avnica is the ultimate cityscape: an urban sprawl that stretches across the entire plane. And as we're all aware, proper planning can have a huge impact on the quality of life in any burgeoning megalopolis. Logically gridded streets and thoughtfully directed traffic flow can turn the daily krovod commute from an interminable and frustrating grind to a meditative and relaxing ritual. The mindful inclusion of town squares and open spaces give rise to bustling bazaars and festivals that channel and infuse the agitated kinetics of daily urban living into a joyful striving.
Or vice versa.
Like its namesake plane, Return to Ravnica is a complicated sprawl. Five guilds, five new mechanics. Most modern expansions have around three mechanics and they're usually not all new. Ravnica is also a multicolor environment, which means color identity will be stretched and contorted while deck construction will tend toward higher levels of complexity.
Plains | Art by Richard Wright
While developing the set's keywords, we learned an important lesson over and over again: Whenever we ran into issues with a keyword, the best solutions tended to be elegantly simple. By embracing that philosophy fully, we were able to deliver five mechanics that perfectly represented their guilds' personalities without stealing attention from the individual cards and overall game play that are the rightful stars of the set.
To Be or Not To Be on the Battlefield
Detain wasn't the first mechanic thought up for Azorius. I could go into long detail about why, but Mark Rosewater and Dave Guskin covered most of that topic last week. Instead, I wanted to focus on how we simplified the mechanic so you could spend less time processing the individual cards and more time discovering their various in-game interactions instead. The mechanic represents temporary imprisonment, which we have represented in various ways throughout Magic's history, but we had to find the one that fit Return to Ravnica's needs best.
Inaction Injunction | Art by Wayne Reynolds
After playing with Return to Ravnica some, I'm sure you're familiar with the occasional imprisoned creature that tries to attack, forgetting it's been detained. Detainee status certainly would be more easily tracked if the permanent was exiled for the duration, but that would've been too powerful in a set full of "enters the battlefield" triggers, tokens, and scavenge. By accepting a small amount of complexity increase and being conscious of our set surroundings, we settled into a final version of detain that is still clean and flavorful while achieving more enjoyable, less frustrating interactions with the rest of the block. For example, it gives you a solution, albeit temporarily, to the gigantic monsters the Golgari player has scavenged together without punishing him or her for using that mechanic.
Because we settled on this version of detain, Azorius is set up as a natural antagonist to Rakdos's all-or-nothing aggression. If detain exiled the offending creature, the Rakdos player would have increased opportunities to evaluate his or her unleash decisions. Instead, detain heavily punishes unleashed creatures for their malicious intent. Not only do they miss out on their opportunity to block or attack for one full turn, they still can't block the next. Tempo swings like that often put the Azorius player fully in control of a game's pace.
Izzet Obviously Overloaded
During development, we have the sometimes competing, sometimes cooperating goals of making sure Magic cards both read and play well. While working on overload, we discovered some friction between those two priorities. A card like Lightning Bolt is powerful because it is so concise. No one looks and Lightning Bolt and says, "I wish this could only target my opponent and his or her creatures." We all know where to point our Bolts. Targeting restrictions like "target creature you control" or "target creature an opponent controls" are aesthetically unpleasant. On top of that, targeting restrictions tend to cut off opportunities for unforeseen but ultimately exciting interactions among cards from across Magic's nearly twenty-year history. And yet, without targeting restrictions, overloading Mizzium Mortars goes from being unambiguously awesome (demolishing your opponent's creatures while leaving yours unscathed) to something of a head scratcher.
To preserve the aesthetically pleasing, unrestricted wording on spells like Street Spasm and Electrickery, overload could allow you to choose any number of legal targets. That way, you'd be free to Mortars everyone else's creatures and your own Swans of Bryn Argoll. This variation certainly adds more decision points to the mechanic, but it also removes your ability to eventually hit hexproof creatures.
In the end, we decided the improved game play was worth the less elegant but entirely functional wording choices. While there was space to tweak the overload spells to operate differently, we also found it much more enjoyable not having to worry whether your Mizzium Skin gave your opponent's creatures +0/+1 or your Electrickery would pick off your Bird tokens.
Black- (and Red-) Tie Affair
From the Return to Ravnica guild most in love with chaos and carnage and the one most likely to bring about the end of civilization, the Rakdos unleash mechanic is a surprising model of elegant simplicity. While summoning any of the keyworded carnie folk, you only have to answer one straightforward question, and you only have to answer it once: "Is it party time?" Fortunately, the answer is usually (but not always), "Yes!"
Rakdos Ringleader | Art by Jason Felix
Let's imagine a different world, one where we attempted to unleash unleash and ended up burying it under a pile of unnecessary bells and whistles. One of the riskiest parts of unleash, from both game-design and game-play perspectives, is that it's got some definitively negative elements. Asking players to give up the ability to block can be a tough sell. So what if we decided not to make the pitch at all? What if we built unleash without any obvious drawback? Taking off the "can't block" clause seems like the obvious direction, but then when would you ever not unleash? Without meaningful decisions, that version of unleash is hardly a mechanic at all.
But what if "upside unleash" ended up looking like this:
Unleash (Whenever CARDNAME attacks, it gets +1/+1 until end of turn.)
The flavor here is similar enough that it would fit Rakdos well enough. The incentive is clearly there to cut loose and attack. And creatures with this mechanic are clearly worse at blocking than attacking. On top of that, you get to cackle "Unleash!" multiple times every turn instead of just once every couple of turns or so. Which is awesome.
Rakdos Cackler | Art by Ryan Barger
But the game play here can be tedious and decidedly un-Rakdos. Rather than simply deciding whether or not to go to the party and then turning off all brain functions, this alternative version insists that you thoughtfully consider every choice you make for the rest of the shindig. Screwdriver or spiked glove (as weapon of choice)? Mosh pit or ball pit? Block party or red zone celebration? Way too much thinking when all you wanna do is thrash. Sounds like a real drag.
Instead of demanding that kind of turn-after-turn rationality from you, we tried to make that singular decision-point compelling. Many of the commons with unleash feature defensively-relevant abilities or numbers. Because Grim Roustabout, Splatter Thug, and Thrill-Kill Assassin are such effective blockers the decision to unleash them and the eventual regret over doing so has a high potential for drama.
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
Scavenge captures one of the Golgari guild's less glamorous roles—it is Ravnica's primary food supplier. The rich and powerful in Ravnica can buy crypts that afford them some peace, but the rest of its denizens are delivered to the rot farms and reintroduced into the food chain. During development, we had to answer quite a deliciously morbid question: In Magic terms, how literally are you what you eat? Personally, I was concerned that locking a creature's scavenge effect onto its power would force us to fill the guild with appealing bodies and unappetizing scavenge costs.
I argued for a version of Scavenge that looked like this:
Scavenge 1— (, exile CARDNAME from your graveyard: Put a +1/+1 counter on target creature.)
Because the numbers and costs could be changed from card to card, this version would have afforded us plenty of flexibility to tweak individual creatures while still conveying the Golgari ethos. Unfortunately, like so much excessively processed meat byproduct, these scavenge creatures would probably lack the variety of flavors and textures that make life (and death) worth savoring.
Korozda Monitor | Art by Lars Grant-West
Erik Lauer did a great job of recognizing the proper role for the scavenge-packing Golgari in Return to Ravnica Limited. With its resource-reusing mechanic, the black-green guild was perfectly suited to pursue early-game attrition in hopes of late-game dominance. Because it was aimed at the long game anyway, scavenge would perform admirably even with the clunky looking activation costs necessary to have at least average power and toughness on its creatures. As an added benefit, since scavenge keys off the creature's power, it's much easier to remember what kind of impact each rotting corpse might eventually have on the battlefield.
Populate is a demanding mechanic. On the one hand, it requires a critical mass of token generators. On the other, you need cards that actually have the word "populate" on them. If you're missing either piece, the mechanic might as well not be in your deck. The easy part was providing a wide variety of token generators that you'd be happy to play whether you were leveraging populate or not. As an update to Watchwolf, Call of the Conclave is an easy card to get excited about. The more difficult challenge was coming up with populate cards players could be confident in before ever playing with the mechanic.
For the most part, there was a strong desire to keep the two kinds of cards separate. Cards like Rootborn Defenses, Druid's Deliverance, and Sundering Growth all make sense as stories and certainly as play pieces. Preventing the destruction of life or massive amounts of damage, destroying artifice, or creating new life are all different sides of the same d20: protecting and/or restoring the natural order. At the same time, cards like Selesnya Charm, Security Blockade, and Knightly Valor all do an excellent job of flavorfully justifying their tokens.
In the end, though, our main priority was that your Selesnya decks do what you want them to do, and in Return to Ravnica that means populating often and consistently. To achieve that goal, we turned to Eyes in the Skies, Coursers' Accord, Horncaller's Chant, and Vitu-Ghazi Guildmage. Having both sides of the populate puzzle on a single card ensures that you will always have a token to copy.
Once you have these frustration-free cards in your deck, every other token maker you have means more selection and more potential for interesting decision-points. You might never opt for a second 3/3 Centaur over a 5/5 Wurm, but there are plenty of situations where the choice between a 1/1 flying Bird or a 2/2 vigilant Knight is game-defining.
In any well-constructed set, as in any thoughtfully planned city, the elements of infrastructure—whether they be mechanics, templating choices, and color identity or traffic lights, mass transit, and public Wi-Fi—ought to empower the residents of that space to take full advantage of it.
In that spirit, may you catch every green light and may your creatures always be unleashed and un-detained.