Monday, May 10, 2021

The Perfect Storm: Vanishing, Allies, Ferocious, and Monarch

 Welcome to the next installment of "The Perfect Storm", a recurring article series where I randomly choose four mechanics rated between 5 and 7 on Mark Rosewater's Storm Scale and write about what environment those mechanics would need to return. This week: Vanishing, Allies, ferocious, and monarch. Check out the first installment of The Perfect Storm here.

Vanishing (Rated 7)

Several decades of Magic have demonstrated that downside mechanics basically don't work. There isn't much "play" to them and players don't like feeling like the card they specifically chose for their deck is being hamstrung. That said, vanishing has a bit of a better reputation than other downside mechanics like echo, and there's some interesting design space that it can move into.

Vanishing in a set would eat up a lot of its complexity budget because of both the timekeeping element and the use of non- +1/+1 counters. You're constantly checking all of your creatures at the start of your upkeep, a time period you normally don't have to think about, so it's better to not have a strong impetus to check other unusual things like your graveyard. Additionally, you don't really want more than 2 kinds of counters to be commonly present in a set at a time for logistical reasons, so things like ability and charge counters would be out. This is especially true since any kind of permanent can have vanishing, erasing the niches that things like charge counters could normally slot into.

The silver lining is that vanishing would go very nicely into a set with proliferate. Proliferate has so far managed creature size counters, poison, and loyalty counters; using proliferate to "buy time" for some of your powerful cards with vanishing would be a new way of handling the mechanic, and it would make for interesting games where you have to sequence your turns so you maximize the amount of vanishing permanents you add counters to.

Allies (Rated 7)

The Ally tribal mechanic in its original printing (ZEN) was much beloved by the player base, so it's unsurprising that Rosewater would evaluate it as just needing the right environment to come back. However, I'm more skeptical – I think that the concept of Allies as an all-encompassing creature type representing party members has largely been outclassed by party.

The difference between Allies and other tribal strategies is breadth. Allies could be found in all five colors, and their color largely determined what effect you would be getting from that creature – whether it boosted power and toughness versus giving some utility effect, was "selfish" versus aiding your other Allies, and so on. This gave players more freedom in how, exactly, they were going to construct their Ally deck, allowing for personal expression in a style of archetype that normally wouldn't allow for it.

However, batching mechanics in general, and party in specific, have eliminated the need for a single tribal archetype to be broad in the first place. It's much easier to take several card archetypes that have a storied history behind them and mash them together into a new one, giving players many more options as to how they compose their deck in casual formats. 

Party also has a better and more trackable theme. As players discovered in Battle for Zendikar, you can't visually tell which creatures are Allies and which aren't, with the creature type becoming a difficult marker to track and losing some of its original flavor. It's much easier to discern which of the four party classes a creature belongs to, especially because of their differing distribution per color.

Frankly, I feel the best place for an Ally deck is in a supplemental set like Modern Horizons, which appeals significantly to nostalgia value – modern design has largely made it obsolete otherwise.

Ferocious (Rated 7)

Ferocious is an interesting case because it has been brought back multiple times since its first printing in Khans of Tarkir...technically. "4 power matters" was an archetype theme in several sets in 2019, particularly War of the Spark; Hipsters of the Coast's Zach Barash previously wrote about Ferocious as a "mini-mechanic" and what it means for Limited. Ferocious makes enough sense as a small, two-color archetype for a "signpost uncommon"-style set structure, but what would motivate a designer to bring it back, by name, and in substantial enough numbers to earn it?

The largest thing ferocious has going against it is that it's relatively unexciting. It's a hoop-jumping mechanic that rewards you for having something on board you'd probably want anyway, so games with a heavy ferocious deck aren't going to be meaningfully different from a R/G deck in a core set. It's fine to have this as an unnamed mechanic, but named mechanics have larger audience expectations to be exciting and innovative. (This is why megamorph was so unpopular – I think that if all of the cards in DTK had morph and added a counter, it would have been better received.) As sets pivot towards a small number of complex mechanics, it's hard to find a place that a workhorse like Ferocious could belong.

I believe the best environment for ferocious would be as a mechanic for Gruul in a future Ravnica set. Ravnica sets have a lot of mechanics by modern standards, so all five mechanics in a set have to be very simple. (KTK probably should have had simpler mechanics as well.) Gruul doesn't have blue, the color with the worst creature sizing, weighing it down in the same way Temur did, and the concept of your spells becoming stronger because you had a big beefy boy works well thematically as well. You could even cast it as the direction Gruul's heading now that Borborygmos has assumed power again after Domri's ill-fated attempt at razing the city to the ground (represented by the Riot mechanic.)

Monarch (Rated 7)

We've recently seen monarch return in Commander Legends, which makes perfect sense. Monarch is a heavily multiplayer-oriented card, as playing it in 2-player would frequently bury your opponent in card advantage if you were able to defend yourself for even a turn or two. However, this series is about premiere sets, which by definition are played in 2-player. So this logically asks the question: What environment could support monarch as a named mechanic without being problematic to play?

The first thing that springs to mind is that the format should favor attackers more than blockers – the point of monarch is that the crown changes hands a lot over the course of the game, and if you can turtle up and handle the board while drawing two cards a turn after you become the monarch, monarch becomes downside-only for the designer. Mechanics that make a creature harder to block, like flying, deathtouch/first strike on attackers, "tap when attacking" creatures, and so on, should be stronger and/or be available in greater number.

The second is that cards that grant monarch are also going to have to look substantially different from the ones in multiplayer draft formats. Whereas those formats made it much more likely you wouldn't be able to hold onto the crown for more than a turn or two, because everyone else put monarch spells in their deck and there's three times as many of them as you, in a 2-player game it's much more likely you could draw three or four extra cards off a single monarch play. As such, monarch cards for 2-player would probably be at a worse rate or less able to defend you after you cast them. (No Thorn of the Black Rose, for example.)

Would these cards then be exciting enough to justify putting the mechanic in the set at all? I would say that it's fairly unlikely, but good design has rescued worse mechanics.


Thanks for checking out this article! Since these are all essentially disconnected mini-essays, I don't have much else to add, but expect more of these eventually. Who knows what storm will brew next?


  1. A lot of the mechanics here are not in print due to them largely already being supplanted by unkeyworded mechanics that are. (Ferocious as itself, allies as party, vanishing as “permanents with life expectancy” (sagas spring to mind, got others in this category))

    Which made me think. There isn’t really a standard suitable version of monarch? But if there was, what would it look like? (By this I mean, not monarch itself, but something that functions in a similar fashion)

    1. The important thing about monarch to me is that it's a status that passes back and forth between players – it and ascend were based off of Edge from the old Vampire TCG, which worked the same way. I could easily see a 2-player suitable monarch that had an effect less powerful than "draw a card every turn".