Form of the Writer

Posted in Savor The Flavor on May 5, 2010

Everybody in Ramp;D wears a lot of hats, changing roles as needed for the sake of the—

—Wait. No. I've always hated the "job roles as hats" analogy. It's too dull for Magic anyway.

Everybody in Ramp;D is a shapeshifter. We're all creatures capable of rearranging their bones and organs to become the organism physiologically best suited to the task at hand.

Now we're talking.

We on the creative team, too, sport the Shapeshifter subtype, many of us changelings of different types of writer. I've shapeshifted into Article-Writer Form now, but I wasn't five minutes ago, and I won't be five minutes from now. Magic is a beast hungry for text, and it likes to gorge itself on a smorgasbord of different writing tones, subject matters, intended audiences, and word counts. Hold on to your hats Mistforms, everyone—today we're delving into the nitty-gritty of my job and talking about the all the shapes of writing that go into making Magic.

    Short Form: Flavor Text, Packaging Text, Art Descriptions, and Names of Things

We on the Magic creative team spend a lot of time occupying the shape of a short-form writer. The powers of this shape allow one to distill a large amount of meaning into a small amount of space. The short-form writer-chameleon composes flavor text, packaging text, art descriptions, and names.

Flavor text

Flavor text is Magic's minimalist poetry, a series of tiny textual windows opened only a crack, allowing a tiny glimpse into another world. The length is short and the content must be snappy. Rules text often constrains flavor text length, making the literary bull's-eye a tough target to hit, but even the text box of a vanilla creature—the most flavor text room allowed on a Magic card—is not much space to work with.

So this kind of writing demands the writer morph into a weird fusion of slogan-writer, comedy writer, and poet. It's less about context or character or plot, and more about crafting the perfect one-line zinger that stabs the reader with a moment of emotion or inspires a thoughtful image.

But most of all, it must be short. Flavor text needs to be a well-honed stiletto that goes right for the heart, not a dull axe that hacks away at meaning. Even in cases where there's plenty of room on the card to go all wordy, we often slash mercilessly until the piece is as lean as it can be. Any comedy writer can tell you: there's nothing worse than the punch line that's immediately followed by some flabby, insecure explanation of why it's funny. And the same goes for in-character quotes, expository world detail, journal entries, or whatnot—get in, get the job done, and get out.

Packaging Text

But taking the shape of the short-form writer is not just about cards. There are a lot of words on the outside of a Magic product, too—and some of this packaging text is the job of the shapeshifters of the creative team (some of it is shared with our shapeshifter counterparts in the marketing department). I don't talk too much about this kind of writing, but there are a lot of Magic products, so we write a lot of packaging text, longish to quite short. Pick up a Rise of the Eldrazi fat pack, for example, and flip it over to the back. You'll find this little bit of copy:

In their quest to uncover ancient treasures, Planeswalkers have awakened the Eldrazi—parasitic titans of the Æther, imprisoned on Zendikar for thousands of years. Seemingly unstoppable, these world-eaters threaten the entire Multiverse, and their very presence has changed everything you know about Zendikar. To survive, you'll have to be at the very top of your game.

That encapsulates the story behind Rise in a bit over fifty words. It's designed to show off the highlights of the set ("unstoppable" monsters, threats to "the entire Multiverse"), hint at the new game-play features the set offers ("world-eaters" that change "everything you know about Zendikar"), and put the set in a well-understood storyline context (the link to Zendikar with "ancient treasures," and the nod to Magic's protagonists, "Planeswalkers")—all while being accessible and appealing to a broad variety of Magic players. If you aren't already drawn in by the splashy art of Sorin, Nissa, and an Eldrazi horror, or have your eyeballs caught by the dramatic Rise logo, we hope that you'll flip it over and be enticed by the words there. Writing such a piece of text may not have the glamour of writing flavor text for a splashy rare, but it needs to get written, so a malleable writer comes along and hammers him/herself into the man/woman for the job.

For packaging text, fifty words is actually fairly long. Check out this much shorter piece of packaging text, which I grabbed from a Future Sight booster box:

As planeswalkers struggle to restore Dominaria's unraveling timeline, they glimpse secrets of possible futures. In your hands, the Future Sight set makes those possibilities real.

You get some of the "movie announcer voice" feel from it, and that makes sense—this kind of text is like a movie trailer, again summing up the themes of the set while hinting at how cool it's going to be. Magic products often have actual taglines, like this one from Zendikar:

Deadly perils, priceless treasures

Four words. Skilled writeshifter!

Art Descriptions

I've written beforeaboutthe concepting process—the act of taking the bundle of mechanics, coming up with a concept that unifies them in a cool, flavor-based whole, and writing a set of instructions to the artist so that he or she can illustrate that concept as card art. Art description writing is yet another kind of short-form writing with its own unique practices, procedures, and potential pitfalls. An art description is only a hundred or so words, yet the shades of meaning and word choice in it shapes the subject, style, mood, and composition of the image in the artist's mind. It is text that is never intended to end up in the actual product, yet it's crucially important text to generate, and can require some adroit shapechanging to do it well. I'm sure you'll see more on this topic in Savor the Flavor again in the future.


Of course the naming of cards is an entire sub-craft, also worthy of many articles all by itself (see, for example, Monday's feature article by new creative team intern Adam Lee). Card names make the game go and are among the most important pieces of text we write. The Namer shape is a solemn responsibility, and cards frequently get the benefit of its powers. But we suit up in our Namer forms for non-card tasks as well.

Let us not forget Magic sets, which need names, too. Set names are impactful words or phrases that get across the exotic flavor of that set while looking cool on paper, properly representing the world-building lore of the setting, and being meaningful and easily pronounceable by players (and distributors). Zendikar is one kind of set name; we like to kick off a new block by matching the name of the set to the name of the plane where its story takes place. Dissension is another kind of set name; many sets use an existing (that is, non-made-up) word or words to convey an overall mood or event. Archenemy is yet another; some special products have names that signify both the product and the new way of playing Magic that the product supports (see also Planechase).

Preconstructed decks—like the intro decks, and the Archenemy decks—also need names. These names are designed to pop off the shelf and grab you while giving you a quick preview of the theme of the deck.

And that's just the tip of the nameberg. Keywords and ability words need names; one of my first projects after arriving on the creative team was helping to name some of the crazy new abilities in Future Sight. Sometimes new subtypes need new terms developed for them; a crucial step in nailing the Zendikar setting, for example, was to make up the perfect word for the Æther-born, life-eating monstrosities lurking within it: the Eldrazi. One time even a rarity needed a name: mythic rare. In all cases, this is about shapeshifting into a type of writer who can pack as much meaning and excitement as possible into just a few words. It's a weird art, but when you find the perfect name, it's an immensely satisfying one.

Note: As of this writing, this article is untitled.


    Medium Form: Articles, Comics, and Longer Bits of Copy

Another shape we frequently embody is what I think of as the "medium-form" writer. In this form we get to loosen the ol' word-choice belt and get a little wordy. There isn't the premium on space in this type of writing, so the writer can afford to expand and expound.

Player's Guide and Product Section Text

Each set's Fat Pack comes with a player's guide with lore about the set and a visual spoiler of all the cards in it. One of the first features inside that player's guide is a summary of the flavor and storyline of the set. It's almost like a little essay on the setting. Space is still limited, but there's enough room to bring up some specifics and delve into examples—that's where you can get into some meaty, juicy flavor. Shapeshifters in this form don't have to rush to the point quite as fast, which lets them lose the "movie announcer voice" that accompanies a lot of packaging text and craft some real fantasy writing. Once we write this part of the player's guide, we often repurpose some or all of that text in the set's product section on the web—what serves as flavorful background in the player's guide becomes juicy preview content in the weeks leading up to a set's release. Note that the voice here is narrative and fully "in-setting": It relates a micro-tale about characters, locations, and events—not explanations of mechanics or lists of combos.

Web Comics

I've written recently about the kind of organism one must transform into when writing scripts and dialogue for our Planeswalker web comics. When we started doing them, that kind of writing was a new challenge to me—it combines the storytelling of long-form narrative with the visually-oriented word choice of art descriptions with the snappy, condensed dialogue of flavor text.

Web Articles

Savor the Flavor is a whole other ball of wax, and it often strains my shapeshifting muscles to get into that writer-mode. Instead of walking the tightrope of canon and brand-appropriate tone, I can bounce all over the place, writing about art or terminology or Planeswalkers or the nature of mana, making up games or quizzes or fake TV scripts, and of course, interacting with readers via the Letter of the Week. Article writing needs a breezier tone because it's destined for the web; the shapeshifter-writer has to turn off the flavor-text-writer word-economy mode and break things up a bit. The reader's eye likes whitespace and variety, so it helps to

  • Break
  • Up
  • Your
  • Words
  • Into
  • Bullets

and include lots of art.

Lay Bare | Art by Chippy

It's freeing stylewise, but article writing is also work—serious deadline is serious.

Okay, that's enough self-referential writing about what I'm currently writing. Let's move on. (You know those stories where the protagonist is a writer and all kinds of exciting things happen to him? Pet peeve.)

    Long form: World-Building Writing, Stories, and Novels

This is the big-leagues—shapeshifting into the long-form writer. This is one of the most difficult forms to warp oneself into. It's when you put away the word-sprinter and bring out the long-distance tale-weaver. Settle in. Explore ideas to their deepest point. Build worlds and characters. Create and sometimes end lives. Changing into this form is like what a changeling feels when it's in the same room with Akroma.


Style guides tell artists and other writer-shapeshifters all about a setting. Those style guides aren't just pretty pictures; they're also composed of voluminous lore about the world, from the races, cultures, and magic of the world down to what its tiniest jagwasps eat. (Goblins.) This kind of writing is not really story, although some historical background is often part of a world's style guide. It gathers together a locale and its denizens, sprinkles in various forms of conflict, tops it all with a liberal helping of magic—it sets the stage for epic things to happen. You can see a lot of the results of this kind of writing in A Planeswalker's Guide to Alara and A Planeswalker's Guide to Zendikar.


As I spend most of my time crafting names and flavor text, I'm no expert at this longest form, but I know enough to know that writing a novel is not just its own specialized shape. In truth it's more of a shape library, a costume department stuffed with forms to adopt day after day (or in Alara Reborn's case, night after night) as the writer plays the parts of every character in the story.

I think of it like doing stop-motion animation. For every work session, you get reacquainted with where the action left off last time, set up all the lights and cameras, change the positions of everything juuuust slightly to drive forward the action thaaaat much, and click the camera to snap a recording of that tiny change. Then it's 12 a.m. and you're done for the night (as in, stick a fork in you, you are done)—and the next night you do it all over again. There are weeks when you're not even sure if this thing is going anywhere, and yet when it's all over you see you've had all the characters go through their full range of motions and overcome all their trials, and the motion is clear and smooth. Then your editor tells you to redo like half the scenes and you get to test your determination ... yeah. Good times. That's some painstaking, but ultimately exhilarating, shapeshift-work.

    Change for the Better

That's just about all the forms of writer we chameleons clothe ourselves in. It's a workout, and sometimes brain-bending—you can get identity whiplash trying to get used to the new form you're in. Ultimately, though, I think it makes us better writers. It's like cross-training for the wordsmith. With no running up stairs.

    Letter of the Week

Dear Doug Beyer,
Regarding your article "The Three Brood Lineages":

Just out of interest, how much different in power are the Eldrazi in their current form compared to when they were pure æther?

They're powerful and terrifying enough like this, but surely their true forms must've been absolutely of the scale.

Also, out of interest, would they be able to readjust to the Blind Eternities, especially after what Great Mending Jeska did? The way it is now might be even rougher then they remember or could take, and also they wouldn't be able to travel so easy without those big holes the old Planeswalkers use to leave around when travelling.

Lastly, is there some connection between the Slivers and the Eldrazi?
I swear slivers *especially the Queen* looks a lot like they could be part of Emrakul's lineage. I remember reading in the one article that the Eldrazi did manage to escape once, so perhaps the Queen was an early brood maker from then who survived, then got sucked off to Rath like the Kor.

This would explain a lot about their incredible adaptability as well as their love of mana-creating and sacrificing habits.

Thanks for taking the time to read this, hope you can help answer my questions of curiosity ^^


Thanks for your questions, Graeme! The question of power is an interesting one—when the Eldrazi aren't restricted to their manifested, physical forms, are they even more powerful than their titanic, Zendikar-annihilating forms? Certainly they would be bad news if you, a roving planeswalker, encountered them in the spaces between planes—but it's not even clear what you would count as powerful in the Blind Eternities. I think the Eldrazi's Ætheric nature, like the Blind Eternities themselves, would be incomprehensible to the point of madness. Normal intelligences just wouldn't have the capacity even to measure them. It'd be like taking a tabletop scale and dropping a blue whale on it—what does the scale read? Does it even matter? It's tooheavy.

My guess is that the Mending, which affected the nature of the spark, won't have done much to the Eldrazi. They don't have planeswalker sparks, and they don't planeswalk from world to world the way planeswalkers do. They are native to the spaces between worlds—to them, planes are fuel to be consumed from the outside, not worlds to be lived in from the inside (which is why being trapped on Zendikar is so strange for them). Being freed to the Blind Eternities would be like a fish being dropped back in the river—they're home.

Although the Eldrazi and slivers may have a few similar visual characteristics, like eyelessness or odd coloration, no link was intended between them. Slivers are their own thing.

See you next week, when we talk about the non-Eldrazi half of the equation—what's become of the adventurers of Zendikar?

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