elcome to week three of Gatecrash previews. Today I'm going to talk about the last two guilds, Orzhov and Gruul. I even have a fun preview card to show you (well, fun for you; your opponent may not agree). If you haven't read Part 1 and Part 2, you might want to check them out first, because I'll be writing assuming you have.
One of the goals I had for each guild to make sure the guild cards including its keyword made the player who liked that guild happy. I've learned over the years that if you try to make everyone happy on every card you end up with a boring game—one that no one hates but no one loves. The key to making a trading card game work is to make sure everyone loves something and not worry that they hate something else.
Godless Shrine | Art by Cliff Childs
When applied to the guilds, that means I want the Orzhov player to love Orzhov. If the Gruul players don't like Orzhov, I don't care. It's not for them. But if any one designer is only going to have affinity for a few guilds, how do you design for guilds that aren't where your heart is? The answer lies in learning to understand what the players of each guild want. Much like the player psychographics, to understand the guild's players we have to get into their mindset.
The easiest way to do this is to find someone you know well who falls into that category. For Orzhov, that was easy. My co-lead designer for Gatecrash, Mark Gottlieb, is a self-proclaimed Orzhovian. (I made that word up but I like it.) What this meant was as we were trying out new Orzhov mechanics, we could turn to Gottlieb and ask what he thought. If he didn't like it, that meant we had to try something else.
I too have an Orzhovian side. Back in my deck-building days (before coming to Wizards, I was known in my group as being the creative deck builder who made all sorts of quirky decks—some of which were pretty good), I was a huge fan of what is known as a "bleeder deck." A bleeder deck puts up defenses and slows the game to a halt while slowly injuring the opponent. I've heard bleeder decks compared to death by a thousand paper cuts. No one threat seems that scary, it's just the culmination of them all as your opponent is helpless to do anything about it. Bleeder decks are Orzhov's bread and butter, so I too had some insight into what we wanted. Although, to be clear, Gottlieb was the authority.
I explained in Parts 1 and 2 that we had evolve and battalion from the start. None of the other three guilds came quite so easily. I remember having meetings where members of the design team (Ethan Fleischer, Mark Gottlieb, Joe Huber, Dave Humpherys, and myself) would pitch an Orzhov mechanic. I would turn to Gottlieb and he would give his official Orzhov opinion. Thumbs down meant we had to keep looking. There were a lot of thumbs down gestures early on.
Eventually, we settled on a mechanic called "oppress" (designed by Gottlieb). Here's how it worked. Oppress was a keyword action. It permanently granted a permanent with the following ability: "Whenever this permanent is the target of a spell or ability, sacrifice it." The idea was that oppress would slowly winnow down your opponent's resources. It was slow, meaning the deck had to do what Orzhov always does and gum up the game. It was enough, though, to allow Orzhov to eventually get the advantage and win.
We tried a bunch of different versions of oppress. It started targeting any permanent. We then changed it to nonland permanent. The version I liked best allowed oppressing to trigger previously oppressed nonpermanents, which meant a deck with oppress didn't need a lot of targeting cards, just lots of oppress.
Orzhov Guildgate | Art by John Avon
I enjoyed how oppress was playing but it had two problems.
First, it was a bit finicky. In some games, it worked like a charm, and in others, it just didn't click. Like propagate and grind, it required having some support cards to make it work at its best. Second, development was scared of it. I always take development's reaction with a grain of salt because a lot of fun mechanics look scary at first glance. Part of development is figuring out how to allow the fun of the mechanic to shine without it being too oppressive (pun always intended). That said, some mechanics just aren't easy to defang and oppress was one of them.
So we started looking for another mechanic. Note at this point we were in devign, the space in between design and development. Design still has control of the file but is addressing notes from the developers. The reason devign exists is that before it did, a lot of early development was done fixing design issues. This wasn't a great use of development's time and it was forcing them to work in an area that wasn't their specialty. Devign was created to allow development to make criticisms but in a time that design could solve them.
At the beginning of devign, we were still looking for mechanics for Orzhov and Gruul, so a mini design subteam was made to start searching for answers. I know Dave Humpherys ran the sub team and I know Shawn Main was on it. (My best guess is the third member of the team was Billy Moreno.) The team came back with a suggestion for each guild. I'll get to the Gruul answer in a bit.
For Orzhov, Shawn Main had come up with a mechanic he called "extort." The idea was that it taxed your opponent for casting spells. When the mechanic got a big thumbs up from Gottlieb, it went into the set. (Note that, at this point, Gottlieb was in charge of the file as the baton had been passed, so not only was he our representative Orzhov player, but he was also the set's lead—it's good to be king.) The whole team was not set on the mechanic but Gottlieb and I really liked it.
In devign, we get to the iterative part of design where we play every week. (The amount of time between playtests goes down over time as you are iterating faster and faster—more on this in my "Nuts & Bolts" article, coming soon.) At this point, we were drafting the set every week. To prove the value and potency of extort, I decided to go full throttle on the mechanic. I drafted every extort card I could get my hands on and my decks were insane. The team quickly shifted from "Is this any good?" to "Hey development, you better take a look at this." Development was a big fan of extort, as opposed to its stance on oppress, and the mechanic got officially signed off on.
While we're talking about extort, I think it's time to show off my preview card for this week. My preview card today, called Blind Obedience, is the exact kind of card I loved to run in my bleeder decks. It slows the opponent down while also slowly killing him or her. Without further ado, let me introduce you to Blind Obedience.
A quick aside. Those of you who read Gavin Verhey's account of extort two weeks ago might remember that he claimed the mechanic didn't enter the set until development. As someone who writes design history, I've learned firsthand that memories get blurry. I try my best to represent the past as factually as I can but people don't always remember the same thing. It's one of the biggest problems with writing about things that happened over a year ago—sometimes multiple years.
How do I know that extort happened during devign and not development? Because as described above, I drafted it for a few weeks to prove its value. I wasn't on the development team. If I played with it, it had to be during devign. That's the only time I was there. Be aware that I'm sure there are numerous things I have "remembered" over the years that aren't quite the way they actually happened. Sorry Gavin.
You've Got to be Gruul to be Kind
The Gruul are quite literally at the other end of the spectrum, with two completely different colors from Orzhov. While Orzhov sits back and slowly wins, Gruul is a little more aggressive. When I first learned my five guilds (we came up with two divisions that fit all our criteria and I then let Ken Nagle, Return to Ravnica's lead designer, choose which combination he wanted), my immediate concern was making sure I had a clear identity for each of the five guilds.
Orzhov and Dimir were the slow guilds, but their styles of play are different. Dimir is much more about card advantage and sneaking in attacks. No, the two guilds I was most concerned about overlapping were Gruul and Boros. Both are fueled with red's passion to attack. The key to carving out an identity for each of them was deciding how each was going to be aggressive.
While they seem similar at first glance, as you dig deeper they both tend to have a distinctive identity. The key to understanding this is to look at what color is complimenting red. Boros, for example, creates a true weenie deck. They want to cast a creature or creatures every turn and never let up. Their game starts at the one-drop and tends to peter out around the four-drop (Boros decks sometimes have a few expensive bombs but the need to hit on the first few turns is so important that the deck doesn't tend to play all that much on the expansive side). This comes from white's status as the premiere weenie color. White is the army builder and the overlap white has with red is it has the most aggressive one- and two-drops. Add this to red's direct damage and the weenie rush is strong in Boros.
Gruul is defined by red's pairing with green. Unlike white, green is not a weenie color. Green is the other "creature color" but its creature are bigger and thus more expensive. Green is able to make this work because mana ramping is central to green. That is, green is good at getting four+ creatures cast a turn or more before you could naturally cast them. The fact that red is secondary in mana production (red tends to produce larger bursts of temporary mana to green's slow but permanent build up) only helps this strategy.
Art by Marco Nelor
What this means is that Gruul is also aggressive, but more as a midrange deck. The early turns tend to be to help set up the mana to get out the giant creatures on later turns. This means that Gruul's strength is that it can quickly get out beefy creatures that are hard to deal with. It's not as fast as Boros but it's still pretty fast, especially for the size threats it can create.
So we wanted to find a mechanic that played into this style of play. The first thing we gravitated to was fighting. Fight is an action keyword that we introduced last year where you can basically make two creatures fight one another. Not only did fight make sense flavorfully for Gruul (they love picking fights) but the fight ability is primary in green and secondary in red. (And yes, we have not played up fight's secondary red status so far, but it is something we want to pursue more.)
The first mechanic we came up with we called "rowdy." A creature with rowdy had the following ability: Whenever it dealt combat damage to another player, it could start a fight with a creature controlled by that player. The idea was that if you send out a Gruul creature, it'll attack like instructed, but it tends to get into fights once the task is completed—luckily with the opponent's guys.
The rowdy mechanic was very flavorful and it played interestingly, but it had one small problem—okay, actually three.
- One of the tenets of New World Order is that we keep cards that can repeatedly kill creatures out of common. We really needed all the guild keywords at common, so this was an issue.
- It had the ability to lock out players once you swept the battlefield of their creatures. Smaller creatures become unplayable because you essentially are forced to chump every turn.
- And really, the first two things are a big part of this, development was worried. Repeatable creature kill is already something dangerous. Putting it on a keyword mechanic was doubly so. Development asked, "Could we please find something else?"
We liked using fighting, so we tried a version that had a little less repeatable kill called "kickboxing." Kickboxing was basically creatures with a kicker that, if paid, would allow it to fight with a creature when it came into play. It turns out that kickboxing had most of the same problems. It took away Problem #2 but Problems #1 and #3 stayed the same. Basically, neither New World Order or development liked it. "Could we please not have the keyword mechanic involve fighting?" they asked.
We tried a bunch of other keywords but nothing was sticking. When we got to devign, Dave and his sub-team came back with bloodrush (known as "ambush" when it was designed). I'll be honest, the design team was a little mixed on bloodrush. What we liked was that it went on creatures but acted like instants. This would allow a Gruul player to fill his or her deck with creatures but still have moments of surprise, which we know leads to good game play.
The biggest critique against the mechanic was that it skewed a little away from the type of spell a Gruul player historically has shown to enjoy. Traditionally, Gruul has skewed more Timmy than Spike, and bloodrush is a resource management mechanic. That is, you have to figure out when you want to trade in your creature for a spell and that steers more into Spike territory. Luckily, playtests showed that Gruul players seemed happy to discard cards when it meant it killed another creature, which is the most common result of bloodrush.
Art by Steve Prescott
We played with bloodrush in devign and eventually all of the designers and developers signed off on it. Designing individual cards for the bloodrush mechanic proved interesting. It's one of the things I'll talk about when we get to my "Designing for Gruul" column.
"I Love It When a Plan Comes Together"
Gatecrash was an interesting set in that it got to follow in the shoes of Return to Ravnica. A lot of decisions got made long before we had our first design meeting. On the flip side, we tried hard to make sure that Gatecrash didn't just feel like a rehash of Return to Ravnica and offered up a different feel both for Limited and Constructed. Layered on top of that was the first-ever baton hand off design, with me handing over the reins of the set midway through to Mark Gottlieb.
With all that on our plate, I was quite happy with how Gatecrash turned out. I remember at the R&D slideshow of the final set, I gave Gottlieb a high-five and said, "We did it!"
That's all I have for today. Join me next week when I go through card by card and share some stories.
Until then, whether bleeding or smashing, have fun at the Gatecrash Prerelease.
Drive to Work #16—Urza's Saga
This week, I explore a set that I served on both the design and development teams. It also happens to be one of the most broken sets in the history of the game.