The Moment of Discovery

Posted in Savor The Flavor on October 7, 2009

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

Welcome to Landfall Week! Sitting as it does at the intersection of adventurous mages, the terrain of Zendikar, and a sense of discovery, the landfall mechanic lies at the heart of Zendikar flavor. Today we take a look at landfall from a flavor perspective.

Getting There Is a Large Percentage of the Fun

When we talk about the flavor of lands in Magic, we employ the concept of the mana bond. As you play a land, you form a mana bond to it, a mystical connection that allows you to draw mana from that place, even from far away. But in Zendikar, it's not just the established mana bond that's important, but the journey to that location, and especially that moment of discovery. Sure, once you're on the way out of the Turntimber Grove, you can draw green mana from that site from then on, and that's a powerful advantage for any mage. But just the act of discovering the Grove and forming a mana bond with it (i.e., dropping the land into play) can generate crackling magical effects, a phenomenon unlike any other plane out there.

This is why mages and other adventurers in Zendikar are strapping on their Trailblazer's Boots and readying their Grappling Hooks and launching off on wilderness expeditions—they're looking to experience that crackling, magical, life-changing moment of discovery.

Sometimes that moment comes after many smaller discoveries. Sometimes the expedition only succeeds after several waypoints are met, such as the expedition to the elemental-infested Zektar Shrine high in the black-stone Shatterskull Mountains, or the rare and powerful Khalni Heart hidden in the center of the Ora Ondar forest. These prizes hold great magical promise for their discoverers, but the map to them isn't drawn in straight lines. Just conjuring the plan for the expedition itself isn't enough—the Zektar Shrine Expedition and Khalni Heart Expedition and Sunspring Expedition of Zendikar are always in the distance, just past the reaches of the known—and one must slash one's way through the intervening doubt by making discoveries in series.

But an expedition here is no walk in the planar park. Zendikar is fraught—fraught, I say—because I like saying it—fraught fraught fraught!—with incredible dangers. The land guards its precious mana and hidden treasures with the jealousy of a mothering tiger, and would love nothing more than to cut short every expedition with sudden and catastrophic casualties. The world's baloths and basilisks and sphinxes and lynxes, its carnivorous plants and spore-borne diseases, its subterranean hazards and natural traps, and even the land itself with its elementals and geopedes, together form a barrier between the world's treasures and those who would uncover and exploit them.

That's why landfall appears almost exclusively on wild creatures.

Landfall as a Non-Humanoid Mechanic

You'll find the landfall ability word on quest-style enchantments (the cycle of Expeditions), but besides that it's mostly found on creatures. There, the ability represents the connectedness of that creature to the land, its membership in the unified wilderness of Zendikar, and the empowerment it gains from its own territory. But you'll notice that the kinds of creatures that get landfall tend to be the wild animals of the plane rather than its explorers (the explorers being generally humanoids: humans, elves, kor, merfolk, goblins, vampires). The intent was to add to Zendikar's us-vs.-them feel, to set up a contrast—and a feeling of rivalry and competition—between the humanoid explorers and Zendikar's wild lands and all its beastly denizens.

Neat thing is, you're a planeswalker. So you get to choose sides, or even cherry-pick the best creatures from either side, or neither. If you build a deck around Allies, for example, your deck will probably be populated mostly with humanoids, with very little landfall; and if you create a landfall deck, it might tend to have a bunch of fierce monsters and very few humanoids.

Territorial Baloth, for example, is firmly on the landfall side. It doesn't really have the usual predator concept of territory; its territory is any swath of ground that lies within smelling distance and charging-at-you-and-eating-you distance, and that swath changes from day to day as it roams through Murasa. When one of your Baloths discovers a new land, it gets all mean and gnashy and immediately prepares itself for the battle to claim that territory as its own.

A Hedron Crab gathers small hedrons by the coastline, decorating its shell with the ancient, magic-warping stones. The hedrons perplex the tiny-minded crab and, gathered together in close proximity, can have a serious effect on the psyches of nearby mages. Each new beach you discover allows the crawling crustacean to scavenge more hedrons, giving it more power to affect other planeswalkers' magical arsenals.

A bizarre creature like Roil Elemental is the essence of landfall—it's the power of Zendikar's cartography-defying nature made manifest. The Roil is the vengeful rage of Zendikar, the force that changes the terrain faster than an explorer can conquer it. The Roil Elemental is a being made from this very essence of change, a vortex hungry enough to devour the status quo. It's very, very dangerous for living things to come near it.

Roil Elemental art by Raymond Swanland

There are other creatures, such as Surrakar Marauder, Emeria Angel, and Bloodghast, that are almost in the humanoid category, yet have landfall abilities. These creatures fill a middle space between the wild elements of Zendikar and the rugged humanoid adventurers, plying a tough road with neither nature nor civilization as allies. The surrakar are of bestial intelligence, cultureless and almost wholly feral, humanoid only in shape. Bloodghast is the furious spirit of a fallen vampire, clinging to life by clinging to its memories of the fetid marshes of Guul Draz. Emeria Angel, like most angels in Zendikar, bears a halo worn low over her eyes, signifying a strange debt to some forgotten force in Zendikar's past. Her connection to the land signifies less of an alliance with nature than a need to explore the skies for a solution to her tragic bargain.

Going the Distance

Not a card concept we're likely to do.

While locations are crucial to Magic—without lands there's no mana, and without mana there's no spells—the game usually has little need for a concept of relative distance. For game-play purposes, it's enough to separate what you control and I control—there's no need to keep track of where this Mountain is in relation to that Soaring Seacliff, or whether that Trusty Machete is in reaching distance of your Kor Aeronaut once the Kor Duelist who was holding it dies, or whatever. Things are close enough together to interact as the rules say they do, and the rest doesn't matter (except if someone's flipping a Chaos Orb, heh).

The power of planeswalkers helps justify this. It doesn't matter how far this Oracle of Mul Daya is from that Coiling Oracle—the planeswalker summons them both from their far-off planes, and boom, they're together. And planeswalkers themselves can just go where they want to go (at least, they can pick to which plane to travel, if not where in that plane to appear). But while the game has locations and relationships, it doesn't really have distances.

That's sort of a challenge for a setting that's all about exploration and travel. Travel is change in position! It's victory over distance! So how do we represent in a game where the creatures don't go places?

It was an intriguing challenge, and there are a variety of clever solutions in the set. Attack triggers like Explorer's Scope capture the feel of your creature venturing out and exploring new lands (and sometimes bashing for a few points of damage while it's out there). Goblin Guide is the same—except that he sillily surveys the wilderness for your opponent. Quests such as the Expeditions deliver the feel of travel by triggering on landfall. Cards like Expedition Map and Frontier Guide get you the information you need to discover the land you wanted from your library. Adventuring Gear is a strange artifact, flavorwise—it clearly belongs to the humanoid adventurers' side of things, but it's got landfall. But you can use it to bridge the gap between your adventurer and the wilderness—discover (or play) a new land with the Gear equipped, and your creature fills up its canteen and backpack with fresh supplies from that land, readying it for the next adventure (or attack).

Zendikar card names go a long way to suggest the adventure-world themes. Grim Discovery, Beast Hunt, Brave the Elements, Grim Discovery, Into the Roil, Journey to Nowhere, Marsh Casualties, Narrow Escape, Unstable Footing, and of course all the Quests, Traps, and wondrous locations on land cards contribute to that feel. Big props go to my teammate Jenna Helland, who was Creative Text Honcho for Zendikar, and whose card names help conjure that moment of discovery.

Letters of the Week

A couple of quickies this week.

Dear Doug Beyer,

Why don't the quests have the type line: "Enchantment - Quest"?

They did for a while during Zendikar design. I liked how it gave the quests a clear term to unify them, especially since they didn't all end up with "Quest" in their name (as opposed to Traps, which all have "Trap" right up there in the name bar). But in general, we're pretty conservative with new subtypes, only adding them when nothing else does the trick. There were no cards in the set that interacted with the Quest subtype—no plans to do a Quest tutor or Quest-matters creatures or whatnot—so there was no need to add a new subtype just for clarity.

Needlebite Trap
Beastmaster Ascension

I think I heard someone toy with the idea of a card flavored as a "shortcut," that would let you add counters to any quest enchantment without actually fulfilling its requirements, and that might have required the subtype. But the existence of a card like that makes quest decks about cheating counters and circumventing the spirit of the quest, rather than actually having the Johnny-Vorthos fun of satisfying the quests in quick and clever ways.

Happily, the quests all use "quest counters" to keep track of your progress, and that was enough to give people a unifying term. Thanks for your question, Ira!

Pete has a question on the differences between the Shade, Spirit, and Wraith creature types.

Subject: Shades/Spirits/Wraiths
Dear Doug Beyer,

I was curious on the flavor differences of these three races? I would think it isn't a big leap [to unify them]... or is it mainly keeping spiritcraft style decks from having too many options?

Magic has plenty of traditions and conventions when it comes to creature types, and we do our best to adhere to them, as long as we like them enough. You've hit on one of the most fertile areas of creature type conventions, Pete, and that's the undead. Here's a brief list of the creature types that are often flavored as black undead creatures (leaving off oddball stuff like Graveborn tokens, and leaving out Vampires, which I'll cover in upcoming articles). I'll also list out these types' usage conventions, which I've quoted directly from a document we use internally to manage these sorts of things:

  • Shade – Shades are black-aligned, incorporeal undead made of shadow. Black creatures with a repeatable "+N/+N until end of turn" ability are almost always Shades.
  • Skeleton – Skeletons are black-aligned, corporeal undead. They always have a regeneration ability. Skeletons are distinguished from Zombies by the fact that most of their flesh has rotted off.
  • Specter – Specters are black-aligned undead. They have flying, almost always have a discard "saboteur" ability, and are typically 2/2 to 2/3 or thereabouts. They tend to be concepted as hooded undead figures riding an evil flying creature of some kind.
  • Spirit – Spirit is a catch-all type for incorporeal undead and for supernatural creatures such as kami. Ghostly creatures that aren't one of the other undead types are usually Spirits. Spirits tend to be white or black, but can be any color.
  • Wraith – Wraiths are black-aligned incorporeal undead. All existing Wraiths have a swampwalk ability.
  • Zombie – Zombies are black-aligned, corporeal undead. Zombies are distinguished from Skeletons by the fact that Zombies retain most of their flesh, and don't normally have a regeneration ability. Zombies can be any size or rarity, and are sometimes concepted around a second creature type (Zombie Wurm, Zombie Crocodile, etc.).

So there you have it, Pete. There's little flavor difference between those three ghostly subtypes, but since there are so many examples of each type that consistently follow a mechanical convention, we continue to follow them. Shades pump, Wraiths swampwalk, Specters fly and make you discard—and other ghostly things tend to be Spirits.

Guul Draz Specter
Crypt Ripper

It's one of those eternal creature type arguments. There's value in having those subtypes be split out from one another, because you get nice, specific terms for all those mechanical design conventions; but on the other hand, there'd be value in a type that would unify all those creatures, for tribal decks (like Spiritcraft, as you mention) or other card designs (Magic 2010's Undead Slayer comes to mind). In the case of these ghostly types, we've left them specific, rather than grouping them all together. Types like Wraith and Shade are cool enough—and historically, mechanically consistent enough—that they've earned their keep. Thanks for the question!

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