The Horror of Breaking the Rules

Posted in Savor The Flavor on February 22, 2012

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

Some things just won't die when they're supposed to. Cockroaches. Austrian robo-killers from the future. Exponential-head-regrowing hydrae. Creepy wind-up cymbal-playing toy monkeys (die, jangling simian fiend!).

Today we're talking about the undying mechanic, and about how horror arises from violating expectations.

The Get-Up Moment

"It can't be bargained with. It can't be reasoned with. It doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead."
—Kyle Reese, The Terminator (1984)

In thrillers and horror films there's often a moment where the hero finally manages to destroy her pursuer, stagger face-first into the light of the rising dawn, and even indulge in a brow-wipe and a precious sigh of relief. But in some films, that moment only serves to set up yet another scare. The filmmaker plays on the audience's expectations of how the story is going, using reassuring music, camera work and lighting, and the actor's performance to create a false sense of relief. But then the film delivers a final shocker to hurl the audience back into a state of fear again, heightened all the more because of the tantalizing moment of safety.

Relentless Skaabs | Art by Karl Kopinski

In flavor terms, it's that "it's so, so much worse than we thought" moment that undying tries to capture. The mechanic's whole mission is to conjure that sense of horror by making monsters feel brutal and unstoppable. The night-lurking creatures of Innistrad not only survive the heroes' best efforts to kill them, but come back stronger than ever. The horror isn't just that you haven't escaped your pursuer, but that your best, most valiant efforts have only succeeded in pissing it off. Now the Arnie-bot's skin has fallen off and it looks more fearsome than ever. Now the hydra has twice as many heads as before. Now the toy monkey's rubbery face has been hacked into tatters by your axe, and thanks to your efforts it has no eyelids anymore, and because you kinda broke its arms it's now clapping those crooked cymbals together just... slightly... slower now, as it gets back up to shamble toward you again.

Nightmare fodder. But why is that so scary?

Breaking the Rules

The key is the way humans perceive and come to rely on patterns. Your observations tell you what patterns hold out in the world, and over time you generate expectations of those patterns continuing to hold in the future. A good blast of a shotgun will eliminate a scary beast. A sword through the heart will stop a menacing killer. These are rules of thumb, rules we use to predict the future and take action based on those predictions. When counterexamples crop up, and those patterns are violated, and those predictions turn out to have been faulty, and those actions turn out to lead you into danger rather than out of it... horror results.

Here's a rule: Dealing damage to a Magic creature equal to its toughness, or hitting it with a "destroy" effect, makes it trundle off to the graveyard so you can wipe your hands together and get on with your life. That's an expectation that, as Magic players, we've grown to rely on. Then here come these Dark Ascension beasties that break that rule.

Sightless Ghoul | Art by Svetlin Velinov

Go ahead. Chop its legs off. Set it on fire. Send your minions to go dogpile it in combat. Douse it in Burning Oil. You'll probably get a few outer layers of skin sloughed off, or maybe you'll knock off its hat and that polite blindfold, but all it gets you is the ability to see the beetles that are crawling out of its eye sockets. Whatever happens, that ghoul won't be still. It will not go quietly into the Blessed Sleep. Killing it will only make it more horrific.

That breaks the rules. It violates our expectations. It makes us and our big brains feel insignificant, and we hate—haaaate—feeling insignificant. Death was supposed to be the one phenomenon we could really count on! The whole concept of the undead warps that belief and causes bad tingles in our lizard lobes.

Mechanics as a Storytelling Tool

Undying is themed as a "monster mechanic," meaning you won't see it on Human Knights or even on friendly looking Spirits. Its role in Dark Ascension isn't just to play interestingly with sacrifice effects and death triggers, but to help buttress the story of the block, to help tell a tale of monsters becoming more fearsome and deadly to the humans of the world. (We'll see more of this way of flavorful, story-aware mechanics in coming weeks, when we talk about the fateful hour mechanic.)

Nearheath Stalker | Art by Michael C. Hayes

Ideally, when you see a creature with undying on your opponent's side of the battlefield, you experience some of the same emotions as some denizen of Innistrad who is facing down some formidable horror of the night. "How do I deal with this vampire? I have to kill it twice, and it's going to be 5/2 the second time? It's either going to leave a string of my creatures' bodies and my removal spells in its wake, or it is going to kill me. Entering my panic phase."

Naming "Undying"

Just like card names and flavor text, the Creative Team is responsible for coming up with the final names for keywords and ability words. We didn't settle on the term "undying" for several conflicted weeks. "Relentless" was the frontrunner, as it had the right "scarily unstoppable" feel and had a cool ring to it. But during the time we were finalizing Dark Ascension keyword names, the name of Innistrad's veil-cursed planeswalker, Garruk Relentless, had already been locked in. Garruk Relentless doesn't have (the ability that might have been called) relentless, and we thought that was awkward. We decided it awkward enough to kick "relentless" out of contention as the keyword name (although we still liked the term enough to reuse the word "relentless" on Relentless Skaabs, which does have the ability-now-known-as-undying).

We liked the sound of "undying." But it had its own infelicitous problems. Take a look at the reminder text of a creature with undying.

In technical terms, phrases like "when a creature with undying dies" equals sadface. Indeed, thanks to Magic's recent adoption of "dies" as an official game term for creatures making their way to the graveyard, "undying" finds itself in some slightly funny English sentences. We've already had to ponder what it means for a ghost to "die" or for a skeleton to "die," and here we have this "undying" ability that only triggers when things "die." Plus, creatures that have undying but that already have their +1/+1 counters on them can and do die. So, given all that, why "undying?"

Sometimes you have to step back and make sure your own objections are actually reasonable ones. We on the creative team are R&D members, meaning we tend to exercise our debate muscles at the drop of a hat. Sometimes you can talk yourself into something being a bad idea for what are actually pretty insignificant reasons. In the end, we decided that undying is a cool term, and that it works well for the flavor of how the mechanic works, and that it helps Dark Ascension be the set it wants to be. We figured that while some people might snark about the words, most people wouldn't actually be thrown by the kooky reminder text. In other words, we heard our own objections, and we made what I consider to be the right choice anyway.

Undying Evil | Art by Kev Walker

If you'll excuse me, so I won't have an existential crisis about my inability to cope with my insignificance in the universe, I have to go bash a toy monkey with a fire extinguisher.

Geralf's Mindcrusher | Art by Steven Belledin

Letters of the Week

A couple quickies today, inspired by the "Creature Combat" article two weeks ago:

Dear Doug Beyer,

Regarding your article "Creature Combat":

I wanted to express my feelings on, as you put it, "healing up." It is my belief that toughness is not the damage a creature can withstand (though this is how it is usually explained to any new player), but rather the likelihood a creature has to perish in combat.

Allow me to elaborate. The Moonveil Dragon can easily stomp four soldier tokens, but it's the fifth one that can sneak though its defenses with his dying breath as he stabs it in the heart. Similarly, a zombie can distract the dragon long enough for the planeswalker to score a direct hit with a Lightning Bolt.

This applies to planeswalkers too. I don't think any human or otherwise planeswalker can withstand a direct shot to the gut by Progenitus. Rather, the "damage" you take is the combat advantage the opponent's creatures gain over you as you dodge and run for your life. When you hit 0, your luck runs out and you get stabbed, game over.

This may come in conflict with mechanics like deathtouch and wither, but that can be explained away by the minor cuts and scratches a creature endures during combat. Normal wounds won't debilitate hardened warriors, but if they fester, their ability to fight is lessened, and if they deal instant death, well we know how that goes.

Mind you, I imagine turns last seconds, if not fractions of seconds. Of course planeswalkers wouldn't stand by and wait for the enemy to come at him (usually, because strategies vary); attacks come by the instant, and the spells you sling are only those that you can extract from memory in the heat of the moment. Once that moment of attack passes, in the interval between the follow-up assault, the chance to kill passes, and you are left with a creature rarin' to go again.

And that's how creature combat (in my mind) goes.



Pretty interesting take, Nathan. I've heard some people's interpretations of hit points in D&D that have some similarities to this. I like how it brings the flavor of creature toughness and player life total closer together—in each case, it's only the last life point that matters, and the rest is just a representation of how well that being is currently eluding that final deathblow. Thanks, Nathan!

Next one comes to us from Brian:

Dear Doug Beyer,

Regarding your article "Creature Combat:"

The way you described combat between two planeswalkers seems very turn-based to me.

I understand the IRL card game is and has to be on a turn by turn basis with one player being able to only attack on their turn and block/defend on their opponent's.

But flavorwise if two super-powered planeswalkers are fighting each other I doubt they will wait for their opponent to set up defense while they attack. I think they would both be attacking and defending simultaneously with different creatures and different spells. If I was a planeswalker and I was risking my life fighting another planeswalker I'd expect us both to be launching spell after spell without rest or giving a chance to only block. You have to attack on your opponent's turn flavorwise while they do the same to you.

Get what I'm saying?

—Brian G.

I do. It's definitely true that when I play the movie of a planeswalker fight in my mind, I see creatures fighting in a much less orderly way than the usual attack-and-block waltz we do in the card game. I was purposefully keeping the flavor-slider close enough to the mechanics end of things because we all play the game that way.

Balance | Art by Randy Gallegos

But yes. Jumbled hordes of zombies and lycanthropic horrors slamming chaotically into armies of priests and pyromancers. Unfair surprise attacks and flanking maneuvers and summoning up skaabs that begin their attack from behind your enemy. Real planeswalker fights would be as mean and brutal as the magic would allow—just like the difference between, say, the lawless viciousness of Mixed Martial Arts and the relatively rule-governed world of Olympic fencing. But I think it still can make sense to break down any individual time-slice of a planeswalker fight into the actions of attacking and blocking. They might not happen in such well-ordered waves as in the card game, but if you allow for a little abstraction and time-simplification, you can see the chaos behind the waltz.

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