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By: Cheater Hater, Vincent Borchardt
Mar 24 2016 11:00am
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Welcome back to the Modern Flashback Series! I was busy this week, and thus there's no Ravnica video—there are other sources for videos (even on this very site), and I don't know if anyone cared about the videos from me that much anyway. However, from watching other videos and streams I realized my previous coverage was deficient, mostly since I was treating the single-set format too much like the full-block format. I also vastly underestimated how good Dimir was, and mill in particular—I recognized Vedalken Entrancer was good (mostly from its appearance in Magic 2013), but I underestimated how much the other mill cards could add to the archetype (and thus it ended up close to where I had the WUb archetype). Anyway, on to the next set!
The second set in the original Ravnica block is Guildpact, and it is probably the low point of the block. While the rest of Ravnica set a high bar, Guildpact still has some flaws which separates it from the rest. The three guilds in this set are the Gruul (RG), the Orzhov (BW), and the Izzet (UR), and while the guilds are thematically on point (unlike, say, Radiance), the mechanics themselves aren't the best-designed. However, the biggest flaw comes from the unique feature of Guildpact: the Nephilim. This rare cycle includes the first (and only) four-color cards, and while the designs are unique, they are underwhelming for the first four-color designs. While one disappointing rare cycle wouldn't be bad on its own (compare it to the Offering and Epic cycles from Kamigawa block), the biggest problem is that in order to fit it in the set, all three guilds have one fewer rare than their counterparts in Ravnica. Considering all the guilds were supposed to be equal, this is not a desirable result, and thus Dissension ended up having cards added to it so its unique characteristic didn't take away from the guilds. Onto the mechanics!
Scab-Clan Mauler Bloodscale Prowler Ghor-Clan Savage
Bloodthirst is a simple creature mechanic that is surprisingly instructive for new players (teaching them about the second main phase, and to cast spells after it), and as such it's easily the best mechanic in Guildpact design-wise. However, if you know about it from its reappearance in Magic 2012 (and Modern Masters 2015, which was almost entirely M12 reprints), you'll notice one thing: the power level is a lot lower. Sure, Scab-Clan Mauler was obviously pushed for constructed, and Bloodscale Prowler was colorshifted as Bloodrage Vampire, but nothing dominates a board like Vampire Outcasts or even Blood Ogre. However, we have to remember the context: Gruul is an aggressive strategy in a format full of greedy manabases and synergy-dependent archetypes, and just like Boros, an aggressive strategy can work well—but we'll cover that more in the archetype section. One thing to note is that there aren't many Goblin Fireslinger-type enablers in the block—other than general-purpose burn the main enablers are Scorched Rusalka and Rumbling Slum, neither of which is common.
Belfry Spirit Cry of Contrition Orzhov Pontiff
Haunt is a very grindy mechanic, allowing the Orzhov to slowly get advantage over time. However, the way it mechanically did so was very weird, with the whole concept of haunting a creature, exiling itself and setting up a lot of triggers down the road. In addition, the mechanic worked differently on creatures and spells, and the play pattern of haunting your creature versus an opponent's creature was vastly different. Haunt was easily the most complex mechanic in Ravnica block, and yet it was easily forgettable; if Orzhov Pontiff wasn't a Modern toolbox staple no one would remember it even existed.
Pyromatics Train of Thought Leap of Flame
Izzet cares about casting spells, so obviously its mechanic is spell-based. However, unlike the last spell-based mechanic (Splice), all of these spells work independently. Replicate works best as a mana sink, but that flexibility comes at a major efficiency cost, especially if you aren't replicating them once or twice. There just isn't much to talk about with Replicate, and that's the problem with the Guildpact mechanics—none of them work well together or encourage a deck like Convoke or Radiance do, and they don't have much depth at the surface (even if they do have more play beneath the surface).
Skyrider Trainee Infiltrator's Magemark Silhana Ledgewalker
Other Themes/Mechanics:
I've already covered the Nephilim in the introduction, and hybrid hasn't changed, but the one thing that has changed a bit is the enchantment theme. Other than one card that cares about being enchanted (Skyrider Trainee), the enchantment theme exists entirely in the Magemark cycle. This common cycle encourages you to spread out your enchantments, which does avoid complete blowouts, but plays against the strongest enchantment-matters cards in green (Bramble Elemental in Ravnica, and now Silhana Ledgewalker and Gatherer of Graces in Guildpact—yes, Silhana Ledgewalker technically isn't an enchantment-matters card, but the original Invisible Stalker is still a powerhouse with buffs). Other than that, the cycles from Ravnica continue—Signets and Bouncelands are still as good as ever, while the Guildmages and Guildhouses of the Guildpact guilds are slightly weaker than their Ravnica counterparts (nothing on the game-warping level of a Selesnya Guildmage).
Even if it isn't as meaningful as it always is, let's check up on our two-color pairs before we go into the colors. Remember, there will still be two packs of Ravnica in the upcoming draft pack, so the four Ravnica guilds will still dominate the draft.
Blue/Black (Dimir): Card advantage, but awful creatures
Green/White (Selesnya): Dominant token strategy
Green/Black (Golgari): Grindy card advantage, but lost power with rules changes
Red/White (Boros): Aggressive “go wide” strategy, positioned well against greedy decks
White/Blue: Pure control, possibly mill as win condition
Black/Red: Awful, not worth trying
Red/Green: Ramp and mana destruction
White/Black: Pure card quality, unknown synergy
Blue/Red: Minor combinations, nothing defining
Green/Blue: Traditional ramp
Shrieking Grotesque Belfry Spirit Withstand
Commons Uncommons
With only eight commons and eight uncommons, it's difficult to make a real impression. However, white manages to do so with at least a couple cards, and most of them come down to flying. Shrieking Grotesque is a very efficient Ravenous Rats variant (and the rate isn't awful if you don't have black), while Belfry Spirit draws comparisons to Ornitharch, one of the stronger limited cards in recent memory. In addition, as a white token-maker, something both Selesnya and Boros both want. The combat tricks are also better than they look at first glance—Guardian's Magemark can be a blowout if you've set up a lot of trades, while Withstand is an easy two-for-one.
Steamcore Weird Stratozeppelid Thunderheads
Commons Uncommons
Blue has surprisingly few creatures, even by blue's standards—of the eight blue commons, only three are common, and two of those are Izzet-aligned. Of course, Steamcore Weird is one of the top commons, and Torch Drake is fine, but both of those are primarily gold cards. Instead, most of blue's power is in the uncommons: Stratozeppelid is a splashable Air Elemental, Vertigo Spawn is a good defensive creature, Vedalken Plotter is an interesting card in a format with Bouncelands, and Thunderheads is a variant of Immolating Glare that scales in a color that doesn't normally get removal.
Orzhov Euthanist Exhumer Thrull Cryptwailing
Commons Uncommons
Black continues to be the color of removal at common and little else; even the creatures Orzhov Euthanist and Ostiary Thrull are primarily removal spells. Uncommon is slightly different, as there's a focus on card advantage instead. Exhumer Thrull's card advantage is obvious, but Cryptwailing is the card advantage tool Golgari's been looking for (though you have to be all in to want to use it—you have to use it at least three times for it to be better than a Mind Rot). Smogsteed Rider can be a way to break through a creature stall, though the gold set hurts it a bit (though like Indentured Oaf, black's lack of creature quality helps it somewhat). Unfortunately, since black's main power is still in the removal, that means picking it as a main color is unwise.
Tin Street Hooligan Rabble-Rouser Pyromatics
Commons Uncommons
Red is aligned with two guilds in Guildpact, so it only gets ten mono-color cards (five commons, five uncommons), and almost half of those are guild-aligned. However, what it lacks in quantity it makes up in quality, and then some. All of the guild-aligned cards are good, while Rabble-Rouser is another way to break a board stall (especially with all the ways to pump power in the block). The one negative of red is the traditional burn spell isn't the highest quality, but Pyromatics can easily get a two-for-one or more (though creatures aren't that fragile in Ravnica, unless you're talking about Selesnya's Saprolings). Of course, the biggest problem with red is that you have to suffer through two packs of Ravnica first, but the payoff can certainly be there.
Ghor-Clan Savage Wildsize Dryad Sophisticate
Commons Uncommons
I'm surprised at how weak green looks. Sure, the raw stats of a Ghor-Clan Savage or Silhana Starfletcher are still good, and Wildsize is a good pump spell, but the depth isn't there. The biggest problem is the lack of depth at uncommon, especially in the creatures. Sure, Dryad Sophisticate is fine in a format with multiple high-quality nonbasic lands (and it's another thing you can load enchantments on), but the biggest creature is Battering Wurm, which needs work to become a seven mana 5/4 that dies to a removal spell. Meanwhile, Predatory Focus is an interesting Overrun variant, but it needs a board to work with (and importantly doesn't work that well with a board of tokens, which is probably the point).
As colorless has nothing outside the three cycles, we're moving on to the two-color pairs. I'll start with the three guilds from Guildpact, touch on the guilds from Ravnica, then finally see if anything can be made of the three remaining pairs.
Scab-Clan Mauler Streetbreaker Wurm Skarrgan Skybreaker
Red/Green (Gruul):
(Gold) Commons Uncommons
The Gruul are a conflicted guild. On one hand, Bloodthirst wants you to be very aggressive, and Scab-Clan Mauler personifies this most directly. On the other, RG is traditionally a ramp color, and Streetbreaker Wurm shows this side of the color pair is also represented. In addition, Skarrgan Skybreaker shows the traits can be mixed, which is awkward (though the card has enough raw power it can be overcome). However, the biggest problem is that your strongest card by far is Savage Twister, which is almost guaranteed to be stolen by a greedy player. I think Gruul is an okay place to end up, but I wouldn't aim for it unless you're going for a token strategy (the Dogpile sub-theme I mentioned in the last article), as the tokens give you enough width to get a random token through in the late game for Bloodthirst.
Blind Hunter Pillory of the Sleepless Mortify
White/Black (Orzhov):
(Gold) Commons Uncommons
The WB archetype in Ravnica was mostly sustained on raw card quality, and the Orzhov continue that trend while being focused on attrition. Blind Hunter is a massive upgrade on Highway Robber (which wasn't completely awful in core set limited), while Pillory of the Sleepless turns Pacifism into a win condition. The uncommons aren't quite as good (except for the efficient Mortify), but there still a lot of removal in both sets to make up for it.
Wee Dragonauts Izzet Chronarch Electrolyze
Blue/Red (Izzet):
(Gold) Commons Uncommons
The Izzet are a guild focused on spells, and the gold spells show this: only Petrahydrox neither is an instant/sorcery or cares about them directly in some way (though the bounce clause is an indirect correlation). However, while Wee Dragonauts and other spell-themed cards can be good, the real power in Izzet comes from the gold-adjacent cards: Ogre Savant and Steamcore Weird. Combined with the inherent card advantage of Replicate spells, Izzet is one of the guilds with the most powerful cards.
Blue/Black (Dimir):
I didn't like Dimir much in Ravnica, and not much has changed here. Train of Thought and Cry of Contrition continue the card advantage theme, but your creatures didn't get any better. You still have your mill cards, though one pack less of them as well.
Green/White (Selesnya):
While Selesnya was the dominant two-color strategy in triple-Ravnica, the token swarm strategy doesn't get much in Guildpact outside of the bomb uncommon Belfry Spirit. Still, there are enough Withstands and Wildsizes to fill in utility slots, while you can still get two strong packs for the guild.
Black/Green (Golgari):
Another color combination that doesn't get much, but the grindy nature of Haunt matches the general strategy of Golgari. The fact that the creatures aren't as good means that you shouldn't have them taken from you, though, so a density of average creatures could work.
Red/White (Boros):
While red getting good commons should help the Boros deck, the fact that most of the power is in the gold-adjacent commons hurts it, and then you're hurt by the lack of cards overall (especially since you aren't looking for most of the expensive cards.
The WU control deck doesn't get as many cards in Guildpact (Withstand being the major defensive common), but there are more good fliers here than in Ravnica. An aggressive enchantment strategy could also work.
Somehow Black/Red got even worse—you have fewer relevant creatures (unless you splash for the gold-adjacent ones), and there isn't even any quality removal for the greedy players to steal. This isn't a good sign for when the BR guild finally shows up in Dissension.
This deck continues to be surprising: Silhana Starfletcher is another good mana creature, while Replicate spells are a good mana sink. It's not quite as good as Ravnica for the deck, but considering the deck doesn't have any gold cards (other than splashes, which I'd expect from a ramp deck), it's remarkably high quality.
Three-Color Decks:
When we get to Dissension, the default strategy will be to draft a three-color deck, drafting a guild in each pack (to avoid losing out on a pack of gold cards). While that isn't as necessary here, a couple of the three-color decks do have all three guilds represented:
Selesnya and Boros → Gruul (RGW/Naya):
This is a very aggressive deck, as Boros and Selesnya both want to go wide, while Gruul benefits from going wide via Bloodthirst (as well as from white's fliers).
Selesnya and Golgari → Orzhov (GWB/Abzan):
On the other hand, the combination of Golgari and Orzhov leads to a very grindy strategy, even if they don't have any direct synergies with each other. Selesnya doesn't have that many synergies with that strategy (though the repeatable token generators like Selesnya Evangel and Selesnya Guildmage fit that well), but the main thing all three guilds have in common is raw card quality.
That's all for Guildpact. Next time we'll finish off the block with the final three guilds in Dissension.
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