A Shards Day's Night

Posted in Feature on October 20, 2008

By Rei Nakazawa


We Magic creative writers love a challenge. We savor developing cultures, we stare down cosmologies, we laugh at ambiguity. Ha ha ha! But the Shards of Alara block threatened to make us eat our hearty laughter. Good writers love challenges, and this set would give it to us in spades.

Each block has its unique qualities and puzzles, of course: the Lorwyn block had its lighter atmosphere, the Shadowmoor block its deliberate mirroring of the previous world, the Mirrodin block its questions about life in an all-metal plane, and so on. However, Shards of Alara brought a quality and quantity of challenge that no writing team before it has faced. This time, we weren't writing for just one world with a scattering of different peoples and cultures—we were writing for five worlds with their own different scatterings of peoples and cultures! Fortunately, a strong foundation had already been established by the time we writers got our hands on it, and that made all the difference.

When you're dealing with five worlds that used to be one, each with radically different qualities, ideals, and values, things can get very confusing very fast. We did, however, have a few advantages, thanks to the minds at Creative and Art. First, the structure of the worlds themselves helped us. In order to keep each setting distinct in the minds of players, each of the shards is strong in qualities that can be found in a major fantasy archetype. Bant is the chivalrous, noble, King Arthur brand of fantasy, while Esper represents the world of powerful, brooding wizards who tinker with forbidden forces and ancient artifacts in darkened laboratories. Grixis is the epitome of the demonic hells of any number of myths and fictional works, while Jund feeds on centuries of barbarian lore and fascination with dragons. Finally, Naya is the natural paradise, a primeval "savage land" filled with fantastic beasts.

Having such different kinds of settings not only links to the colors that are most dominant in each shard, it also helps give the feeling of each card belonging to its own little micro-world. Take a look at the art of a monocolored Shards of Alara card sometime. More often than not, it's pretty easy to tell which shard it belongs to without looking at the text box once you have a handle on each world's theme and such. That distinctiveness not only helps you, but the writers as well.

The writers also had the excellent Shards of Alara style guide, which outlines a dizzying array of basic detail about each setting through text and art concept illustrations. Usually, you players out there wouldn't get to see something like that except through Magic Arcana. But this time, you (hopefully!) have A Planeswalker's Guide to Alara, which comes closer to what we get with each set than any other publicly published Magic work. You can imagine the help and comfort this was during our long days and nights of writing. I myself have five text files in my Shards of Alara folder, notes I took from the style guide of the highlights of each setting, including important places and figures that I thought could be worked into future names or flavor text. After all, these elements also contribute to a card's (and a shard's) uniqueness; we had to take every precious opportunity to define and develop the shards, even if we only had a few words to work with.

Another way to deal with the seemingly limitless is to, well, set some limits. That's just what Doug Beyer did when he decided how his group of writers would attack Shards of Alara. Instead of letting us run rampant over all the colors and color combinations, as we might in a normal set, he instead limited us to particular shards. We dealt with Shards of Alara in two separate "waves"; in each wave, each writer was assigned two different shards. For example, in the first wave, I was writing for Bant and Esper. So all my cards in that wave were from those two planes; in fact, I only got their two sections of the style guide. (As those of you with the Planeswalker's Guide can already guess, each shard's style guide is almost as long, and packed with information, as the average style guide for one entire normal setting!) In the second wave, I wrote for Jund and Naya. Only at the very end, when the last batch of stragglers from both waves needed some attention, did I see anything outside those shards. Yes, this means that I hadn't seen any Grixis cards at all until that point. And yes, it also means that I hadn't seen over half the set by the time the writing was done—very unusual for me, but that made preview season a lot more interesting. It paid off, though, because it meant that we didn't have to keep the details of five worlds crammed in our head each time we opened Namebase (the database we submit our ideas into). We could concentrate on a couple of worlds, and give each the tender loving care they deserved.


This was fortunate, because it took me a little while to get used to the idea of realms without two particular colors. As Doug explained in a previous column, this is a matter more of magic types and attitude than anything else. Bant still has death, still has fire. It just doesn't have death magic or fire magic. Bant still has people who buck the system and commit crimes. But they do it for green, white, and blue reasons, not because of ambition or a desire for chaos. It took time and some practice at actual writing, but I think we all fell into the groove quite nicely in the end.

Doug was always careful to make sure we immersed ourselves in our assigned shards. One way he did so was to open a separate file for each shard in Namebase that didn't correspond to any particular card. As Doug mentioned in his Savor the Flavor column last week, he encouraged us to submit pieces to those files in the voices of the newly introduced planeswalkers—after all, you can tell a lot about a shard by the planeswalker who came from (or chose to live) there, and vice versa. But we could also use them as a repository for more wide-ranging flavor text pieces that talked about the shard, its culture, and its unique character, unencumbered by a specific ability or piece of art. Some good pieces came out of those files, but it was also an extra opportunity for all the writers to share their own views of the shards and the personalities of the planeswalkers. It was certainly a help, and a source of inspiration, when I went into the Jund and Naya files in wave two and saw all those thoughtful pieces from the wave one writers already there to chew on. Some of them even made it onto cards! For such a complex system of worlds, every little bit helps.

So how did we attempt to define the shards? One obvious way is through their colors, which take a much stronger role in that definition than normal. Take, for example, the flavor text one of my fellow authors wrote for Esper Panorama:


Esper is an expansive canvas painted by precise, controlling hands.
Esper Panorama

Esper is blue, white, and black. One thing that all those colors have strongly in common is the desire for control (or more specifically, to impose control on others). The flavor text takes very nice advantage of that.

Or you could go the opposite way, as I did with Bant Charm:


Bant is a world where death and chaos hold no sway.
Bant Charm

It should be pretty clear by now how literal its flavor text is at the moment. As has been said many times by many different writers here, the absence of colors is very profound, more so than it may look at first glance.

Doug already mentioned this piece in the aforementioned Savor the Flavor column, but I mention it again to show how writers can take both of the above approaches when it comes to color:


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

Jund lacks white (compassion) and civilization (white AND blue), but it has plenty of hunger (green and black), heat (red), and need (can also be green and black). In a set like this, color is an easy flavor shorthand that players pick up on at once, and it can go a long way in helping them get a handle on a world.

Other pieces depend on concentrating on one particular race or aspect of the individual shard. For example, the presence of rhoxes in Bant interested me a lot, given that Rhox definitely has the air of "strong, violent, and dumb." Their presentation in Alara, then, was pretty unusual:


Rhox monks are dedicated to spiritual growth and learning, and most bear the sigils of many students. However, they do not gladly suffer fools or those who disagree with their carefully wrought dogma.
Rhox War Monk

Rhoxes, especially the spiritual ones like the War Monk, needed to be strong (they're still two-ton rhinos, for Pete's sake), yet have an attitude and soul that doesn't necessarily leap into battle as a first resort. By presenting the Monk as a learned soul that can still be roused to violence by direct challenge, the flavor text helps express that image.

This race/aspect approach is where the style guide really came in handy. Take, for example, Volcanic Submersion:


A dragon's death is almost as feared as its life. Old, dying dragons throw themselves into volcanoes, causing massive upheaval and widespread disaster.
Volcanic Submersion

Those of you with A Planeswalker's Guide to Alara might recognize the flavor text as referring to the Shriek of Flame, an event that occurs when an old or dying dragon throws itself into an active volcano, going out in a literal blaze of glory. Its suicidal plunge creates a violent eruption that causes tectonic upheaval and destruction for miles around. Since the card's mechanics and art have nothing to do with dragons, it couldn't actually be the Shriek of Flame directly. But the flavor text still makes the reference and draws the connection, enlightening those without the Planeswalker's Guide and serving as a nice "Easter egg" to those with.

Another way to approach the cultures of each world is to think about how they approach certain spell types, and how those spells represent actions or attitudes that the culture holds dear. Take Cancel, for example:


"What you are attempting is not against the law. It is, however, extremely foolish."

It may seem like an odd choice at first to make this a Bant spell, but considering its peoples' strong interest in law and order, it's actually a pretty good fit. That still leaves the question of how to express that in flavor text in an interesting way. Fortunately, the spell type helps out. Countermagic is a category of spell that lends itself to a certain in-your-face attitude when it comes to flavor text, a sense of mocking triumph. Of course, normally, Bantian mages would certainly not be as crass as to make fun of a defeated foe right to their face. They may, however, revel in a certain sense of physical, mental, and moral superiority—righteous, law-abiding citizen versus rash, immature rogue who needs a firm and guiding hand. I think that comes across in Cancel's flavor text very well.

Finally, there's nothing wrong with literalness, with just making a flat statement of fact about the way the shards think and behave. A little literalness is needed sometimes to give the reader's thinking cap a break, or to impart particularly important information, and it's easy to forget that sometimes. Rakeclaw Gargantuan is an example of this:


Naya teems with gargantuans, titanic monsters to whom both nature and civilization defer.
Rakeclaw Gargantuan

It's extremely important to know that Naya's large, 5-power-plus beasties aren't just a bunch of big dumb critters wandering around. To Nayans, the gargantuans have significance and worth, and indeed are a key part of what makes this shard's cultures tick. Though other pieces, like that on Spearbreaker Behemoth, further develop this concept, it's important to get the basic fact across right away. Putting this piece of flavor text on a common card that's pretty significant in Limited play helps a lot.

I've been writing Magic creative elements for eight years now, and I still look forward to each new set, still feel eager to keep writing names, flavor text, and features like this for as long as Wizards of the Coast will let me. Challenges like those in Shards of Alara are part of the reason why. Each new block is an exciting new opportunity, and I think this is the first time I've been able to experience that feeling so often within just one set. There have been a lot of nice things said about this setting, and I think it's because of how well everything fits together, even though the worlds are far apart in all the ways that matter. Hopefully all of you out there are as excited as I am to see how Alara changes and grows.

But until then, get to know and love each shard as it exists now—who knows how long that state of ignorant bliss will last? So until we meet again, may your world be as bright, or as dark, as you want it to be...

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