How to Design a Hellion and More!

Posted in Savor The Flavor on December 24, 2008

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

I'm addicted to variety in all things, so it's no coincidence that my job concerns a game with thousands of individually-interacting moving pieces and shelves full of unique fantasy worlds. In this inaugural article of the newly-named Savor the Flavor column, I satisfy my addiction by changing up my usual tone and subject matter. The result was an experiment in more ways than one—an experiment with the screenplay writing format, with the announcer-guy voice and cheesy tone, and most of all an experiment with telling design and development how to make cards! Happy holidays!


Fade in. A smiling DOUG BEYER greets the camera wearing a loud suit covered in mana symbols.

Designing some of Magic's trademark creatures can be fun, and easier than you think! Follow the step-by-step instructions in today's episode, and before you know it, you'll be a world-famous Magic card designer, able to thrill the Timmies, inspire the Johnnies, and activate the salivary glands of Spikes with a thought! Ready? Let's do it!

Fade to title montage.

Upbeat light jazz plays. We see a montage of clips of DOUG teaching Vorthosian principles to other PLANESWALKERS, who nod and smile approvingly. In one clip, DOUG taps a pointer onto a chalkboard bearing a diagram of an Uktabi Drake. In another clip, DOUG wears a bad noggle cosplay outfit, and pantomimes a "sneaking around" action. In another, DOUG wears a lighted spelunking helmet while exploring a cutaway model of a Wurm's stomach. In the last clip, DOUG, wearing a cloak and hat similar to that of the Blind Seer, gives a thumbs-up and an exaggerated wink at the camera.


Fade to:

Have you got design on the mind, but you're worried you won't accurately represent the crucial details of Magic's signature creatures? No? Well then rot in the deepest of interplanar hells, mortal! (chuckles) Just kidding. Hi, I'm Doug Beyer, your host on Flavorful Design. Today we're exploring the top-down design of some of Magic's most well-known creature types. There are good ways and bad ways to design all of these creatures—and with a little know-how and a lot of creativity, your designs are guaranteed not to get you devoured horribly! Let's get started, shall we?


Slow background pan of Crater Hellion by Daren Bader.

Crater Hellion

Fade to:

The Hellion is the beating heart of the volcano, the surging force of nature's bloody wrath. And you can design your very own! A Hellion has a scaly, snakelike body, spiky knobs along its sides, and a toothy, round mouth surrounded by tentacles. They don't have wings or other means of levitation, so they most certainly shouldn't have flying.

Most Hellions are huge—about the size of freight trains. They should be 3/3 at a minimum, ideally larger. They should make an immediate and noticeable impact on the board. If someone casts your Hellion card and the opponent doesn't sit up and take notice, you're doing something wrong. Take Crater Hellion, for example, arguably Magic's most iconic Hellion. It sweeps the board with its explosive arrival.

Hellions are manifestations of nature's blind rage, and should have abilities that represent this feel in their mechanics. They should feel mighty, unpredictable, and hostile. Hellions love haste. They love abilities that damage other creatures. If you want to extend the fine tradition of Hellions, be sure to include mechanics that cause harm and chaos to the board, now.

Volcano Hellion
Maybe you've thought of a Hellion design of your own. Here's a quick quiz—is it red? Hellions are about as red-aligned as creatures come. If your design doesn't have red mana in the cost, it's probably not a proper Hellion, and you're probably a terrible person! I mean designer! The fact that Hellions lack flying helps distinguish them from some of red's other iconic creatures, such as Dragons, rocs, and Phoenixes.

Stay tuned. After the break, we look into a creature born of Rath that reasserted itself on Dominaria after some reckless genetic experimentation. They put the "rib" in "tribal"! (chuckles, winks) We'll be right back.

Fade out.


Fade in:


Slow background pan of Saffi Eriksdotter by Christopher Moeller.

Saffi Eriksdotter

Welcome back. We're looking at flavor-driven design principles of some of Magic's most beloved and terrifying creatures. As a card designer, you have to be willing to look even the most fearsome creatures in the eye. But when Saffi Eriksdotter tells you to run, Hans, you run. Am I right?

Creatures of the Lhurgoyf subtype are voracious eaters. The original Lhurgoyf gains power (and toughness) from devouring other creatures. Cognivore and Magnivore get stronger the more spells (instants and sorceries, respectively) are "consumed." And the latest member of the family, the ubiquitous Future Sight all-star Tarmogoyf, devours Magical energies of all kinds, and thrives on the diversity thereof.

What does this mean for you, designer? A few things. One, Lhurgoyfs should always have the flavor of consumption. As graveyards fill with discarded magics, think of the flavor of the Lhurgoyf getting a fuller and fuller belly. Futhermore, Lhurgoyfs don't discriminate on the source of their food. They get larger based on the amount of their chosen cuisine in all graveyards, regardless of who put it there or who controls the Lhurgoyf. Identical Lhurgoyfs should be of identical size at any one time, no matter on what side of the table they appear.

Lhurgoyfs tend not to have built-in abilities to actually put their chosen food into their bellies (graveyards). If you're looking for a creature type that allows its controller to "eat"—in other words, sacrifice—permanents, try the Atog.

All this talk of eating has made me hungry. That brings us to the next item on our flavorful buffet.


Slow background pan of Spontaneous Generation by Alan Pollack.

Spontaneous Generation

Get out your garden trowels, because we're talking fungi! (big cheesy smile turns to serious storytelling face). Bred and nurtured as a food source by the Elf Thelon of Havenwood long, long ago, Thallids have become a race unto themselves. Their spore-based reproduction is so efficient that they bud off sporelike organisms known as Saprolings almost constantly. Thallids thrive in the presence of these Saproling byproducts, sometimes consuming them for fuel.

Thallids are, with a few notable exceptions, small—2/2 or less—and almost all are green-aligned. Almost all of them have the capability of producing a Saproling token every three turns. Their mechanics may be pretty tightly controlled, but Saproling-related effects can be your doorway to creativity. Designers, use these Saproling abilities to personalize your Thallids and let them do whatever the color green can do (regenerate, gain life, Giant Growth, draw cards, you name it).

Saprolings have a very strict mechanical identity, too—they are 1/1, they are green, and they are tokens. Again, that sounds very strict, but Saprolings can pop out in a number of ways. They can blossom from a larger plant one at a time or burst from a pod in a huge wave, they can bud off of the body of a Thallid, such as happened all the time around Sarpadia, or occur on a plane where Thallids don't exist, such as on Ravnica.

Keep in mind that Saprolings only appear as the result of spellcraft or the actions of other creatures—they are not directly summonable themselves. What that means for you is that Saprolings are not creature cards. Remember Sprout? That was a firm creative statement that "Saproling" doesn't appear on the type line of cards. It's a type for tokens (and various Shapeshifters) only.

When we come back, we'll take a look at a species that's dying to serve you. Don't touch that electronic wand!

Fade out.


Fade in:


Slow background pan of Thrull Surgeon by rk post.

Thrull Surgeon

The Thrull is a curious animal, a servant race that is often more useful dead than alive. The Thrulls were bred by the Order of the Ebon Hand as sacrifices, but the experimentation by master breeder Endrek Sahr, Master Breeder resulted in generation after generation of increasingly versatile—and powerful—Thrull variations. Thrull subspecies selected for intelligence and combat eventually overwhelmed their masters. As a side note—and this is a general word of warning for designers, not just would-be Thrull cultivators—be careful with your breeding projects! Let's have a moment of silence for the ill-fated Riptide Project, shall we? (closes eyes and bows head in an exaggerated gesture of solemnity, then suddenly turns to next camera, all chipper again).

Thrulls are versatile and they do their best work when sacrificed. You can take advantage of both these traits in your card designs. Build Thrulls with sacrifice abilities or leaves-play abilities. Make them big or small, flying, crawling, skipping, whatever. Stitch keywords onto them willy-nilly, like they were stolen merit badges. And most of all, have a sense of grim fun with them. Thrulls are meant to be abused. Plus, the more injury you cause them, the more deep-seated their festering resentment, and the more world-reddeningly devastating their inevitable Thrull Revolution shall become.

There are many other signature creatures of Magic that deserve their own show. Let's hit the highlights, rapid-fire style!


Quick montage of Loxodon Hierarch, Soratami Cloudskater, Phelddagrif, Ashen-Skin Zubera, Bouncing Beebles, Masticore.

Fade to:

Want to make a Myr? The Myr are artifact creatures native to the world of Mirrodin, the eyes and ears of its planar regent, Memnarch. Myr are extremely specializable to their intended task; most are tiny errand-runners, but their basic design can be adapted to war, spying, or even magic. When designing a Myr, keep it straightforward—they're built for a single purpose, so when possible, give them a single ability.

Want to make a Viashino? Viashino are savage-minded reptilian humanoids. Descended from Dragons, they're tough as the extreme environments in which they appear. Viashino run the gamut of sizes, from scrappy 1/2s all the way up to 5-power monsters, although they have a mild tendency to have larger power than toughness (mostly thanks to being red-aligned). Viashino are aggressive and don't worry about the future. If you're building a Viashino, make sure it loves to attack!

Vedalken Archmage
Want to make a Vedalken? Vedalken are a race of hyper-intellectual humanoids whose infatuation with knowledge makes them natural Artificers and Mages. Vedalken are small in power and toughness, maxing out at that usual, somewhat fuzzy humanoid power/toughness limit of 2/3, 3/2, 1/4 or thereabouts (unless they're legendary, or the art shows them in multiples and/or riding something formidable). As crafty spell-throwers, Vedalken make terrific canvases for designing creatures with comes-into-play or activated abilities. Give them rule-breaking blue abilities—Vedalken love to twist the rules as much as blue players do.

Want to make a Sliver? Sorry, they've all been designed already!

Thanks for tuning into this episode of Flavorful Design. I can tell you're already well on your way to creating some great critters. Designers! Make it work. (chuckles, winks).


Letter of the Week

Dear Doug Beyer,

There are several cards in Magic whose artwork will have five colors representing the five colors of Magic. Do you know why oftentimes artists will use purple to represent black and yellow to represent white? I can't think of any specific examples aside from Prismatic Lens, but I know I've seen it before.

It's very rare to see true white or true black in the real world. A white sheet of paper has some of the texture of the wood pulp in it, giving it a surface inconsistency that fills it with shadowy blues and grays. The light of the morning sun tinges the paper with highlights of cool creams and warm golds. The crinkles in the paper create tiny peaks and valleys that reflect the cold glare from a fluorescent desk lamp, conjuring flecks of purple and faded green. And that's all in some white paper. When you're illustrating something in three dimensions, a white or black object always has more hues in it than just those monochrome colors. They'll swallow up colors from surrounding light sources and reflect tinges of other colored objects. How much to push white and black away from their stark extremes depends on the artist and the medium. Ittoku kept pretty close to white and black in Gemstone Array, whereas Arnie Swekel's Fist of Suns uses glows of creamy white and a royal, almost magenta-ish purple. Think about this—how would you make black "glow"?


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