eturn to Ravnica is off to an exciting and, somewhat, different start from previous sets. Players were out in force picking guilds at the Prerelease. They were eager to play a new modified form of sealed deck, in which the sixth pack was replaced with a special guild specific pack of cards and their Prerelease promo which was, for the first time ever, playable in their sealed deck.
Etheral Armor | Art by Daarken
This past weekend saw the return of team limited to the Grand Prix level after a long hiatus. Much like the Prereleases, this Grand Prix format was a first of its kind, at least in competitive events, for how the teams drafted their decks.
This coming weekend will be our first chance to see how Return to Ravnica fares at our highest level of competition. We will see what impact it has upon Modern and have the first glimpse at what the top players in the world are able to do with the set in individual drafts at Pro Tour Return to Ravnica. Given the large card pool of Modern it is challenging for a new set to make an impact on the format, but it bears discussion because Return to Ravnica was our first set in development where the picture of Modern in the real world was becoming clear. Amongst other events, we'd had the chance to see Samuele Estratti win the first Modern Pro Tour shortly after Return to Ravnica entered into development. That tournament provided us with the perspective from which we were feel we were better able to target card development such that they were capable of having an impact on Modern. I'm optimistic that we'll see cards from Return to Ravnica making a number of appearances in constructed in this coming weekend's Pro Tour.
Today, though, my focus will be on the other format at Pro Tour Return to Ravnica, drafting RTR, and the unique challenges we faced with making the Return to Ravnica limited environment.
And then there were Five
Return to Ravnica, much like Gatecrash to follow next year, pushed us in a direction away from one area that I believe we've recently excelled at: creating good color pair identities for each of the ten color pairs. While it is only a starting point for depth of the limited environment, these color pairs give players a quick ten archetypes in addition to the occasional multi- and mono-colored decks in limited. As a recent example of the process, I'd suggest a column from last year by Tom LaPille summarizing how we set about the structure of color pairs and their goals in Innistrad. While a given color pair might have some similarities from set to set, we've also gone out of our way to create new play experiences for each color pair so that each color pair stays fresh.
While the guild mechanics in Return to Ravnica provide an even clearer identity for the color pairs, and allow us room to fill out the texture on these color pairs, it only does so for the five guilds we are focusing on in the set. We are effectively losing the other five color pairs in doing so. The challenge was then on us to provide that first level of depth to the format by providing more viable decks to draft. One option of encouraging three-color decks could help accomplish this and we do try to minimize this and only push it to a small extent while our primary focus for the first two large sets of the block was in creating different play patterns within each guild.
We embarked on this process under Erik Lauer's lead by focusing efforts on building a 'slow' and 'fast' strategy into each guild. This was a first step into creating greater differentiation in decks from draft to draft even if you were in the same guild. An important part of this process was creating and tweaking cards that would excel in either a particularly slow strategy, or more controlling one, but not in both.
Often there were many cards pointing in the desired direction for a given strategy and we didn't need to tweak as many cards to ensure that the player drafting that guild sub-strategy could build a coherent deck.
That isn't to say every card is only good in one of the strategies, there are many cards that are auto-includes regardless of which strategy you are planning to adopt within the guild. You are going to be excited to draft and play a Centaur Healer, a Frostburn Weird, or a Stab Wound regardless of whether you are going beatdown or control or somewhere in between. These cards are not the ones I'm focusing on in this article, but instead the ones that have a significantly differing pick order depending on how aggressive your deck is.
Some of the examples below aren't clear cut, but they help illustrate cards that we expected to make their way to the deck types that will really want them. They are all the more likely to get passed by players employing other strategies in the draft. I'm sticking with just the commons in the set. Many of the mono-colored cards can also fit in the other color pair operating at the same speed, although I've tried to list them where I consider them more instrumental to what we were aiming for.
It is important to mention that we also expect many draft decks to fall somewhere in between the fast and slow spectrum on a more mid-range path, this is my take on how some cards came together for players wanting to push the extremes of the spectrum.
With that preface out of the way let's take a look at each of the two divides within each guild in Return to Ravnica.
The goal here was to have a creature rush strategy with a number of fast attackers and pump spells like Giant Growth.
Chorus of Might: This is a tricky one. The fact that it gives the creature trample is suited to an attacking deck and while counting creatures is something the slower deck will ultimately thrive at, it's not a card the deck can afford while it's just trying to survive, especially costing four mana where it's hard to be used to blunt an attack.
Giant Growth and Common Bond: While perfectly reasonable in slower builds these two cards help provide the redundancy in combat tricks to help your deck keep attacking. R&D expects a card like Giant Growth to be a little more likely to end up here than in Golgari since the Golgari can rely on Scavenge to keep pushing damage through.
This is intended as a heavily populate based deck.
Courser's Accord: If the fast deck is has a curve as high as six mana it is going to be looking for something more impactful: removal, evasion, or trample. For the slower deck this can help gum up the ground and provide defense against either a swarm or a single large creature.
Druid's Deliverance: Aggressive decks aren't typically going to want a fog effect to protect themselves so here's a card that can end up in the slower decks to buy time and start amassing a token army.
Security Blockade: An aggressive green-white deck should be able to do much better than a 2/2 for three mana. For the slower, more controlling, deck, the damage prevention, vigilance, and a propagate target combine to make this an appealing option.
Trostani's Judgment: This card is at six-mana in part to price it out of range for the faster decks. It's a strong enough card that you still might run it in the faster decks for a late game but it comes at a cost of slowing down your most explosive draws.
We wanted this to be a tempo-based deck with small creatures with detain and bounce effects.
Inaction Injuction: There aren't as many clear cut examples falling into this category. Many of the cards have fitting roles in either of Azorius's strategy. This card is arguably stronger for the fast strategy as it can help maintain an advantage a bit more effectively than helping stall out the game to allow the slower control deck to catch up.
Dramatic Rescue: We wanted a good bounce effect and this one fits the bill. The extra mana isn't necessarily worth the two life gain in many situations but it can be helpful in a genuine tempo race, especially in a deck with lots of fliers. You can also get extra utility out of bouncing a creature with detain after it blocks, thus allowing it to be recast and allowing you to detain something again. The life gain also makes it a reasonable choice in the slower decks, though, especially as help against Scavenge.
We saw this as a deck that uses defender, or high toughness, creatures that stall until you get to drop your big expensive bombs.
Avenging Arrow: An aggressive deck is going to be looking to get around a blocker not take down one that is already killed one of its attacker. It will be looking for detain cards over something like this and detain itself makes it hard to utilize this card. This card alternatively supports dealing with problematic cards that a slower deck needs answers for, ones that are getting through and can't be dealt with, or to trim down creatures swarming into you defenders. The faster deck is going to be trying to sustain initiative rather than playing cards like this that help if it's on the back of its heels.
Doorkeeper: Four toughness for two mana is a good way to make it to the late game and this card's could be a victory condition on its own.
We saw this as the Trumpet Blast style deck. Lots of quick creatures backed by power enhancing effects.
Dynacharge: This was one of the more defining cards for this archetype. Cards that took fullest advantage of getting many creatures in play and playing aggressively-minded overload cards.
Pursuit of Flight: Helps continue pushing in damage and is great in concert with Stealer of Secrets.
We expected this to be a control deck utilizing spell-based board control and generating raw card advantage
Paralyzing Grasp: Not completely out of place in a faster build that can race with evasion but it is still more at home in a controlling build that needs permanent answers to big threats.
Electrickery: These decks tend to have more space for utility cards like this and it is insurance against the accumulation of birds and goblins.
We expected this to focus on quick unleash creatures supported by 'can't block' effects and burn.
Traitorous Instinct: Shouldn't be at all tempting for the control decks, this card is right at home in a fast Rakdos deck, falling into the 'can't block' category.
Deviant Glee: Only has a home in aggressive strategies. This doesn't help the control deck survive. The optional trample helps squeeze in extra damage, especially on a creature that has an extra power thanks to unleash.
This was expected to be a traditional black red control deck with a lot of removal and some card advantage that eventually wins when it draws into a formidable creature or two.
Catacomb Slug: Aggressive decks aren't interested in a two-power creature that costs this much but it can slow a ground assault like few others.
Lobber Crew: From watching Grand Prix San Jose, it already looks like most people have caught on to this card and it fits in a number of strategies, but it tends to fit best in a deck that is not doing as much attacking.
Mind Rot: This is a means of gaining card advantage and knocking out the finishers from the hands of careless faster decks.
Perilous Shadow: A means to stay alive, then a means to win.
The deck was not usually quite as fast as some of the other fast decks in the format but it was intended to have an offensively minded curve that was supported in the later game by scavenge.
Daggerdrome Imp: There was a desire to create good targets for Scavenge and this imp is a nice way to get in some early damage and create a creature that was hard to race later on.
Rubbleback Rhino: It was another good target but I hesitated to list it here since it is also a fitting blocker in the more controlling style and at 5-mana isn't an easy include in the faster decks.
This was intended as a traditional ramping deck.
Axebane Stag: A big creature once you've ramped. The more scavenge-minded deck doesn't need this in that it is creating its own big creatures via +1/+1 counters.
Axebane Gurdian, Gatecreeper Vine, Trestle Troll: A defender suite to stay alive or possibly gather mana. Trestle Troll also provides reach to help against fliers. The defenders aren't as exciting for an aggressive scavenge strategy since you'll at times find yourself without a capable attacker to put +1/+1 counters onto. These cards also fit nicely into multicolor strategies.
Beyond all of this, there are many other strategies that are subtle and perhaps some that are not so subtle. For example, you can go all-in on Ethereal Armor or full tilt on defenders.
If you can stomach passing good gold cards, there are also cases where going off-guild card can be made to work. In one of my early development drafts, I piled together an aggressive deck filled with red unleash creatures and green scavenge creatures that came together very well as an aggressive deck with some late game. It's not necessarily something I'd recommend, but it's a realm to be explored. You should likely do some research on the curve of the creatures and the synergies you're hoping to pull together for any such color pair. Taken to less of an extreme, you can prioritize gates and keyrunes as a means to splash gold cards fitting into your strategy; in this Gruul example, cards like Auger Spree.
This brings us to the other more common strategy. There are plenty of reasons and ways to play more than two colors. Transguild Promenade, the gates, the shocklands, Chromatic Lantern, and green color-fixing are all there waiting for you to be as greedy with your build as you want to be.
Have fun exploring the set!
Thanks for reading,