/ Design

Deadly Designs: Guessing at Ravnica Allegiance Mechanics

Right now, we're in the sweet spot where we can guess at an upcoming set's mechanics with as much information as possible. This is a good exercise for trying to learn as a designer, and what I'll be doing today. As a returning plane, the opportunity is ripe to try and guess returning mechanics, and to try and design our own to fit in the context of the unspoiled guild mechanics.

There’s a huge breadth of literature on Ravnica and Return to Ravnica mechanics, most notably the Storm scale article, so by this point everyone is extremely mechanically literate in both the color pairs and the Guilds themselves. Bear in mind that the odds of getting any new mechanic right are pretty low, and the odds of calling a returning mechanic aren’t much better, but if it can happen anywhere it can happen here.

So, with that in mind, let’s get guessing.

Azorius

First things first, let’s talk about the two mechanics Azorius has already had.

Forecast is very repetitive and extremely constrained in that any sort of evasion or card advantage functionally ends the game given enough time. It's interesting in that the regular card can be pretty different from the Forecast effect, and that WotC did have the Forecast and the actual spell play off of one another, but that cuteness isn't really enough to justify its return. Maro gave it an 8 on the Storm Scale, and I would give it a 0% chance of coming back.

In contrast Detain is versatile, promotes good gameplay, is decently well liked, and has a lot of space. A white removal spell that reads "Exile target detained permanent" is both pretty obvious as a concept and untouched. Clearly, there's some challenge to getting the asfan of Detain high enough to make tracking detained permanents matter, but you can fix that by having cards that track detained objects do it as an upside or an alternate mode instead of simply requiring something detained to function.

Recidivize

Considering Detain has a lower Storm scale than Convoke and the fact that there are these untouched nooks and crannies in its design space, I put it as a front runner for returning mechanics.

Weirdly enough, it's also possible that Azorius could see the comeback of a non-Guild mechanic. Investigate is low on the Storm scale, already exists in white and blue, and has similar opportunities for interesting designs. There are already cards that track when you investigate but more of those, as well as nontoken clues, are viable options for extending the mechanic.

So, with the possible returning mechanics out of the way, let's talk new mechanics.

It's important to note that for each of the guilds, that guild differs a little bit from just its two color pair. While blue white skies in some formulation or another tends to crop up in limited very frequently, Azorius as of RTR tends to be concepted as less aggressive and more controlling. In that context, I chose tracking opposing tapped creatures as a mechanic. It's possible I should extend that to "tapped nonland permanents", or perhaps even just to "tapped permanents", but both of those are quite a bit more fiddly when it comes to costing, and "tapped permanents" in particular is a great way to accidentally make cards that have to be 14 drops.

Retaliatory-Lawmage

Rakdos

Rakdos's mechanics are interesting in that they're both fairly low on the storm scale, but also both pretty unpopular.

Hellbent is strange in that it got a 5 on the storm scale, signaling a plausible return, but it's also been somewhat scooped by 'Heckbent' in Amonkhet. Hellbent sucks in that you can't really have any surprises if you have it online, but Heckbent allows you to have exactly one. That can be frustrating if your opponent has a trick to answer your trick, and you'd like to have a trick to answer the trick to answer their trick, but weird mind games like that are a much rarer corner case.

Pitchfork-Ogre

I think Hellbent is unlikely, but only by merit of the fact that designers will be angling for some sort of revised Hellbent if they feel like revisiting that design.

Personally I'd like to see a mechanic that cares about having fewer cards in hand than an opponent, but I worry that would devolve into a Saviors of Kamigawa ordeal of repeated hand counting. Also, in aggro vs. aggro matches any variant that cares about your opponent's hand can become a bit of a fall behind mechanic. Whichever player gets a faster start has their mechanic online, which makes their creatures better, which compounds the advantage from their faster start. There might be some ways to develop around that, but I'm not sure.

Unleash is somewhat awkward in that it was an unpopular mechanic that doesn't have clear fixes the way Hellbent does. It reads as a downside even though it isn't one, and has a weird risk of interacting with Simic in this set. In Return to Ravnica you could scavenge onto opposing creatures to Falter them, and Jund was somewhat asynergistic in that if you ever had to play a creature without Unleash it would usually be bad to scavenge onto it. If Simic has a +1/+1 counter theme, which is about as likely as LSV making a bad pun, it could either be a limited trap with Rakdos or lead to Simic having a bizzarely good matchup by merit of being able to force Rakdos creatuers out of blocking.

Raid and Dash are both on the short list of mechanics that would fit into Rakdos, but I'm skeptical of both. Raid just came back in Ixalan and while it's a very good mechanic they don't even bring back Kicker that quickly. Dash, meanwhile, is popular but somewhat flavorless for Rakdos. It makes sense in the context of the more military Mardu and Kolaghan color groups, but Rakdos's kinky carnival murder grifters want something a little less vanilla.

I worry that it's possible that Rakdos's propensity for self-harm just lends itself to mechanics that people dislike, or that are only liked by a relatively slim slice of the players they interview. It makes sense for the colors and can lead to some sweet cards, but for every Eidolon of the Great Revel there seem to be a lot of Rakdos Augurmages.

Jeremy Geist designed an interesting mechanic that I think would fit into Rakdos very cleanly. Bloodied is an ability word that gives you a bonus if you've lost life this turn.

Personally, I would change that from "if you've lost life this turn" to "if any player has lost life this turn", because this decreases the amount of support cards you need to make the mechanic function, encourages more aggression, and because Rakdos as a guild doesn't particularly care who's getting hurt.

Carnival-Mutilator

While there's precisely zero chance that any mechanic from GDS3 was made early enough to make it into Ravnica Allegiance, this mechanic is simple and intuitive enough for some convergent design to happen.

Gruul

Unlike the other guilds we're talking about today Gruul's original mechanic was considered a pretty huge success.

If Convoke is any hint the mechanics that already returned in a core set immediately make the short list for returning mechanics. Bloodthirst has a bit of a weird connotation on that front because on its return it was a Rakdos mechanic. While green likes punching people in the face, the mechanical implementation of getting bigger from an opponent being hurt really is much more black red, with green mostly going along for the ride in original Ravnica because red is so eager about violence and green is such a kind and accomodating friend (who also likes face punching).

Also, a lot of the low hanging fruit for Bloodthirst has already been gobbled up. All sorts of effects tied to bloodthirsty creatures' power or toughness have been done, as well as some bloodthirst granting. Of the interesting options remaining, the most obvious are creatures with some sort of drawback related to being bloodthirsted, +1/+1 counter lords or other counter tracking like Tuskguard Captain, and tags that explicitly refer to a creature being bloodthirsty. Additionally there are still some effects like Flametongue Kavu or Gyre Sage that have yet to be adapted to a bloodthirst creature.

Zhur-Taa-Revitalist

Bloodrush has quite a few problems. Players disliked discarding creatures for combat tricks, as an ability word it can't be explicitly tracked the way a keyword can, and a lot of the space consumed up in Gatecrash. Notably it's also constrained by wanting the buff to have the same stats as the creature you're discarding, because otherwise a Bloodrush card just becomes a very hard to read sort of implicit split card. I'm not willing to outright say it's impossible that Bloodrush comes back but I would be quite surprised.

Landfall seems like the most likely non-Ravnica returning mechanic, but that mechanic is pretty tied to Zendikar.

As far as new mechanics go, Gruul is constrained by the fact that it cares mostly about creatures, creature combat, and power. It's hard to make a Gruul mechanic that doesn't just feel like a Ferocious knockoff, and it's also difficult because most of the wordings for things that care about having the greatest power are a bit of a nightmare. This was my best attempt at an ability word, but it's my least favorite card design of the whole bunch:

Bloodmark-Painter

Orzhov

As far as returning mechanics go, Orzhov has some pretty slim pickings.

Haunt is weird. It works differently on permanents than it does on spells and it was unintuitive because creatures had a triggered ability that happend when either the creature ETBed or the haunted creature died. That said, there's a lot more space in Haunt than peoplethink. Chris Mooney's submission to GDS3 Challenge #5 helps demonstrate that Haunt can do a lot of other cool stuff. You can have creatures that care about getting haunted, creatures that grant abilities while haunting in a Bestow-esque fashion, and there's even more strange design space like haunting noncreature permanents or weird lines of text like "Activated abilities of creatures haunted by CARDNAME cost 2 less to activate."

That said, unless someone on the Guilds design team is as weird as Mooney, there's exactly zero chance it's coming back.

Extort, meanwhile, is in an odd place in big part because of its multiplayer play. Extort has a way of screwing up two headed giant prereleases by being much too strong, especially when a team can go in for seeded guild packs and construct one monster of an Orzhov deck and let the other player gobble up the scraps.

This alone wouldn't be enough for me to say Extort was dead in the water, but it also has an issue where one of the best multiplayer locations to play Extort cards also has them be deeply unintuitive. The reminder text on extort has a white black hybrid symbol, but symbols in reminder text don't affect color identity for EDH. More extort means more likely EDH staples, and a full 2/4 of all Extort rares are staples according to EDHrec, which means more exposure for new players to unintuitive cards that make it seem like their opponents are cheating.

Moreover, Extort tends to have somewhat repetitive gameplay as well. The strategy is essentially to play Extort creatures, get some early damage in, and then play spells and kick them as much as possible with your extort cards until your opponent is dead. There's sometimes tension between playing an on-curve card and playing it later to Extort but for the most part past a certain point in the game your goal should be to cast everything other than absolute bombs with the maximum amount of extort.

Strangely enough, my personal pick for the most likely returning mechanic for Orzhov is Morbid. While the mechanic has been green black prior to this, we again circle back to the differences between Orzhov and black white more generally. Orzhov is just about the most black interpretation of a black white color pair possible. It only cares about black's goals, and it has white in it only as a way to more expediently achieve those goals. Where Golgari is about the cycle of life and death, Orzhov is willing to use the death of its own people as a tool. It benefits extra from that because the white half of Orzhov specifically lends the guild the sort of vulnerable people that are especially easy to treat as disposable.

While Morbid can fit in green black, the way it encourages you to treat your creatures as disposable is in a lot of ways extremely Orzhov. The play pattern of swinging suicidally with small white creatures that replace themselves if they die while threatening Morbid value if your opponent blocks is a powerful, scary, and intuitively Orzhov feeling. It's a bit of an unlikely mechanic still but if I had to bet on a returning Orzhov mechanic this would be it.

Debtors-Shell

As far as new mechanics go, there's some flavor and mechanical history to Orzhov that somewhat suggests what they should look like. Orzhov likes 'bleeder' style decks, with incremental advantage from a lot of small effects. In general that means mechanics that do something small frequently, but there's a tension there between triggering frequently enough that the small advantage is meaningful and doing it so much that your play is dominated by only doing that thing.

One thing that Orzhov can care about and track that hasn't been very heavily touched on is life total differences. In that vein, here's a mechanic that aspires to do something that feels like Orzhov without reaching repetitive game states.

Priest-of-Painless-Ends

Simic

More than any other color pair, Simic has a specific definition that is narrower than what the color pair can do. As their previous mechanics show us, Simic focuses very strongly on +1/+1 counters, which give them a very clean mechanical identity where ordinarily blue green can feel a little bit lost.

As far as those mechanics go, Graft is a mess. It's a mess of replacement effects, triggered abilities, adjusting dice and doing math, all for a very confusing payoff. Without all the New World Order breaking activated abilities of previous graft cards, you're mostly just doing a mathy calculation of how big your new creature should be relative to your opponents creatures and those you expect them to make later. With multiple grafters, this becomes even worse because you have greatly increasing decision complexity over how much to graft and which grafters to feed to the new creature. All of this is fun if you like trying to gain incremental advantage through fiddly counter manipulation. Otherwise, it's about as fun as manually editing excel spreadsheets.

Worse still, trigger stacking and the fact that it triggers for all creatures means digital implementation is much worse, and essentially guarantees there'd be a person on the Arena team who spends a multi-month period only working on making graft tolerable. On that alone, I'd say Graft isn't coming back.

Evolve is both simpler and much more likely to return. It can feed that creature combo oriented "fiddle with my dudes until my value ends the game" desire through activated abilities tied to removing +1/+1 counters, and the decision space is mostly tied to sequencing your creatures in the right order to maximize your evolving. This can still be somewhat complex, but it offloads a fair bit of the complexity into spaces where a Spikey player has to go looking for it. Like checking the stats of your creature curve to make sure your N drops will have either lower power or toughness than your N-1 drops, or playing the right 3 drop Evolve creature from hand, in case you draw a 4 drop creature that would evolve one but not the other.

Similar to Bloodthirst, there's a lot of space that has been tried already but I feel that there aren't as many openings left in Evolve. Partially because more things were tried, but also because evolve just seems to have smaller space. Evolve can happen any time a creature comes in so the effects that can come from evolve are necessarily repeatable. That limits the allowable effects because repeated card advantage is a no-no at common, and there are no real ways to make a creature stop evolving to get the spell-like effect without creating memory issues. Frustratingly, this makes for a mechanic that can do a bunch of cool things at rare, but is quite limited at lower rarities.

As far as non-Ravnica returning mechanics, I think the obvious choice would be Proliferate. The one thing holding me back from any level of confidence in it specifically being in the set is how much it affects other +1/+1 counters in the set. It's an A+B mechanic in that you need things that make counters to make proliferate matter, but those are extremely common and it's also simple enough to juice up the asfan of them. The problem is that you're somewhat locked in on where you use counters in order to not make traps in the limited environment.

Channeling-Familiar

For example, if Rakdos wanted a Carrion Feeder variant in the set the fact that there are no shared colors between Simic and Rakdos would likely bar that from happening. On the other hand, you might as a designer be priced into making some Azorius, Gruul, mono red, and/or mono white +1/+1 counter cards to make sure that there were viable 3 color synergies for Simic to work with. Unlike some A+B mechanics where part B goes from stone bad to strong depending on assembling part A, Proliferate gradually ramps up from complete uselessness to extreme power depending on your density of part A. This gives you much finer control, but because that control is moderated mostly by a game element so common they're almost fundamental, it can do some weird things.

I went with something slightly strange for my attempt at a new Simic mechanic, but I'm hoping that this shows where I'm going with it:

Simic-Snaremage

Wrapping Up

So yeah, these are my guesses, and some designs I think would be interesting for the guilds. What mechanics do you think will return? What would you design as a mechanic for a Ravnica Allegiance guild if you were making the set?

Markus Leben

Markus Leben

Markus is an L1 Judge, a programmer, a game modder, and a Spike. He lives in Boulder, Colorado, and plays primarily Modern and Pauper. If you want to tilt him, ask about the mechanic Cipher.

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