Storm Scale: Theros and Theros Beyond Death

Posted in Making Magic on December 7, 2020

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.

The Storm Scale is something I created years ago on my blog (Blogatog on Tumblr) as a fun way to predict the likelihood of certain mechanics or other features returning to a premier set (something legal in Standard). I named it the Storm Scale after the mechanic storm which I felt was unlikely to return to Standard. The scale became popular enough that I've done a number of them in "Making Magic":

In this column I'm going to be looking at the mechanics from original Theros block and Theros Beyond Death. The Storm Scale is a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 meaning the mechanical item is very likely to return and 10 meaning the item is very unlikely to return. Here's what each point means on the scale:


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, convoke, exalted


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, ninjutsu, 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


Next, here are the five criteria I use to determine where mechanics fall on 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 the mechanic can be easily developed. This lens has three labels:

  • Not Problematic – Easy to develop, no major challenges for Play Design to overcome.
  • Neutral – There are challenges for Play Design to tackle and will require special care in testing and development. Most mechanics fall into this category.
  • Problematic – There are major challenges for Play Design. It may cause them to pull back on the theme, erring on the side of less impact in Constructed.

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.

As always, I want to stress that the Storm Scale is just my opinion and done for fun and I don't use any advanced knowledge in predicting things. For example, I might know we're doing mechanic X in two years, but I'm predicting not using that information as a certainty.

With that explained, it's time to start grading mechanics.


Bestow (Theros, Born of the Gods, and Journey into Nyx)

Popularity: Liked

While Bestow clearly has its fans, the market research shows that bestow is just middle of the pack when it comes to market research.

Design Space: Medium

I'll say medium, but it's on the low end of medium. All bestow creatures need to boost the enchanted creature by the same amount of their power and toughness, which limits how many available designs exist. If we dropped that constraint, it would open it up to a lot more designs but would feel much less cohesive. This mechanic also creates the additional design challenge of having to design bestow creatures all together to make sure that they're not stepping on one another.

Versatility: Neutral

In some ways, bestow is easy to mix in. It requires creatures that Magic always has in large numbers. In other ways, it's a challenge, as it eats up a certain resource (what R&D calls enhancements—things that permanently make things bigger) and pushes you to have things that care about them in some way (an enchantments-matter theme, size matters, etc.). All this means is that bestow can fit in many sets but brings with it needs that warp the set around it, thus making it something that requires some nuance to use properly.

Development: Neutral

Bestow is tricky for Play Design because there's a fine line between making Auras work in Constructed formats and creating too many two-for-ones that unbalance things. This means that they can only push a handful of bestow creatures in any one Standard environment.

Playability: Playability Affected

Bestow creatures were designed to prevent the two-for-one that normally happens with Auras. Unfortunately, this made the mechanic play a little unintuitively and has caused some player confusion.

Storm Scale Rating: 7

I probably got the most questions about bestow's absence in Theros Beyond Death than any other non-returning mechanic. There's clearly something about it that excites a certain subset of players, so I think if we found the right spot to bring it back, we'd consider it. However, that spot is a difficult one to find because of the mechanic's baggage. That's why its return is a little higher on the scale.


Devotion (Theros, Born of the Gods, Journey into Nyx, and Theros Beyond Death)

Popularity: Popular

When Theros came out, devotion was ranked in the top 25%. When Theros Beyond Death came out, it got the exact same ranking but fell to the next 25%. In between the two sets, more things got ranked higher. Nonetheless, devotion is well loved by a lot of players.

Design Space: Medium

The most popular execution of devotion is what R&D refers to as a "scaling" mechanic where you have to pick effects that can get incrementally stronger (usually involving a number in some way). Devotion can also do threshold effects (something turns on if you meet the devotion requirement, having a certain amount of colored mana symbols—the Gods are a good example of this), but they tend not to be as splashy. There's definitely space to make more devotion cards, but it's not as large a design vein as you might think at first glance.

Versatility: Neutral

Devotion cares about colored mana symbols, so including it in a set pushes you toward having more than normal, which tends to push the set toward having monocolor themes.

Development: Neutral

Devotion is a bit feast or famine. It pushes players to play monocolor while disincentivizing attacking and playing non-permanents. It can be a challenge making it relevant without making it too swingy while also making sure it creates an environment with enough variety.

Playability: Playability Not Affected

Devotion has no comprehension or logistical issues other than the minor issue of forcing a bunch of counting.

Storm Scale Rating: 4

The players like devotion, and there's plenty of design space left. It puts demands on any set in which it's used, but they aren't that hard to navigate around. (For example, we like doing monocolor-focused sets on a regular basis.)


Heroic (Theros, Born of the Gods, and Journey into Nyx)

Popularity: Liked

This mechanic has a fanbase, but overall, it's more liked than loved.

Design Space: Medium

The mechanic can go on any permanent but mostly wants to be on creatures because those get targeted the most. It can go on creatures of any size and have most spell effects as an output.

Versatility: Neutral

This is another mechanic that can fit in most sets but tends to push the design in certain directions to help make it more relevant than normal. The mechanic particularly likes Auras and spells that help your creatures.

Development: Neutral

Like bestow, heroic is another all-in mechanic in Constructed that encourages you to build your deck to maximize what the mechanic is doing. This can be fun in small doses but isn't something you can push too hard. It also is very challenging to make relevant in Limited.

Playability: Playability Not Affected

There's a little confusion over the mechanic not working with non-spells, but it's something players get once they learn it.

Storm Scale Rating: 5

Heroic is flavorful, easy to understand, and can lead to fun gameplay. However, it has some challenges because it's not quite as easy to build into a set as one might think. I am optimistic of seeing it return one day.


Monstrosity (Theros and Journey into Nyx)

Popularity: Liked

This mechanic is interesting in that players seem to like individual creatures with it but rank the overall mechanic a little lower down. My hunch is that it seems less like a mechanic than a "thing creatures can do." Putting +1/+1 counters on a creature is a pretty staple ability.

Design Space: Large

There's a lot of design space in a creature that becomes a larger creature. It's something pretty much every Magic set does. I will point out that having creatures that change efficiently at the exact right mana cost and activation cost can be a challenge at times, but the mechanic does come with three knobs (mana cost, activation cost, and number of +1/+1 counters).

Versatility: Flexible

I could probably put a single monstrosity creature in any set, and it would work out just fine. The only real problem is that it would occasionally step on the toes of a mechanic in the set doing something similar (such as kicker).

Development: Not Problematic

Play Design likes mana sinks and mechanics with lots of knobs, so monstrosity is one of their favorites.

Playability: Playability Affected

Monstrosity is a mechanic that requires +1/+1 counters, so it gets tagged here. Also, monstrosity wasn't designed to be interactive with +1/+1 counters, so if you get a +1/+1 counter on the creature by another means, you have the memory issue of remembering that the monstrosity hasn't been used yet. Adapt in Ravnica Allegiance is a tweak on monstrosity that fixes this issue.

Storm Scale Rating: 4

Monstrosity has a lot of design space and is easy to develop. The only issue to its future is whether we'd rather use adapt than monstrosity. Monstrosity has the better flavor, though, so I'm bullish on its eventual return. (Simic used adapt because +1/+1 counter granting is such a big part of the Simic identity.)


Scry (Theros, Born of the Gods, Journey into Nyx, and Theros Beyond Death; now evergreen)

Popularity: Very Popular

When mechanics show up in multiple sets, they get graded for each set they appear in. Now, scry stopped getting graded once it became evergreen, but every appearance before that was rated in the top 25%. Players like scry.

Design Space: Large

Clearly the design space is pretty huge when you could take almost any spell and just add "Scry 1" to it. We've made a lot of scry cards already, and we're going to make a lot more. I have no fear that we won't be able to do so.

Versatility: Flexible

While there are a few things you can do that synergize with scry (things that care about the top of the library for example), scry can easily fit in any set and at almost any volume. The only time we get into trouble is when there's another mechanic that's similar that we're trying to avoid (such as Guilds of Ravnica's surveil).

Development: Not Problematic

Play Design is a big fan of scry because it allows them to reduce the number of "non-games" where one player just doesn't get to play because they don't draw any of the cards they need. Scry is also more granular than card drawing or looting/rummaging, so it's a great knob to help set power level. The only potential issue is putting in so much scry that you're undercutting the games randomness and all the games play out the same.

Playability: Playability Not Affected

Scry doesn't have any confusion or logistical issues.

Storm Scale Rating: 1

It's an evergreen mechanic. That's the definition of a 1 on the scale. Scry's even listed above as an example of what a 1 means.


Enchantment Creatures (Theros, Born of the Gods, Journey into Nyx, and Theros Beyond Death)

Popularity: Popular

This isn't something we polled players on, so this is a guess. In general, players seemed to like enchantment creatures, both for the synergy they can create and their flavor on Theros.

Design Space: Medium to Large

There's a big debate in R&D about how enchantment creatures are supposed to be designed. The first camp feels that they must have some enchantment-like mechanical element to them to feel like an enchantment. The second camp feels it can be conveyed through flavor and doesn't need to be mechanically represented (much like how colored artifacts work now). I started in the first camp when I designed original Theros but have since come around to the second camp. In fact, if I could go back in time, I'd have put an enchantment creature in Alpha, probably an illusion, to convey this possibility of combinations right out of the gate. If you're in the first camp, the design space is medium. If you're in the second group, the design space is large.

Versatility: Flexible

Enchantment creatures are a must in an "enchantments matter" set, but they can fit just fine, even in small doses, in a set where there is flavor justification. The game already has enchantment destruction baked in, so even in a set with no enchantment theme, it can mechanically matter.

Development: Not Problematic

Enchantment creatures are mostly just creatures from a play design aspect. They are a little more synergistic in a set that cares about enchantments and raise the power level of enchantment destruction, but nothing that can't be easily adjusted for.

Playability: Playability Not Affected

Every set that's had enchantment creatures so far had a special frame. I assume we'd want that moving forward if we made more, but that's more an issue on our end than on the players'.

Storm Scale Rating: 5

If it were up to me, I'd make enchantment creatures evergreen, but I think we're a bit far from that happening. I do think we'll eventually find a non-Theros set where they fit.


Enchantments-Matter Theme (Journey into Nyx and Theros Beyond Death)

Popularity: Popular

Unlike enchantment creatures, this is a thing we asked about in our polls, and players generally were fans of it. In fact, one of the biggest criticisms of original Theros was that it didn't have an "enchantments matter" theme (we were saving it for Journey into Nyx), so when we returned to Theros in Theros Beyond Death, we made sure it had one.

Design Space: Medium

There are a number of ways to care about enchantments, but they have less functionality than creatures, so the design space is smaller than creature tribal.

Versatility: Rigid

This is the big sticking point with an "enchantments matter" theme. It requires a lot of support. For starters, you have to have enchantment creatures to get your as-fan up high enough to make it matter. Any set that's going to do this theme has to start with it at its center because it requires a lot of structural support.

Development: Neutral

Play Design has to make sure that colors have answer to enchantments, which can be challenging for some colors (for example, red tends to punish players for having enchantments rather than getting rid of them), but we make a lot of "thing X matters" sets, so it's something Play Design is used to interacting with.

Playability: Playability Not Affected

We have to be careful that players can identify what is and isn't an enchantment (Theros has always used a special frame), but other than that, the theme doesn't tend to cause confusion or logistical issues.

Storm Scale Rating: 4

There are only so many things baked into the game that you can design a set around. Enchantments is one of those things, and it's one we've hit upon far less than most of the others (artifacts, graveyard, tribal, etc.) It's not a matter of if we'll do another "enchantments matter" set, but when. I'm even confident we'll do one someday that isn't Theros.


Gods (Theros, Born of the Gods, Journey into Nyx, and Theros Beyond Death)

Popularity: Very Popular

The God creature type was introduced in original Theros, and it was instantly popular. So much so, that we've incorporated them into other worlds.

Design Space: Low

One of the biggest challenges with designing Gods has been to figure out what defines a God mechanically. Theros block tried making them all indestructible, but that caused a bunch of play design issues (more on this below). We've since retreated to making Gods more impressive and harder to kill than a normal creature. It's possible, as we explore new space, that we might be able to expand the design space, but right now, it's a bit tight.

Versatility: Neutral

Mechanically, we can drop Gods in a lot of sets. Flavorfully, though, you want the God to matter to the set. Gods get a lot of attention, so you want to make sure that they play a central role in its structure.

Development: Neutral

Gods that are very hard to kill can be problematic to balance. The new approach is to make Gods that, in the right circumstance, can be powerful and hard to deal with, but it requires enough deck-construction support that a God can't just go into any deck playing its color.

Playability: Playability Affected

It's possible to have Gods not affect playability, but the various Theros versions rely on a devotion threshold which required constant monitoring. It's not that hard of a thing to track, but it's enough for me to list it here.

Storm Scale Rating: 4

Gods are popular and add a lot of flavor to the right set. I see us printing more Gods in the future, but I expect us to experiment with more ways of mechanically executing them.


Monocolor Themes (Theros, Born of the Gods, Journey into Nyx, and Theros Beyond Death)

Popularity: Popular

This isn't something we asked about in surveys with Theros block, but I have had a lot of interaction with players who have expressed excitement for monocolor themes.

Design Space: Medium

As with devotion, which is a subset of this category, the designs for this tend to fall mostly into scaling and threshold. There is plenty to work with, but it's far from endless.

Versatility: Neutral

Monocolor themes require a certain as-fan of monocolor cards, but as it's something we do most sets, this isn't the biggest of asks. Different monocolor themes, and there are various ways to do them, require different support. For example, devotion requires heavier colored mana costs.

Development: Neutral

Monocolor puts more stress on answers because the colors' weaknesses tend to shine more. Also, it's hard to get enough cards to play just one color in Limited, so sets have to either make use of a tool to help (colorless cards, hybrid, etc.) or encourage playing mostly one color and splashing a second.

Playability: Playability Not Affected

If anything, monocolor strategies are a little easier to play because there are less mana issues to monitor.

Storm Scale Rating: 3

As with "enchantments matter," there are only so many basic themes we can use. Monocolor themes are something you should see on a regular basis.


Inspired (Born of the Gods and Journey into Nyx)

Popularity: Unpopular

I'm not sure if this is because it was hard to track or not very flavorful, but inspired turned out to be not so inspirational with the players.

Design Space: Medium

The mechanic mostly goes on creatures (although it could in theory go on artifacts with a tap ability), and it has to be a creature that has some means to occasionally attack or have another built-in way to tap itself. The effects have to be things that are relevant at the beginning of the turn, as that's when untapping occurs.

Versatility: Neutral

Because creatures can attack, there is a built-in way to get them tapped, but the mechanic does want some other effects that allow you to tap your creatures without them having to always attack.

Development: Problematic

We must jump through a lot of hoops to make this mechanic relevant in Constructed. The creature has to be cast, survive the turn, attack on the next turn, survive that attack, and then make it yet another turn before there's any payoff. Then, in Limited, you have to find ways to support the mechanic so that a board stall doesn't just shut it down. It's a pretty high-maintenance mechanic.

Playability: Playability Affected

For some reason, untapping being a trigger is just very hard for players to grok and monitor. My best guess is that players are so used to untapping and quickly moving on to drawing their card that they're not used to having to think about the fact that something might happen at that time.

Storm Scale Rating: 9

It's unpopular, tricky to design, hard for Play Design to develop, and hard for players to monitor. I'm skeptical it's returning anytime soon.


Tribute (Born of the Gods)

Popularity: Unpopular

We had high hopes for this mechanic, as players had shown a liking for punisher cards, that is, cards where you force your opponent to make a hard choice about how you get rewarded. It didn't pan out.

Design Space: Small

Designing creatures that varied between two sizes (that had to be exactly +N/+N apart) where the differential had to match the power of a spell-like ability proved to be hard to design, both because the knobs weren't very exact and because they needed to not step on one another.

Versatility: Rigid

The tribute creatures made it hard to curve the set and properly balance for size because you didn't know quite what players were going to end up with. They ended up warping a lot in the set to make them fit.

Development: Neutral

This is a tricky mechanic to balance because if one side is better than the other, the card always does the same thing every time it's played. Play Design did find some cards that worked, but it wasn't a deep pool.

Playability: Playability Affected

The mechanic uses +1/+1 counters and forces the opponent to make a hard decision based on a card you're playing.

Storm Scale Rating: 8

I'm slightly more optimistic about tribute than inspired, but only slightly.


Constellation (Journey into Nyx and Theros Beyond Death)

Popularity: Liked

This is one of those mechanics where a subset of the playerbase absolutely adores it and everyone else thinks it's okay.

Design Space: Medium

Constellation's design space is limited by how many effects you can pair with it. I think there are a lot you can make, but they quickly start stepping on the toes of one another, so it's hard to have too many in the same set.

Versatility: Rigid

This mechanic only works if the set has a high enough as-fan of enchantments. As a subset of the "enchantments matter" theme, this mechanic really wants to be in a set with enchantment creatures.

Development: Neutral

All the Journey into Nyx constellation cards were enchantments, so they fed one another and caused a bunch of play design issues. Theros Beyond Death fixed this issue by putting the mechanic on non-enchantments.

Playability: Playability Not Affected

Players have to recognize when they're playing enchantments, but that's not a particularly hard task.

Storm Scale Rating: 5

We spent a lot of time in Theros Beyond Death vision design trying to find another "enchantments matter" mechanic. The fact that we ended up with constellation says that there's not much better out there. Since I think "enchantments matter" will return, I feel constellation's chances of coming back are decent.


Strive (Journey into Nyx)

Popularity: Not Popular

Journey into Nyx originally was planning to bring back buyback, but that ended up being too powerful and repetitive, so the mechanic was changed to strive. I've met buyback. I led the set that created buyback. Strive, you're no buyback.

Design Space: Small

Strive only goes on instants and sorceries, and it had to be an effect that targeted and made sense targeting more than one thing. We were able to design 20 cards for Journey into Nyx, but I'm skeptical there's 20 more without repeating a lot of effects.

Versatility: Neutral

This mechanic requires a board state where there's a bunch of creatures. That puts some structural demands on the set it's in, but nothing too prescriptive.

Development: Neutral

The biggest issue Play Design had with strive was finding enough effects they could push. As I said above, it's a narrow band of effects.

Playability: Playability Not Affected

Strive didn't have any confusion or logistical issues.

Storm Scale Rating: 8

It was unpopular and narrow. I could imagine the perfect set coming along where it made sense, but it's a longshot.


Escape (Theros Beyond Death)

Popularity: Liked

I'll be honest. This was a mechanic that I expected to rank a little higher than it did. Players tend to like reusing their cards, so it's odd to me that this was merely liked.

Design Space: Medium

Escape's design space is pretty flexible. It can go on any card type. Every color has at least one card type it can get out of the graveyard (although in a graveyard set, we're more willing to bend what color can get what from the graveyard). There's plenty to design. The limitation is that you have to be careful not to make things that are too good in their repetition. For example, we tend not to make escape creatures that are strong blockers.

Versatility: Neutral

Escape is happiest in a set with a graveyard theme or at least something that has a means to get cards into your graveyard (discarding, milling, sacrifice—there are a bunch of ways to do it).

Development: Neutral

The ability to reuse cards is always a play design challenge as you want to make sure it happens enough to be relevant but not too much that it creates repetition issues.

Playability: Playability Affected

The mechanic is active in the graveyard, so it has some monitoring issues. It also occasionally uses +1/+1 counters.

Storm Scale Rating: 6

I think escape plays well and has a decent amount of design space, but it comes with some structural issues and demands an above-average amount of attention to get it to play correctly. I think there's a decent chance of its return, but it needs certain things to line up.


Sagas (Theros Beyond Death)

Popularity: Very Popular

Sagas are quite popular with the players. I assume that doesn't come as a surprise.

Design Space: Medium

Sagas are tricky to design. You need to combine multiple effects that not only play well together but create a story. That said, the story aspect of them leads me to believe there are a lot of cool top-down designs for us to make.

Versatility: Flexible

Sagas can work in any set and don't necessarily put any restrictions on the set they're in. You could build around them, but it isn't necessary.

Development: Neutral

The trick with developing Sagas is finding the right balance between them getting enough value early but still having the later chapters be relevant.

Playability: Playability Affected

Sagas use counters and have memory issues (remembering to add the counters each turn).

Storm Scale Rating: 3

I have high hopes for the future of Sagas. I even think there is a potential of them one day being deciduous, but we're not quite there yet, so they get a 3.

Any Port in a Storm Scale

That's all the mechanics and themes from Theros block and Theros Beyond Death. I've been getting a bunch of requests for another Storm Scale article on my social media channels, so I hope you all enjoyed it. As always, I'm eager for feedback on today's article or any of the mechanics I talked about. You can email me or contact me through any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, and TikTok).

I'll be on holiday for the next few weeks, but join me in January for Kaldheim previews.

Until then, may the mechanic you wish for return.

 
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