Staging an Intervention

Posted in Savor The Flavor on February 17, 2010

We're going to have a little talk with my old friend flavor text today, as I have some things to say that I think it needs to hear. Sort of an intervention, but not one of those reality-show types with all the drama and the tearful embraces and the cameraman running to catch up when it bolts for the door. Well, that might happen—we'll see when it comes over for its "surprise party."

    Pro Tour–San Diego Artist Interviews

But first I want to introduce you to two artists you'll meet at Pro Tour–San Diego. The first is Jason Felix, an artist who's just made a grand entrance into working on Magic. He started with us on Zendikar, but I can tell you his impact will be felt for some time.

Jason, what inspired you to become an artist, and why specifically a fantasy artist?

As far as I can remember, I was always drawing and had an imaginative brain. My parents use to come back home each day from work with a small stack of papers for me to draw on, which was equal to the value of a pint of chocolate ice cream as a kid. I would run back to my room, grab whatever pencils I could find, and scribble away.

My biggest influence and introduction to fantasy art was playing Damp;D at the age of 12. My older brother was responsible for opening such doors ... I'll never forget that. I was surrounded by a good group of people that played religiously every weekend and were avid junkies like myself about the game, the art within the modules, and the books. On a given day, my bedroom floor was usually scattered with papers, pencils, some stale Doritos, cans of Mountain Dew, and my favorite book, the Monster Manual. Cannot count how many times I drew every creature in that book and often tried to imagine my own beasts. It's been a lasting effect that has never left me and still till this day, I fill every sketchbook that I have with my own monster designs and daydream about how they maul their helpless feeble prey.

Crypt of Agadeem | Art by Jason Felix

Sounds like you and Magic are a match made in heaven. Can you tell us a little about your experience working with Magic so far?

Up until a few years ago, I was working in the video games industry for the past nine years. Had the good fortune to work on a number of big franchises such as Starcraft and Prince of Persia. My schedule was always hectic and rarely found time to do anything on the side during those years. After leaving my last job I ran into [Magic concept illustrator] Richard [Whitters], [Damp;D art director] Mari [Kolkowsky], and [Magic art director] Jeremy [Jarvis] at a comic book convention in which we exchanged information. A few weeks after meeting in person, I was fortunate to start working on Magic. Fast forward to now, it's been almost two years since I started working with Magic and can freely admit that I love the whole universe. Everything is well written, well executed, wonderful artwork, and everyone [at Wizards] have a sincere passion to make a great game

What kinds of cards do you enjoy doing most?

Seems that my style of artwork and subject matter lends itself well to the darker side of things for Magic. Black always has a spot in my heart because it's a comfortable area to explore where the subject matter can be a bit more edgy.

Ob Nixilis, the Fallen | Art by Jason Felix

Where else can we see your artistic handiwork?

I have a website ( that hosts a variety of artwork that I have done over the years for Magic, video games, movies, book covers, animations, and personal projects such as my first art book, titled Salvaged: The Art of Jason Felix. Yeah! I always try to learn and try new things .... It's kinda crazy and cool at the same time. Hope you like what you see and thanks for playing and supporting Magic!

Quag Vampires | Art by Jason Felix

Thanks, Jason!

The other artist celeb you can meet at PT San Diego is a true master of the Magic art world, the inimitable rk post. I asked him the same questions.

What inspired you to become an artist, rk, and why specifically a fantasy artist?

Tough one .... I was drawing this kind of stuff since I was a kid, but never seriously considered it as a career. You can make a living illustrating this stuff? Nah ....

It wasn't until I was almost out of college that I had a professor that was doing this kind of work on a freelance basis. That gave me the focus I needed, and here I am!

Arbor Elf | Art by rk post

We're so glad you got that focus! Can you tell us some background on your career with Magic?

I am by default an old-timer now, illustrating Magic since Exodus in 1998. I was part of TSR at the time and was along for the ride when [Wizards] purchased them. I had tried earlier to approach the Magic team with a portfolio, but to no avail. But that's OK, I am sure it was pretty horrid.

I'm not so sure about that. Maybe horrid in the good, Ichorid way. What kinds of cards do you like to do?

Ichorid | Art by rk post

I like painting women, what can I say? I also have fun with dark icky things, but really enjoy the variety that I have gotten over the years. Oh! And it was fun redoing Avatar of Woe for the promo .... Not often you get to retouch one of your premium cards (ahem ... Morphling ... ahem...).

Promo foil Avatar of Woe by rk post

Come by the Wizards Information Booth at Pro Tour–San Diego and get your premium foil copy of Avatar of Woe (while supplies last).

Vulshok Sorcerer | Art by rk post

And of course it's web site plug time—where else can we see your artistic handiwork?

In my house. Hahahahahaha! I always draw a blank with this one, so if you want to find out more, blather with me on Facebook:

It is pretty much the only online presence that gets update on a regular basis. And I love to post random silly things.

Ruthless Cullblade | Art by rk post

I would expect some friend requests soon. Thanks so much for your time, rk!

Thanks to both of those artists! Read more about them on this PT–San Diego artists page. San Diego Convention Center. This weekend. Go meet them and check out their wares—they're good people!

    A Flavor Text Intervention

Flavor text, come in. Have a seat. I know this might be hard for you, but there are some things you need to hear. I want you to know that we're not trying to ambush you—we're only here because we care about you so much. We're your friends, and we just want you to be the best "you" you can be.

Okay, tiger? Great.

Flavor text, here are some things we think you need to work on before you get printed on the card. You may not know this, but we do a lot to you before you're ready for prime-time. We edit you, crop you, rearrange you, and reattribute you. If you just had some of these principles straight from the get-go, we wouldn't have to do that to you. Think about it? That's all we ask. Here are a few tips.

1. End your joke right after the punch line.

Many pieces of humorous flavor text rely on a build-up to a funny gotcha, but in a way, the term "punch line" is actually misleading here. Due to the constraints of appearing below the rules text on the card, most flavor text is only one line, just one sentence total, so there's no space to set up a whole punch line of funny. But we definitely still look for punch.

Humor generally arises from a combination of familiarity, cleverness, and surprise. The familiarity sets up an expectation, the cleverness twists it, and the surprise seals the deal. In flavor text, the funny usually hits the reader in the space of just a few words, sometimes exactly one word—it's the part of the joke that dodges those built-up expectations, hits the topic in a new light, and delivers the funny. Here's the key: once you hit that word or words, stop. Any rambling you do after that point, flavor text, just blunts the effect and kills the joke. For example, I've modified this flavor text from Fool's Tome.

Squee: "What's that?"
Ertai: "It's a magical book."
Squee: "Am I smart enough ta use it?"
Ertai: "You could say that; you are probably exactly the right kind of 'smart' it requires."

On the card, Ertai doesn't actually end with him explaining what he means. His quote stops short right after the punchy phrase.

Squee: "What's that?"
Ertai: "It's a magical book."
Squee: "Am I smart enough ta use it?"
Ertai: "You could say that."

The joke is much stronger when the comedic twist happens in the reader's mind. Trust the setup and your reader to do the work, and the power of humor will do great things for you.

2. Give the mechanic room to breathe.

You're flavor text. You appear right below the rules text. So don't go out of your way to repeat exactly what the mechanic says. Respect its personal space.

Sometimes, flavor text, you can work yourself into a Single White Female sort of situation. You fawn all over the card mechanic, dressing up to match it exactly, and expressing no identity of your own. You've got to have some of your own interests. Just because some people are friends with the rules text doesn't mean that you should get your hair cut exactly like it. It's tacky, and frankly, it just creeps everybody out. Here's some made-up flavor text for Blinding Mage.

"My light stings the eyes, causing them to be briefly unable to stand up to me."

Yes, we get it. It's a mage that blinds creatures temporarily, and that's why they become tapped. But the mechanic (along with the art and card name) already explain that. You're flavor text—provide some flavor. Do your own thing. Add something new to the card that the reader didn't know already.

"I carry the light of truth. Do not pity those it blinds, for they never had eyes to see."

Now we know something more about this light-casting mage. He doesn't have the expected, evil-smiting, white-creature attitude. He actually wishes his light didn't stun its victims; the very fact that they're susceptible to it means that they live in the darkness of ignorance. He's really a Truth Mage who happens to blind the misguided. Cool. That's flavor!

3. Vary it up.

Everybody's got their favorite form of flavor text. There's the pithy quote, the sassy trash-talking counterspell mage, the elvish saying, the humorous one-liner. A personal favorite is the clever analogy, especially one that attributes something physical to something abstract, or that anthropomorphizes an object, a la Serra Angel's "Her sword sings more beautifully than any choir."

But the ring of cleverness fades after a while. Once you start to detect the pattern (and you'll probably see the analogy pattern everywhere, now that I've mentioned it), it won't seem quite as cool anymore. You've got to vary it up.

Attribute quotes to planeswalkers, legendary characters, novel or comic characters, or people made up just for the purpose of saying something cool. Construct dialogues between multiple perspectives. Compose sonnets, arcane prophecies, song lyrics, or necromantic recipes. Go for the goblin joke. Go for the “insult to injury” variant. Go for the single-word flavor text. Create an epic poem, whole or in part, and quote from it. Create a clever comparison between the drake getting nuked in the art and the drake getting nuked on some other card. Conjure up an encyclopedia entry about the hunting habits of the local wildlife. Describe a cultural holiday or mystical tradition. Tell a fragment of a story about a mage who managed to learn this spell.

No matter what your favorite form is, flavor text, someone else has some other favorite. Go for something new.

4. Deliver ideas, not fancy prose.

Finally, we get to my pet peeve of the day: flavor text that hides its lack of content with twisty grammar or highfalutin' language. Here's a made-up example:

Not without their chosen weaponry do berserkers unfailingly rage.

The decorative, Yodalike sentence structure might have the ring of "fantasy" to some, but it's just a mask. It's a mask that covers up a very boring idea. Here's the same example, untwisted:

Berserkers unfailingly rage with their chosen weaponry.

That says nothing. We all know that berserkers have weapons and often rage with them. That communicates zero interesting ideas. Plus, it might actually say something false in its attempt to sound florid: Don't some berserkers fight unarmed? They're berserkers, after all—they don't unfailingly take the time to prepare their armaments before flinging themselves froth-first into battle.

Note that you can still be a little subtle or artful in the way you express your idea.

A berserker's rage begins and ends with a spray of blood.

That's not Shakespeare, but at least it says something of substance (that the rage triggers when the berserker or his allies are wounded, and finally subsides when he cuts somebody open) with a little craft.

State what you mean simply and accurately, flavor text. The good stuff is the idea you're expressing, not the roundabout way you express it.

    Intervention Ends

I'm glad we had this chance to talk, flavor text. I feel better, and I hope you do, too. It's hard for everyone to look at their faults, but the betterment of the self is worth the pain, wouldn't you agree? There, there. I know. We'll get through this together.

    Letter of the Week

Today's letter comes from Reece, who asks about naming.


I was wondering whether or not the expected power level of a card affects how you name it. That is, the cards that get played most often and are most powerful are most likely to get shortened (Path), mispronounced (Lawnmower Elves), or nicknamed (Tim). If it were an automatic 4-of in any black deck, would you still have named it "Phthisis"? Or when power creep eventually gets out of control, would you ever name that 10/10 flying for B "Hyperanachronistic lobotomist"?

Power level affects card naming—kinda. Certainly some cards are known to be hot even during the early stages of design, and we make sure that those cards have strong, easily pronounceable names. But that's not all that different from any other card; I always want Magic cards to have strong, easily pronounceable names. Most of the time, what the card is, flavorwise, gets much more precedence than how powerful it might end up being. But if we know a card is going to be in every other paragraph of tournament coverage, for example, then sure, we try to make sure its name won't be a stumbling block.

Interestingly, there's a power-level effect on people's perception of names. A name is often regarded highly if it's on a card that's known to be powerful. A little of that is selection bias, because splashy cards get splashy names, but sometimes two very similar names can be seen radically differently because they're on cards of very different power level. (What's really interesting is when people dig the names of stinker cards.)

Another concern that we give more weight to than power level is whether a card could potentially be reprinted in some future set. A card like Springjack Shepherd doesn't make sense in a world with no springjacks (which are fast-jumping, goatlike herd animals native to the plane of Lorwyn), so that card would have problems showing up on springjackless Zendikar. But since that card has the Eventide "chroma" mechanic, the designers probably wouldn't want to reprint it in Zendikar block anyway, so it was fine to give it a Lorwyn-specific name. Similarly, a Phyrexia-flavored name like "Phthisis" probably wouldn't end up on a simple, straightforward, core-set-worthy removal spell. (But never say never! Core sets need interesting nouns too.)

Reece continues:

On a slightly related note, how does creative feel about Spikes mangling all the parts of speech when they play? For instance: "I Path your Kird Ape" as opposed to "I cast Path to Exile on your Kird Ape" or, even better, "Having passed judgment upon your Kird Ape, the angels of this plane have decided that it is not fit to interact with civilization and thus must now leave the battlefield." It is ever an issue whether or not to name an instant something noun-y or a permanent something verb-y?


Game play needs its shortcuts. It's natural for players to abbreviate longish names or abuse parts of speech; I was "Terroring" and "Swordsing" dudes long before I worked at Wizards. We don't worry about it too much. It's nice when targeted instants get verb names that work well grammatically, especially for cards that are likely to become staples of the game (e.g. Negate, Naturalize). But the fact that players find a way to "verbify" just about any spell means that we're actually free to give it the coolest name we can think up, regardless of part of speech.

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