Tastes Like Borscht: A Return To Ravnica Flavor Review

Does the guild-filled flavor of the hotly anticipated Return to Ravnica live up to JDB’s expectations? Read on to find out!

Mmm, borscht

Ravnica is back, and during my first visit, I had a blast. For my first Prerelease flight, I went Selesnya and added a red splash for Explosive Impact, Street Spasm, and Utvara Hellkite to rattle off a 3-1 record. My Izzet pack and boosters were good to me in my second flight, and I rode Niv-Mizzet, Dracogenius, triple Goblin Electromancer, my shiny Hypersonic Dragon, and (yet again) Explosive Impact to a 4-0 performance. On Saturday, I was the Prerelease Dragonmaster. Paging Brian Kibler

They made me unleash the dragon.

The preorder period is almost done (get shopping!) and I only have 24 packs’ worth of actual cards to sort through, but Wizards has the complete Card Image Gallery for at-a-glance perusal. Rather than going by color, I’ll work through the guilds of Return to Ravnica. A mono-colored card may not have a guild mark or symbol, but most have some thematic link to a guild, such as Psychic Spiral depicting a Vedalken and mentioning Elocutors, both of which signal Azorius. A final section will cover "guildless" cards and those associated with the guilds of Gatecrash.

My Land. My Gold. My Guild.

Azorius (White-Blue)

Overall impressions: As with other guilds, Azorius benefited from the chance at a "do over." While not perfect, the "feel" of Azorius is far more refined this time, with more of a line drawn between it and the Boros guild. In the original Ravnica, Boros was the on-the-scene police force, but in Return to Ravnica, Azorius is the face of both law and its enforcement.

Card-specific impressions:

ArrestThis is the first of five distinct printings for Arrest that made me care. Look at the Mercadian Masques original and IDW Promo versions, both of which have illustrations paired with a story fragment.

Mirrodin and Scars of Mirrodin had their own takes that boil down to "lockdown of ugly creature." Mirrodin goes for humor, Scars goes for seriousness, but neither hit a resonant note for me.

Ravnica’s version, though, hits me and hard. The arrestee in the art is no storyline character with a stuck-up nose or from-the-back heroic pose, nor is he a beastie. He is Human, perhaps all too much so, and his eyes tell his story: whether he is guilty or innocent, he is screwed. The stone-cold arrogant certainty of Arrester Lavinia’s quote seals the flavor. Top marks all around.

Azorius ArresterA good example of flavor text that’s 95% of the way there. A different spin on the same theme: "You have the right to remain silent. Make that ‘obligation.’"

Azorius Charm – Quality flavor text with a "meta" gameplay reading. Clever.

Azor’s Elocutors – I need a parody song, "Filibuster," to the tune of "Womanizer" by Britney Spears. Anyone? Inkwell Looter?

Detention Sphere – Perhaps I’m too steeped in Alara block and the plane of Esper, but Detention Sphere felt like an artifact at first glance. On Ravnica, though, an enchantment makes sense.

Giant Growth – The ruling is so Azorius, I can’t help but laugh.

Hallowed Fountain – "A place to relax, if you have the proper permit." Azorius in 48 characters.

Hussar Patrol – I like the art (from relative newcomer Seb McKinnon), but the flavor text feels as if it should be in past tense. That might not have fit in the space available, though.

Judge’s Familiar – Pretty art! Pretty good flavor text, too. Not flashy, but it works for the card.

Psychic Spiral – I had to read the flavor text on this one three times to get it. I’m still not sure I "got it." At least the Ryan Pancoast art is interesting.

Search Warrant – Artist Steven Belledin broke down his art better than I could, so I’ll let his comment stand. I’m guessing the flavor text seemed way more awesome "in the file" than on the card. Off the card, it should be a comedy gold mine; on the card, the quote underwhelms.

Seller of SongbirdsI’m reminded of the classic quote from Chainer’s Torment: "My name is Skellum, and I wear a silly hat."

Skymark Roc – I don’t like most art that makes me tilt my head like a beagle, but the quote scored an out-loud chuckle from me.

Soulsworn Spirit – Why does an unblockable creature need to detain? This feels off.

Supreme Verdict – Yep, the Azorius can be jerks. The quote pushes and almost breaks my suspension of disbelief, though. It’s too extreme.

Tablet of the Guilds – I doubt the Azorius would have to pay a bribe to get their guild symbol on top. They’d just have to slip a tiny amendment into subsection (q) of section 492 of Article XXVII of Codicil…

Voidwielder – He may make his own laws, but which law did he break, Mirela?

Golgari (Green-Black)

Overall impressions: I’m not as thrilled with Golgari this time as I was last. The "cleaned up" guild logos for Golgari (and Gruul for Gatecrash) seem to go against the wildness of green when paired with black or red. That said, Golgari has scavenge for a mechanic, which promises to be a teensy-weensy bit less broken than dredge was. Small favors and all that.

Specific card impressions:

Deadbridge Goliath – How is that thing still walking on Insect-proportioned legs? Wait…magic. Never mind.

Death’s Presence – Mm, I don’t know about that "not trafficking in souls" bit. The Golgari have many quality necromancers. Exhibit A: Savra, Queen of the Golgari from the last set.

Golgari Charm – Strong expression of both how the rest of Ravnica looks at the Golgari and how that guild looks back.

Golgari Keyrune – Design, art, and flavor text all tell a story of Golgari. Great metaphor.

Korozda Monitor – Confusing art. I saw the Elf first and didn’t realize the mushroom-covered wall behind her was really a Lizard. I’ll call it a miss.

Necropolis Regent – A little bit of Innistrad on Ravnica, the Regent gives a good clue to the inherently unstable guild leadership of the Golgari.

Overgrown Tomb – Gorgeous art; I wish I’d had the money to pick up the painting before it sold. The flavor text is elegant as well. All around excellent.

Slitherhead – Tries to be funny, falls flat. At least the scavenging skull Zombie has good creepy-weird points going for it.

Stonefare Crocodile – Thumbs-up for effective dry humor in this flavor text.

Terrus Wurm – The flavor text would be great but for the creature type: "Zombie Wurm." Terrus Wurm done died, spore farmer. What do you want it to do, die again?

Trestle Troll – Poor birdie! This is a great example of a small touch making an illustration much better. Without the feathers, it’s a generic Troll. With the feathers, I’ll remember it. Also, something so nasty even the Golgari don’t want it around? Wow…

Izzet (Blue-Red)

Overall impressions: If the goal was to make Izzet look less steampunk, it didn’t work. Merely swapping hoses for gears doesn’t change the ethos of exploration and adventure that Izzet embodies. On the other hand, the conscious effort by Jeremy Jarvis and crew not to have Izzet be merely a collection of old white guys paid off.

Individual card takes:

Blustersquall – Great one-liner flavor text on its own, but with the Izzet predilection for weather control—Izzet Chronarch, for example—a little off. Minus points for the gratuitous skin on Willian Murai’s art, but based on his official website—no links, as this is a family site—that’s par for the course. ("Willian" is not a typo, by the way. He’s Brazilian, and based on his middle name of "Hideki" and surname "Murai," likely of Japanese descent.)

Chronic Flooding – The story of the card isn’t connected that well to the mechanics, but what a story! I found myself wondering how many years of each mage’s life those sodden books might represent.

Cyclonic Rift – See Blustersquall above.

Electrickery – I can’t tell who’s doing what on this card. It’s like Greg Staples tried to do the Izzet Faerie version of Earthbind and it didn’t quite come together.

Epic Experiment – Oddly intimate art for an epic experiment, yet it feels right somehow.

Essence Backlash – The sinister side of the Izzet, striking just the right note. The blue-red guild has big plans. Where will they go?

Inspiration – Did anyone else think of the David Guetta with Nicki Minaj "Turn Me On" music video? Long hair, steampunkish headgear? Anyone? Just me? Ok. The flavor text is a hoot.

Izzet Charm: This and Selesnya Charm have no flavor text, unlike the other three Charms in the cycle. It’s too bad, because Izzet Charm has room for a one-liner. Oh well.

Izzet Guildgate – The better summation of the Izzet way of life compared to Steam Vents.

Mercurial Chemister – This guy is a pair of brass goggles away from being Mister Steampunk. Are we sure they tried to tone that down this time?

Niv-Mizzet, Dracogenius – The flavor text is not an equation. Let’s call it a win and go on.

Nivmagus Elemental – Move over, Azorius. The Izzet want room on the "cruel jerks" bench.

Paralyzing Grasp – The quote is Izzet and so is the Goblin, but naughty tentacles are Simic (blue/green biological experimenters), not Izzet. A Goblin grabbing a cable and getting electrocuted would’ve been perfect art instead.

Pursuit of Flight – Where are the wings? This one feels as if a card was spiked from the file late and the art reused with new flavor text whipped up on the spot. Of course, I could be wrong. I have no insider information.

Teleportal – I keep imagining this guy stretching his right arm out too quickly, that hose between his legs flipping up, and… Yeah, that hurts too much. Next guild!

Rakdos (Black-Red)

Overall impressions: The stated goal of the Rakdos reboot was to move it away from a "Gwar concert," as it was put on the PAX Prime panel, and more toward a harlequin/evil entertainment style of guild. One thing led to another, and pretty soon "new Rakdos" was established as a mixture of Lady Gaga, Insane Clown Posse, and Adam Lambert. Put on your best Versace leather outfit and stock up on Faygo, because Rakdos is here "For Your Entertainment."

Specific card impressions:

Annihilating Fire – Ah, the old Show Biz Bugs problem. "You can only do it once…"

Carnival Hellsteed – The art looks fearsome from across the table (and props to Chase Stone, who landed seven illustrations in this set alone), but the punning flavor text seriously undermines the "rawr!" factor.

Cryptborn Horror – Getting into an argument with an ancient Demon who’s above you in the hierarchy? Not smart.

Gore-House Chainwalker – Mom, I know you’re reading this, so please don’t click on that card. For the rest of you, this art is surreal and disgusting and…remarkably well executed.

Grim Roustabout – I love this Steven Belledin art (that mask over a skull and eye-sockets is creepy-awesome), but not the one-line punning flavor text.

Launch Party – This one feels disjointed to me. I can see the art and mechanics going together, but what does a line out of umpteen hundred self-help books have to do with a leather-clad bald dude shooting what soon will be his corpse out of a cannon?

Rakdos Keyrune – … But do they use it as a bottle-opener? Yes, yes they do. If you’ll excuse me, I have some Faygo to dodge.

Rix Maadi Guildmage – Another piece of "95% of the way there" flavor text. I love the three adjectives, but the "and" interrupts the flow and the specific order of the adjectives doesn’t make much sense. Slightly rearranged to go from long to short and good to do not want territory: "Irresistible. Insatiable. Insane."

Tavern Swindler – The flavor text would make more sense if the card’s ability didn’t give identical expected value for flipping versus not flipping (six divided by two is three, the same amount of life one pays to activate the ability). There’s also great irony in that a female Rogue who apparently lives by her charms and wiles is more covered up than several other women depicted in this set.

Thrill-Kill Assassin – If I don’t hear more about Massacre Girl in the third set, I’ll be disappointed. If there isn’t a "Massacre Girl" roller derby participant near me in the next few months, I’ll be doubly disappointed.

Selesnya (White-Green)

Overall thoughts: Selesnya needed a "reboot" after its guild leadership was offed in the original Ravnica block. If the events of Return to Ravnica are a generation later, then Trostani is the youngest guild leader by far because all previous Dryads should have died in the earlier events. Of course, as the unofficial motto of serials goes: "Retcon happens."

Individual card takes:

Armada Wurm: Quality flavor text but a bad art miss. Armada Wurm and Auger Spree being right next to each other on the visual spoiler is rather…Freudian.

What do you think, Michael Scott?

Avenging Arrow: An interesting insight into Selesnya philosophy, plus minimally gory but no-doubt artwork. Golgari thief in your sights? Twang, spine shot.

Centaur’s Herald: Effective flavor text not only gives a feel for Selesnya’s existence but falls in line with common sense, which rarely hurts.

Chorus of Might: Gorgeous flavor text, but between the skimpy outfit and the Selesnya crown, the central figure has something of a Carmen Miranda vibe.

Dryad Militant: Terese Nielsen hasn’t lost her gift for illustrating the female form. Dryad Militant, however, is a touch more subtle than her (in)famous Elvish Ranger. I’ve seen more bare back on a prom gown.

Eyes in the Skies: Probably labeled as such on the Selesnya tactical maps, too. Ordinarily I would prefer a slightly simpler flavor text, but the Selesnya style is a touch grander than the Ravnican norm, so it works for the guild.

Growing Ranks: Oddly militant flavor text meets a green army. The unsettling flavor works.

Horncaller’s Chant: A great plant for the third set of the block and a reminder that the Selesnya aren’t all about peace and love. In the original Ravnica block, the Quietmen could kick a great deal of behind, and Horncaller’s Chant isn’t the only sign of Selesnya’s militant side.

Loxodon Smiter: Magic, all too often, is a game of perfect bodies. The Loxodon Smiter is neither perfect nor cartoonish in its imperfection. Even with a torn ear, snapped tusk, and patched eye, you know this Loxodon can drop the hammer if need be.

Risen Sanctuary: The flavor text sounds nice until one remembers that the Golgari are big on Insects and wouldn’t mind covering themselves with bugs to thwart the plan. Another cool piece of Chase Stone artwork is a quality complement.

Selesnya Guildgate and Temple Guardian: These two cards together give a beautiful illustration of the "natural/order" aspect of Selesnya in both text and images. Great work all around.

Vitu-Ghazi Guildmage: I’m sure she’s being earnest when she talks about conformity being beautiful. I’m guessing that different cultures will have different interpretations of that quote, but it gives me the creeps. Of course, that means it worked. The art is pretty, if a trifle flat on the crown.

Gatecrash Guilds and Unaffiliated Cards

Overall impressions: Just as Gatecrash will look back to some of the guilds in Return to Ravnica, RTR must look forward to Gatecrash…as well as showing those who are unaffiliated with guilds and are intent on taking them down. Those guildless will have a place in the broader storyline of Return to Ravnica block, and the seeds are here.

Thoughts on individual cards:

Bellows Lizard – Golgari gruel in, fire out. I like it! Doesn’t the Lizard look a little imposing to be a 1/1 though, even if it has quasi Firebreathing?

Chromatic Lantern – I’m glad this card didn’t fall into the usual trap of showing the "five colors" and just went for a solid illustration of a lantern. The flavor text has just enough room to ramp into a decent length sentence, and the space is used well.

Dispel – What is going on with this card? It’s a blue card with a quote that shows the green side of Simic (blue/green). On top of that, the Wizard is dousing a fire spell (wild) and has a shoulder emblem that doesn’t match any guild. Was this a piece of slush pile art pulled in at the last minute?

Drainpipe Vermin – Excellent flavor text that gave me a little shiver. The oddly adorable Rat just adds to the chill. A great card.

Fencing Ace I’m glad this gent can put on a good show of blade tricks, but what will he do against a Loxodon with a giant hammer? At least he’s useful as an inspiration. I’m not sure fencing was the right motif for double strike, but I respect the effort.

Gobbling Ooze – The trope of a zany force creating many more problems to solve one is as old as the hills but seldom gets old. Gobbling Ooze is a quality addition to the list.

Mind Rot – This card defines Orzhov (white/black) before Gatecrash. It has one of the most unsettling illustrations in the set. I like it. Ew.

Minotaur Aggressor – This quote makes me wonder which guild runs the smelting district and thus is the most immediate target of the Aggressor’s animosity.

Ogre Jailbreaker – I’m not sure how its flavor syncs up with the eventual crashing of gates, but the quote gets a thumbs-up from me.

Palisade Giant Giants get a bum rap in Magic and aren’t especially known for empathy. A Giant going on a self-chosen, altruistic mission is highly uncommon for the game. I can’t remember a precedent.

Slum Reaper – Do we need any more confirmation that the Orzhov are the scum of Ravnica?

Swift JusticeThis flavor text illustrates the differences between Boros (white/red) and Azorius: the Boros are more about emotion (conviction within oneself) where the Azorius are more logical (righteousness, which theologically implies the approval of at least one other).

Syncopate – In talking with others, the praise for Syncopate’s art has been near universal. I’ll agree that it’s a vast improvement over the Odyssey original, but I don’t like the overly digital effect of the finger wag. Then again, I know I’m old-fashioned in a lot of ways, so I have to compensate.

Tenement Crasher – Clever flavor text, though I expected an apartment building at the end, not an Orzhov cathedral.

Underworld Connections – I love the art and flavor. The quote feels as if it expanded to the available space and could be tightened up, as in "Knowledge for sale. Price on request." –Undercity shop sign, but overall a win.

Volatile Rig – Ooh, Rig! Maybe we’ll have riggers to go with Steamflogger Boss. Or maybe not. Maybe next year. Come on, Wizards! I want to double my Contraption fun! It’s doubling! Did you hear me, Mr. Rosewater? Doubling…


I think I’ll end it there, before I collapse into a blubbering pile of Steamflogger Boss fandom. Join me in two weeks when I… Well, I don’t know yet, but I’ll make it awesome.

As always, thanks for reading.


@jdbeety on Twitter

I am Gruul. It’s the least popular guild in the standings and picked on by the rest of Ravnica…reminds me of my high school years.