A Fresh Coat of Magic Paint

Posted in Savor The Flavor on July 15, 2009

Magic 2010 is a new kind of Core Set, with a charter of powerful fantasy resonance equally as important as game-play simplicity. It should play smoothly, generate fun, and feel like comfort food, all while it teaches the basics of Magic to fledgling planeswalkers.

To this end, M10 was given a powerful new tool in its repertoire that past core sets have never had: new cards. Many of these new cards are from whole cloth, spells like Regenerate or creatures like Undead Slayer that have never appeared before in so simple and flavorful a form. A small percentage, however, are older cards with new concepts, names, and art, using the opportunity of M10's new cards to re-create good Magic cards with core set–appropriate flavor. I want to take today to discuss these so-called "functional reprints" (a term I dislike, by the way, as the implied disdain behind the phrase makes it sound like the card mechanics are the only thing about a card that matters—but this is not a Vorthos rant day).

I'll use a piece of mail I received to kick us off today. This reader Andrew sent in a question that handily brings up the question of why some M10 cards are mechanically the same as earlier cards, but with new names.

Dear Doug Beyer,

Now all of Magic 2010 is out, and while I think, overall, it's as well-done a Magic set as recent hits like Shards of Alara and Shadowmoor, there are a couple of decisions that confused me. I'm thinking here of renaming Raise Dead to Disentomb, Remove Soul to Essence Scatter, and Grizzly Bears to Runeclaw Bear.

These changes seem oddly random. Other card names were changed because they were tied to a specific setting (Counsel of the Soratami to Divination), because the change was tied to other changes (Benalish Trapper became a Wizard on the way to Blinding Mage), or just to become more resonant. But I have a hard time believing that "Disentomb" is more resonant a name than "Raise Dead".

Of course, this is completely subjective - note that I *didn't* mention renaming Persuasion to Mind Control, because, in my opinion, the latter name is way more awesome. Still, it just feels like these name changes weren't worth the annoyance of kicking the older versions out of Standard.

The short answer, Andrew, is that we liked the way the cards functioned, but we wanted those cards to have new concepts. Remember that by "concept" I don't just mean the card's name, but also the flavor behind the card—what the art depicts, what the flavor text refers to, the whole package. The core set is meant to be composed of the game's most basic, staple effects, and we wanted their concepts to nail the fantasy flavor we would want a new player to experience—and, we hope, find reassurance and enjoyment in—in his or her first few months of play.

Sometimes that combination of rules simplicity and resonant flavor was already encapsulated in an existing card; cards like Firebreathing, Levitation, Black Knight, Giant Spider were already hitting the mark perfectly, so they were enrolled into M10 unchanged.

Sometimes a card's flavor was fine for the core set, but the card wasn't correct for a mechanical reason. Warrior's Honor was a fine trick but had always been too weak at , so it became Glorious Charge at (although arguably, the term "Warrior" was a little strange in white, a color that usually gets Soldiers rather than Warriors). Zombify was probably too cheap at , and Orim's Chant had an expert-set kicker cost that prevented it from being in the cost set, so those cards inspired Rise from the Grave and Silence.

And sometimes the mechanics were just what the designers and developers wanted, but the flavor was off for one reason or another. That's what I'm going to talk about today—consider this your long answer, Andrew. By my count, twenty of M10's cards are reconcepted versions of older cards, or "functional reprints." Let's look at each of them one by one.

Blinding Mage – We thought this basic tapper card made more sense as a Wizard. He blinds a creature for a turn with his power of glorious light, rather than trapping or befuddling the creature, like its Master Decoy incarnation (who was creature type Soldier). Blinding Mage also let white have a common Wizard concept, as the rest of its common Human creatures were Soldiers, Clerics, and Knights.

Divine VerdictPreviously known as Lorwyn's Neck Snap, this was a straightforward change to get a more resonant concept—and a more white-sounding name—on this nice, basic card.

Elite Vanguard and Silvercoat Lion – Originally the art on these cards was switched; we thought about reprinting Savannah Lions (at uncommon, with this new art) and Glory Seeker, possibly with those very names. There was concern that this would frustratingly devalue people's Savannah Lions (which had been rare in previous printings), and for us to just rename it as a different Cat wouldn't really have helped that problem. I asked people whether making it a Soldier would be better, and everybody was excited about that idea, especially since there was so much "Soldier matters" in M10 white. Voila—a new, uncommon 2/1 for with a much more relevant creature type, and a 2/2 Cat (who attacks and blocks just fine in Limited, thankyouverymuch).

Griffin Sentinel – A reimagined Skyhunter Prowler, changed to soften the distinctively metallic tang of Mirrodin in the core set.

Stormfront Pegasus – Just a simpler name than Dissension's Mistral Charger, and more ammunition for your Pegasus theme deck.

Divination – This reconcepted Counsel of the Soratami probably provoked more Ramp;D discussion of the role of flavor in the core set than any other card, and probably even helped point the way to the need for new cards in M10. Obviously "draw two cards" is a very basic effect, a great way to introduce new players to blue-style card advantage, and a card that core set designers and developers want to see in their sets over and over again. In Tenth Edition the mishmash of flavors (e.g. Lumengrid Warden vs. Counsel of the Soratami vs. Rootwater Matriarch—all in one color!) was seen as at least a necessary evil, and perhaps even a cool feature of the core set, introducing players to the variety of worlds and magics in the game. But we're pretty sure that strongly world-tied names and card concepts (like Counsel of the Soratami) were tripping up players. Welcome to the core set, Divination!

Essence ScatterRemove Soul is another basic effect that we wanted in the game, but we had always been annoyed at its black-flavored, removal-sounding concept. It's not very blue to rip a creature's soul out of it—and anyway, that's not what the card does; it counters a summoning rather than affecting an existing (presumably soul-having) creature. The name Essence Scatter takes a lead from this new art and creates a new, less removal-sounding term for this effect.

Mind Control – I agree with you, Andrew; this name is an awesomeness upgrade over Persuasion. The amazing thing is that we had never used this name before. Note how, in the art, the blue mage has made his distinctive handprint right in the forehead of some kind of undead monstrosity—a similar image to what Garruk does when he marks the defeated Ursoth.

Zephyr SpriteFlying Men out; sensible 1/1 blue Faerie in. I doubt this will impact Faerie decks much, or Human decks, but it's a big upgrade in terms of fantasy resonance. "Zephyr" is one of those great words that sounds exotic but has a straightforward English meaning; I've liked it ever since Zephyr Falcon.

DisentombRaise Dead is certainly a resonant name—no disagreement there. But the problem is kind of a technical flavor issue: the card doesn't actually raise the dead. This new concept was an attempt to more closely match what actually happens when you cast this spell. "Raise Dead" implies that it causes the once-dead creature to be alive again—and indeed, that's what the classic spell in Damp;D (and a zillion other games since then) does when you cast it. But that restoring-the-dead-to-life action is really more what Zombify or Resurrection does in our game. Raise Dead just puts the doornailed critter into your hand—in effect, it magically unearths it from the graveyard. The name Unearth was taken; Disentomb it became.

Kelinore BatDusk Imp was okay—we have nothing against Imps in black or in the core set or whatnot. But there was just nothing impish about Dusk Imp! Ideally when you see an imp, a fantasy creature famous for mischief and deviousness, it is actually doing something mischievous. A "French vanilla" flyer that just attacks for 2 does not exactly deliver that flavor, so we reconcepted this as a simple black flyer: a big bat.

Vampire Aristocrat – Two things are going on here. First, Nantuko Husk's flavor was just too tricky for the core set. Not everyone knows that the Nantuko were a race of spiritual mantis-people from Otaria, nor that this particular one was (even worse) the exception—the black, undead version that devours his brethren. So we wanted a more basic, repeatable concept for the card. Second, the Vampire creature type is on the rise as a well-supported tribe, and the game play of this card—killing other creatures and deriving temporary strength from them—is pretty right-on for the flavor of a vampire.

Zombie Goliath – No big deal here. We have previously seen these stats on the illustrious Dreg Reaver. This Zombie Giant was seen as just a slightly more resonant concept for this vanilla than the Zombie Beast.

Act of Treason – The template here is, I believe, actually slightly different from Threaten, but it's basically a functional reprint. We didn't love the concept of Threaten—it makes sense that Threatening someone would be a red way to get a creature to do something, but it doesn't actually name how it causes the creature to come over to your side, untap, and attack its own master. Act of Treason does that much better.

Goblin Artillery – It's Orcish Artillery with a new, more relevant creature type. Orcs have the uncomfortable problem of residing in a very similar conceptual space as Goblins. Both tribes are warlike red humanoids with blowing-oneself-up humor overtones, but Goblins are the much better-supported tribe. So we made this creature type tweak rather than leave this one solitary Orc hanging out in the Core Set. There might be a day when Orcs find their own flavor niche and storm Magic once again, but for now, Goblin Artillery steps in.

Viashino Spearhunter – You might not even have known that this was once known as Sabretooth Tiger. We just made a tweak to the concept to make the first strike flavor a little "louder" on the card—"HE'S GOT A SPEAR SO HE HITS YOU FIRST." Get it? Yeah, I think it's hard not to get. Plus, it got a Viashino into the set.

Borderland Ranger – We wanted a "cool human ranger who dwells in the deepest wilds" concept to have a place in M10, and we chose to put it here, on a body that had been doing good things in Tenth Edition Limited play as Civic Wayfinder. Some players have expressed sadness that this guy "lost" his elfhood, as some Constructed Elf decks were sporting the elvish version of this fellow and taking advantage of that creature type. That was a consideration for us; we know that creature type changes are one of the most influential ways that these new card concepts can change game play. (Sometimes that change is for the better, as in the case of Elite Vanguard.) But we really wanted green to have both its human ranger concept and its utility 2/2 that "scouts out" a new land, so that's how this card came about as a Human Scout. This was more a merging of two Ramp;D desires than a planned downgrade of a tribal creature.

Centaur Courser – This is just Nessian Courser with less plane-specific art and a simpler, more accessible name. Note that we didn't scour all made-up proper names out of M10 entirely; we do think that there should be some interesting-sounding fantasy words sprinkled in among the card names. Even new cards like Xathrid Demon or Kalonian Behemoth got made-up terms like this. But we still want these names to be as accessible as possible, and Nessian Courser was just a bit over the line; it had both an exotic proper name ("Nessian") and a slightly sideways, metaphorical way of referring to a centaur warrior ("Courser"). Sometimes we nailed it the first time around (we love you, Craw Wurm), and sometimes we didn't.

Runeclaw Bear – The classic card here was, of course, Grizzly Bears. Why change such a staple of the game? Couple things here. One, we often avoid real-world, Earth "zoo animals" in Magic. It's a game about dueling wizards in a mana-fueled fantasy multi-universe—the occasional straight-up animal is okay, but ideally even creatures that are obvious real-world-animal concepts should have some tweak to them to make them Magical. It doesn't take much; just a tweak to the creature's fur patterns, or an unusual flash in its eyes, or extra spikes on its armor plating (like Stampeding Rhino). Grizzly Bears didn't have any fantasy to it at all. Second, I personally dislike plural names for singular creatures. For example, 1/1 is pretty small for even a single Wolf—it didn't need to be called Tundra Wolves. Players would say "I attack with my Grizzly Bear" and so on, because they just meant the one creature. That wasn't enough of a reason to reconcept the card, but the Runeclaw concept created an opportunity to give this classic 2/2 a new, singular name. (Yes, if I could go back in time, I would have named Llanowar Elves "Llanowar Elf." Nobody's changing that guy, though.)

There you have it—the functional reprints and why they got their new concepts. It's really a testament to the power of flavor; if flavor were meaningless, we'd have left these cards alone, all those Persuasions and Mistral Chargers and Neck Snaps. But flavor is a huge part of the experience of playing the game, and just as designers and developers spent time to perfect the game play of the set, we wanted just the right flavor feel as well.

Speaking of which, be sure to tune in to magicthegathering.com next week, faithful Vorthoses. The site theme will be flavor-related, and many of the writers will be getting on with their own savoring of the flavoring. I will, of course, attempt, humbly and in my own way, to outdo them all.

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