Spiritual Ice Cream

Posted in From the Lab on July 23, 2009

By Noel deCordova

Welcome to an extra flavorful dosage of magical laboratory wackiness! Why the added zest? Simple: It's Favorite Flavor Week, a week that is dedicated to the personal Vorthos taste buds of each columnist here on magicthegathering.com. For those who may be confused about a potential omission of the last results of the Birthday Contest, have no fear. As I mentioned last week, I'm taking this week to indulge my goober (which may or may not also be goofy) streak, but next week will contain those results.

So ... Favorite Flavor Week. There are a lot of angles that I could approach this theme from. In the form of the primitive imagery that I often use to simplify things, the Magic creative palette is as diverse as a massive, spectrum-shattering ice cream selection.

I've personally been to the Ben & Jerry's factory in Vermont, and boy, was that a treat (pun intended!). Apart from a radically psychedelic color scheme that could rival the set of Teletubbies, there's also a great selection of ice cream flavors. In my mind, the different flavors of Magic somewhat reflect this vast array. Just as ice cream has its basic vanilla and strawberry, Magic has its color wheel and the flavor each color represents. And just as ice cream has its wackier side (Wavy Gravy, anyone?), Magic has crazy sides as well, like a schizophrenic world of mythology, or a world made entirely from metal.

Now if only the cards themselves were edible, like ice cream. (Bonus paradox: Imagine an edible copy of Fat Ass. If you attack with it, and then eat it, does it still get the +2/+2 and trample mid-chew?)

Outside Looking In

What I'm going to do today in regards to describing my favorite flavor in Magic is begin by examining my favorite block solely in terms of flavor. Then I'll narrow it a bit by looking at that block's mechanics and picking my favorite one, again solely on a flavorful basis. Then I'll narrow it again and pick from names, artwork, and flavor text, all on the same flavorful basis.

Which block, out of all of Magic, contains the right flavor combination to unlock the key to my heart? (Golly, I'm full of imagery today! I guess it comes with the theme.) For each category, I'll of course name some close runners-up.

Second place would have to go to Ravnica block. I personally enjoy visiting big cities, sometimes just for the atmosphere. When I picture Ravnica as the biggest of big cities, one that happens to be teeming with ten rivaling guilds, I quiver a bit. In a good way.

My favorite flavored block has got to be Kamigawa block. A peek at my bookshelf will reveal Outlaw, Heretic, and Guardian, the three books of the Kamigawa block storyline. Toshiro Umezawa quickly became one of my favorite fantasy characters, not only in the Magic world, but perhaps ever. The entire concept of the block (a world of mortal races under siege by their gods and spirits) highly appealed to me. I'd love to have on about my interpretations of the series, but that would hinge on spoiling a great nugget of fantasy. I'd recommend reading them!

All right, now let's narrow the lens a bit and talk about mechanics. For clarity's sake, the mechanics of Kamigawa block are: bushido, soulshift, splice onto arcane, ninjutsu, channel, sweep, and epic. Which of these mechanics contains my favorite flavor?

Burr Grafter

Soulshift is a pretty visual one. I think the best mechanics (from a flavorful point of view) are ones you can see in your mind's eye. For example, I love the notion of a Burr Grafter sacrificing itself to pump something up. As it dies, I envision its soul or spiritual essence drifting over to the nearby graveyard and sapping into the dirt. Seconds later, a brimming-with-energy Kami of the Hunt bursts out of the grave. Slowly it vaporizes until it is nothing but energy, and this energy finally manifests in the form of a scroll, which binds itself and floats into the grasp of its owner.

Ninjutsu is a mechanic I love to think about and play with. In real life, I have a blue-black ninja deck that wins a bit, but is fun 100 percent of the time. Here's a play that's pretty typical of that deck: a Ravenous Rats, looking as small and fiddly as a normal rat would, scampers across the middle of the battlefield. The opponent, having no answer, is forced to sit back and dream of mousetraps. Just before the rat reaches the opponent ... POOF! A cloud of black smoke envelops the Rats, and when it fades, a Throat Slitter stands in place of them. Not only does it hit the opponent, but on its way back to my side, it also sneaks into my opponent's riverbank fortress and slits the throat of a hapless Silvergill Adept.

In fact, as a stroke of freshness, I’ll just show you the ninja deck I use in real life. Unlike most of the crazy decks I make on a weekly basis, this is one I built card for card, and was completely inspired by the Ninja type. I knew when I saw that amazing expansion symbol (and when I was passed an Ink-Eyes in a Champions-Betrayers-Saviors draft (!!)) I had to build a ninja deck. Here it is, as of a slight Shards of Alara update.

Noel’s Ninja Deck

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Cool, huh? But my favorite flavored Kamigawa mechanic has to be epic. Unlike the other two, it's the concept of epic that really appeals to me. A popular poster advertising Saviors of Kamigawa asked a great question, "If you could cast only one spell, which would it be?" The answer, of course, is one with epic. I love the idea of a Endless Swarm, stretching to his breaking point to summon wave after giant wave of Snakes with only one incantation, fully exhausting him- or herself in the process.

Names, Frames, and Mind Games

OK, onto the long and prosperous list of names within Kamigawa block. Which of them strike me as very flavorful? Evaluating names is harder than it sounds, since so many of them go hand in hand with their artwork. With that in mind, I looked for cards with names that could stand alone as a cool name and be represented in various ways. Some Kamigawa names are just fun to say. Manriki-Gusari. Junkyo Bell (especially if you mispronounce it as "Junk-yo Bell" rather than "Jun-kyo Bell"). And my favorite tongue-twister, Opal-Eye, Konda's Yojimbo.

Some names are just cool. Floodbringer, without consulting art, has to be someone that brings floods. Lava Spike is similar, being (in my mind's eye) a triangular nail of lava driven into someone (ouch). The best of this category I think is Measure of Wickedness.

That Which Was Taken

Finally, many names give off an aura of mystery. Why is Yukora, the Prisoner a Prisoner? Why was Ayumi, the Last Visitor the Last Visitor? The most flavorful name in all of Kamigawa in my opinion belongs in this category: That Which Was Taken. Simple, yet foreboding, plus it relates to the story.

OK, onto artwork. There are tons of great pieces in the Japan-influenced world of Kamigawa, so narrowing it down was pretty tough. Here's the cream of the very flavorful crop.

Some pieces match up very well with their names. The sanguine mimicry of Pain's Reward and the all-too-literal Cage of Hands definitely work. The epic spells have some appropriately epic artwork, the best of the five being Endless Swarm. Eternal Dominion was going to get this nod, but then I noticed that each ring of light on the green spell was actually a ring of writhing snakes. Cool!

That’s the second mention of the delicious Endless Swarm, so I’d better build a deck with it. Fortunately, there’s a new Snake on the block that also loves having a full hand, and that’s Lorescale Coatl. Cycling was always a fun thing to do under an Epic spell, and Shards block has brought another ‘non-spell’ mechanic with it: Unearth. Once you finally have to discard (or do it proactively with Merfolk Looter), you might as well discard a Kathari Screecher, or even better, a Scourge Devil.

Epic Unearthing

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As I looked through the many incarnations of the Kami, the Spirits all begin to blend together after a while. Three especially caught my eye amidst the looping spirals of the others. Horizon Seed is bubbling with light to contrast its dark background. Kemuri-Onna is a wispy ghost-gal that might just seem like mist to an innocent opponent. Similarly, Arashi, the Sky Asunder seems like any old thundercloud at first, but look near the top and you'll see Arashi, the Sky Asunder's cloudy face.

There are some great details that can be inferred or picked up on in some pieces. The little men running around Meishin, the Mind Cage, for instance. Or Konda, Lord of Eiganjo's magnified face for extra impact on Reverence. I particularly like the burst of red mana flowing from Desperate Ritual, and the two spent figures next to it.

Which is my favorite piece, though? Choice of Damnations is a close second. I like the expression on the wizened mage's face as, surrounded by creepy crawlies, he realizes he has made the wrong choice. My favorite, though, is Mindblaze. Take a gander at this face. This is pure torment: Not only is this guy's mind being fried, but the rest of his face is quickly becoming naught but cinder and ash. If you look at this one too long, the guy might finish burning up, that's how striking the fire looks here.

I'm going to save my selection for flavor text for the end of the column. As I always do, I threw in a choice piece of flavor text at the end, but this time I made that my pick. You can scroll down to see it if you really want to. (Cheaters!)

So we've hit all the bases of flavor: Art, names, flavor text, mechanics, and storyline. Which card from the three sets of Kamigawa gets enough points in each area to qualify as the most flavorful card of the block? Before I reveal my not-so-surprising pick, I suppose this would be a decent time to officially ask this question to emailers or forum goers. Which card do you think is the most flavorful from your flavorite block?

My pick? It might seem lame (and suspiciously void of flavor text), but as a big fan of this block's storyline, Toshiro Umezawa gets my vote. The art isn't bad, it shows a passive Toshiro Umezawa stirring up some deliciously dark kanji magic. Although the selection of bushido for Toshiro Umezawa (who clearly is a bit lacking in terms of a total code of honor) seems odd, it's the second ability that sells him. As Rei Nakazawa said in his flavor preview of Betrayers of Kamigawa: "The 'kanji magic' that Toshi displays in the Champions of Kamigawa novel is definitely reflected in his card powers. He's no slouch in combat, and under the right conditions his kanji magic kicks in ... he's the first Magic protagonist to be represented as a mono-black card."

So, it turns out I'm a big Toshi fan, but what sort of flavor do you lean towards at the vendor? Which block compels you to fall for one of its characters or themes? I'll hopefully see you next week during the big reveal of the Birthday Contest winner!

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