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Designing for Rakdos

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The letter W!elcome to Rakdos Week. This is the fifth installment of the Return to Ravnica block guild theme weeks. (Here are Selesnya, Azorius, Izzet, and Golgari.) This is the second batch of guild theme weeks. The original set of ten was done during Ravnica block and focused on the color philosophy of each color pair. (You can see those columns here.) This time around, I'm talking design. How we design for black and red in general and Rakdos in particular.

For each of these articles, I'm answering the same four questions and talking about how each of the two guild mechanics (the one from Dissension and the one from Return to Ravnica) were designed. Enough recapping, let's talk Rakdos.

What's the Easiest Thing About This Color Pairing?

After green and white, black and red are the two colors in Magic with the most mechanical overlap. In fact, this is such an issue that, like green-white, we've taken steps over the years to draw clear separation between the two. The most famous example is putting "can't block" in black and "attacks each turn if able" in red. Recently, by the way, we've started putting more toughness in black to separate it from red's higher-power-than-toughness make-up.


Both black and red are aggressive and they are the two colors with the best creature removal. Black and red both also deal direct damage to creatures and players (black with draining effects and red with normal direct damage), destroy lands, boost power (both with spells and self-pumping), have or grant haste, and have intimidate (they are #1 and #2 for it).

In Limited, both have a similar strategy of playing a mana curve of creatures while using their spells to remove blockers, often finishing off the game with damage directly at the opponent. This natural overlap makes it very easy to make black-red cards that have the feel of both colors.

What's the Hardest Thing About This Color Pairing?

The two colors overlap so easily and efficiently that it becomes hard to steer the colors away from where inertia pushes design. For example, if a designer isn't paying attention, he or she will find most of his or her black-red spells become either creature-kill spells or very aggressive creatures. When designing Rakdos, you have to be very conscious of avoiding this obvious space, because without effort all spells will drift in this direction.

Rakdos, Lord of Riots | Art by Vincent Proce

Black-red also has the same problem as that facing Selesnya. The two colors feel so much alike that it's hard to make multicolor spells that feel black and red. A lot of black-red multicolor cards feel like they'd be very comfortable with a hybrid mana cost.

The other interesting challenge I discovered during Innistrad block, when I made the Vampires black-red, was that it's actually hard to make a weenie strategy in the color pair. At first blush, the two colors seem a natural fit for an aggressive, low-mana strategy, but the high efficiency of black and red's kill spells strongly pushes the colors toward control. Why attack recklessly when you can slow down a little and use your removal to control tempo? Erik Lauer and his development team were able to find ways to play up an aggro strategy for black-red but it took a lot of work on their part (doing things like introducing the Slith mechanic to the Vampires to make attacking quickly more viable).

What's the Mechanical Heart of This Color Pair?

To find the mechanical heart of two colors, you have to look at their overlap and figure out what part of it is the most efficient thing to build around. For black-red that answer is simple: black and red are good—very good—at killing creatures. This ability is so important, especially in Limited, that it defines what the color pair is about. What I mean by that is this: when you are figuring out how to build a theme for a black-red deck, you always start with the assumption that the deck will be good at killing creatures. This frees you up to use your other resources to dedicate toward winning.


For years, black and red were the kings of Limited because we allowed many of their kill spells at common to be what we call "two-for-ones." A two-for-one is a spell that allows you to kill a creature while giving you another resource. That resource could be a creature (usually the "enters the battlefield" effect would kill a creature), an extra card, or other card advantage (black-red loves mixing direct damage with discard). This allowed black-red to offset its greatest liability: running out of threats and/or answers. In the last few years, development has mostly moved two-for-ones out of common to take a little wind out of black-red's sails.

What's the Focus of This Color Pair?

To find the focus, you have to examine how the color pair intends to win. Black-red is very focused on aggressively damaging the opponent. It does this in two ways. First, it plays a range of creatures and then uses its creature removal to pave the way. Second, both black and red have the ability to directly damage the opponent. (Note that black actually uses loss of life rather than damage, with the exception of drain effects.)

This combination means that black-red can be fast, but usually not as fast as a guild like Boros. The reason is that black-red has a control element, using its creature kill to help it net card advantage. Black-red wants to keep the pressure up, but it isn't so reliant on speed to keep the opponent off balance.

The key to making black-red work is to understand what identity you want to give this "killing machine." Black's selfishness matched with red's hedonism means that Rakdos tends to have a sadistic streak. The Rakdos enjoy causing the chaos they create, but unlike mono-red, their chaos has a purpose. A lot of building black-red mechanically is to give that controlled chaos a flavor. As you will see in a moment, it's a little more challenging than one might assume at first blush.

Hellbent


Rakdos was one of the three guilds in the final set of the original Ravnica block, Dissension. One of the things we did when we separated the guilds into the 4/3/3 breakdown (that's how many there were per set in the original block) was to make sure each set had at least one fast and one slow guild. Rakdos was Dissension's fast guild.

One of the goals all three design teams had was to find a guild mechanic for each guild that didn't just match the color pairing but also matched the feel and philosophy of the guild. We also wanted the mechanic to not only feel right but to play right. What I mean by that is we wanted the game play itself to reinforce the guild's flavor.

Rakdos was clearly the wanton and thrill-seeking guild. They were destructive, they were sadistic, they enjoyed themselves probably a little bit too much, and—most importantly—they were a little reckless. The goal for the original Rakdos mechanic was to try and capture this sense of recklessness. To do this, we asked ourselves, "What does Rakdos want to do?" It wants to destroy things and attack. It wouldn't just destroy creatures. The destruction could be of artifacts and land and other people's cards. Rakdos just wanted to go full throttle.

So we did something we like to do in design that I call "extreming." It's a little trick I picked up in a writing class. Sometimes, a character is stuck in a scene and you don't quite know what to do. When we got ourselves in those situations, my writing professor suggested having us make the character do the most extreme thing we could think of. For example, I had a scene where the main character was cooking breakfast. I wasn't quite sure what was supposed to happen so I was stuck.

My assignment for the next day was to finish the scene with the most extreme ending I could. So what did I do? The main character turned up the gas on the oven, lit his wooden spoon on fire, and torched his apartment. As it burned down, he toasted a sausage.

My writing professor was very excited. He said my scene solved my problem. What was the main issue my character had to deal with? Anger. Why was he angry? That was the meat and potatoes of my scene. I had an angry character—that's the germ I was to use to write my less-extreme version.

So let's apply the same strategy to Rakdos. What is the most extreme turn? I cast every spell I have, blowing up everything on the board. Now we take a step back. What did we learn? We learned that Rakdos wants to go full throttle and not stop. Okay, what if we made a mechanic that rewarded that behavior?

That is how hellbent was born. The Rakdos want to just use everything they have, so let's encourage that behavior. Hellbent was a mechanic that said, "Empty your hand and your spells start getting more powerful." Note that this flies in the face of conventional Magic. Normally, emptying your hand leaves you vulnerable. Here, we were going to turn conventional wisdom on its head.


The design team (Aaron Forsythe as lead, Brandon Bozzi, Mark Gottlieb, and myself) was happy with hellbent. It was the first guild mechanic we settled on. We loved both the feel and the way it helped define how black-red was going to play. There was just one problem.

To explain this, let me first explain a design term. Hellbent is what we call a threshold mechanic. Named after the original threshold mechanic—you guessed it, threshold from Odyssey (design by Richard Garfield)—a threshold mechanic is a mechanic with the following two traits:

  1. Cards with this mechanic have two states. One normal state and one heightened state.
  2. All cards with this mechanic change from the first state to the second state based on the same criteria. (For threshold, as an example, this was having seven cards in your graveyard; for metalcraft, this was having three artifacts on the battlefield.)

Threshold mechanics are exciting but scary because there tends to be a huge shift between the first and second state. Not just one card changes, but rather every card with the mechanic.

As such, threshold mechanics tend to lead to a few things: First, the mechanics tend to be very swingy. Second, the mechanics are very linear, because once you're dedicated to meeting the requirement of the switch, you now have incentive to include more cards with the mechanic in your deck. You can see how these two things feed off of one another. The linear nature makes you want to play many cards with the mechanic, which means the variable swings get even higher as the difference between the first and second stage grow bigger and bigger.

In the end, hellbent proved to be tricky to pull off. It required some support cards in black and red to help players empty their hand. It led to a lot of arguments about how big a swing we wanted between the two states. I argued as I always do when we play with threshold mechanics that if we're going to bother doing them, we need to go big or go home (i.e., not do the mechanic). The only way the mechanic is sexy is if players are lured into wanting to try and meet the requirement.

When the dust settled, the mechanic only turned out so-so. Development decided to push the mechanic but it tended to lead to very swingy games. Also, not everyone wanted to empty their hand, getting us into Odyssey space where we were at times encouraging players to do something that they didn't naturally want to do. Having no cards in your hand is scary and a lot of player resisted it, which made Rakdos hard to play.

It did, though, set us up with an interesting challenge. How do we get Rakdos to feel right but in a way that was a little less swingy? That story is coming right up.

Unleash

Through most of design, the Rakdos mechanic was this thing called paincast. The way paincast worked was that any spell with paincast was 1 Mana cheaper for each point of damage you had dealt to an opponent this turn. The mechanic was very flavorful but had a few problems:

  1. The mechanic worried the development team. The quote I remember was this: "Paincast is the scary part of affinity."
  2. It was what we call a "win when you're ahead" mechanic, which means that it is often very useless when you most need it and meaningless when you are able to use it.
  3. It majorly warped the set. Here's how. When you put in a mechanic, you also start making cards that are synergistic with that mechanic. In paincast's case, it pushed us to make cheap creatures that could make a one-shot burst of an attack. Normally, these creatures are pretty bad, but when they enable paincast, they start getting good. These cards, though, were useless to anyone who wasn't playing the paincast deck, so it cut down on the interconnectivity between the guilds and made decks have less variety as there were fewer cards that could go into every deck.

Meanwhile, Aaron was concerned that Return to Ravnica didn't have a single creature combat mechanic. Most large sets we make have at least one, especially when we're doing a set with five mechanics. Aaron asked the Return to Ravnica design team (Ken Nagle as lead, Alexis Janson, Zac Hill, Ken Troop, and myself) to add a creature combat mechanic.

So we had a mechanic that made people nervous and was causing a design issue combined with a dictum by Aaron that we needed to find a creature combat mechanic. Interestingly, the idea for unleash didn't come from the design team but from Aaron himself. Aaron doesn't get to stretch his designer muscles as much as he used to, so rather than just force the design team to solve the problem, he tried to see if he could find an answer.


Aaron designed a couple of different mechanics. One day, he asked me into his office and showed them to me. My favorite was this one which allowed you to choose one of two choices when you played the creature. Either you played it normally or you could have it come into play with a +1/+1 counter and it gained "must attack each turn if able." My one suggestion was to shift the negative from the red "must attack" to the black "can't block." I felt that it would be better flavor, would play better, and would create fewer bad feelings for the players (as a rule, players dislike when their creatures are forced to do dumb things that get them killed).

The one other interesting tweak that happened with unleash was the decision to have the mechanic grant the "can't block" restriction if any +1/+1 counter is on it, regardless of where the counter came from. (Note that we also made scavenge "target creature" to allow the clever moment where Golgari gets to attack for the win against Rakdos.)

Once we made these last few tweaks, unleash was ready to go. Most of the remaining work was development trying to find the right power balance for the mechanic. We had asked that the choice be an interesting decision a good chunk of the time. Making that happen was probably the hardest part about the mechanic and hopefully, later in the week, Latest Developments will talk about what went into balancing it.

For those wondering, we did know that unleash was what we call an "unsexy" mechanic, in that it seems worse than it is at first glance. All during previews, I kept saying on social media, "reserve judgment until you play it." Luckily, once they did, the players really embraced unleash and the Rakdos horde.

Fun and Fractures

That's about it for the Rakdos. As always, I'd love to hear your take on my take on the color pair. Feel free to drop me an email, respond to this thread, or contact me on any of my social media (Twitter, Tumblr, and Google+).

Join me next week when I won't be here. What? Yes, this is the last new Making Magic of the year (kind of—I'll explain in a second). Next week will be a special week dedicated to Magic Online, so there won't be a Making Magic column. The week after will be my pick for my best article of 2012 (i.e., a rerun).

Even if you've read every article this year, I'd advise checking in on that Monday. (Just saying.)

I'll be back the following week (on December 31—so technically, that is my last article of 2012) to start up the first week of Gatecrash previews. I have a pretty fun card, so come check it out.

Until then, may you find your inner hedonist!




Drive to Work #11—Ten Things Every Game Needs

My favorite article from 2011 was a two-parter based on an "Intro to Game Design" speech I gave to my daughter's fifth grade class. For this week's podcast, I decided to revisit that article and talk about the topic a little more in depth. If you are at all interested in basic game design, I urge you to give it a listen.

Multi




Happy Holidays

One last thing. Every year at the end of my final article of the year, I share with all of you my family's holiday card. Enjoy!


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