Reality Check

Posted in Savor The Flavor on May 13, 2009

By the time the style guide for a plane is complete, my brains have become saturated with that world. I can't stop thinking about its ins and outs, the whys and the wherefores.

Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.
—Albert Einstein

It's not just a collection of scribblings from the world-building writers, or the sum of the weird-doesn't-begin-to-cover-it discussions from our creative team meetings; it's an experience of a truly new world, the totality of the style guide, cards, flavor text, books and comics, and my own thoughts weaving silklike interconnections among my neurons, to the point where the place feels as real as Earth to me. I've come to know it like I know my own hometown—that chunk of fallen marble near where Marisi delivered his first, stirring war-speech; that rune-scratched tower where Crucius first developed the formula for etherium; that dusty arena where Rafiq of the Many saw blood on the edge of a blade for the first time. It's a place that is distinct from any one person's ideas, and therefore strangely real to all of them.

It is a far, far better thing to have a firm anchor in nonsense than to put out on the troubled seas of thought.
—John Kenneth Galbraith

When a place asserts itself in its reality like this—when it stops being a framework in which to make cards, and becomes a world—it begins to do a weird thing. It becomes fault-resistant. By that I mean that it corrects you when you are claiming something untrue of it.

Most of the time it's through the stalwart men and women of the creative team, those Magic-flavor-obsessives who patrol the card file for card designs or development changes that would compromise the world's creative identity.

A dialogue to this effect occurred during the development of Conflux.

Developer: So, Noble Hierarch has been getting a lot of play in the FFL. Can he be an Elf?
Doug: No, silly—she is a Human.
Developer: But couldn't you make it an Elf? It's a small green creature that makes mana. It would enable some tribal synergies.
Doug: *chuckling* Of course I can't make it an Elf. There are no elves on Bant.
Developer: *blinks*
Doug: See, elves are a Naya race in Alara. They revere Cylia, the original Anima, prophet of the gargantuans, the one who wounded the mighty Progenitus at the Sundering of the five shards. Bant, on the other hand, is where the Sighted and Sigiled castes cultivate majestic orchards, including the Twelve Trees of Valeron, representing the twelve ruling families of that verdant nation.
Developer: I'm not sure ... how to have this conversation.
Doug: The Hierarch, you see, is one of these proud Sigiled-caste, who uses her druidic training to nurture and protect these orchards, which are among Bant's most precious sources of mana—a crucial resource in the nascent war with the other shards.
Developer: Uh, Human it is. Thanks.
Doug: Did I tell you about the Shattered Sword, rumored to be the sword of the archangel Asha herself, sunk into the earth below Valeron's Twelve Trees?
Developer: I gotta go ... do ... a thing. Over here.

As you can see, not everybody has the rules of the current plane so bound up in their neurons. They may have costed all the cards and made up all the mechanics—but they have not quite been there. But the Vorthos spirit is a magnanimous one. I help my Pitbound coworkers to see the reality of Alara whenever I can.

I kid! I kid. Sort of.

This is a work of fiction. All the characters in it, human and otherwise, are imaginary, excepting only certain of the fairy folk, whom it might be unwise to offend by casting doubts on their existence. Or lack thereof.
—Neil Gaiman

Like most of Magic's style guides, the style guide for Alara had tons of detail all set to go for the first set, a good grounding for what would happen in the second set (Conflux), and not much more than some cool ideas of what might happen in the third set. When we were printing bound copies of the style guide for artists, Alara Reborn was just a glimmer on the horizon. We had no concept art for what a Filigree Angel might look like. We had no thought yet about how a Jund warrior's costuming might look if she joined up with a corps of Bant crossbow-snipers. The art and creative text of Alara Reborn is more of a speculative application of the principles set down in Shards of Alara and Conflux than a preplanned timeline. It's an evolution of the world we had come to know over the first two sets. If Shards of Alara and Conflux were about setting up a huge master control panel for the world of Alara, Alara Reborn was about seeing what cool results we could get by flipping switches.

Take a look at a representative Alara Reborn art description.

Color: Green/red/white creatures
Location: Grixis (see below)
Action: Show a small squad (2-3) of elf warrior-scouts from Naya. One of them is riding a riding-beast (see style guide pg. 70). They're at war in the dread land of Grixis (see style guide pg. 33-48). They struggle to keep a banner held high, which has a rich elven tapestry with a woodland motif on it.
Focus: The elf explorers
Mood: A heroic struggle to bring life to this dead world

Many, many Alara Reborn cards quote more than one shard like this. Naya Sojourners represents Naya elves journeying through the rotting land of Grixis. Zealous Persecution shows Grixis undead assaulting a Bant stronghold. And instead of developing concept art for how each of these new matchups would look, we let our intuitions about the setting guide us—and relied on the talent of our artists. We pointed to the elements in the style guide that should be warring, fusing, or otherwise interacting, and let the artists' creativity solve the problems of how to combine them.

Imagination is the one weapon in the war against reality.
—Jules de Gaultier

The artists really came through. As an all-multicolor set, Alara Reborn's theme is fusion—each card a fusion of colors, the world a fusion of shards, the ensuing war a fusion of cultures, magics, and ideas. We wanted the art and creative text to reflect that, too. Art like this tells that kind of story:

Art by Kev Walker

Sages of the Anima: Elvish seers from the jungles of Naya find new monster-gods to worship on the other shards—for example, this leviathan or sea serpent off the coast of Esper. See a kind of reverse of that same scene on Vectis Dominator, in which an Esper mentalist takes command of the brains of a Naya behemoth.

Art by Parente

Gorger Wurm: A Jund wurm makes itself at home in the lush, green jungles and stone ruins of Naya. I particularly like the contrast of colors here—the wurm looks incredibly fish-out-of-water. And yet you get the sense that Mr. Wurm doesn't care about his surroundings, as long as there are tasty elves and leonin to gobble up in place of its usual goblins and viashino.

Art by Dave Kendall

Trace of Abundance: Take a look at the art description for this card. We never decided what the overlap of Naya and Grixis might look like, but Dave Kendall helped us out.

Color: Green/red/white spell
Location: Grixis
Action: Show the crumbling ruins of a Grixis necropolis. In the cracks and crannies of the broken masonry, luxurious Naya plant life has begun to bloom. The colors in the leaves, vines, and strange fruit-pods contrast with the gray, dead Grixis landscape.
Focus: The new growth
Mood: Mana prosperity

No man will be found in whose mind airy notions do not sometimes tyrannize, and force him to hope or fear beyond the limits of sober probability.
—Samuel Johnson

Even card names in Alara Reborn contribute to the fusion feel. Props to the Alara Reborn creative text team for coming up with these cool shard-fusion-evoking names.

Ethercaste Knight – A knight who has taken a new path, embracing the protection (and perfection?) of Esper's etherium. I like the neologism "ethercaste"—it immediately breaks up the previously held Bant status quo.

Godtracker of Jund – Godtrackers are those elves who keep tabs on the migrations and behaviors of Naya behemoths. This one keeps tabs on a new kind of majestic beast.

Vedalken Ghoul – An easy one, but it still does the trick of instantly conjuring an Esper race under Grixis command.

Filigree Angel – What would an angel of Esper look like? Note that our own in-house concept illustration master, Richard Whitters, illustrated this one—a pretty cool (but not easy!) assignment.

Bloodbraid Elf – A bit of elvish resoluteness here, a bit of Kresh the Bloodbraided impulsiveness there, and what do you get? A nasty bit of hasty cascading goodness, and a cool name besides.

Leonin Armorguard – I love the deployment of "leonin" instead of "Nacatl" here. It instantly says that this is a new age with new rules.

Etherium Abomination – To paraphrase Darth Vader: Don't be too proud of that technological Horror you've constructed.

It's only been a couple of years since we started putting together the creative of Alara, and it hasn't even been nine months since the setting began to emerge into our world. But Alara is real now. It exists. Even when we're not lobbing its spells at each other or planechasing through its shards, it's there, breathing, growing, and evolving.

Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away.
—Philip K. Dick
    Letter(s) of the Week

A few quickies this week.

Dear Doug Beyer,

I know that when artists are requested to draw a painting of a card, they are given a style guide which sort of tells them what to picture. However, I've been wondering - is it same for the reprints? Or are they just given an old card and asked to draw a new painting.

If I didn't choose the right column, please let me know. Thank you, and may you stand as high on a food chain as possible.


Great question, Matyas. There are examples of both. In many cases, the artist is given a reference for the card's previous printing. When working on Dissension cards, for example, artist Ralph Horsley was given jpegs of Chris Moeller's Seal of Fire and Seal of Doom to work from, but was also given freedom to reinterpret those Seals to make sense in Ravnica. Similarly, Time Spiral Block, with its nods to earlier cards, had tons of past-card-referencing. Planar Chaos'sCalciderm, for example, quotes the original Blastoderm art directly.

In other cases, a whole new art description gets written when a card is reprinted, with no reference to earlier printings. Cards like Colossus of Sardia and Wall of Swords from Tenth Edition got reconcepted from the ground up, and we didn't give the artists a specific past illustration to work from (although everybody has access to Gatherer!). What we do on any individual card depends on the look of the setting and the goals of the reprint.

Dear Doug Beyer,
Regarding your article "The Day a Vedalken Exploded":

You mention the Maelstrom not being noticed yet, as Nicol Bolas wanted, but is he going to get away with it? I have seen the cover of the new book and have seen Ajani fighting him with someone else, do they defeat him? Or does evil really triumph?


Things look bad, don't they? But come on, Robert, do you really think I'm going to spoil the ending for you? Alara Unbroken. Bookstores and online retailers everywhere. Inexpensive paperback. Go!

Dear Doug Beyer,

In Magic you usually see outrageously sized creatures/monsters and I could never really understand where they come from, I mean. I.E. Krosan Cloudscraper is massive but where does he hide to not be bothered? Or are the creatures just considered "spells" or a sort of "summoning"? Maybe I'm just not up to date in the area but it's just one of those things I was wondering.


In most cases, when you see a 7/7 or even a 13/13, we do think of these massive beasts as being from ecosystems on their own worlds. They grow and evolve just like organisms on our own world—think of 100-ton whales in our seas, or the 80-foot-long Brachiosaurus of our Cretaceous past. Some large creatures (Illusory Demon, say, or Phyrexian Soulgorger) are created entirely by the work of magic, but most of the time, they're natural beasts who just happen to occupy a particularly enormous part of the ecosystem.

Krosan Cloudscraper, for his part, is the product of the Krosan Forest, a forest whose out-of-control growth is due largely to the magic of the Mirari. So while beasties in Krosa are already nasty-huge, his size is almost certainly magically augmented even further. Where does he go when he wants a private moment? He sticks out over the tops of the tallest trees and fills the deepest chasms—so I'm not even sure he notices the other teensy organisms around him, Trey. He probably only gets really mad when he gets used as Sutured Ghoul fodder!

Latest Savor The Flavor Articles

Daily MTG

December 24, 2012

Is This Your Fateful Hour? by, Doug Beyer

Before the city-plane of Ravnica devoured the spotlight, the shadow-lurking forces of Innistrad were the ones doing the devouring. In this interactive article, you play the role of a tr...

Learn More

Daily MTG

March 28, 2012

Thanks and So Long by, Doug Beyer

Today I'm hurling huge explosions of gratitude and appreciation at you. To everyone who has read these articles and shared this enthusiasm for Magic flavor: you are awesome. I've loved ta...

Learn More



Savor The Flavor Archive

Consult the archives for more articles!

See All