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By: Cheater Hater, Vincent Borchardt
Nov 29 2016 1:55pm
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Welcome back to the Modern Flashback Series! We’re almost into the final month of the Year of Modern Flashbacks, and with it comes the start of the final full block. I’m still expecting an extension of the Flashbacks in the near-future, but until then we’ll enjoy what we have.
After testing the waters for a “return” set with Scars of Mirrodin, the clear next step was to go back to Ravnica, one of the most-popular settings of all time. However, while Mirrodin was always meant to fall to the Phyrexians, the big picture of Ravnica was going to be mostly the same. That meant returning to the system of the ten guilds (even though they were dissolved at the end of the previous block—that mostly was resolved off-screen), so again we have a multicolor set focused on two colors. However, the main difference is in the way the block was set up. The original block was built in a time where Large-Small-Small was the only format, so it put four guilds in the first set and three each in the next two. This had many problems: it meant you only got one set of each guild (minus the gold split cards), the smaller sets were cramped, and you only got to really draft the four guilds in Ravnica (and then you transitioned to the three-guild model I talked about in my Ravnica block articles). To help fix those problems, Return to Ravnica’s structure is Large-Large-Small, with each of the large sets having five guilds and then the small set having all ten. In addition, each of the large sets were drafted standalone when first released, allowing you to draft all the guilds standalone during at least one point in the lifecycle of the block. Granted, that means the small set (Dragon’s Maze) will have some problems, but we’ll get to that in a bit. For now, we’ll get to the mechanics—as expected, each guild has a mechanic, in addition to some other themes I’ll cover:
Azorius: Detain
Azorius was originally going to have a mechanic dealing with enchantments (likely Enchantment-fall, what would become Constellation), but Theros forced an audible to this simple flavorful mechanic. While this looks like a slow, controlling mechanic at first (as would be expected from UW), Detain is surprisingly aggressive—compare an Azorius Arrester to Goblin Shortcutter, and consider that most of the non-rare Detain effects are one-time effects. Overall it’s nice, but not something worth building around.
Rakdos: Unleash
While Detain could be either controlling or aggressive, Unleash is clearly the latter. Overall Unleash is a very pushed mechanic for limited, as the Unleashed versions are very efficient when you’re attacking, and you still have the option to block if necessary (and it’s not like a “leashed” Dead Reveler or Splatter Thug is an awful card. Just keep in mind that the “can’t block” part of Unleash isn’t tied to that counter specifically: any +1/+1 counter makes the creature unable to block. Importantly, both Common Bond and Scavenge can target your opponent’s creatures so watch out for that if you’re depending on a “leashed” creature to save your life.
Selesnya: Populate
By far the most conditional of the guild mechanics, all of Selesnya is based around token-making. In order to not completely cripple you if you don’t have tokens, almost all of the Populate cards either produce a token then Populate (giving you two tokens baseline) or perform a normal effect and don’t charge much for the Populate rider (like Sundering Growth or Trostani's Judgment). This makes all the token cards in Return to Ravnica very-high priority (even marginal ones, like Seller of Songbirds), as getting the rider on those already-playable cards makes them actively good.
Izzet: Overload
Hooray for the card that causes awkward wordings and prevents “Splice onto Instant” from ever happening! Overload is a generic mechanic, but it’s very powerful to have both a single-target and multi-target version of a spell in the same card. It’s even better when some cards are normally costed in one mode or another, like Dynacharge or Blustersquall and the other mode is pure upside.
Golgari: Scavenge
Golgari has a graveyard mechanic as you would expect, and thankfully it’s not broken in Eternal formats this time (at least now; at one point in development Golgari had Delve—then again, there wouldn’t have been blue Delve cards if they did). Instead, Scavenge doesn’t look flashy but does a lot of work. It follows the trend of Flashback in Innistrad block where the front end of the card is normally priced in most cases, while the back end is a bonus. Scavenge is a grindy mechanic for long games, so don’t forget about them (and remember you can only Scavenge as a sorcery).
For some reason Return to Ravnica decided to port over some of Ravnica’s minor sub-themes, so from Wakestone Gargoyle (mostly created to show off the new keyword), have a small defender-matters theme! Both Axebane Guardian and Doorkeeper are cards worth building around in the format, as they block rushes and generate good advantages in the late game (and there are other good defenders in the format like Trestle Troll, Lobber Crew, and Ogre Jailbreaker to go with them).
Next, Ravnica had an Aura sub-theme, so let’s connect Theros with Ethereal Armor and Sphere of Safety. Return to Ravnica’s unique spin on the concept is to create a lot of Auras for Lands, which means they’re more likely to stick around longer.
The new thing Return to Ravnica is doing is introducing a cycle of common dual lands with the sub-type Gate, and then having a lot of random cards key off that subtype. We’ll see this theme developed more in the later sets, but you have even more of an incentive to pick the fixing you know you need, even in two-color decks.
It’s been a while since we’ve covered a gold set, so we’re going back to the traditional format: covering the colors and colorless individually, then covering the gold cards along with their archetypes.
White seems very boring, at least at the common level. Sure, a Sunspire Griffin is good (though WW hurts in a multicolor set), and a Swift Justice is a nice combat trick, but all the excitement is saved for gold cards. One interesting card is Knightly Valor, which seems really bad (a five-mana Aura), but there isn’t that much good removal, and the card is very impactful, even before you consider Populate. Up at uncommon, there are interesting cards, but the best is the relatively-boring Arrest.
Blue seems even more boring than white: lots of cards are core set-style reprints (Cancel, Dispel, Inspiration, and Paralyzing Grasp), and others are just slight variations (Voidwielder, Stealer of Secrets). That’s not to say they aren’t good—Voidwielder and Runewing can still be good cards—but it just makes it boring. Uncommon has more-interesting cards, but even a Soulsworn Spirit or Blustersquall is just a simple card with a block mechanic on it. Psychic Spiral is the most interesting design of the lot, but it needs a very specific deck (mill or hard control) to be playable.
Unlike the previous two colors, black has an identity, even if it’s just the raw aggression of Dead Reveler and Ogre Jailbreaker. Of course, black’s most important aspect is its removal, and while Launch Party is just a bigger version of Bone Splinters (though being Instant-speed changes it a lot), the real star is Stab Wound. Not only is this just Dead Weight, it serves as either a win condition that’s hard to get rid of (if put on a Defender or worthless creature) or a hard removal spell (if your opponent has to attack into you to get rid of it). Moving up to uncommon, Thrill-Kill Assassin leads the pack, but Tavern Swindler has the most-interesting design as the first strictly-better Walking Corpse, and yes, the ability is relevant.
More Unleash creatures continue to dominate the curve, but burn has its place: Annihilating Fire is the workhorse with a relevant anti-Scavenge rider (though it’s hindered by RR), but Explosive Impact is much better than it looks—yes, a six-mana removal spell isn’t a star, but getting Lava Axe in your deck for "free" isn’t to be underestimated. Speaking of win conditions, Lobber Crew works well in any red deck, especially defensive ones. The constant damage triggers continue at uncommon, as while Guttersnipe can easily be built around, Pyroconvergence is much clunkier (as it needs to be after the domination of Burning Vengeance). It’s also worth noting just how above the curve Bloodfray Giant is: you start with the average Shatterskull Giant, add Trample for free, then give it Unleash.
It’s amazing how much Populate warps the environment: in any other set Centaur’s Herald would be far below the curve for green, but here it’s one of green’s best commons as a source of Centaur tokens. Granted, part of that’s due to green’s relative weakness, as nothing else stands out other than Drudge Beetle and Gatecreeper Vine. Uncommon isn’t much better, as Golgari Decoy and Slime Molding are nice in this set but aren’t all-time stars.
As you would expect, a multicolor set brings along a lot of colorless cards, even if most of the relevant ones are color-fixing. At common, the Gates are all-stars, but if you’re playing a straight two-color deck you shouldn’t need them unless you have some Gate-matters cards (in which case it might be worth it to find a reason to splash). Of course, if you’re going for the all-color strategy, Transguild Promenade is there to help solve that problem (and don’t play it otherwise). Up at uncommon, the Keyrunes aren’t that exciting, but it can be worth it to play one if you need the mana or are a slower deck. As for the non-color-fixers, Rogue’s Passage is very nice if you can afford the colorless land, while Civic Saber is good if you have enough gold creatures to make it consistently Bonesplitter.
Azorius (White/Blue):
Azorius’s gold cards have some surprisingly-efficient creatures, with Hussar Patrol as a great defensive creature and Skymark Roc and Lyev Skyknight dominating the sky. Combined with all the Detain cards (and Blustersquall, which functions similarly), Azorius is much more aggressive than a normal UW deck. The thing that separates it from Rakdos is that it can actually survive for a while, whether it’s through Detain preventing counter-attacks, the incidental lifegain on cards like Dramatic Rescue and Azorius Charm, or just Vigilance.
Rakdos (Black/Red):
Rakdos is a much more straight-forward deck, with the focus being Haste (Rakdos Shred-Freak, Rakdos Ragemutt) and the curve-breaking Unleash. Uncommon also has two strange “Chinese menu” cards (Rakdos Ragemutt and Rakdos Ringleader) which are perfectly fine in the color pie, but seem very strange for a Rakdos deck. Even with those themes, the best gold cards are generically good cards: Auger Spree is an efficient removal spell (that can also be a power boost in the late game), while Rix Maadi Guildmage makes combat impossible for your opponent. This, combined with the good removal, efficient Unleash creatures, and reach from Haste and things like Explosive Impact, makes Rakdos one of the best decks in the format.
Selesnya (Green/White):
For as synergy-focused as the guild is, Selesnya’s gold cards are focused on raw efficiency. Centaur Healer is nice incidental lifegain on a good creature, while Selesnya Charm has three great modes. There are also a lot of Centaurs running around, whether it’s the “bread-and-butter” Centaur’s Accord, the efficient Call of the Conclave, or the crazy Vitu-Ghazi Guildmage (which dominates a late game just as much as its relative Selesnya Guildmage). Of course, the question with Selesnya is if you can reliably get tokens. It’s certainly possible (especially since Eyes in the Skies and friends each produce two tokens from an empty board), but it’s slow—can it survive in a format with the aggressive Rakdos and Azorius?
Izzet (Blue/Red):
Izzet wants to be focused on instants and sorceries, but Goblin Electromancer and Blistercoil Weird aren’t the things you want to build around (especially since Overload isn’t a build-around mechanic). Instead, Izzet’s strongest cards are generic: the Constructed all-star Frostburn Weird, the Bird-killer Izzet Staticaster, and Overrun-equivalent Teleportal. That means an Izzet deck is mostly just good cards—the red Unleash cards benefit from a Teleportal just as much as any other good creature, and using a Goblin Electromancer to cast Explosive Impact easier is just as exciting as using it to cast a turn-four Thoughtflare.
Golgari (Black/Green):
Unlike most of the mechanics in Return to Ravnica, Scavenge can theoretically be built around if you have enough self-mill. However, while Grisly Salvage is good, it’s your only option. Instead, since Scavenge costs so much mana it actually becomes anti-synergistic unless you would play the cards anyway (like Drudge Beetle or Dreg Mangler). What makes it worse is that there’s no Teleportal-style standout for Golgari—not even Korozda Guildmage is that exciting. All of that makes Golgari the worst of the five guilds
Other Archetypes:
Theoretically you could play one of the non-supported color pairs, but the problem is that the mono-color cards aren’t that good in this set. Instead, what’s more likely is going three-colors by pairing two guilds together and taking a lot of Guildgates. The problem there is that you generally want to be green if you’re doing that (for Gatecreeper Vine and Axebane Guardian), but both Bant (Azorius/Selesnya) and Abzan (Selesnya/Golgari) seem underpowered, and Jund (Golgari/Rakdos) is actively anti-synergistic. Instead, the three-color group I want is Grixis (Rakdos/Izzet), though that’s more like Rakdos splashing Teleportal. Splashing is also an important part of this, especially all those rares I don’t talk about (since you don’t need me to tell you to play Pack Rat, Mizzium Mortars, or Vraska the Unseen, among others).
We’re nearing the end of the Year of Modern Flashbacks, but our return to Ravnica is just beginning. Next time we move to the other half of Ravnica with Gatecrash—prepare for a wild ride.

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