Rising to the Occasion

Posted in Savor The Flavor on May 12, 2010

"You asked me what we were training for, " the old master said, his gray beard uncharacteristically ragged in the dawn's light, "and I answered that I would never, ever tell you."

Venerated Teacher | Art by Greg Staples

"You asked me why we do the drills. Why we shine every nick from our armor. Why we grind our sword-edges every morning and every night. Why we pummel our bodies with the same routines, even long after they're bruised and exhausted. Why we pummel our minds with the same riddles and mysteries, even long after they're bewildered and weary. You asked me why we train, and I answered that I would never tell you why. Today you—you who stayed with the school, you who've trained with me all these years—you know the reason for my response."

Time of Heroes | Art by Kekai Kotaki

"Now you know that when the time came, that when the threat arose and the world needed our skills, I wouldn't have to tell you the why. You see that the answer has made itself plain. Today the mystery of 'why' has melted into simple clarity, as you knew in your hearts it would."

"Today you are prepared. You've attained the highest level of skill I can teach you. The mystery of the why is over, and the answer looms just over the northeast rise. Now is your moment. Now is the time when you have become one with your training, and your skill will carry you through what must be done. Now you wage war against the Eldrazi, and show them what beings of this world are capable of."

    Level Best

It was never easy being an adventurer on Zendikar. The path from home to hoard has always been dotted with savage beasts, lurking traps, and treacherous terrain. The ruins are stuffed so full of peril that there's barely room for any solid-gold antiques. The realm-warping force of the Roil relegates cartography to a hobby of the demented. And the deposit you have to leave on rental adventuring gear? Outrageous.

Then there was the Worldwake. Zendikar felt the approach of something dire, decided it was payback time, and started raging—and the adventurers were caught in the crossfire. Expeditions became swallowed by land elementals, zendikons, and other hunks of revenge-thirsting terrain. It was enough to make an explorer/acquisitionist consider hanging up the pitons.

And now there's the Eldrazi. Instead of simply failing to return from dangerous safaris in exotic wildernesses, people are being snuffed where they stand. The pockets of civilization on Zendikar no longer even have the veneer of safety. Humanoid races of every stripe are becoming food for ancient annihilators that their world barely remembered.

Yep, it's time for a change in the overall game plan. Tomb-robbing and treasure hunting will have to be put on the back burner for a while. Eldrazi monstrosities? They are now priority one. Everybody needs to get off their REI camp chairs and prepare themselves.

But how?

    Mana Makes Perfect

It's going to take more than plain old adventuring know-how to strike a blow against horrifying entities from beyond the edges of the world. What do adventurers in role-playing games do when they're not up to the task of facing their ultimate foe? They spend some time honing their skills and piling on the levels.

Rise of the Eldrazi's "levelers" are adventurers who've taken it upon themselves to stand up against the Eldrazi. Zendikar's heroic mages, rogues, and warriors start out as talented neophytes, empty vessels just waiting to be filled with the experiences necessary to realize their potential. Given time, they would adapt their minds to the demands of a desperate battle, reinforce their bodies to endure otherworldly pain, and develop arsenals of unique abilities capable of thwarting any enemy.

But there is no time. The Eldrazi are already here. So now what?

Certainly there are some heroes on Zendikar who are already up to the challenge of fighting the Eldrazi, such as those students addressed by the Venerated Teacher in the story intro of this article. Some have been preparing for this day, putting in the hours of raw experience to advance to staggering levels of mastery.

Bully for them. But what about everyone else? What about the former explorers who just found out this morning that Exploration Time is over, and now it's Eldrazi Time?

To me, the flavor of the level up ability represents the urgency of this dilemma on Zendikar. How do you add a level counter to one of your levelers? Do you send her off into combat against endless rats and wolves and training drones, letting her make mistakes and learn new techniques over and over again as you watch some progress bar approach 100%? Does she get a +1/+1 counter each upkeep, or whenever she takes damage, or whenever a Trap goes off? Interestingly, no. She goes up in level when you pay mana.

The Eldrazi are at the gates—in fact, they've already eaten the gates. There's no time to wait for the student to become the master. So someone—perhaps a handful of ancient teacher-types, perhaps planeswalkers, perhaps Zendikar itself—is pumping the world's heroes full of mana to rush the process.

Suddenly talented heroes are cropping up everywhere. Gifts: nurtured. Potential: realized. Destiny: made manifest. Children: no longer just our future!

Would that this kind of thing were so easy on our world. Spy a kid with a flair for music, or a talent for math? Pump ten or twelve mana into your little protégé, and see genius-level results now! This could be a widely adopted program. All our problems would be solved ... except possibly the problem of having a bunch of swaggering, max-level ass-kickers hanging around?

    Legends in their own time

Rise of the Eldrazi has few legends (and even fewer planeswalkers) to represent the side of the adventurers, but I think of fully-leveled levelers as the set's legendary heroes. Every time you get a leveler to its maximum potential, feel free to give it a proper name. "Rendius, Lighthouse Chronologist." "Kirena, Tuskcaller of Kazandu." "Mtemke, the Lord of Shatterskull Pass." If the Eldrazi are to be defeated on Zendikar, then these are the personalities who'll get it done. If your opponent protests about his already-cast Pithing Needle naming Kazandu Tuskcaller, you can tell him I said it was okay—just go ahead and tap "Kirena" to make you a couple more Elephants (note: this will not hold up in any kind of actual judging dispute).

    Hope in the face of Annihilator 6 History

So will the levelers be enough? With their newfound, mana-infused skill, will they be able to beat back the Eldrazi? Well, history is not kind precedent for the humanoids of Zendikar. Thousands of years ago when the Eldrazi first awoke from their torpor, the destruction was vast; the natural world nearly perished at the touch of a tentacle. The power of the Eldrazi was unfathomable, and humanoids didn't so much as slow down their progress.

Today, even a fully-leveled leveler does little in the face of a greater Eldrazi. Brimstone Mage barely chips away at an Artisan of Kozilek. Null Champion only holds off Ulamog's Crusher for so long. Hand of Emrakul is big enough to squash even the most formidable of Hedron-Field Purists. Even those levelers designed to handle massive creatures still eventually fall to the crushing power of the Eldrazi's annihilator ability (unless Tajuru Preserver happens to be around).

But this plane learned its lesson thousands of years ago, and it's a changed world today. I have a feeling that the adventurers of Zendikar, even severely outgunned as they are, won't fold to the Eldrazi abominations. I have a feeling that Zendikar will one day be able to enjoy a time without the specter of the Eldrazi.

    Illustrating creatures that can transform

The levelers represented an artistic challenge for the creative team. They start out as level-zero nobodies and progress, over time, to become world-shaking heroes. But we only get to give them a single piece of art, and that art can only show a freeze-frame of one moment in time. Still images have a hard time showing possible future states, counterfactual potential or change over time. And because of their unique card frame, none of the levelers had any room for flavor text. So how would we illustrate the progression of the levelers?

We considered trying to represent multiple phases of a leveler's career all in the same art box. Maybe Brimstone Mage, for example, would show a fresh-faced, spark-wielding apprentice in the foreground, with a slightly more mature fire-thrower in the background, and the blazing form of a fully-leveled pyromancer behind that. But we quickly decided against that for the levelers. Scott Fischer illustrated that show-all-the-forms method about as well as anyone could on Eventide'sFigure of Destiny. But Magic art is designed to "read" well at card size, meaning in a box no bigger than two inches on a side; and for creatures, that means the art is at its most effective when the art box shows a single figure. Therefore we try to keep art of multiple figures to a minimum, and therefore we didn't want Rise of the Eldrazi, in particular, to be full of that 3-in-1 stunt.

There's a reasonable argument to be made that the levelers should depict the creature in its weakest state. After all, that's what it is when you first cast it, it's probably what it stays for much of the time, and it's an accurate representation of its power the whole time it's in your hand or other zones. On the other hand, there's another reasonable argument that says they should be shown at the other end of the spectrum. Show the creature in its fully-leveled glory, at its maximum potential, and the card will be as individually cool as it can be—accuracy be damned. Yet another camp might propose we show them in transition, perhaps in the style of Anthroplasm or Body Double (although I'm not sure how you'd do this for regular humanoids, at least not with any kind of clarity).

In the end, we went with illustrations that show them pretty close to their fully-leveled state. We concepted all the levelers as humanoids (even though almost all the levelers are capable of achieving power/toughness ranges that are far beyond what we normally allow for non-legendary humanoids), but just made them really cool humanoids. In many cases they are shown doing what they would do at their full potential—riding a fire-breathing dragon for example, or ascending into some sort of Avatar. They all look like capable badasses, masters of their chosen field, far from their apprenticing days as low-level wannabes. They may look a little cooler than their early levels may suggest, but they look cool on the table and inspire getting them up to higher levels. Finally they provide a nice counterpoint to the Eldrazi beasties lurking in much of the set's art, giving the set some strong, relatable humanoid faces.

Fantasy is full of wondrous transformations. As Magic explores "transformer" fantasy tropes such as level-progressing adventurers, forests that get up and walk around, vampires that turn into bats, and other shifters of form, we get to solve this art problem again and again. There's probably no always-right solution; we just try to select what looks the best on a case-by-case basis.

    Letter of the Week

I've received a few questions about the nature of the Eldrazi mind. Hoo boy. Tinfoil hats on, everyone! Okay, ready? Here's a representative email from Joseph:

Dear Doug Beyer,
I am very interested in knowing what kind of intelligence the Eldrazi have, especially the three titans. Are they sentient and conscious or are they just mindless? Or are their minds just so massive, overwhelming, and complex that our human minds would be like those of insects to them?

Are the Eldrazi driven only by hunger, or by something else that defies all mortal comprehension? Or is "hunger" merely the term mortals use in an attempt to put the Eldrazi's purpose into perspective?

I find these beings endlessly fascinating... an awesome concept.

Thank you guys for this most horrific of all nightmares.

The Eldrazi are sentient beings by most people's definitions. They are probably vastly intelligent as well. But it's hard to measure, because if they're intelligent, as you suspect, it's a radically different kind of intelligence from our own. This necessarily leads to multiple interpretations of their intentions and consciousness, which we tried to play up in flavor text:

"Whatever the Eldrazi's purpose is, it has nothing to do with something so insignificant as us."
—Nirthu, lone missionary (Ulamog's Crusher)

No thought but hunger. No strategy but destruction. (Pathrazer of Ulamog)

Only the Eldrazi mind thinks in the warped paths required to open the hedrons and tap the power within. (Dreamstone Hedron)

So are they mindless or inscrutable? Vastly smart or incomprehensibly alien? I think if you're feeling a confusing pull between these different directions, you're on the right track. Our minds are flexible, but they work in a certain way—and sort of by definition, they have a hard time thinking in ways other than how they think. So, contemplating the inner life of a being like Emrakul is a daunting, almost self-defeating task. Is Emrakul sentient? Yep. Does it think?

Let's put it this way. If you could experience its consciousness for a limited time, you wouldn't call it "thinking," and you would need a whole host of new words to even scrape away at a description of the experience. Plus you'd go mad when your conscious faculty was crammed back into that skull of yours. Plus you'd forget why we ever did the weird act of separating things into nouns and verbs in our language, and you'd wonder why we don't have actually useful methods of communico-experiential contact like the ones that you can't ... quite ... remember anymore. Plus you'd have this itchy memory of possessing about seventeen inhuman senses that weren't exactly smell, taste, or touch, but that let you perceive realities that now feel tinglingly, frustratingly just out of reach. Gah.

Thanks for your questions, Joseph. See you next week!

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