Brooms, Planes, and Valakuts: Tales from the Inbox

Posted in Savor The Flavor on November 25, 2009

Every once in a while I root through the inbox looking for good letters. Today is one of those onces. My emails, let me show you them.

    Beware the Spreading Seas

Dear Doug Beyer,
Regarding your article "Worlds Beyond Our Own":

You suggest that Jace might have the ability to "Fill target bathtub". Wouldn't this be rather risky to teach to your apprentice? After all, isn't L'Apprenti Planeswalkier an opera by Walt Dukas that shows exactly what can happen when your mousey apprentice tries to fill something with magic?

Jace knows a lot of blue spells, but despite the image in the article, he might not know "fill target bathtub"—he tends to focus on magic of the mind, illusion, and the occasional counterspell more than spontaneous water generation. But you're right, rampant moisture summoning can be seriously dangerous spellcraft. Especially when you follow it up with something like March of the Brooms:

March of the Brooms
Each noncreature broom you control is a 1/3 artifact creature with two arms, a bukkit, and "Whenever this creature is put into a graveyard from the battlefield, put two copies of it onto the battlefield at the beginning of the next end step."

"Walt Dukas." Heh.

    Everyday Magic

Last week I asked if you guys had more suggestions for using the five colors in everyday, ordinary ways that might never show up on a card. I got some great suggestions. Here's a sample:

Dear Doug Beyer,
Regarding your article "Worlds Beyond Our Own":

A couple of things that jumped out at me for the "everyday use of Magic" part:

Red would be the guy who NEVER has trouble lighting his grill. Not even in the rain. And none of that lighter fluid junk either.

Black mages would make good oncologists, if you could get them to care about it. Maybe white and black?

Blue mages would be the guys who're too lazy to get up to get something, so they just levitate it over to them.

Red magic in advertising! Imagine Billy Mays, but with a spell to make you really want that product. Then again, subliminal messages seem blue.

On a related note to subliminal messages, what colors would Pinky and the Brain be (of Animaniacs fame)? I'm calling blue/something else on Brain on Pinky?

Nice. Brain is certainly blue, but probably blue-black, because he applies his vast intellect to the power-hungry project of taking over the world. Pinky is probably red, yes—he's spontaneous, driven by his emotions, and a bit self-destructive—the perfect comedic foil for Brain.

    Plane Dealing

Dear Doug Beyer,

I'm wondering about the 'shape' of planes. Are they round, like Earth, or infinitely flat? If they are flat, how does the rising and setting of the sun work, if they don't have anywhere to go?

One last question, how are planes arranged in the Blind Eternities? Are they all lined up in a neat little row, or are they strewn about randomly?

James, the best I can tell you is that in a Multiverse suffused with magic, there's no one answer that applies to everything. Some planes are spherical, Earthlike worlds, sometimes sporting satellites like moons or even suns. Some planes are horizonless flat expanses whose solar day operates more like an infinite progression of identical suns than the rising and setting of Sol. Some planes are entire realities unto themselves, supporting an uncountable number of individual worlds within them, with laws and histories that vary wildly from the next plane over. Some planes are roiling, churning nightmares of unending elemental fire, with neither air to breathe nor land to fall upon, and woe to the planeswalker who stumbles into their embrace.

When you visit the Blind Eternities, James, they may not correspond to our normal spatial assumptions. The Blind Eternities is not an empty space full of planets, but a mind-bending, chaotic "betweenness" that lies in the existential corridors between realities. Travel through the Blind Eternities occurs not in terms of logic and distance but in terms of effort and desire—the planeswalker's very existence there is an anomaly, and his movement through it is only possible through a constant application of raw will. Think of the normal axes of motion in three dimensions: north/south, east/west, up/down. Now imagine stepping in a direction that isn't any of those three options, and you'll be ready to planeswalk.

    Life, Loyalty, and Toughness

Dear Doug Beyer,
Regarding your article "The Season for Costumes":

As a planeswalker, I know I can handle some lightning and a rhino's charge without doing too bad. Yet all my mortal friends can't stand being double-Bolted without smelling like over-cooked pork. So, does the ignition of a planeswalker's spark suddenly generate some minor form of invincibility, where you can still die but it takes a lot more? And do planeswalkers age at the same rate as their mortal kin?


In other words, Russell is asking, how come we have 20 life—able to suck up as many as six Lightning Bolts without keeling over—and your average elf or goblin or other humanoid has only one or two toughness—eternally one Bolt from death?

Well, you've guessed the answer already—planeswalkers are special. They're not invincible—obviously, since games of Magic end all the time—but you're right, they don't get knocked down by any old pachyderm attack or fire spell. The spark doesn't give them iron-hard skin, but it does give them a purposeful resilience beyond what your run-of-the-mill summoned creature could ever have (Marit Lage, really large Hydras, and various scenarios of magically modified creatures aside). This resilience helps planeswalkers be the stars of the story—they get a lot of chances to live through the wear and tear of their plane-hopping lives and to fulfill their mystical destinies.

There's also the question of your life total compared with summoned planeswalkers like Ajani Goldmane or Nissa Revane. But the answer for them is a little easier – it's the difference between life total and loyalty. Those guys don't have 20 loyalty because they're just not that loyal. Ajani won't stand for much lightning to the face before he departs, but presumably his real "life total," if push came to shove, wouldn't be too dissimilar from ours.

    Questions About Land, Nonbasically

Matt asks about lands, lands, and more lands.

Dear Doug Beyer,

So land is now put into the spotlight. I think now would be a good time to ask, flavorwise, how some non-basic land mechanics work.

First, I do really like the idea that the planewalker calls on the power of the land and doesn't actually slam them into the world. The stories written show this interaction as a sort of intimacy with the land the planeswalker made while visiting the plane it exists on. I am trying to think how this intimacy works when dropping your land per turn.

The "sacrifice to fetch one of two lands": I am theorizing that a walker can think of an ordinary island and recall his childhood running on the coast and bring it to use immediately. Are the fetch lands using the remembrance of Misty Rainforest to remind him of that same island because it's a little bit moist? How come it pains him to do that?

Let me digress for one second into mechanics-land. Every once in a while, a card design like this finds its way into a still-developing Magic set:

T, Sacrifice CARDNAME: Choose a basic land type. Put a land token onto the battlefield tapped with the chosen basic land type.

But every time, designs like this get killed, because land tokens are... weird. Lands are such a stable and important (and tappable) part of the player's board presence that we like them to be real cards with real mana symbols on them. But we still like the Whateverland functionality. So designs like that end up becoming fetching (har har) designs like this:

Fetchlands are simple to use, but they hide some serious magic. When you form a mana bond with a fetchland, you're connecting yourself with an inherently unstable bit of terrain. It's like a bowling ball poised on the top of a steep, smooth-sided hill—one jostle and it'll fall one way or the other into the troughs on either side. When that happens, your mana bond will be ripped asunder and re-formed again, and you'll suddenly feel a connection to the mana of some other land. It can be a bit painful, but many mages take that risk in exchange for the flexibility those mercurial fetchlands provide.

"Comes into play tapped": Mechanicwise, it's supposed to act like a stagger for dropping a very useful land. Flavorwise, does the walker take longer to bond with that land when compared to others?

Right, the "enters the battlefield tapped" drawback causes a given nonbasic land to be a little worse than a basic land, in tradeoff for its other powers (we try not to make many nonbasic lands these days that are strictly better than, for example, Forest). It's a very simple and understandable line of text, so we do use it a lot. In flavor, I imagine it to be a land that's just as easy to bond to, but that doesn't surge with mana immediately, like a gas pump that takes a few moments to start flowing. Again, it's often worth the wait for troublesome lands like this, for the colors or other powers they can provide.

"target player loses 1 life": How does remembering a pool of piranhas hurt another player? In my head, it's like saying remembering the last time I ate a banana and peanut butter sandwich makes the other person think how much they appreciate chunky butter.

Now we're getting down to it. There are some aspects of the game that make the flavor of "mana bonds with remembered lands" make more sense, and some aspects of the game that make "I slam this Mountain down onto the battlefield and now I actually control this here Mountain" make more sense. Mountainwalk, for example, is generally flavored as an ability of a creature that lets it sneak up on the opponent by scaling or burrowing through the mountains around that planeswalker, which doesn't work so well with the mana bonds model. The same with Piranha Marsh, which has the clear flavor of being a dangerous swampy area that has biting fishies in it. I think there are solutions, but it's tough to announce universal Vorthosian policies here—there are so many Magic cards and Magic novels that every theory contradicts something. This kind of thing keeps me up at night. Suffice it to say that a bond with a land can deliver more kinds of power than just mana; all kinds of nonbasic lands have special abilities that go beyond the mere mana pool. For example, your last question:

Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle dealing 3 damage to another player: Does this specific card require to be surrounded by thoughts of other mountains? Perhaps, in a way, saying, "No, this mountain was bigger than that. No, bigger. Even bigger. You know, let me just show you."


Mount Valakut is the crown jewel in an entire range of dangerous volcanic peaks. Sure, if you bond with it alone, you can get a little red mana out of it. But its natural volcanic force cannot be unlocked without serious commitment to the power of the Mountain. It's like that line on Consume Spirit—"spend only black mana on X." Valakut will grant you command over tons of fiery, molten stone, but only if you ask it nicely. And in this context, asking nicely means bonding to an entire range of Mountains in which it express its supreme, molten rage.

    Sweet Sacrifice

Nafthali wrote me with some thoughts on a recent Letter of the Week concerning the flavor of non-targeted sacrifice effects like Cruel Edict. Is it possible to hug an inbox?

Dear Doug Beyer,
Regarding your article "The Journal of Javad Nasrin":

While I agree that it can be quite tormenting to make an opponent choose which of his creatures he will lose, I don't think that explains what the mechanic is actually doing. I would like to present a couple possibilities.

1) The effect actually fractures the planeswalker's ability to maintain all his/her summonings. The creatures are, after all, called there by magic, and will return from where they came when the magic is out. This is not that different than when you don't pay an upkeep cost on a creature. It doesn't die, but it leaves the battlefield all the same. Since the Cruel Edict affects the ability to maintain bonds, it does not care which bond is broken, much like many discard and mill effects don't care what is forgotten.

2) The creature itself is being sacrificed, but what is taking the sacrifice will just grab the nearest thing. Most likely this means the grabber is a creature, even if it's one that only appears for the spell's duration. If you push a body in front of a Brain Gorger, it will leave you alone to feed.

There are probably some other nice flavorful ways to explain what is going on that I can't think of on the fly. Of the two explanations above I prefer the first explanation most of the time because the second one seems to imply there should be a downside to not sacrificing, and only a few of these cards do that.

Thanks, Nafthali, those are great insights. The Vorthos is strong with this one, and with all of you who send in these great emails to Savor the Flavor. Next week we check in again with A Planeswalker's Guide to Zendikar, featuring the continent of Tazeem, and then it's not too long until 2009 is in the books. If you're celebrating Thanksgiving tomorrow, don't just gorge yourself; remember to take time to savor the—well, you know.

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