Mail Bonding

Posted in Savor The Flavor on January 5, 2011

Shudder off those icicles. Dump that wrapping paper in the mana-powered incinerator. Scour your mind of resolutions. Time's been wasting. We're already five days into 2011—well over one percent of our world's current helio-orbital journey—and we haven't peeped a word about Magic flavor yet.

In less than two weeks this site will bloom open with Mirrodin Besieged previews like a confident sea anemone made of clandestine truth. So we have to cram in all we can today. Carpe vorthem: seize the flavor. So for the most efficient injection of today's content syringe, I'm gleaning some of the goods from my fortnight-neglected mailbox. Today we'll address some significant fraction of those questions that need answered before we get all Besieged. Flavor text. Geomancers. A few further thoughts on the properties of darksteel. And the role of cultural anthropology in world-building. Yep, it's a mailbag column all right. Let's get to it.

    Blank Flavor Text?

Joseph asks why we sometimes leave some cards without flavor text, even when there's room.

Dear Doug Beyer,
Art always does a decent job of bringing the function of any card in a vivid and visual context, but its flavor text that solidifies the lore behind the cards. Each little tidbit is like a whisper from the plane of the card, reminding us that our card games are part of something much bigger. With that being said, I must ask this: why are so many Magic cards with available space printed without flavor text?

Take Day of Judgment for example. The original card from Zendikar offered a cool little quotation from Sorin Markov, bringing the turmoil of Zendikar into the game. What story did the reprint in Magic 2011 offer? Nothing really. Just the original art, the card's function, and a lot of blank space. Would it have been that hard to think of some flavor text to place in all that blank space? Lightning Bolt has the same problem. Although both the M10 and M11 versions both do 3 damage to a creature or player, the short little story about the sparkmage on the M10 editions adds so much more to the card.

I propose a law forbidding the presence of blank space on a card, or at least an explanation for this void.

Law considered and vetoed, although I fully understand your side, Joseph. But I'll tell you why we occasionally do it.

Short answer: Tastes differ.

Longer answer: You know I love me a good piece of flavor text. Out of my way, rules! I am Vorthos! I want nothing more out of that text box than to hear a whisper from a far-off plane, as you put it so well. In fact I nurse grudges against entire mechanics (I'm looking at you, suspend) because of the bulky, flavor-excluding impoliteness of their reminder text. I lament the harsh realities of certain card frames (such as planeswalker cards, which by design have no room for, yet by nature so badly want, flavor text). Yet sometimes we leave flavor text off of cards that can fit them anyway. Why is this?

A few cards in Magic's first sets (starting with what we now call Limited Edition Alpha) had no flavor text, even though there was room for it. Wrath of God. Lightning Bolt. Disenchant. Certain iconic cards had such dramatic, punchy lines of rules text that they were left that way. Flavor text was actually seen as detracting from the overall aesthetics of these dramatic staples.

The pattern stuck. Because of the popularity of the tradition, it was carried through to the modern day. Like real-world quotes (which I talked about here), we still do the no-flavor-text schtick in Core Sets today. The effect can help newer players identify the most basic or famously dramatic effects in the game. And, most of all, some players appreciate the silent power of these italic-less cards. They enjoy the tradition of the centered, flavorless, speaks-for-itself rules text dating back to Alpha, and they enjoy the nod to the classic power of the cards selected for the treatment.

If you regard flavor text as holy, then yeah, you are not going to dig this tradition. But tastes differ, and we try to reward Magic fandom in all the different ways it exists. The Zendikar vs. Magic 2010Day of Judgments and M10 vs. M11 Lightning Bolts may represent the best of both worlds. In recognition of the differences in tastes, the cards were printed both ways, and you can use whichever appeals to you. When we can do that, we will.

    Mountain Man

Mike's query is about that Mountain-matters planeswalker, Koth of the Hammer.

Dear Doug Beyer,

Let's talk Koth for a minute. I call foul. It's been bothering me for awhile now - Koth is clearly a great card, very powerful and flavorful. But I can't help but think he's out of place in Scars of Mirrodin. On the heels of a "land matters" themed block comes Koth, with not one but three abilities that reference a basic land. There's never been a more "land matters" Planeswalker than Koth. What gives? Was Koth designed for Zendikar but pushed into SoM?

That's a nice observation, Mike. Almost every card in modern-day sets is there because it serves a role in the overall set and block design. Planeswalker cards, though, tend to have their own agenda. Koth's design came from the creative team's description of his character, not the other way around. Although there may have been thoughts of similar abilities floating around during Zendikar block design, Koth's card was not considered for Zendikar because Koth thecharacter was not considered for inclusion on the plane of Zendikar. Koth was devised as a native of Mirrodin first, and made into a card later.

We told the Scars designers that Koth was a Vulshok geomancer, a mage able to manipulate earth (or in his case, the extant iron ore of his native Mirrodin). The designers came up with the Mountain-centric design for Koth as a top-design design from that description of his powers. I find it pleasing that Koth's abilities can overlap in Standard with other land-loving effects (from Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle to big-mana effects like multikicker). But we actively like it when planeswalkers buck the trend of what's going on in the set. After all, they're planeswalkers—they're not extensions of what's going on in this world because they exist independently of worlds. Of course planeswalker cards work with other cards in the set; they're powerful Magic cards and their abilities inevitably meld and intersect with themes of other cards around them. But we like them to make a statement.

For more top-down design of planeswalkers, see Mark Rosewater's discussion of Venser, the Sojourner in his article this week.

    Steel Crazy After All These Weeks

Many of you wrote in with thoughts on darksteel—how it is indestructible, yet somehow mined, molded, and forged. Many of you were less—let's say cavalier—than I was with deep, oddball metaphysics in your explanations of darksteel, which is probably to your credit. One of my favorite letters was that of reader Matt, who has an intriguing theory involving an intermediate material that he calls "darkiron."

Dear Doug Beyer,

Regarding your article "Everything* Dies":

I'm not sure that the "alloy" explanation for the creation of darksteel objects is entirely wrong. I don't mean to say that darksteel is an alloy as such. Rather, that darksteel is not mined in its indestructible form. As one cannot make steel from any metal other than iron, one cannot make darksteel from any metal other than, for want of a better term, darkiron. I imagine that the process for obtaining darkiron from darkiron ore is, like that for obtaining iron from iron ore, completely mundane. However, the process for making darkiron into darksteel is, utterly unlike that for iron into steel, at least partly magical. The indestructible and highly sought-after darksteel is thus nothing more than darkiron with the proper enchantment (note—not the card type) on it.

However, although the darksteel itself is completely indestructible, the enchantment which turns the darkiron into darksteel (that is, which makes it indestructible) is not - it can be dispelled (although not by the normal spells which dispel an enchantment). This dispelling is what happens during the sacrifice of a darksteel permanent. The reason that the summoning mage can do this is because he enchanted the item in the first place, and thus he knows how to undo the enchantment. (In the game, one could—if one were sufficiently motivated—sacrifice an enchanted artifact to Ferrovore, just as one could so sacrifice a Darksteel Myr.) This flavor-use of enchantment (a behind-the-scenes ensorcelling of an object in order to produce a magic item from a mundane one) is not without precedent. It is fundamentally the same as making an ordinary collar into a Basilisk Collar, an ordinary hammer into a Behemoth Sledge, or an ordinary sword into a Deathrender.

This explanation, though, begs the question of why we haven't seen darkiron in any cards.

Perhaps darkiron is itself an alloy, and the process of alloying the metals into darkiron is difficult / expensive / time-consuming, or requires rare ingredients / specialized equipment / a special location / a ridiculous amount of heat, and the resultant darkiron does not have enough special qualities to justify the effort put into making it. The only cost-effective use for darkiron is to turn it into darksteel. Thus, the only time you would find a darkiron item (such as a Darkiron Myr) lying around is if the artificer were interrupted in the process of making a darksteel item. (Thus, the Darkiron Myr would likely be inanimate. If the mage who found it knew how to make darksteel, he could complete the process. If not, he would have to do something less useful, like maybe animate it as a vanilla 1/1 Myr.) One might find darkiron itself for sale, but this would be in the form of ingots, ready for the master artificer/mage to create an item, which he would then enchant into darksteel.


Dig. It. That's basically my comment. It's a cool theory all around.

I like Matt's careful use of terms like "enchantment" and "ensorcellment" in reference to creating artifacts. We haven't talked much in this column about what goes into creating magical artifacts in general, but I agree with Matt that there is surely an amount of behind-the-scenes "enchanting-in-the-flavor-sense" going on in their forging. There are so many examples of artifacts in the game that a robust, universal theory of artificing may not exist. But the idea that darksteel can be the result of a certain type of arduous enmagicalment (I'm trying hard not to use the overloaded term "enchantment" but kinda failing) of a non-indestructible material is a promising direction here. Maybe darksteel gets its two visual characteristics from different points in the process—maybe it gets the dark gunmetal color from its mined antecedent, and gets the orbiting motes of energy during the process of magicalification (ugh, sorry).

    Ethnography and the Style Guide

Andrew asked a variety of things—I'm only printing part of his email here.

Dear Doug Beyer,

I've thought about writing this email a hundred times before, but given I've got some break time now, thought it might be an opportune time. I'm a cultural anthropologist (well, I'm a PhD student) and a long time reader of Savor the Flavor—I've seen articles at various stages (looking forward, looking back etc), read the style guides and a handful of the books over the years - but I suppose a lingering question is where MTG Ramp;D draws its thinking about cultures. One could imagine, for example, a whole slew of ethnographic work that might really push your thinking as you plan and create a world (the way a fiction novelist uses people they know to enflesh their characters, so could various ethnographic texts provide a flesh to draw on which could provide depth to cultures). As someone who works in what I call a "romantic" or "artistic" motif in cultural anthropology/ethnographic writing/reading, I'm wondering whether there isn't a parallel to be drawn between what I do and what you do, and whether (and how) each could learn from the other.


Funny thing about the skill of world-building. There are plenty of potential resources, in that just about every field of study can be relevant to it—but there are few gurus. That's partly because of haphazard demand for such a skill in the market (more's the pity), but it's also because it's so promiscuously multidisciplinary. The best kinds of candidates for this kind of work are enthusiastic armchair everythings. We on the creative team all tend to be slightly overeducated in some field or other; collectively we bear degrees in literature, graphic design, drama, computer science, journalism, fine arts, philosophy—sort of a liberal-arts mishmash. But we're also amateur biologists, geophysicists, classicists, linguists, astronomers, Dungeon Masters, psychologists, metallurgists, cryptozoologists, and yes, ethnographers. Crafting new worlds involves every discipline under the sun, and all the disciplines on the other side of it too. Everything helps, and we read hungrily anything that can inspire us.

The study of Aztec religion and culture, for example, led to the Naya-based coatls and the made-up Naya bloodsport known as matca. The study of folklore of the British Isles gave rise to the tribes and tales of Lorwyn. Kamigawa is not only a world based on traditional Japanese folktales but also an investigation of samurai and other social roles in Japanese history. The Scandinavian feel of Terisiare, the Slavic phonemes of Ravnica, the African motifs of Jamuraa—all of these were the result of anthropological investigations across a range of source material.

But I don't think of us as true students of anthropology, because ultimately we have different goals. At some point, the world-building process zigzags away from pure scientific or academic study and into invention. We enjoy matching historical details or taking inspiration from cultural trends, but we're even more concerned with making the style guide provide the juicy content it needs to provide, so that it can do the job it needs to do. We're ruthless scavengers of detail, and we won't hesitate to mix, simplify, or equivocate on real-world knowledge if it serves the needs of the game. We unapologetically use social, physical, and life sciences to fuel our worlds, reaping the coolest bits and mercilessly tossing anything that isn't useful for cards or background lore. I'm sure there are some parallels with what you do as a cultural anthropologist, especially if you use lots of hedging words like "amateur" and "armchair"; we do like getting our hands dirty with real-life source material. But we come to any discipline with a specific, artistic and business purpose in mind, which is to make the game as rich and as cool as it can be.

Also, nobody calls us Doctor. Not that we haven't asked.

Enjoy your next seven days of fractional progress around the sun. I hope you stay productive. You only get this one lifetime—so, tick tock! The Earth will have traveled another 18 million kilometers around our local star by next Wednesday—what will you have accomplished?

Okay, I guess you'll have accomplished that too. Plus a bunch of other stuff. Well played, Earthling.

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