I’m really excited about the new Magic: the Gathering set. Guilds of Ravnica takes place on one of Magic’s most beloved planes, an expansive magical city controlled by ten guilds with radically different philosophies. In this set you’ll be able to play as five of the guilds, with the other five coming in Ravnica Allegiance early next year.
Some stores will be running a midnight pre-release on Friday night, and almost every local game store will have sealed pre-release tournaments on Saturday, September 29th and Sunday the 30th. The set officially comes out the next friday, with most stores putting together several draft tournaments from October 5th through the 7th.
If you’re a casual player or you’ve been thinking of getting back into Magic, blocks set on Ravnica are a great place to start. Ravnica’s ten guilds fulfill different thematic and social roles within the plane’s thriving metropolis. Each guild represents two of Magic’s five mana colors working together, and each guild has its own evocative flavor and strategy.
The last Ravnica block was directly responsible for getting me deeply invested in Magic. Prior to Return To Ravnica in 2013 I was a casual player who would sometimes tag along with friends to standard tournaments. After playing one Return to Ravnica pre-release I immediately signed up for two more. When Gatecrash came several months later I played in five tournaments in a single weekend. I was in love with the theme, the setting, and the variety of strategic options available.
Wizards of the Coast has its own guide to this set’s specific mechanics, which you can check out here. While I’ll touch on strategy a bit, I have a different focus. I want to talk about why the guilds are so cool and what each guild’s specific deal is. There’s also an official test you can take to find out what guild fits your personality (Scroll down, it starts in the middle of this page), but it includes the guilds that aren’t in this set and and you risk ending up in a guild you don’t actually like (I see you, people who secretly retook that Pottermore quiz like four times).
Here’s another option. Magic players are technically interdimensional space travelers, so let’s call it
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Guilds of Ravnica
I’m just going to cover the five guilds in this set: Selesnya (Green/White), Golgari (Green/Black), Izzet (Red/Blue), Boros (Red/White), and Dimir (Blue/Black).
Environmentally Sustainable Gay Mage Communism
Selesnya’s leader is a chorus of lesbian dryads who just want everyone to work together. Day-to-day operations are overseen by an extremely nice and patient lady who is best friends with the sad nerd who is supposed to be president (even though he never shows up for work). If you join the Selesnya Conclave you’ll spend your days hanging out in gardens, making sculptures and taking care of cool animals. When trouble happens, you and your statues and your cool animals will work together to make it unhappen.
Strategy: Cast little creatures who will help you cast bigger creatures and spells with Convoke. Use enchantments to get rid of major threats, or just fight them if you need to. Relax, leverage synergies, and win by having more friends by volume.
The People Who Run Sanitation Are Tired of Being Treated Like Garbage
Golgari’s Leader is a badass gorgon assassin who just got back from spending some time as a pirate captain in another dimension. She’s currently collaborating with a mysterious elf lady who advocates for the humble and downtrodden. The Golgari Swarm has always been a catch-all for the extremely literal underclass of people living in the sewers, but their leaders were corrupt until some convenient assassinations put better people in charge. Things need to die to let new things grow, and sometimes you have to do the killing or dying yourself.
Strategy: Deathtouch and some very good removal put creatures in the graveyard, where they can still be useful to you. Cast small, deadly creatures. Trade them strategically, then return their bodies to the earth to get nice effects from Undergrowth.
What If Mad Scientists Accidentally Created the Public Works Department
The Izzet are led by an extremely smug genius who is also a dragon. His second-in-command is an equally smug human who thinks he’s better than the dragon. Over the centuries the Izzet League has invented some pretty useful things that the citizens of Ravnica are grateful for, but these seem to be happy accidents. It’s less ‘better living through science’ and more ‘better science through explosions’. How many magical explosions would you put up with per day if it was the only way you could get indoor plumbing? They haven’t discovered the upper limit yet.
Strategy: Blow things up and ruin other people’s plans. Find other people who like to blow things up and work together so that your explosions help everyone get their work done. Jump Start lets you trade less useful cards to recast some of your instants and sorceries, ensuring that everyone is always adequately supplied with nonsensical chaos.
Normal People Try to Keep The Peace by Punching Things In The Face
Boros’s leader is a controversial angel. Her second-in command is a practical man who is just doing his best. The Boros Legion is mostly made up of normal humans, goblins, and minotaurs who are trying to do a good job and stand together against a frankly bonkers series of threats. They are one of the few guilds of Ravnica who are concerned with the fact that people on Ravnica get murdered a lot: they’re against it. The role of the angels in this is pretty complicated and they’d prefer not to get into it.
Strategy: Stand together. Turn sideways together. If you all attack together some of you might die, but if you do nothing everyone will die anyway and you won’t accomplish anything. Mentor those with less experience, and get support from those stronger than you. Keep a few combat tricks up your sleeve and maybe most of you will get through this.
They Officially Exist So The Shadowy Things They Do to Control Everything Are Probably Fine
For hundreds of years the existence of House Dimir was the deepest of secrets. Now they formally operate out in the open, it’s just that nobody knows what they actually do or what their purpose is or who is really in charge here. I mean, a shapeshifter is in charge but nobody knows what he looks like or what he’s doing at any given time. There’s also a vampire lady who can sneak in anywhere. It’s literally impossible to stop her so we’ll just pretend it’s normal and maybe she’ll go away. Dimir is the other guild concerned with the fact that people on Ravnica get murdered a lot: they’re for it.
Strategy: Gather resources, draw cards, and kill anything that gets inconvenient. Use Surveil to get what you need and chuck anything that isn’t part of your current plan. Control the game until you’ve just got so much more going on than your opponent that victory is inevitable.
Now that you have some idea what the five guilds in Guilds of Ravnica are like, how does that help you play actual games of Magic? As you build your deck, you’ll find that everything you learn about each guild gives you insight into their strategy.
I’m going to talk about limited here, which includes sealed and draft: both formats where you build a deck from a “limited” list of cards. In sealed each player is given six packs and they build a deck with whatever they open. In draft players each get three packs, and they open each pack and take a single card, passing the packs around the table ‘drafting’ one card at a time. If you want more information on the specific rules of these formats, that’s what pre-releases and release weekends are for: ask the staff at your local game store and they’ll be happy to explain.
Sealed during Ravnica pre-releases has a unique twist: you’re able to pick what guild you’d like to play, and receive a box with one specially seeded pack of guards that ensure you can play the guild you select. In normal sealed or draft tournaments, you don’t get to pick in advance – you play whatever colors or guilds look strongest in your card pool.
When you read stories set on Ravnica, Selesnya seems like the friendliest and most relaxed guild to join. It’s also one of the easiest to play, rewarding gameplay habits that make sense to newer players. In some other guilds it’s beneficial to use your creatures as disposable resources, while in Selesnya you can err on the side of keeping them around so they can help you cast your Convoke cards later. You still have to occasionally block a creature down or trade off, but you don’t want to be as aggressive about it as Golgari or Dimir might be. If your main goal in playing magic is to relax and hang out with friends, Selesnya is naturally appealing.
Guild theming also gave me insight into the nuances of deckbuilding. When I first played sealed I’d often just pick out the most powerful cards, and then pick the other cards I liked in those colors. I’d consider each card’s quality in a vacuum, rather than considering it in the context of a specific synergistic strategy. Ravnica introduced me to the idea that sometimes a card is good, but it’s not what your particular deck is “trying to do.” Say you’re playing Izzet, so you’re blue and red. If you have a choice between a creature who gets better when you attack with lots of creatures and one who gets better when you cast an instant or sorcery, you know that Izzet is the guild that likes random cool spells so the cool spell guy is likely to fit better in your strategy than the attacking guy. This isn’t universal: sometimes there will be a card that cares about spells but isn’t very good, or an attack-focused creature that is so good you’ll put him in anyway, but when two cards seem similarly powerful by themselves you can use your guild’s feel as the tiebreaker.
This also works for decisions during gameplay. If you’re playing Dimir you have access to the Surveil mechanic, which lets you look at some cards at the top of your library and decide whether to keep them there to be drawn later or pitch them into the graveyard to hopefully get to better cards deeper in your deck. Players often hesitate to pitch decent cards into their graveyards: medium sized creatures that aren’t exceptional, combat tricks, etc. The Dimir are all about thwarting others’ plans while secretly enacting their own. This can help put you in the proper mindset: have an idea of what you need to do to win, and only keep cards on top that you can reasonably expect to either fit your current plan or disrupt your opponent. Everything that’s not part of the plan is disposable, and you have enough Surveil in your deck that you have a much higher chance of eventually getting to your great cards if you pitch sub-optimal decent ones.
I had never played a control deck until I played Dimir for the first time in Gatecrash. I quickly figured out that I had to understand the other guilds’ strategies, and adapt mine based on who I was facing. Surveil is much less fiddly than the Dimir ability was last time, so Guilds of Ravnica provides an even better opportunity to learn how strategically leverage card selection.
Golgari helped me understand soft synergies. Cards and strategies may not have obvious connections like the Izzet and spells or Boros and combat, but they make normal parts of the game work to their advantage. Small deathtouch creatures are often good to play because you can block something more powerful and still kill it. Both creatures die so it’s technically a one-for-one exchange of resources, and for most decks that’s the end of it. Many players think of cards in the graveyard as gone, but the Golgari are recyclers and can put the things that die or get thrown away to good use. Small creatures die and go into the graveyard all the time, but that ordinary occurrence works out better for the Golgari than for any other guild.
Before the last Ravnica block I’d played a lot of standard tournaments and build a handful of casual sealed decks. I usually won more matches than I lost, but I never ended up at the top of the rankings. Return to Ravnica was my first time playing limited in a game store. I started with Selesnya and then experimented with Izzet and Golgari, doing slightly better each time.
Gatecrash was the second Ravnica set in that block, and I’d started to understand how to use the guild themes to inspire my strategy. I managed to play in five prereleases that weekend, picking a different guild each time. Saturday afternoon was the largest tournament I’d ever been in at that point: five rounds and 32 players. I’d won my first two matches with my Boros deck, but my round three match was getting close. I had a lot of creatures and I’d done some damage to my opponent, but I didn’t have any tricks left – attacking could be disastrous if he had something good. I weighed my options, but I didn’t really know what to do. So instead of over-analyzing I thought about everything I’d heard about the Boros, everything I’d seen when I played against them.
“Am I Boros or am I Boros?” I said, methodically turning every single one of my creatures sideways. I attacked all-out the next two turns and won the match. I came in fifth at that event, after being defeated in the fourth round by another Boros deck with stronger cards.
Three months later I’d be back in that store for Dragon’s Maze, the final set in the Return to Ravnica block. This time it was round five and I was undefeated, playing Boros once again. My card for turn was the incredibly powerful Boros Battleshaper. I’d already planned to swing out this turn, and this just made my attacks even better. I cast him and moved to combat, using his ability to make one of my opponent’s creatures unable to block. He was still able to take out about half my creatures, but I wasn’t worried. He limped through his next turn and as soon as I untapped for mine I finished him off with a lightning helix.
I’d won a few smaller events before then – I’d even come in first in a tiny 8 player pre-release playing Golgari – but this was the first time I won a tournament with more than twenty players. This time I’d played out all my matches with confidence and without hesitation, because I knew who my guilds were and what they were trying to do. The next day I’d win a smaller 12-player tournament with Orzhov. Less than a year after I’d first played limited in a store, I won two prereleases in a single set. I was half convinced I was some kind of Magic prodigy.
I was not some kind of Magic prodigy. The next block was Theros, and without the guilds to guide me it was harder for me to understand what cards were good in what decks. It was harder for me to predict what my opponents would do. I stumbled through that block half-blind and I lost a lot.
This is why I say sets with guilds, clans, or tribes are ideal for players who want to improve, especially for players who like the themes and story and setting of Magic. Ravnica will help you leverage cool feelings into good gameplay.
I’ll be spending the next few weekends in Ravnica. You should come along.