Writing the Eldrazi

Posted in NEWS on May 3, 2010

By Adam Lee

Adam Lee had a long freelance career as a writer and artist in the greeting card industry before coming to Magic's creative team. He grew up in the commune-laden wilds of Northern California in the 70s and his Guild Quiz result was Selesnya. "Be groovy, people."

Hello all! Today it's my pleasure to introduce creative consultant Adam Lee. Adam, Internet. Internet, Adam. Adam wrote names and flavor text for Rise of the Eldrazi (among other things), and he'll be working with the creative team over the coming months. There's a good chance you'll see his name around the site in that time. In the meantime, enjoy his musings and notes on the creative effort behind the flavor writing for Rise of the Eldrazi.

Kelly Digges
Daily MTG Editor, magicthegathering.com

I have found on my journey of writing names and flavor text for Wizards of the Coast that there are many aspects of the job that I really relish.

I am still fascinated how these delightful snippets give me an opportunity to ponder grave and preposterous things, from the consciousness of angels to the eating habits of goblins, from the quizzical machinations of a master mage to the mindless hunger of the Lord of the Undead. I have to get inside these strange worlds and somehow embody fantastical creatures to try and catch a glimpse of what these realities would actually be like. It's a lot of whacked-out fun.

While I write, somewhere in my feverish brain I am always cognizant of my ultimate goal, and that is to make you laugh, gasp, cringe, boast, swagger, swear, shudder, or, perhaps, feel the fervent desire to crush your opponent because he or she just quoted a particularly arrogant lick of flavor while smugly applying a fatal smack-down on your face. All of the aforementioned would make me warm and fuzzy inside. Testament to a job well done.

Every Magic set is different and poses its own set of unique challenges. For Rise of the Eldrazi, I had to load a double shot of H.P. Lovecraft into the writing cannon. I knew that as soon as the style guide dropped into my lap and steamed like a heap of entrails, writhing with unholy life. It did that because the emphasis on this set was the final, earth-shaking emergence of the Eldrazi, returning to Zendikar to wreak mind-shattering damage on any and all who beheld their all-encompassing badness. I knew that for my money, Lovecraft was the dude who would give me the base lexicon that I needed to describe these titans and their effect on Zendikar and the minds of those poor schlubs who beheld them.

By the way, that's the first thing I do when immersing into a project: I surround myself with words that somehow relate to the set. If the set is bug-based, I get all kinds of books on bugs. If it's a set like Coldsnap, I load up on Norse myths and books on Antarctic explorers. I saturate my brain with words of every variety, color, and type that describe the realms, people, and creatures that I am going to be working with. I have found that all I have to do is give my brain these ingredients and it automatically begins to shape all the words and lore that I have stuffed in there into flavorful goodness.

At this point in the process, I arm myself with my notebook (I live with several of them) and pore over the style guide (still writhing), so I can soak up the world, its inhabitants, and the mythos that is running behind the scenes. One never knows when inspiration will strike, sometimes at 3 a.m. (damn you, inspiration fairy!), sometimes while eating a hearty bowl of soup (put down spoon, write idea), sometimes while fighting crime (Pow! Off to jail bad guy. Hey, great idea!). Soon, the gems begin to pop out of the ol' grey matter hotel. It can be a slick phrase or a stomach-churning description, a badass name, or just a group of cool words that make me feel something. When they start bubbling up, I write them down. No idea goes wasted. It's like a vulture feast in my head.

Here's a choice selection of my cards that made it into Rise of the Eldrazi. I'll take you on a play-by-play as to how I came up with the flavor text and give you all an insight into how my mind works when I first get the basic card from R&D and the Creative Team and how I turn it into the final product that bursts forth from the booster packs.

Arrogant Bloodlord

Arrogant Bloodlord | Art by Mike Bierek

"I would rather take my own head than be thwarted by a presumptuous wretch with a shield and a dream."

The mechanic of Arrogant Bloodlord gave me an insight into what this character was all about. As I looked at the card, I noticed that it packs a heavy punch at 4/4, yet it crumples when blocked by a weenie. Vampires in this world are divided into large families, ruled by bloodchiefs who all vie for power and dominion. Prestige and reputation were all parts of their culture, as was their feeling of superiority over lesser beings. Perhaps this vampire knight could not tolerate defeat as a matter of having such an inflated sense of pride. This card's name and text spawned from those ideas.

As an aside to the readers, arrogance, in any form is always a fun one to write for, because I can really indulge myself with those dark, rich, chocolaty feelings of haughty contempt whipped with soul-corrupting pretentiousness and garnished with a dash of nauseating elitism. "How far can I push it?" I ask myself. "How absolutely filled with snobbery can I make this name, or this little chunklet of prose?" These are the flavor texts that I imagine being quoted at the moment of using the card's mechanic during the game. When a player really drives the dagger of a superior play deep into his or her opponent's proverbial heart by reciting one of these little gems of flavor, I believe that on some ethereal realm, I feel it, as if a spell had been cast by the recitation of that text, and it makes me grow ever stronger. Cackle!

Aura Finesse

Aura Finesse | Art by Howard Lyon

"Although armor and auras can be similar, the brains required to use them are worlds apart."
—Zilan, Makindi auramancer

When I am writing blue cards, they usually give me an open-door opportunity to lay down some high-browed, patronizing contempt. Delish!

Blue and red have always had this dispute in my mind. I think that if I were to distill it into its raw arguments, it would be something like this: blue thinks that red are a bunch of barbarous thugs who shout a lot, bang rocks and steel together, and smell bad. Red, on the other hand, simply wants to punch blue in the face. For this card, I saw another opening for blue to get its point across. Namely, red are a bunch of dummy dumb-heads.

Bala Ged Scorpion

Bala Ged Scorpion | Art by Daarken

Fast and lethal, with a penchant for the weak and infirm.

The mechanic on this scorpion allows you to zap a weenie when it pounces, claws a-clattering, into the game. This made me think of an ambush predator that waits until all the big, strong, fast ones have gone by and then strikes at the weak and wobbly one taking up the rear. I also had an image of some poor soul wandering into the realm of Bala Ged (think Journey to the Center of the Earth). No expedition lasts long there unless they are yoked with power and steel, and I felt that this dark killer would fit in such a place quite nicely. It would give a taste of what the realm of Bala Ged is all about: dangerous, almost prehistoric creatures gone wild.

Baneful Omen

Baneful Omen | Art by Karl Kopinski

"Ah, again it does not bode well for you."

This is one of those hateful little cards to play against. I can almost hear the groans as it comes out onto the battlefield. When I saw this mechanic, I said to myself, "Now here's a one that must be able to be quoted with relish and insidious glee." When I get a tasty card like this one—a repeating, life-sucking enchantment—I hearken back to my days of playing Magic with my pals, trading quips and jibes. I imagine playing this card on them, hearing their laments, watching them mark down their life points, and enjoying every end step as I unwrap yet another Christmas present of doom for my opponents and say to them with a look of feigned surprise, "Ah, again it does not bode well for you." Sheer delight.

Bloodthrone Vampire

Bloodthrone Vampire | Art by Steve Argyle

Some humans willingly offered up their blood, hoping it would grant the vampire families the strength to stave off the Eldrazi.

The style guide is a work of art in itself. It is one of my tasks to put some of the lore gleaned from it into your hands and minds. This card is one of those examples.

Again, the mechanic influences the flavor. The vampire is chomping victims—willing or unwilling—and is pumping itself up. In Rise of the Eldrazi, the vampire families are in deep, deep trouble. Their former masters, the Eldrazi themselves, have awakened and are coming back to crush everything that resists them into a pulp and then systematically subjugate the rest.

I imagined what this must be like for the vampires. Families that were once at war with each other would see their most violent quarrels quickly pale and then turn to fluffy sparkle-dust before the annihilating threat that the Eldrazi propose. A massive panic would ensue, and all would concentrate on how to defeat these seemingly invincible beings. Those vampires that could be imbued with enough strength would be the ones chosen to go up against one of the brood lineages, or even one of the titans if they could get enough power into them. Scores of vampires and perhaps even non-vampires would willingly offer themselves up to these newly found defenders of "life as we know it." Imminent cataclysm puts things into perspective in a hurry, and this seemed like a good card to illustrate that immense problem the vampires and all other races of Zendikar face as the Eldrazi return to feed.

Fleeting Distraction

Fleeting Distraction | Art by Kieran Yanner

"To distract an archmage would take incredible power. But for a simpleton, something sparkly will do."
—Noyan Dar, Tazeem lullmage

I don't know who came up with the name Noyan Dar, but as soon as I heard it, I knew this dude inside and out. Every now and then while poring through the style guide, I come across a name and I know that a good portion of my flavor text is going to be spoken by that character. Noyan Dar was my pick of the litter for Rise of the Eldrazi.

The art influenced the flavor on this one, and again, the blue-red conflict bubbled up and spilled over. I imagined Noyan Dar, ultra-cool and unfazed, as he is bull-rushed by a minotaur about to land that oh-so-sought-after sucker punch that red has been dreaming of. What a gift—a wimpy mage presented to a hulking bull-warrior, ripe for the bashing. Well, Noyan Dar has an answer for everything, and in this case, it's something that no red thunderpuncher can resist: a sparkly, little flying thingy.


Gigantomancer | Art by Chippy

Any chance I get to create another 'mancer, I jump on it. Gigantomancer was ripe for the picking.

Harmless Assault

Harmless Assault | Art by Chippy

After encasing it in a paralyzing beam of light, the angel studied the Eldrazi as a child would study a bug, curiously and without fear.

Angels are beyond human, so writing about them is to imagine something that I am not, which is a really interesting realm for me as a writer.

Something about them gives me a feeling that they are, in essence, totally innocent. They have transcended or have never encountered the entangling snares of emotions that we all deal with from day to day. They live in an eternal state of alert presence, for they are the witnesses and arbiters for some higher power or realm that we know not of. They operate and act from the highest of principles. If they fight, it is because the universal principle of righteousness and justice says that they must. They do not judge things as we mortals judge. If we think that they fight for us, it is a foolish, conceited notion, for if we should stray from a righteous path—righteous in the purest essence of that word—their swords will smite us instantly and without hesitation.

So, in writing this piece of text, I had to get into the mind of an angel. When I looked at the Eldrazi with (dare I say it) angelic objectivity, they actually are just another life form attempting to exist, like any fungus, fish, or rodent. The denizens of Zendikar give them their malevolence and imbue them with fear and sinister power only because they are threatened by them. An angel is not involved in all that; it is fascinated with all of creation and upholds purity and balance no matter what it looks like.

But don't get me wrong. There ain't nothing like an angel bringing out a can of whup-ass every now and then.

Inquisition of Kozilek

Inquisition of Kozilek | Art by Tomasz Jedruszek

You will scream out your innermost secrets just to make it stop.

Some cards require me to go to a very unpleasant place in my mind. Some cards require me to imagine some alien inquisitor invading my brain. See, writing isn't all fun and games. Sometimes it leaves me huddled on the floor, muttering to myself about rats in the walls. I boldly go to unspeakable realms to mine for literary gold for all of you.

The name and the flavor text were both born from the mechanic and the art of this card. My first impression was the revulsion of being in the clutches of a monstrous being bent on ripping out stuff from your mind.. Not a very pleasant thing. I won't go into it to deeply, but the one thing that I think is the key to this piece of flavor text is the word scream. You don't babble it out or blurt it out. Even shout it out doesn't do it. To scream it out implies the furthest loss of control, which is what I wanted to convey here: a complete and utter surrender, just teetering on the border of utter madness.

Kargan Dragonlord

Kargan Dragonlord | Art by Jason Chan

When you have a card like this, the name has to convey the coolness of it. Some names just sound appropriately badass, and I was able to pull it off this time.

Lagac Lizard

Lagac Lizard | Art by Svetlin Velinov

Tracing their ancestry back to Zendikar's earliest forms of life, lagac lizards have seen the comings and goings of planeswalkers and the Eldrazi, and the rise of the vampire clans, none of which has changed them one bit.

I got to thinking of crocodilians and how they have not changed much in over 100 million years. They have seen it all in their time, and these lagacs are much the same. I took that as an opportunity to give a little run-down of Zendikar's history.

Leaf Arrow

Leaf Arrow | Art by Eric Deschamps

"Those who think the trees shall remain bystanders throughout this conflict shall be sorely mistaken."
—Sutina, Speaker of the Tajuru

On this one, I liked the idea that the trees were actually firing off their leaves like snipers. Even the trees know that they have to roll up their sleeves and start inventing some crazy, leaf-hurling kung-fu.

Nema Siltlurker

Nema Siltlurker | Art by Wayne Reynolds

In one gargantuan bite, it will swallow not only you but also the riverbank you were standing on.

The art really gave me of the lurching ferocity of the creature, so I wanted to convey the power of this thing's attack along with its gargantuan bulk. Something this big isn't a picky eater, and I pulled from my many nights watching the Discovery Channel and seeing the salt water crocs scarf down a water buffalo along with the mud from the riverbank. They don't care—mud, rocks, bones, water, it all goes down the chute.


Nighthaze | Art by Tomasz Jedruszek

"To evade the brood lineages, one must be made dark to all the senses."
—Traga, Zulaport runner

I liked this one because it is another take on invisibility. According to the style guide, the brood lineages are essentially blind, so anyone who wishes to tippy-toe into Eldrazi Central must be cloaked in some pretty serious sorcery, and I wanted the flavor to let you all know about it.

Nirkana Revenant

Nirkana Revenant | Art by Igor Kieryluk

Hate is an everlasting wellspring from which it is eternally sustained.

This one was inspired by my brother, who always plays such marvelously depraved villains. We've often talked about the virtues of excellent villainy and how a great villain makes even a great hero that much greater. Anyhow, in the case of this card, Nirkana Revenant is just bursting and bubbling with so much black mana, and that, in turn, is making it stronger and stronger, proving truly that hate can sustain a life ... albeit a foul and bitter one.

Rage Nimbus

Rage Nimbus | Art by Vincent Proce

The settlement knew there was something strange about the cloud when the old priest Mandli suddenly grabbed an axe and ran screaming into the hills.

This card had me puzzled at first, but then I got the inspiration.

The mechanic of this Elemental creature causes someone, anyone—it could be your 96-year-old grandpappy—to just get up and rush headlong into battle! How awesome is that? When I saw that in my mind's eye, it made me laugh out loud. The cool thing about this creature is that it targets who it wants to freak out and turn into a killing machine. My visual was this idyllic, little hamlet whose kindly, bearded old priest, Mandli—healer, comforter, and friend of all—just suddenly felt the curious urge to rise up and slaughter foes. Dino, Matt, Brad. This one's for you guys.

Soulsurge Elemental

Soulsurge Elemental | Art by Jason A. Engle

It draws its strength from those around it, but the pleasure of destruction is all its own.

The thing about this card that influenced the flavor was that it has first strike. That hinted to me that this elemental is really eager to attack. It is not like a white first striker. This is a red creature, and that spells only one thing for me: It revels in destruction.

Sporecap Spider

Sporecap Spider | Art by Lars Grant-West

"They don't move much, but then again, if you get caught in its web, it has all the time in the world to get to you." —Saidah, Joraga hunter

In the art description, this card called for the artist to depict a spider that is so still or slow-moving that it has mushrooms and various mosses and lichens growing on it. When I read that, I wondered how the heck I was going to portray that verbally, because I loved the concept. It has reach, so it can hit flyers. Normally, I would see this as a jumping spider, or a spider that can throw nets into the air, but this guy would never sprout even a toadstool if it was running about like that. So I came upon the idea that its web is so sticky and strong that it doesn't have to rush in to wrap up its prey like normal spiders do. It can just hang out and slowly amble over when it's darn good and hungry.

Stalwart Shield-Bearers

Stalwart Shield-Bearers | Art by Austin Hsu

"Hold fast the line! Either we stop them here or we wake up in their guts!"
—Tala Vertan, Makindi shieldmate

This card is an interesting one. When I write flavor, if I do it right, I try to squeeze ever bit of drama that I can into just one short little blurb. How this card came into being is an example of that. At first I was going to put something like "Hold fast or we will all end up dead," or "Hold fast, or we will all end up on their spears." But then I thought about something more terrifying: If we don't hold this line, we will be eaten alive and screaming by some slobbering, nightmarish creature. Ah, that made me want to hold the line a whole lot more. There is something deep within my psyche that would rather be killed by a human and have my head skewered onto a pike for all to see and jeer at than be devoured by something inhuman. That, to me, is more horrific.

That's a Wrap

Well, there's my selection of winners for Rise of the Eldrazi. I hope you found this tour of my work and my experience doing it both informative and entertaining.

Before I close this lovely article, I feel like I should mention that not even close to a quarter of all my submissions get to live happy, jaunty lives on Magic cards. It's not all successes and ticker-tape, or a flash of divine inspiration and a lilting skippity-prance to the final printed card. Nay, more often than not, it is word-smithing a chunk of raw flavor slag into a shimmering, golden phrase only to watch it crumble like a pillar of salt. It is a rough road, for they are all truly labors of love, but sometimes the peg just stays square and never quite fits into the round hole.

So know ye well and truly that those cards that you hold in your hand come at a weighty cost, dear reader. They are the cream of the crop, the pick of the litter, a polished jewel of Byzantium. It is my hope (and I am sure that my cohorts at Wizards agree) that every card is bursting with all our combined efforts to make you blissfully happy, supremely confident, and feared among lesser mortals.