efore the Izzet copied their first spell, before the Golgari dredged their first corpse or the Selesnya grew their first Saproling, R&D had to figure out just what the Ravnica
block should bring to the table in Constructed play.
The time: September 2004. The Champions of Kamigawa Prerelease events had not yet happened (they were mere days away), but here in R&D, the whole block was finished. Ninth Edition was in its final stages of development, and Ravnica: City of Guilds had been handed off by the design team. The core Magic playtesters were running regular internal Constructed tournaments using the Kamigawa block and Ninth just to figure out what Standard had to work with once the dominating Mirrodin block was gone. From this bit of data, we hoped to learn which guilds to reinforce in the Ravnica block… and which two-color strategies already had a lot going on and wouldn't need much help.
With only a roomful of playtesters and a few weeks to work with, it was quite an undertaking to understand this format-that-was-never-a-format. I know we didn't find the most powerful deck by any means, but we gave ourselves a solid idea of what was going on and a great foundation for making sure Ravnica could add to the existing metagame in a positive sense.
Here are some of our key decks from that period:
White Weenie was a monster in this environment. We had finally come to grips with the monster we had created with Umezawa's Jitte, and its effects were huge. In fact, our desire to make the Jitte “beatable” saw us make sure Ravnica block contributed lots of creatures to Constructed that could sacrifice themselves in order to keep counters off the Jitte—creatures like Loxodon Hierarch, Ghost Council of Orzhova, and Grave-Shell Scarab.
Turian's list features two cards that we valued higher than the public has—Shining Shoal and Promise of Bunrei. We honestly thought the Shoal was the best White card we'd made in a while, yet it never really caught in the real world. Perhaps the fact that Jitte has been keeping burn-filled Red decks to a minimum in the current Standard has made the Shoal less important. Promise, though, seems to me like the kind of card people should be playing more of. Alongside Glorious Anthem, it creates a huge problem for decks packing Wrath of God or Wildfire. Maybe it will catch on yet.
What we learned from this deck was that we wanted Boros and Selesnya aggro decks to get the majority of their power cards from Gold or Red or Green. Mono-White was already a “whole deck” without the inclusion of Ravnica, so if we wanted Green/White or Red/White to show up, we'd really have to play up cards other than two-drop creatures, since those were available in spades. I'd say we succeeded in that goal.
Here's the deck that eventually dethroned White Weenie. While nowhere near the sleek, tuned machine that Frank Karsten took the finals of Worlds last year, this deck did a good job on capitalizing on the Greater Good
/Dragon interaction and staying alive until it could get there.
In making this list, I tried and then ditched Goryo's Vengeance, as too often I'd want/need to bring back a Sakura-Tribe Elder or Nekrataal. Plus, there wasn't all that much to splice it on to. From this deck, we learned that it would be impossible to top the Kamigawa Dragons in terms of making cards that would work well with Greater Good, so we didn't even bother trying in Ravnica—it was good enough without the help.
You may notice that none of our lists contain Gifts Ungiven. We tried the card in several decks, both before Ravnica (in Soulless Revival splice decks and more traditional reanimator builds), and after (with lots of dredge cards), but we never found the perfect mix of cards that made the engine hum the way the successful Kamigawa block decks did in the real world (for instance, we often played four Hana Kami when one was the correct answer). So even though we didn't have the card pegged as the environment definer that it turned out to be, we did test it extensively and figure out most of what it was capable of.
We knew Enduring Ideal had the potential to be an awesome tournament deck (which is why we chose to lead off the Saviors preview articles with it). This version is one of Devin's earliest attempts; he later updated it to include the hard-lock combo of Form of the Dragon and Zur's Weirding.
This decklist highlights several Kamigawa block cards that we anticipated seeing more high-level play than they actually did—Hondens, Genju of the Cedars, and Ghost-Lit Raider. Obviously development isn't a perfect science—perhaps if the metagame were one deck different, these cards would shine.
The prospect of Shard Phoenix coming back was enticing enough to Randy Buehler (who has little time for playtesting in his directorial role) to bust out the Islands and Mountains and try to make a deck that worked similarly to the successful ones from the Tempest era. Cranial Extraction was a pain for this deck, although it could win with repeated splicing of Glacial Ray. Later iterations included one of more copies of Meloku as another way to win.
One of the deck's biggest downfalls was its inability to deal with an early Kird Ape. In the real world, Shard Phoenix hasn't shown up much because many of the good creatures are either too big for it to handle, too fast, or fly.
Other decks that we played in this time period included Snakes, Battle of Wits, and Splice with Ire of Kaminari. So that's what we were doing with Kamigawa and Ninth cards before any of you had seen them. Not a bad guess at how things would play out, and the information we gleaned from this experiment gave us the perfect groundwork for Ravnica's introduction to Standard.
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