Fit To Be 'Tide

Posted in Feature on January 28, 2008

By Elye Alexander

Hi again, everyone. A few months back I wrote about creating names and flavor text for Lorwyn. Here I am again to offer a few observations on the ever-intriguing process of writing for the second set of the Lorwyn block, the eagerly anticipated Morningtide.

Morningtide takes up where the preceding set left off, offering a chance to wander further down Lorwyn's crooked forest wynds, meadow paths, and meandering currents. But you need only take a few steps among the trees to realize that something new is afoot. Mechanically the most notable new development is the changed emphasis among tribal cards, whereby creature classes gain dramatically in importance, though not at the expense of racial affiliations—and a little further exploration reveals that this change is an expression of the shifting experiences of Lorwyn's denizens themselves. The bonds of kinship that had seemed to define the destiny of every creature are being shaken as the folk of this verdant realm forge new alliances in an attempt to cope with the hidden truth that is gradually dawning upon them: Something is coming. And whether (like the fae queen Oona or the ancient yew Colfenor) they well know what the Aurora forebodes, or whether (like the passionate flamekin and the chaotic boggarts) they merely sense a disturbing difference in the wind, all will soon be challenged by changing circumstances. For the folk of this seemingly idyllic world, life is getting interesting.

Folk are rallying to their banners...

Brighthearth Banneret

And calling up ancient debts of power...

Fendeep Summoner

...As they prepare to face the fearsome reality of change. For those of us whose job it is to portray the lives and personalities of said folk through card names and flavor text stories, the challenge was to capture all the excitement in a word or two.

What's in a Name?

In my previous article I focused mostly on flavor text, so this time I thought I'd talk a little more about the business of finding names for the cards in an incipient set. In some respects, it's actually far more challenging. For one thing, every time we do it, it gets harder.

Imagine, if you will, Richard Garfield in 1992, still flush with enthusiasm after hitting on the concept for this awesome new game, tackling the problem of naming the cards of the original Magic: The Gathering. Hmm, he thinks, I need some red damage spells. He contemplates for about a nanosecond. Okay—Fireball, Lightning Bolt, Disintegrate. Done!

FireballLightning Bolt

Now fast forward a dozen-odd years and thousands upon thousands of different cards. Need to name some red damage? Well, all the obvious choices are gone, and most of the not-so-obvious ones too. Shock, Blaze, Char, Incinerate? Taken. Ball Lightning, Chain Lightning, Forked Lightning, Feral Lightning, Barbed Lightning, Arc Lightning, Jagged Lightning, Rhystic Lightning (whatever that is), Lightning Blast, Lightning Storm... even Lightning Reflexes! And for all its richness, the English language turns out to be sadly lacking in synonyms for "counterspell." The result is that certain recurring card types can require an extended period of brainwracking for any writer hoping to come up with something original. Here, for example, is an excerpt from a typical session of trying to name a red card representing a dude getting walloped by some gigantic brute:

Hmmm. "Smash?" (Check Gatherer.) Damn, it's been done before. Hmmm... (Drink half a cup of high-test.) "Splatter?" (Check the art; reject on grounds that guy getting hit remains pretty much intact.) Hmmm... (Finish the coffee.) I know—"Dope Slap!" ... Nah, that was probably in Portal: Second Age. Hmm. (Recall a certain ex-girlfriend.) "Emotional Bludgeon"? Nah... sounds sort of red-blue, and this is pure red. Hmm, hmm... "Terminate?" (Check Gatherer.) Damn...

...And so it goes. I pity the poor card namers of 2050... Which may turn into self-pity if I'm still at this job then... there I'll be, hunched in my bionic rocking chair amidst an ankle-deep layer of foil booster wrappers, grumbling to my holoscreen about how easy it was back before you had to learn Finnish and Etruscan just to find a few root words that hadn't already appeared on a dozen cards. But of course—as all serious players know—if it wasn't a challenge, it wouldn't be so interesting.

And honestly it's kinda nifty to see how the naming process has evolved over the years. Nowadays cards rarely receive a single-word name, particularly if it's a real word (as opposed to a new coinage). There simply aren't that many available anymore, and cool words that are still up for grabs tend to be hoarded carefully for strategic use—sometimes (if they are rather peculiar) on similarly peculiar cards ("Phthisis," anyone?), and sometimes (for more familiar words) on cards that exemplify some fundamental quality or effect, and are likely to be reprinted in the core set. It's always rather satisfying to score a "one-worder."


(I did the flavor text for that one too, hamming up the blue-ness of this quintessentially blue card.)

But inevitably, one-word names are the minority. What about the rest? The most common solution that has developed is a sort of quasi-Linnaean binomial system. Just as every species on earth can be identified by its scientific double name, from homo sapiens right down to the humble dandelion (taraxacum officinale), so the many creatures of the Multiverse are often assigned a two-word title: "Shard Volley," "Rustic Clachan," and so forth. As my list o' Lightnings shows, one can go on like this for quite a while—and in fact, I added a new one for Morningtide:

Lightning Crafter

Legends generally receive a special variant of the two-part name, usually a proper name plus what is sometimes referred to at Wizards as the "appellation," which is a sort of title, nickname, or defining phrase. Just as the legends of earth might be called, say, "Lancelot the Brave" or "Richard the Lionheart," so the heroes of the Multiverse receive names like "Doran, the Siege Tower."

A Rose on Any Other Plane...

Now the trick, of course, is to use our assorted naming strategies in a distinctive way for each set. Just as each block has its own unique feel in terms of setting, art, game mechanics, and so on, we also work to give the card names a unique personality. How did this play out in Morningtide? Well, for one thing, here (and in Lorwyn as well) we did use quite a few "one-worders," in this case new coinages of a special kind. The greater elementals of the plane are bizarre, surreal, imposing creatures, and under Doug Beyer's direction the writing team bestowed upon them all evocative compound names that seek to embody something of their strangeness. It's easy to imagine the superstitious kithkin speaking in hushed tones of the "Mournwhelk" and the "Spitebellows"—two of my favorite names by other writers—or the "Slithermuse."


I also put some thought into what sorts of names Lorwyn's tribes would come up with themselves. The elves, for example, are intensely hierarchical, and they are very particular (and very touchy) about the labels they assign to things. Even the lowest class of "acceptable" elves is rather loftily referred to as "faultless." Delusions of grandeur are almost taken for granted among these guys, and their language reflects that; they love to suggest the attainment of perfection, using words such as, well, perfect, or immaculate, or paragon.

Bramblewood Paragon

Another interesting aspect of card naming, and a by-product of the vast number of previously named cards already in existence, is that over the years a great many words have developed a special significance within the world of Magic. Everyone knows what a "tutor" does, for example, and everyone dreads the touch of a "specter."

Thus, although we're often striving to differentiate each set through its names, it can also be useful (or just fun) to link a new card with its brethren in the past. Say I call a cool new Treefolk "Indomitable Ancients"—

Indomitable Ancients

—I can count on players associating it with "Verdeloth the Ancient," "Hidden Ancients," "Yavimaya Ancients," and so on. Immediately you know that this isn't just a tree-dude, it's a particularly venerable, and probably badass, tree-dude, one of the true lords of the forest.

Or suppose I call a new boggart "Squeaking Pie Grubfellows"—

Squeaking Pie Grubfellows

—Then you know it's... uh... okay, you just know it's kinda silly, and a little gross. But I can always hope that ten years from now "to grubfellow" will be a common verb in Magic parlance. Anyone can dream.

Grubfellow: 1. to devour large quantities of dubious food. ("Bob grubfellowed all the leftover donut holes.") 2. to subject an adversary to an unpleasant surprise s/he should have seen coming, but didn't. ("...So then I reanimated my Dragon Tyrant, tapped out to pump it, and sailed in for 26 points of damage. Boy, was he grubfellowed.")

Erm, I guess the continuous quest for novel names can occasionally drive a writer into unstable territory. But that's just a sign that it's time to do some more work on boggarts—or, to switch over to flavor text for a while...

Trouble in Paradise

By the time Morningtide rolled around, we writers all had a pretty good feel for the various tribes of Lorwyn. Now the challenge was to continue our exploration of each tribe's quirks while showing how each culture is responding in its own way to the intimations of the coming Aurora.

A card cycle can be a great opportunity to compare the way different beings react to a common situation. How does each tribe rally its troops, for example? When it comes to flag-waving, what sorts of flags do they wave? For the swift, emotional flamekin, directing the flickering movement of a battle standard becomes a new art form. For the kithkin, the crafting of a banner is inevitably colored by their bizarre array of pastoral superstitions.

Ballyrush Banneret

Whereas for the merrows, the need for a war-standard becomes a chance to indulge their propensity for finding useful natural materials in their watery environment.

Stonybrook Banneret

But for all their differences, folk in conflict can sometimes find common ground. Unfortunately, in these troubled times it's often the dueling ground...

Rival's Duel

Of course, Morningtide isn't all about the drumbeat of battle. Some of my favorite cards are just pure invention, separate from the big picture, unrelated to any storyline; the critters and situations that still lurk in the out of the way corners of the world. As usual the changelings were a constants source of inspiration. What would it be like to share a world with such beings? Would they tend to provoke philosophical contemplation?

Game-Trail Changeling

Or would they more likely be regarded with wry humor?

Mothdust Changeling

Probably a little of both.

I wanted to finish with a little something about the fae. One of the readers of my last article mentioned on the message board that in that article, entitled "Building a Better Faerie Realm," I had rather amusingly omitted discussion of Lorwyn's faeries in my whirlwind tour of the tribes. D'oh! Actually the trick response is that I didn't omit them, since after all I talked quite a bit about changelings, and of course changelings are all creature types at all times, even in web articles. But still it did seem kinda funny, so I figured I better say something here.

The only problem is that, no doubt because of the slight I'd given them, the faeries pretty much grubfellowed me in the Morningtide set, and none of my fae flavor submissions made it through the finalization process—except for one:

Knowledge Exploitation

Be warned: they know! And they always get even.

Elye's Morningtide name credits:
Slithermuse, Bramblewood Paragon, Reins of the Vinesteed, Lightning Crafter, Lys Alana Bowmaster, Shard Volley, Meadowboon, Kindled Fury, Fendeep Summoner, Shared Animosity, Kithkin Zephyrnaut, Rustic Clachan, Indomitable Ancients, Negate, Squeaking Pie Grubfellows

Elye's Morningtide flavor text credits:
Stonybrook Banneret, Game-Trail Changeling, Ballyrush Banneret, Brighthearth Banneret, Borderland Behemoth, Knowledge Exploitation, Greatbow Doyen, Spitebellows, Rivals' Duel, Mothdust Changeling, Negate, War-Spike Changeling

Don’t miss your chance to attend a Morningtide Launch Party near you this weekend. Special "Midnight Madness" locations in North America will begin selling Morningtide at 12:01 a.m. on the set’s release date: this Friday, February 1, and events will continue throughout the weekend at participating stores. Besides getting your first chance to buy packs of Morningtide, you’ll also be able to play in Sealed Deck events and win cool prizes. And don’t forget, Morningtide is legal in Constructed on its release date!

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