Shards of Alara in Italics

Posted in Savor The Flavor on October 15, 2008

The name, art, and game-play feel of a card's mechanics do plenty of work to communicate the world behind the card. But nothing opens the door to that other world like a well-written piece of flavor text. While I write a lot of the flavor text that ends up on Magic cards these days, my main role when it comes to creative text is a thrilling one: to sit back, let others submit inspired flavor text, and cherry-pick the very best ones to go on the cards. Today I'd like to saunter down the flavor-strewn path of Shards of Alara with you at my side, and point out just a few of my favorites. First up is the shard of Bant.


Bant Battlemage

One of my favorite aspects of Alara's five shards is the way that each sub-plane has grown around a system of only three types of mana each. Bant is flush with the magic of honor, growth, and manipulation, but not of direct control over fire or destruction. Adam Lee penned this little ditty for Bant Battlemage that captured this unusual combination of powerful magic and—to us—backwater magical ignorance.

"A night attack will be easy. We'll make an air raid over the Akrasan border. Just get me some flint to light the war torches."

I love the juxtaposition of the ease of casual flight magic—an extremely fanciful, high-magic idea—with the difficulty of conjuring up a simple light for the night raid's torches. What would happen to our own history if they knew a few spells back in medieval times? What if Charlemagne's mages knew Flight? The differences in military strategy and in historical results would be dramatic, yet those ancient mages still might need a simple tinder box to start a fire.


The relationship of flavor text to card mechanic is a tricky one. If all you do is restate exactly what the card does in Vorthosian terms, you haven't given the reader anything new to think on and enjoy—you haven't enlarged the card any. On the other hand, if you completely ignore the function of the card, then you strain the relationship between Magic the multiverse and Magic the trading card game. I watch out for pieces that forge an interesting balance between flavor and mechanics.

Rebels and other malcontents forced into the ritual awake lost in Topa's vast savannahs. Those who find their way back return humble and repentant.

I love how this makes a Bant-appropriate story out of something as mechanical as "put a guy on top of your library." An Excommunicated creature is often going to find its way back to the battlefield; the flavor text doesn't pretend that the spell is some kind of permanent removal spell. Instead it embraces the mechanical feel of the card, and builds it into the story behind its casting.



Scourglass is a powerful, destructive artifact, and at first I thought it needed a powerful, destructive piece of flavor text. But I loved how this piece, a Matt Cavotta special, captured a more refined, Esper-oriented view of the process: instead of an artificial cataclysm, it presents Scourglass's activation as a precise warping of fleshy reality during a period of unconsciousness, a tidy cleansing of that ever-flawed organic material during a sphinx's nap.

"Soon I will sleep, eyes closing to a world tarnished with flesh, and then wake to a polished vision." —Sharuum

Etherium Astrolabe

Esper flows with blue mana and blue mana's allies, meaning that it has the unique position of having access to both black and white. I imagine Esperites constantly being pulled in one direction or the other, from acting for the good of the community to acting for the power of the individual. That tension is delicious—it would tend to create a crisp, absolutist world-view with no room for gray areas. The sharp morality of white combined with the "me vs. them" mentality of black, together with the intellectualism of blue, would create a system of control that would extend to all areas of life. Social systems are organized according to rigid rules. Emotions are reined in according to rigid discipline. Even the laws of nature are constrained within acceptable parameters. The vedalken consul Cinna, a great speaker wherever she goes, gives us a particularly Esperesque outlook on how to go about building theories (with a little help from Mark Purvis, the author of the piece).

"Speculation is foolish when the tools of certainty are available." —Cinna, vedalken consul

Objective, measured, recorded—certain. No room for error, human or any other kind. If you find imperfection, create tools to eradicate it. That's the Esper way.


Esper is not long on laugh-out-loud, guffaw-inducing humor. But as Metallurgeon's flavor text shows, a dry wit is certainly appreciated there, especially when it's at the expense of the Ignoble Flesh. This piece was written by editor Kelly Digges.

"By the time I got there, the heart had stopped. Fortunately, I was able to replace it with something better."

Dreg Reaver

Grixis is a world of death—but at one time, when Alara was young, it was still connected to the other shards, and still flush with life. This piece from Dreg Reaver highlights a bit of the process that a Grixis necromancer undergoes in order to find a corpse suitable for his or her biggest reanimation projects.

"On our thirty-fourth day of digging, we unearthed a chamber that contained the intact remains of several species long extinct from Grixis. One in particular should make a fine siege engine . . . ." —Last notes of Shungus Nod, fleshcrafter

Agony Warp

Writer Garrett Baumgartner gave us a piece that perfectly sums up the downward spiral feel of Grixis, showing how the world is not only bereft of the mana of life, but in the grasp of inverted versions of its processes.

Life's circle has become inverted in Grixis, the same old energy endlessly recycled and becoming more stagnant with each pass.

There's a bit of a recycling motif going on in Esper as well, as mages reuse the precious metal etherium and hunt for new sources of it. On Grixis, recycling isn't an eco-conscious activity—in a way, it's the only activity.


Dragon Fodder

Jund is a voracious, creature-eat-creature world—almost every living thing on the plane is both predator and prey at once, constantly on the lookout for bloody fare while trying to avoid becoming someone else's. Dragons form the top of the food chain, as almost nothing (except for a few crazy human warriors on their Life Hunt, and Sarkhan Vol) dares hunt them down. At the bottom of the food chain we find the lowly goblin, a being so fit to be consumed that their culture has taken it as a mark of pride. Goblins hang out in the most dangerous part of Jund—the tops of mountains. In other words: dragon territory.

I liked how this piece, written by Adam Lee, hinted at the goblins' pride in becoming lunch while giving a flavorful reason why the spell gives you two Goblin tokens.

Goblins journey to the sacrificial peaks in pairs so that the rare survivor might be able to relate the details of the other's grisly demise.

Blister Beetle

I'm a fan of flavor text that fits on the card, but conveys ideas that bulge way past the borders of the cardboard. Check out this piece on Blister Beetle, written by Christa Knott-Dufresne.

Warriors of the Rip Clan wear their beetle-acid scars proudly, even modifying clothing and armor to better display the trophy.

Blister Beetle is a handy removal-utility creature concepted as a nasty, dog-sized bug, and as such could have had flavor text that explains its acidic secretions or its role in the Jund food web. But this piece went farther than that—with the little phrase "beetle-acid scars" it conveys how the -1/-1 action happens, but goes on to integrate that painful phenomenon into the culture of the world entire with an interesting "what if." What if the taut, hard-abbed humans of Jund actually sought out the excruciating bite of this large beetle? What if they were proud of (surviving) the scars it wrought? This piece looks like it's about the beetle, and it is—but it goes on to say even more about the renowned hardiness of the warrior-clans of the plane.

Hellkite Overlord

Planeswalkers are coming into their own as centerpieces of the Magic experience. I wanted Shards of Alara to be the first set to feature flavor text attributed to planeswalker characters that had their own cards in the set. Planeswalker cards themselves have no room for flavor text, sadly, but that doesn't mean their quips and quotations can't show up on other cards to flesh out their personalities—which is exactly what I wanted to do. To help realize this goal, I asked the flavor text writers to submit several quotes attributed to the four planeswalker characters in the set, for placement on other cards. This piece was written by Rei Nakazawa, and nicely captures both the nature of dragons on Jund and elsewhere, andSarkhan Vol's fierce reverence for them. In Rei's honor, I used it on the biggest, baddest dragon on the set.

"The dragon has no pretense of compassion, no false mask of civilization—just hunger, heat, and need." —Sarkhan Vol

Jungle Shrine

On Naya, ambition and treachery are scarce, hunted nearly to extinction by the awe owed to terrestrial gods.

Note to flavor text writers, and just writers in general: a quick way to my heart is to mix up the abstract and the tangible. I like it whenever a piece of writing attributes a physical quality to an abstract concept, or uses an abstract subject in a physical context. This technique instantly propels you deep into metaphor territory, and gives your intellect a pleasing kick in the pants. In this piece of flavor text, penned by Adam Lee, ambition and treachery are abstract ideas, but here they're being hunted to extinction as if they were ordinary denizens of Naya's jungle. And doing the hunting is reverent awe, another abstract entity, a feeling that has no capacity to hunt. It gives you the sense that black and blue mana aren't just randomly absent here—they were actively cut down long ago. They were crowded out by the humans' and elves' worship for the gargantuans, the ancient behemoths that dominate the plane.

Also, intellects don't wear pants, and can't be kicked in them. Ambition, extinct! Office, submarine!

Where Ancients Tread

The gargantuans of Naya are really big. No, really. They're big, and a lot of pieces of flavor text in the set tell you so. They're big, and they're heavy, and they break things, and they stomp pieces of civilization, and they alter the weather. They're big!

As work on Shards of Alara went on, I was always on the lookout for interesting ways to express their huge-itude. This piece of flavor text, using the elf prophetess Mayael as the mouthpiece, puts an elegant spin on the sentiment that "those big monsters stop around a lot," and saves all of us from one more dull spin on "no really, they're big."

"Never subtle nor cryptic is the reckoning of the mighty." —Mayael the Anima

I like how, unbeknownst to Mayael herself, this quote pokes subtle fun at the blue mage. Naya doesn't fuss with your stack or Twiddle with your permanents. Naya puts a footprint the size of a moon crater in your neighborhood. Want to know where you stand with Naya's behemoth gods? Check whether your house is Where Ancients Tread.

Time for an important issue in today's Letter(s).

    Letter(s) of the Week

Today's letters concern APlaneswalker's Guide to Alara.

Okay, well, I was walking home from school, and I decided to stop in the bookstore. And I noticed the "Planeswalker's Guide to Alara" on the shelf, so I plucked it off to take a look...well, damn, I was impressed.

I thought I might just skim it, but I ended up sitting cross-legged under the bookshelf for an hour, devouring its contents like I was a dragon and the rich backstory was a goblin dipped in tartar sauce, or whatever its Alaran equivalent is. As I read about Bant, I envisioned sigiled knights in their honorable deaths in battle waking to find themselves reborn as winged champions of justice. (Or perhaps, to their great surprise, igniting a planeswalker spark, and wondering as they open their eyes again why they don't have wings.) As I read about Esper, I pondered the commoners who would volunteer themselves to be puppeted and played by a mage like a violin, and I imagined wary knowledge-seekers approaching a sculler to guide them through the Tidehollow. I read about Grixis and winced a little at the thought of the disgusting fleshdolls and liches, and pitied those futilely trying to survive there. I read about Jund and marveled at the images of the huge firebreathing dragons that rule the shard, and wondered at the short lives of the humans and all the tales they might tell of their rites of passage and their epic battles to the death with the dragons. And the images and descriptions of Naya resounded vividly in my head as I imagined the smell of dew, the sounds of chirping insects and distant gargantuan footfalls, and the taste of the moist jungle air.

In short, you and your colleagues have done their jobs very well, and you deserve to be very proud of yourselves.

A Planeswalker's Guide to Alara

First of all, Jasper, thank you so much. Writers and artists love hearing that their work is enjoyed, and I'll be sure to spread around the praise to everyone who worked so hard on it. Also, I enjoyed your flavorful retelling of its contents—you get a Vorthos Point.

But secondly, um—to bring up a touchy topic for a quick moment—I didn't see the end of your story where you actually bought the book?

Now if you did buy it, and just didn't mention that, then bravo. You're a hero, and I thank you again. But if you didn't—for all of you who have wondered whether you should and so far haven't—

I know that, as a student or as anybody, life can be expensive; so many people want your hard-earned cash. And you're probably already into Magic for a healthy amount—believe me, I understand that. So you're hesitant to drop another several bucks on the Planeswalker's Guide, especially when the bookstore was so nice as to let you page through it for free.

But the sales of this book are especially important right now, because of how the business works. How A Planeswalker's Guide to Alara sells will determine how and whether to do further Guides in the future. If it does well, then its sales numbers will be used as evidence for why we should do more of them. If it does poorly, then its sales numbers will be used as evidence for why we shouldn't do any more of them. If you like the idea of seeing Planeswalker's Guides as a regular thing, to be able to hold the very creative material that we use to create the worlds behind Magic cards—and if you're reading this, then you're probably the kind of person who would—then you should make a clear statement to Wizards by buying a copy of the book. Read it, enjoy it, have it as an accompaniment to your Magic card binders and novels. Tell people how great it is, and buy copies as gifts.

The book was a joy to create, and I'm ecstatic that people have had the opportunity to climb into the worlds of Alara so completely thanks to the book, and to hear of their enjoyment of the contents. But the ultimate reward would be for people to justify the continuation of the Planeswalker's Guide line by plunking down a few bucks for it. That is the very best thank-you that you could give.

On that note, let's look at letter #2.

Dear Doug Beyer,
Regarding your article "An Angel's Eye View of Bant":

You invitingly suggest us to take a look in the Planeswalkers Guide to Alara.

I would gladly do so, if I had bought it. Why didn't I buy it? Because it's not for sale anywhere in the city where I live. [...] The stores in Lisbon (the capital of Portugal) won't be importing the Planeswalker's Guide to Alara.

So there's no way I can acquire it. And I would if I could... : (


Thanks for your note, Gui. You bring up a good point. The Guide is not in every bookstore; it's not even available in every city. Since it's distributed through the book channels, it doesn't reach all the same places that Magic cards do. So what does one do?'s shipping costs can be high when delivering to some parts of the world, and some people don't have access to a credit card for online purchases.

But you've still got options. Almost any major bookstore can special-order a book for you. Ask them to order A Planeswalker's Guide to Alara for you. Here's the ISBN number to give them:

ISBN 978-0-7869-5124-6

That will do two things: one, it will, of course, get you a copy of the book. Two, it will show the bookstore that there is interest in the book, which will cause them to order more of them, which will cause more of them to be on the shelves, which will cause more sales, which will tell Wizards that the book is doing well, which will help us decide to do more. And that will bring everybody more Guides to explore, in Lisbon and beyond.

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