The Feedbackening

Posted in Savor The Flavor on August 4, 2010

The time has come. It's Feedback Week, ladies and gentlemen. We finally break our silence. You're finally being allowed to bear witness to members of Wizards Ramp;D, the professional creators of Magic: The Gathering, opening up about the game and responding to your questions.

Actually, we kind of talk your ear off, don't we? The whole site was founded on the principle of building a connection between You, The Player and those decreasingly-mysterious, not-so-much-with-the-sanity obsessives behind the game. And since the site started, we haven't shut up. If anybody out there wanted not to know what's going through our heads on a weekly basis—I'm sorry! Too bad for you! Feedback in your face! I suggest pulling an Oedipus, and gouging out your eyeballs—it's the only way to avoid the feeding-back. Wait. And then disable text-to-speech on all your text-reading devices, so that our printed words cannot thereby reverberate to you. And then unsubscribe from our YouTube channel, stop going to Magic events, and destroy the Internet.

And then I will personally break into your house and explain the difference between Wraiths and Specters to you. Er ... sorry about the hinges—I bring you flavor! Why are you backing away, making the sign of the cross?

I'm sorry, reader. I'm afraid you're just going to have to listen to some more of what we say about this game. Embrace the Feedback Week, if you can. As my parents told me after my childhood nightmares about a slavering monster: try to make friends with it. It is, in its own terrifying, unblinkingly inescapable way, trying to make friends with you.

Dear Doug Beyer,
In the letter of the week in "Planeswalkers' Signature Spells", reading about Insect Shades, Zombie Insects, Zombie Spirits and Vampire Spirits made me think of another card: Arc Runner.

How did it come to be an Elemental Ox? Ox tribal interactions notwithstanding, it's a rare creature type to append to the more common Elemental. Was Arc Runner's Ox-ness something that was slated from the get-go as the card was concepted creatively, or does the situation arise that you get the art back for a card and have to go, "Hmm they drew it kind of like a bull. Better throw Ox onto the typeline?"


The Ox subtype was at first Oxygen, which of course is a gas that can combine with nitrogen in the presence of bolts of lightning, or in this case a lightning elemental, to form nitric oxide, which is used in semiconductors, which of course are materials that conduct electricity. But then we realized the elemental dies after just one attack, so we shortened it to just Ox.

Actually, no. The ox-like elemental beastie was what we asked for. The art description for Arc Runner was as follows:

This is an onrushing elemental made of lightning zooming along the ground, almost more a high-speed projectile than a creature. Perhaps it has a lowered "head" and "horns" of electricity like a bull, ram, or triceratops, but instead of rear legs it just has sparks of electricity.

We often leave some details up to the artist, particularly for made-up fantasy creatures, and then we make creature type decisions after the fact. In Arc Runner's case the bull shape (or some animal shape, anyway) was specified right there in the request. Even then, if the art had come back less recognizably "bull" we might have left Ox off the type line, but we felt it was so clearly a "lightning bull" that we had the creature type reflect that.

Dear Doug Beyer,
Regarding your article "Coming Home to Magic":

Would you say that more cards start out as mechanical "fill" and grow into their own flavor? Or do the majority of cards start out as specific flavorful ideas that are then given appropriate mechanics?

Very Respectfully,

The answer changes depending on the set. For sets like Magic 2011, the flavor of the fantasy spells and creatures is the main motivator for their presence, and the mechanical design of every card is there to replicate people's expectations for that fantasy element. For other sets, there are usually some cards created flavor-first. Although, in most cases the mechanics come first, and the creative team creates the concept and flavorful explanation for what that bundle of mechanics represents.

Just a quick question that's been bothering me: Why is Stone Idol Trap's token a Construct and not a Golem? This doesn't really make sense to me. Judging by the idol's stone head, it is apparent that it's powered by magic and not machinery.

Yeah, it's a big stone head. Is that a Golem? The design intent of the card was that you trigger it and then it rolls down at you—you know, the classic adventure-movie rolling boulder trap (not to be confused with Lavaball Trap, which also has some of that flavor). It's yet another good question for the Creature-Type Judgment Call game show, but we thought the head felt more like a part of a mechanical trap than a magically-animated artifact creature.

Dear Doug Beyer,

When I first saw Stormtide Leviathan, I was very excited. Finally, I thought, I'll have a deck to build around my Sea Monster and Serpent of the Endless Sea cards that are just sitting about. This came crashing down when a friend pointed out that although the leviathan makes opponents' lands into islands, because they lack islandwalk, they still can't attack. What can be said flavorfully for creatures with islandhome or its newer forms not being able to attack into open waters?


I believe the issue you're running into is a symptom of the weird flavor duality of what it means to be an aquatic creature. For being just a bunch of water, the sea creates a surprising number of flavor problems! So what does it mean to be aquatic? Top-down designs for aquatic creatures often involve a restriction rather than a capability: aquatic creatures can't go on land, so creature cards flavored as seafaring beasts (such as Serpent of the Endless Sea) get lines of text that prevent them from attacking except under certain watery conditions. But on other cards (such as Stormtide Leviathan), the card designs focus on the powerful upside of being an aquatic creature: they can swim unhindered through the islands controlled by enemy mages. But it gets even more complicated: still other aquatic creatures (most Merfolk, for example) have neither an islandhome-like ability nor islandwalk.

Is the islandwalk the right flavor for aquatic creatures? Is an Islands-required drawback? Or is neither? Different cards have different answers, leading to an aquatic creature theme deck with flavor schizophrenia. That's part of the reason why Merfolk have had finned legs rather than fish-tails since (if I remember right) Magic 2010. (For more on aquatic creatures and the flavor issues thereof, see this article: Merfolk Resurfaced.) It's cool when we have the opportunity to represent the top-down flavor of being a creature that lives in water—but the mechanical interpretations of that flavor can contradict each other, so we prefer not to do them that often.

Dear Doug,
I can't help but noticing the art for M11's Knight Exemplar has heavy Green motifs going on. Was the art originally intended for a White-Green creature, or are the motifs supposed to represent the sort-of Green "Other Knight creatures you control get +1/+1 and are indestructible" ability?
My inner Vorthos is stumped.

Yours Flavorfully,

So Pasky, check out these pieces of Knight art:

All of them are white-aligned knights (in fact, one of them is even White Knight!), yet they all have a lot of non-white colors featuring as strong components of their art. As I discussed in "Palette vs. Color," we don't typically require the palette—the artist's selection of colors—to exactly match the color of the card frame or the mana cost. As long as the subject matter and tone fit the card's color values, we generally leave it up to the artist to execute the color palette in whatever way generates the best visual result. We asked for the artist to put "an elaborate heraldic coat-of-arms on her shield," but the green elements of her shield, barding, and background were up to the artist, Jason Chan. And I think he did an amazing job—it's one of my favorite pieces of Magic art ever!

Knight Exemplar | Art by Jason Chan

Dear Doug Beyer,
To a planeswalker, how long is a "turn"? It seems to me like a turn should be a purely mechanical representation of the rapid-fire back-and-forth battles of the planeswalkers, but several cards contradict that notion. (Bazaar Trader, for instance. If an enemy is throwing giant balls of fire at you, how likely are you to pay attention to a goblin who offers you bargain prices?) Other examples include cards like Homarid, Gwafa Hazid, Profiteer, and Phyrexian Arena. So how long is a turn?


In a novel, how much time does a page represent? It depends. Just like a page in a book, a turn is a flexible amount of time, story-wise. Sometimes huge spans of time pass in the course of a single turn, and sometimes a turn represents one brief, hyperkinetic mystical moment. Sometimes a turn involves calling upon mana from distant swamps, conducting two back-to-back Dark Rituals, summoning the planeswalker Liliana Vess from some far-off plane, and then having her consult demonic forces for a spell of her own. Sometimes a turn is a flash of lightning while a goblin manages a single swing of his jagged sword, over even before the thunder has managed to clap. The flavor of the events represented by turns of Magic game-play varies so widely that you'd have a real challenge trying to pin down the flavor of all of them within a single time measurement.

Dear Doug Beyer,
This evening I was playing with a friend. I was hitting him with my Krosan Colossus and then ... he used Snakeform and my monstrous aberration transformed into a little puny living belt. This sad incident made me think, "hey most of all the instants and sorceries that I throw to the face of my opponent just deal damage." Mr. Beyer the question is: why the planeswalkers don't just try more subtle tactics, like transform the opponent into something weak and puny with Snakeform or Humble? Or making him a peace-and-love dude with Pacifism? Or a useless piece of meat like Pillory of the Sleepless or Lost in Thought?

The planeswalkers have some kind of magical protection against this kind of trick?

There certainly are a lot of spells that restrict or transform creatures, and there are a lot of spells that do their work directly on the life totals of enemy planeswalkers. But there are plenty of spells that let you do subtle, non-fiery manipulations to your opponent. Make him or her discard cards out of his or her brain with Duress or Mind Rot. Quiet your enemy's yammering with Silence or Autumn's Veil. Prevent shenanigans with Leyline of Punishment or Mindlock Orb. Shred your target's library with Archive Trap or Thought Hemorrhage. Mess with his or her graveyard (Ravenous Trap), force him or her to attack (Suicidal Charge), or even read his or her mind (Telepathy)! There may not be direct anti-opponent analogues to the anti-creature spells you mention, but there's an abundance of ways to mess with your opponent. Even so, there are certainly opportunities for more card designs that evoke that flavor. Hmm, I wonder what "turn my opponent into a bug" would cost?

Dear Doug Beyer,

Since you asked for flavor related questions in this week's article, I would like to pose one that has really been bugging me. The new rules for deathtouch seem to make the ability work more smoothly and lines it up with the rest of the rules for blocking, but as has been pointed out many times the change causes a very strange interaction with trample. Specifically, because 1 damage is lethal, a tiny creature can potentially force damage through to the player even when blocked by a much larger one. Mechanically I actually like the interaction. The idea of combining two abilities to gain a powerful new effect and its potential applications is one of the things I love about Magic the most. The interaction just annoys me from a flavor perspective.

I feel that even if someone equips Basilisk Collar to Garruk's Companion, which certainly makes it a ferocious creature, my Darksteel Colossus still ought to be able to stop it in its tracks. The Colossus is four times the size of the little beast. I understand the flavor value of deathtouch, but without first strike I can't justify a little creature toppling over a larger one. Even removing indestructibility, I feel that my Kozilek ought to be able to stop all three of the damage from that little beast.

It's certainly a minor concern, but one that I feel weakens the overall flavor of trample by causing its mechanical aspects to become more obvious during game play. Instead of one creature running over and squishing another, it becomes a creature assigning extra combat damage to a player.


There's often a give and take between flavor and mechanics. Simple, modular, and readily-understood rules can sometimes lead to flavor weirdness (e.g. Wurms wearing boots), whereas highly flavorful game play can require special rules and filled-to-the-brim text boxes (e.g. planeswalker cards). Well-designed mechanics and tasty flavor are both good for the game, but it's not always easy in a game with thousands and thousands of moving pieces to find solutions that nail both.

I agree with you on both sides—I like the deathtouch-trample interaction mechanically, yet I find it can feel odd flavor-wise—but maybe we can find a feel for it that scratches that Vorthosian itch.

Deathtouch is the ultimate "lethality despite all odds" ability. It is the one-shot kill. It is fatal venom. It is David ignoring the vast difference between his own power and Goliath's toughness and tossing that sling stone anyway, trying to get the one-in-a-million hole-in-one takedown.

Trample is the ultimate "grunt your way to the finish" ability. It is evasion that doesn't do any evading. It is the hulking running back dragging two defenders to the goal line and still having enough to smash through another. It's putting your shoulders down and ramming everything in a straight line ahead of you, until you finally run out of momentum, and the ground becomes the last obstacle to stop you.

What's the flavor of the interaction of these two abilities? To me it feels like trample provides the mode of attack and deathtouch provides a magical augmentation to that attack. It's a torpedoes-be-damned frontal assault, but with magically-assisted force behind it. It's momentum turned deadly.

Darksteel Colossus is enormous compared to little Garruk's Companion, so even though the little beast tramples, it normally wouldn't be able to flatten the huge-toughness Colossus. But with deathtouch, Garruk's little beast has become the unstoppable force. It's like a neutron star with nostrils. It attacks like a cannonball—imagine this in a slow motion action sequence—and the gargantuan construction of darksteel is knocked aside with a surprising, reverberating CLANG, and the impact barely even alters the beast's trajectory. It even has plenty of lethal momentum to pinball its way past another seemingly-massive defender before it crashes into the opposing mage.

Dear Doug Beyer,
Doug, in Mark Rosewater's column he talked about how Scars of Mirrodin has a story line design. Since the novel on Scars is not due out until May, it appears Savor the Flavor is going to need a lot of overtime to tell this story. Doug, I know you can't comment on the story, but could you let us know that Savor the Flavor with indeed be bigger and/or more featured articles to handle the increase in story that comes with Scars of Mirrodin. For me, I'm hoping you say yes, Flavor will be both bigger and more featured articles!

I can tell you that we have something very interesting and flavorful planned for Scars of Mirrodin (the set that kicks off the new block in October 2010)—something that goes way beyond the usual Savor the Flavor column content. Stay tuned for that.

    Letter of the Week

Just kidding! That's all the Feedback I've got oozing out of me for now. Thanks to everyone who sent in emails over the last few weeks—sorry I couldn't get to them all today. And thanks to all of you who send in your letters every week. Remember, you help fuel the monstrous Feedbackenstein, which, in its own lurching, saliva-dripping way, is just trying to be friends.

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