Storm Scale: Zendikar and Battle for Zendikar

Posted in Making Magic on November 21, 2016

By Mark Rosewater

Working in R&D since '95, Mark became Magic head designer in '03. His hobbies: spending time with family, writing about Magic in all mediums, and creating short bios.

In February, I introduced you all (well, those of you that don't read my blog) to something known as the Storm Scale. It's used to talk about how likely something, usually a mechanic, is to return to a Standard-legal set. In the first article I examined the mechanics of Khans of Tarkir block.

In my second article, last May, I examined the mechanics from the Ravnica and Return to Ravnica blocks.

Both articles were so popular, I'm back with another Storm Scale article, this time about the mechanics from Zendikar and Battle for Zendikar blocks.

The first article has a full rundown of how the Storm Scale works, but here's the abbreviated version. The Storm Scale is from 1 to 10 and it represents how likely, in my opinion, a mechanic is to return to a Standard-legal set. Here's what each point on the scale means:

Level 1: Will definitely see again, most likely in the next set

Examples: Flying, deathtouch, scry


Level 2: Will definitely see again, but not necessarily right away

Examples: Cantrips, hybrid mana, double-faced cards


Level 3: Will most likely do again, probably many times

Examples: Cycling, flashback, landfall


Level 4: Will most likely do again, but they have issues that make them less of a guarantee

Examples: Morph, kicker, imprint


Level 5: We need to find the right place to bring it back, but I'm optimistic

Examples: Evolve, monstrous, morbid


Level 6: We need to find the right place to bring it back, but I'm a little less optimistic

Examples: Devour, ninjitsu, living weapon


Level 7: It's unlikely to return, but possible if the right environment comes along

Examples: Snow mana, retrace, split second


Level 8: It's unlikely to return, but possible if the stars align

Examples: Madness, echo, suspend


Level 9: I never say never, but this would require a minor miracle

Examples: Phasing, threshold, clash


Level 10: I never say never, but this would require a major miracle

Examples: Storm, dredge


And here are the five criteria I use to determine where mechanics fall in the Storm Scale:

Popularity—Did players like this mechanic? The more players like something, the more likely we are to bring it back. The less they like it, the less likely its return. This metric is mostly covering the "was it fun?" question. This lens will have one of four potential labels:

  • Very Popular—This means that through our market research, this mechanic falls in the top 25% of mechanics of all time. Note that all these categories are comparing the current mechanics against the mechanics of all time (well, since we started doing market research many years ago), so getting in this top section is difficult.
  • Popular—This means that through our marketing research, this mechanic falls above the average but not in the top 25%.
  • Liked—This means that through our research, this mechanic falls below average but not in the bottom 25%. I should note that we aim for our average to be well-liked, so being below average doesn't mean the majority of players don't like it, just that there are other mechanics they like more. Being in this category doesn't keep you from having a chance to return.
  • Unpopular—This means that our research puts this mechanic in the bottom 25%. Falling in this last section does decrease the chance of a return.

Design Space—How many more cards could we design with this mechanic? Design space is important because if we can't make more cards, it doesn't matter how much players like it or how easy it is for development to balance. This lens will have three labels:

  • Large—This means that this mechanic has lots and lots of design space. We can bring it back again and again and most likely won't have any issues making new cards.
  • Medium—This means that this mechanic has a decent amount of design space and we could easily bring it back, but possibly a limited number of times.
  • Small—This mechanic is pushing the boundaries of its design space in this set. It would be difficult to make enough new cards to bring it back.

Versatility—How well does this mechanic mix and match with other mechanics? Does this mechanic require a lot of infrastructure or does it require minimal support? In short, does this mechanic make design easier or harder? This lens has three labels:

  • Flexible—This mechanic is easy to use, requires minimal support, and interconnects easily with other mechanics.
  • Neutral—This mechanic is a bit harder to use, often requires some support, and/or has issues when connecting to other mechanics.
  • Rigid—This mechanic is very hard to use, requires extensive infrastructure to work, and/or is actively hostile when trying to mix with other mechanics.

Development—How easy is this mechanic to cost? How easy is it to balance? How easy is it to make this mechanic? This lens looks at whether or not the mechanic can be easily developed. This lens has three labels:

  • Not Problematic—Development did not have any problems developing this mechanic.
  • Neutral—Development had some issues developing the mechanic, but nothing major.
  • Problematic—Development had significant problems developing this mechanic.

Playability—Did players have problems understanding this mechanic, both in how it worked and in how it interacted with other mechanics? Was the mechanic logistically hard to use? This lens looks at whether the mechanic had some barrier that made it harder to play. This lens has two labels:

  • Playability not affected—This means the mechanic had no issues interfering with playing it.
  • Playability affected—This means the mechanic had one or more issues that interfered with playing it.

With that out of the way, let's start grading the mechanics.


Landfall (Zendikar, Worldwake, Battle for Zendikar, and Oath of the Gatewatch)

Popularity: Very Popular

Landfall is not just a popular mechanic, it's one of the most popular mechanics of all time. It was beloved when it premiered in Zendikar block and beloved when it returned in Battle for Zendikar block. The only negative note on its return was R&D chose to lower its power level a little because of speed issues with the mechanic; whenever we do that, there's grumbling.

Design Space: Medium

Landfall has a decent amount of design space, but it's not as large as many players think. The mechanic requires effects that can happen both often and at the time when you can play a land, and that list isn't as deep as one would hope. This is the kind of mechanic we can bring back and deliver similar things it did the last time people saw it, but there's less room for innovation.

Versatility: Flexible

Landfall requires one thing—playing lands. As almost every deck in the history of the game does this (I'm looking at you, Dredge), landfall plays nicely in any deck you put it in.

Development: Not Problematic

Landfall tends to push toward aggressive strategies because you play lands on your turn. It's something development can deal with, but does require some adjustment when landfall is in the environment.

Playability: Playability unaffected

Part of the popularity of landfall is it's easy to understand and does something you like, rewarding you for doing a thing you were already going to do.

Storm Scale Rating: 3

This rating should come as no surprise, as it's one of my examples in the scale listed above. Landfall is popular, easy enough to design with, and plays well. I expect landfall to be one of those mechanics that just keeps coming back from time to time.


Kicker (Zendikar and Worldwake)

Popularity: Very Popular

I'm only talking about the mechanics as they apply to the two Zendikar blocks, but kicker has shown up in numerous other sets. It's a fan favorite because who doesn't like being able to spend more to get more.

Design Space: Large

There are few mechanics with as much design space as kicker. In fact, the largest strike against kicker is that we shouldn't have ever made it in the first place; it's too all-encompassing and makes players less happy with future mechanics because they're "just kicker."

Versatility: Flexible

I've had to instruct my designers to limit how we use kicker, because it's so versatile that we can use it to mimic other mechanics.

Development: Not Problematic

Having the knob of the extra mana payment gives development all the tools they need to balance kicker cards.

Playability: Playability unaffected

Kicker is pretty straight-forward. Testing has shown that players get it pretty easily. The only question that's come up in R&D is whether it's easier to understand if it's written as an additional cost or as a replacement cost (aka a new cost with the additional cost added in).

Storm Scale Rating: 4

This is another one that shouldn't be a surprise as I use it as an example above. Kicker is beloved, has large design space, is super flexible, and isn't a development issue. The thing pushing it from a 3 to a 4 is the problem I mentioned above that kicker's existence can make other mechanics feel less special, as kicker could be made to (mostly) do what that mechanic does—so I'm a little more hesitant to use it.


Multikicker (Worldwake)

Popularity: Very Popular

Multikicker is just a more versatile kicker—you can kick it as many times as you like. Players like kicker; they also like multikicker.

Design Space: Medium

Multikicker has a narrower design space because it has to limit itself to effects that can be cast multiple times. While this is a big enough subset, it's still nowhere as big as normal kicker.

Versatility: Flexible

Multikicker is also not as versatile as kicker as it has extra restrictions, but it's still pretty versatile.

Development: Not Problematic

You can kick additional times but you still have to pay for each one, meaning this is not a developmentally problematic mechanic.

Playability: Playability unaffected

Understanding that you can kick this multiple times makes this a little more complicated, but not by a lot.

Storm Scale Rating: 5

It's kicker but with less design space, less versatility, and slightly more complication. All that notches it up one higher on the Storm Scale.


Quests (Zendikar and Worldwake)

Popularity: Popular

For these categories, I look at the market research we have on the mechanics to see where they fall. Quests were above average but not in the top 25%. Players liked quests but they didn't love them.

Design Space: Medium

Quests are pretty open-ended in that they only require you to gain quest counters by doing a task repeatedly, and the counters can later be traded in for an effect. What narrows down the design space is two things: one, there are a limited number of tasks that are reasonable to request players do multiple times, and two, there has to be some mechanical or flavorful correlation between the task and the reward.

Versatility: Neutral

This category is neutral because it completely depends on what the effects are that the player is required to complete. Deal combat damage? Many decks can do that. Mill (put cards from the top of a library into that player's graveyard) the opponent? Now you have to build around it.

Development: Neutral

Enchantments that build up to a powerful effect are tricky to aim at Constructed because of how non-interactive they are.

Playability: Playability affected

Because most quests work differently from one another, quests require a little more comprehension than other mechanics. They also make use of counters, which adds an additional logistics issue (albeit not a particularly difficult one).

Storm Scale Rating: 5

Quests are flavorful and relatively popular, plus flexible enough to have many different types of functionality, but they also require the right environment and are a bit fiddly. I'm optimistic we'll do them again one day, but I think it might take a while to find the right place for them.


Traps (Zendikar and Worldwake)

Popularity: Popular

Traps and quests were almost identical in their popularity and probably for the same basic reason—they're very flavorful.

Design Space: Small

Traps require an effect that can then be made cheaper by a related trigger. These were hard to design, and while I believe we could make more, they wouldn't be easy to create.

Versatility: Rigid

The number of triggers that play into any gameplay situation is low. Traps tend to work best as narrow, niche sideboard cards.

Development: Neutral

There's a lot of tension that exists in the balancing of getting the upgrade with the feel-bad of having walked into it.

Playability: Playability affected

Traps are cards in your hand that care about triggers happening in the game. Add to this that the mana cost in the upper right hand corner often isn't the cost that's most often relevant, and this mechanic leads to some confusion.

Storm Scale Rating: 6

I think Traps are basically like quests with a little extra baggage in that they have less design space and versatility. As such, they are one higher on the scale. I would though like to find the right thematic place to bring Traps back.


Ally Mechanic (Zendikar and Worldwake)

Popularity: Liked

When I look back at the market research, I'm usually pretty good at remembering where specific mechanics stood. This is one case where my memory was a bit rosier than the actual statistics. Ally fans were very vocal, but market research shows they weren't as numerous as I remembered as this mechanic fell in the 25% to 50% range. That said, this was a mechanic where the players who liked it really liked it.

Design Space: Small

In the Zendikar-block version of Allies, this mechanic only affected other Allies, heavily encouraging you to make all your creatures in the deck Allies. Caring about, being on, and only affecting Allies put a lot of restriction on the mechanic, making it a bit tight.

Versatility: Rigid

This mechanic is as linear as they come. If you play one Ally, you really want to be playing a deck of Allies.

Development: Neutral

This mechanic leads to scaling effects and lots of global effects that basically only affect your creatures, making it what R&D calls "snowball-y"—that is it quickly escalates out of control. Development had to do a lot of work revamping the Allies when we brought them back because of developmental concerns with the Zendikar¬-block versions.

Playability: Playability not affected

Allies can do sweeping things to the cards on the battlefield, but its concentrated nature makes it relatively easy to follow.

Storm Scale Rating: 7

This is a bit of a weird mechanic to rate because we did bring it back, but tweaked (see below). I do think you could see more original-style Allies in a supplemental product, but the Storm Scale is about Standard-legal sets, so it gets a fairly high rating.


Rally (Battle for Zendikar)

Popularity: Liked

Rally was slightly more popular in our market research than original Zendikar Allies, but very close. In social media, there was frustration because the Battle for Zendikar Allies as a whole weren't as powerful as the original Zendikar ones, but that didn't come through in the market research.

Design Space: Small

Rally has very similar space to the original Allies for all of the same reasons.

Versatility: Neutral

The fact that rally affected all of your creatures and not just your Allies made it a bit more flexible, especially in Limited.

Development: Neutral

One of the biggest side effects of the tweaks to the original Allies was that they were a bit easier to develop, although as a strong linear theme it still had some issues.

Playability: Playability not affected

Like the original Allies, rally was pretty easy to understand and follow.

Storm Scale Rating: 6

I believe one day we're going to return to Zendikar, and when we do, I'm pretty sure the Allies will still be there. Will they use rally or a brand-new mechanic? I'm not sure, and that's why this is at 6.


Cohort (Oath of the Gatewatch)

Popularity: Unpopular

As of me writing this article, Cohort is the lowest-rated mechanic in Magic's history since we began doing market research. Personally, I don't think it deserves the bottom slot, but it belongs in the bottom 25%.

Design Space: Small

This mechanic is made up of activated abilities on a creature that are small enough that you're happy to let the player activate every turn but big enough to warrant the tapping of two creatures. It's narrow space.

Versatility: Rigid

The mechanic forces you to play other Allies.

Development: Problematic

There aren't many repeated activated abilities that development is happy pushing the power on.

Playability: Playability not affected

There's a little confusion for newer players about when you can tap the other creature, but other than that cohort is pretty straightforward to use.

Storm Scale Rating: 8


Annihilator (Rise of the Eldrazi)

Popularity: Popular

Annihilator fell in the 50% to 75% range. Players liked it but it wasn't beloved.

Design Space: Small

Annihilator goes on giant Eldrazi, of which there aren't that many.

Versatility: Neutral

Because it only went onto giant creatures, there was a need for your deck to be able to play giant creatures. Other than that though, annihilator was relevant in almost all games.

Development: Problematic

Even annihilator 1 is incredibly powerful and potentially extremely frustrating. When that's the least power development can add to a card by putting a mechanic on it, there's just a very limited amount of balance space they can operate in to tune cards.

Playability: Playability affected

This mechanic was very often misunderstood, as players didn't quite get when it triggered or what exactly happened when it did.

Storm Scale Rating: 9

The mechanic is hard to design, hard to develop, and was miserable to play against. The fact that it didn't come back in Battle for Zendikar is a big sign saying its chances of returning are low.


Level Up (Rise of the Eldrazi)

Popularity: Liked

Level up had its fans, but they were a smaller subsection of players. The odd frame was a turn off for many players.

Design Space: Small

Level up only went on creatures, and each one had to have three versions that felt connected. It was very limited design space.

Versatility: Neutral

This is one of those mechanics where its versatility varied greatly from card to card. Some were easy to drop into a deck of that color, while others required an entire deck be built around them.

Development: Not problematic

This mechanic has a lot of what R&D calls "knobs," that is different aspects of the card development can tweak to balance its power. Between its mana cost and level up costs and three sets of stats and abilities, development had a lot to work with.

Playability: Playability affected

While the frame was a noble attempt to display a pretty complex concept—three distinct creatures all capable from a single card—its execution proved to be poorly received by the audience, including a lot of confusion about how the mechanic worked.

Storm Scale Rating: 8

Level up is the kind of mechanic I don't ever expect to see again, but I could imagine the perfect storm of elements that make it the ideal fit for an environment (like what madness was to Shadows over Innistrad). Even then, we would have a major frame challenge ahead of us.


Rebound (Rise of the Eldrazi)

Popularity: Very popular

Time and again, mechanics that let players cast spells more than once tend to be well liked.

Design Space: Medium

Rebound only goes on instants and sorceries. Also, it's best on effects where the advance knowledge of the second copy has some meaningful impact on gameplay. That said, there are plenty of effects it works with.

Versatility: Flexible

Rebound usually goes on basic game effects that are part of every set, so the mechanic is quite versatile.

Development: Not problematic

Rebound is very controlled as to when it happens, allowing the developers to properly cost it.

Playability: Playability affected

There's a memory issue for the second effect, but other than that rebound is easy to use.

Storm Scale Rating: 3

This is a popular, flexible mechanic with fun gameplay. I expect we will see it in Magic's future many times. It already came back once in Dragons of Tarkir.


Totem Armor (Rise of the Eldrazi)

Popularity: Popular

Totem Armor was in the 50% to 75% category, but just barely (on the good side of the spectrum).

Design Space: Small

Design space doesn't get much smaller than this. It only goes on creature Auras, and even then with restrictions.

Versatility: Flexible

Totem armor requires creatures, but that's a pretty loose requirement.

Development: Not problematic

Creature Auras are traditionally quite weak, so they have a lot of room for development to push them.

Playability: Playability not affected

The mechanic didn't cause much confusion.

Storm Scale Rating: 5

The mechanic is narrow in design space but well liked and easy to develop. We need to find the right spot for it, but I could see it coming back, possibly not keyworded.


Awaken (Battle for Zendikar)

Popularity: Popular

Awaken had a lot of fans, but not enough to hit the top rating.

Design Space: Medium

Awaken only goes primarily on sorceries, but can work on most of them.

Versatility: Flexible

Almost all games have lands (I'm still looking at you, Dredge) and animating them is relevant most of the time.

Development: Not problematic

Developmental issues kept us from putting awaken on many instants, but other than that the mechanic didn't cause any issues.

Playability: Playability affected

Animating lands have the problem of players understanding which lands are animated (the +1/+1 counters obviously help).

Storm Scale Rating: 4

I think awaken was both popular enough and flexible enough that we'll find a home for it again.


Converge (Battle for Zendikar)

Popularity: Unpopular

Converge should be happy cohort exists, because otherwise it would be the lowest rated mechanic currently in market research.

Design Space: Small

This mechanic requires scaling effects that are somewhat limited.

Versatility: Flexible

The effects we use for this mechanic are usually basic effects you find every game.

Development: Neutral

Supporting this in Limited requires you to warp the set to have more color fixing, which can have other negative consequences.

Playability: Playability affected

This mechanic requires both players to track how much colored mana was used to cast the spell, which can be difficult especially for the opponent.

Storm Scale Rating: 6

I think converge ended up being a mechanic in the wrong environment. I believe if put into a block where color (as opposed to colorlessness) is relevant, the mechanic would have fared much better. It has a bunch of issues as listed above, but I do think one day we might find a home for converge.


Devoid (Battle for Zendikar and Oath of the Gatewatch)

Popularity: Liked

Devoid has a much lower reputation than its actual rating. Most people would guess it's in the bottom 25%, but it actually falls between 25% and 50%.

Design Space: Large

The restriction of this mechanic is more flavor than design space. You can take just about any effect in all of Magic and make it a devoid card mechanically.

Versatility: Neutral

If you want this mechanic to matter it requires "colorless matters cards," which add extra restrictions to the design. Note that I could see environments where devoid makes sense without a need for "colorless matters."

Development: Problematic

It was hard for development to get enough critical mass for this to work as a strategy in just two sets, especially as the sets also wanted to do other things.

Playability: Playability affected

Cards that require colored mana but themselves are colorless were hard for a lot of players to wrap their brains around.

Storm Scale Rating: 5

Devoid is a little odd in that it's more of a tool than a mechanic. My best guess is we will find ourselves in the future needing devoid, but we'll probably do it written out without a keyword (as the existence of a keyword creates expectations devoid can't meet).


Ingest (Battle for Zendikar)

Popularity: Liked

Ingest just barely sneaks into the 25% to 50% category.

Design Space: Small

It's not that Ingest cards are hard to design in a vacuum, but they're rather hard to design in a way in which they flavorfully make sense.

Versatility: Rigid

Ingest doesn't exile enough cards to make it matter without something like Processors caring about it.

Development: Problematic

Ingest is both very narrow and uses what we call "A + B design," where for the mechanic to work, you had to have two different subset of cards (in this case ingest and Processors). This tends to take up a lot of space and has huge balancing issues.

Playability: Playability not affected

This mechanic, in a vacuum, isn't too much of a problem. It does though encourage the use of Processors, which is more problematic. Read about them below.

Storm Scale Rating: 9

I am skeptical we're going to see ingest again.


Processors (Battle for Zendikar)

Popularity: Liked

Processors were very similar in popularity to ingest.

Design Space: Small

Processors are tricky to design for numerous reasons, the biggest being finding effects that fit the narrow requirements.

Versatility: Rigid

Processors cannot exist without a lot of exiling effects.

Development: Problematic

Like Ingest, Processors have the A + B problem. Also, in older formats where it's easier to exile cards, the balance gets way off.

Playability: Playability affected

This mechanic requires both players to track all exiles zones and know what exactly is in them.

Storm Scale Rating: 9

I feel very similarly about the future of Processors as I do about ingest.


Support (Oath of the Gatewatch)

Popularity: Unpopular

Only cohort, converge, and megamorph score lower than support.

Design Space: Medium

The mechanic can go on most types of spells and creates +1/+1 counters, which are relevant to any deck with creatures. There's plenty of design space.

Versatility: Flexible

Mechanics that work well with creatures are pretty versatile.

Development: Neutral

It's hard for development to make a lot of cards that impact high-powered games out of this mechanic.

Playability: Playability not affected

The mechanic uses counters but in a very straightforward way.

Storm Scale Rating: 6

The biggest strike against this mechanic is its unpopularity. It's got lots of design space, is flexible, and doesn't cause too many development issues. My best guess is this could return in a set where the mechanic is a good fit.


Surge (Oath of the Gatewatch)

Popularity: Popular

Surge is another mechanic that people enjoyed playing but wasn't an overall favorite (aka in the 50% to 75% range).

Design Space: Large

Cost reduction is pretty easy to fit onto a lot of cards, especially because the mechanic can work on any card type.

Versatility: Flexible

This is another mechanic that mostly goes on the type of spells we see every set, making it mix in well.

Development: Not problematic

Casting two spells is enough of a constraint that this mechanic doesn't tend to cause the developmental concerns that other cost-reduction mechanics do.

Playability: Playability not affected

Players have to recognize that a surge spell was cast second, but that's not a particularly hard thing to do.

Storm Scale Rating: 4

I think surge is a mechanic that we'll see multiple times in the future.


Colorless Mana Matters (Oath of the Gatewatch)

Popularity: Very Popular

Players really liked colorless mana as a cost.

Design Space: Small

It's a colorless card, but not exactly. It wants to do something but not step on the toes of the colors. Colorless mana mattering is very tricky to design.

Versatility: Rigid

Colorless mana mattering requires an infrastructure capable of producing enough colorless mana. This is why it's not something we can just plunk into any set.

Development: Problematic

Colorless-mana-matters cards need to be more powerful than monocolor cards because they don't have other support around them, but they can't invalidate playing colored cards, so it's just super hard for development to hit the exact right target. The cards also require a lot of support from the lands in the sets around them, which can be tricky to balance.

Playability: Playability affected

Getting players to understand the difference between colorless mana and generic mana was very difficult. The creation of the new colorless symbol will hopefully make this easier in the future.

Storm Scale Rating: 6

I believe we'll do colorless mana as a cost again one day, but not until we find the right set and right flavor for it.

Taking the Scale by Storm

That's it for today. As always, I hope you enjoyed my peek at which mechanics we have hopes of seeing again. I'd like to thank Ben Hayes and Mel Li for helping me gather all the data I needed for this article. As always, I'm interested to hear your feedback. You can email me or contact me through any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Google+, and Instagram).

Join me next week when I explore a metaphor about Magic I've used for years.

Until then, may your favorite mechanic rank low on the Storm Scale.


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