Auratouched Magery

Posted in Savor The Flavor on June 9, 2010

Special thanks to Adam Lee for taking over for me last week. I was either:

  1. On an undercover assignment in Ondu;
  2. Out ill with Mire Blight, trying desperately not to take a single point of damage;
  3. Happy to let another one of my creative teammates express his thoughts for a week; or
  4. Just hazing the new guy (a "drop and give me 2000 words, maggot!" kind of thing).

The answer is in the neighborhood of D, truth to tell. I wasn't on assignment, I wasn't sick, and I'm never happy to hear these other bozos speak their minds—er, whoops! I meant I hate all their guts. Er, "whoops"!

Anyway, I am still your Savor the Flavor columnist, and I'm not fired or whatever—just abusing my poor teammate Adam.

This month, in fact, marks my tenth year of employment at Wizards of the Coast. What the hellion, is that right? The math works out—I have spent a decade inside the Wizards walls. (I mean, they do let me go home sometimes, if I bribe the guards at the portcullis. They like promo cards and lemon squares.) It's amazing working at a company that makes your favorite game, and even better to actually help craft that game yourself. Thanks to all my coworkers past, present, and future. Celebratory cupcake ingestion in 3 ... 2 ... 1 ...

Devour 1 (You may sacrifice any number of cupcakes. This columnist enters the main part of this article with that many +1/+1 counters on it.)

Moving on.


If the clothes make the man, the Aura makes the mage. Putting an enchantment on something is fundamental to our ideas about wizardry. Take a random core sample of fantasy folklore, and it'll be lousy with enchanted nouns. In many stories, enchantment is synonymous with magic; it's the transformative force that transcends the status quo and sends the story into the world of the wondrous. In Magic, the Aura is self-assertion. It's power exerted over some other element of the world. It's control.

    Aura Therapy

Auras weren't always Auras—that is, they didn't always have that subtype. They were once known as "Enchant creatures" or "Enchant lands" or "Enchant lava lamps" (or by their slightly eco-trendy name "local enchantments," anticipating the local food movement). Calling them "Enchant whatevers" put the intended target into the type line, even though no other targeted spell cards worked this way. And this terminology didn't make 100% explicit that these cards were, in fact, full-fledged enchantments, even though every other card type said explicitly what type they were.

Now they're type enchantments with subtype Aura, and I am, in a word, happier. "Aura" is a more compact name for these enchantments-that-you-stick-onto-stuff. The word is more flavorful, allowing card names like Auramancer's Guise or Aura Gnarlid to express a mechanical relationship to those artists-formerly-known-as-local-enchantments (beware the fearsome Local Enchantment Gnarlid!). More importantly, "Aura" leads the mind down the right path, calling up imagery of a lasting, magical radiance cast upon and clinging to a person or object.

Which brings us to card concepts. How are Auras represented in the flavor of art and name?

    Aura Concepts

The link between a card's mechanics and flavor is the card concept. The card concept roots the card's mechanical design in the flavor of the setting, and expresses the card's flavor in the game rules. Card concepts for Auras tend to fall into one (or sometimes more than one) of several categories.

    Auras Concepted as Magically-Granted Abilities

The most basic, most grokkable Aura is one that enhances a creature and gives it some new, positive, inherent ability. It's like a superpower granted by a radioactive spider bite or a divine gift granted by the gods. These Auras often raise power and/or toughness and splice keywords or other abilities onto the creature. They can lead to ridiculously dominating creature-constructions or to the heartbreak of a many-for-one removal-spell tragedy.

Advantages of this concept: It's understandable, fantasy-resonant, and just plain appealing.

Requirements: This is largely an "all-upside" concept, which the mechanics have to support in the rules text.


    Auras Concepted as "Equipment"

Many positive Auras don't have the flavor of magically-granted new power, though. Some are concepted as more-or-less-magical equipment, with the feel that "I am arming my creature with a weapon." In the days before Mirrodin and the Equipment subtype, literal physical weapons and armor were sometimes concepted as local enchantments (e.g. Lance, Flaming Sword, Improvised Armor). Even after the advent of Equipment we still do equipment-y concepts, although we try to keep it clear that equipment-like Auras are nonphysical, and made of magic rather than steel.

I think the "god" Auras in Shadowmoor and Eventide are great examples of this; they look like ethereal, not-quite-touchable weaponry or armor granted by the mysterious Spirit Avatars of the plane. Sigil of the Nayan Gods, on the other hand, was maybe a little too physical, and tramples on the distinction between Auras and Equipment. (But then, the sigils of Bant do kind of tread the line between physical objects and mystical symbols of patronage, so maybe they get a pass.)

Advantages of this concept: It's resonant and understandable, and can be visually cool if done right.

Requirements: Need to be careful not to make Aura concepts that are just straight-up Equipment.


    Auras Concepted Around Accompaniment

Other positive Auras explain their enhancement by a flavor of "somebody's got my back." The Aura here represents spiritual or mystical accompaniment, someone or something to fight alongside the creature or shield it from the elements. The Umbras (Auras with totem armor) in Rise of the Eldrazi have this flavor—they represent animal spirits or totems that you can call on to enhance and safeguard your creatures. We've done this "floating inside a spirit animal" concept before—check out the art of any Umbra alongside the art of past cards like Wurmweaver Coil or Verdant Embrace.

Advantages of this concept: This can be a very powerful image if done well, and it has an appealing flavor.

Requirements: Even "accompanying" Auras are not creatures. Have to be careful to draw a distinction between the magic of the spell and a straight-up creature concept. In some cases this may require a mechanical tie-in (like Elephant Guide or Wurmweaver Coil.)


Note that this accompaniment flavor can work for negative Auras, too; check out cards like Oni Possession or Artifact Possession. Being accompanied doesn't always mean good things for the enchantee.

    Auras Concepted as Restraints

Speaking of haunted artifacts and demonic possession Auras, it's time to talk about Auras that do bad things. These are Auras that inspired that one little mental leap, long ago when you were first learning Magic—that eddy in your stream of consciousness that went something like:

So why would I want to put this on my ... OOOHHH, I put it on his stuff. I get it, I get it—okay let's play. Muahaha, he doesn't know what's coming ... heheheh

Many negative Auras have the flavor of mystic restraints—for example the card Mystic Restraints (whew, I'm glad that worked out). They're concepted as magical shackles, bubbles, cocoons, holding cells, fetters—persistent bits of spellcraft that keep creatures from doing sensible, creature-y things like attacking, blocking, untapping, having their abilities activated, or remaining loyal to their owners. Cards like these are the Aura answer to the question, "How do I get my opponent's creatures to stop doing that?"

Advantages of this concept: Simple and understandable; these concepts often draw on our knowledge of real-world restraints such as handcuffs and cages.

Requirements: The mechanics definitely have to support this concept. Usually the Aura has to prevent the enchanted permanent from doing something, for this concept to make sense.


    Auras Concepted as Afflictions

If any concept is more common in fantasy literature than the magically-granted power, it's the magically-inflicted affliction. It's the plague of boils, the blindness spell, the voodoo hex, the mummy's curse, the jinxed luck. In Magic it's an Aura that debilitates an opponent's creatures or other permanents.

Afflictions actually have a bit of a mechanical problem. In Magic there are plenty of ways to straight-up destroy a creature or other permanent. So an Aura that debilitates but doesn't necessarily kill the enchanted creature—yet isn't a restraint concept—is actually a somewhat narrow category. Think of a "plague" or "disease" concept for an Aura. What color would it be, and what would it do? Black, probably, and it'd weaken the creature slightly? But black is also the color that could just slay a creature outright. Yet a blue or green disease is problematic for the flavor of the color pie. Still, the flavor of a "curse" or affliction Aura is so powerful that we often try to top-down design cards that make sense yet still have a useful home in the correct colors.

Advantages of this concept: Very resonant and prominent in traditional fantasy. This is probably what most people think of when they think of "casting an enchantment on somebody."

Requirements: Has to have the right mechanical support. Debilitating yet usually nonlethal.


    Auras of Animation

Auras don't always affect creatures, of course. In many cases, even those that affect lands, artifacts, players, or even other enchantments can call on similar concepts—those other permanents can be similarly enhanced, restrained, debilitated, stolen, or supercharged. But one type of Aura concept only works on noncreatures—it's the Aura that turns something into a creature.

This kind of Aura can have powerful and fun flavor—who doesn't know the story of the Sorcerer's Apprentice, who enchants a broom to have his work done for him (with eventually disastrous consequences)? Who doesn't want to turn a lifeless object into a willing minion? But the art can be tricky.

The Aura is not the creature; the Aura is the magic that makes the enchanted object come to life. So the art has to walk that line between lifeless permanent (usually an artifact or land) and full-fledged creature. This requires some careful art description writing, urging the artist to evoke qualities of both the lifeless substrate and the animating magic that gives it life.

Advantages of this concept: Resonant and appealing. Also it's pretty much the only game in town, when it comes to Aura magic that wakes up a noncreature.

Requirements: It's hard to show transformation on a still image, so you have to be sure that the art doesn't just show a creature or just show a lifeless hunk of earth.


    Other Auras

There are plenty of other concepts that don't fall so neatly into these categories. Some Auras have both positive and negative effects, e.g. cards like Unstable Mutation, Maniacal Rage, Cagemail, or Utopia Vow. These Auras are flexible, serving as a desperation pump spell or as semi-removal, and they often have the flavor of wild risk—they bring a drawback with their benefit no matter which side of the board you cast them on, so they might turn out to backfire. Other Auras offer etched enchantment-protection (Tattoo Ward) or create a bubble of anti-spirit reality (Field of Reality). Some invoke scruples (Guilty Conscience) or cause an artifact to fade into moldy shabbiness (Quiet Disrepair). Happily, there are as many Aura concepts as there are crumbs in a gigantic celebratory cupcake.

And then there's Spellweaver Volute. Spellweaver Volute is my choice for the single weirdest Aura in the game. Congratulations, Future Sight designers; you made me fear the coming of some far-future "enchant instant in a graveyard" block. May the mad auramancers of [fanciful made-up plane name here] forgive us.

    Letter of the Week

Dear Doug Beyer,
Inspired by the second email question in your article "Planeswalker Potpourri":

Do/can the Eldrazi, or any of their Brood Lineages, communicate in any way with the inhabitants of Zendikar? One of the biggest questions I have about Zendikar during this war is whether or not the inhabitants know the individual names of what they're fighting. Do the merfolk know they are fighting the monsters that inspired their gods?


Great questions, Evan. If the Eldrazi communicate (and they may, with one another), it's not likely any of the Zendikar denizens are able to understand it. The Eldrazi consciousness is too alien, too starkly different for our forms of language to latch on to their forms of awareness. So, I don't imagine any of the Eldrazi introduced themselves formally when they arose!

The names given to them (Emrakul, Ulamog, Kozilek) are linguistic residue left over from their first rising thousands of years ago. The terms may have become associated with them through sounds heard by their victims or through old merfolk phrases whose precise meanings are now lost to time. The terms became bastardized as memories of those three legendary Eldrazi faded, becoming woven into the legends of "gods" called Emeria, Ula, and Cosi. But as the Eldrazi arose once more, the merfolk came to understand their mistake. The strange coincidences were too powerful to ignore—at least some of the peoples of Zendikar see that their worship of their patron deities was misguided, and founded on an awful Eldrazi truth.

Thanks for the questions! Join me next week when we get villainous.

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