Once More Unto the Mailbox, Dear Friends

Posted in Savor The Flavor on May 27, 2009

Hi—it's mail answerin' time. No time for intros. Many letters to answer. ¡Vámonos!

Dear Doug Beyer,
I just finished reading your article, "Gold Records", and the question about equipments reminded me of a question I've been asked myself. All of my favorite decks from Alara have made use of Sigils in some way, and while at my local card shop I was asked "Why aren't they artifacts"? Now, I'm aware that some of the Sigils actually are, but the Sigil of the Empty Throne (my particular favorite), and the Sigil of the Nayan Gods are enchantments. I tried to explain that maybe, it's the enchantment the sigil has upon it.

Maybe you could help shine some light on this subject. Why are some sigils artifacts, while others are enchantments?
Thank you for your time,

Good question, Tyler. The main answer is that sigils are artifacts, but whose magic has enough power of its own to be distinct from the objects themselves. They're literal, physical, coinlike medallions that are bestowed on an honored champion by his or her patrons; but at the same time, they're the exaltation that the medallion symbolizes, the magical enhancement generated by the admiration and veneration of the champion's patrons. While the artifact type nails their nature more accurately, sometimes we concepted an enchantment card as "the magic radiating from the presence of a physical sigil," and then short-cutted the name to "Such-and-Such Sigil." When a Bant champion says, "I won the day on the fields of battle, thanks to the Sigil of the White Orchid," does he mean the magical object hanging around his neck, or the lasting magic it creates in his very being? Both, sorta.

A deeper answer of why sigils show up in both types has to do with the style guide.

In most cases, the style guide is developed to be an "idea resource" for concepting. It's developed with the design themes of the block in mind, but we put it together months before the final cards have made their way through development for the large set, and long before the second and third sets have even been designed. Therefore the style guide has to have a large amount of flexible detail to cover all the cards that might come along. That way, when the set turns out to have some strange green-white guy with flash and reach, we can say, "Oh yeah, it's one of those guardian hunters in the jungles near the fortified Nacatl city of Qasal."

But sometimes, there's an element of the world-building that we like a lot, so much that we want it to show up slightly more than the card set "allows." We felt that sigils represented a large part of Bant's creative identity, but as you might imagine, there weren't that many "beneficial-to-creatures non-Esper artifacts" to put sigil concepts on. So we worked to find places to highlight them, including stretching them to Auras (Sigil of the Nayan Gods), non-Aura enchantments (Sigil of the Empty Throne), instants (Sigil Blessing), and non-Equipment artifacts (Tainted Sigil). We felt it helped create a pleasant marriage of the green-white-blue cards of the block and our vision of Bant.


Dear Doug Beyer,

Looking at the shard of Naya it looks like it is based on Mesoamerican/Mayan/Aztec culture, with names as Nacatl and Matca. Looking at the art I get the same feeling. Am I correct in this assumption? And if I am are the other shards also based on real life influences, like Lorwyn/Shadowmoor was based on British folklore and Kamigawa on Japanese culture?

Best regards,

Naya definitely has some Mesoamerican influences, which has the jaguar-warriors depicted in Future Sight'sNacatl War-Pride partly to thank. It didn't work out to actually reprint Nacatl War-Pride in Shards of Alara block, as its mana cost was pretty weird in three-color gold world. But we liked the vibe enough to carry it through in some of the art and naming of Naya cards. Aside from the Nacatl and Matca Rioters, you can also see this influence in cards like:

  • Drumhunter, Resounding Roar, Naya Battlemage – The look of human and leonin warriors from Naya have lots of costuming elements reminiscent of Aztec art.
  • Ancient Ziggurat – This card is evocative of the step pyramids of the Yucatán peninsula (although ziggurat is a word from Mesopotamia, not Mesoamerica).
  • Winged Coatl and Lorescale CoatlCoatl is the Nahuatl word for "snake," seen in the name of the god Quetzalcoatl.

The influence of this real-world culture was much less pervasive here than in Lorwyn / Shadowmoor or in Kamigawa, however; we didn't delve deeply into the mythology of the region like we did with those planes. It was just a few cultural touches to guide the look of Alaran cat-people away from Mirrodin's, for example, and to give us a vibe to follow in creating proper names (Qasal, Marisi, Antali, Etlan). But the rest of the shard was made up pretty much out of whole cloth—the gargantuan beasties and the elves and humans who revere them, the elves' strange hydra-god creation myth, the Anima Cylia and her cloudy-eyed descendents, the history of the schism in the Nacatl culture—all of that was original Naya stuff.

Bant has some North African influences—we imagined it as "Camelot on the savannah," a society of almost European-style knights and castles in an almost Mediterranean or Moroccan-style environment. That gives rise to some slightly Arabic-sounding proper names like Rafiq, Gwafa Hazid, and Akrasa—but again, the touches here were slight, and most of that shard was made up entirely.

The other shards don't take much inspiration from actual Earth cultures. Esper has some (more-or-less) Latin linguistic influences in its naming conventions—words like sanctum, homunculus, Palandius, Crucius, and of course etherium give it a kind of classical, erudite feel. Jund owes more to stories of brutal barbarian-worlds than to Earth, and I sure hope there was no period in history that corresponds to Grixis. Both of those red-black shards have names that sound hard, angry, and gnashing, with lots of Ks, Rs, and Xs—Sedraxis, Kresh, Unx, thrash, Rip-Clan, Kederekt, thrinax. Now you know!

Dear Doug Beyer,
Regarding your article "The Flavor of Zones":

When I cast "Sudden Shock", I know that, in flavor terms, I tap into the mana bonds that connect me to a mountain and channel some of its power through a spell. The spell then takes effect, causing the "Putrid Leech", say, to die by electrocution. My question is why the spell must go to the graveyard, or rather, why it must leave my hand in the first place.

Have I forgotten, only one split second later, quite literally, how to repeat the spell? At first, I assumed that this might be the case, that it was a law of magic that no one had discovered a means of breaking or circumventing. However, such forgetfulness raises three concerns. Inducing forgetfulness in anybody is either black or blue, and "shock" requires neither to cast. Second, task mages, like "Prodigal Pyromancer", seem to be able to repeat their spells without any such amnesia, and a planeswalker is likely able to do anything that a lowly task mage can do. Third, even if I would forget after casting, couldn't I have jotted it down on a spare bit of parchment, or drawn some notes to refresh my memory in the dirt with a stick? Blue mages, no doubt, would have a thoroughly indexed spellbook on their offhand, allowing them to remember any desired spell after a quick skim, and no blue mage worth his or her salt would forget the name of a simple and powerful spell with a readily available mnemonic, like "Counterspell".

I have considered the idea that only having four opportunities to cast the spell, and discarding each once done, is a custom of a duel, but I don't understand why a mage of any sort beyond white (and maybe blue) would ever follow such a custom or law, and I imagine duels without white mage referees would be common.

This problem even applies to cards that do not pass into the graveyard upon resolution. Why can't I remember the formula for an "Ardent Plea" after casting it? The first one is right there, reminding me how to do it with its very existence, and another one would be just as useful as the first!

I admit that flavor sometimes takes a back seat to keeping the game playable, and that "I cast Lightning Bolt seven times. You die." makes for a lousy game, but I still feel like so pivotal an aspect of the game requires a flavor rationalization. Why can't I do any of the above?

Thank you for your time.


Many aspects of the structure of Magic naturally serve to cause games to feel different from one another. You shuffle your library every game, and so sometimes you draw a smooth combination of lands and spells, and sometimes you draw three copies of a seven-drop and a mere Forest. You can only play four copies of most cards and your library can only be so small, so your draw different combinations of cards at different times. These rules create variety and excitement, and keep the game feeling novel and interesting game after game. Yadda yadda. As magicthegathering.com readers, you guys probably know the drill there.

The fact that spells go to the graveyard after you cast them is the same kind of thing, but as Daniel points out, the flavor of that can feel a little weird. After all, why aren't players as consistent about the spells they cast in a given game as planeswalker cards, like Liliana Vess? She knows a brain-skewering spell (her +1 ability), and so she can make you discard every turn if she wants to; why can't we? Players like us don't even have the casting consistency of a Prodigal Pyromancer (unless we've set up some sort of ridiculous Doomsday infinite-turns Flame Jab-you-to-death combo or the like, which is of course far from the default of a Magic game).

To me, the answer has to do with the complexity and thinking-on-your-feet nature of wielding real spell magic. When you cast a Lightning Bolt, you:

  1. Choose the Lightning Bolt spell from among your magical (or other) options;
  2. Alter the reality around you to make conditions right for the presence of lightning;
  3. Channel mana through yourself and your spell to will into being a crackling surge of lightning from thin air;
  4. Hurl these electrical energies at your chosen target; and then
  5. Sit back to watch your spell electrify the crap out of something.

The energies dissipate, and your target is either scorched or dead. Either way, reality has been altered significantly—and it will take another major act of will, skill, and knowledge to pull off another such spell.

It's not like Prodigal Pyromancer's simple one-shot task-magery. He's got the pattern down, and he's just doing a rote magical task; he's doing it from muscle memory, almost. You're free-wheeling spells based on what comes to mind and what would be the best thing to do at the time.

Say your target isn't dead. Why can't you light him up again immediately? Have you forgotten the spell? Well, no—presumably you have another Bolt in your library somewhere, so you still possess the knowledge of its casting; you just don't have it ready to blast out of your fingertips at the moment. You haven't been struck idiotically incapable of doing again what you just did moments ago; the conditions of your mind just aren't conducive to repeating your trick (unless, of course, you have another Bolt in your hand).

So you can't fire off Bolt after Bolt, but instead, you can plan and adapt. You can build your library full of similar burn spells, so that whenever the need presents itself, you can let loose with a Bolt-or-Bolt-analogue to fry and fry again. Or you can hold back, use your time and mana to summon minions or to blow up some of your opponents' resources, as the dynamic contents of your conscious mind, and your overall strategy, dictate.

Dear Doug Beyer,
Regarding your article "Reality Check":

"Alara Unbroken. Bookstores and online retailers everywhere. Inexpensive paperback. Go!"

Worded perfectly. After finals, I may go read it myself! But on another note, does the book have any continuity with the planeswalker novels?

Alara Unbroken features the planeswalker Ajani as one of its main protagonists, and the events of the novel are generally continuous with the rest of the Magic multiverse—i.e., the book is canon, and events that happen in it will influence future storylines. But it's not a strict sequel or prequel to the planeswalker novels (such as Agents of Artifice or the upcoming The Purifying Fire) or other books. In a sense, the true main character of Alara Unbroken is the setting, the world(s) of Alara. You can read it to deepen your general knowledge of what at least one planeswalker is up to, or to delve deeper into the story of Alara.

Dear Doug Beyer,

As a weekly reader of your column, I have really enjoyed your answers to readers' flavor related questions, and was hoping you could look at a few that have been bothering me for some time:

Thanks for the questions, Eric! I'll take a stab at each of these in turn.

1. When Esperites take showers, do they use polish instead of soap?

Etherium is stainless, so regular bathing works just fine. However, I am certain there are some etherium polish vendors among the Esperites. Whether it adds that extra note of scintillation to a mage's procession through the plazas of Palandius or just causes you to be out twelve Esper-bux™ is still in the courts.

2. How obnoxious are Matca fans compared to, let's say, Yankees fans?

Matca fans are the worst! The sport is naturally violent, but the culture of Nayan humans think of it as a celebration of life's exuberance, so there are literally no pulled punches. The bloodier you end up at the end of a match, the more you feel alive, right? Up until the point that you die. And there are no disclaimers like there are on roller coasters or water slides—you even gotta watch out for those pregnant and/or elderly fans.

3. When Jund's goblins go in groups to the sacrificial peaks to get eaten, wouldn't the smarter ones season or marinate themselves ahead of time to stand out to the notoriously picky dragons? If so, is the shortage of smart goblins on Jund an example of natural selection?

Marinades, yes! Check out the flavor text of Dragon's Herald, for example. Regarding the lack of smart goblins, I think the smartest ones tried living in a commune in a cave labeled "DARGON'S LARE" once, hoping that would keep dangerous beasts away. But as it turned out, hunger is far more common on Jund than literacy—and anyway, their first visitors were their slightly dumber cousins, hoping to be devoured by the advertised dragon.

4. If I summon Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker, then immediately order him to use his first ability to blow himself up, can we still be friends?

It already makes Nicol Bolas very cranky to have it brought up that he's a permanent, like some mere Obelisk of Bant or Dragon Appeasement (actually, he likes that one). Using his own ability to blow himself up is positively guaranteed to get you dropped off his Christmas card mailing list.

5. Speaking of Jund's goblins: Since dragons much prefer hunting the larger races such as viashino, would a goblin's best bet be to get eaten by one of those, and end up in a dragon by proxy?

I played a game once where my Thunder-Thrash Elder ate a bunch of Dragon Fodder tokens. But then the Elder got his instincts controlled by my opponent, so I had a Predator Dragon eat him in turn. When I did so, there was a faint chorus of chittering voices, as if a couple of Goblin tokens had cheered from some nonexistent place. So hey, maybe. But many dragons don't mind snacking directly on Jund's goblins. They're crunchy. And see previous about the marinades.

6. Denizens of Naya worship its 50-foot behemoths, but do they also worship the 15-foot droppings?

Of course. It's their sacred duty.

Thank you, thank you, I'll be here all night ....

7. Are there any human holdouts of Grixis with serious planar pride? Like would they wear Grixis tees and lapel pins if it wasn't hard enough to find clothes? And when the shards collided, did they stay in their homes instead of finding a more habitable plane, reasoning that, while they live in a zombie filled wasteland, it's their zombie filled wasteland, and besides, they have eight recipes for cooking marrow?

I actually do think there are some living Grixis humans who didn't emigrate after the Conflux. It's not just the stubborn holdouts who don't want to venture into the unknown of the other shards—some humans of Grixis actually trace their lineage back to the mostly-forgotten Alaran kingdom of Vithia, and they might believe that they hold some of Vithia's realms safe from the undead hordes. As green and white mana trickles into Grixis once again, little by little, these neo-Vithians might hold out hope that they could rebuild the kingdom's fallen glory in the midst of all that death.

8. Once a Vedalken aether-lich has replaced his entire body with etherium, how does he, um, make more Vedalken?

Once you're 100% etherium, my guess is that that's the end of your reproduction days. Besides, the way æther-lichdom twists the mind—let's just say æther-liches aren't filled with family values.

9. Are Bant sigils a choking hazard for children under four?

Actually I think most of them are kind of big, but I'm sure a Blessed-caste ruler could adjudicate in cases of accidental ingestion of sacred symbols of heroic patronage.

10. Oh, and about Jund's goblins: You think Bolas ever tried one or two, you know, when he knew no one was looking?


The eating habits of the locals bores Nicol Bolas, because when you're over twenty millennia old, everything bores you (except far-ranging multiverse-altering plans, the goal of complete knowledge of everything, and the ultimate prize of infinite power, of course). Nicol Bolas is sort of the ultimate jaded scenester. Anyway, he might tolerate the occasional ingestion of physical matter to keep his body functioning, but I doubt he would stoop to the trendy fast-food goblinoids of Jund. I mean, the way they prostrate themselves—it's cute, in a way, but also just a bit off-putting. Jund goblins: they give new meaning to the phrase "self-serving."

In lieu of a letter of the week section, today I've got some ....

    News Items!

The Purifying Fire

The second planeswalker novel, starring the hotheaded pyromancer Chandra Nalaar, is The Purifying Fire by Laura Resnick. It releases in July, 2009. Check out the book's product page for more info!

Agents of Artifice art contest winners

Did you enter the art contest for Agents of Artifice? The winners (and their pieces) have been posted!

See you next week!

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