Flavor Driven

Posted in Savor The Flavor on June 17, 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/


How does my wing of the R&D department, the Magic creative team, get involved in top-down design? For us, it's a two-step process:



  1. Recline on rooftop lawn chair.
  2. Sip mai tai.

Right? After all, top-down design means designing to a particular flavor. You start with a cool fantasy idea, such as Mark's magic-eating insects on Monday, and you design the mechanics of the card around it—leaving nothing for the creative team to do. So when a designer designs a card top-down, we head up the fire escape, tropical drink in hand.

Oho! I have deluded you! For I am a clever trickster, and this is not actually the truth!

The truth is as follows.


Most Concepting: Late in the Process

The usual process of a Magic card's life cycle is, very roughly, this:




  1. Design – The card is designed by the design team and put into the set. It has a placeholder name and a bit of other creative information (if necessary, such as creature type), but other than that, its text and numbers are there to serve the game play of the set, not to represent an element of the creative setting.
  2. Development – Through playtesting and analysis, the development team decides on the final state of the card's mechanics.
  3. Creative – The creative team begins work on the card's creative elements once the card is in its near-final state (ideally).
    1. Concepting – Creative looks at the card's mechanics and decides what kind of creature / spell / location / object it should be within the setting.
    2. Art Description – Creative writes an art description for the artist based on the concept.
    3. Art – The art director commissions an artist to illustrate the card. The artist illustrates it to the art description with feedback from the art director and the creative team. Name and Flavor Text – Creative solicits and selects from contributing writers' name and flavor text submissions for the card.

A mess of black-and-white Arial stickered onto some cardboard is not a Magic card, but that's what the R&D Pit playtests develop sets with. Concepting is the Promethean spark that gives life to that dry set of statistics, turning it from a wobbly, numerical wireframe into a living, breathing organism, anointing it as a real, touchable aspect of the Multiverse.

It might surprise you that most of the time, concepting comes long after design. Creative looks at a blue-green-hybrid 2/2 and decide that's a Wistful Selkie. We look at a red three-damage spell with a white rules-setting rider and decide it's Intimidation Bolt

If you don't read magicthegathering.com religiously, or if you read this column most of all (*high five*), then this order of the process might surprise you. Flavor is incredibly important to the enjoyment of the card; without flavor, it would be almost impossible to tell the difference between Magic's various 2/2 offense-and-defense-permanents (creatures) or value-reducing action-cards (burn spells), not to mention deadly dull. So why don't we do the flavor up front, and design mechanics to the flavor?

Grizzly Bears
Cylian Elf

If your brain is asking this, then we're pals-in-spirit, and you're invited to my next pan-planar Planeswalker Bash on Ravnica (I think Rauck-Chauv falls on a Wednesday this year). But the reality is that most of the time, the mechanics drive the process of creating cards. The design teams come up with new keywords, new ways to throw creatures and spells at one another, new weirdo mana costs, new set themes and game play emphases—new, new, new. Creative takes the lead from those design ideas and builds worlds around them, clothing them in some new form of Magic's brand of fantasy that makes sense for the game's current mechanical direction. The red-green-white gold cards are going to be all about fatties and "5-power matters"? Naya becomes a plane about enormous gargantuans worshipped as gods by jungle-faring elves and leonin. The white-blue-black cards are going to be about colored artifacts? Esper becomes a civilization infused with an arcane metal known as etherium.


Then, once we know these top-line themes of the mechanics of the set, we go off and build the rich detail into the style guide. That way, when concepting time comes around, we have a ton of cool answers for "what should this 2/2 with such-and-such rules text be?" Individual card concepts get assigned fairly late in the process, inspired by a style guide that was developed from the mechanical vision of the set.


By and large, we like it this way. Things work well this way. We think it gives rise to sets whose flavor fits tightly with its mechanics, giving a unified, seamless feel. The feel, ideally—and somewhat paradoxically—is that we built the set the other way around. We absolutely want it to look like the world drove all the cards—ideally the card concepts fit the cards well enough that their mechanics appear as if they were crafted around the art and creative text. If you're surprised by the fact that Naya's 5-power theme came largely before its world design, then our mission is accomplished—all due to mechanics driving the creative.


Creative Concept First

Top-down design shakes up the order of that process. In top-down design, what we call the concept—the flavor essence of the card, such as of "an intimidating lightning spell" or "a Selkie imagining a sea that never was" or "a swarm of magic-eating locusts"—comes first. The "conceptualizer" and the designer become the same person. The mechanics are there to implement or simulate the idea behind the card.

Although the normal process is set up to do concepting late, R&D actually does tons of top-down design. In many cases, this happens when Creative requests a particular creative element show up in the card set. For example:

Sapling of Colfenor


Legends. Just about every Magic set has legendary creatures, many of which are created in the style guide or novels first and then implemented on cards afterward. The designers and/or developers ask us in Creative what legendary personalities might be appropriate for the set, and what they might be like. The card Sapling of Colfenor arose from the Lorwyn and Morningtide novels, in which a strange new treefolk sapling grew from the seedcone of Rhys's old mentor, Colfenor. There was not an indestructible black-green Treefolk creature in Eventide that I decided might fit well concepted as the sapling; the sapling's abilities arose from discussions between the Eventide development team and me, after they asked what legends should show up—most certainly top down.


Ajani Vengeant


Planeswalkers. Planeswalkers represent a lot of top-down work these days as well. Design and development consult us about the planeswalker characters, their abilities and values, and what would make sense for their mechanics. "What abilities would be appropriate for the leonin mage-warrior Ajani Goldmane? If Ajani Vengeant were to appear in a new, multicolor incarnation, what colors would he be, and how would his abilities change?" We don't often call this out as top-down design, but as it's a case of mechanics being driven by flavor, that's definitely what it is. And of course, the very existence of planeswalker cards themselves was a gigantic exercise in top-down design. Getting the right feel of summoning a fellow planeswalker to your side—someone who could throw spells, take hits, and fight alongside you as a reasonably independent being—was very important to how we developed them to function in the rules.


Telemin Performance


Designing to art or to style guide concept. Sometimes we have a piece of leftover art that wasn't used for whatever reason, and we have the design and development teams design cards around it. And sometimes we in Creative have ideas that we were happy with in the style guide that just haven't managed to find a home on cards yet. As Conflux was making its way through development, the set was short a few rares, and Conflux lead developer Mike Turian asked me if there were any spell concepts we'd like to see in the set. I told him a few, including the idea of the Esper telemins—"mage dolls" who volunteer to be mind-controlled by virtuoso mind-mages. The resulting top-down-designed card was Telemin Performance.



Top-Down Design not Driven by Creative

What about those top-down cards that aren't proposed by the specific needs of the creative team? What about those flavor-driven cards that are just a fun attempt to implement the feel of a concept in card mechanics? For those kinds of cards, our role is twofold.


Setting-appropriateness. First, we evaluate whether the concept is appropriate for the setting of that set (or, rarely, for the game itself). A massive Hellion, its ropy jaw-tentacles grasping for prey to drag into its razor-lined gullet, is a great concept for a Magic card, and we encourage designers to come up with them. But such a creature would not fit in Lorwyn. No amount of clever mechanical design, however Hellionlike, will make a Hellion at home on that pastoral plane. Similarly, a spell that turned you into a baby platypus, no matter how adorably (and marsupial-accurately!) implemented in its rules text, would not be welcome under the banner of Grixis mana in Shards of Alara block. (Sorry, Platypuppify.) Most of the time, this step just isn't necessary; especially as the style guide becomes complete, the designers and developers have already built up a good feel for the setting and know instinctively what concepts would be too jarring to find there, and in the game as a whole (see Ken Nagle's discussion of the cleverly-implemented but non-resonant spit-valve-bearing Anthem Trumpet).


Grip of Chaos


Follow-through. Even if a card has been designed with a flavor concept in mind, it's still the creative team's job to make that flavor materialize. The second part of Creative's role in top-down designs is therefore simply to follow through with the chosen concept. If the designer's goal was to top-down design a Sphinx, and the creative team is on board for a Sphinx being in the set, then once the Sphinx is designed and developed, we go ahead and have the artist illustrate a Sphinx, we put Sphinx on the type line, and we call it "[Whatever] Sphinx." Startlingly, this part of the process has actually broken down sometimes, usually due to miscommunication. The Scourge card Grip of Chaos, for example, was actually designed to represent a spell that made everyone blind (suddenly nobody can see what they're doing, so spells target at random). Creative didn't get the message, and concepted it as a chaotic reality-distorting spell rather than a blindness spell.



Magic 2010 and Top-Down

Magic itself began as a hugely top-down exercise; Richard Garfield did a huge amount of top-down design in Alpha. What does a Basilisk do in fantasy literature? It kills you by fixing you with its deadly gaze—so Thicket Basilisk has a deathtouch-like ability. What does a ball-of-fire spell do? It deals tons of fire damage to everything within its area of effect—so Fireball is an X spell that can be spread out over multiple targets. Magic's first set is littered with flavorful, top-down examples like this. Rukh Egg cracks into a gigantic birdie. Hurricane whacks creatures that fly high up in the air. Illusionary Mask hides a creature's identity. Pestilence dies out when there's no more creatures to sicken. Shivan Dragon breathes fire. Sengir Vampire grows more powerful as he drinks the blood of his victims. The Terror spell doesn't work on Skeletons or Golems. War Mammoth tramples. I don't have Richard here to interview, but I'm sure he'd say that in tons of cases, he started with an in-flavor creature or spell idea first, then tried to implement the feel of that concept in the rules.

Thicket Basilisk

The vision of Aaron Forsythe, director of Magic R&D, is that Magic 2010 represent, in part, a return to this kind of design. Many of its new cards were designed top-down to represent concepts familiar to fantasy fans, and the payoff is that the game (and especially the core set) fulfills those fantasy expectations. You've seen Silence, Wall of Frost, and Capricious Efreet in his feature article, right? Just from the names, you get an expectation of what they might do—and you're right. Top-down design is a powerful tool for making the game comprehensible, engaging, memorable, and fun—an excellent way to be introduced to the game.


And for us flavor fans who've been with the game for a while, you likely saw in the rules change announcement last week that flavor is moving up in the world. I'm excited about terminology introductions like battlefield and exile, and I'm about to freaking burst into pieces with my Vorthosian affection for the return of the word "cast." Many of you have asked questions about the flavor of the M10 rules changes, and I have a lot I want to say about them. But I want to save that for its own article—soon.


The future looks good for top-down design. Wild forays into the esoteric flavor of Magic's countless planes will always be our bread and butter, but the game is undergoing a renaissance in the textwise realization of familiar, flavor-driven concepts. And that's important, because what we call Vorthos isn't just our little flavor-obsessed subset of the Magic-playing population. Vorthos isn't just the fantasy novel-devourers and the comic book collectors of the world. Vorthos is everybody who knows that a dragon breathes fire or that a vampire drinks blood, everybody who has a strategy in mind for what to do when the zombie apocalypse comes—everybody who approaches life with a little imagination.


Letter of the Week

Dear Doug Beyer,

I have a question that my friends and I have had a debate on a Vorthosian subject. I would find it awesome if you could help settle it.

One becomes a planeswalker by igniting their spark, enabling them to walk to different worlds. Can, in theory, a member of the undead, a lich of some sort perhaps, have a spark and become a planeswalker? Could maybe a planeswalker that already exists in the Multiverse die, and get brought back through necromancy as a lich and still be able to planeswalk?



I live to serve! We've just been talking about this in the office recently, actually. You may have noticed over the course of a couple thousand black cards that, thanks to the power of magic, being dead is no barrier to doing a lot of surprisingly active things. Dead folks wield magic all over the place, implying that the lack of your regular, down-home, biological homeostasis is not a requirement for the ability to turn mana into reality alteration. So you can at least be an undead mage, which is at least good news for the possibility of being a planeswalker. And as you point out, a lich, as a powerful mage who retains (at least some semblance of) his or her sentience after death, might be a pretty good candidate for becoming an undead planeswalker.


But there are always costs. Even with all the necromantic sorcery in the world, death is hard on a person. Theoretically an undead being with a spark could have that spark ignite, but first of all, not everybody has one (remember, only a tiny fraction of sentient beings are born with the spark, the planeswalking potential, and even fewer of those undergo the perfect combination of spark-igniting experiences to become actual planeswalkers). And furthermore, death may have some serious consequences for one's ability to retain the spark, ignited or no.

There are certain experiences which can damage or destroy one's spark, which may include (this is like the fine print on a prescription drug ad) terrible magics, substantial injury to the mind, bodily death, and/or other causes. Even though you, as a powerful and intricate-plan-devising planeswalker, might set yourself up with ample enchantments to trigger on the event of your death, and even though your magics might return your body to life and even perhaps return a substantial portion of your former magical power to you—your spark may not survive. Death is bad news. Nicol Bolas has said that Soul Manipulation, but I'm not sure that every consequence of death is completely reversible.


Now, I try not to say "never"—the usual caveat in Magic is that the right mage, given the right amount of knowledge, time, resources, and mana, can do just about anything. So is it possible to retain your ignited spark into undeath, or to retain an unignited one, and have it ignite while an undead creature? Most of the time, probably not, no. But maybe, under very specific circumstances, with just the right conditions in place—you know what I mean?


See you next week!

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