Posted in Savor The Flavor on November 24, 2010

The ability to wield magic is not an all or nothing thing. It's not just "I am a mage" vs. "oh, woe is me, I am a mana-blind muggle." There's lots of wiggle room in there. It's also a "I have only mastered this single candle-lighting spell" thing, and a "I command an arsenal of these seventeen exotic burn spells" thing, and a "I have traveled the planes for lo, these many years and I've learned three entire magical disciplines' worth of spells" thing, on up to an "I'm Nicol Bolas and I know like half the spells in existence and frankly I'm pretty peeved I'm not already slinging the other half too by now" thing. It's a vast continuum. There are mundane folk who possess not even a single iota of magical power, on up to reality-fraying archmages and planeswalkers who command countless mana bonds and know spells by the library-full.

Thinking about this continuum leads us to some basic truths about magic use in the Multiverse. We're getting seriously Vorthos today. It's a full-on theoretical discussion of the sociology of magic-slash-Magic in a cardless freefall—so if you're looking for discussion of Magicqua trading card game, click elsewhere, dear reader!

    Observation 1: Magic Is Commonplace on Most Planes

On most planes of the Multiverse, the existence of mana is well known (although, probably well understood by few). The ability to use mana to cast spells is well known (although may only be limited to some). The existence of mages, those folks who have this mana-wielding ability, is well known (although the degree of mastery they have over their magic will vary widely).

The average blacksmith would not be shocked or amazed by witnessing the use of magic, even if he's unable to cast any spells himself—that is just his daily experience. The forge he uses is probably enchanted to keep the fire eternally lit. The iron he works on the anvil was probably delivered by golem. His front door is probably charmed to remain sturdy against the elements, and maybe even warded against certain types of magic. The town he lives in was probably founded there because of the nexus of stable mana currents that flow through the area. Just like the presence of elves and dragons and other trappings of fantasy, magic is daily life.

That's not to say that magic is not still impressive to the Multiverse denizen. That same blacksmith who sees commonplace magic happening all over the place might still travel miles on holidays to see showy magical battles in some grand arena. A simple warm-forge charm is one thing; a mid-duel Cerebral Eruption, where some vedalken's head explodes with fire, sweeping a ring of volcanic death through all his summoned allies, is quite another. There's everyday get-the-job-done magic and then there's badass spectacle magic that you only get to see on rare occasions.

But for that blacksmith, the bare fact of conjuring up flame out of nowhere—to either degree—is not news. The trick is a known one. He knows it's possible, so he doesn't gasp when he sees it. The gasp comes when it's done in an unexpected way or to an amazing degree.

So what's life like for these spell-less wonders? What would life be like for (plain old, non-planeswalker) us if we lived on Mirrodin or Alara or Dominaria?

    Observation 2: Magical Talent Is not Equally Distributed

Every living creature has a different relationship to magic. There are a few categories. Some sentient beings, for example, are born with a knack for magic. They have it easy, in a way. They come into the world living and breathing magic, exercising magical power without working at it. The mischievous creatures of magic known as faeries probably count in this category. Lorwyn's flamekin, a race of sentient fire elementals, are also magical by nature—just by sitting there, their bodies are magically manipulating elemental fire. For these creatures, magic isn't second nature—it's nature nature.

Many sentient beings are born with the potential to wield magic, but require great effort and training and practice to realize that potential. Most humans fall into this category on just about every plane we've seen. They don't appear in the world already throwing fireballs and summoning baloths—they're born, they see that magic is possible, and they make it their life's pursuit. They work at it—a lot. They go through apprenticeships and become journeymen (journeypeople? journeyfolk?) and study their brains out. Or they go on vision quests, and firelit dance rituals, and beseech the spirits to bestow magical gifts upon them. Or they commune with dark forces. They follow the 10,000 Hour Rule and put in the time it takes to stir up their latent magical promise into actual magical power.

The third category is the one in which we, sadly, probably find ourselves. Some sentient beings, despite their ability to think and speak and play Scrabble, are probably born with an inability to grok magic at all. These folks wouldn't be able to crank out a spell even if they worked all their entire lives at awakening that mystical skill. This mundane strain might live in harmony with their magic-wielding brethren. Or they might curse the sorcerous kind to the pits of the netherworld—which would be adorable, since by definition, those curses wouldn't actually do anything.

What of this class divide? Would this cause rivalry? Surely in any society in which there are haves and do-not-haves, the haves oppress the 'nots? And isn't Magic full of worlds with spell-hurling mystical-knowledge-havers living aside mundane folk?

    Observation 3: Mundanes Are not Necessarily Second-Class Citizens

On my view, even given the existence of magic, the fact of being a non-spellcasting person would not necessarily be a stigma of shame. Certainly there could be some cultures or worlds where it's seen as a personal failing to be a muggle. But there are so many ways to be good at something, I don't think that pattern would arise that often. For any given ability, some people have it and some don't, and it doesn't really change your chances of being a respectable person. Depending on the plane, mundanes might even be the majority in society. Magic might be a niche pursuit, only for the dedicated or the reckless. Mages might be the ones with the stigma. Or mages might occur throughout society, but that doesn't mean that those who don't have three or four spells at their beck and call become the manaless underclass.

Think about an Olympic gymnast (thanks to fellow Creative team member Adam Lee for this analogy). He's physically fit, he has trained for hours and hours every day, and his main passion is to participate in gymnastics day in and day out. He's probably been working at gymnastics exercises in particular and athletics in general since he was a kid, and his love for the sport caused him to put in the time to get good at it.

Now compare with someone who's not an Olympic gymnast—my personal example is myself, but your athletic mileage may vary. You may admire the power and grace of that gymnast on TV, and that kind of athletic prowess may even be open to you if you train hard enough. But you're not about to jump off the couch and start hitting the uneven bars. You've got other stuff going on. Our society permits multiple ways of being successful, and I'm able to appreciate the rarefied skill involved in gymnastics without being able to do even the first bit of it. And just because there are those who can, does not mean that Olympic-quality gymnasts are our oppressors.

Magic isn't the only way one becomes powerful in the Multiverse. It's a very good way, and it might be the way that gets you the most power over all, and it's certainly the way that lets you become a planeswalker and travel between the worlds. But it's not a given that magic stratifies society. Cultures can approach the integration of magic into the populace in many ways. Mages can be wise sovereigns, fearsome warriors, inspired artists, spiritual leaders, vicious thieves, or gold-medal-winning gymnasts—just like mundane folk can.

    Observation 4. Some People Don't Study Magic Even Though it's Possible

If it were possible for me to learn even the simplest fire spell, just the easiest little "Okay, see that candle right there? Okay, BAM, it's lit" micro-sorcery, I would do whatever it took to master it. Of course I would. I would scrape together the tuition or travel the Tibetan mountain trails or whatever it took, in a heartbeat. But that's only because that would make me completely unique in the world, other than perhaps Drew Barrymore. Given that real pyromancy isn't possible, being the one guy who can do it anyway would be pretty awesome.

In a world with plenty of magic everywhere, it'd be more like the Olympic gymnast situation. If there were a path to advanced pyromancy that only a few hundred people got to walk every year—but tons of kids could take classes after school to do it to various degrees—and even a barely interested hobbyist could pull off the easy stuff just by playing around with it every weekend—then somehow, that doesn't seem as amazing. I got—I got things to do, you know? The same is likely true for a lot of denizens of the Multiverse.

What I've been trying to get at this week is the question of what life is like for that one, non-magic-using blacksmith. What is it like to be surrounded by mages who do the amazing every day while he has zero mystical ambition? He gets to see the great pyro-masters of his time conjure up intricate feats of mana that blaze through the sky—and he just stays a blacksmith.

I think it's a matter of familiarity. He's as impressed by master mages as I am by near-miraculous feats of athleticism. But neither of us burn with envy about it. Sure, we both have our days of wishing a little wish that we were as skilled (or ripped to shreds) as those guys. But the possible-through-years-of-hard-work doesn't quite possess the same eye-sparkling appeal as the impossible. While I play Magic, maybe he plays a card game about something that seems impossible on his world, like instantaneous plane-wide communication or physical science. Or maybe that's a difference between him and me—where magic is possible, there's nothing else to wish for.

    Letter of the Week

If you haven't seen the Phyrexian "All Will Be One" video yet, watch it now, because today's question pertains to it, and also because it is pretty awesome.

Dear Doug Beyer,
In the "All Will Be One" video, someone is speaking Phyrexian. Did someone in Creative create actual rules for a Phyrexian language, or is it just gibberish? Does any transliteration exist so fans can learn to at least recite things like "The Great Work has begun" in Phyrexian?

There is a Phyrexian language, complete with rules of grammar and pronunciation, constructed for us by a linguist. It has a spoken component, which, I am told, is being spoken properly throughout the video. (I am not personally fluent, but I can, you know, make do in a Phyrexian restaurant. Well, not really. But you don't want anything on the menu in a Phyrexian restaurant anyway.) The language also has a written component, which you can see scrawled along the left edge of the video. (Phyrexian writing is written vertically, read top to bottom.) I am told that this is also correctly written in the video.

There's more on the Phyrexian language, but I'm not cleared to share all the details yet. Let's let Mirrodin get Besieged a little more, first. But there's this whole binder, guys. I've seen the thing. It has a list of handy phrases. Amazing.

Latest Savor The Flavor Articles

Daily MTG

December 24, 2012

Is This Your Fateful Hour? by, Doug Beyer

Before the city-plane of Ravnica devoured the spotlight, the shadow-lurking forces of Innistrad were the ones doing the devouring. In this interactive article, you play the role of a tr...

Learn More

Daily MTG

March 28, 2012

Thanks and So Long by, Doug Beyer

Today I'm hurling huge explosions of gratitude and appreciation at you. To everyone who has read these articles and shared this enthusiasm for Magic flavor: you are awesome. I've loved ta...

Learn More



Savor The Flavor Archive

Consult the archives for more articles!

See All