A Different Kind of Origin Story

Posted in Savor The Flavor on June 3, 2009

By Doug Beyer

Senior creative designer on Magic's creative team and lover of writing and worldbuilding. Doug blogs about Magic flavor and story at http://dougbeyermtg.tumblr.com/

It was long after midnight. My bedside lamp looked like a dull eye reflected in my laptop screen: the disapproving eye of deadline. Alara Reborn creative text glowed in Namebase before me—complete, self-satisfied, and propagatable. But it wasn't perfect. Something about it tingled, and ached, like a leg left in the same position for too long. It was the card record before me, Homelost Elf.

"This card has no character," I grumbled at the screen—a deadly curse in creative-team-speak. I had been many things before this job—a student majoring in anything from physics, to English, to philosophy, to cognitive science; a data entry wage-slave; a web developer; a flavor text writer—but right now I was a creative designer for Magic. Things needed to get Vorthos all up in here, and they needed to do so now.

The card concept was okay—an elf child far from the paradise jungles of Naya, lost in the volcanic, dragon-preyed wilds of Jund. The intricate elvish embroidery of her cloak at odds with the savage, carnivorous foliage around her. The pendant in her dark hair reminiscent of the sacred elvish monument to Progenitus, a cutesy throwback to her home. It was a simple juxtaposition concept—a green-red fish out of water.

That was the problem. Too simple, too forced. It worked for Conflux, but this was Alara Reborn. The gauges and dials in my head were off—too little conflict in the tanks. There was no real story here, this youth from Naya stranded in Jund. Interesting? Sure. Epic? Yawn. In order for her to rise to become a true heroine, she needed to overcome way worse—

The power went out. The room went dark and my laptop fan whined to a halt.

"Son of a—" I began.

There was a pop and a flash as the bulb of my bedside lamp exploded.

"What the—"

My retinas swam with weird sun-spots from the flash and there was a smell of acrid smoke. I rubbed my eyes with my fists, but as I shifted my weight, the laptop rolled off my lap. I tried to catch it in the dark, but instead I hit my head on something rough and hard, where only air should have been.


"Quiet," said a voice.

Who the hell?

"Who's there? Who's in my room?"

"Keep quiet, or it'll hear us," she hissed. The voice sounded young, a child's, and was definitely female.

My hand groped for the hard surface that had collided with my head. It was rocky and humid-warm to the touch, ridged with tubular structures—definitely not my high, cool plaster ceiling. I started as I realized my bed was no longer under me, either. I was kneeling on a hard surface, warm grit digging into my knees.

"What the hell is going on?" I whispered.

"Should we move? Or stay in here?" asked the girl. "I guess we should stay. It should move on soon—it can't smell too well."

My eyes were adjusting. I was in a balmy, dim cave. The acrid smoke-smell was not a popped 60-watt bulb—it smelled like the geothermic churn of a world's gastric system, fumes made of millennia of plant life digested by pressure and heat. Impossible.

And then there was the girl. She was slight, fair-skinned, wrapped in an embroidered cloak—she looked about seven or eight. An eye-shaped pendant in her dark hair. Fear in her large eyes, her knees drawn up to her chest as she sat against the cavern wall.

And long, pointed ears.

Come on. No way. This is a trick ... I'm dreaming. Yes, I've nodded off at my computer and I'm dreaming of Alara. Logical enough.

The cavern shook in time with a thunderous impact above. Grit and pebbles rained down on us, exposing the ridged roots of strange plants that twined throughout the low ceiling. For a dream, it felt vivid.

"What do we do?" she asked me.

Instinctively, I held my hand over my nose and mouth.

"So this is—Jund," I said.

She nodded, her eyebrows rising.

"And there's something ... a creature above us," I said.

She nodded. "It's a wurm," she said.

"A wurm."

"Yes. It's like a long, snakelike dragon—"

"—I know what a wurm is."

She nodded hopefully.

"And you're—"

"Eleni," she said. "Of the Knotvine tribe."

"An elf."


"This is some dream," I murmured.


"Nothing. I—I need to think."

We sat in silence. I tried to get my head around things. I certainly didn't feel asleep—the heat of the cavern, the thunder of the wurm's movements above us, the igneous pebbles grinding into my shins—but the irony was too great. This was Homelost Elf, the very card I was working on. It annoyed me, actually. I always hated stories where the protagonist was the writer. What a self-indulgent little dream I was having.

"You're a wizard, aren't you?" she asked.

Despite myself, I chuckled. "In a way," I said.

"Then you can fix this. Cast spells. Save us," she said.

"I don't think I can."


Why not? I mean, it's a dream, right? To humor my dream-elf, I gave it the old college try. I closed my eyes and tried to think magical thoughts. What do I cast? Um, Shock, at the wurm! No, what am I thinking? Ancestral Recall!

I opened my eyes. Nothing. The elf girl stared at me. I had no more idea how to cast a spell than she did how to use a laptop.

"I want to cast something, but I can't. My ... powers don't work here."

"You're out of mana."

"I ... yes. I have no mana here." I shouldn't have said that.

"I know where we can find some."

"Eleni, it's not that simp—"

But she was gone. She was already scrambling down a tunnel in the cavern, crouching. Okay, dream, you win, I thought. I headed after her.

I was wearing pajamas of a synthetic material. As a creative professional, the anachronism was driving me nuts.

The wurm must have sensed the vibrations of our movements. There was another crunching tremor from above us, and more stony precipitation. The dusty tunnel curved ahead of me. I couldn't see the girl—she was surprisingly quick. Ahead I felt dramatic warmth, like I was entering a blast furnace.

"Eleni!" I coughed.

I made eye contact with her in the tunnel ahead just as the ceiling gave way. A seeming mile of rotting monster plunged through the earth between us—a near miss by jaws that carved through stone as easily as water. I expected to see scales, but instead I saw rib after rib go by like a ladder falling down a hole—the thing was undead! The sight was disturbing; we didn't concept any undead wurms in Alara!

To her credit, the elf girl didn't scream. But I did, a little, as I shielded my sensitive brain and eyeball parts from the falling rock, their broken edges cutting gashes in my arms. The stone stopped falling, but the trembling didn't subside—the undead wurm was burrowing deep below us, perhaps readying itself to take another terravorous strike at us.

"Can you leap?" came Eleni's voice from across the wurm-carved divide. Beyond her was a rosy glow. This was Jund, and on Jund, an underground rosy glow meant lava. Why did I want to leap toward lava again? Oh, right—she thought it could be a source of mana for me. It struck me that this situation is what I helped create, in my job on the creative team. I put all our mages through this awfulness—dodging tons of rock and braving horrible monsters for the promise of a bit of mana—all for the sake of creating exciting action-adventure scenes. It's no wonder Grim Lavamancers were grim, I thought.

I pinched my arm to see if it would help me wake up, but no dice. Just checking. Okay—gotta think Vorthos here. If this was a cool action-adventure scene, then the only way out would be to do the daring leap. I could do this. I had played a little basketball, a little Ultimate Frisbee, back in college before I got my job at Wizards.

I took a running start and leaped. I almost snorted at the archetypal way that I landed halfway on the other side, scrambling for purchase on the stone, legs dangling. Cliché, but I had to admit, pretty exciting for me personally. I wondered briefly whether the wurm was looking up at my feet, but realized that wurms probably don't have binocular, forward-facing vision like most predators, especially tunneling wurms like this. This is what I ponder during the cliffhanger scene, I thought.

Eleni help lurch me up with unexpected, wiry strength. "Hurry," she said. "We can reach the lava pool, and you can cast your spells."

"Sure," I said, dusting myself off and chasing after her. What was all this going to accomplish? Would I actually be able to tap into a glob of red mana and—what—torch the wurm? My action-scene spidey sense was tingling. I had spent a lot of time in school getting educated to become a philosophy professor, but what I relied on much of the time in my job was gut instinct.

This scene was not bad, I thought as I followed the elf girl, but it lacked something. The elements were all there: a goal (getting out of here), something at risk (our lives), an obstacle (the wurm), and a way to overcome the obstacle (the lava, and my theoretical knowledge of a big fire spell). What it needed was a twist, a way to use the audience's expectations against them, give them a jolt, and crank up the danger and stakes of the scene. When in doubt, make things worse for the protagonist. Wait, I'm the protag—

There was an immense crash up ahead, and the entire cavern bucked under our feet. A second later, the wurm was ahead of us, barreling toward us, glowing red. Its rotting skeleton was draped with coils of lava—we could see a gulletful of lava inside its gaping skull-maw as it crashed toward us. Of course, I thought in a flash—this was an undead Jundwurm. It would not be put off by a little molten rock. It had emerged up through the source of lava, using our goal against us. The lava would probably be lethal to a living creature, but the undead wurm was able to come back from death many times over, and continue the attack. Well played.


"Run!" I shouted at Eleni.

We darted back the other direction, but the wurm was like a subway train. We leapt back over the chasm left by the wurm's earlier attack—she gracefully, I awkwardly. I fell against the opposite side, but worse this time, never quite finding firm footing. I slipped. I fell, and slammed into a thin balcony of rock a ways down. I was trapped.

"Wizard!" said Eleni, looking down the pit, her hair dangling down at me. The wurm would be on her in an instant.

"Get out of here!" I yelled at her.

"I won't leave you!" she shouted.

Typical, I thought. Both the heroes are trying to sacrifice themselves for the sake of the other in the moments before death. Now I just had to have a clever idea, and save the day.

Clever idea, yep.

Clever idea, any time now. Now would be good, ol' brain ol' buddy.

The wurm loomed. Its lava-infused bulk looked like a fiery halo of death around Eleni. We both looked up at it. I saw a red glint—it was the Naya eye-relic decorating Eleni's dark locks.

I had it.

"Eleni, the relic! Use the relic of Progenitus!" I'm not sure if that would even do anything, but I was out of ideas and time.

The elf girl pulled the relic from her hair and shouted a command word.

The wurm disintegrated in a mass of smoking ash, billowing apart as the lava consumed it. I cowered as wave after wave of ex-wurm fell past me into the pit below.

Eleni looked down and smiled. "Thanks, Wizard," she said.

"The relic is good against unearth," I said. The flavor was a little wonky, truth be told. But somehow the relic stopped the wurm's supernatural ability to resist death. Development was still playing with how unearth would work—but that was back in my world. I was still here, in Jund.

"I'll get some vines to pull you up," she said.

In the end, Eleni proved the more resourceful of the two of us. She got us out of the ruined cavern and found us food and shelter. She spied the tracks of a human warrior-clan and brokered negotiations between us and their blood-braided leader. The warriors took to her immediately—the encounter with the wurm had seemed to embolden her, and her quick-witted confidence was infectious. I cringed the day she accepted her tattoos, but her costuming had become a pleasing middle ground, I had to admit, between the sumptuous embroidery of the Cylians and the pragmatic sixpack-midriffery of the Jund raid-clans. She was at home here.

Far more than I was. I lived what felt like years there on Jund, never quite cutting it as a Jund warrior—or wizard, for that matter. Eleni, of course, blossomed.

When I finally did find myself awaking there in my bedroom—broken lamp-bulb still fuming, laptop fan buzzing back to life—I felt both humility and pride. Sure, I learned my lesson about unnecessarily endangering protagonists just for my own fun. But mostly I was proud of how they got through it all, thriving despite the dangers. My school days and my career path didn't seem so arduous now.

I looked at the image on the screen. The art was different now—no longer a lost elf youth, but a strong, capable warrior in tats and sticky dreads. I changed its name, and signed off.

Introducing Nissa

This is Nissa Revane, a proud and ruthless nature-mage. She seeks to prove that her people, the elves, are the true heirs and best stewards of the planes of the Multiverse. She hails from a world known as Zendikar—and you'll see her card by October of this year.

If you want an early glimpse of Nissa's character in action, check out Duels of the Planeswalkers for XBOX and PC: Nissa is a combatant that you'll face as you play through the game. A word of warning: Nissa prefers action to words. She's a master summoner, and she knows the blades and arrows of her elf warriors speak louder than any rhetoric.

Note for the curious: Nissa's art, by Jaime Jones, was slightly altered for the purposes of Duels' packaging and marketing, because the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) rejected the original art for use on packaging. They felt her outfit was a bit too revealing. We felt it was in-bounds for fantasy art on a "T for Teen" product, but we're not the ESRB, and that's the way it goes sometimes. So we had Jaime Jones tweak the piece to meet those standards for Duels. Nissa's original art will remain wherever her card appears—on her card in the Duels game, in Magic Online, and of course in booster packs of Zendikar.

Stay tuned to this site for plenty more about Nissa Revane, Duels of the Planeswalkers, and the plane of Zendikar!

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