Your Mailbox is Over Vorthosity

Posted in Savor The Flavor on August 26, 2009

By Doug Beyer

Senior creative designer on Magic's creative team and lover of writing and worldbuilding. Doug blogs about Magic flavor and story at

When I get that paradoxical little message that communicates to me that my email inbox has exceeded its capacity—and yet communicates by its claim-falsifying presence that my inbox is indeed capable of receiving at least one more message, I mean, right folks?—I know it's time to do a mailbag column. In truth, I am a savvy person and I archive my email off the server, so I never actually get that message anymore, but it's a good segue, because it SHUDDUP LET'S DO SOME EMAILS.

The Meaning of Life (Totals)

Dear Doug Beyer,

How do Life Points fit into the game, in terms of flavour? I mean, if we take it literally, then each time we lose a game of MTG, then we've died. How come we can pick up that deck again--representing our entire magical arsenal--and play right again? What are the chances of there being a billion planeswalkers with the exact same collection of spells?

Or is the term "Life Points" more of a misnomer? Are they instead, like a planeswalker's loyalty counters, a measure of morale: once we run out of morale, we give up? But that ruins the metaphors that so many damage-dealing cards give--lose of life is always portrayed as physical damage, which points to the first idea, which I believe is vaguely unflavourful.

Please enlighten me, and all the others who are probably wondering the same thing.

Yours, Iain.

P.S. As far as I'm concerned, flavour is spelt like this.

When you get to zero life, you're dead—that's definitely the flavor (or flavour, if you would prefer it spelled/spelt—hmm, did my spell get "counterspelt"?). Thankfully, playing games of Magic doesn't have the same lethal stakes as an in-world planeswalker duel to the death. We like to lean hard on the metaphors of life totals, relishing the hazardous flavor of eating Fireballs and blocking Stampeding Rhinos with one's face—but when it comes down it, there's a gap between what we risk and what Jace and Garruk and Co. risk when they have magical firefights. We risk the possibility of defeat and maybe a few minutes' time (and our tournament survival, if that's the context). They risk their lives.

That difference in stakes gives rise to different behavior. Almost every game of Magic is to the death; we tend not to adjourn games with two players who are at 7 and 5—we play it out to see who deals the deathblow. But that's because we can shuffle up and play again if we die. Planeswalkers in the Multiverse retreat sometimes. You don't see Liliana getting herself down to low life, but then hanging around for one more draw phase, to see whether she'll topdeck out of her predicament or whether her life will be over forever. No. She distracts her opponent and gets the hell out of there—and so would you, if you got one death per forever.

Note that many games have this "when you lose, you're dead" metaphor built into them. Why can we continue to play games of chess, when our king-avatar has been crushed between a force of knights and a three-storey stone castle? Why can we resurrect from a save point when our chainsaw-toting first-person-shooter-self gets his guts bitten out by Martian demons? Because of that sweet, sweet gap between games and life. It's not that the flavor is of a sequence of alternate selves forever entering magical duels-to-the-death; the flavor is that we're powerful but death-vulnerable mages just like Jace who sometimes combat other mages like ourselves. It's just that our decisions of whether to flee or to see who's gonna die differs from Jace's, since we know we're playing a game.

As an aside, I've always liked the idea that being decked (losing the game due to running out of cards in your library) doesn't kill you. We sometimes talk loosely about being "milled to death," but strictly speaking, when you fail to draw that final card, you've still got a life total—so you're in some sense still alive. Your arsenal of spells and your mind itself have been ruined, so you spend the rest of your life as a senseless husk. That's pretty cool to me. Think about that the next time you see a Sanity Grinding aimed at somebody's coconut!

Life, Limb, and Loyalty

Dear Doug Beyer,

How do you reconcile damage to planeswalkers (specifically the player) with damage to creatures? In other words, planeswalkers tend to be human or humanoid (Nicol Bolas aside) so without magic, we would expect their toughness to be 1 or 2. Instead, it takes 7 times as much damage to kill one as it takes to kill an elephant (typically 3/3). Obviously there must be some magic that keeps the player's body from being pulverized when it's stepped on by a 6 power giant, but how is this manifested in flavor terms?


We make a big deal about planeswalkers being killable these days, and I've talked about how the humanoid power/toughness range tends to top out at about the 2/2 level. But planeswalkers are still very, very powerful mages, and they still have the potential to be the most powerful beings in the Multiverse. They're the heroes of Magic's story. If some random Loxodonta africana truly knew what it was dealing with, it wouldn't go barreling headlong into a planeswalker's life total. That's not to say Chandra Nalaar could never be squished by an elephant—but if she had her wits and spells about her, watch out. Planeswalkers are more than your run-of-the-mill mortal beings. They're resourceful, canny, spell-skilled, and battle-trained—and yes, able to take a few frontal assaults and live to tell about it.

Scott's letter brings up another question, especially in light of the previous question. How come planeswalker cards have only a few loyalty (between 3 and 6, of the ones released so far), whereas players, who are supposed to be planeswalkers themselves, start at 20 life? We were very careful to specify that planeswalker cards have loyalty counters, not life counters—we deal with loyalty counters, but that doesn't mean those planeswalkers don't also have life totals that the game just doesn't keep track of.

Why is Sorin partially blank? Click the image to find out.

I think of it this way: Elspeth Tirel and Sorin Markov and almost every planeswalker has the same damage capacity, by default (which, when we're players, we break up into twenty subunits and measure as life totals). When you summon Elspeth or Sorin to your side, they have a loyalty total that is not the same as, but is not wholly independent from, their life total. Flavorwise, things that reduce their loyalty might "actually" affect their private life total, also, but we're just speculating there because the game rules don't track that. For example, Elspeth might secretly have 20 life when she shows up. If she gets some Lava Axe damage directed to her, it might not only reduce her loyalty to zero, but also reduce her actual life total from 20 to 15—which could be plenty of punishment for her to say "see ya."

Some effects might reduce loyalty without actually physically hurting the planeswalker, of course; for Garruk to do his overrun ability might take a lot of his power and energy out of him, for example, but it probably doesn't actually wound his mysterious life total.

Can You Raed Tihs?

Dear Doug Beyer,

I am writing in connection with some of the names that appear in Magic, those names that players keep on misreading. I think it is connected with the phenomenon that a person does not really read the word letter by letter, but rather the whole word at a time, and mainly checks the first and the last letter, arranging all the letters in between as the brain assumes to be correct. Which is not always the correct way with imaginary words :)

Time and time again, I have noticed that the new set is actually Zendikar, instead of Zedinkar - the way how I always thought it was called, until I paid a bit of attention.

Another great example is the Ravnica card Orzhov Euthanist - which I always called Orzhov Enthusiast (I know I am not the only one). I do remember that there were other some cards like that, but I cannot now recall from the top of my head.

Are you aware of such names? Could you maybe name the most popular ones from the history of Magic?

And what is your opinion about them? Is it just a freak thing, or does it mean - that the name is wrong?

Keep up the good work, and keep Magic magic (so it differs from other fantasy)!


We work hard to make sure card names are pronounceable, even when they're made-up fantasy words or obscure Oxford English Dictionary entries. But even when we're careful, it happens: the eye overlooks, the tongue misspeaks, and the brain locks in on a pronunciation that just isn't what the card says. The irregularities in English, and the way our brains work, may be partly to blame. This goes for several languages, but English speakers in particular are taught enough words (for example, "taught" and "enough"!) that violate the language's basic pronunciation rules that we may learn to learn words as whole units, rather than as strict orderings of letters. Reading, therefore, may tend to become a process of quickly identifying markers and shortcuts, such as first and last letters as you mention, and letting those markers guide us to words we know—rather than a process of studying precise letter sequences. That's helpful most of the time, because it speeds up reading and allows us to be failure-tolerant—we can read along and understand words wthiuot gnettig sotpped by missipellgns.

But some of the time, when we encounter unfamiliar words, this brain function can lead us astray, pushing us to a word or pronunciation that feels familiar even when it's not accurate. For example, people learned "Ravnica" eventually, but we heard a lot of "Ravincas" at first; that "vnic" construction is almost unheard of in English, where as "vinc" shows up much more often ("invincible," "vinca"). "Imperious Perfect" was another one; we wanted to make a point that the elves of Lorwyn name their nobility after varying degrees of flawlessness, with Perfects at the top. But "Prefect," a word that already means "authority figure," sort of gets in the way in people's brains—to the point that people actually thought we had made a typo in the card name. It happens. (I think this is also why some players had troubles with card names in Champions of Kamigawa block—even though words like "Soratami" or "Hatamoto" have very straightforward, regular pronunciations in English, as adult speakers we're just not used to sounding out words from their spelling.)

So do we watch for that kind of thing? Yes, but it can be tough. It's hard to predict how people will read a name sight unseen, because people have different strengths of associations with different words, pushing their brains toward this pronunciation or that. Plus we spend a lot of time with names before they go out, and can sometimes convince ourselves that they'll be picked up easily. (I still love the name "Reveillark," but I'm not convinced it was the best idea; even some very smart people almost have to hear it pronounced—"REH-veh-lark"—to get it the way I intended it.)

But we do avoid some names if they cause obvious problems before the card file goes to the printers. The placeholder name for Vampire Nocturnus, for example, was Vampire Domnitor. Domnitor ("DOMM-nih-tor") is a real word, a Slavic ruler title, derived from the Romanian domn meaning "lord"—a classic source language for an archetypal M10 vampire lord. But we found that people were pronouncing it "Dominator" right out of the gate, and so we sought a different name—Nocturnus, a made-up word that people nevertheless had no trouble with. ("Nocturnus" has the bonus of communicating "I like nighttime" while still sounding like an official title, and it was so close to "nocturnal" that it was easy to pronounce. So it had a lot going for it, even though we liked the etymological pedigree of "Domnitor.")

Planes and Dimensions

Dear Doug Beyer,

I just happened upon this video, describing how we humans can conceive of higher dimensions (, and the thought occurred to me, perhaps this is the kind of insight a planeswalker's spark brings; the ability to intuit and understand the higher dimensions as well as manipulate them such that one can travel from one dimension (i.e. location or plane) to another. What would this mean for the Blind Eternities? Would they be considered the "space" between the 4th and 5th dimensions that a planeswalker traversed while "folding" from one 3rd dimension to another? Also, would this imply that planeswalkers could also influence the time in which they arrived at their destination, thereby traveling through time?

I find this sort of thing fascinating, especially when able to use the concept of planeswalking to help my 3rd-dimensional mind conceive of actually traveling between dimensions, and I hope you do as well.
Thanks for your time!

That's a great find, Jared! I'm a big fan of Edwin Abbott's Flatland, a book that employs the same kind of analogical thinking, bridging from 2-D to 3-D to help us understand higher dimensions of space (it just doesn't take it as far as that video!). I'm not sure that all the conclusions of ten-dimensional reasoning can be applied to planeswalkers—Jace's planeswalking ability doesn't allow him to bend dimensions and travel to other time-points in his lifeline, for example. But certainly this kind of thinking helps us imagine what the Multiverse might be like (perhaps a line composed of points, each of which is a three-or-more-dimensional plane), and weirdly, what it might be like to experience planeswalking.

There've been several attempts to describe the experience of planeswalking in Magic novels, and many of them hint at planeswalking as a kind of dimensional travel. It's hard to get your mind around traveling, not just from world to world, but from reality to reality, as planar travel truly is. When I wrote this, for example, I was thinking of the scene in Flatland when the Sphere flips the Square through the third dimension. Square describes this experience as an "unspeakable horror," as all beings of N dimensions might characterize an encounter with N+1:

The sensation was like being shoved through a plate of glass, except that the splinters tore at the inside of his skin instead of the outside. His heart tried to pound, but it didn't know which direction to expand into, so it squeezed painfully in on itself instead. Ajani's lungs burned, and he wasn't sure if he was breathing in something awful or failing to breathe anything at all. His sense of up and down betrayed him, and he had the sensation of being flung end over end without moving at all.
Alara Unbroken

I'd encourage everybody to check out the video. I leave you with another relevant quote:

And speaking of planeswalking...

Ohboyohboyohboy Planechase!

Dear Doug Beyer,

The August 18 Arcana showcased the Plane cards in the Elemental Thunder Planechase deck. While there were several familiar realms (including one soon to come), Shandalar's Eloren Wilds, Muraganda's Feeding Grounds, Valla's Immersturm, and Ir's Turri Island were new to me. Could you share what these realms are like, or why they affect the battle they do?


Your Planechase flavor questions will be answered. Watch this space next week!

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