The Widening Spiral

Posted in Savor The Flavor on July 29, 2009

Magic flavor serves two warring masters: breadth and depth. Breadth is the scope of Magic, the magnitude of its inclusiveness, the sheer number of flavor elements that combine to form its weft. Depth is Magic's intensity of focus, its ever-growing investment in its core iconic elements, the storied splendor of its traditions and institutions. Like two gods fighting over the fates of mankind, breadth and depth often pull Magic in opposite directions. Today we look at what each brings to the game, why we try to appease both, and how a conceptual model might combine the two.


Magic is a slavering flavorvore. We spawn hundreds of hungry baby cards a year, each of which has to be fed a piece of art, a card name, and (usually) a line or two of flavor text before it's satisfied. These ravenous little monsters consume everything we throw at them—new settings, new legends and planeswalker characters, new themes and emotional overtones, new fantasy races, new magical styles, new concept illustrations for costuming and gear, new legendary artifacts complete with ready-made backstories, new proper names of mage academies and druidic splinter groups and goblin holidays, new surprises and weirdnesses to tickle and stimulate the mind in countless ways—and yet every year they still point their index fingers at their open mouths again, ready for more.

They are The Cards. The Cards get what they want.

Breadth for Concepting

Because of this huge demand for detail, the god of Breadth exerts crushing pressure on us to keep the variety high. Part of this has to do with concepting—the step in the creation of a card where we decide what this neutral bundle of card mechanics is going to be in flavor terms. When the card set asks, "What's a white 2/2 flyer in this world?" we have to have an answer ready—and then another answer, and another, in case more cards ask the same "question" later in the block. Therefore we need our settings to contain tons of races, tons of creatures, tons of environments, tons of examples of magic, tons of answers for how we might flavor-clothe every possible card that might come along.

In art terms, the style guide provides most of that breadth. One of my favorite pages of the Alara style guide is a page of Richard Whitters's design ideas for Naya behemoths. Since Naya had its 5-power matters mechanical theme, we knew that there would be a lot of big monsters in that shard, so our concept illustrators came up with a lot of answers for "what should a 5/3 on Naya be?"

In worlds where there can't be as much racial variety, we crank up the breadth in other ways. Here's two pages from the Shadowmoor style guide devoted solely to kithkin gear and weaponry. This allowed Shadowmoor artists to mix and match kithkin gear as they worked, and allowed our team to pick and choose gear to work into art descriptions, so that the look of each kithkin would vary from one to the next.

But we don't build all the multiversal detail just to make our jobs easier. That's not even the primary reason. We don't even think about this reason very often—but we do it because it's fun.

Breadth for Fun

Part of what got me hooked on Magic back in the twentieth century was the experience of riffling through my friend's collection. My brain couldn't yet contain all the information that my eyes were taking in, but I got wisps of imagery and strange words — grim knights, warrior angels, somebody named Mishra with an ankh — the sensation must be like that of having gold coins poured on you. There's no counting, no sorting, not even mental spending—it's just the feeling of overabundance, and the promise of some good things to come later when you can get your brain around it all. And just when you think you do have your brain around it all, Magic grows, giving you even more shiny coins to waterfall over your head. That's the fun of breadth. It's the never-ending surprises, the wealth of micro-discoveries in every booster pack, library, or opening hand. Magic is a mind indulgence, a way to give your brain continual challenge and stimulation, a nonstop march of boggarts and behemoths and battlemages and Blood Ridge berserkers to give you just the right kind of too much.

Problems with Breadth

But the god of Breadth, while greedy for useful and fun detail, has its problems. Flavor breadth is like firing a shotgun—it gives you a short, intense blast of flavor-buckshot, but then it's gone. It must be constantly reloaded. That's part of why we planeswalk from setting to setting each year—The Cards eat up all the detail we made for that year, so we have to go someplace new to generate fresh flavor content for them to consume. But there's consequences. We as players enjoy becoming experts in the feel and flavor and terminology of a setting, but then Magic whisks us away to a new plane, leaving our expertise sort of stranded. The newness fills our limitless appetites, but it doesn't stay with us, grow with us, become familiar. It's the journey of the planeswalker, essentially. No roots put down in any one place. No flavor-hometown to chain your heart to while you watch the seasons tick by across the same familiar view. No anniversaries, no reunions.

So maybe we should be doing something different?


At the same time, there's another god, the god of Depth, that tugs Magic in a different direction. Depth eschews newness in favor of intimacy, variety in favor of familiarity, the waterfall of detail in favor of the maturation of existing relationships. Whereas breadth is the shotgun blast, depth is the slow burn. It lasts, intensifies, ripens. The more you learn about Garruk Wildspeaker, the stronger your bond with his character and the events of his life. The more you read about the travails of afflicted Dominaria, the more you appreciate the institutions of its cultures and the patterns in its history.

We use a variety of methods to extend Magic's depth, both within the cards and without. Card illustrations link to underlying themes of settings, building on one another, such as the look of etherium providing a clue to the underlying mission of Esper. Card names reference mysterious proper nouns that connect us to the world on the other side of the cardboard. Flavor text provides insights and snippets of world detail that broaden our understanding of the multiverse beyond the creature types and the keyword mechanics and the mana costs. Products like Duel Decks spotlight the conflicts between enemy factions and rival planeswalkers.

Beyond the cards, there's other media that deepen Magic's flavor. Savor the Flavor, Magic Arcana, the Multiverse section of the web site, the planeswalker web pages, the series of web comics. There's the novels, providing backstory for all the imagery you see on cards, developing and intertwining the fates of the movers and shakers of the Magic multiverse, building on legends both tragic and extraordinary. There's nonfiction publications like art books and A Planeswalker's Guide to Alara; video games such as Duels of the Planeswalkers; the storyline forums and player-run storyline info sites and wikis. And if I had my way there'd be an amazing Magic movie (trilogy) or TV series already, telling the deep, complex, empowering story behind Magic in living visuals. And across all of these media and all of their respective creators, we work to make Jace the same crafty mind mage he's always been, Nicol Bolas the same power-hungry villain, the five colors their same unique perspectives on reality, mana the same force for magical potential, the spark and planeswalking and summoning and spellcasting and mana bond creation the same magical phenomena—no matter who's reading it and who's creating it.

All these vectors into Magic contribute to the feel of a rich, time-honored, focused flavor phenomenon that grows along with your knowledge and rewards your investment in the game. It does more than that—it provides access to the story behind the game. It allows you to abstract from the details of the game to the level of themes and universals, to find parallels with history and great literature and with your own life. Magic's planeswalkers are a powerful metaphor for our trek through life, battling challenges and learning new aptitudes, honing our talents and relying on our ingenuity to forge a lasting success.

Problems with Depth

You might think I'd be hard-pressed to argue against flavor depth in a flavor column that exists largely to increase flavor depth. But generating this kind of depth actually represents considerable challenges. As I've discussed before, the primary medium of the game—the trading card game—is on the face of it a poor medium for delivering story. Cards come in randomized boosters and are shuffled during play. We have no way of predicting how any one person will come upon a given card, or adjacent to what other cards, in what order. Imagine if you wrote a novel, but your readers only got to read fourteen random pages at a time! (You heard it here first—the dawn of the Trading Page Novel.)

Depth is also a barrier to entry. Strongly arced TV series such as Lost or Battlestar Galactica create enormous benefits for the fans that have been with them from the beginning, but they accrete such a mass of internal references and shared understanding that it becomes near-impossible for a new person to jump into the middle.

The god of Depth is a god who likes stories—but a nontrivial problem with stories is that they end, and Magic doesn't. Lord of the Rings is an epic fantasy tale in which an unlikely hero (spoiler alert) defeats the overwhelming forces of a larger-than-life villain. But notice that we're not still telling stories about Frodo—he's done. He already (spoiler alert) passed into the Undying Lands beyond Middle Earth. Stories set up a challenge for the protagonist(s), and then resolve those challenges, and then they say "The End." So Magic has to find ways to weave stories in and out of a larger tapestry, focusing sometimes on the adventures of one hero, sometimes focusing on another, sometimes connecting them and sometimes not, with stories beginning and ending throughout. But even then we have to do it in such a way as to satisfy the 10+-year Magic player's craving for depth while not creating comprehensibility barriers for the player enjoying his first year.

    The Spiral

So, yes, it's a balancing act. We of course try to incorporate both breadth and depth. We satisfy the needs of the cards and the appetite of the players by broadening like crazy, blasting the game with a cannonload of detail-shrapnel every year. We satisfy the yen for familiarity and depth with stories that connect and interweave, revealing motifs and patterns and deep artistic parallels to our lives.

We're fond of talking about pendulums on this site, the go-to metaphor for how we emphasize one element of Magic for a while and then swing back in another direction the next year. But I'm taken with the (not dissimilar) symbol of the widening spiral. As Magic goes around and around, it revisits the same flavor elements. But as it progresses through time, it both deepens and widens, carving out a coil that gets broader and broader.

Imagine if there were only five races in Magic—leonin, merfolk, zombies, goblins, and elves, say. Imagine these five races as dots on a rough circle—the points of a curvy pentagon. If we printed more and more cards with these same five races every year, you would see the game hit those same races again and again, and you would learn more and more about them, coming back to the same points on the pentagon, but further along in time—like a temporal corkscrew. Now imagine that initial circle was filled up with everything in Alpha—basilisks, Lightning Bolts, sea serpents, Mishra, Circles of Protection, the Necromancer's Handbook. For Beta and Unlimited, that circle was retraced almost exactly—but when Arabian Nights came along, that circle would have expanded in diameter by a significant amount, but also coiling out through time, widening as it went. Magic's earlier flavor elements, like magical artifacts, djinns, war elephants, exotic locations, ogres, offensive and defensive spellcraft—all that got revisited, but the circle was also expanded with the sights and flavors of Rabiah.

I don't pretend mastery on how to manage this widening spiral of Magic flavor. We learn from our successes and from our gaffes, and try to apply those lessons to Magic's future, and try to make it all as enjoyable as possible along the way. So far it's been an excellent ride. I'm excited to show you the next bend in the spiral.

    Letter(s) of the Week

A couple of letters this week.

Dear Doug Beyer,
Regarding your article "Flavor of the Constellari":

This is a question about creature subtypes. What are Golems and Constructs? That is, in Magic, what sort of creations count as Golem and which don't?

An additional question, is not Construct simply a catchall type for a machine being? How do you reconcile that with the prevailing dissimilarity among Construct creatures?

There are definitely some judgment calls on individual cards. But in general, Construct is the type we use for mechanical, moving-part artifact creatures (that don't have some other specification). Think gears, wheels, levers, joints. They still run on magic, but some part of their creation probably involved a good amount of engineering and assembly. (Note that Thopter and Juggernaut are special cases that are broken out with their own types. Thopters fly. Juggernauts are big, unwieldy, usually wheeled siege machines that tend to be hard to stop.) Golems, on the other hand, are awakened through runes and rituals, and are living artifacts usually made of a single substance. Other general rules of subtyping do apply, such as whether the creature has "Golem" in the name (has to be a Golem then) or whether the subtype has some tribal interactions with nearby cards (I don't think this has come up yet for Golems or Constructs, but it has for Scarecrows), but those are the basic criteria.

I wanted to include another letter, less to answer it than to give credit to a well-reasoned and well-argued email. This one's about Runeclaw Bear.

Dear Doug Beyer,
Regarding your article "A Fresh Coat of Magic Paint":

In your article, you discuss a number of cards which were reconcepted for M10. I really enjoyed the read, followed the rationale, and agree with these moves entirely. This email is in regard to the Grizzly Bears into Runeclaw Bear reconceptualization, though. First off, let me say that I love the fact he is now a singular bear, and that I agree that a Runeclaw Bear sounds a lot more magical than a Grizzly Bear. Missions accomplished. However, I think there's something to be said for the loss of a real-world referent. While maybe bland in flavor, the old Grizzly Bears gave a standard by which we could gauge the might of the other summons in the Magic world. You could compare a creature to Grizzly Bears and get a sense of its strength. Could a normal, battle-ready human beat a bear? Nope, neither could 1/1 Soldiers. A really gifted fighter like Defiant Vanguard could kill a bear, but he'd get mauled doing so. Only a special professional like White Knight could fight one and win. An Elephant (3/3) or a Giant could beat one without dying. Grizzly Bears could shrug off a Lava Dart, but not a Lightning Bolt. And so on. If you wanted to imagine the scope of a new creature, just put him up against a real world Grizzly Bear. You see that, ok, an Ember Weaver is a spider that's big enough to kill a bear, but a Kederekt Parasite would be eaten. How big is Cerodon Yearling? About the same. And so on.

Now, Runeclaw doesn't give us so clear a standard. "Bear" is a known, but "Runeclaw" could be anything. What bonus does that give, having Runeclaws, +1/+0? +0/+1? In M10, a Blinding Mage would lose against a Runeclaw Bear, but is that because of his Runeclaws? Would the Mage stand a better chance against a real life bear? These questions are no longer as clear. Silvercoat Lion gives us the same ambiguity, because what does a Silvercoat give, +0/+1? I feel that, as a product designed to draw new players in, having ways for them to relate Magic to things they already understand is invaluable. M10 made a lot of major steps towards that by offering a lot of familiar fantasy tropes, but on the topic of Runeclaw Bear, I think it took one step back. The set's still fantastic though.

Thanks for your time,

Dan and Steve
Norton, MA

Thanks for your email, Dan and Steve! You definitely bring up some good points. We agonized over exactly the same kinds of issues you guys discuss here—there is value in baseline flavor and reference points being in the game, and while we were happy with how Runeclaw Bear in particular came out, honestly some decisions in creating any Magic set, especially in the aesthetic realm of flavor, come down to 60/40 judgment calls rather than slam dunks. But I'm glad to hear you're enjoying the set overall, as many, many have—I don't think it's news to tell you that Magic 2010 is selling very, very well.

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