The Key Is Time

Posted in Savor The Flavor on October 13, 2010

In the spirit of a great game called You Have to Burn the Rope, I'm going to tell you right now the key to this article:

The Key is Time

Okay? The key is time. Remember that.

    Scars and Scars

Working on the Scars of Mirrodin block has been one of the most emotionally affecting projects I've ever worked on. There's more to say about that later, but for now I'll say this. Letting yourself feel the true horror of war involves opening yourself to it. To create a war that has an element of truth to it, you have to welcome it into your soul, take its coat, and serve it tea. You can't just have your conscious mind shove around a few war clichés, because if you do, the result won't just be superficial; it'll be insulting. To write about war, you have to dip your subconscious in it. You have to give it complete access. Let it walk around in your dark places and leave its claw-marks everywhere. You have to fill your deepest inkwell with it, so that it can become part of you, so that you can call on it when the time comes. Thing is, once you've done that, it can be hard to get the stains out. I have these dreams.

More on that another time. But it gets me where I'm going today, which is—do you remember? What is the key again?

The key is time.

    Art and Time

Time is a dimension present in all media. The experience of every artistic expression crucially involves the passage of time. Even a flat, unmoving piece of two-dimensional art is experienced across a series of moments. Take a look at this piece, for instance:

Blunt the Assault | Art by Matt Stewart

First you take in your immediate impression of the piece. It's some figures looking down at some figures far below. Then as you look longer, other details make themselves known, deepening your understanding of what's being portrayed and how. The foreground figures have long ears and copper armor—and this is a green card—they must be Viridian elves. They're looking down from a high place, and the texture of the structure across from them looks like a fat, twisting root—and again, green card—so they must be up in one of the verdigris-covered "trees" of the Tangle.

As you look longer, you think about the artist's intent, you connect the unknown in the piece to something known using the power of your subconscious. You compare it with what you know in your own subconscious mind, and—over a short amount of time—you weave something new, a new mental construction formed out of the relationship between you, the piece, and the artist. Those creatures on the ground below the elves look gray-skinned and hunched, and now that you look at it, the creatures have plates or helmets that cover their eyes. They must be nim, the necrogen-plagued undead of the Mephidross. Why have the nim come all the way over in the Tangle to attack some elves? What's the intended story here? The elves don't look concerned—they have no weapons on them, and their body language suggests mild curiosity or even bemusement. Indeed, the card is called Blunt the Assault, and serves as a surprising "Fog" that can take the sting out of a major attack. The nim look like ants from the elves' untouchable vantage point, harmless and a little stupid, bonking ineffectually into the base of the tree. It's a piece about a martial advantage, about a prepared few triumphing easily over raw numbers, about being cool under pressure.

Or maybe you got something totally different out of it. Fair. That's up to you. The point is that it's a process. It's not a flash-bulb singularity of understanding; it's a sequence of moments.

In other media, the time factor involved is obvious. Movies play out over ninety-odd minutes. Novels take hours to finish. Act 1, act 2, act 3. Beginning, middle, end. That which is set up, pays off. Story is a skin draped over a skeleton of time. It unfurls like a rolled-up towel—mysteries unravel, secrets that were hidden become revealed, events occur in sequence until the story is done.

Video games are stretched over the skeleton of chronology, too. You fight some minor enemies until you get to fight a mini-boss, and after you've fought all the mini-bosses, you get to fight the end boss. In some games, the story is even more involved—characters interact and form relationships, the world changes in response to your heroic actions, the King of All Cosmos lobs cryptic one-liners as you roll up bigger and bigger hunks of the world, and so on.

    Cards and Chronology

Magic cards are a complex medium for story. On the one hand, we've moved away from showing pieces of a sequential story on cards, in part because you don't experience Magic cards in a particular chronological order. The whole point of the game is customization—you get to group together Magic cards as you see fit. You get to choose a Constructed format, or you get to choose to play with a Limited card pool. You get to build your deck around any number of colors, mechanics, and themes. You get to mulligan hands you don't like and determine which cards you play and in which order. And of course, before you play, you shuffle. Shuffling is kinda bad for sequencing beginnings, middles, and ends over time. Magic has collector numbers, not page numbers—they are not, by their nature, easily story-orderable.

On the other hand, as I've discovered over the years, Magic cards can still deliver a feeling of narrative chronology. Of course there's the time invested in the experience of appreciating an individual card; you crack it open and check out the name, the rules text, the mana cost, the art, the power/toughness, the flavor text, the artist credit—the more time passes, the more you discover about it, and there's a process there. Time passes, just like when you took in what was up with the art of Blunt the Assault above. But that's not what I mean. I mean story. I mean beginnings, middles, and ends.

We've tried in the past to compare cards to pages of novels. We would deliver one snippet of story per card, and then hope that the story as a whole was apparent as you looked over several cards, or even hoped that you'd be able to line the cards up in the right order and see the correct story play out. That's still a passable solution, but I don't prefer it because I don't think it matches the customizable, self-guided spirit of the game.

But there was an error in our thinking. The analogy doesn't work: while the page is the basic unit of the book, the card is not the basic unit of Magic story. When we're talking about the card game, the basic unit of Magic story is the set as a whole. We can use the cards to guide us through the story, but we have to involve another dimension to get a sense of chronology. The key is ...


    The Key Is Time

Think about the story of the world of Zendikar, and how it played out across the three sets.

Act 1:Zendikar. An adventure-filled world of lethal dangers and priceless treasures. Expedition parties of brave allies. Quests and traps. Remote locations and strangely-shaped ruins with mystical properties.

Act 2:Worldwake. The land comes alive with a vengeance. Zendikar fights back against those who would plunder it. The changeable power of the Roil. Hints of a darker force lurking deep in Zendikar's history, tied to the mysterious hedrons and the Eye of Ugin.

Act 3:Rise of the Eldrazi. The Eldrazi emerge to feed on the life energy of the plane once more. They spawn three distinct brood lineages to annihilate the plane's adventurers. Zendikar's wrath is explained; the plane was used as a prison to restrain the Eldrazi, and planeswalkers must decide whether to free them into the Blind Eternities.

One card by itself doesn't tell much of a story. Even five cards laid out in careful order tell only a gappy tale. But three sets in sequence, each set composed of hundreds of individual snapshots of a world in motion, can show change over time.

Scars of Mirrodin block has a story that plays out over the course of three sets. And it's already picking up where the chronology of many other sets already left off—the first Mirrodin block, and the many other sets where the Phyrexians featured prominently. Look at a few Scars of Mirrodin cards, and you won't understand the story. Look at them all, and you'll begin to perceive one act. Look at them together with the other sets of that block—allow time to pass, memories to form, and changes to develop—and you'll see the story emerge.

If we've done our job, then the fight to come might give you a few scars, like it appears it has given me. But fear not. Even if you come out of the block with your subconscious scarred by war, then I heard from an aphorism—something-or-other heals all wounds.

    Letters of the Week

A couple of quickies about art today.

Dear Doug Beyer,
Regarding your article "Rotation Season":

I love the concept of the Mirrodin vampires, with their blood-processing tubing and their creepy syringe fingers rather than fangs. And I love the art on Memoricide: the woman is totally gorgeous, creepy, and clearly deadly.

But is she a vampire or a Moriok? I ask because she seems to have metal hands and although she's digging them into his skin, it doesn't look like two of her fingers are longer. And her eyes are not solid black, which the bit of the style guide that was posted in Savor The Flavor mentions.

So I ask you: what is the race of this totally awesome-looking, mind-killing creature? I MUST KNOW.

Memoricide | Art by James Ryman

Believe it or not, Alexa, she's human—a Moriok. Here's the art order we sent to artist James Ryman:

Color: Black spell
Action: Close-up of a Moriok sorceress, as yet relatively unaffected by the necrogen, cradling the chin of an Auriok or leonin victim (your choice). The victim's eyes are glazed over, jaw slack, head beginning to loll. She has destroyed his mind.
Focus: the scene, esp. the victim's mental state
Mood: "Empty your mind. No, on second thought, let me do that for you."

The Moriok dwell in the Mephidross, where necrogen gases slowly turn living tissue into the nim. All Moriok have some dark metal fused into their anatomy, as she herself does, but she's only been slightly eroded by the necrogen. She's not a vampire, but she is pretty pale, and she does really, really enjoy sneaking up on hapless prey—she just drains thoughts when she does so, instead of blood. Thanks for your question!

Dear Doug Beyer,

Cystbearer has one of my favorite pieces of art in Scars. I'd love to know more about it, can you share the art description? I'm curious if you guys had a strong idea of the image, or if the artist surprised you with it.


Cystbearer | Art by Kev Walker

In many cases we let the artist run wild to conjure up horrifying monsters for us. (It's an honor and a solemn privilege. YAY MONSTORZ.) But in this case, we not only delivered some specific instructions, we also pointed at a reference concept in the style guide. First, the art description:

Color: Green creature
Action: Show a Phyrexian creature like the one on styleguide p. 76C. It's the size of a large wolf. Black ichor drips from its mouth and the spines on either side of its mouth glisten menacingly.
Focus: The Phyrexian predator
Mood: An indiscriminate killer

And here is the concept art that's referred to:

Phyrexian creature concept by Dave Allsop

The combination of Dave Allsop's amazing creature design and Kev Walker's superstar skills resulted in a fantastic piece. Interestingly, the art of Cystbearer is set in the Rey-Goor, which is the name of a part of the Tangle that merges with the Mephidross—also the place where Bleak Coven Vampires are from. Here's a snippet of the Scars of Mirrodin style guide about it:

Rey-Goor, the Black Bayou: The forests extending from the Tangle to the Mephidross gradually become more oil-soaked and gloomy until the ground sloughs away into a stinking bog. The twisted and dying trees send metal root-spikes above the black water and act like islands of solid ground in the sucking vastness of the bayou.

Next week: forging a future for Mirrodin.

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