The Flavor of Zones

Posted in Savor The Flavor on December 10, 2008

Like an organism, a spell has a life cycle. It's conceived, it's born into the world, it lives for some amount of time, and it dies. As it does so, it passes through several states of being—in the Magic rules, we call these zones, and there are six of them. (We're leaving aside such oddballs as the phased-out zone and the ante zone. Frankly I'm not even sure the rules even count those as separate zones these days—that's a question for the Gottliebs of the world.) Today we take a look at these zones from a flavor perspective as we follow a spell's path from life to death—cue announcer voice—and beyond.


Our first stop is the library—a mound of Magic cards that represents your long-term spell storage. Your library is a subset of the spells you've learned and of the lands you've come in contact with during your career as a mage, the arsenal of magic and mana bonds that is stored in your long-term memory.

Note that I said "subset." Your library doesn't represent all the spells you know. Your entire Magiccollection would be all the spells and lands you've encountered and learned in history—a vast compilation of magical resources that you can choose to focus on and create mystical plans of action from, but that you generally don't utilize as a whole. Think of all the songs in your music collection. Now think of the custom playlists you create from that global collection to create a certain tone or mood, or to focus on a single artist or musical genre. Your library is like a playlist—it represents a carefully-selected suite of mystic tools designed to work together to conjure a certain style of magical battle. Your library allows you to start blasting away in a prepared fashion when the need arises. When some planeswalker challenges you, you're ready to hit randomize and rock out.

Your library's shuffled and you're ready to throw down. Let's say your library contains, among other things, Dragon Fodder—a spell of minion summoning you picked up on Jund once, and have selected to be part of your current mystical repertoire—and some Mountains. But don't go trying to tap for yet—these are only in long-term storage for you now. They're like facts you can't really recall, but that you remember that you know. Quick, what's the capital of the most distant U.S. state from your house? If you're from the U.S. (or possibly Canada), you know that you could call up the answer eventually, but it's far from the tip of your tongue. It's in your deep memory.

Many spells can manipulate your library. Most allow you to search through it to call up specific cards, like Diabolic Tutor or Rampant Growth. A spell like the aptly named Lobotomy can rip those long-term factoids right out of your deep storage, so you can never call them up. That's some severe damage to the central nervous system! It would take something like Research to actually take spells you've heard of from your collection and move them into your library during an actual magical duel.

But for the purposes of this article, none of that happens. You draw seven, and happily, you see both a Dragon Fodder and a few Mountains in your opening ...


Now we've moved on to another zone of the game—your hand. Your hand represents your short-term memory, those spells and mana bonds that you have present right in your conscious mind. Your hand is your main resource for doing magical battle—it's the conduit between your near-limitless but conceptual magical potential and the physical, external world. It's the supply of magical arrows in your quiver, ready to launch out across the battlefield and turn the strategy in your head into some hemorrhaging puncture wounds in your enemy's.

Many, many spells, and even basic rules of the game, can affect the contents of your hand. The good old draw step moves a new card from your long-term memory to your short-term memory every so often, and draw spells and discard spells can cause your mind to flow like a spring or shatter into ravens. Some spells move cards into your hand from zones other than your deep memory storage, such as "bounce" spells or Raise Dead effects, returning them to your active mind to be cast once again. "Wish" spells even move cards from your collection directly into your consciousness.

That Dragon Fodder card in your hand is a spell present in your conscious mind. You can shut your eyes and imagine it being cast—it'll reach into the æther and summon up two furry little Jund goblins, anxious little buggers who will appear out of nowhere and immediately begin looking for some coal-breathed lizard to chow down on them. You can feel how much magical energy and effort it's going to take to cast that spell, to call them forth onto the field of battle, and you can sense it's going to take some of the fiery mana from the mountains. You can almost hear their chittering voices and smell their rotten-meat breath—but the spell hasn't happened yet.

Over the course of a few moments, you reestablish mana bonds to two mountain locations you know of—one a dusty, iron-ore cliff in Skirk Ridge on Dominaria; the other, a massive ash-belching foundry in the heart of Ravnica's Tenth District.

You're ready to cast your spell. You summon up mana from both those red-aligned locations, channel the fiery mana through yourself and mold its raw potential into the form of the Dragon Fodder spell. It funnels out of you, tearing a new feature on the face of the world—almost. You don't quite get your goblins yet. In game terms, your spell now goes onto ...

    The Stack

The stack is tricky. In flavor terms, the stack is the point when a spell is materializing, the stage between your mind and external reality. It's usually just a flash, a reality-altering eyeblink when your power as a planeswalker rewrites some fact of the world according to the nature of the spell—such as changing the fact of "no goblins" into the new fact of "two goblins." But the spell does undergo a bit of process as it leaves your conscious mind and becomes reality. It takes a tiny bit of time for the magic to take place, for reality to adjust to your forceful, mana-infused demand and give you what you want.

The reason this matters is that planeswalkers like to meddle.

This point in time, when your spell is hanging in thaumaturgical limbo, is when other magical effects can go off that can affect how your spell materializes. Some effects can alter the spell, cause it to warp or double, or create other effects that would change its outcome. Countermagic, of course, can stop the spell entirely, causing it to puff out of its limbo state without noticeable result in the physical world. It's this split-second timing that can make some magical firefights so exciting—spell effects blasting back and forth, lunges and parries and ripostes and counterstrikes, flurries of metamagic micro-actions tweaking the very nature of the spellcasting process.

Usually all this wizardly drama doesn't occur. Most of the time, you will your spell into being, and it just happens—bada bing, bada boom. When all is said and done, the stack empties, and you finally get to see the result of your spell. In the case of Dragon Fodder, two things happen. One, the spell goes to the graveyard, which we'll get to in a second. The other thing is that you get to summon up two goblins, which in game-play terms we represent by putting two Goblin tokens ...

    In Play

The in-play zone represents the field of battle between you and your adversary. It's the physical space where all the real brawlin' happens. Your spell has resolved, and two goblin minions appear. They're ready to defend you in battle, and—after a brief, disorienting bout of summoning sickness—they're ready to attack your foe as well, if you should wish it. They can do all the other myriad things that in-play creatures-slash-permanents can—they can be the target of huge categories of spells and abilities, they can be enchanted and equipped, they can get in fights with other creatures or deal damage directly to planeswalkers, and they can cause other special effects to occur, just by appearing, tapping, attacking, blocking, attacking together, attacking alone, being red, being Goblins, sharing a color with a conspire spell, having a power less than the number of Islands somebody controls, or via a zillion other interactions. They can live out their years serving you, working hard for your cause, doing everything a summoned creature could possibly hope or dream.

The in-play zone is where all of this good stuff happens. It's the Monopoly board (as opposed to the bank, or the players' stacks of properties off to the side). It's the field (as opposed to the dugout or the stands). It's the main event. It's the regular world of trees and grass and goblin warriors.

Ordinary as it is, things can leave this zone, and often do. "Bounce" spells whisk permanents away from physical reality, returning them to the realm of the conceptual. Spells like Hallowed Burial put objects directly into your long-term storage, burying them deep below your conscious attention.

But the most common way to leave the field of battle (particularly for goblins, amirite) is death. Your goblins can end their service, take lethal damage, shuffle off their mortal coil and end up in the ...


The graveyard is where creatures—and artifacts, and enchantments, and even one-shot spells like instants and sorceries—go to die. In some ways, the flavor of Magic regards the graveyard as a literal place where corpses take a dirt nap, interacting with the zone as if it were a literal cemetery littered with the bodies of chump blockers and Terror victims of bygone planeswalker exchanges. In other ways, the flavor of Magic regards the graveyard as a more conceptual past, a "place" where Memory Plunder or Sins of the Past can reignite forgotten magics, or the underworld of insanity whence Glimpse the Unthinkable sends your precious brain matter. In this way, the graveyard is no more a physical place than history is. Where does a brilliant double-play go after the inning is over? It doesn't go to any place. It happened, and now it's done, so it's in the past. The graveyard is the representation of that past.

Now, your goblins won't actually end up here, because I'm using the example of Dragon Fodder, which creates creature tokens instead of giving you actual goblin cards that could reside in the graveyard. Your token minions will blip into the graveyard zone long enough to trigger Knucklebone Witch, for instance, but then they'll go poof. However, the spell, Dragon Fodder, is here. That can matter.

Magic is full of powerful effects that can use the graveyard—in its cemetery sense, or in its past sense—as a resource. Gravedigger can fetch you the body of a dead monster, in effect giving you back the very spell you used to summon that monster in the first place. Nucklavee can do the same with some sorcery spells, restoring to your conscious mind the ability to cast that spell, in effect stealing it from the pages of history. There are some forces that will move cards from your graveyard back into your library (recursion like Gaea's Blessing or Mistveil Plains), into the in-play zone (reanimation like Horde of Notions or Sedris, the Traitor King), or even to the final zone—a starless void that Magic has come to depend on. If someone uses Relic of Progenitus on your previously cast Dragon Fodder, it will be...

    Removed from the Game

The final zone is a region beyond death, a realm of extreme gone-ness known as the removed-from-the-game zone. This used to be a zone used in a way closer to its name's intent—Swords to Plowshares was a way to get a creature out of here, forever. As Magic accretes zillions of ways to manipulate the graveyard, that zone has ceased being a truly final resting place for magical power, so removing from the game has been used as a more distant zone to which to exile cards. Entire mechanics, such as imprint, haunt, and suspend, rely on the zone's design space to hold on to information for their cards to function. Some spells can even retrieve cards from their deathless exile. It's a powerful zone, but it is certainly less about the total and utter gone-ness than it used to be.

In flavor terms, the removed-from-the-game zone is oblivion. It's a realm beyond the penetrating eye of the mind, not subject to coherent thought. Whether it's a conceptual state of being, some far-off but physically real place, or some metaphysical condition of existence failure, is something only thaumaturgically reckless mages dare contemplate. It is as far from existing as a thing can be, and yet the zone has echoes of causality that do occasionally impinge on the multiverse and those within it. When your Dragon Fodder ends up in the not-here of this zone, best forget about it. There's no path between you and your spell. Leaving aside some seriously freakish spellcraft, it's gone.

    Agents of Artifice

Hey! Don't forget: Agents of Artifice by Ari Marmell, the first planeswalker novel, releases January 27, 2009. It stars these people! I will give you an ISBN number when I have it.

Jace Beleren, Liliana Vess, and Tezzeret

    Letter of the Week

Dear Doug Beyer,
I love the flavor text on Magic cards. They tell you more parts of a cohesive story, and give you something to read while the newbie across the table takes 5 minutes to take every turn.

Many cards do not have flavor text, however (Battlegrace Angel, Caldera Hellion etc...) likely due to the fact that there are already too many words on the card. My question is this: Is there flavor text written for these cards, or is it done as an afterthought? If flavor text does exist for many of these cards, I'm sure I'm not the only person who'd be interested to see it. I'd really like to know what Immortal Coil is all about.


It's true that many cards have no space for flavor text due to the rules text taking up too much of the text box. Sometimes it's because the rules take a lot of words to explain (like on Immortal Coil, for example); sometimes the mechanics on the card have long reminder text (see just about any card with unearth, for example *cry*); and sometimes it's because of the nature of the card itself (basic lands don't get flavor text as a rule, and planeswalkers have no way to fit them due to their triple abilities and custom frame *cry cry cry*).

As a Magic player and as the flavor text guy, I am torn. I like cards to have cool abilities, of course, but I also like to fit in a sentence or two of flavor when possible. Sometimes it just isn't.

In most cases, when flavor text is being written for a card, we already know the length of the text. It was pretty clear that Kederekt Leviathan was going to have no room for flavor text from the get-go, and so I didn't ask my writer team to come up with any. Sometimes, though, the card's text or rules templating changes, and the flavor text has to die. Traditionally I say a short benediction over its lonely little grave, and go inform its next of kin. It's a sad day for everyone, but the rules have to take precedence.

Immortal Coil was one of those cards that was clearly not going to fit any flavor text, so none was ever written for it. The concept behind the card, though, was that it was an etherium phylactery used to house the soul of an aether-lich, one of the undead, more-etherium-than-flesh abominations of Esper.

Maybe in another article someday I'll explore some pieces of flavor text that hit the cutting room floor. Have a good week, and enjoy Worlds coverage this weekend!

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