Welcome to Guildpact Preview Week (followed next week by Another Guildpact Preview Week followed, of course, by Guildpact Previews Are Over But We Just Can't Stop Talking About Guildpact Week). But before I begin the column, complete with a shiny new preview card, I wanted to make a few comments about my last article. That is, my last original article, not counting the last three weeks of "The Best of Making Magic 2005." I'm talking about "Topical Blend #2: Mark Admits He's %#@$ Insane."
I was combining the "Pros & Cons of Adding a Sixth Color to Magic" and "Mark Rosewater Is %#@$ Insane." The second topic was referring to a popular recurring thread on a humor web site (and yes, I realized that not everyone who voted for the topic understood that is what it meant so I also took steps to make the article a little extra insane – as you will soon see, it succeeded in that task). As such, the article was written as a thread on said web site talking about, and occasionally quoting, the supposed article I wrote. Here's where I lost a bunch of readers. The thread was the "article." I wrote everything in it. The only glimpse at the "real" article was in the posts where readers pasted in sections from it.
There was no "real" article. The thread responding to the article (and I'm not talking about the actual thread on our own site but the thread that looked like another website's threads) is my handiwork. If you didn't bother to read all the nooks and crannies, I suggest you take another peek. There are a lot of jokes crammed into the column. And for those Topical Blend fans out there, I think the next installment will be late spring or early summer. But enough with my crazy antics, let's get onto the crazy antics of the entire R&D department. (Well, the ones who work on Magic, anyway.)
Guilding a Better Mousetrap
During Ravnica previews, I explained how the idea came about to do a guild model for the entire block. (See "City Planning", "City Planning 2: Electric Boogaloo" and "City Planning 3-D: This Time It's Personal" if you have no idea what I'm talking about.) And during my "State of Magic 2005" Address, I mean column, I talked about how Ravnica was going to be the start of full block design. What did this mean for Guildpact? It means the designers of the set had a lot more on their plate when they started than the average set of the past.
More on this in a moment, but first I am obliged to introduce these "designers of the set." You see, as the design columnist I have made it my duty to introduce every Magic design team. No stopping now:
Mike Elliott (lead): The problem with writing bios for prolific designers is that I keep feeling like I'm repeating myself. Sure, sure I can say Mike is one of the most influential designers in Magic's history or I could say he's designed more Magic cards than any other person that doesn't have a column called "Making Magic." Or he's been on more design teams than anyone who hasn't run a prerelease dressed as both a chicken and a donkey. Yes, yes, Emmessi Tome (Michael Scott Elliott, if you're curious) is named after him. Yes, he designed more mechanics than I can name (including some favorites such as slivers, echo, and shadow). But you all know that. I say it every time I introduce him. What don't you know about Mike? Um, he's a pretty good volleyball player. And he owns more copies of the power nine than anyone I know. He's quite tall. And, well, has a cute son a few month older than my twins. Let's just leave it at "He's one of the pioneers of Magic design and the game wouldn't be what it is today without him" and leave it at that.
Aaron Forsythe: Every block, I like to have one designer be on each design team in the block to add continuity. For Ravnica block, that designer was Aaron. But Aaron had a secondary motive. Dissension was going to be his first time leading a design team and he was interested on being on as many teams as possible to see how different design leads worked. Aaron had worked under me on Fifth Dawn and Ravnica and was scheduled to work under Brian Tinsman on Snap (the large set for the following year starts design starts shortly after the second small set of the previous block). This was a chance for him to see a third lead designer, Mike Elliott, in action. This was Aaron's third design team and he had clearly shifted from the apprentice role to a full-fledged "heavy hitter."
Devin Low: This was Devin's second design (he worked on Saviors of Kamigawa). Devin is another up-and-coming designer. My favorite part about working with Devin on design is the enthusiasm he brings to the process. You give Devin a design assignment and he'll explore every inch of design space. There's always a surprise reviewing Devin's work as you can honestly never know where he might explore on any one day. In a suit-and-tie world, this might not be an admirable attribute but in a creative endeavor like card design, it is both welcome and appreciated.
Brian Schneider: Brian is my equivalent on the development side of Magic. Brian and I feel it's good for the two of us to occasionally stick our toe in the "other side." (I was on the development team for Dissension.) The reason I'm always happy to have Brian on a design team is that he brings an interesting insight into the process and, believe it or not, our head developer is not too shabby a designer. (And note that he'd worked on the design teams for Darksteel and Saviors of Kamigawa, as well as the design/development hybrid Ninth Edition team.)
And those are the four men responsible for the Ravnica, Part Deux, a.k.a. Guildpact.
Don't Guild the Lily
Back to the topic at hand: How do you design a set that's part of a block design? The answer is … very carefully. You see, being part of a block design does some things to make your job much easier and others that make it a bit harder. Let me explain. The good part of being part of a block design is that you come to the design with a much better idea of what your set is going to be about. But there are restrictions too.
There's this fallacy around that says the best thing you can do for a creative endeavor is give the artist or artists as much freedom as possible. As faithful readers of "Making Magic" should know, I believe that to be the opposite from the truth. I think the lack of definition makes creative challenges multiply in difficulty. Restrictions give the artist something to grab on to as they begin to craft around them. As an example, my wife and I love throwing parties…so much so that we started throwing baby showers for all our friends as they started having kids. The only thing we asked from them was a theme, because when building around a theme, you can do wondrous things. Without one, you create an undefined party that either never quite knows what it is or turns out very clichéd as you do the things "one does at such a party."
I felt this definition was a big plus for the Guildpact design team because they had a vision from day one of the design. The downside was the guild structure forced the Ravnica design and development teams to make choices the design and development teams later in the block just had to live with. Where this proves most problematic is how the Ravnica teams didn't properly anticipate the problems the two small sets would face.
The biggest one is what I'll call the "double time" problem. You see, in Ravnica three different colors each showed up in two guilds. If you do the math, this means that one of the colors that didn't double up in Ravnica has to show up in two guilds in each of the small sets. So what's the problem? It's what we in R&D call a "number problem." Ravnica was a large set. Guildpact and Dissension are small sets. But Guildpact and Dissension have 75 percent of the guild weight (three guilds as opposed to four). But they don't have 75 percent of the cards.
The end result is that the double-up color eats up all its allocated space trying to satisfy the needs of two guilds. As such, it has zero space to do any non-guild stuff. (It actually does have a little breathing room at the rare slots, but common and uncommon are stuffed.) This is slightly balanced by the fact that blue and red (the odd men out in the big set) had more monocolored cards in Ravnica. When Guildpact comes out, check out red to see what I'm talking about.
The Guild Up
The next big challenge for the Guildpact designers is defining the three guilds in their set: Orzhov (white/black), Izzet (red/blue) and Gruul (red/green). Each guild had to have a feel that represented the overlap of its two colors while not stepping on the toes of anything done in Ravnica (Dissension will have to do this but with two sets rather than just one to follow – don't worry, Aaron was up to the challenge, but that's a whole different preview week).
Luckily, this is not as tough as it sounds as the color wheel does a lot of the work for you. Each guild has a distinct feel because each interconnection of two colors is unique (one of the things that drew us to the guild model in the first place). But make no mistake, "not as tough as it sounds" isn't easy. Note that I'm going to be talking more about how to build deck archetypes than the guild philosophies. We'll be doing a whole other set of theme weeks where you'll get to hear me sound off on all the Guildpact guild philosophies.
So what kind of deck does one expect when white and black (two pretty bitter enemies) team up? Not anything fast. The overlap of white and black seems to lie in their controlling nature. Both mono-white and mono-black have control decks that grind everything to a halt. The first is more reactive and the second more proactive. Is there a way to combine those two strategies? Can a control deck be both reactive and proactive? Why yes, it can. It's known as a bleeder deck.
The idea behind a bleeder deck is the deck brings the game to a halt and then slowly picks away at the opponent. The name comes from the fact that the deck doesn't win quickly but does so by slowly bleeding the opponent to death. The archetype works well on both a flavor and a mechanical level.
The key to making it work was to play up the individual aspects of white and black that help make a bleeder deck work. As such, you will see that white has a larger dose than normal of spells that slow down the opponent while black has more cards that nibble away at them.
The Izzet League
The interesting mechanical overlap is how red and blue are the two most predominant colors at non-permanent spells – that is, instants and sorceries. Add into this the Izzet penchant for spell experimentation and you get a guild focusing on its spells. Unlike the bleeder deck, this deck doesn't have as much precedence. Sure, there have been decks (such as the splice decks from Kamigawa block) focused on spells, but nothing that thrived off of playing just instants and sorceries per se.
As you will see during Izzet Week, red/blue is by far the craziest of the guilds. When intellect and passion collide, all sorts of nutty things happen. The Guildpact design team wanted to reflect this so they made sure the red/blue archetype had a lot of wackiness. Unlike the Orzhov and the Gruul decks, the Izzet decks don't dependably do their thing each game. The Izzet deck has a touch of chaos to it. How a deck plays one game might not be a good indicator of what it does next game. But then again, it might. One thing's for sure – if you like the Izzet, be sure to hold on tight, because you can be in for a very wild ride.
While the other guilds might not have been all that obvious at first glance, red/green knew its destiny day one. It wants to put out larger and larger creatures each turn and attack. Not a thinking archetype, more of an attacking one. Some of you might worry that this is stepping on Boros's toes. You need not worry. Boros is all about the weenie rush. Gruul wants to get the biggest thing out it can. Gruul doesn't so much win with its army of little guys as with the one big guy your opponent couldn't deal with.
This makes Gruul the speediest of the Guildpact guilds. Now some of you might be worried that with so much attacking and so little thinking, the Gruul might not get any cards with a little subtlety. As I'm a caring columnist, I chose my preview card to make sure the Gruul lovers out there get a chance to see one of the goodies coming their way. (Izzet lovers, I have something quite fun for you next week.) As you will see, there's always room for a little subtlety of gameplay even when you're bashing your opponent's head in. Take a look. Click here.
Pretty cool huh? And all for four little mana.
But what about the keywords for each guild? What do their guildmages do? Do they have guildmages? Or guild lands? Or signets? Or enhanced spells? Or dual lands? (Okay, that one's for sure.) There are so many more questions. And that is why we have two whole weeks of previews. I can't spill all the beans in one day. I have to give my fellow columnists something to say.
Join me next week when I'll delve into some other aspects of Guildpact design.
Until then, may you dream of owning you own little hate seed.