Storm Scale: Ravnica and Return to Ravnica

Posted in Making Magic on May 2, 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.

Back in February, I wrote an article about something called the Storm Scale, a tool I use to explain how likely I think a mechanic is to return. In that article I examined the mechanics of Khans of Tarkir block. Today, I'm going to be looking at the two blocks that took place on the world of Ravnica.

As a quick recap before I jump into the column, here are the two things you need to know. First, the Storm Scale is a scale from 1 to 10 talking about how likely a mechanic is to return in a Standard-legal set. Here is 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, affinity for artifacts

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.

AZORIUS

Forecast (Dissension)

Popularity: Unpopular

This mechanic is in the bottom 25% of the ratings in the surveys. In fact, all three of Dissension's guild mechanics fell into the bottom fourth.

Design Space: Small

Repeatable use out of your hand that then ties into a different effect when the card is cast is a pretty narrow target to start with. We had trouble filling out the cards in Dissension. I wouldn't want to have to make a whole new set's worth of cards.

Versatility: Neutral

Because the sits in your hand, you have to make sure there are a few more ways than normal to interact with it. The mechanic also leans toward a more defensive style of play, which dictates the types of other cards in white and blue. Azorius does lean toward defensive play though, so this isn't as bad as it might be in other colors.

Development: Problematic

Development doesn't like repetitive effects and they aren't very happy with effects that work out of the hand, because black is really the only color with an answer to that kind of threat.

Playability: Playability affected

Having cards active in your hand requires the opponent to memorize cards, because they don't have them on the battlefield to refer to.

Storm Scale Rating: 8

The mechanic isn't much beloved, it's cramped for design space, development tends to frown on it, and it's tricky to use. That's not a recipe for success. But it does have a very specific function that maybe one day, in a specific environment, we might want. I'm not optimistic that's ever going to happen, but it could.


Detain (Return to Ravnica)

Popularity: Popular

To write this article, I went back and looked up how each of the mechanics did in market testing. This was the one that surprised me the most. My memory was that this went across okay, but I wouldn't have guessed that it was in the 50% to 75% range.

Design Space: Medium

Detain is a keyword action, which in general makes it a little more flexible to use. The biggest restriction isn't that there aren't a lot of cards that can be made, but that there are only so many you can make at the same time.

Versatility: Flexible

Detain works just fine plopped into any set, because you are always going to have permanents that detain can lock down/turn off for the turn.

Development: Not Problematic

This mechanic has the potential to get annoying if repeatable, but it doesn't have any power-level issues.

Playability: Playability not affected

There's a little memory issue, as the effect lasts beyond the turn it's used, but it's a pretty simple effect ("don't use this") and thus pretty easy to track.

Storm Scale Rating: 3

I expect to see detain return. It's popular, flexible, and flavorful.

DIMIR

Transmute (Ravnica: City of Guilds)

Popularity: Liked

This mechanic ranked in the top part of the bottom half. It's one of those mechanics that no one hated, but it wasn't most players' favorite.

Design Space: Medium

Transmute can go onto any card type. Its biggest issue is that the ability is worth a good chunk of the value of the card, so making transmute cards that look good on the surface is difficult.

Versatility: Flexible

Transmute needs cards of various converted mana costs, but the game already makes sure there's a wide range available.

Development: Problematic

Development has been down on tutors for years. They make games play out similarly and help enable combo decks. While I think we'll continue to make tutors, I don't think we plan to do tutoring mechanics again.

Playability: Playability affected

Transmute requires you to have a good working knowledge of what the costs are for all the cards in your deck and whether or not a particular card is still in your library.

Storm Scale Rating: 9

Tutoring mechanics are just a thing we don't do anymore, so transmute's return is highly in doubt. It's not a 10 only because the mechanic is not inherently broken.


Cipher (Gatecrash)

Popularity: Liked

Players in general liked the concept behind this mechanic, but the execution left a little to be desired.

Design Space: Small

Cipher has a lot of constraints. It only goes on sorceries (instants caused confusion), and it has to have an effect that's generally useful yet not time-specific due to when the effect happens. It can't be too big, as it's repeatable, and it's limited to effects in blue and black. This is probably the mechanic with the smallest design space of all 20 guild mechanics. We even had a problem making enough cards to fill up this block.

Versatility: Rigid

Not only is cipher itself hard to design, it requires a lot of support around it. For instance, you need to have more evasion than normal to help enable it.

Development: Problematic

This is the kind of mechanic that development is afraid to push. Its repetitive nature can easily get out of hand and dominate games, especially if the effect helps you get through again on the next turn.

Playability: Playability affected

It's a sorcery that turns into a triggered effect yet doesn't actually sit on the creature it's affecting. It also has numerous timing issues that cause confusion.

Storm Scale Rating: 9

I don't see cipher returning any time soon. It's hard to design and develop, and it wasn't popular enough to warrant all the hoop jumping we'd have to go through.

RAKDOS

Hellbent (Dissension)

Popularity: Unpopular

Players like having cards in their hand, so a mechanic that tells them they have to get rid of all their cards didn't do all that well popularity-wise.

Design Space: Medium

The cards need to be able to have two modes: a de-powered mode and a powered-up mode. That alone limits how many cards you can make. Hellbent can go on any card type, so that helps.

Versatility: Neutral

Hellbent needs an environment where you can get rid of all the cards in your hand. You need a few enablers to make that happen.

Development: Not Problematic

Development had no issues with hellbent.

Playability: Playability not affected

The mechanic is very straightforward and, as threshold mechanics go, is very easy to know what state it's in.

Storm Scale Rating: 5

The kind of environments that hellbent wants come along often enough. I don't think we're going to go out of our way to use hellbent, but I believe one day it will be a good fit for a design we're doing.


Unleash (Return to Ravnica)

Popularity: Unpopular

As a whole, players didn't like unleash, as it read as a downside mechanic. It did fare a little better once players played with it, but still not enough to get it out of the bottom of the ratings.

Design Space: Medium

Unleash only goes on creatures, but there are a lot of different creature designs you can make with it.

Versatility: Neutral

Unleash requires an environment not only with +1/+1 counters but one where they have mechanical relevance beyond their power/toughness pumping.

Development: Not problematic

Development had no issues with unleash.

Playability: Playability not affected

Unleash uses +1/+1 counters, but is pretty straightforward and doesn't have any rules issues.

Storm Scale Rating: 4

If this mechanic wasn't as unpopular as it was, it would probably be a 3. Unleash plays well, is easy to design and develop, and is flavorful. The trick is going to be finding the environment that will help make it shine.

GRUUL

Bloodthirst (Guildpact)

Popularity: Unpopular

This mechanic rated lower than I think most players would have guessed. I believe it stems from the fact that the hoop you have to jump through appears harder than it actually is.

Design Space: Large

This mechanic only goes on creatures, but it has a general reward that can work on just about any creature. There are advanced designs that care about what the power is, but you don't need to have a lot of those.

Versatility: Flexible

The mechanic needs you to have creatures that attack. Magic already has the requirement for most games.

Development: Not Problematic

Development had no issues with bloodthirst.

Playability: Playability not affected

The mechanic uses counters, but other than that is very straightforward.

Storm Scale Rating: 3

The only strike against this mechanic is the first impression when we originally did it. The mechanic was better received when we brought it back in Magic 2012. It's one of the better non-evergreen creature mechanics in our arsenal. I am very confident it will return.


Bloodrush (Gatecrash)

Popularity: Liked

Bloodrush fell into the top half of the bottom of the ratings. I think this is due to the fact that a lot of players do not like discard as a cost.

Design Space: Small

For starters, this mechanic only goes on creatures and has to have a power/toughness-boosting effect. Add in that aesthetics and flavor made us line up the boost of the card with the creature's power and toughness and you have a very narrow design space.

Versatility: Neutral

Bloodrush forces you to strip out other power/toughness-boosting effects in its colors, but other than that it can work in a normal environment.

Development: Not problematic

Development had no issues with bloodrush.

Playability: Playability not affected

Bloodrush didn't have any rules, memory, or logistical issues.

Storm Scale Rating: 6

I think bloodrush's return has a lot to do with whether or not the right environment comes along for it. The tight design space and lack of popularity mean we're not itching to do it again, but it played well enough that I can see it returning one day.

SELESNYA

Convoke (Ravnica: City of Guilds)

Popularity: Liked

Like bloodthirst, this is a mechanic that became more popular when we brought it back. Unlike bloodthirst, it was reasonably well received the first time we did it.

Design Space: Large

This is a cost-reduction mechanic that can go on any type of card. You can make a lot of cards with it.

Versatility: Flexible

This mechanic requires you having creatures, but as I said above, Magic already does that.

Development: Not Problematic

In general, cost-reduction mechanics are problematic for development, but convoke requires a cost that is harder to abuse.

Playability: Playability not affected

There's a little bookkeeping regarding what color creatures you have available with which to cast colored cards using convoke, but all in all it's an easy mechanic to track.

Storm Scale Rating: 3

Convoke is a solid mechanic with lots of design space and few developmental issues. I have every faith we'll use it again. (It's already returned once.)


Populate (Return to Ravnica)

Popularity: Popular

This was one of the most popular of all the guild mechanics.

Design Space: Medium

The hardest thing about populate design is making cards where it can be relevant without you dedicating your whole deck to the theme.

Versatility: Rigid

Populate can only exist if there's a higher-than-average threshold of creature tokens.

Development: Not problematic

Development had to keep a rein on the creature tokens in the set, but they normally do that anyway.

Playability: Playability affected

The mechanic uses tokens. A lot of tokens.

Storm Scale Rating: 5

I think this mechanic has a good chance of returning. It just requires a very specific style of set.

ORZHOV

Haunt (Guildpact)

Popularity: Unpopular

This mechanic fell in the bottom quadrant.

Design Space: Small

This mechanic is balancing a lot. It has a bunch of mechanical requirements (for example, it needs to be a small effect you want to happen twice, including one time that tends to happen at the end of combat) and a number of flavor ones (you have to feel as if there's a sense of haunting). It ended up being very hard to design for.

Versatility: Neutral

Haunt is the kind of mechanic where you have to be very conscious of the types of spells around it, but luckily most of those things are what white and black want to do.

Development: Neutral

This mechanic didn't have power-level issues, but it did have complexity issues. It also didn't have good knobs for development to tweak the cards with.

Playability: Playability affected

There's a quality to mechanics that I call "stickiness." Can you read a card with the mechanic and then remember what it does? Haunt proved to be very un-sticky. Players would always forget how it worked. The fact that permanents and spells with the ability worked differently didn't help.

Storm Scale Rating: 9

Of all the mechanics in the original Ravnica block, this was the one that was the greatest disappointment to me. The delta between the mechanic's potential and how it actually ended up playing out was the widest. It seemed like it should have been awesome, but it ended up being miserable to play. I highly doubt it's ever coming back.


Extort (Gatecrash)

Popularity: Popular

This was another pretty popular guild mechanic. It's extra good in multiplayer, which is controversial.

Design Space: Medium

Extort can go on any type of permanent. It works well on creatures with nothing but this ability, making it pretty flexible.

Versatility: Neutral

Extort wants to exist in an environment where you'll be able to use it, which tends to encourage a larger amount of cheap spells.

Development: Neutral

Extort is an effect that can get out of control in large numbers. The mana payment helps, but development still has to keep a watchful eye. The issue with multiplayer play also requires extra attention.

Playability: Playability affected

Extort has memory issues, as you must remember you have it whenever you cast a future spell.

Storm Scale Rating: 6

The mechanic was liked and played well enough, but the development and multiplayer issues means we have to be careful with using it.

IZZET

Replicate (Guildpact)

Popularity: Popular

Of the ten guild mechanics from original Ravnica block, this is the only one to be in the top half of the overall ratings (note that these ratings are based on all the mechanics we've ever done, so I'm talking historically).

Design Space: Medium

This mechanic can only go on spells, and it has to be effects you are willing to let the player cast multiple times. All that said, there's a decent amount of cards to make with this mechanic.

Versatility: Neutral

The mechanic wants a mana-rich environment, but the game moves toward that state naturally.

Development: Not problematic

Replicate didn't cause development many problems, but spells you can copy a bunch of times have historically raised issues.

Playability: Playability not affected

Replicate is pretty straightforward. There's a little bit of math but nothing too daunting.

Storm Scale Rating: 5

The mechanic is popular and relatively easy to design for. It requires the right environment to thrive, but I'm sure we'll come across it again one day.


Overload (Return to Ravnica)

Popularity: Popular

Overload was well-liked. Getting to go wide with effects is popular.

Design Space: Small

Overload only goes on instants and sorceries. It also has to be an effect that you want to do to a single target and then to all targets. This space in blue and red is narrow.

Versatility: Neutral

Overload is one of those mechanics that forces you to do a lot of tweaking the set around it, to make the choice meaningful and to not have it run away with the game.

Development: Neutral

Usually, the wider the variance between modes of a mechanic, the trickier it is to develop.

Playability: Playability not affected

Overload didn't have any rules, memory, or logistical issues.

Storm Scale Rating: 6

Overload played well and was well-liked, but it's very tricky to design and needs a specific environment to shine.

GOLGARI

Dredge (Ravnica: City of Guilds)

Popularity: Liked

This was in the top half of the bottom half of the ratings. Dredge definitely has its fans, but that's probably due to its power level and its quirky "play the game in a totally different way" nature.

Design Space: Medium

Dredge can go on any type of spell. You are restricted to things players will want to cast multiple times.

Versatility: Neutral

Dredge wants some graveyard enablers, but it doesn't need too many in order to work.

Development: Problematic

Dredge is probably one of the three most troublesome mechanics of all time. The fact that you can't fix it by changing the mana cost is a huge developmental red flag.

Playability: Playability affected

Dredge requires manipulating numerous zones and thus makes you want to pay attention to all of them. It also plays in a very different vector of play space, which makes it harder to monitor than most mechanics.

Storm Scale Rating: 10

Dredge is one of my mechanics. I'll be honest, I have a soft spot for it. I like things that attack the game from a very different vantage point. That said, it's one of the most broken mechanics we've ever made, so I have no expectation that we'll ever see it again.


Scavenge (Return to Ravnica)

Popularity: Liked

The fans of this mechanic really liked it, but they were in the minority.

Design Space: Large

Scavenge only goes on creatures, but there's a good variety on the kind of creatures you can make.

Versatility: Neutral

Because scavenge builds up other creatures, it requires two things of the design: 1) there's not too many other ways to build up creatures, and 2) there are ways to take advantage of the fact that creatures can get big.

Development: Not problematic

Development had no issue with scavenge.

Playability: Playability affected

Scavenge uses +1/+1 counters and is active in the graveyard.

Storm Scale Rating: 4

Scavenge has a lot of design space and plays in interesting space that isn't problematic developmentally. The thing pushing it back to 4 is that it isn't super popular and has playability issues. That said, I do think we'll see it again one day.

BOROS

Radiance (Ravnica: City of Guilds)

Popularity: Unpopular

Radiance is not a beloved mechanic. I believe it is the least liked of all the guild mechanics.

Design Space: Small

It's also very hard to design cards for.

Versatility: Flexible

It tends to work best in a set where color means something, with multicolored sets being the most obvious place.

Development: Neutral

This is the kind of effect that development will never push because it has potential to do things you don't mean for it to do.

Playability: Playability affected

Probably the worst strike against it is that it's very hard to process. There aren't a lot of mechanics that people cast and then say, "Okay, let's see what happens." It also didn't work all that flavorfully as a Boros mechanic (although this matters less, because if we wanted to bring it back we could bring it back outside of a Ravnica setting).

Storm Scale Rating: 9

Things that are troublesome, confusing, and disliked tend to fall here.


Battalion (Gatecrash)

Popularity: Liked

Battalion has the problem that the hoop you have to jump through to get the bonus feels bigger than it actually is. Players tend to like this mechanic more once they've played with it.

Design Space: Large

Battalion only goes on creatures, but there are many different-size creatures and many different effects that work well with the mechanic.

Versatility: Flexible

Battalion requires a board state where you want to attack with many creatures. Magic, especially in Limited formats, already pushes you in that direction.

Development: Not problematic

Development had no issue with battalion.

Playability: Playability not affected

Battalion has no rules, memory, or logistical issues.

Storm Scale Rating: 4

The mechanic played well and was easy to design and develop. It doesn't have the best first impression, but Magic gets to have some mechanics like that.

SIMIC

Graft (Dissension)

Popularity: Unpopular

I really liked this mechanic, but I was in the minority.

Design Space: Medium

It was limited to creatures, but there was a decent amount to do with it.

Versatility: Neutral

It can only be used in a set with +1/+1 counters. That's most sets, though.

Development: Neutral

Graft didn't have any power-level issues, but it did create a lot of pain on Magic Online.

Playability: Playability affected

Because it uses counters and then affects things with counters, it's a bit harder to track than most mechanics.

Storm Scale Rating: 8

This is one of those mechanics that has enough issues that I don't think it's likely we'll see it come back, but there's always hope of a perfect fit.


Evolve (Gatecrash)

Popularity: Popular

Players like evolve. It requires a little building around, but it's simple enough to do.

Design Space: Medium

Evolve only goes on creatures and tends to want to go on smaller creatures so they have room to grow, but we can create a lot of cards within that space.

Versatility: Neutral

Evolve forces you to include more creatures with high power/low toughness and low power/high toughness than normal.

Development: Not problematic

Development had no issues with evolve.

Playability: Playability affected

Evolve uses +1/+1 counters and also often requires you to remember that an effect is going to happen when you cast certain creatures.

Storm Scale Rating: 5

Evolve was well-liked and easy to design and develop. The only thing holding it back is it needs a specific style of environment to thrive.

Finding a Good Mechanic

That's all the time I have for today. I hope you enjoyed the look back at the guild mechanics through the lens of which ones I think you're most likely to see return. I'm interested in feedback on today's column, through my email or any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Google+, and Instagram). Also, let me know what other sets you'd like me to go back and apply the Storm Scale to.

Join me next week when I examine some of my biggest mistakes.

Until then, may your favorite mechanic return.


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