Magic's Exclusive Creatures

Posted in Savor The Flavor on August 10, 2011

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

Taxonomically—oh yeah, you can tell we are getting dangerous today, because we're kicking things off adverbially—taxonomically, Magic divides things up largely by creature type rather than by, say, genus and species. We're not concerned with modern scientific formulations of what it means to be a particular species rather than another one, like whether there are reproductively isolated, naturally interbreeding populations of baloths (but then, we get into some bizarre conversations in R&D). This is fantasy. We don't want DNA testing or population—we just want to know, does it fly like a Drake and get hit by lightning spells like a Drake? Then it's a Drake.

But that doesn't mean we don't have criteria. Oh, we rockin' mad taxonomic criteria. So much so that coming to work on the Creative Team is a little like joining a cult. There are all these weird archaic bylaws to memorize, the secret and frankly embarrassing handshakes, and those recitations of all the characteristics of Otarian wurms (complete with authentic bellow). To differentiate between creature types, we have rules by the grimoireful. These rules help keep traditional fantasy creatures feeling like our expectations of them. But they also help us maintain identities for those creatures that are unique to Magic.

Magic is its own twist on the fantasy genre. As we've seen in our discussions of Magic 2012 and other fantasy-trope-laden core sets, many of Magic's creatures are borrowed from mythology and fantasy traditions; creatures like Dragons and Elves have been part of human literature for centuries. But many creatures have been born inside Magic's boundaries. As much as I have a place in my heart for core-set-friendly classic fantasy creatures, I'm especially fond of these Magic exclusives, these critters whose presence symbolizes Magic's style and departure from standard fantasy.

How do you get to become a Magic exclusive creature? Magic has a lot of one-off oddball creatures, with your Graxiplons and your Groodions, but those haven't earned their way into the ranks in the way that I mean today. Slivers have proven that they're a unique mainstay of the Magic Multiverse, for example—Brushwagg hasn't. So let me start by laying down some ground rules about what I mean to be a unique creature in Magic's stable. To qualify as an exclusive for the purposes of this article, you need three things:

  1. To be unique to Magic. We probably do a lot more Drakes and Specters than your typical fantasy property, but I'm looking at Magic exclusives today. Other fantasy worlds have cat-folk (which we often call leonin) and Medusae (which we call gorgons), even if we have our own spin on those tropes. Only originals today.
  2. To have a characteristic look. To qualify, we have to have decided on a set of traits that make the creature what it is, which often is expressed in terms of visual characteristics. If we haven't decided what you look like, you haven't graduated to the exclusive stable yet.
  3. To have appeared in more than one block. Here's the kicker. We need to have gone back to the creature in multiple contexts. This is a stringent requirement—it knocks out your Soltaris and your Spikes and your Beebles. They may even have made a splash in the block where they originated, but they haven't proven themselves to be a fixture of the game yet.

Ready to see who's in—and who's almost in?

In: Slivers

Sinew Sliver | Art by Steven Belledin

Slivers have that eyeless, sharp head shape, that single claw, and that snaking body. They have a strong, hive-species mechanical identity that has stayed true—their rules text boxes are remarkably similar, given that we've done over seventy of them. Their deep design space is helped by the fact that their race spreads across all five colors. Their consistency is powerful—if anything, slivers are so visually consistent that it's hard to find new directions for how they could look. Technically they haven't strayed far from the plane of Dominaria, but they've appeared in enough different blocks that it makes sense to me to consider them for membership here. Slivers are an excellent example of what I'm talking about: creatures unique to Magic that we can return to from time to time. Definitely a shining star in our stable of exclusives.

In, or Close: Baloths

Enormous Baloth | Art by Mark Tedin

We first ran into baloths during Onslaught block, in Otaria, a region of Dominaria. Baloths have the Beast type, and are mean, green monstrers. Baloths are great candidates for being Magic exclusives, as they're unique to Magic and they've reappeared recently on Zendikar and in Magic 2011 (Obstinate Baloth). But to some degree baloths suffer from not having a consistent visual identity. They're close, in that they're always quadrupedal, horned and big-toothed, clawed, and very large. But to induct them as an official exclusive of Magic, I'd like it if they had a more consistent visual cue that individual baloths would share every time.

In: Hellions

Caldera Hellion | Art by Raymond Swanland

R&D members around here know my penchant for the Hellion type. The Hellion was only added to Magic's list of subtypes during the Grand Creature Type Update, but we've done hellions in name all the way back since Stronghold. I love these wormlike, destructive monsters that burst up out of the stony ground, wreck the place, and attack. Visually, they have scaly serpentine bodies and a round, toothy mouth ringed by tentacles or other appendages to help them feed. If I have my way, Hellions will be showing up here and there whenever there's a good place to do them.

In: Vedalken

Vedalken Dismisser | Art by Dan Scott

These blunt-nosed, blue-skinned intellectuals premiered back in the first Mirrodin Block. Although their number of arms hasn't exactly remained consistent across planes (and there's reasons for that), they're definitely identifiable at a glance. We've seen them on Mirrodin, Alara (especially Esper), and Ravnica—totally a member of the exclusives club.

Out: Eldrazi

Kozilek, Butcher of Truth | Art by Michael Komarck

Now hold on. Sure, the Eldrazi were officially a Big Deal when they emerged (and promptly annihilated) Zendikar. And they have a distinctive look to be sure—each brood lineage fills up its own section of the Zendikar style guide, for gosh sakes. Until they prove their anchoring strength by showing up again in another block, though, I'm afraid they don't qualify for elite membership yet. It's possible we might see more of these guys in some far-flung future, and then I'll be happy to deliver the ivy wreath (which they will promptly annihilate).

In: Thrulls

Exhumer Thrull | Art by Warren Mahy

Adorable, this race of disposable servant-creatures. Anything manufactured from cast-off tissue to serve the Order of the Ebon Hand deserves our underdog-loving sympathy. The Thrulls have suffered from a lack of visual identity; their shapes are all over the place. But for the Thrulls, that's actually an asset. Like Phyrexians, thrulls are created to serve a purpose, and are often made from the materials of different dead monsters. We've seen them not only back in Tempest block and the Fallen Empires storyline, but also on the plane of Ravnica as part of the Orzhov guild. Long live Thrulls, a true trademark creature of Magic!

On the Borderline: Masticore, Kavu, Myr?

Masticore was recently added to the list of real Magic creature types, as the two Masticores that existed at the time—regular style and extra-chunky—were deemed distinctive enough to demand their own type. Molten-Tail Masticore revisited the type. The problem here is not that Masticores are obviously derived from the fantasy Manticore creature—they're essentially artificial, flightless Manticores, often with a damaging ability and a ravenous energy expenditure to keep them around. The problem is that they've only appeared, really, on Mirrodin. We certainly wanted to repeat the Masticore "trope" when we returned to the plane in Scars of Mirrodin, but I'm not sure that constitutes membership in Magic's trademark exclusives. If we make a new Masticore in some non-metal world, I'll be convinced.

Creature types such as the Kavu are in a similar boat here—we've seen them in multiple blocks (Invasion block and then again in Time Spiral block), but that's really just two peeks at Dominaria, with one block of Kavu and a few nostalgic revisits of the same critter. Just one more data point and I'll be ready to induct Kavu as well.

On the other hand, the Myr have only been seen on one plane, yet feel like they're totally ready to be inducted. They even have their origins explicitly tied to Memnarch, onetime guardian of the metal plane, and yet I wouldn't be shocked at all to see them brought back on some other world. For now, though, that's only speculation. I think I have to throw them in the same "not-quite" pile as Masticores and Kavu.

In: Phelddagrif

Questing Phelddagrif | Art by Matt Cavotta

Hey, what can I say? One was in Alliances, the other was in the totally unrelated Planeshift; they have a distinctive look; and they're certainly unique to Magic. Welcome aboard, Magic-exclusive Phelddagrifs!

In: Viashino, Kor, Kithkin

These three races have all the hallmarks of trademark Magic creatures. The lizardlike and belligerent viashino, the albino-looking and nomadic kor, and the squat and tightly-knit kithkin all have their own distinctive looks. Although other fantasy properties may have had races somewhat similar to these, they're distinct enough in their creative identity to call them Magic's own. The viashino have been spotted on Ravnica, Alara, and all over Dominaria. The Kor have showed up on Rath in Tempest block and of course more recently on the plane of Zendikar. Kithkin squeak in, with Amrou Kithkin having showed up back in Legends before their heyday in the Lorwyn / Shadowmoor year. (Maybe Amrou Scout and Amrou Seekers help round out their identity? Certainly Goldmeadow Lookout felt more like a Lorwyn preview than a true multi-block data point.) Inducted all.

Out but Hopeful: Leonin, Rhox, Loxodon

Cat-folk, rhino-folk, and elephant-folk, those noble anthropomorphs that show up for duty on white and occasionally green cards, are currently, sadly, out (for the purposes of this rather picky article). I'm not against naming leonin, rhoxes, and loxodons as lovable mainstays of Magic—jnot as exclusives. The "anthropomorphic animal race" is just not as distinctive when compared to what else you can find out there. See also ratfolk (Nezumi), snakefolk (orochi), and even cephalopod-folk (cephalids); they may all have cultures built up around them, but I don't feel that we can call them truly ours at this point. But there's hope. I think about D&D's illithid—the fearsome Mind Flayers. They began as basically no more than octopus-headed humanoids—not exactly common fantasy fare but not unheard of in other properties. But over time the illithids have become hyper-villainous, magic-proficient, brain-sucking power-seekers—a totally unique D&D race. Perhaps one or more of these anthropomorphs will gain enough distinctive Magic flavor (Ajani Goldmane is about to claw my face off about now) that I'll be confident in calling them Magic exclusives.

In: Wurm

Bellowing Tanglewurm | Art by jD

I'm going to go ahead and call wurms all Magic. Sure, we've seen very big worm-monsters in fantasy before. But Wurms have become such a mainstay of Magic's green creature lineups, and they're so known for their omnivorous, single-gulping hunger, and we've seen them on so many different planes (rough count: Dominaria, Ravnica, Alara, Zendikar, Mirrodin, Shadowmoor—just about every modern planar setting other than Kamigawa) that I think they just qualify at this point. They're Magic's own. Have you hugged a Wurm today?

Other Hopefuls

Are there more? Gorgons are just based on the legend of Medusa, but Magic's gorgons have segmented cable-hair rather than snake-hair, so maybe one day our take on them will be unique enough to qualify. Homunculus is borrowed from stories of bizarre magically-created servants, but our big-eye look for Homunculi promises to give that type its own identity. Similarly, the term "Archon" comes up elsewhere in fantasy, but our Archons are turning out to be all of a certain look—they're blinded humanoid beings who ride flying mounts—and certainly Specters are in the ballpark there too. Surrakar, Amphin, Praetor—all of these might grow into great exclusives creatures for Magic one day.

Special Request: Send Doug (and Other Columnists) Feedback!

I have a special request for you Vorthoses. Last year this site had a special theme week devoted to reader feedback. We called it Feedback Week, because that seemed like a sensible name for it, and the end of the story is that it turned out pretty awesome. So we are doing it again.

(Everybody wants to get into the answering-letters-in-their-column business these days. Go figure. We Vorthoses? We do not wait for Feedback Week; we are evergreen-communicative. But we magnanimously approve of this temporary Feedbackening for the other columns, if they wish to dabble so.)

Anyway, we are running a Feedback Week again this year, and soon. Sooner than soon. Do you have your calendar out? Is calendar-use a thing still? No matter. The thing to remember is that this year's Feedback Week is next week (and in fact, due to a scheduling quirk, it starts this Friday). So the time to bombard the columnists is now. Most of us have a pileup of mail from you lovely lot already, but we want more. Just click the email link in any author's footer and send in your questions, comments, manifestoes, brainsick poetry, elaborately-constructed trollmails, and any other feedback you desire. (Some of the other authors may be seeking feedback via other electronic means—check their article this week to see how best to contact them.) And now, this week's...

Letter of the Week

Dear Doug Beyer,
Is there a possible answer for the flavor of how Manaless Dredge (in Legacy) and Manaless Ichorid (in Vintage) work?

Ordinarily, a Planeswalker such as you or I would form manabonds with various tracts of land and use those bonds to extract the precious mana we use to fuel our powerful incantations and summons. But, what kind of mage uses the madness and insanity of forgetting a spell (see discarding first turn instead if playing a spell) then uses that lost memory and tenuous grasp on reality to fuel more forgetfulness/insanity (discard) and eventually power out Narcomoebas, Dread Returns, etc.?

Thanks in advance,
Nic M.

For reference:

Nicholas Rausch's Manaless Dredge

Download Arena Decklist

Very cool question, Nic. First off let me say I believe there's a stage in playing Magic where flavor is crucial to learning the game. The game is simply too complex (okay, someone hit me for saying "simply complex") to absorb as a resource management activity or abstract-item-combination exercise. The flavor-drenched idea of "gathering up magical power and launching spells from your library" is a solid foundation on which you can build your understanding of "tapping permanents" and "putting triggered abilities on the stack."

Interestingly, though, as you obsess over this game and spend years playing it, you see the game rise from its flavor bedrock into very airy heights. The combinations of interactions can get a little nuts, especially in massive-card-pool formats like Legacy and Vintage, and the game can seem more and more like an exercise in creative puzzle-solving rather than a flavorful battle between mighty mages.

But to me, the cornerstone of Magic flavor still handles it. The fact that planeswalkers can learn to operate even without mana bonds just demonstrates their ingenuity and determination. Of all the creative assumptions we make, and all the flavorful rules we consider integral to Magic, there's nothing more foundational than the idea that planeswalkers craft their own destiny. Even the basic rules of "you need mana to cast your spells, obviously" and "you draw mana from lands, duh, is this like your first day or what" are, when it comes down to it, subservient to the principle of the inventiveness of the individual mage. The rules of Magic are made to be cleverly circumvented.

Sure, you may have to invest all your magical study in wrecking your own mind, learn the ways of Golgari creatures that can devour your long-term memory, search the Multiverse for nightmarish horrors that don't frankly care whether they're living or dead, and devise methods of paying in some darker quantities than mana—but you can do it. Summon your army without even a single mana bond, go ahead. It's not easy—and it takes a decade's worth of cards from a half-dozen far-flung planes to be able to pull it off—but sure, if you don't want to use mana, go ahead and sacrifice your sanity, knowledge, and lifeblood instead. There are forces in the Multiverse who'd be happy to take those as legal tender too.

See you next week for Feedback Week! Send your feedback to columnists!

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