Perfection through Etherium

Posted in Savor The Flavor on November 19, 2008

First things first—go read the finale of "Fuel for the Fire," the Jace and Chandra comic, that appeared on the site today. Then consider judiciously and carefully whether the spell-hurling, adventure-blasting thrill of its eye-delighting graphicality might not just convince you that procuring a theme-relevant copy of Duel Decks: Jace vs. Chandra, now available in your favorite local game store, might not just be a joy-enhancing and immediately implementable idea. Consider!

I thank you, and so does your local gaming store proprietor.

Now let's talk about Esper.

    Constructing the Arc

We thought a lot about the color pie when we were building the underpinnings of the setting that would become Shards of Alara. What, for a topical example, do white, blue, and black have in common? What do the parts of that "arc" color trio share that could give Esper its identity? Perhaps the most generative line of thought was about each color in the context of the other two—how each part of the triad influenced the others and drew them away from their usual directions.

White: Blue and black make white's themes of order come to the forefront more than its themes of community. White in this context contributes hierarchy, command, and law, bringing the other two colors out of their solipsistic / narcissistic shells and into the realm of society. It adds a theme of striving for enlightenment and perfection to the other colors, a kind of personal virtue filtered through the lens of the other two colors' ethoi. (Er, whatever the plural of ethos is. Belief systems.)

Black: Blue and white bring black's ambition to a grandiose level. They turn black's power-lust into a sort of progress-lust, a need for the self to accomplish at the expense of everything else, rather than to rule at the expense of everything else. Of course, there's a healthy dose of ruling-desire still lurking in Esper. Black's ruthlessness has helped push Esper to the logical conclusion of its quest for progress: utter domination of the natural world.

Blue: White and black pull blue in interesting directions here. Thanks to black, blue gets pulled in the anything-goes direction, the willingness to do whatever it takes to accomplish its intellectual goals, including the willingness to change everything about its external environment to achieve its own desires. Thanks to white, blue gets pulled in a public-focused direction, focusing its thirst for progress into a journey for abstract perfection. In a way, white provides the motivation here—perfection—and black provides the means—whatever it takes.

Together, all three colors create a theme of control. Esper is white's hierarchical structure and public scope, combined with blue's intellectual manipulation of the status quo, combined with black's desire for supreme command. They contrast with the wild independence and impulse-driven instinct of red and green. In fact, wildness and instinct are Esper's greatest threats, and form the greatest reason for its need of control.

Metallurgeon art by Warren Mahy
    Control + Metal

The mechanical themes of Esper—colored artifacts and artifact-matters mechanics—presented a nontrivial creative challenge. Magic has crossed artifacts with color in minor ways before—from oddballs like Sarcomite Myr and Reaper King all the way back to stuff like Crystal Shard and Throne of Bone. But there's never been a setting with as much commitment to colored artifacts as Esper. It was a weird question: what does "colored artifact creature" mean?

We ruled out biomechanical monsters like Phyrexians. The Phyrexians' integration of metal with flesh was also, in a way, a quest for a certain ideal, and the visual effect of that union was distinctly awesome. But it had different goals from the Esper look. Where Phyrexia comes from a background of almost pure black, Esper needed to feel like a blue-white-black shard. Esper is a world of domination, sure, but via progress and self-perfection rather than by enslavement and "compleation."

We also ruled out the Mirrodin style of metal infusion. Vedalken on Mirrodin encased themselves in machinery, and the Neurok humans drank the lymph of the blinkmoths to dramatically increase their brain power. But both those races had bulky add-ons and appendages in their visual style, making both of them lack the elegance we were looking for. Esper is about the global application of conceptual rules—their look had to be streamlined, controlled, and refined.

In the end, the concept art team for Alara created a look for etherium that was more about removing than adding. Etherium, the magical alloy infused in the bodies of all Esper creatures, has a look of intricate, polished filigree. The filigree replaces flesh rather than adding to it, giving Esper creatures an airy, gappy, almost insubstantial look. They operate by the opposite of brute force—they're delicate creatures physically, but they are whirlwinds of magic via the power of the mind and spirit. You can see etherium filigree expressed visually in dozens of ways throughout the cards of the Shards of Alara set—and you'll see more as the block progresses.

Windwright Mage art by Chippy
    The True Purpose of Etherium
Vorthos Delve!

But what, exactly—if we were to go on a Vorthosian Delve for a moment—is etherium for? It explains why all the Esper creatures are artifacts, but why do Esperites use it? Why do they expect it to be the solution for their mission of perfection and power?

The Ethersworn are a group of mages (of the human, vedalken, and even sphinx races) dedicated to infusing all life on Esper with etherium. Their quest is called the Noble Work, and they believe it to be the answer to the imperfect wildness of regular old organic bodies (which they call the Ignoble Flesh). But the Ethersworn weren't the first cultivators of etherium. In fact, they don't even have the recipe for making new etherium anymore—more and more, they have to reclaim the existing etherium from dead creatures and recycle it. As more creatures are infused with ever more etherium, the filigree structures have become attenuated, more intricate and delicate as etherium supplies dwindle. In essence, Esper is undergoing an etherium crisis.

So who has the recipe? A group of mages known as the Seekers of Carmot claim that they know the secret of etherium, and house it on their Filigree Texts in a secret chamber within their Esper compound. They say that etherium creation crucially involves a red stone known as "carmot," but so far, no new sources of carmot have been found on Esper.

The last clue to the origin and purpose of etherium lies with a sphinx named Crucius. A relevant passage from A Planeswalker's Guide to Alara goes:

The sphinx Crucius was a seminal but controversial figure in Esper history. Esperites now revile the genius who brought etherium to the plane, thinking him to have disappeared or died years ago. But our researchers' evidence suggests that he may have been a planeswalker, and furthermore may have understood—and attempted to correct—Esper's plight.

Decades ago, Crucius devised the magical alloy etherium and began a grand project to infuse living things on Esper with it, which he called The Noble Work. Records show that he proposed the Noble Work as a means to overcome the frailties and limitations of the mortal flesh, but Crucius may have in fact perceived Esper's disconnection from two crucial elements, red and green mana. Indeed, the æther inside etherium, once spread across enough of the plane, may have been intended to enable a spell that would reunify Esper with the other planar fragments.

So etherium may have been intended as a way to reunify the shards of Alara, to end Esper's isolation from green and red mana—but its mission has since changed. If the sphinx Crucius really was a planeswalker, he's long gone from Esper these days. The Ethersworn blamed Crucius for etherium abominations called aether-liches, terrible creatures who resulted from an over-application of etherium—and Crucius disappeared, an enemy of the plane. Esperites believe him to be in hiding, or dead. In truth, he may have left Alara altogether.

I'd like to take a moment to touch on an issue relevant to Tezzeret, etherium-infused mage of Esper—a refresher on the plan for the coming year in the realm of Magic novels.

    The Magic Books Plan – Including Agents of Artifice!

As I've mentioned before, Shards of Alara was the kickoff of our new model for Magic books. Where once we published setting-related novels almost exclusively, we're letting planeswalkers roam a little more freely around the multiverse these days by taking the opportunity to do different kinds of published products. A Planeswalker's Guide to Alara was the first foray into the new publishing model, a kind of field guide to the unique Alara setting, packed with concept art, full-color art by Magic's top artists, and in-depth narrative about the five shards, all built from the very materials used by the creative team to build the cards of the Shards of Alara Block themselves.

The next exciting new venture is Agents of Artifice, a novel by Ari Marmell that represents the first of a new series of "planeswalker novels." Agents of Artifice details the rise of Jace Beleren from promising young mage-prodigy to world-hopping planeswalker. Jace can wield the power of his mind like a weapon, but quickly finds that his powers get him embroiled in schemes that surpass everything he knows. The book also features the black-aligned planeswalker Liliana Vess and the artificer-planeswalker (and Esper native!) Tezzeret. And the events in the novel not only tie in with the plot surrounding Alara's shards, but also the fate of other planes you know from Magic's past and locales that we won't visit for years to come. It is truly a planeswalker novel—character-driven, and not tied to any one setting. And it's an excellent kickoff to a new tradition in Magic: The Gathering books. Agents of Artifice releases February 2009 in bookstores and many gaming shops everywhere.

Stay tuned to, and Savor the Flavor in particular, for more information on Agents of Artifice and on other future Magic publishing events.

    Letter of the Week

Dear Doug Beyer,

I was wondering what are the exact rules for flavor text? After Eighth Edition there were no more references to Shakespeare or any other person alive.

P.S. Who makes up these rules?

Actually, we still use real-world quotations in certain flavor text. The main place to find them is in the flavor text of core set cards. See, for example, Tenth EditionAir Elemental or Tenth EditionMind Stone.

We also use real-world quotes on promotional cards—the judge promo Exalted Angel given out in 2005, for example, slings a little Shakespeare. In both cases, core sets and promo cards, there's not a strong sense of setting. The core set is not "set" on any particular plane of the Magic multiverse, so we see it as a good place to go all real-world literary. Fans of the Earth quote—and there are a reasonable number of them, judging by the feedback we get—can get their scholarly thrills there.

We do have to be careful that the quotation is in the public domain, or else we risk copyright infringement, which would be Egon-level "bad." Usually that means that the speaker/writer of the quote has to have been dead for seventy-five years or more (although there are exceptions—I don't pretend to know the subtleties of copyright law on this matter, so I'm glad that senior Magic editor Del Laugel looks them up for me). At any rate, you won't be seeing any quotes from contemporary literature anytime soon, unless they're for some reason solidly in the public domain (and even then, they would actually have to be appropriately themed for a card).

Furthermore, you'll find no real-world quotations in the flavor text of expert-level sets. Those sets are strongly themed to Magic setting (for example, this year's Alara setting), and we feel it's disruptive to the flavor of the setting for real-world quotes to pop up there. It's just too jarring to the sense of place to hear some European dead guy spinning prose while you're looking at the art of some Jund viashino.

Who has two thumbs and makes up these rules? This guy. Thanks for your questions, George!

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