Flavor of the Constellari

Posted in Savor The Flavor on July 22, 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/

"Check his breathing."
"It's weak. The child barely survived the birthing. He is ... fading."
"Fetch a healer."
"I—Respectfully, father, I don't think we should."
"A healer, now! You'd let a child die?"
"You know who this child is, father. It's the Second Child—not a child at all. You know what the Codex—"
"I know what the damned Codex says. It can go to hell. As will we all, if we don't do everything in our power to save this newborn's life."

Everyone's got their own favorite type of flavor text. Do I enjoy fun mage-driven trash-talk? Absolutely.

"The most disappointing thing about learning telepathy is finding out how boring people really are."
—Teferi, fourth-level student (Telepathy)

"For strength to have any meaning, there must also be... you." (Weakness)

And I love me a pithy, poetic saying or quote any day.

"Rage courses in every heart, yearning to betray its rational prison."
—Sarkhan Vol (Act of Treason)

May your weapon be no sword forged.
May your armor be no metal wrought.
—Elvish saying (Might of Oaks)

I like the world-building, expository flavor, too.

Trained in the arts of stealth, royal assassins choose their victims carefully, relying on timing and precision rather than brute force. (Royal Assassin)

The giant spider's silk naturally resists gravity, almost weaving itself as it blankets the forest canopy. (Giant Spider)

And like anybody, I love a grin-inducing zinger now and again.

A typical day for a giant. A momentous event for a goat. (Stone Giant)

"I don't know why people say a double-edged sword is bad. It's a sword. With two edges."
—Kamahl, pit fighter (Manabarbs)

But my absolute favorite type of flavor text is something I call the inexplicable brain-bomb. It's a piece of flavor text that sounds like an obscure reference to a preexisting character, world, or element of the multiverse, but whose referent doesn't actually exist anywhere in cards or continuity. It just asserts itself, tantalizing, leading, laden with promise of something cool but teasingly lacking in enough solid detail to tie down to a specific meaning.

Dweldian magi don't enter the Realm of Thrones when they die. Instead their souls are drawn to great works of magic. (Storm Entity)

Flavor text like this lights a fuse in your imagination and just crackles away, your brain-wick ever-burning, never quite exploding into actual knowledge, but forever throwing sparks of imagery and creative potential that sizzle into your gray matter.

Only those gifted with the eye of Ugin, the spirit dragon, can see his fiery breath. (Ghostfire)

Of all Magic sets, Future Sight was the king of the inexplicable brain-bomb. Just as its mechanics and game play were designed to showcase a range of possible Magic futures, many of which interacted in head-scratching ways with other mechanics in the block, its flavor text was created to evoke the feel of a variety of far-flung possible worlds and characters, providing a tapestry of oddball flavor as counterpoint to the block's grim post-apocalyptic Dominarian setting.

"Hear us, Overmother. Let the strong thrive under your gelatinous hand, and let the weak writhe under your serrated heel."
—Prayer of the devoted (Witch's Mist)

Who are the Dweldian magi, and what is this strange Realm of Thrones afterlife which they avoid by being sucked into elementals of storm? What's up with this Ugin, the spirit dragon—when did he live, what's up with his invisible breath, and what exactly is meant by his "eye"? Who—or what—is this ominous Overmother, whose anatomy seems to bear only chillingly incomplete similarity to our own, and what mad beings would utter devoted prayers to it? Pieces like this light my brain-wick, sparking more questions than answers.

I. Love. That.

But Future Sight's not the only set with some inexplicable brain-bombs.

"The healer?"
"She is doing her good work. The child's breaths grow stronger by the moment. He will live."
"Thank goodness."
"No. I won't hear it. This is a human child. He deserves every chance to live and grow and do good in the world. 'Born under the moon' or no, he is not part of the prophecy of the Constellari."
"Everything is part of the prophecy of the Constellari. The seers who wrote the Codex live and breathe in the Fatemerge—you taught me that."
"I know! But now I believe otherwise. The Constellari are mortal. They're a race of creatures of flesh and blood, like our own. Their vision is as limited as ours!"
"Keep your voice down! Do you want to ruin your fortunes—and mine—with heresy, father?"
"I can't help what I believe. I can't just change it because it would be the auspicious thing to do. Truth is not a bargain one strikes with the seven thousand saints."

Magic 2010 is a blast of new cards with a classic fantasy feel, but it's also a fresh new batch of tantalizing loose ends of flavor. Who's this Xathrid, whose Xathrid Demon and Acolyte of Xathrid bring such pain to the living? Where is Kalonian Behemoth, and how does one avoid its blind, untouchable behemoths? Over a hundred new cards means many new pieces of flavor text, and you can find some inexplicable brain-bombs among them.

My two favorites in the set are on Holy Strength and Unholy Strength. Art director Jeremy Jarvis commissioned new, mirrored artwork for the core set classics, and artist Terese Nielsen knocked it out of the park.


Unholy Strength art by Terese Nielsen

"Born under the moon, the second child will stumble on temptation and seek power in the dark places of the heart."
—Codex of the Constellari

Fellow creative team writer Jenna Helland came up with the flavor text for these, inspired by the classical, "illuminated manuscript" look of Nielsen's art. I've been thinking about these prophetic pieces of prose, and the farsighted Constellari and their Codex, ever since.

To me they sound like a race of prophets, a nonhuman species cloaked in mystery, honored and exalted by all who dwell in the plane around them for their stunning accuracy at predicting the events of the future. In my head they're a tiny minority, only a few thousand in number, but more real and palpable than remote gods—a living religion.

When the Constellari came and codified their visions into the Codex, they lifted the world out of a time of shadow, bringing good harvests and an end to bitter war. The world's horrors were driven back, and the people flourished. The people hailed the Constellari as saints, and trusted their utterances as law, and gave them authority as year counters, grain blessers, and prayer poets. Their uncanny accuracy removed all doubt in their origins or purposes, and for a long while the plane thrived in unity.

But it's hard for the human mind to embrace another's judgment so completely. Skeptics wondered what force could predict so perfectly. And some found chinks in their wall of perfect truth.

"There is one who can tell us the answer."
"Father, please silence your doubt. We'll contact one of the Fatemerge, and they'll know what to do."
"That's just what they'd predict us to do, isn't it? No. We're going to the Old Mountains."
"You can't go there. It's forbidden. Father..."
"We're both going there. And we're seeking out the efreet."
"No! He's the wishmonger of destruction, father! He's the Lieteller."
"He's the only one they can't predict."

All of you who followed the Shards of Alara block storyline probably suspect—and all of you who read Alara Unbroken know—that I'm fascinated by prophecy, and false prophecy in particular. There's something so hopeful in the idea of the ability to see the future—so many of our lives' woes would seem to be avoidable if we could remove the future from its shroud of mystery. Magic of this kind would be so comforting, so powerful—either you can see the doom heading your way in time to evade it, or you already know in advance that things are going to work out okay. And yet prophecy, ultimately, is limiting; it cuts off possibilities that may have once existed, reducing a fanning delta of choices down to a one-way stream of bounded history. I think that's why so much fantasy literature centers on prophecy—it's tantalizingly hopeful, yet causes our human will to rebel, focusing the spotlight on our need for a free future. We yearn for freedom even at the price of perfection.

All that I'm getting from a couple of core set Auras? Yeah. That's the inexplicable brain-bomb for you.


Holy Strength art by Terese Nielsen

"Born under the sun, the first child will seek the foundation of honor and be fortified by its righteousness."
—Codex of the Constellari

"The efreet has spoken, father. Are you convinced now?"
"I don't ... I don't understand. He confirmed everything. Everything they told us. 'The child will stumble on temptation, and seek power in the dark places of the heart.'"
"Though it was forbidden, I'm glad we went now, father. I think it's helped you to see."
"Are you serious? I'm more muddled than I've ever been. Could it have been an efreet's trick?"
"To tell you the Constellari's truth? Father, you finally know now what we all know."
"What, that we should have let the child die? I'll never believe that."
"Hm, maybe we shouldn't have. Maybe the Second Child needs to live, to grow up."
"For them to be right. For us to fulfill their blasted prophecies for them."
"For history to run its proper course. We don't know the future. Only they do."
"Leave it for now. Let your mind rest."
"I can't ... I can't reckon it. Am I the puppet of prophecy? Or merely an accomplice in its grand charade?"
"Come, father. The Sun Solstice is almost upon us, and we have yet to visit the birthplace of the First Child."
"Very well. I suppose we'll have to nurture him and teach him well, so that he can grow up to save us from that ... baby."
"Yes, father."

Since it's Favorite Flavor Week, I wanted to leave you today with a selection of some of my favorite new art from M10. I'd like to hear from you—what are your favorite new pieces in the set?

Letter of the Week

Dear Doug Beyer,
Regarding your article "A Fresh Coat of Magic Paint":

I was hoping you could in the near future go into some detail on the apparent changing of the art direction on merfolk so that they now have legs? (cf. Merfolk Looter, Merfolk Sovereign, arguably Alluring Siren even if she's not technically a Creature - Merfolk)

Is this a conscious attempt to address the oft-revisited "underwater creatures with tails don't make sense in a landbound world" argument, or is it something as simple as Messrs. Ejsing and Hsu independently going for a different look?

Good eye, James! Yes, M10 shows a bit of a different look for merfolk, a creature with finned legs instead of the fish-tail, a creature no longer bound to water. It was a coordinated effort between us and the artists. Lorwyn and Shadowmoor Blocks showed us that, if we were going to do a lot of merfolk all at once, we needed to be able to show them in a large variety of settings—the first few underwater shots were fine, but the riverbank shots, and the wells, and the other methods for showing merfolk interacting with dry-land folk—it got hacky pretty fast, to us. This, plus the conceptual difficulty of imagining fish-people attacking on the same battlefield as minotaurs and elephants and whatnot, was hindering our ability to actually do merfolk in sets. We asked these artists to give us a shot at legged merfolk so that we could show them in a greater variety of settings.

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