn and win with Flame-Kin Zealot. This is way splashier, and the combo finish is certainly the way to go in bigger formats, but the idea here was to maximize the percentage that the dredging would get started, then plop out an early Hellkite or Akroma with a bunch of zombie tokens. That would almost certainly be good enough.

It’s difficult to overstate how good this deck was vs the field at the time. It had the luxury of four maindeck Leylines, which are almost entirely to ensure that our Bridges don’t get removed (and to hose anyone else playing Dredge).

Then in the sideboard, against anyone we thought would bring in hate, we went with a transformational option. The best card to do this at the time? Tarmogoyf. We all got a playset of them for the sideboard at $2 each. I ended up selling mine for $30 each and thought I had made out like a bandit.

However, the thing I will never forgive Gavin for: he bought the entire deck, after weeks of rigorous testing, and results showing it demolishing everything. Then, at the last minute… he audibled into some midrange thing with Withered Wretch instead. Banning me from MTGSalvation was fine, but this... this was treason.

Boros is, strategically, something I could not have less interest in. I know that some people absolutely love aggressive decks like the classic Boros ones, but they’re not for me. It’s to the designers’ credit, then, that there were multiple Boros cards I really loved: Firemane Angel is an amazing build-around that went in multicolored control decks, and Searing Meditation brings some constructed viability to the old “lifegain deck” that players (including myself) thought white was all about when we first started making decks. The mechanic was a huge dud, only appearing in limited and a few stray sideboard cards in constructed, but Boros more than almost any other guild really defined what the decks containing its colors would look like.

Gruul, on the other hand, is more up my alley. For a long, long time at the local card shop when I could only afford one deck, it was RG beatdown with accelerated Plow Under. Tons of fun for everyone. Gruul turned out about like everyone expected: its creatures attacked a lot, they were large and undercosted, there were tournament decks based around large, undercosted creatures. Cards like Burning-Tree Shaman and Scab-Clan Mauler, while rather underwhelming today due to the creep in creature power level, were the most efficient beaters available to anyone. The guild didn’t dramatically expand the scope of what red-green as a color pair could do, like Boros did, but it basically delivered on what people expected.

Orzhov is the weird one. There are five enemy colors in Magic, but due to our preconceived notions of good and evil, none of those pairs feel more like enemies than black and white. Their guild went for a theme of slow and grindy, eking out one life drained here and there. Nothing shows this off better than Ghost Council of Orzhova, an efficient creature to rival Gruul’s offerings and practically impossible to deal with as soon as it came into play. Especially with Kamigawa block providing a good base of black and white creatures, no guild in Ravnica inspired more diverse decks than Orzhov. There were aggressive ones, midrange ones, controlling ones, oddball ones like Ghost Dad (which I seem to mention every week), decks built more heavily around single cards like Promise of Bunrei, and probably others I forget. Orzhov seems like it was extremely difficult to design, but the basic theme of a corrupt religion taxing people came across impressively strongly in gameplay, and it led to too many cool decks to say that it was anything other than great.

Izzet had more problems with it. Yes, it was supposed to be the ‘spell guild,’ but blue-red decks that just cast a bunch of spells… those are called combo decks. They win on turn three or four, and Wizards tries to disallow them whenever possible. With the exception of Niv-Mizzet, it’s difficult for me to even remember any strongly Izzet-feeling cards (and that’s just a big dragon with abilities, not something that embodies the ideas that went into the guild). This is one of the biggest gaps between, creatively, what a guild should do and what a guild can do once it passes through design and development. The guild got kicker as its mechanic, which is nice, but this didn’t make its cards stand out from the rest of the block.

Azorius was the biggest failure. The color pair, to me, evokes memories of old control decks based around Wrath of God and Counterspell, sitting back and drawing cards until it can slam down some angel as its sole win condition. The thinking was that blue-white already had enough good control cards, though, so Azorius would be about… something else. This is a horrible way to design a guild. It lets down the real devotees of blue-white, the people who had probably been excited since the block started to see what sweet control cards it was going to bring. Instead, as the marquee card, there’s… Pride of the Clouds? What the hell is this flying-matters nonsense? The guild is themed around bureaucracy that causes nothing to happen, so the cards should reflect that; they’re not passing bills constructing new bird baths or whatever.

Rakdos fit much more nicely with the flavor: they’re all-out in trying to murder things, but in a crazy way, not a righteous one. Their mechanic, Hellbent, was so successful as an ability word that for a while, it was an often-used piece of Magic jargon even outside the block. The aggressive creatures with disadvantages, heavy reliance on sacrificing, Hellbent, and plethora of discard spells all worked in unison to go perfectly together into the same decks. It turns out those decks were all pretty bad, but hey, misleading players into thinking that certain cards would be good is a victory itself. It’s why Magic needs to be explored, not just evaluated on first glance.

And finally, Simic. My favorite color combination. I wanted to like these cards so, so bad. Unfortunately, probably the best thing that Simic created was Momir Vig. No, not the card in the set, the Magic Online avatar. Not the avatar itself, either, but the Momir format. That’s about it. I know that there are tons of casual players that got super into Experiment Kraj and all the things that fucked around with +1/+1 counters, but it also seemed so fiddly compared to the gameplay experience I wanted of classic aggro-control strategies. I was expecting something like a better-executed version of Onslaught wizards, but with bigger guys. Graft and everything else went so deep on the +1/+1 counter theme that it didn’t seem to leave room for anything else, other than the straightforwardly-powerful Simic Sky Swallower.[4]

[4] I do really love the idea of a previous terrible creature getting a Simic version that’s way better, but that’s a pure flavor curiosity rather than anything relating to gameplay.

Phew! Okay. I’ve given fairly micro-level analysis of all ten guilds, but how did they fit together? Absolutely wonderfully. The above discussion was all about guild-specific stuff, but if you look at the spoilers of the sets, there are a ton of cards outside them. Those are the glue holding this block together. They’re what allowed a unique draft environment where people would draft a guild in one pack, then shift into a different guild, then take the overlapping one in pack three. Or, if they were feeling like they knew everything better than the other players, they could purposefully draft a non-guild color combination in one pack because they knew exactly what they wanted from the next one.

To be honest, though, I know very little of Ravnica drafting. I didn’t do it much at the time, and I’ve never gone back and retro-drafted the block. As a teenager, it was too expensive to devote over $10 a week… okay, I probably could have made that work. The real reason I didn’t draft was that I considered myself a Constructed Player. Even more specifically than that: I was a Constructed Deckbuilder.

Somewhere on the 40GB hard drives scattered around my apartment are hundreds of .txt, .dec, and .mws files. They range from ones that I got 20 cards into before giving up to decks that I spent months building, playtesting, getting the sideboard exactly right. I would target specific tournaments far into the future and make a deck for that, and only that, tournament. I refused to bring a deck to a tournament that everyone else was playing, because I wanted to make something better.

This wasn’t some MTGS-esque anti-netdecking stance. If there was a cool deck someone else made, I would absolutely give it a try to see how it worked. But making my own things was what I loved about Magic, and making things that were better than what everyone else had was my goal.

No block in Magic’s history supported this better than Ravnica. The number of decks you could bring to a tournament and win with was dizzying. It might have been infinite. The Ravnica dual lands were an obvious reason for this, of course; there’s no way that RWU control or four-color combo decks would work nearly as well in previous Standard environments whose lands punished players for such ambition. But that’s the easy way out. Even when the lands got brought back,[5] Standard was fairly static and uninteresting compared to this block. So what was different?

[5] I was so careful not to make comparisons to RTR for this entire review, and I throw it all the way in the home stretch.

There were so many good cards. That’s the main thing. I don’t mean that the cards were incredibly powerful, in the way that Urza’s or Mirrodin blocks were. Those didn’t have Ravnica’s diversity, because the cards that were absurdly beyond broken crowded out the ones that were slightly less broken. Ravnica, better than any other block, diversified its power among sets, colors, guilds, archetypes, and strategies. Dark Confidant powered black-based aggressive decks (usually RGB), but wasn’t so overwhelming that a Gruul deck couldn’t win a Pro Tour. At the same time, Remand, Signets, and card advantage-providing bouncelands gave control decks a reason to exist.

There were tapout control decks, permission control decks, combo-control decks, guild-based control decks, crazy multicolored control decks, generic two-color midrange, generic four-color midrange, two-color midrange based around a few extremely synergistic cards, aggro decks in half a dozen different forms, and new ideas popping out every week. I’m sure that any talented deckbuilder can still pull up a spoiler, find some crazy rare that was never successful, and make a Ravnica-based Standard deck that would have been a tournament contender. With very little outside input other than people playing popular decks against me, I built an aggro-control-combo three-color green Protean Hulk-based deck with 17 accelerants, took it to Regionals, and only lost to my best matchups (including one match where I got a game loss for mis-sideboarding). It was my first big paper tournament. Then I wrote about it for StarCityGames.[6] After that, I built an Eye of the Storm/Sins of the Past deck with zero creatures that was shockingly competitive.

[6] There’s a specific joke in this piece that I accidentally use twice. That bit of bad writing still haunts me. It wasn’t even a good joke the first time.

For a smart 16 year-old with free time and absolutely no interest in doing assigned schoolwork, such an open environment was practically heaven for me. How much of this is nostalgia, and how much is what the environment was really like? I’m hoping it’s more of the latter, but clearly, I’m more than a little biased. But if there was a Standard tournament where Ravnica was legal, not only would I go, I’d build three different extra decks just in case anyone wanted to try them out.

As I’m writing this, it’s Friday morning. This Monday, 10/20/2014, 9AM PST, I’ve committed myself to releasing the next installment: Time Spiral. Magic’s greatest block. The pinnacle of Magic creativity. So why do the people that make Magic hate it? This was the height of Magic, and it’ll be the most important installment of Kill Reviews. Do not miss it.


Unknown said...

Man the part about Dimir totally strikes home with personal experience. My friends and I had just started playing at FNM where standard legality was relevant and the rotation into Ravnica was coming up and I was like, man I want to see how I can build a bad U/B control deck in Kamigawa-Ravnica block and I did some Compulsive Research to look at what kind of sweet U/B gold cards there would be, for killing creatures or countering spells but then I realized that I could only Glimpse the Unthinkable.

Then someone told me about Heartbeat Combo and magic was saved.

David Fanany said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

I loved everything in your lead-in, right up to the individual guild break-downs. Those were good, too, but I was surprisingly thought-provoked by the opening. I don't 100% agree with a couple of your points there, but I can see your POV.

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