First Week's Flavor

Posted in Savor The Flavor on June 2, 2010

By Adam Lee


Somehow, by a freak chance of fate, I have managed to get inside the heavily guarded walls of Wizards. On the outside, I am a freelance writer and now, on the inside, I serve the Iron Hierarchs as a creative consultant—basically another name for 'word lackey'. I have come in to do a contract stint for six months in which time I will be put through the paces of the Magic creative system to learn all that I can, and to lend my own particular talents and love for the game to the collective team effort. I have been a flavor writer for Magic since Coldsnap and have written short stories, plus names and flavor text for just about every set since that time. In my other life, I work as a freelance artist, writer and musician, but I have always considered the work that I do for Wizards as the icing on my cake of work.

I figured for my first Savor the Flavor, I'd mix it up a bit by letting you all in on my experiences of the first couple of weeks working here at Wizards, tell you how I got here and some of my musings about writing Magic flavor.

    WEEK 1—My Insights Within the Walls ... Eldrazi Freaks?

I'm a part of Ramp;D and it's an eclectic bunch of awesome people, and they all share a love of the game. Magic designers make the game fitting enough for master strategists to sink their brain tendrils into, while we in flavor land invent the tasty worlds that appeal to the imagination and bring the game a whole other dimension of life. In my short time here as a creative consultant, I have had a chance to take a ring-side seat and view how these two worlds operate together to create Magic and deliver the finished product ... dragons, knights and baloths that rip out of the booster pack to wreak joyous slaughter at your command.

When I finally got through the maze of legal wraiths and bureaucratic shamblers, my papers were in order. I was assigned a card with my serial killer mug-shot stuck on it, that would grant me passage through the electronically locked doors and elevators to the über-secret "3rd Floor", where Ramp;D is located, steeped in mystery and danger. I walked past statues of stormtroopers and R2D2, Watto and Goblins, even the Prodigal Sorcerer is rendered, life-sized. Brady Dommermuth—my boss and blessed hierophant—explained to me that these relics were from the days when Wizards had stores that every now and then, got a life sized stormtrooper from Lucas Arts as a display. Apparently, most of those statues wound up wandering the halls of the 3rd floor. As the days of the first week progressed, I was in observer mode, watching and listening to the gears of Magic churning away. Ramp;D seemed like a controlled chaos of a sort, card concepts being tossed about, mechanics being tested and re-tested, broken cards being thrown on a heap, names and flavor text being finalized, planeswalkers being shuffled back and forth like celebrities backstage before a big show. It's a pretty busy, anthill sort of thing. But then, as the week rolled by, I had begun to have a deeper insight into the whole operation. It appeared to me that it all works like two hemispheres of a giant brain. Perhaps an Eldrazi brain?

There has been much discussion about just what Eldrazi intelligence is, and if it can ever be understood, and I am beginning to think that it is just an extension of the entire process here at Wizards. From a great distance, Emrakul would not be such a terrible thing, but up close, it is a vast manifestation of a mind-paralyzing smack-down. I think that my first week here was like that—it was kind of like my first, up-close view of an Eldrazi titan. When I arrived, I began shoveling in tons of lore, devouring books of back-story, basically putting myself in a state of "learning mode" at all times. Soon, I began to feel my brain—actually feel it—pulsating in my skull. Now, according to "science", this is supposedly impossible as the brain has no nerves that sense pain, but I am beginning to think otherwise. There's a lot to learn here, and I felt the inscrutable nature of this world within the walls of Wizards beginning to dawn upon me. Will I ever understand how it all works?

Then I made the connection. When writing flavor for Rise of the Eldrazi, we knew that the Eldrazi were not of this world, nor were they of a world that had any kind of connection to a consciousness that we could comprehend. It was a tough job for a flavor writer, to write about something that could not be understood—kind of a Zen koan—but the trick was to write about them from the point of view of Zendikar's native population. The Kor, merfolk, and vampires all tried to understand and figure out what the Eldrazi were and how could they defeat them. When writing for this set, I would imagine that I was a Kor warrior, shadowing a group of Eldrazi. I figured that if I did it for enough time, I would begin to see a pattern to their actions, their language, that would give me a glimpse into their nature and ultimately their goals at large.

Oddly enough, so, too, goes my experience here.

After the second week and perhaps seeping into my third week, things at Wizards are beginning to make sense. The unintelligible jargon that was being spoken back and forth when I first arrived, I am now starting to comprehend. Obscure references are beginning to fit into a world-view and story arc that is now becoming clearer and clearer to me.

I am beginning to understand, and the vision that I see is a masterpiece of gaming delights and, of course, quite tasty.

The Eldrazi are passing us by now, and will soon fade into the past of Magic history, wriggling their tentacles at us as they drift into obscurity. New worlds are filing into the pipeline along with hosts of new creatures, locations, mechanics and a ton of other surprises. It's a huge undertaking, creating new worlds every year and there is a massive, creative output to make such things happen but ultimately Magic is a result of the creative, human mind. It is fun and imagination made manifest into an awesome game that people all over the world play everywhere. When I sit back and think that what I do creates joy and fun for even a small section of the planet, it brings a good feeling that I contributed to an effort of this kind.

    My Other Flavorful Musings During The Week

For me, the joys of Magic are many. Insane art, wicked gameplay, brainy mechanics, challenging strategy, interesting storylines, bizarre monsters, awesome planeswalkers, you name it. The other thing that makes the gamer in me rejoice is that you can carry around this universe of fun in your coat pocket and it can be played on a tabletop at a moment's notice. You can play it with just one other worthy opponent, or you can multi-play and watch how a game of Magic can become the final scene in "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly." I have been around various parts of the globe and no matter where I have been I always manage to walk down an alley and see a game store with a horde of duelers laughing and having a good time. It doesn't matter what language is being spoken, it's easy to translate the universal language of fantasy awesomeness. That's what makes me glad to be here and it is what makes me want to help make Magic the best it can be.

Over the years of playing Magic, I have seen the level of art gradually increase and then blow off the chart. Magic's popularity has allowed Wizards to commission some of the best artists in the business to put their awesome work on display (albeit a small display), and allow other artists to improve their skills over time. Being an artist, I know how hard it is to make a living doing what you love to do, and Magic has helped make that dream come true for quite a few talented people. I think that it has also helped advance fantasy art in a big way. In a world where I feel art is way undervalued and underappreciated, I see Magic as being an oasis, a place where this kind of art can be explored and expressed. In a very real way, Wizards is doing its part to keep a genre of awesome art alive and progressing. I could draw a parallel between the Medici being patrons of Leonardo, Brunelleschi, and Galileo ... well, heck I just did it, so let the record show just how stoked I am that there is a place where creativity is not only recognized as valuable but it is rewarded as such.

Art and flavor go hand in hand, it's sort of a left brain, right brain thing, and when I think about it, each Magic card is packed with so much creative juice it's amazing that they don't spontaneously generate consciousness and walk off to create their own little world within our own. Magic art is a window into a strange realm and the flavor acts like a little homunculus that sits on your shoulder and gives you a glimpse behind the scene, adding a little more detail into what the art is depicting. When I look at a sheet of uncut Magic cards, I get a real sense of the big picture, snapshots of a world that has a beginning, middle and end, complete with major characters and minor ones, location and lore. By the way, the first time I saw the fabled "uncut sheet" it was like seeing a unicorn, there was something bizarre seeing them all together like that having only known them as separate entities. It's just one of the secrets that are revealed in the "Proofing Room". Being a part of creating a Magic set from just an ethereal idea to a physical product and watching it all come together is proving to be a mind-altering experience, and to see it spread out with each card being a section of the complete, overall view, is waaaay cool.

    Magic Memories

I remember when I first picked up a Magic card, the first thing I noticed was the art, I think it was Ashnod's Transmogrant by Mark Tedin, which was a pretty mind-bending and bizarre piece, but then my eye drifted down, read the rules and then the flavor, "Ashnod found few willing to trade their humanity for the power she offered them." What the heck was this all about? Who was this Ashnod and why was she such a jerk? There was something going on with this game, there was some story that I was only catching a tiny piece of by reading this card. The more cards I read, the more names began to show up and the more a picture of the worlds and their major players emerged. Now to the hardcore, pro-player, as much as they love tasty flavor, I imagine that the major push of their focus is on the mechanic and how it helps them slice and dice their opponent into little bits of wriggling sushi, but that is the beauty of Magic. First and primarily it is a fun game. Above and beyond that, it can be a mastermind's challenge, a dreamer's intrigue, a collector's passion, an art lover's feast ... it's a veritable banquet.

    The Art And The Flavor

The art and flavor also work together to give a sense of the world that we're in and a taste of the intrigue between the factions. The five colors of Magic are its backbone and foundation and they create this automatic, built-in flavor right from the get-go, each of the five colors have their own intrinsic goals and motivations independent of each other. When those five colors enter into a brand new plane of the multiverse, we writers and artists get to work stirring the pots, blending them together to create delicious, story-like goo. In this process, art influences writing and writing influences art. I can't remember how many times I have seen an awesome painting and just had the whole story pop into my head about that particular creature. A good example of this was the flavor I wrote for Gaddock Teeg. I knew before hand that Gaddock was a key character in the Lorwyn set and he was a cenn of his tribe. I was kicking around some ideas in my head, but as soon as I saw the sketch from Greg Staples I got this feel from the art that inspired me to write his flavor. Before I saw the art, I was thinking of going in a totally different direction, but the depiction of Gaddock by Greg was of this powerful and serious kithkin, that the first thing I thought was, "This guy may be small, but he looks like he could tear me apart in a second and would command respect no matter who he faced."

Us flavor writers sometimes have to press on without a sketch of a creature, land, or spell, and create awesome flavor from only seeing the mechanic of a card. This can be a challenge, because as soon as a sketch comes in, it puts grist in the mill and more often than not, I can come up with something reasonably tasty. There are times however, when the art throws me for a loop because when writing cards, I am attempting to tie in the art, the card mechanic, and weave both of those into the ongoing story of the world. Take Scapeshift for example. The art concept of this card is abstract—enchantments and sorceries are notorious for doing this—Scapeshift (whose name and flavor I did not write) is a spell where you swap forests for any other kind of land. Trying to tie those concepts together and make it fit in with the Lorwyn world was a daunting task. It winds up that we are attempting to capture a certain, subtle feeling. Those are the times when I just pick a path and take a stab at it ... in the case of Scapeshift, my brain could not hack up the appropriate wordball.

    And Now, My Current Observations

At this point in my time at Wizards, we are about to embark on what is called a "concept push", which is where a select group of artists are flown in and holed up in a room to create concept art for the new world. Each of these artists are carefully chosen by Richard Whitters—the true mastermind behind all of Wizards skyrocketing success—he consults with Jeremy Jarvis, our resident art director and litmus for all things cool, to find which of their artists styles are best suited for the feeling of the world we are about to create the look for. The writers of the creative team work to provide the bare bones of that world for the concept artists to give them a launching pad to blast off from, but after that, it's a controlled explosion of creativity. I'm sure it will be a case of art inspiring story and story inspiring art. I haven't yet experienced concept push, but I am very excited to be a part of it and baste in the creative buzz. Should I find myself behind the wheel of another article, I will relate the tales of how a Magic world is generated from ideas to style-guide to cards. It's going to be like being an observer in the secret place where visual Magic is spawned! But we'll save that tale for another day.

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