Magic: The Gathering’s newest set, Guilds of Ravnica, takes us back to the heart of one of the game’s most evocative and fantastic worlds. Originally created for the release of the set named Ravnica back in 2005, the plane creates a gameplay environment in which players can create decks from the ten different color pairings of mana in Magic. If that makes sense to you, then you are probably the key audience for Guilds of Ravnica. If that’s confusing, then this might not be the best first set for you.
The basic conceit of Guilds, from a storytelling and a gameplay perspective, is that there is a world covered by one massive city. That city is the site of a power struggle between ten different guilds, all of which have their particular function in this big ecosystem. Boros, for example, are a military vanguard that defend the system of that world from those who would destroy it. Golgari is the guild that cares the most about death and growth. Rakdos are cultists who worship death, assassinate enemies at the behest of other guilds, and generally just cause mayhem that is (sometimes, at least) seen as a benefit to the system. The seven other guilds also have their own identities.
From a gameplay perspective, each of these is a color pair: Boros is red-white, Golgari is black-green, and Rakdos is red-black. Each guild is mechanically able to do different things due to what kinds of mechanics that those colors have access to in the broader game of Magic. That means that Boros and Rakdos, for example, will have direct damage cards, cards that hurt creatures, and enchantments that make smaller creatures more powerful than they should be. This is because both guilds are based in red, the color of aggression, direct damage, and fast attacking.
Any card set that takes place in Ravnica is fundamentally going to be built around these assumptions about mana and card creation at the core of Magic, and in my experience that means that Guilds of Ravnica is a more complicated set than normal. One needs to understand not just what the cards are doing, but to excel, one also needs to understand what these particular guilds (and their colors) are trying to accomplish at the design level.
Guilds of Ravnica contains five of the ten guilds (Boros, Selesnya, Golgari, Izzet, and Dimir), and each of them are particular approaches to the game. If you attempt to build a Golgari deck that plays creatures every turn and simply attacks its way to victory, you’re going to have a bad time; that’s what Boros does. Similarly, if you try to build a Boros deck that is playing into the Convoke mechanic on some white cards (which is in generally in the green-white configuration of Selesnya), you’re probably going to lose more than you win. Guilds of Ravnica is the kind of set that requires a certain amount of meta knowledge on the part of the player.
Experienced players tend to love sets on Ravnica, and I’m one of them. I’ve drafted the set a few times already, and I’ve played a bit on Magic Arena in the Sealed format, and I think it makes for a very fun limited environment for experienced players. But it also requires the player to build very particular decks, and so this is not the kind of set that you should try to teach a friend how to play with. Give them Magic 2019 to do that with.
Overall, I’ve enjoyed the cards I’ve played with in Guilds of Ravnica, and it is going to be interesting how the broader game of Magic changes in response to it. But I don’t think Guilds is going to usher in a bunch of new players who are excited about the hypercomplexity of the game.
Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman and writes about games at thiscageisworms.com. He’s the weekend editor at Kotaku and a regular writer at Waypoint. His latest game, Epanalepsis, is available on Steam.