Building a Better Faerie Realm

Posted in Feature on October 15, 2007

By Elye Alexander

Hi there.

Fistful of Force
Excuse me for a moment while I look around. This is way cool—I'm on the Magic web site! Who'd've thunk it?

...But I suppose I should introduce myself. My name is Elye Alexander; and unlike many of the feature writers here, my official association with Wizards of the Coast began fairly recently. Ah, but unofficially my connection to the game of games goes way back, to before Lord Ith was born.

You see, back in the twilight of the previous century, when tournament packs were still called "starter decks" and there were no gold and silver expansion symbols to tell you what was rare and what uncommon—you had to remember it, sonny—I was one of the thousands, nay, millions swept up by the juggernaut called Magic: The Gathering. And as I salted my decks with tidbits like Tawnos's Coffin and Urza's Avenger from the then-current expansion set, I found myself thinking that it would be amazing fun to actually work on creating the cards in forthcoming sets.

It was not long before I'd written a letter to Wizards of the Coast full of ideas for totally nifty cards that would have been just what I needed to perfect my current strategies. It was returned unread, with a polite note from the Wizards legal staff informing me that unsolicited creative material could not be accepted for ponderous, tedious technical reasons, or words to that effect. Ha! I'm not so easily deterred. Little did they suspect that over the next ten years, while apparently pursuing a career that had nothing to do with Magic, I would secretly be insinuating myself into increasingly arcane circles until a good friend (Alex Smith, one of the writers for Kamigawa) introduced me to the Magic team and the door was open for me to have my way with their innocent new cards. Even better, I get paid to do so! Okay, so it's actually quite a bit of work. But I still get a little thrill every time I open a booster pack and see a card I helped nurture from a bland little R&D placeholder to a full-fledged fightin' critter able to project a little attitude of its own.

Over the past couple years I've been fortunate to be part of the teams that wrote names and flavor text for the Ravnica and Time Spiral Blocks as well as Tenth Edition. Most recently, I've had the pleasure of contributing to the latest release: Lorwyn. (Other members of the Lorwyn team included Garrett Baumgartner, Scott Johns, Christa Knott-Dufresne, Adam Lee, Jay Moldenhauer-Salazar, Rei Nakazawa, and Jake Theis, as well as our fearless leader, Doug Beyer.) And since the Lorwyn experience is what I'm supposed to be talking about here, I guess I better get to it...

Subtlety and Surprise

After the shifting urban alliances of Ravnica and the edgy post-apocalyptic whirlwind of mechanics that was Time Spiral, Lorwyn at first glance seemed like a quiet vacation in the country. Here there is no single great enemy, no overarching conflict in which all must takes sides, no threat to spacetime itself. But as soon as you step through the dappled sunlight and sylvan meadows and meet the denizens of the plane, you discover that this world is no paradise, and what at first seemed like simplicity is not simple at all—just subtle, and full of surprises. And, as in the best of the Grimm Brothers' fairytales (an obvious influence for the set), some of the surprises are rather dark ones. So much the better!

Fathom Trawl
As a fan of the fairytale genre—whether old and spooky or modern and hip—I was excited to be part of Magic's take on it. The folks in R&D had done a great job creating the world of Lorwyn, particularly its feel; at every turn there is a sense of things hidden, of old history only half revealed, of strange transformations riding on the wind; and even that which lingers casually in plain sight is seldom exactly what it seems. Take the various tribes that inhabit the place: all are quite different from their incarnations on other worlds. One of these merfolk would get beat up pretty bad in Rootwater, whereas one of these elves would wipe the forest floor with the average Dominarian elf-dude. And the boggarts! I believe they have achieved a first in the annals of Magic, by making black the comic color for the set.

Another thing that I immediately appreciated was the lack of humans in this world. Here, as so rarely in fantasy, the creatures of high and low magic get to operate outside the mortal human influence; for once they get to take center stage instead of being mere pawns and extras, with the result that their cultures and habits are much more fully realized in Lorwyn than elsewhere.

As always, the task of the flavor writers is to capture the mood of a new set and help fill out the details of the world, adding our own little flourishes as we go. With so much interesting material to work with, I immediately cast about for ways to do justice to it all. Usually I start work on naming cards first, to get a feel for who's in the set, and then come back to flavor text afterward.

How to convey the complexities of a strange culture in a few card names? One strategy that I sometimes use is to "go native." Most creature names in Magic are given from a sort of omniscient narrator's perspective—that is to say, they're the name we planeswalker wizards might use to refer to the critter, not the name the critter itself would use. For example, a Goblin Cohort doesn't think of himself as a goblin cohort; heck, he wouldn't know a cohort from a transreliquat. He just thinks of himself as Grak, or Mons, or whatever. But sometimes it's interesting to explore the language the creatures themselves use to describe things.

The elves are the dominant race of Lorwyn, with a complex hierarchical social structure that assigns rank based on physical attractiveness. And where beauty is the end that justifies all means and those who lack beauty are less than worthless, I imagine that even killing might be described with lyrical euphemisms. Thus, a card representing the death dealt to an ugly creature, which elsewhere might be called something like "heartless slaughter," becomes "Eyeblight's Ending."

Speaking of elves and eyeblights... the "going native" strategy also works for flavor text. Of course, the quotation is a pretty common form of flavah; but the ones I like best are those that don't simply give you the speaker's opinion on something, but also suggest something more about the culture of which the speaker is a part. That's what I was shooting for on Warren-Scourge Elf:

Warren-Scourge Elf

It's not so much what she says as how casually she says it. The speaker is so committed to her idealization of beauty that her only use for unattractive critters is to wipe them out as prettily as possible, and she takes it for granted that all other elves will feel the same. I'd hate to live among this lot... one bad hair day and you'd wind up as compost, pushing up the moongloves in one of their poison gardens.

If the elves of Lorwyn are surprisingly nasty, the merrows—the local brand of merfolk—are atypically good-natured. They are also quiet and subtle, and almost dwarfishly industrious. The result is that, despite their omnipresence (their sparkling waterways, the "Merrow Lanes," extend across the world), their activities often go unnoticed; and yet they know Lorwyn inside-out and exert a huge influence on both the landscape and the other races—facts which they tend to record and celebrate in their own unobtrusive way:

Streambed Aquitects
Veteran of the Depths

Waitaminnit—"countless tallies" of victories? Evidently these guys aren't such pushovers after all. One character that emerged during world building was that of Minnarin, the powerful reejerey of the Paperfin school—a warrior adept at combating the land-based tribes. Well, I asked myself, what would make an amphibious merrow so good at fighting terrestrial foes? The card "Neck Snap" provided an angle:

Neck Snap

Try to think like a river-dweller, and you'll find you're inclined to attack an air breather in the windpipe.

Tribes, Tribes, Tribes

Lorwyn is all about tribal mechanics; and as I began to explore its numerous tribes more deeply, I started wondering about the various cultures and their interactions, both with rival cultures and amongst themselves. Obviously they do more than just kill each other off. I wanted a clearer sense of peaceful day-to-day interactions, to provide a better backdrop for the inevitable aggro. Since Magic, for obvious reasons, focuses on battle-oriented cards, I tried to make the most of the few that offered glimpses of peacetime interactions.

Sticking with the merrows for the moment (I'm a big fan of the merrows), one of my favorite "peacetime" cards is Wellgabber Apothecary. Unlike many of white's healers, this guy is conceptually really interesting. He's not just a tender of injuries, he's also a kind of ambassador, a bringer of news and a gatherer of information—a sort of friendly spy; and in a decidedly fairytale twist, he hangs out in the bottom of a well. I wanted to convey the sense that he knows a lot about what the other races are doing—here he's clearly got a pretty good idea what the kithkin, boggarts, and elves are all up to—and as he chats he's confirming his suspicions. But he hasn't got a nefarious agenda; he's just insuring that the merrows are as well informed as possible. He's also amusing himself in typical merrow fashion by occasionally tossing out a veiled barb; and yet he is genuinely pleased to be helping out his kithkin patient. I confess I was rather proud to have crammed so much info into that little text box:

Wellgabber Apothecary

If the merrows are the traders and information peddlers of Lorwyn, then the kithkin are surely their best source of goods and center—as well as plenty of amusing stories. I'm sure I wasn't alone in developing my own anthropological theories about some of the unique characteristics of the diminutive meadow-folk.

Take their superstitions, for instance. The kithkin subscribe to a vast array of superstitions, and we writers had a field day inventing new ones for them at every turn. (Only a fraction of them actually made it onto cards, but they helped shape our conception of who the kithkin are.) But I also found myself asking why they held so many strange beliefs in the first place.

The kithkin have come a long way since they first appeared on Amrou Kithkin in Legends. On Dominaria they are a minor race, shy and evasive. On Lorwyn, however, they fulfill many of the roles that humans play on other planes. Skillful farmers, active traders, storytellers, and historians, they are also a formidable fighting force. I imagine them being a bit like the ancient Irish, with a store of folk wisdom and a penchant for archaic language (which led me to call them by such names as "Goldmeadow Stalwart" and "Kithkin Daggerdare"). No doubt some of the superstitious habits of this sort of folk would originate as ways of upholding social values such as selflessness and courage (thus my flavor text on Knight of Meadowgrain).

Knight of Meadowgrain

But what about the really odd beliefs—using torn ribbons to ward off nightmares, that sort of thing? These, I decided, often proliferate because of the kithkin's thoughtweft—their almost-telepathic empathy. When creatures can share emotions this directly, they're probably less inclined to seek logical reasons for things, and simply adopt whatever belief—however peculiar—their friends and relations happen to feel strongly about. This hypothesizing didn't lead directly to any specific cards; it's just an example of the kind of thinking we writers sometimes use to get a handle on the beings we're writing about.

Another line of thought that did lead directly to a couple cards had to do with the weirdest tribe of all, the changelings. For me these are fascinating critters. Okay, they're pretty goofy, with that blank bug-eyed stare and those little curly tails. But they're also a little creepy, in the fun way of possessed dolls or evil clowns. They're also a stroke of brilliance in game play terms for a set that feeds off tribal affiliations.

What intrigued me most about them, though, was the sort of identity-angst that must inevitably accompany any involuntary shapeshifter. For one thing, I wondered about the creatures that they copy: was it possible that a changeling's departure could have a sort of reverse effect, a sort of stripping away of personality from the one they were imitating? This provided an explanation for the "detribalizing" mechanic of Nameless Inversion:

Nameless Inversion

Second, what about the changelings themselves when they are remote from other living things? Do they always revert to their basic form—pot-bellied, gelatinous humanoids—or might they be shaped by subtler emanations? That question was answered on Ghostly Changeling:

Ghostly Changeling

From the Mouths of Boggarts

Flavor text writing is oddly similar to writing poetry—especially short poetic forms like the haiku, the limerick, or the Welsh englyn. There's no room for wasted words, and a piece is at its best when it manages to suggest a lot more than is actually said. Of course, sometimes flavor text actually is part of a poem, or a story or a saying or a song. This is especially true on Lorwyn, where even the boggarts have a home-grown cycle of tales all their own, celebrating the legendary Auntie Grub.

It's funny, considering the brainless simplicity of goblins in general and Lorwyn's goblins in particular, but I found it really hard to reduce a typical boggart tale to the three or four lines available. Though they don't have anything complex to say, what's most fun about the Auntie Grub stories is the way that they're told: the sensation-craving boggarts experience the world with a weird sort of fragmented consciousness, and in their tales their own hands and feet (and sometimes ears, noses, bellies and so forth, as well as inanimate objects) talk to them, telling of the tasty mud pies, ouchy rocks, and so forth that they encounter. This makes for a long-winded way of saying things, but it's so essential to the boggarts' nature that it seemed more important to convey the feel of it than to leave it out in favor of more plot or detail. The result was that all my boggart quotes ended up as fragments, which kind of fits the critters anyhow. (And as Doug pointed out, telling stories in fragments led to extra payoff with Tar Pitcher and Tarfire.)

Whereas the boggarts' stories are often unintentionally funny, I imagined the kithkin tale-tellers as having a healthy sense of humor when speaking of Lorwyn's other peoples. The giants in particular make nice big targets, and seemed likely to provoke entertaining words from the little folk—though probably the only giant it's safe to make fun of is one in a story (as I imagine this flavor text to be):

Lignify

And then there's the treefolk... I saved them for last in my little tour of flavor writing because they're another of my favorite tribes, and the one that has had to wait longest to score a major presence in a Magic set. (Quick show of hands: who else has always wanted to make a treefolk deck, but never got around to it because there never seemed to be quite enough good ones? That's going to change.) Despite my enthusiasm for them, however, they turned out to be rather a thorny... ah, knotty... ahem, difficult challenge. This is because they are supposed to be the wisest beings in Lorwyn. Folks, it's hard to be wise. Some days it's just easier to think like a boggart. Yet in a world where every creature type gets to have its say, I didn't want to leave the deepest thinkers without a few memorable lines.

Well, I thought, the treefolk's wisdom isn't directed at humankind; and who can say what's wise from the perspective of a five hundred year old tree dude? I figured that I'd just go for it and leave it to the denizens of the Great Forest to decide.

Doran, the Siege Tower

Doran is such a great card to use with other tree folk, it seemed appropriate to have him say something inspirational to his rooted brethren. And then there's the more arcane treefolk, ruminating on the nature of wisdom itself:

Bog-Strider Ash

Note that in both these examples I followed the one essential rule of the Wise Utterance—"thou shalt speak cryptically, but with complete conviction." Ah, but does that make these quotations actually, uh, wise? I guess you'll just have to head on in to Lorwyn and ask the ashes and the oaks. It's sure to be a memorable journey. (Just watch your step around those elves...)

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