Incursion Zones

Posted in Savor The Flavor on February 11, 2009

So Conflux is out, filling in gaps in your Shards of Alara–era three-color decks and seeding your fertile mad-scientist subconscious with dreams of all-new archetypes. It's a funny thing we do, isn't it? Watching Magic sets come out, wondering how they will play and what they will do for our decks? It reminds me of those science competitions where they give you a brown paper sack full of rubber bands, dowel rods, and paper clips, and your job is to MacGyver together a device capable of moving a marble from point A to point B, or sheltering a chicken egg, or whatever. But instead of cushioning eggs, we have to defeat enemy planeswalkers. And instead of paper clips, we have "turn your hands into the head of a monstrous dragon, utter the ancient battle cry of a forgotten warlord, and unleash a torrent of skin-disintegrating flame on your enemies."

That'll move your marble.

It's not even a metaphor to call us inventors. We craft dangerous weaponry made of mystical knowledge, driven by fuel systems that twist mana and will together into the combustion reaction of spellcraft. The end result is a deck, not a stack of cards but a machine, an invention so ingenious and revolutionary that it dismantles your opponent as an afterthought while storming its way to the patent office.

It's Domain Week on, and so it's appropriate to talk about land, the fuel tanks of our magical contrivances. But I want to go a slightly different direction and talk about the nonbasic lands of Conflux, and about the backstory not only of the setting, but of the set itself within Ramp;D.

    The Wheres and the Wherefores

We on the creative team love land cards. We spend a lot of time on the style guide for each world, and a land is an opportunity to show off that setting in its most basic fundamental form. We get our best chance to show the world in the big set's twenty basic lands. Each large expansion, such as Shards of Alara or Shadowmoor, is printed with four different pieces of art for each of the five basic lands, meaning we get to provide twenty windows onto the Islands and Forests and Swamps of that world.

And that's excellent. I could probably fill a whole article just by loading up the Big Art Cannon with basic land art through the ages, and firing them at you in batches while waxing aesthetic about the awesomeness therein; the whole team takes special care to make sure each set's basic lands (which are, after all, in front of you more than any other type of card) are outstanding.

But there's a whole level of flavor that we're unable to deliver on basic land cards. Basic lands have no flavor text, and are always named the same thing. Every set there's a new chance to see what exotic locales we call a Plains or a Mountain on this world, which is pretty interesting. But we never get to actually call them the Razor Fields or Skirk Ridge on those cards, and we can't elaborate in italics on the storyline import of what's depicted in the art.

That's why we love nonbasics.

With nonbasic lands, we're able to take notable locations from the style guide and represent them directly. Without Darksteel Citadel, Mirrodin's legendary Panopticon might never have appeared on a card.

Note how none of these lands are legendary, even the proper-name-bearing Rix Maadi. We usually like to save proper names for legendary lands, just as we do with legendary creatures. But in some cases we feel it's important enough to get those proper names out there—and we like proper names on lands a lot more than Development likes to print legendary lands. Our Vorthosian explanation is that lands like Svogthos, the Restless Tomb still represent unique locations, but they are unique locations that permit more than one mana bond to them. I still prefer to save the proper names for legendary lands when we can, however.

Sometimes we use a generic name but mention a unique location in the flavor text. Darksteel'sDarksteel Citadel the other Mirrodin artifact lands are examples of this. Sometimes the name can even come pretty close to a proper name: Great Furnace could name any old better-than-good furnace on Mirrodin, but creatively we think of that card representing theGreat Furnace. Morningtide's Murmuring Bosk actually represents a particular treefolk-populated forest called the Murmuring Bosk. Most of the time, though, we can't get that close in the name, but in our minds (and when possible, in the art and flavor text) the flavor of that unique location comes through. Ancient Amphitheater is the amphitheater of the arbiter giant, Galanda Feudkiller. Gilt-Leaf Palace is the particular palace where the Lorwyn's elf "perfects" preside, Dawn's Light Palace.

There's another great Vorthosian use for nonbasic lands, and it's to show how a world has changed over time. Between the basic and nonbasic lands of Time Spiral and the nonbasics of Future Sight, you can see a plane making its slow transition from apocalypse to recovery:

Conflux represents a time of pretty extreme change for the world of Alara, and I mean "pretty extreme change" like the moon's weight in nickels. Extreme. But at one point during design, the Conflux set didn't have a lot of land cards in it. We in creative thought we might not have enough venues to show off the worlds overlapping one another.

Cards like Aven Trailblazer (a Bant-Esper overlap), Wandering Goblins (a Jund-Grixis overlap), and the Outlander cycle helped. We got to show how the convergence of the shards has allowed creatures from each shard had traveled into shards that border their own. And instant and sorcery cards like Exploding Borders and Volcanic Fallout let us show the impact of the merging planes to some degree. But we really needed land cards to blast the message of the overlapping lands in the art, names, and flavor text.

Happily, as the design and development teams tested Conflux's mechanical themes of domain and five-color play, it was decided that more and more mana-fixing was needed. The nonbasic land count in the set became five, and we had our venues to show the extreme change happening in Alara's backstory.

    "Incursion Zone" Concepts and Final Art

This also gives me a chance to show off some sketches by our illustrious concept illustrator, Richard Whitters. Since the Shards of Alara style guide didn't have enough material on what the shards looked like during the time of the Conflux, he created several additional concepts to show what that overlap would look like. We called these areas of overlap "Incursion Zones."

Bant intrudes on Naya – Concept sketch by Richard Whitters

We really liked the "Bant castle emerges through the terrain" idea. That became Jesper Ejsing's Reliquary Tower, which shows Bant intruding on one of the seas of Esper. Jenna Helland, master of creative text for Conflux, cooked up a nice piece of flavor text—I loved thinking about how the peoples of Alara would eventually locate their lost landmarks, and even go and try to retrieve them. Reliquary Tower ended up not having an ability to make multiple colors of mana, but rather a Spellbook-like ability, which we thought fit the concept of an archive of relics (and it's Vorthosian fun that Knight of the Reliquary can actually succeed at recovering this lost Tower)!

Jund intrudes on Grixis – Concept sketch by Richard Whitters

The borderland at the junction of Jund and Grixis would definitely be a messy place. The dead terrain of Grixis would burst up through Jund's red-hot pools of lava, while the volcanic crags would pierce through Grixis's necropolises. We actually had John Avon's art of Unstable Frontier from back during Shards of Alara, and saved it for when we could show the shards merging. Unstable Frontier's ability represents the churning confusion at the border of two shards—one moment you might be in a cozy hiding place in Jund, the next moment you might be in a world of hurt. (That's a great marketing slogan for Grixis tourism. "Grixis: Welcome to a World of Hurt.")

Esper intrudes on Bant – Concept sketch by Richard Whitters

Another look at the "tower bursting through the land" idea, this time an elegant Esper tower coming up in the middle of a field in Bant. The two nonred shards of Bant and Esper are among the most restrained and cultivated shards of Alara, so we liked going with a slightly subtler and weirder interpretation of the junction between those shards. That discussion led to Steven Belledin's Exotic Orchard, in which a stand of olive trees becomes overtaken by polished etherium filigree. The card even has a "reflection" mechanic, being a kind of backwards Reflecting Pool.

Esper intrudes on Grixis – Concept sketch by Richard Whitters

My very favorite shot of the interface between shard and shard is the common land Rupture Spire, featuring art by Jaime Jones. This is the quintessential moment when two alien worlds interact. It gives new meaning to the word "shard," capturing that word's razor-edged connotation as well as showcasing a great contrast of filigree precision with undead horror. The sharp filigree tower looks archetypically blue-white while the terrain of Grixis around it is classic black-red, highlighting the two shards' differences even though they actually share two colors. I also like how the mechanic requires a bit of mana to force the land into play—it's a violent event, one which could surely crush the delicate structure of the tower unless the mage involved doesn't spend some mana and concentration to mitigate the violence of its arrival. Matt Cavotta penned some cool flavor text for the card that detailed Grixis's reaction to such events, which unfortunately had to be cut at the last minute:

Vithians struck out for the tower, a beacon of hope in gleaming metal. The dead were drawn there as well, smelling the glut of vis.

Enjoy Conflux, and enjoy overlapping some planes with the help of your nonbasic lands.

Letter of the Week

Dear Doug Beyer,
Regarding your article "Bolas's Secret Minions":

In the recent articles from Ken Nagle and Mark Rosewater, they both discussed the evolution from Shards of Alara to Conflux of each shard gaining the magic capabilities to combat magic from the other shards. I can understand why this sort of magic would not be represented in Shards of Alara. A mage in Bant would never have need to attack black or red magic. What I don't understand from a flavor perspective though is how the mages of these shards develop this kind of reactive magic so quickly. Conflux is showing each shard's first reactions to its neighbors and I would have thought that a black mage's first reaction to white magic would have been confusion and uncertainty rather than acute insight into its vulnerabilities. (For example, instead of Goblin Outlander having protection from white, I would have expected it to be something like a 2/3 that got -1/-1 if it were blocked by a white creature.)

Confusion and uncertainty would pretty much nail it, I agree, Will. Think of a Bant army meeting an Esper army for the first time—would it already have magic such as Filigree Fracture—a sleek Naturalize effect that is likely to cantrip—at its disposal? And would Grixis already have spells such as Controlled Instincts, a one-mana spell tuned to neutralize rowdy viashino thrashes and other such creatures of Jund?

No, certainly not at their first meeting. So spells like these (and protection creatures such as Goblin Outlander, as you mention, and Nacatl Savage) represent magics that have developed after some experience with the other shards. The set Conflux represents a period of many battles, over which time the clever mages have just enough time to engineer solutions tuned to their enemies' weaknesses. You can be sure that the majority of denizens of the shards are running around like chickens with their heads cut off, too overwhelmed by the shocking otherness of the encroaching worlds to figure out any decent strategies to defeat it.

Besides those "shard hosers" and the protection creatures, the set shows other forms of mystical "early adoption," if you will. Some creatures have struck out far beyond the boundaries of their home shards and have learned much, and fast. These advance scouts encounter magic of all types long before it's been widely adopted by mages of their homes. See, for example, Paragon of the Amesha and Dragonsoul Knight.

At the time of the Conflux, Bant has barely come in contact with black mana (from Esper) and red mana (from Naya), but Paragon of the Amesha already uses that foreign mana seeping in on Bant's two fronts to augment his magical abilities. That's only a preview of the strange mergings of foreign magics to come, however—just wait until Alara Reborn.

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