A special time to play cards

Perhaps it’s an –

No, wait, scratch that.

It’s certainly an indication that I’m a sentimental old fool, but nonetheless I have to say it: for the first time in ages, I’m genuinely excited about a new Magic set release.

Why now, you ask? Why not for any of the other quarterly set releases which have arrived like clockwork over the last few years?

Well, friends, its because we’re all set for a Return to Ravnica.

I have so many potent feelings and associations bubbling around in my brain as I contemplate this revisitation that it’s hard to line them up and make something coherent out of them… But here it is: in this post, I’m going to talk about:

  • Why Ravnica is special to MTG players in general
  • Why it’s doubly special to me
  • …and why Wizards of the Coast have made an extraordinarily good decision in revisiting the plane in 2012 – doing what looks like a bloody good job of it, too.

Ravnica, the ‘goldilocks’ set

To properly understand the appeal of Ravnica to MTG players of all stripes, one has to consider all the different factors that impacted on its positioning in our consciousness.

First up, Ravnica is a multicolour set.

Multicoloured cards are special. They tick a lot of boxes for Magic players.

  • They look nice – no boring, mana-coloured borders, but gold instead.
  • They tend to appear infrequently, so they feel special and interesting when a player sees them for the first time.
  • In certain circumstances, they feel like they’re made just for us.

That last point may read a little strangely, but allow me to explain by way of a personal interlude.

Most players, even those who end up highly competitive and well versed in the game, will tend to start playing in some kind of casual environment. They learn the basics of play, get the bug and start to buy cards from which they build their own decks; they enjoy some things more than others, so they bias their decks toward those things; they develop favourite decks, becoming very invested in the things those decks do and the colours of cards they deploy.

I started as this kind of player. This road led me to mono-black decks in the mid-90s, which brought me many happy hours of resolving turn one Hypnotic Specters via Dark Ritual. When I returned to the game in the early 2000s, I began associating myself with black (my original love) and red as a colour combination, jamming my Specters again alongside terror, lightning bolts and other red burn.

Then one Saturday, as I flicked through folders in my local card store, I found them: a clutch of black and red multicolour cards from Invasion block.

My jaw dropped.

As I stared at Blazing Specter, reading and re-reading the text, I realised that someone out there was in the business of making cards just for me. They had taken the things I loved about both ‘my colours’ and created something fused from both; my favourite colour combination said something about my personality and this card felt personal in a way that others didn’t.

Without further ado, I drew all four copies out of the folder and handed them to the shop assistant. 

The Second reason for Ravnica’s appeal is the fantastic ‘flavour’ of the set.

So many fantasy settings deal with medieval culture, rural communities, ‘one true Kings’ etc… the trope becomes tiresome. In Ravnica, we have a world characterised by complexity, renaissance in feel, with numerous different powerbases and cultures all jammed together in a planet-spanning cityscape. This isn’t two starving hobbits traipsing to Mordor; this is vibrant, colourful and varied.

It’s the antidote to conventional fantasy.

Thirdly – and very importantly, in a historical sense – Ravnica represented an escape from the oppressive play environment created by Mirrodin.

The Mirrodin block, which predated Ravnica by two years, cast a long and dark shadow over Standard (the most commonly played version of tournament Magic). Filled with overwhelmingly powerful cards, it positioned the hated Affinity deck at the top of the competitive tree and transformed the tournament scene into a horrific series of reruns. Play Affinity or be smashed by Affinity was the stark choice open to players; faced with this, many left the game.

Even after a wave of bannings, the game struggled to recover. I was there, folks – and trust me, it was depressing.

Standard, as a competitive format, rotates every year: the block which is two years old leaves and a new block steps into the spotlight. Ravnica’s arrival coincided with Mirrodin’s departure… and watching something so despised disappear whilst simultaneously beholding the riot of balanced, colourful and interesting cards which were arriving was a euphoric experience for many of us.

These three things, in my opinion, put Ravnica in the ‘goldilocks’ zone: at that time, for that audience, it was just right.

Let the good times roll

The City of Guilds may have been a great play environment for everyone, but it was particularly brilliant for me, because it coincided with a period when Magic was enhancing my life in numerous ways.

If a person plays magic for long enough, they may begin to associate life events with particular block and Standard environments. I apologise, to my uninitiated readers, for the outpouring of block-names which follows, but there really isn’t another way to do this.

For me, Onslaught/Mirrodin standard represents the time when I was learning the competitive game, but also a time when I made an ill-advised move away from home for work and subsequently faced the collapse of a long-term relationship. It was a pretty miserable period.

Mirrodin/Kamigawa standard I associate with recovering from that situation and moving back to Scotland; beginning to draft regularly at Highlander Games in Dundee (breeding ground for many top Scottish Magic talents; sadly, I’m not on that list); and starting to discover a Magic scene which existed in my home-town of Glasgow. It was a transition period.

Kamigawa/Ravnica standard brought me not just an incredible play experience, but a social regeneration.

When I think about this time in my life, I think about meeting Magic players who have become firm and loyal friends. I think about enjoying events together irrespective of my own relative success. I think about some of the most fun constructed decks I’ve ever played with. I think about continuing my run of appalling limited play, but not really caring because I was having a great time. I think about drinking too much, dancing too long and generally enjoying myself to excess.

This year, I’ve attended the weddings of two friends I met at this time, accompanied by some of the other friends we were playing with; those were good times too. Ravnica is so laden with positive personal associations that it’s hard for me to express.

Hats off to Wizards of the Coast

Having a strong intellectual property with a loyal fan-base is a great position to be in, make no mistake – but it’s not a pre-bottled success. To hit a home run on a Return to Ravnica, Wizards had to get the timing and execution right, or risk souring the fond memories they had worked so hard to create.

Have they picked the right moment?

It’s hard for me to say if Wizards could have waited another year, or two, or three and still have enjoyed the same level of impact with their announcement that Ravnica was coming back; however, I can say with certainty that I felt elated when I discovered what was afoot and I know I’m not alone. On that basis, I’m prepared to say this is the right moment, or at least as right as any moment from here onward.

Have they executed in a way that will meet expectations?

As I write this, there are only 89 of a total 274 cards known to the world. I can’t possibly give a formed opinion about the overall execution of the set, but I can say that as with its predecessor, the signs are there.

So far, I’ve seen several cards that excite me and ‘push the envelope’ in terms of power and/or utility.

Firstly, there’s the elegantly designed charm cycle, represented here by poster child Izzet Charm:

This card is beautiful, because it does a range of useful things for a deck which wants to contain the game early and exert an advantage in terms of card quality going long: in the parlance of the game, a ‘Control’ strategy. I love, love, love this kind of deck.

It’s also extremely good value for two mana, further advancing an efficiency agenda which Wizards seem to have been pursuing for some time. Similar charms appear in each of the other four featured colour combinations, so there’s something for everyone.

Next up, there’s another nice control card, Mizzium Mortars.

This one captures my imagination for two reasons:

  • It shows off a new mechanic, which is intriguing
  • That new mechanic makes this spell scalable

This is one of the first spells I will be acquiring four copies of after the set’s release. It does everything I want a creature removal spell to do.

  • It’s cheap, so I can play it early
  • It kills most of the things I’m likely to face in the early game
  • It’s not a dead draw later in the game, when I’m stumbling after a bad start, staring down an army on the other side of the board… because I can play the ‘overloaded’ version and sweep that pesky army away.

Finally, we have a big, splashy card of the Planeswalking variety: Vraska the Unseen.

This card is nakedly powerful and versatile.

It hits the same note as some original Ravnica previews, by providing some real ‘wow’; it hints at a set full of cards which do things we haven’t seen before. Vraska will be one of the stars of Return to Ravnica, but more importantly her existence whets the appetite for other treasures yet to be revealed.

Bring it on

My gut feel, coloured by no small amount of nostalgia and childish glee, is that Wizards are about to serve up a feast for their loyal customers. The product is full of promise.

That said, I’m more excited about the fact that I’ll be hooking up with my Magic pals to go and relive part of our great adventure together. For me, Ravnica is about friendships, emerging from bad times and cranking the fun up to 11. Here’s hoping the return leg can deliver on some of that, too.