Welcome to Orzhov Week, the tenth and final Return to Ravnica block guild theme weeks. Today, as in the previous nine columns of this series (Selesnya, Azorius, Izzet, Golgari, Rakdos, Boros, Simic, Gruul, and Dimir), I am going to be exploring the design of a certain two-color pair—today, obviously, is white and black. If you are interested in the philosophy of Orzhov or any of the other nine two-color pairs, you can go here to see my ten columns from the Ravnica block guild theme weeks where I talked about two-color philosophies.
This column will work just like the others in the series. I will answer the same four questions I have answered each other time and then I will talk about the guild mechanics from Ravnica block and Return to Ravnica block—haunt and extort. Whew! I’m glad I never have to explain that ever again.
Orzhov Guildgate | Art by John Avon
What’s the Easiest Thing About This Color Pairing?
For some reason, with the sole exception of blue-red, all the enemy color pairs have a decent amount in common. Maybe that’s because thematically it’s interesting for enemies to see a bit of the other within themselves. White-black is probably the most resonant enemy pair as the colors represent the break between light and dark, a core staple of conflict in stories (and, one could argue, in life).
White-black has a nice balance between some overlap (lifelink, flying, etc.) and some stark differences (white builds and protects while black destroys) making multicolor cards pretty easy to design, mechanically.
What’s the Hardest Thing About This Color Pairing?
The hardest part comes from something I said above—no enemy color pair in Magic more feels like enemies. The fight between the light and the dark is the core conflict of the fantasy genre. Richard Garfield is a huge fan of mirrors in design—that is, two cards meant to represent the opposite sides of a conflict. While Richard included many in Alpha, one stood heads and heels over the rest:
White Knight and Black Knight. Black, to this day, has tertiary first strike almost solely so it can be mirrored on Knights with white. What speaks more to fantasy than the side of chivalry, honor, and righteousness fighting against its selfish, dark, scheming mirror?
Richard might have invented blue, red, and green magic, but the idea of white and black magic far predates the game. Is this a problem? It is when you are trying to put both colors on the same card. Yes, mechanically we can do it, but what does it represent? Why would two mortal enemies combine their magic?
Resonance is a big part of design and has only gotten larger over the last five years. When you make a white-black card, you have to figure out what it represents and you have to figure out how to get the mechanic to have the right feel. White-black never makes this easy.
Orzhov was one of the best solutions I’ve seen to this problem. Creating a group with black goals and white means helps to visualize the kind of spells this group would want. I’m sure one day we’ll explore the group with white goals and black means but that one is a little trickier to execute (although clearly possible).
What’s the Mechanical Heart of This Color Pair?
It’s interesting that Dimir and Orzhov were the last two guilds I talked about because they are the two that have the least straightforward mechanical hearts. White-black is about optimizing systems. That is, it is the color pair best at examining a system and understanding how to abuse it. When it turns its attention to game play, it’s about figuring out how to abuse each component.
Where white-black shines is the use of the dual-purpose cards. Here are the pinnacle examples from each Ravnica block:
Both Pillory of the Sleepless and One Thousand Lashes function as defensive and offensive cards. This allows white-black to defend itself without having to devote a separate card to win the game. This theme runs throughout white-black. Why? Because white-black is patient. It understands that it will win if it can use all its defensive cards to incrementally be offensive.
What’s the Focus of This Color Pair?
The most typical white-black deck is what we in R&D call a bleeder deck. The idea behind a bleeder deck is simple: Take control of the game and then slowly plink the opponent to death. To make this happen, white-black wants two main things (and as we saw above, these two things will often be on the same card):
- White-black wants to remove threats: As the color pair that is best at optimizing systems, white-black understands that the key to winning is, first, not losing. The trick there is analyzing the opponent’s strategy and taking out the key cards that allow him or her to win. With the tools to handle any kind of card, including cards in other zones, white and black is good at both pinpoint and mass removal.
- White-black uses small incremental threats that are hard to remove: White-black then works hard to make its threats less vulnerable. The key to doing this is to both have patience—it doesn’t matter how long a victory takes if you win—and spreading its threats around. White-black never puts all its eggs in one basket. White-black is hard to stop because it provides lots of tiny threats rather than one or two large ones. This isn’t to say that white-black can never have larger threats, but those threats have to also have a secondary function to keep their removal from being too much of a setback.
White-black follows this plan and it will win, slowly but decidedly.
I have some strong opinions about the haunt mechanic, but before I get to those, I want to start first by explaining how haunt came to be. The mechanic was created by Aaron Forsythe during Guildpact design. (The Guildpact design team was led by Mike Elliott and included Aaron, Devin Low, and Brian Schneider.)
Keening Apparition | Art by Terese Nielsen
I talk about how every time a team designs a set with the guilds, there’s always one guild that’s problematic. Orzhov was that guild for Guildpact. Izzet was the spell guild and Gruul was the creature guild and each one found its mechanic relatively quickly. That wasn’t the case for Orzhov.
The design team started by exploring the themes of trading and business. When that didn’t lead anywhere, they tried an “oppression” mechanic that forced the Orzhov player to pick one color at the beginning of the game to focus its hatred on, but that proved too swingy. While trying to come up with a flavor that might work, Aaron toyed around with a theme that the creative team had brought to the guild—ghosts.
Aaron’s mechanic was called haunt and it represented creatures that stuck around as ghosts after they died. Here’s the first card Aaron designed with his mechanic:
Haunt (When this card is put into the graveyard from play, remove it from the game haunting target creature. When the haunted creature is put into the graveyard from play, play this spell without paying its mana cost.)
The initial version was pretty powerful, as the creature kept coming back. Here’s how it worked using Haunting Knight as an example: Haunting Knight is a 2/2 first striker. When it dies, it “haunts” a creature on the battlefield. Then, when the haunted creature dies, Haunting Knight comes back to the battlefield under your control. This made Haunting Knight pretty hard to get rid of, as killing it only led to it haunting a creature and making the whole cycle start over.
The design and development teams liked the general feel, but it was clear a few changes had to be made:
- The effect was made to only happen twice: In Aaron’s original version, the creature with haunt hops back and forth between life and death, allowing it to get into play many times. The new version only had an effect that happened once when the spell was first cast (or entered the battlefield for creatures) and then again when the haunted creature died. But that was it.
- The effect was reworked to go on spells as well as creatures: The other big change was to adapt the mechanic to allow it to work on spells as well as creatures. To make this happen, the mechanic ended up working slightly differently between instants/sorceries and creatures. As you’ll see in a minute, this was one of the big flaws of the mechanic.
The design and development teams played around with a lot of variants of haunt. Some only haunted your own creatures while others haunted your opponents’. They experimented with having a separate effect, which was the effect that was haunted. In the end, they went with what they thought was the simplest execution.
Executioner’s Swing | Art by Karl Kopinski
All that said, I think haunt is my least favorite guild mechanic of Ravnica block. Radiance was a poor choice for Boros, but I could imagine a set that could use it. So what was my problem with haunt? Let me walk you through a few of them:
1. Players Didn’t Get It
The mechanic sounds great at first blush. My creatures die and then they can haunt other creatures. Very resonant. There was just one small problem: While most people got the general sense of the mechanic, the majority of players couldn’t remember what it did. I call this problem unstickiness. The best example of an unsticky mechanic is when you read it and then as soon as you are done, you say to yourself, “What does this do?”
The reason a mechanic becomes unsticky is that it messes around in space that’s not intuitive. It just doesn’t do what you would expect it to. I always talk about how important having your mechanic do what the audience expects it to do. Unstickiness is what happens when you don’t do this.
Now, I’m sure there are plenty of you reading this saying, “Haunt was obvious. How could anyone not understand it?” My response is that I’ve seen too much data that shows that most players just didn’t get it. Why? One of the biggest reasons is...
2. It Wasn’t Really One Mechanic
The choice to have spells and creatures work differently was a big part of the problem. Both said haunt on them but they worked quite differently. Spells resolved and then haunted, but creatures, which all had enter-the-battlefield effects, didn’t haunt until they died. The spells worked better mechanically because they happened right away and it was clear what the effect was when the haunted creature died. The creatures, though, were more flavorful. I mean, creatures are what turn into ghosts and haunt you, after all. Mixing and matching spells and creatures, though, made everything less clear and muddied the message.
3. It Didn’t Play Well
In the end, this is the one that damns it for me. Players have proven that they will figure out more complex mechanics if they are motivated enough, but haunt’s play value wasn’t up to the amount of energy it took to keep track of what was going on. It was a lot of work for very little payout.
Like any mistake, haunt proved to be a valuable teaching tool and it definitely taught me some things to be careful about in future designs.
As I talked about in one of my Gatecrash preview articles, extort was not our first attempt at an Orzhov mechanic. In fact, it wasn’t our first, second, or third. It wasn’t even designed by a member of the design team (although its designer, Shawn Main, was credited as being part of the design team due to his contributions designing extort and battalion). Extort was designed by a design sub-team put together at the start of Gatecrash "devign"—the period in between design and development where design still controls the file but development starts to give feedback to be addressed.
The sub-team recommended extort as the Orzhov mechanic but the design team was split. Mark Gottlieb and I (the two co-leads) were fans. Dave Humpherys, who ran the sub-team, stayed neutral as to not bias the decision. Ethan Fleischer and Joe Huber weren’t so sure about the mechanic. As Mark I and I liked it, it went into the file.
One of the concerns was that the mechanic didn’t do enough. Interestingly, that was the same reaction of many players when we first previewed it. To prove this wrong, I decided that for the next few drafts I was going to draft every extort card I could. I was convinced that not only was it flavorful and interesting as a mechanic but at the current costing it was very strong. So I forced Orzhov. I took every extort card passed to me despite its stats. I believe my first draft deck had fourteen extort cards in it. I crushed every opponent I had that day. The skeptics became a little less skeptical.
Vizkopa Guildmage | Art by Tyler Jacobson
The team eventually came around and it was clear extort was going to be the Orzhov mechanic. The key then was figuring out what kind of cards wanted to have extort on them. For starters, it was clear that extort worked best on creatures. Extort was the kind of ability that would slowly whittle away at the opponent, but cards with it needed to be able to serve another function so that the game would progress as you were nibbling away. We did make one rare enchantment, Blind Obedience, which was designed to specifically slow down the opponent, to work with extort.
Next, we chose to put extort on mostly cheap creatures—only two multicolor creatures cost more than four mana. Beyond that, we mostly made the creatures vanilla or French vanilla (meaning they had no text or just a creature keyword other than the extort text). This was done because extort took three lines of rules text and we didn’t want the common and uncommon extort creatures being too wordy. A simple creature with extort did a lot of good work and proved to be plenty interesting in playtesting.
Development did make two important changes. First, in Shawn’s version, the extort cost was . The development team felt that it needed to have a color commitment. I think development toyed with white cards costing and black cards costing , but to make the reminder text consistent (and shorter) it decided to opt for the white-black hybrid symbol. This also indirectly helped with another problem. The ability of draining an opponent felt at home in black but was a little odd in mono-white. By using the hybrid mana, it got a skull—if even a tiny one—to help give the mono-white cards a hint of black for flavor.
The other change made by development was to tweak the mechanic for multiplayer play. The design version drained “an opponent.” The final version drained “each opponent,” giving the mechanic some chops in multiplayer play.
The other thing design had to do for the extort mechanic was design support for it. Here are a few of the ways we did that:
- Cheap spells: One of the things I learned quickly as I started drafting extort decks was how important it was to have some cheap spells in the deck. Once you have four or five extort creatures in play, you really wanted to play spells that you could pay all the extort costs for. To make sure this was possible, we slightly upped the number of cheap spells.
- Defensive cards: Bleeder decks need two things: One, a small incremental way to do damage over time. Extort filled that duty. Two, cards that slowed the game so part one could do its job. Luckily, Orzhov is all about gumming up the game and slowing down the opponent, so this wasn’t too tough to do, either.
- Other small means of damage: I keep bringing up bleeder decks, but that is only one way for Orzhov to play. Another is a more aggressive style, using the cheap and fast white creatures from Boros and the sneaky evasive black creatures from Dimir to get in as much damage as fast as possible, using the extort as the means to get in the last few licks of damage. This deck was looking for other ways to nip at the opponent while taking the initiative.
Put this all together and we ended up with a mechanic that I felt much better about than haunt. It was just as flavorful but much easier to understand.
Knight of Obligation | Art by Ryan Barger
It’s Black and White
And that wraps up my ten-column series about designing for the two-color pairs. I hope you enjoyed it and, as always, I would love to hear your feedback. You can write me through my email, in the thread of the column, or through any of my social media (Twitter, Tumblr, and Google+).
Join me next week when I explain how new gets old.
Until then, may your crime be organized.
Drive to Work #26 – White
Today I start a mega-series (they will be spread out over the next year) talking about the five colors and their philosophies. I start with white. What does white believe? How does that impact what mechanics it uses? Listen in.
So You Want To Work At Wizards?
One of the most frequent questions I get is “How can I work for Wizards?” To help answer this, from time to time, I post job openings here at Wizards of the Coast. Today’s opening is for a temporary job as a Magic Web Content Video Producer. If this sounds like it might be something for you, read on.
The requirements for this job are:
- Minimum of five years experience in production for scripted and unscripted projects
- Professional credited work experience that showcases strong production value
- Must have proficiency in all current industry standard video and audio editing software including: Final Cut Pro, Premier, After Effects, Garage Band
- Bachelor’s degree with a focus in Communications, Multimedia Production, Liberal Arts or equivalent combination work experience
And asks for the following knowledge, skills, and abilities:
- Visual storyteller with experienced, professional creative techniques and tactics
- Familiarity handling video cameras, lights and audio for professional production
- Able to take original footage from concept phase to final output, executing for all necessary applications and working within a spectrum of file size restrictions
- Strength in speedy, accurate execution of short form video content
- Able to take direction well in stressful environments
- Current knowledge of relevant regulations, specifications as they relate to video and motion graphics production and distribution
- Organizational skills and attention to detail
- Project management and multi-tasking skills
- Ability to work under pressure, adhere to tight deadlines, and produce within budget
- Excellent verbal and written communication skills— Ability to address various and diverse stakeholder interests and work towards mutually acceptable solution
- Excellent presentation skills
- Initiative and problem solving skills
- Knowledge and expertise in broadcast/narrowcast video techniques and platforms, including but not limited to YouTube and Twitch.tv
- Must be able to take constructive criticism and with a positive attitude incorporate input from others that result in modifications of original work
- Knowledge of marketing and visual branding is a plus
- Stays current on emerging technologies
- Knowledge of current game industry trends a plus
- Ongoing understanding of Wizards of the Coast products and programs is a plus
- Team player, willing to collaborate
If you think that sounds like you, see the full job listing here.
Working for Magic R&D since October, 1995, Mark Rosewater is currently the head designer. His hobbies include spending time with his family, talking about Magic on every known medium (including a daily blog and a weekly podcast), and writing about himself in the third person.