Hellbent, Hellbent for Threshold!

Posted in Feature on May 24, 2006

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.

Greetings friends. I trust you all learned quite a bit about tempo in last week’s article (*wink*). I have a feeling that most of you caught the not-so-thinly veiled jab that “Vorthos Breaks Free” took at Tempo Week (and non-flavor Magic topics in general). But it was all in good fun. Sure, our beloved Vorthos ascended into the Firemind by casting off the restraints of methodical, mechanical thinking. But, as I have stated before in this column, flavor and mechanics are bound together, dancing to the - dare I say it… - beat of Magic’s drum.

And that leads me to this week’s topic— a facet of Magic in which flavor and mechanics are inextricably tied in a horribly beautiful, blood-soaked tango.


OK, I admit, the whole “blood-soaked tango” thing is completely unrelated, but I wanted an excuse to show off Jim Murray’s horribly beautiful art for Macabre Waltz. Anyway, today we will have a look at Magic keywords, the sometimes tasty, always important words that describe mechanics that are shared by many cards. For those of you who are not familiar with the term “keyword,” here are some examples that will most-likely convince you that you already know what they are: First Strike, Trample, Shadow, Flanking, Bushido, Convoke.


I do not exaggerate when I say that flavor and mechanics are inextricably tied. Even in the case of a keyword that seems to have no flavor at all (Cumulative Upkeep) there is still a link because keyword choices are made by the Creative Team. This is a big responsibility. We, as heads-in-the-clouds creative folks, cannot just slam a pretty word onto cards because we like it. We have to understand the intent of the keyworded mechanic and deliver it in one (sometimes two) short, punchy word(s).

Since there are over 50 keywords out there, we’re going to focus on Ravnica’s keywords, what their intent is, how well they fit the flavor (and mechanic) of their guild, and how we came to settle on the words that we did. The wonderful thing about Ravnica is that the two blood-soaked zombie dancers, flavor and mechanics, switched their normal roles and flavor was allowed to lead. Our job of finding the right word for these mechanics was not as hard as it had been before (and has been since). I attribute this to the fact that the abilities were created to fit the flavor of the guilds in the first place. This allowed us to not just find the word that worked, but to find the word that worked best.


Dredge 2 (If you would draw a card, instead you may put exactly two cards from the top of your library into your graveyard. If you do, return this card from your graveyard to your hand. Otherwise, draw a card.)

Dredge was pretty well understood by all right off the bat. The guild of life and death has no business with any other ability than bringin’ stuff back from the graveyard. Dredge began its run with the placeholder name, “Reclaim.” While this word is not a horrible match for this keyword, evidenced by none other than Dredge). The problem with Reclaim here is that it is similar to the spell, but different enough to cause confusion. While the card Reclaim puts stuff from the grave into your library, this mechanic puts stuff from your library into your graveyard, and from your graveyard into your hand. The card Dredge was so unrelated mechanically that they would never be mixed up. Second, the word “reclaim” left a little to be desired in terms of flavor. The Golgari are a lichen-wreathed, ichor-dripping pile of verdant death. “Reclaim” seemed a bit light on the whole verdant death thing. “Dredge” did everything that reclaim did, but with the bitter, goopy connotation it drags along with it. Winner!


Radiance - Target creature and each other creature that shares a color with it ….

Radiance began its existence as “Radiant.” Design used this word as a sort of communication crutch to describe Boros spells that were similar to ones already known - but with the Radiance twist, like “Radiant Shock,” or “Radiant Demystify”, etc. It was hard to get too far from “Radiant” since it fit the spreading out quality of the mechanic so well. Also, it was a dandy flavor nod to the guild’s signet and theme of light, angels, and the sun. The switch from adjective to noun seemed to make it work on all fronts. Winner (but winner of the booby prize, since word on the streets is that nobody really plays Radiance cards. *frown*)


Convoke (Each creature you tap while playing this spell reduces its cost by or by one mana of that creature’s color.)

I have to say that I am extremely pleased with how well this mechanic fits the flavor of the Selesnya Conclave. The strength in numbers, everybody helps everybody else theme is well-represented in Convoke. But that does not mean it was easy coming up with a keyword.

The placeholder name for this mechanic was “Crittercast.” While it had a catchy sound and a good delivery of the intent of the mechanic, it just did not seem like it should be on a Magic card. “Critter,” for starters, was a little goofy. And for me, the whole idea of coming together or helping out was not present in crittercast. The hunt for Convoke was a long and arduous one. When the Creative Team finally settled on it, there was some resistance from other folks around R&D. Some were concerned that the word would not be known to many players. (v. To call together, assemble, convene.) Others just mourned the passing of their beloved “Crittercast.” In the end, I believe, the right choice won and Convoke was written in stone. Winner!


Transmute (, Discard this card: Search your library for a card with the same converted mana cost as this card, reveal it, and put it into your hand. Then shuffle your library. Play only as a sorcery.)

Transmute represents one of the only Ravnica block keywords that I wish I could take back. Mechanically, “Transmute” does the job perfectly well (which is why it went straight from design placeholder name to final name). But, when I look back at it, I cannot help but think it does not quite fit the character of the Dimir well enough. It lacks the deceptive, manipulative quality of the guild. Since we took the placeholder name right off the bat, alternatives were never explored. Had we thought to seek one out, I am pretty sure we would have found something befitting the mechanic as well as the flavor of the Szadek, Lord of Secrets.


Replicate (When you play this spell, copy it for each time you paid its replicate cost. You may choose new targets for the copies.)

Replicate went through a more exhaustive search before settling on its final name. Perhaps it was the fact that, internally, folks were all jazzed about this guild from the start. We all wanted something great. What ended up happening, as it often does when many people of differing opinions on a subject have interest in it, is that nobody came out completely happy. Replicate began its life as “Polycast.” It was an OK name, functionally speaking. I was not pleased with its lack of flavor, so I kept searching. On the opposite end of the spectrum, we considered options that were not real words, but Izzet sounding babble with lots of Izzet letters like Polyzize, Nivmaxx, or the like. Of course, those were way over the top. Pulsate and Pulse made a run for a few days, but ended up hitting the wall. I liked how these gave a different twist, a sound even, to the idea of playing spells over and over. But others did not. We ended up with Replicate – which works well, but does not pack as much Izzet zing as I would like. It does hold a bit of industrial flavor, which is moderately redeeming, but not enough for me to give it the “Winner” stamp.


Bloodthirst 1 (If an opponent was dealt damage this turn, this creature comes into play with a +1/+1 counter on it.)

Bloodthirst is a fine Gruul name. It captures the feral nature of the guild as well as their taste for violence. It was not, however, my first choice. I was sure that the placeholder name, “Paincast” would not survive. It seemed to imply that I had to be in pain to use the ability. It lacked edge, and would never see the light of cardboard if this honorary Gruul had anything to say about it.

My favorite contender for the Gruul keyword was “Savage.” It was short, sweet, and unmistakably Gruul. It was my answer to those who thought Bloodthirst seemed too Black/Red. But “Savage” was short-lived, because Savage Twister was in the guild — and we did not want folks thinking the two were somehow linked (especially since the Twister would not even help trigger the keyword mechanic!) And, no, smartypants, Ghor Clan Savage was not yet in the set, so it did not play a part in the keyword conundrum. So it was back to Bloodthirst. Though my fave was off the board, I was still happy to use Bloodthirst, since it really did swing the focused violence pendulum more toward the Gruul than the Rakdos (who are more about random violence resulting from music, food, and/or blindfolded “Pin the Dagger on the Drekavac”). Winner!


Haunt (When this card is put into a graveyard from play, remove it from the game haunting target creature.)
When this card comes into play, or the creature it haunts is put into the graveyard, …

Haunt is one of the two keywords that go the distance. It was the Design name and we grabbed it and never looked back. Unlike Transmute, Haunt still pleases me to this day. It has the spooky, spirit world vibe of the guild, and completely fits the “here now and back from the dead later” feel of the mechanic. If the mechanic did not make for such a crammed text box (and therefore no room for flavor text), I would give it three cheers. But, in this case, it gets only one: Winner!


Forecast —, Reveal This Card from your hand: …
(Play this ability only during your upkeep and only once each turn.)

Forecast was designed with the name “Brainwave,” and was meant to imply a small, preview spell that can be snapped off before the “real” spell is cast. This placeholder name fits the mechanic well, as does Forecast and a whole host of other contenders that I cannot remember. This mechanic had the longest list of usable keywords by far, but yet I cannot remember any of them off the top of my head. I guess that speaks to how much I must have liked any of them. While “Forecast” works with this mechanic on a number of levels, I still cannot call it a winner (but more on that later). Forecast, by definition, is “a prediction, as of coming events or conditions.” Sounds like a perfect match with the mechanic. And, taken in parts, Forecast could be interpreted as “Fore” (before) “Cast” (cast a spell) – to cast a spell before. Neat. But still not a winner. The thing that bothers me about this keyword is not the keyword at all, but the lack of connection between the mechanic and the flavor of the guild. What exactly does the guild of laws have to do with little pre-prestidigitations? I have tried to justify it in my mind – “Here is a little reading of the law…now here is The Law beating you down!” Or maybe they are so methodical and self-righteous that they just like to hear themselves blather out the same incantations over and ove…nah! That sounds like Replicate. Nope. I can’t figure this one out. Well, 9 out of 10 is pretty darn good.


Hellbent — This Card does something crazy instead if you have no cards in hand.

I just realized at this very moment as I type that my favorite guilds all have red in them. Gruul, Rakdos, Izzet, and Boros. Very interesting. Anyway, I am a big fan of the Thrill-Kill cult (the guild, not necessarily the band), and I am a big fan of the keyword and related mechanic as well. Hellbent is the second keyword that led from start to finish. It had many things going for it, not least of which was containing “hell” in its name. Automatic points for the demon cult keyword. It also communicates the intent of the mechanic quite well, which is pedal to the metal, caution to the wind and turn up the volume to 11! This mechanic could have been flavored as “the cornered animal fights even harder.” But that would not be Rakdos at all. Hellbent takes the same no cards in hand scenario and turns it into a positive - a red-hot burning your buns positive. As if there was any doubt: Winner!


Graft 1 (This creature comes into play with one +1/+1 counter on it. Whenever another creature comes into play, you may move a +1/+1 counter from this creature onto it.)
: Target creature with a +1/+1 counter on it gains …

A few years back, there was an episode of The X Files where a genetic engineer is breeding freaks in a little country village out in nowheresville, or some such thing. Anyway, there was a character in this episode known as “The Great Mutato.” And so a keyword was born. Mutato was fun for the designers while it lasted, but the keyword was quickly changed once we actually got down to business on it. As far as I remember, this keyword went straight from “Mutato” to its present name, “Graft.” In the case of all the other names, the winning term was conceived by someone on the Design team or the Creative Team. Not this one. I first spotted the term “graft” in a name submission for what has ended up as Vigean Graftmage. It was gold, Jerry. Gold! I swiped it right away. Graft was a fine fit, addressing the mechanical intent - exchange of bio-parts from one creature to another, as well as the flavor part - experimentation with biology and magic. Graft may not wow anybody with dripping flavor the way Hellbent or Dredge or Haunt do, but the lack of zing may actually be zing in itself. The Simic are a cold, emotionless bunch with minds on their work. “Graft” is just the sort of detached term they would use for putting one dude’s head on the end of another dude’s arm. I think Graft is quietly one of the block’s best keyword choices. Winner!

So there you have it. All ten keywords - most of them winners. I think they are, as a group, a shining example of Design and Creative working together, of flavor and mechanics playing well in the same sandbox, and of two dead people dancing together.

It is important to me that those of you who are familiar with Judas Priest rewind to the beginning of this article and hear the title in your heads - hear it as if Rob Halford was blasting it straight into your brain. (If you happened to hear it in Ripper Owens’s voice, rewind back to my Azorius Week article, “Makin’ the Law, Makin the Law” and try again!) Bang thy head, Vorthos!

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