A Tale of Two Cities: Guildpact Design
The time has come -- last weekend was the official release of Guildpact, and the set is now street legal. Usually, everything goes back to normal by now and most people start focusing on Limited, with a little bit of Standard Constructed in the backs of their minds. Well, normally. . . .
Even without all the lawsuit talk going on now, there are a lot of voices in the forums and on some other sites that seem to be very upset with the set. Sentences like, "Worst set since Legions," and, "Not enough playables," or even, "Crappy design" can be found -- too often in my humble opinion, but let's take an in-depth look at the set.
One of the major problems Guildpact has to face is that it has to be directly compared to Ravnica: City of Guilds. As the first small expansion, it has to carry on themes like normal block design, but also inherits a lot of cycles following from Ravnica. The Guild cycles that include Karoos, Dual Lands, Guildhalls, Guild leaders, Guild champions, Signets, Guild artifacts, as well as three sets of Guild mana spells and two bleed spells per Guild, have to be continued to flow through the entire block and are also more or less easily predictable. There are also the loose spells that cost CCD (where C is one colored mana and D is one of another color) and a certain amount of colorless mana.
This is a group of cards everyone expected and didn't seem excited about, not even at the talking-about level, since it was clear that those cards would be in a set since the guild theme was announced. Also, most players associate those cards, specifically the Dual Lands, with Ravnica and not with Guildpact, building up a subjective belief that Guildpact is weaker.
Blessing and Curse of Duals
Secondly, there is the double-edged sword named Dual Land. It was a very neat trick that Wizards pulled, distributing ten Dual Lands across a block of three sets, which would guarantee a lot of things. Sales for all three sets would be high enough, and also, the power points inside a set would be easier to distribute and it would not overload a set like if it had to bear all ten Duals.
As you probably already know, it is next to impossible to always top every set with the one following in terms of power level, or there will be a whole lot of drawbacks for the entire game. The Duals are the most powerful color fixers since the Alpha Duals themselves. They are that strong that you just can't not include them in the terms of power a set has.
Guildpact has a higher density of Duals than Ravnica, causing two effects: The chance to open a Dual Land in a Guildpact Booster Pack is higher than with Ravnica, and you either have to give Guildpact a higher power level than Ravnica, or lower the power level of the rest of the cards. Unfortunately, Wizards seems to have chosen the second option, but that has to be seen when Guildpact becomes Constructed legal.
Cycle, Cycle, Cycle
As we were just talking about cycles, let's explore them a bit more, as cycles are one of the main factors a player uses to distinguish sets. Again, the Guild concept is spoiling a lot of fun here, but enough explanation can be found in the paragraphs above already. The cycles that are unique to Guildpact are as follows:
-Nephilims (Glint-Eye Nephilim, Dune-Brood Nephilim, Witch-Maw Nephilim, Ink-Treader Nephilim, Yore-Tiller Nephilim)
-Magemarks (Guardian's Magemark, Infiltrator's Magemark, Necromancer's Magemark, Fencer's Magemark, Beastmaster's Magemark)
-Leylines (Leyline of the Meek, Leyline of Singularity, Leyline of the Void, Leyline of Lightning, Leyline of Lifeforce)
-Rusalkas (Martyred Rusalka, Drowned Rusalka, Plagued Rusalka, Scorched Rusalka, Starved Rusalka)
That number seems low compared to modern small sets, which have between seven and nine cycles that give the set a distinguishable feel in comparison to the other sets inside a block. This might be enough if you look at older sets like Exodus, which only had two cycles, but the Guild theme ties all three sets of this block a little too tightly. The Enhanced Spell double cycle got a little tweak, making them into creatures with comes into play effects; that change is rather subtle but still counts, and also makes them a little better.
Another thing that doesn't really help is that one of the cycles above, the Magemarks, is quite similar to one Ravnica embodies, the Auras with comes-into-play abilities, although both cycles work very nicely together. Also, the Rusakas bear a resemblance to the Fanatics-Cycle of Betrayers of Kamigawa.
Can I trip it?
Another thing you could observe in Ravnica was the high number of cantrips. With Smash being reprinted in a set alongside such cards as Remand, Reroute, Festival of the Guildpact, and Carven Caryatid, this doesn't seem very new to most players. And then along comes Guildpact, with a whopping 10 cards that say, "Draw a card" in addition to their normal effect. You could almost think that you are back in Invasion block again. Well, if you didn't recognize the entire multicolor theme already
What's more impressive is the fact that pretty much all of the cantrips provided by Guildpact will see play in at least one format, I might predict. Wildsize, Repeal and Withstand are all formidable Limited tricks, with To Arms! trailing as a playable card. Quicken and Electrolyze are sure-shots for Constructed, with Conjurer's Ban also possibly finding a home. Runeboggle might give Remand a little competition. Giving Cremate a second chance, and making it common, was also a nice move. This card could find some place, at least in Block Constructed sideboards. Last but not least (and I mean that), there is Train of Thought, which I will discuss in a minute.
This card costs too much!
A complaint many players uttered when the rest of the spoiler was released was the sentence above. The main targets were the common replicate spells, Train of Thought and Pyromatics, both being jerked around by the fact that Wizards left all replicate costs the same as mana cost of the original spells. But let's see what would happen if we change something about the cards. Imagine if Pyromatics would only cost or to replicate: then we would have a goofy version of Fireball. At common! Not really going to happen. Same thing goes if you compare Train of Thought to Braingeyser.
But what if the Train were an instant? First, R&D would have breached its own new rule again: that spells that (can) draw more than two cards are sorceries by default (unless a severe drawback is imposed); and second, it would mark the return of Accumulated Knowledge. Not quite as combolicious, but still. AK is a nice spell, but I just don't think there is a need for it right now. No, I think both replicate spells are fairly costed and nothing would need to get changed here.
Apart from that, I really don't see much that would even be worth complaining about. Most spells are appropriately costed and are at least playable in Limited, but I'll leave that to the columnist who covers that. Some players think other cards are "not worth being printed," or are sometimes just not meant for them or for the formats they play, and not all the cards in a Set can be instant winners.
A Psychological Effect
Now I'd like to talk a little about the reception of set by the players as I saw it in the Rumor Mill. Overall, it wasn't really good. The reason for it is easy: some people just rely to much on the spoiler, and are then upset when the spoiler is completed and some cards are altered for the worse. Two specifics that are easy to be pointed out are Giant Solifuge and Wreak Havoc. As fate would have it, both are red/green and both could have easily pushed the Gruul Guild over the edge.
Face it, the Gruul are quite a beating. They received a Juzam Djinn that goes by the name of Rumbling Slum, a 3/4 for 3 mana, as well as probably the second best guildmage. Not to mention the sheer destruction Savage Twister causes in Limited.
For all the ones who don't know, the Solifuge started out as a 4/3 in the spoiler, and Wreak Havoc only costed :1mana::symr::symg:. Now, Wreak Havoc was highly unlikely to become printed as a three-mana land destruction spell. It would add up to Stone Rain, single-handedly making Land Destruction a viable deck choice or at least something to consider. [The fact that it's also uncounterable would have made Islands essentially unplayable in Standard. -Ed.] Then again, Ravnica is all about multicolored cards, and nothing hurts that concept more than Land Destruction being playable.
The Solifuge is another story. A 4/3 body, trample, haste, untargetable, and you don't even have to sacrifice it at the end of turn. That's quite a card you could use in both mono-Green and mono-Red decks. But Green rarely gets haste, and Red never had a creature that couldn't be targeted before. Either way, I think Magic is better off with the Solifuge only having one point of toughness, in terms of both flavor and power.
Unfortunately, all these changes made almost every player a little upset, as everybody loves powerful cards. The fact that most powerful cards were revealed in the Rumor Mill very early, and only the limited playables were shown later on didn't help much, either. The people tend to keep earlier cards in the back of their mind, and focus on the new releases, without keeping much of what they already have. "And another card I can't play in Constructed!" is a common response then, forgetting the fact that there are already a number of cards you'd like to play in Constructed, but I'll leave those to the other columnists to point out.
Stepping over the Line
The Leylines are quite an interesting cycle, since they tackle a whole new design space, and the Rules Team had to introduce a new set of rules to handle them. As you all should know, the leylines can be put into play before you start the game if you have them in your opening hand, offering a bonus you can work with. Although this is a pretty cool mechanic and derives from the Vanguard avatars, many players didn't receive them well. Their problem is mainly that you are happy to have them in play when you start the game, but you don't really want to spend 4 mana on them as the game progresses. [An assessment I agree with. However, the good Leylines force you to make decisions when deckbuilding, and that's a good thing. -Ed.]
The perq of the Leylines is that they can go into any deck, even if the deck doesn't use the color of the leyline, as they don't have a color requirement if they're in your opening hand. But this just further encourages the player to see those cards as sideboard material only, and the Red and White ones just don't fit there. The other ones might find their place easier, but that's a thing that has to be observed in the future.
Going for the Maindeck already
Going for the Maindeck already
After all, my humble opinion is that the community underrates the Leylines a bit too much. They aren't really meant to be instant tournament winners after all, but most of them are realy solid sideboard options. In the end, we have a very well-designed cycle of cards that could see at least some tournament play, and the Black one -- thanks to the absolute abuse of the dredge mechanic in Extended -- is just an instant hit there. And there are already discussions about a U/B Control deck that utilises Leyline of Singularity to negate the drawback of the Hunted Creatures, and also proactively give the opponent fewer choices.
Those three Guilds
Last but not least, let's focus on the three guilds Guildpact introduces to the game: The Orzhov Syndicate, The Gruul Clans, and The Izzet -- or for those who don't like the names, B/W, R/G and U/R.
The Gruul are described as a reclusive and loose bunch of scavengers that live from raiding other peoples' homes and smash stuff for the fun of it. They are probably the least thinking of the ten guilds in Ravnica' but the most attacking one. Bloodthirst, their guild mechanic, demonstrates this philosophy quite easily and also in a very good manner. "I hit you with my unblocked creature and you traded one of yours for the one you blocked. Guess what, I just lay a new, bigger one." But one thing I missed about the Gruul was that they are essentially trying to destroy the society of Ravnica. Wreak Havoc and Tin Street Hooligan do all a fine job there, but I just don't think that cuts it.
The Izzet could easily be described as the Brainiacs of Ravnica. They mostly research things by blowing them up and burning them down. I actually like what Wizards did with them. They got a good amount of burn and card drawing, and are neither too weak nor too strong. A fine balance. And I don't think anything is missing for them except maybe a decent counter (like a Suffocating Blast), but I feel the Azorius will give us a fair amount of countermagic.
And then there are the Orzhov. I can't say I don't like their design, but I just can't seem to find an interesting synergy in them. Sure, if that card drains for 1 every turn and the other card drains for 2 when it comes into play, it adds up to drain for 3 during one turn, but that doesn't seem enough to call it a fleshed-out design. Other than that, I think the Haunt mechanic of that guild is relatively hard to control, making it only worse. At least they have gotten some cool cards like 187-Vindicate and a 4/4 for 4.
Finishing the Puzzle
Last, I'd like to say that Guildpact sums up to a quite solid design, but has to suffer from the multitude of unfortunate circumstances it was revealed in and released to the players. I don't think there is too much to complain about in this set, as it embodies a lot of interesting and cool mechanics that might even go on and be reused in the future. I hope I could give you a little food for your thought.
Credits: Writing: chaosof99; Banner & Images: Goblinboy; Editing: Dr. Tom