Guildpact: Code of the Orzhov Review (Part 1 of 2)
Mark Rosewater, he of Wizards R&D fame and perhaps the game’s most public face, once told the story of how in a brainstorming session for the development of Ravnica block and its guilds, there was a space on the wall for each of the ten. Rosewater then encouraged everyone to stick up pictures of things that they thought best represented the guild, to get a sense of where everyone’s thoughts were at and to help flesh out the character and identity of the entities that would be carrying the block. Then Rosewater himself went over and pinned up a picture under the White/Black, an individual he felt best represented what the colours in tandem would produce. The picture? Don Corleone.
In his story, he explains to a bewildered audience just how suited the Godfather was to the Orzhov, as summarised by the phrase “organised crime.” Crime, of course, was Black, but the organisation, that familial bond? “Clearly, clearly, clearly… White/Black,” he concluded. Sure enough, that’s not too far from where the guild ended up.
It was just this sort of planning and precise attention to getting the feel and flavour of the set right that went in to bringing Ravnica to life. It had to be, for Ravnica was going to be a very different kind of set, and if the different pieces didn’t come together correctly, it could sink the set even as it launched. In our “year of firsts,” Ravnica was the first set to break from the evolutionary model since the three-block set concept was codified with October 1996.
In the traditional block model, a set launches with its slate of new themes and mechanics, which are then developed and evolved over the successive two small sets in addition to any new mechanics introduced along the way. As an example, take 2000’s Invasion. The game’s first “colour matters” set, amongst other things Invasion brought about the keyword kicker, which would later return in 2009’s Zendikar. Kicker denoted an additional cost that could be paid when a spell was cast that would increase the card’s effect or potency. A Llanowar Elite, for instance, went from a 1/1 to a 6/6 when you paid its kicker cost. Without exception, Invasion’s kicker costs were mana costs, mainly fixed but in some cases variable. In most cases, the kicker was the same colour as the spell itself, but some had allied-colour kickers while still more had colourless ones.
With the next set, Planeshift, kicker underwent a bit of change. Now, spells no longer were confined to mana-defined kickers. Instead, Wizards introduced other ways to maximise the potency of the card that didn’t involve mana. These new kicker costs might involve the sacrifice of land (see: Bog Down, Rushing River), the loss in some way of a creature (see: Dralnu’s Pet, Primal Growth), or life loss (see: Phyrexian Scuta). Another slate of creatures were introduced that had two different kicker costs, letting you pay for one or both if you chose to, and having varying effects (the Battlemage cycle).
But Wizards still had one set to go, Apocalypse, and there was plenty more design space to be mined with the mechanic. On first blush, the last slate of kicker cards in Invasion block didn’t seem as radical a departure as Planeshift, as most of them had reverted to mana-based costs. But a closer look reveals a very subtle twist- this time, the mana kickers were enemy-coloured. Orim’s Thunder was a White spell, for example, but add in a and it could dish out some damage in addition to destroying an artifact or enchantment. Another cycle of creatures, the Volvers, were similar to the Battlemages in having two different extra abilities, but had enemy-colour kicker costs.
For many, then, one of the things they enjoy about playing Magic is watching sets evolve over the course of releases within a block. Releases after Ravnica would meddle directly with this formula, either in breaking up the traditional block structure (Lorwyn/Shadowmoor), or by releasing a mechanically-independent large third set (Rise of the Eldrazi, Avacyn Restored). Ravnica, too, would abandon the evolutionary model, but it did so in a much less overt manner. Rather than presenting players with a set of mechanics that would grow and evolve over the course of the block, Ravnica would be built on a “block model” which saw entirely new mechanics for each of the successive sets. In order to make that work, then, you needed a thematic overlay, something that tied the block together in look and feel. The answer was the guilds. Ten in number, released four in the large set followed by a further three in each successive expansion. As we’ll see, this wasn’t a renunciation of evolution, but such progression would take on a much subtler role over the development of cycles.
For today’s guild, we present the Orzhov, the Guild of Deals. As we’ve discussed in our reviews of Ravnica and Dissension, each of the ten guilds have their own role to play in the planewide city. For the Orzhov, that’s business and commerce, and the thinly-veiled veneer of organised religion. They deal extensively with the dead, mainly in the form of ghosts and spirits (though they aren’t above a more corporeal form of necromancy in the manufacture of Thrull servants).
As translated into gameplay terms, Code of the Orzhov is what’s called a bleeder deck. This is a deck type that’s not especially common, but has been around since the beginnings of the game (indeed one of my favourite decks back then involved liberal use of Psychic Venom, Warp Artifact, Feedback, Cursed Land and the like). The concept of a bleeder deck is simple- contain your opponent, then slowly grind them down through a small but steady stream of damage.
Shed Flesh and Emotion
The deck opens with a quartet of ability-creature one-drops that are useful at nearly any point in the game- and all of them sacrifice outlets. The Martyred Rusalka lets you turn the loss of a creature into rendering your opponent’s biggest offensive threat mute for a turn. The Plagued model, on the other hand, would prefer to wear them down to the tune of -1/-1 until end of turn- a great way to solve any utility creatures of their own your opponent manages to play. Finally, a pair of Thoughtpicker Witches let you indulge in a little bit of draw manipulation. With her ability, you can make sure your opponent draws more than their fair share of land long after land has stopped being a desirable commodity, and head off threats before your opponent can even draw them.
Moving on to the two-drops, we find a pair of Mourning Thrulls and the Orzhov Guildmage. The latter is part of a ten-card cycle at uncommon, and plays right into the bleeding aspect of the deck. For three mana you can have every player at the table lose 1 life, then turn around and use its other ability to gain yours back. This is a great place to stash excess mana in the later stages of the game. The Thrull, on the other hand, is a more offensive-minded option. Once you’ve managed to clamp down on the board with your more controlling options, even a wee flyer in the sky can pose a serious problem to your opponent as you swing in turn after turn, widening the life gap by 2 each time.
The first of these heavily-controlling options checks in as we enter three-drop territory with the Souls of the Faultless. A 0/4 with defender, its a wall that can stop a great deal of what your opponent cares to throw against you. What makes it truly wicked is that whenever it blocks, you gain life and your opponent loses some. That graduates it from nuisacne to threat, and you can look for it to have a very chilling effect on your opponent’s territorial ambitions once it touches down. Of course, it also comes into play with a massive bullseye painted on its forehead for any removal your opponent might be bringing.
Next up is the Infectious Host, one of the more underwhelming options. Essentially sacrifical fodder for your outlets, the Host has the added benefit of giving you a dose of reach across the table, as you can hit your opponent’s life total without ever turning it sideways. It’s also up to the task for any chump-blocking needs you might have. Then we come to the Shrieking Grotesque, which makes up for the Host somewhat in its tremendous value. For only three mana, it puts your opponent down a card while you go up a creature. That would be fair on a landed body, but the evasion the Gargoyle carries is the icing on the cake.
Our next card introduces us to the Orzhov’s signature mechanic, haunt. Reflecting the fact that indenture to the Orzhov doesn’t end at the grave, haunt gives you an extra use of the creature’s enters-the-battlefield ability once it goes to the grave. It’s one of the more confusing of Magic’s abilities at first blush, but plays fairly straightforwardly once you get a handle on it. For the Orzhov Euthanist, that means you get to kill a creature that was dealt damage in the same turn it enters the battlefield. Then, when it dies itself, it is removed from the game “haunting” another creature. When that creature dies, guess what- you get to “euthanise” another creature. This makes haunt particularly useful in a sacrifice deck, since it gives you greater control over when you can trigger the ability. In a highly conditional one like the Euthanist’s, this can make the difference between a hit and a miss.
The last three-drop is the deck’s first rare, the legendary Teysa, Orzhov Scion. Teysa has a pair of complimentary abilities that serve the deck’s overall aims quite well. For one thing, every time one of your Black creatures dies, you get to put a White 1/1 Spirit token into play. Extra tokens in a sacrifice deck are always welcome, but her other ability is what makes them truly worth hoarding. Sacrifice any three of your White creatures, and you can exile any creature on the board. Repeatable removal on a stick attached to token generation? Teysa is the real deal here, and you’ll be delighted to see her in your opening grip.
Next we move up into four-drop territory, though Teysa be a hard act to follow. The Ostiary Thrull is a 2/2 tapper, which makes it a bit expensive for what it does (compare with, say, Gideon’s Lawkeeper), but will do a fine job containing your opponent’s offensive threats. You also get a pair of Blind Hunters, 2/2 fliers that haunt with a Syphon Life effect. That doesn’t seem huge, but it’s an 8-point life swing once it completes its full life/unlife cycle.
Finally, we arrive at the top of the mana curve, and we have more creatures that strongly reinforce the deck’s bleeder credentials. The Poisonbelly Ogre is a fair-sized body at 3/3, but just as intriguing is its ability. Though it doesn’t limit itself to affecting your opponents, you at least can mitigate any incidental damage through all of the lifegain the deck will be affording you. That leads us nicely to the Agent of Masks, another sturdy and reliable way to increase the divide between you and your opponent’s life totals.
The deck’s second rare arrives in the form of the Skeletal Vampire, a 3/3 flier that brings along a couple of its friends in the form of 1/1 Bat tokens. Thanks to the Vampire, you have the ability to actually grow your Bat horde, and you can cash one in to regenerate the Vampire itself. Should you run out, not to worry, the Belfry Spirit will arrive with a couple more in tow- and even more still when it haunts.
The Sleep Which Never Ends
Given the number of creatures the deck contains, there aren’t a ton of noncreature support options. That said, the deck tries to make the ones you do get count. You have some solid removal in a pair of Pillories of the Sleepless and a Mortify. The Pillories don’t destroy the creature outright, but in return for leaving he body on the battlefield you get to add another bleed “DoT” effect. Mortify, on the other hand, does destroy the creature you’ve singled out- and it can solve an enchantment as well, giving it tremendous versatility.
Speaking of bleeder effects, you also get a pair of Hissing Miasmas. These three-mana enchantments further help your deck dissuade an opponent from attacking, taxing them 1 life for each attacker. The deck’s final enchantment, Strands of Undeath, is more of a containment measure, giving one of your creatures regeneration to help blunt any offensive pressure against you. Cruelly, it also forces a double discard when it enters play, diminishing your opponent’s options right in their hand. Towards that end, there are also a pair of Castigates, which let you weed your opponent’s hand.
The deck’s final noncreature card here is Festival of the Guildpact. It’s a damage containment card, but has the upside at least of replacing itself in your hand when cast.
Any look at the deck would be remiss without a mention of its small suite of nonbasic lands. The pair of Orzhov Basilicas are your standard-issue bounce lands, but Orzhova, Church of Deals is another utility option for bleeding out your opponent. It doesn’t come cheaply- a full five mana to activate plus tapping Orzhova itself- but late in the game when you’ve got more land than options it can be a great way to make sure every turn counts.
That’s it for our look at Code of the Orzhov! Check back in two days when we put the deck through battleifled conditions to see how it holds up. Will this unique deck be able to honour its own contract and deliver you victory?