I haven’t written anything for a while. It’s all Diablo’s fault. Blame him. I’ve been cheating on Magic: the Gathering with yet another Blizzard game. But now he’s dead (some 500 times over), and just in time for Return to Ravnica.
Fact is there’s a real soft spot in my heart for Ravnica. I quit Magic in my mid-teens, deciding alcohol and girls were far more interesting. Ravnica was the set that pulled me back, leaving many heartbroken women and a thankful liver in its wake. It made me realize just how much I loved the game and what I’d been missing out on. It firmly established me as a die-hard Magic fan, never to leave the game again.
And now it’s back. It’s like seeing an old lover all over again.
But old lovers change. For starters, they’re older. They value new and different things. Their energetic youth is replaced by hardened maturity. They don’t so wear short skirts so often. Their hair may even be falling out. They’re the same, but different.
So now that my old love is back- will the furious romance of our youth be rekindled?
Or will it be one of those awkward moments where we stand there looking at each other with nothing better to say than ‘My, you’ve…changed’?
The most fundamental parts of my old love are the Guilds. They were held together by an ancient enchantment, the Guildpact, which was dissolved after the events of Dissension. However, given ‘Ravnica: City of Non-Affiliated Multicoloured Guys’ wasn’t going to hold up with the marketing department, all ten guilds are back. Let’s see how their new incarnations hold up.
The Izzet are still bugfuck crazy and obsessed with throwing out whacky magic (and no longer is every member a white-haired male sporting a hipster goatee). The new mechanic Overload fits their flavour perfectly, as plugging into the entire city’s power grid is totally something the Izzet would do. They are still led by the dragon wizard Niv-Mizzet, as not including one of the best-loved characters of all time would clearly be a PR disaster for Wizards. But as a guild, they seem to be a little more… methodical this time around. Gone are the crazy nutjob effects like Stitch in Time and Cerebral Vortex, replaced by more ‘traditional’ things like Cyclonic Rift and Electrickery. It’s like they’ve toned down the haywire aspect of the guild. Even Mark Rosewater commented on this, lamenting it as possibly his biggest woe in Return to Ravnica. But at least there’s still Epic Experiment. Quyzl will be making more than enough time for that one.
The Golgari are still crawling around in the dark eating each other, but at least this time the guild’s mechanic isn’t horribly broken. Sure, Dredge personified the ‘never-ending circle of life and death’ aspect extremely well, but also gave the guild a ‘fungus-encrusted necromancers piss-farting around’ vibe. But with Scavenge, I’d go so far as to say the guild is far more predatory now. The new Golgari feature some horribly aggressive creatures they never really had access to before (on Ravnica at least), giving them the feel of an all-consuming swarm. And Scavenge fits this vibe perfectly. So I’m happy to note that one of my favourite guilds has finally decided to play fair, as well as develop a far more menacing presence.
The Rakdos, everybody’s favourite group of clowns with buzz-saws, seem to have undergone the most thematic changes since our last visit to Ravnica. For a start, they’re much more organized. Since when did Rakdos become organized? The cult is now divided up into ‘rings’, each one a self contained nightclub/circus/orgy/massacre/arson attempt. In truth, this is exactly what the cult needed to fit in to the cohesive world-view of Ravnica. But I can’t help feeling it detracts from the random chaos and mayhem that Rakdos was always about. On the flipside though, the Rakdos now have a circus theme going, and our happy cultists actually look like they’re having a lot more fun than they did previously. And that’s what being Rakdos is all about.
It may be possible the Azorius have become even more annoying. Detain is a pain… but let’s get real: it fits the guild beautifully (unlike Forecast which never really seemed to have anything to do with the Azorius at all; they’re bureaucrats, not meteorologists). And although the Azorius have always had hussars and griffins, it now seems like they have a lot more of them. Like the guild is actually capable of enforcing the laws it creates. This is good, as in the original Ravnica law enforcement was an exclusively Boros thing and left me wondering what on earth would happen should the two guilds go to war. This set ups a potential Azorius/Boros conflict, which would be pretty interesting if it ever happened. But it still doesn’t redeem Azorius. They will forever suck.
The Selesnyans are curiously saproling-lite this time around, making up for it by packing centaurs and larger creatures. As a matter of fact, they seem to have become much more militant. They don’t really feel like a peace loving hippy commune anymore, but more like an organized force. It’s like they suddenly decided there was something more to life than free love and making more Selesnyans. And that ’Something More’ was thunking those who didn’t believe in free love square upside the head. For example, in Ravnica, the guild’s token Loxodon held a staff and was happy to give his life to regenerate his fellow Selesnyans. This time around he’s got a great big stinking mallet and his only special abilities are making sure nothing stops him from getting round to using it. But contrary to the stifled Izzet, I really don’t mind these militarized Selesnyans, as this time their army actually feels like an army and less like The Men Who Stare At Goats.
And finally there’s the guildless. You know, those basic unaffiliated folk whose antics could put an insomniac to sleep. No one cares about them. If you’re a brainless teenage girl and these five studs named Izzet, Rakdos, Golgari, Selesnya and Azorius are on stage, you’re not going to care about the backup dancers.
(Actually Azorius is kinda ugly. Forget him. Throw your panties at the other four.)
Flavourwise, I feel that giving each and every two colour-combination a strong identity was the best thing Wizards ever did for the game. And they did a very good job of it first time round.
But somehow they managed to do an even better job the second time round. Every guild has a solid identity sculpted from the first Ravnica, and each guild’s mechanic is like that big fat dollop of sour cream that adds all the flavour to a plate of nachos. It all fits together perfectly.
But these guilds have to live somewhere.
Wizards made a point to make our return to Ravnica as similar as our last visit. Really not much has changed, and some things that did change during the events of Dissension have actually been changed back, as they’d likely be unpopular with the players. I am of course talking about the dissolution of that mighty Ravnican enchantment, the Guildpact (which ensures the guilds exist!), and to a lesser extent, the absence of Niv-Mizzet.
In contrast some parts that didn’t rate as much interest just aren’t being mentioned (the Nephilim for instance, and any reference to Agyrem).
Building on the back of an existing world has allowed Wizards to develop it further. We see new areas introduced, and an enrichment of existing ones. All of these are great additions to Ravnica. With one slight exception: the forest of Axebane.
Yes, this time around Ravnica includes a magical forest named Axebane. What the devil is a magical forest doing in the middle of a metropolis? Yeah I get it might be Ravnica’s version of Central Park, but then why do we have magical foresty stuff like Axebane Stag and Axebane Guardian? Axebane Hobo would make far more sense.
Given the world of Ravnica was already quite well developed, I’d vouch that Return To Ravnica’s world development was driven by nothing more complex than giving it a bit of spit and polish. And that seems like exactly what Wizards have done.
Great call Wizards.
But you can’t really talk about a Magic expansion without actually mentioning the cards themselves. That’s like going to the zoo and only looking at the gift shop. So how do they rack up against the original Ravnica’s?
As far as commons and uncommon go, I’d say Ravnica featured more doozies than Return. Ravnica gave us the awesome Lightning Helix and Putrefy, and what does Return get? Rakdos Cackler and a couple of charms? Pffft! There goes the case for power creep!
No, the real difference I see is in the rares.
The most glaringly obvious strike against the set is that all the best cards are rare or mythic. This is an insidious problem that spoils limited.
I enjoy Return to Ravnica limited far less than I feel I should. It’s too bomby. Everything is about bombs. RTR draft tables have seen more bombs than Pearl Harbour. And the thing with these bombs is almost all of them are stupid rares or mythics.
The problem is compounded by the available removal (as in the stuff you get at common and uncommon). It all seems a little half-baked. It’s like there’s always some string attached to ensure it can only deal with half the creatures in the environment. It either doesn’t hurt enough, has targeting restrictions, or just fails to deal with things permanently. And the only exception to this rule costs a dirty six mana. This means dorky cards like Carnival Hellsteed can cause serious problems. And god forbid facing off against a Dracogenius or an Angel of Bend-Over-And-Let-Me-Fuck-You-With-A-Cactus. I would even go so far as to cry ‘conspiracy’ and suspect well-known fatty lover and RTR lead designer Ken Nagle of doctoring the design file to make sure none of his pets ever die.
Though that’s not to say there aren’t good removal spells. Of course there are. But they’re all stupid dumb rares too.
It’s like gameplay just revolves around who gets the best rare, with the only viable alternative being to try and aggro them out before they get there. And well, that’s no fun (remember Zendikar?).
Having good rares and mythics is great for constructed though, and like a sumo wrestler, the influx of powerful cards has made a huge splash.
Standard is naturally bearing the brunt of this, but I’d say the format benefitting most from Return to Ravnica is Modern. The single greatest reason for this comes from the reprinting of shocklands (which are also the single greatest reason to dance with glee about the set). They’ve opened up Modern to a whole host of new players. There are also quite a few other cards that really work well in older formats, such as Abrupt Decay and Deathrite Shaman.
EDH/Commander gets a great boost with the new guild leaders. All five make for very playable commanders, and those guilds that once came with boring or tricky guildmasters now have some very playable options. Not to mention a collection of giant fun monsters built to troll the format.
Even the realm of casual multiplayer is catered for.
The only thing I can pull a sad face about is the lack of whacky game-changers. Ravnica brought us the best of the best, cards so popular they even spawned their own archetypes (Doubling Season, Warp World, Eye of the Storm). But there isn’t really anything of that calibre this time around. Nothing against Death’s Presence, Guild Feud and Search the City, but their Wow/Fun factors just don’t measure up.
So that’s Return to Ravnica in a nutshell.
Much of the set appears to have been designed around what’s tried-and-tested, driven by nothing greater than a ‘Give The People What They Liked Last Time’ methodology. From a holistic perspective it’s awesome, but in a few places it’s a lot like that girl on the other side of the dance floor: not that interesting when you get close up.
So around about now you could ask how I feel about my old love. Am I just standing there awkwardly with nothing more to say than ‘My you’ve… changed’?
Unable to contain myself, I throw her to the ground, rip off the booster packaging and make out with her passionately.
Sure she’s a little different than last time we met, and she’s certainly not perfect, but everything I really loved about her is back and better than ever.
Petr Joura 2012