A Conversation with Vorthos

Posted in Feature on September 2, 2015

By Matt Cavotta

Matt has worn many wizard hats in the 18 years he has worked on Magic—art-mage, logomancer, lightning bard, and (of course) Planeswalker.

Ten years ago, in my Taste the Magic column, the term "Vorthos" was first used in an article called "Snack Time with Vorthos." In recognition of the flavorful decade between then and now, Vorthos has been deemed worthy of its very own week here at DailyMTG. It's an honor and a pleasure to return to the scene to celebrate with all the web-connected fans of fantastical flavor. But I will not be alone. In order to get a wider perspective, I've invited Vorthos to join me in an informal, unscripted conversation.

MC: So I was asked to write an article acknowledging the tenth anniversary since you were created in "Snack Time with Vorthos." What do you think about that?

V: You created me? Heh. Is that what they think?

MC: Yup. Some of them, anyway.

V: We should probably clear that up.

MC: I'll let you do it. This is your day.

V: Okay. Let's start with a wild statement to illustrate a point: There were no bison until people painted them into existence on the cave walls at Lascaux.

MC: Wow, that's some serious power those cave people had. Could it be true?

V: It almost sounds like they were wizards, creating things from the Æther with arcane scrawl.

Painting of aurochs, horses, and deer in the Lascaux Caves, France


MC: As much as I like the sound of that, I doubt that's what you had in mind.

V: Correct. It's clearly false.

MC: Clearly.

V: But some mages forsake their scrolls and libraries to learn at the feet of ancient trees and sacred stones.

MC: What?

V: You lost a little Vorthosian cred right there, Cavotta.

MC: Cut me some slack. It's been a while. Can we get back to the point? So, we agree that cave men didn't create bison. . .

V: And similarly, it's safe to say that your typed out words did not create me. In fact, I was fondly regarding the fine golden tattoos on Hurloon Minotaur long before you wrote about me ten years ago.

MC: But whatever could this mean?

V: And even before that, I've been enjoying the flavor of fantastical adventure for years with George, John, Bill, Homer, and many others.

MC: Are those your gaming buddies?

V: I wish. We'd make a badass D&D party. John would be a Halfling. Bill would definitely be a bard. But that would require far more necromancy than I can currently wield.

MC: Necromancy? They're dead?

V: Yup. The only way for me to commune with them now is to cast spells like The Empire Strikes Back, The Fellowship of the Ring, or Macbeth.

MC: Ah! "Spells," I get it. Hey wait. George Lucas isn't dead.

V: He's dead to me. Since 1999.

MC: Hmm . . . midichlorians?

V: You've just earned back some lost Vorthos cred.

MC: Nice. So, it's clearer now. You've been around all along. But we're here in Vorthos Week to celebrate the last ten years, and your connection to Magic.

V: Ah, my connection to Magic. It's deep. It runs in my blood. I love me some Shakespeare and all, but I think I love Magic more.

MC: Them's fightin' words where people still wear tweed.

V: Ah yes, the mean streets of college faculty offices. I'd step on that battlefield. Magic doesn't just go from page one to page two. We get to appreciate the flavor over and over, and in new ways each time, often in the order of our own choosing. In many ways, Magic gives us control over the story we want to see play out.

MC: Wow, that's some serious power.

V: It's almost like we're wizards.

MC: How do you type out a high-five? We totally rocked that.

V: You set 'em up, I knock 'em down.

MC: So we've established that the aficionado of fantastical adventure existed long before ten years ago. But people still seem to have attributed significance to your arrival on the Magic scene. Why do you think that is?

V: While I chuckle at the idea of being created, I absolutely, whole-heartedly appreciate being identified. Ten years ago was not my birthday, but it was—to toss a little Westeros into the mix—my first name day. Being named means a lot to me. It means the creators of Magic identified the flavor fan as having an interest that is worth considering and worth serving.

MC: I could not have said it better myself.

V: Not right now, anyway. It seems like you're a bit out of practice.

MC: Thanks, pal. So ten years ago you were officially identified. Have things changed for you since then?

V: Yes. Being part of the conversation is great. The strength in numbers I feel as other flavor-philes also self-identify as "Vorthoses" is both flattering and empowering. But most of all, I appreciate the way they have recognized the power of fantasy, imagination, escapism, and storytelling, and have evolved to deliver those things even more strongly.

MC: . . .

V: Hello?

MC: I'm just pausing a moment to let that sink in. It's very true, the mind-set within Wizards has really begun to embrace story and its related experiences as a way to reach and affect fans. I can't really say that it's solely because of your name day; most likely I was given the opportunity to write about you because there was already an undercurrent in the tide of minds that was beginning to flow your way. Whatever the case may be, a whole lot has changed that seems to confirm that the voice of Vorthos has definitely been heard.

V: "Tide of Minds." That should be a blue sorcery.

MC: So a lot of things have changed. Is there something in particular that you feel has improved things for you and your experience with Magic?

V: Planeswalkers, no doubt about it.

MC: A big change in and of themselves. And, boom! An exploding cascade of flavorful change that followed.

V: They hit the scene soon after my name day. Was this a recognition of the hearty appetite of flavor fans?

MC: Well, I can tell you with 100% certainty that there was no call at that time to add a new card type to the game. That had never been done before, so there was a proper amount of resistance to changing the composition of the game. But it ended up happening because there was increasing recognition of the importance of being able to build characters you could love, and not have to leave in the rear-view mirror every year. So, I guess the answer to your question is, yes.

V: Thank you, Wizards, for this wonderful gift. Characters are our way of seeing ourselves in the fantasy, and of exploring the human condition in memorable ways—like games, or campfire tales, books, and movies. Planeswalkers give us the ability to grow up with characters and see them grow along with us.

MC: It reminds me of the rise in popularity of cable TV series. You get all the grit and talent and budget of a movie, but characters aren't stunted by a two-hour box.

V: One of the cool things about the way Magic works is how each new world gives us the movie experience (the widescreen welcome to a fantastical place), and the Planeswalkers give us the TV series experience—a character's long slow twist from raw, primal force to witch-cursed magehunter!

Art by Brad Rigney

MC: You got caught up in it a bit there, eh?

V: That's the power of storytelling.

MC: But we're in a new world of sound bites, vines, and tweets.

V: You know how I love snack-sized fantasy flavor—Twinkies, tofu, and all. This is what Magic has been doing well since all the way back. Each card is a portal to its own story, a brief moment of fantastical immersion. It's Magic flavor for the YouTube-size attention span.

MC: I can tell you that things are evolving there as well. Great minds are focused on delivering important moments in the overall story on cards of their own, but in a way that presents a rewarding glimpse of fantasy that can stands alone as well.

V: You can eat it plain, like cubed ham. Or you can have a clan sandwich:

MC: Poor Zurgo.

V: His tale is like the opposite of Rocky. One guy started out hitting inanimate dangling objects and ended up fighting for the championship of the world. The other, well. . .

MC: Nicely done.

V: So we've been using media formats as an analogy for the kind of experience you get with cards, card sets, or ongoing Planeswalker character arcs. What about when it's not an analogy, but a reality?

MC: We're on YouTube for real.

V: You know what I'm talking about. What about the movie?

MC: I can't talk about the movie itself, but we can talk about how we've put ourselves in a position to have one.

V: Not as cool, but still interesting. Go on.

MC: So you're a fan of Garruk's "long twist" from beastmaster to magehunter. The key word there is "long." Now that we've spent nine-plus years with some of the same Planeswalkers, they have become stitched into the fabric of Magic. For a long time, we just didn't have any characters that were in any way representative of the whole of Magic. Now we have that, and it seems natural to me that this time, after a handful of failed courtships with Hollywood, a relationship has formed.

V: So you're confirming that Planeswalkers will be in the movie?

MC: I am neither confirming nor denying anything about what's in the movie. I will, however, say that having characters that are lasting emblems of the brand allows us to express Magic in other media and other styles.

V: I see what you're doing here, trying to change the subject. But . . . it . . . worked. OMG, the Chandra POP! is totes adorbs. I can see how any of these three expressions just wouldn't be possible without first seeing a whole lot of Chandra the non-stylized way.

MC: This notion is relatively new to Magic as well, definitely an evolution since your name day. For a long time, we had held the stance that Magic was synonymous with the look and style of its artwork. We have come to understand that instead, Magic is the collection of awesome fantasy concepts expressed by that art. Those concepts become even clearer as you see them expressed across many styles and media. Look at those two examples. You can instantly see what is integral to Chandra's look, because they're the elements that don't change even when the style does.

V: I imagine all that investment in a character also leads to my favorite kind of expression—that of the Vorthosian masses themselves. Cosplay is a true show of love for a character, and a true endorsement of a brand. I've definitely seen an increase in Magic cosplay (and dabbled in some myself) in recent years. You know what they say about imitation. . .

MC: Apparently, they say it about other things too.

V: So more expressions and styles are possible when characters become more solidified in the popular culture of the fanbase. This is awesome. But it seems like the cards themselves don't have as wide a range of styles as they used to.

MC: This is true, but for very good reason. The cards represent the heart and the canon of the Magic Multiverse. Their artwork is optimized for immersion into our amazing worlds, and for setting the initial indelible image of each of our characters. We have a little mantra we've just started using to communicate this:

The make-believe made believable.

V: That's a spiffy little line.

MC: Agreed. The general art style on cards is not Jeremy Jarvis's arbitrary favorite, it's the one that most expertly makes land art feel expansive, makes spell art feel luminous and magical, and makes character art feel relatable and aspirational. It's the style that makes it most about the stuff, and not as much about the stylization.

V: I see it now. I don't think I would have been able to define it, but I think I have felt that difference. Rather than seeing the illustrations as expressions of personal style, I am seeing them as windows into a world.

MC: Right. And after the card sets establish the feel of worlds and the look of characters, then we can riff on it. Sometimes we even sneak a riff or two onto cards.

V: In this respect, the art really does an amazing job.

MC: Yup. I feel this strongly and quite personally. The art for Magic has gotten so consistently strong. Strong enough that I feel my skillz are pretty much obsolete. I'm proud of how I fit in when Magic was more wide-open stylistically, but now I'm happy to see the current group of artists evolve well beyond my reach. Jarvis and I sometimes joke about how he's art directed us both out of jobs.

V: I'd laugh at that joke, but I think I'll miss both of your work. I guess one of the many wonderful things about Magic is that it's all here to stay. If your favorite cards or artists were from years past, you're always free to show off, talk about, or play with those cards.

MC: True, but that cuts both ways. I have a few dogs out there that I wish would go away.

V: There's also reprints too! I was tickled to see your name on the bottom of one of my Magic Origins cards—Goblin Piledriver.

MC: You know, you have a special connection to Goblin Piledriver that you may not even be aware of. There's a drawing shown in "Snack Time with Vorthos" that is attributed to a D&D character that inspired your name. The artist who illustrated it is a friend of mine, and is faithfully depicted as the doomed sap being choke-held by the Piledriver.

V: I feel better now. Magic often does that for me.

MC: You had mentioned earlier how storytelling is a way to explore the human condition.

V: Yup. It's been a tradition since long before the written word.

MC: And we have talked about the changes in how Magic tells stories, and in how much story it's telling. But can you also see evolution in the message of those stories?

V: I've seen glimpses, yes. There have been characters and story elements in the recent past that touch on more courageous topics. In many of those cases, like the story of Alesha, the fantasy flavor serves as a model for modern day social acceptance. That's stepping beyond entertainment or engagement into the territory of social responsibility. Big step forward there.

MC: I hope others see it as you do. I know that many people who work on Magic care a lot about this—people in many functions, not just those who write the words on cards and on the web. There's been feeling among those people that Magic should work against old-fashioned elements of the high fantasy tradition and express a modern social conscience. Lately, we have been working harder to move beyond feeling it to more consistently showing it.

V: I think I'm seeing that play out in the way the physical appearance of Chandra and Gideon has changed in Magic Origins. Chandra is shown with a more realistic body shape and Gideon's skin and facial features have changed to show more ethnicity.

MC: In both cases, the original intent for each character was lost as subsequent expressions were interpreted differently. As I noted earlier, there has long been a feeling that Magic is a more modern fantasy property—as far back as nine years ago when Chandra was envisioned as a strong, able female character who gets what she wants because she has the courage and spunk to go grab it. But that idea visually drifted into a leggy, idealized figure. The creative team made a hard turn, and really put a lot of effort into reframing her closer to the original intent. Now all of us at Wizards are more committed to holding that line.

V: Chandra makes more sense now. How she looks is more consistent with how she acts. Origins was the perfect place to make this change, since the origin story provides the background and set-up that lead to what the characters are now. I particularly appreciate Chandra's journey from belligerent little spark-plug to bold pyromancer who wins with grit and fire. It's a far more satisfying story than a journey from belligerent spark-plug to tall knockout who wins with a smile and a swing of the hips.

Chandra, Fire of Kaladesh | Art by Eric Deschamps

MC: I agree. Not only because it's more fun, but also because it also features some of the qualities that Magic values—willpower, creativity, courage, ingenuity, individuality, agency. These are qualities that can make exciting characters, and are also qualities we value in our fans.

V: This touches on what makes the Alesha story so powerful. She is brave in the face of death, and in the face of the judgment of her clan. Her clan shows that what they value above all is courage, without any other social or racial criteria.

MC: That's the kind of environment we aim to foster with Magic—one where there is no judgment made on who you are; one where your success is based solely upon the decisions you make.

V: I don't believe there is any better way to achieve this than through the examples that can be set in the imagery and story of Magic. Like I said earlier, storytelling has been a part of human growth and survival since the very beginning. Long before ten years ago, that's for sure.

MC: The flavor aspects of Magic are directly linked to a fundamental human need. Stories and images are diversions—not just in the sense that they divert our attention from troubles or boredom, but also in their power to divert our path, to affect our choices, to show us a new and better way.

V: I suppose it's possible that the bison and stags were painted on the caves at Lascaux as images of beauty in a harsh world—diversions. But it's also possible that it was a visual guide that indicated, "Divert your path. These are the big things that will trample your ass."

MC: Either way, it will affect they way the viewer perceives the subject.

V: I enjoy approaching Magic in both ways.

MC: Me too. I also enjoy how you've bookended our conversation quite nicely.

V: With bison and stags?

MC: Yes, and with the notion that the appreciation of flavor is a big deal and has been for a long, long time.

V: Well, I'm proud to have represented that over the last ten years, and I'm excited to appreciate what Magic has to offer in the next ten years too.

MC: Just the next ten years? You're thinking a little small now, aren't you?

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