Our Path to Exile

Posted in Savor The Flavor on August 19, 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 http://dougbeyermtg.tumblr.com/

Last December, I talked about the flavor of Magic's zones. That article was a little ahead of its time, since it came out before Magic 2010 introduced the terms "battlefield" and "exile." But we were putting the finishing touches on these terminology changes around that time, so zones were on my mind. If you care to reread what I said about the flavor of the removed-from-the-game-now-known-as-the-exile-zone, it's in the sidebar below.

Removed from the GameIn flavor terms, the removed-from-the-game zone is oblivion. It's a realm beyond the penetrating eye of the mind, not subject to coherent thought. Whether it's a conceptual state of being, some far-off but physically real place, or some metaphysical condition of existence failure, is something only thaumaturgically reckless mages dare contemplate. It is as far from existing as a thing can be, and yet the zone has echoes of causality that do occasionally impinge on the multiverse and those within it. When your Dragon Fodder ends up in the not-here of this zone, best forget about it. There's no path between you and your spell. Leaving aside some seriously freakish spellcraft, it's gone.

"Exile" is a handy word. It's a noun and a verb, and it has an easy past participle in "exiled." You can "exile target creature" and have it end up "in exile." You can refer to "exiled cards" with neither muss nor fuss. It did introduce a new term, which was perhaps a strange choice in M10 where we were making Magic stay on its new-player-friendly best behavior; we try to limit the number of specialized terms that new players have to learn. But exiling happens so much in Magic these days—cascading, flickering, Astral Slide, imprinting, unearthing, Cremate, hiding-away, haunting, Faceless Butchering, suspending, flashing-back, Oblivion Ringing, championing, oh my—that the game needed the term more than the newbs needed the straightforward English of "remove [blah] from the game."

Really? Is this going to be a terminology article?
I mean, I get that there are some lingo-ninjas out there who dig on this kind of stuff ...
Agreed. Guilty.
But we're going to talk about more than the word exile, right?
Yes. I have a whole thing coming up where I—
Look, just tell me you're not going to say "past participle" again.
Okay. Proceed.

So that sidebar is some lovely recycled text and everything, but it doesn't really say much about what happens to you when you get exiled. The process is clearly a bit more metaphysical an experience than the usual English definition of "expulsion from one's homeland." So what does exiling feel like? And more importantly for cards—what does it look like?

You guys think a lot about the visuals of something. Isn't the victim's experience of the magic important too? Don't you think about that?
Definitely. But Magic is largely a visual medium. How a spell feels to someone doesn't matter to a piece of card art, unless there's some part of that feeling that shows up visually.
Sure, but there are novels, comics, this column...lots of venues to describe all five senses of a phenomenon.
Those are all out-of-game venues, though. We love thinking about the total experience of a spell, what its role is in its setting's culture, what kinds of mages cast it and, yes, what it feels like to become its target—that's flavor, baby, and we eat it up. But not much of that helps inform the artist what to draw. For instance, here's an example of an unhelpful art description for Path to Exile:

Action: This spell sends a creature on a long journey into an uncertain future. Cloud Nacatl shamans of Naya use this magic to punish lawbreakers who violate their code of ethics known as the Coil.

That's an exaggeration, but it's sort of what I suggested for this card at first. Functional, story-based information—ideas that are cool in a narrative medium. But although many artists find this background info neat, what they really need to know to do the job is what this magic looks like. So we think in terms of visuals a lot. After some rewriting, here's what actually went to artist Todd Lockwood:

Action: Show a leonin warrior, postured as if defending himself from a blow. He has been bleached an unnatural pure white and is crumbling away into white leaves, petals, dandelion puffs etc.

I see the difference. But come on, Champion of Vorthos. What about flavor text?
Right, that's the big exception. Flavor text is one of our best venues for expanding on the experience of a spell. It's built right into the medium of the game, it's automatically connected to the very spell you're looking at, and it's short.

The action of exiling has fallen mainly into five categories, which I've dubbed Light Eruption, Disintegration, Transportation, Forced Inaction, and the Cemetery Ceremony.

Light Eruption

Effects in this category cause the target to erupt in a flash of holy light, or to become pierced by a beam of light; you see this often on white spells. Bright light is a classic white magic symbol, and it "reads" well at card size. The victim is usually one of white's enemies, a black or red creature, but sometimes the white creature is shown dispensing the sentence.

Soul Nova art by Keith Garletts
Undead Slayer art by Eric Fortune

This kind of exiling magic is often a form of purification, a destruction of the corrupt elements inside the target—but when you purify something wholly evil, it is consumed completely, leaving nothing behind in our reality. Either the depravity of the target or the fervent belief of the caster become the weapon; the magical light is merely the manifestation of that contrast. Also, it looks cool.

Erase, Altar's Light, Devouring Light


Disintegration effects break the target up into little pieces! The target blows away into its component parts, whether by the winds of divine judgment, a sudden aging, or a mystical vortex that drags the target apart. (Divine Verdict doesn't exile its target, but the art has the same idea going on.)

Return to Dust art by Wayne Reynolds

Living targets affected by disintegration are kind of turned into an object first. You know the scene in the Terminator movies when the nuclear-war victims are turned into ash, and then blow away? That's what I mean—the first step is that they become something that can break up in this way, and then they break up. And yet they're usually still somewhat conscious during the actual disintegration. Kind of creepy when you think about it.

Again, this kind of effect is often the bailiwick of white, because white does most of the targeted exiling in Magic. But black gets in there a bit too with Eradicate.

Eradicate, Celestial Purge, Path to Exile


Some concepts of exiling revolve around transporting the target to another place. This is closer to the English definition of "to exile," yet is generally harder to represent in art. Do you show someone being shoved across a border? Doesn't look that magical. Do you show someone having already left? That's hard (although see Resounding Silence). Here are some pieces which have solved this problem in different ways.

Otherworldly Journey art by Vance Kovacs

An interesting example of sometimes-beneficial exiling, Otherworldly Journey is just a mystical voyage. You get to come back. The target is shown having traveled most of the way into the kakuriyo, the spirit world, meeting an odd kami. Below is another kind of journey—a scary, not-so-beneficial one into the clouds. Bye-bye, aggressive creature.

Excise art by Joel Biske

Oubliette, Safe Haven, and Exile itself show destinations rather than the act of travel. Voyager Staff gives me the impression of those djinn-harboring lamps in Arabic tales—only backwards. (Excommunicate has particularly successful "magical transporting" art, and would be in this category if it exiled its target.)

Exile, Voyager Staff, Oubliette

Forced Inaction

A particularly white concept of exiling is one of the hardest to show on a card: forcing the target to give up fighting. The classic example of this is Swords to Plowshares, which shows ... a farmer in a field ... to the point that being exiled by a white spell was once called "being sent farming." There's a lot of flavor there, but it's tough to show the real action of what's going on in Swords to Plowshares on a card. I suspect there wouldn't have been such a spell concept without the card name, which is based on a phrase in the Bible, and which has become a saying about turning military action into peaceful action.

Swords to Plowshares (Alpha, Ice Age)

The art of Second Thoughts shows the difficulty of showing this concept. All the elements are there—a victim who's being stopped from attacking, a regal aven figure who's doing the stopping—but it's just hard to draw inaction. A running joke on our team has to do with activated or conditional flying, as on Roofstalker Wight or Groundling Pouncer—showing a creature that's about to fly or capable of flying is way harder than just showing a flyer. We get no animation on a card, no passage of time, so we can't show causality or tendencies over time. Showing someone who has just stopped fighting or has just taken up a pastoral hobby is just hard.

Second Thoughts art by Ray Lago

Here's one of the best successes at showing an absence of something—and still it takes a minute to parse it. See the rhox with his axe? Or rather, the lack of him?

Resounding Silence art by Mark Zug

Oblivion Ring is another good forced-inaction effect—it puts the target into a kind of suspended animation or stasis. Not moving is hard to show, but the expressions on the victims' faces, both in the Lorwyn printing and the Shards of Alara one, deliver the sense of "I'm stuck!"

So, these are a lot of white cards.
Like I said, white does most of the targeted exiling.
What about imprint, and suspend, and haunt?
I'm leaving those out—those just use the exile zone to implement their mechanics. They don't really have the flavor of being sent into oblivion. Isochron Scepter is infused with a spell, and keeps cranking out that spell—it's not really part of its flavor that you have to exile that spell from existence first. If we could write "put Fire // Ice underneath Isochron Scepter," we would, but exile is how you do stuff like that in the rules.
So except for Faceless Butcher and Oubliette, nobody but white does any flavorful exiling?
Well, there is the next category.

The Cemetery Ceremony

As Magic cards do more and more with/from the graveyard, wiping out graveyard cards has become more and more important. This category of exile effects blast dead things into oblivion, usually by some kind of ritual done in a burial ground, and is seen on white cards and artifacts, but also tons of black cards. There's been a lot of nice top-down concepts for these "Cremate" effects. Let's start with the classic.

Cremate art by Paolo Parente

You turn the remains into ashes, and it the card vanishes into smoke. See also Funeral Pyre. Another category shows headstones crumbling and cracking—Headstone itself, Fade from Memory, and the dead-thing-into-spirit shot on Beckon Apparition.

Beckon Apparition art by Larry MacDougall

Besides Spirits, the other creature type often associated with the Cemetery Ceremony is the Zombie. Zombies love them some dead things!

Coffin Purge, Zombie Cannibal, Cemetery Reaper

So that's it? You've captured everything?
No—Magic is a game of exceptions. There are definitely some stragglers that didn't fit into these categories.
Such as?
Crib Swap—I didn't make a whole category for mischievous changeling infant-replacement.
And what about Flicker? Astral Slide? Are those not classic types of exiling magic?
I had a hard time with those. Maybe they're subcategories of Transportation. They "phase out" (not to wherever phasing creatures go nowadays, but they go out-of-phase flavor-wise), then return. They are classics, however. Maybe they're in their own category; maybe the readers have a good name for that. But that's it for today. Time to exile myself from my writing desk.

Letter of the Week

Dear Doug Beyer,

I have a question for you.

When a planeswalker casts a spell he taps the mana and channels it through him to create the spell. Generic spells such as Lightning Bolt, Negate, and Duress obviously can be pulled from anywhere. However, when a planeswalker summons a creature, he has to tap that resource from a plane and drag the creature through the planar boundary to where he is.

My question is: Does a planeswalker have to have been to a plane to use the magic from that plane? Obviously he has an advantage with familiarity of a location, but can he sense the mind of creatures to call them forth?

In general, a planeswalker has to have direct familiarity with a creature in order to summon versions of it from the æther (more on summoning in a future article, if I ever manage to write it). In most cases this means that the planeswalker has to go to the plane where that creature lives and study it until he can summon up its essence magically. That's not the only way, though; if you had a planeswalker mentor who knew how to summon a woolly thoctar, for example, your mentor could summon it for you and you could learn to summon it, too, without you ever seeing Naya (although, of course, the mentor would have had to travel there, or learn from someone who did—and it might be easier to get the true essence of the woolly thoctar if you were right there in its natural habitat).

The main exception to this is creatures created entirely by magic—for example, illusions. Jace Beleren doesn't have to have met a particular illusion in order to create one; he can just know what he wants the illusion to represent, and create it. But he would need at least passing familiarity with the entity the illusion is of; he'd have to have seen a dragon in order to create an illusion of a dragon, for example.

Homunculi are also beings created entirely by mages. They're a race that never occurred in nature before the first spell that wove them into existence. So their first summoning must have been the result of intense research and magical inspiration—intimate familiarity gained through a design process rather than through direct observation.

Artifact creatures, certain elementals, and strange half-real creatures such as avatars or archons might be summoned through means other than the familiarize-then-summon method. Some artifact creatures might be more designed than summoned, like homunculi. One would hope that some fire elementals could be summoned without having to travel to some universe of fire, and rather summoned by the study of bonfires and other manifestations of the element itself. You might only be able to contact an avatar, mystical archon, or demon through strange rituals or prayer ceremonies before they deign to obey your summons.

Naya Planechase card art by Zoltan Boros & Gabor Sziksai

So what about off-world summoning? Certainly you can summon a woolly thoctar while on a plane other than Alara—that's part of your edge as a planeswalker. But can you learn a summoning while off-world? Generally, no. These days it's a pretty rare ability to be able to monitor what's happening on a plane other than the one you're on. If you want to know what's going on in the plane of Ravnica or Mirrodin or Zendikar, you have to go to there. Even proficient mind-mages like Jace have a limited range for their mind-detecting abilities, and so gaining the familiarity necessary to summon a critter will generally involve a planeswalk.

Thanks for your question, Martin!

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