s you get ready for the Prerelease for Dragon's Maze, I am excited as a game designer because I get to see how all of our effort at Wizards of the Coast R&D over two years translates into the player experience. Dragon's Maze/Gatecrash/Return to Ravnica is, in my opinion, one of the best Limited environments we have ever produced, and it is a worthy successor to the wildly popular Ravnica/Guildpact/Dissension of yesteryear. It teaches us something about how to design and develop better Limited environments, and I hope that you all enjoy it as much as we do.
Jelenn Sphinx | Art by Wesley Burt
It didn't get that way by accident, though. There were a lot of decisions made in both design and development that played out over the course of two years to turn it into the environment that it is. Both Alexis Janson and Zac Hill were saddled with difficult jobs—tying together the two standalone Ravnica sets into one cohesive environment—and I think that, combined, they did an exemplary job. It wasn't just them, however; everyone in both design and development had a part in making the decisions that ultimately led to the environment being what it is. In today's article, I'm going to touch on a few of those points and hopefully give you all some insight on just how the full Return to Ravnica–block Limited experience was constructed.
A Golden Opportunity
The original Ravnica block was a high-water mark in Magic's design success. To put it simply, it was a plane we knew we wanted to return to for a while (long before I arrived in R&D), but we had to wait until the time was right. There are a lot of different ways to theme a block, and while gold tends to be one of the more popular ones, we can't exactly do it year after year. We need to go through other themes to make gold feel special when it comes back every few years.
Mark Rosewater, in his columns over the last few weeks, discussed how the set came into being through design. After Return to Ravnica block was determined to mix the guilds in the 5/5/10 pattern, the key was to figure out what that meant for the set with ten guilds. We had tried the all-gold set with Alara Reborn, and while it was interesting, it wasn't what Ravnica was all about. We knew we wanted a lot of gold cards. It would be hard to pay off Ravnica without using them, but we also needed to have the simple bread-and-butter cards to make Limited work, while adding in more color fixing to tie the sets together. A number of these problems were addressed by using rarity to script out how opening packs would play out in Limited.
One of the terms we use in R&D to discuss how sets look in Limited is "as-fan," or simply how the cards will appear as you fan out your booster pack. We knew we wanted the as-fan of gold to be high in Dragon's Maze—after all, we had ten guilds to support—but we didn't want the Alara Reborn number of fourteen. The solution was to make thirty of the forty uncommons in the set gold (the rest are split cards), as well as two-thirds of the rares, all of the mythic rares—but only ten of the commons. This gave us a lot of room to create fun and exciting guild-based cards, and putting a lot of the raw power in gold, but leaving the gold as-fan of packs right around five.
The side benefit of this is it got us focused on making more simple monocolored commons that would act at the glue to make the guild-focused decks work. Because uncommons and rares are generally stronger in Limited than commons, the focus in drafting would be to generally first take the more powerful gold cards and then have room to pick up the monocolored cards that, while less strong, are easier to cast and more likely to make your final deck. Cards like the Gatekeepers will fit in any guild combination that can play them but are easy enough to cast that you won't get run over if you can't get your mana to work exactly on curve. In our testing, this led to a happy balance of many of the movers and shakers in decks being multicolored but letting games play out interestingly when one player didn't have perfect mana.
While the individual large sets of the Return to Ravnica block were all about two-color guild combinations (with the occasional slip into a three-color arc), full-block with Dragon's Maze was built to naturally focus on going three colors, or even higher. This mirrors the strategies that happened with the original Ravnica block but I think handles the structure better to meet those goals.
It was easy to go wrong in the original Ravnica's full-block draft if you weren't in the know. For instance, it was common for less-experienced drafters to go into red-green-white in the first pack, hitting both the Boros and Selesnya guilds. In the second pack, Gruul was open, but those players would find the third pack totally devoid of gold cards (other than the split cards).
This was a natural flaw with the 4/4/3 execution. It meant that drafting a guild each pack could only be done in a few guild combinations. The 5/5/10 ordering allows for any combination of guilds to get gold cards in all three packs. Boros and Orzhov? Rakdos is still available in Return to Ravnica. Azorius and Izzet? Boros is available in Gatecrash. And so on and so forth. It also lets you combine the various aspects of different guilds in fun and interesting directions that you might not expect.
This structure wasn't free, however. One thing we have been focusing more on for the last few years is giving all ten color combinations things to do in Limited, to widen the depth of the Draft format and give people new things to do and discover the tenth, fifteenth, or later drafts they complete. This wasn't really an option in either single-set Return to Ravnica drafts. We wouldn't have ever taken this route if we believed that either format would be bad (in fact, both were generally very well received), but we knew the formats would individually each have limitations because of the block structure. There just wasn't a great Boros strategy in Return to Ravnica, as an example. You could combine any two of the Return to Ravnica guilds to get a cohesive deck (we made sure the mechanics at least complemented each other that much), but it did generally reduce the number of options that were available in Draft.
The other cost was that both Return to Ravnica and Gatecrash were a little faster than we would have naturally made the Limited environments. This was another Erik Lauer innovation on how to best make the 5/5/10 environment play out optimally. If both Return to Ravnica and Gatecrash had been paced closer to a set like Innistrad, when you switched from two-color-based decks to three-color-based decks and added cards like Cluestones for mana fixing, the environment would've just become slower than we believe people generally enjoy. It would also really impact just how strong the aggressive strategies could be in full-block and risk trending the best decks to being four or five colors. As it ended up, I believe there is a good balance between the speeds and the abilities of the guilds in both sets, which really makes for a deep Limited experience and allows for both slow and fast strategies to work within the block.
We started experimenting with different block structures than the classic large-small-small in Lorwyn block, and I think those have generally produced good results for both Constructed and Limited. I believe it is important for us at Wizards R&D to take risks now and then to keep the game fresh, and that because (quite frankly) it would be arrogant to think we have everything figured out and that we already know how to make the best possible block structure. Experiments like Dragon's Maze give us valuable information on how to make better Limited environments. It lets us tie design's and creative's goals of providing a better story with better integrated mechanics with development's goal of making sure the game play is as fun and balanced as possible. I believe that, in the end, those decisions were worth it for making Dragon's Maze Limited the best format available, but we are excited to get feedback from you all to see if this experiment is something worth doing again in the future.
In previous heavy-gold Draft environments, the drafts would sometimes come down to a decision to fight other players over mana fixing or plan on getting the powerful cards early in a draft and settling for having a mediocre mana base. This is because, quite frankly, the individual mana-fixing cards were either too strong or generally not plentiful enough. We knew we didn't want Dragon's Maze to be all about taking as many color-fixing cards as you could early on (and ignoring the exciting cards in the set) then seeing what powerful spells would trickle your way. Erik Lauer came up with a solution, which was to make a lot of the mana fixing cards worse than most players would expect, thereby letting the cards get to the players who needed them.
A related aside. In my opinion, one of the things that makes modern Limited work so well is the proliferation of the "bad" removal spells at common. I don't mean "bad" as in unplayable, but "bad" as in it isn't the card you want to fill your deck with. Not every removal spell can or should be on the power level of Murder. When we price "destroy target creature" at five or six mana or make it conditional, people often complain that it isn't playable, or generally "bad," but I rarely see it get cut from Limited decks. These are spells you tend to want to have in your deck to deal with bombs, but you often will have more enticing choices for your deck in your pack. If the correct answer is to always take the removal spell over anything but a Dragon, the Draft format is just less about meaningful strategies and more about following a pattern.
Making common removal either somewhat expensive or conditional means that a lot of the best cards at common simply aren't the removal spells. Under this paradigm, if your deck is high on removal, you will pass one of these in a way that you wouldn't normally ever pass a Terminate, and if your deck is low, you will take them. These kinds of cards make their way a bit further around the table and tend to just smooth out how the draft decks end up. There are fewer "nothing but removal and Gray Ogres" decks than were so popular during Invasion Limited and fewer "good creatures but no removal decks." Instead, everyone's decks tend to have a more interesting mix. End sort-of-aside.
Rakdos Guildgate | Art by Eytan Zana
In Dragon's Maze Draft you can take a Gate first pick, but we wanted to make sure that wasn't the correct pick most of the time. Between the Cluestones and Gates, there are around two and two-thirds cards per pack that have the opportunity to fix your mana. Yes, they won't always be the ones you are looking for, but the ones that will help you will be opened somewhere at the table. The goal was to make sure the cards traveled far enough that players would have the opportunity to pick them up once they had a chance to establish their colors, and not using the mana fixing they opened to establish colors, like how the bounce lands in original Ravnica or tri-lands in Alara block tended to direct players.
Wrapping it Up
I'm sure I could write another few thousand words about the nitty-gritty details of the Limited format, but I hope to do that after you all have had a chance to experience it for yourselves. We put a lot of hard work and love into the format, and I hope that comes through.
For now, I leave you all with these basics on how we got to where we got to. I'm excited for any feedback in terms of how you enjoy the format, specifically in relation to either Return to Ravnica alone or to Gatecrash alone.
Sam Stoddard came to Wizards of the Coast as an intern in May, 2012. He is currently a game designer working on final design and development for Magic: The Gathering.