|Modern Horizons 2's "Legendary" Chef|
|Prep Time: 2+ years||Calories: N/A|
|Cook Time: 5 minutes||Servings: 3|
It's funny how much official card previews are like recipes on the internet. There's this tiny little bit of information you want—the new card image(s), or the actual recipe you want to make (for me today, that was a watermelon lime chiller)—and it's buried in some kind of essay that I doubt very many people read. I don't really care about the history of vine-grown melons in refreshments or how much you hated the taste of lime when you were a kid, and it's a little exasperating that that's how recipes are delivered these days. Maybe the authors get paid by the word for writing them? Maybe they need to be a certain length to fit in all the advertisements?
Well, neither of those are true here! You're free to skip right to the card—there are three of them, and they're really cool, so I understand your impatience, I really do. My feelings won't be hurt.
But for those of you who want to stick around, rest assured my talk of recipes was for good reason, as I'll be telling you about one of Magic's oldest named characters, one who happens to be a chef.
In the beginning
. . .
Our story starts with the release of the very first edition of Magic—Alpha—way back in 1993. Not only did that set introduce the world to the game itself, but it also debuted flavor text—the italic quotes or snippets of lore that filled up unused text-box space, giving the creatures and spells some depth and context.
The flavor text on one Alpha card, the quirky red rare Granite Gargoyle, was attributed to the ridiculously named "Asmoranomardicadaistinaculdacar" as part of her gastronomicon, The Underworld Cookbook. It is unknown to me if that thirteen-syllable tongue-twister was the brainchild of Magic creator Richard Garfield or one of the handful of creative text writers that worked on that seminal set, or if the word held any special meaning to them.
Like many of the proper names introduced in Alpha, Asmoranomardicadaistinaculdacar—okay, "Asmor" for short—came with no further explanation than what you saw on the cards. Such names were more evocative than definitive. But, as the lore of Magic: The Gathering began being fleshed out in comic books and novels, most unturned stones were eventually, well, turned, including Asmor. A full story detailing her character and how she came to be an underworld chef—"Chef's Surprise" by Sonia Orin Lyris—was published as part of the Distant Planes anthology of short stories in 1996.
In that tale, we learn that Asmor was offered a deal by a Lord of the Pit that she had summoned: prepare food for the demon for seven years or be a meal for the demon. Not a particularly tough choice! Over her seven-year sentence, Asmor concocts recipes for a variety of dishes that we mortals would find unappetizing and inedible, including gray ogre toes and breast of the aforementioned granite gargoyle, and records them in The Underworld Cookbook. Her book ends being whatever the opposite of a "best-seller" is, and the recipes make her the enemy of all the various overworld species she suggests preparing as demon-food.
From Story to Card
Asmor and her cookbook were referenced a couple other times in flavor text—on Time Spiral's Lightning Axe and Unhinged's Sauté—and, so, as is the case with many flavor-text darlings, the clamor to make her into an actual card began.
The length of her name, such as it was designed to span the entire width of a card, makes it difficult to turn her into a game piece. As our esteemed lead editor, Del Laugel, said in a comment in our database, "No mana cost is literally the only way that this name will fit in the title bar."
That's quite the hurdle! While there have been a handful of spells with no mana cost (most with suspend—a trend that Modern Horizons 2 continues in earnest), there has never in the history of the game been a "normal" creature with no mana cost. The closest we got was Dryad Arbor in Future Sight, which avoids needing a mana cost because it's a land.
But sets like Modern Horizons 2 afford us the ability to make very strange cards that might seem out of place in normal sets or might require a deeper level of rules knowledge to grasp. These sets are also steeped in nostalgia and are the perfect homes for cards based on bits of obscure flavor text or ancient short stories, so Vision Designer Ethan Fleischer made it his goal to finally crack the nut of how to print an Asmor card.
Given that the card would have no cost, there had to be some way to make use of it without casting it. Ethan's first take was a 0/2 creature with the following line of text:
Put CARDNAME into your graveyard from your hand or the command zone: Create a 1/1 blue Beeble creature token.
So, basically, you could "discard" Asmor to get a 1/1. From there, the following line of text kicked in:
1, Sacrifice a creature: Create a Food token. You may activate this ability from the battlefield or your graveyard.
That design checked many of the right boxes: it was useful despite being unable to cast, and it captured the flavor of "underworld" and "chef" by using the graveyard and Food tokens.
When I took over leading the set, I wanted to try a different angle for the card. I didn't like explicitly referencing the command zone in a product not specifically for Commander play, and I wasn't a big fan of the Unhinged reference of the Beeble token. I was also worried that the initial design had no color requirements anywhere and could be put into any deck as what would effectively be a Memnite with significant upside.
Modern Horizons 2 had a madness theme in black and red by this point, and one of the MTG Arena software developers, Ben Finkel, had commented in our database that it would be cool if Asmor was not castable except via madness—another clever solve to the costless problem!
We tried this text on a costless 3/3 creature:
Madness BR (If you discard this card, you may cast it for its madness cost instead of putting it into your graveyard.)
Whenever you gain life, each opponent loses that much life.
Sacrifice another creature: Create a Food token.
(b/r), Discard a card: Return this card from your graveyard to your hand.
With Vito, Thorn of the Dusk Rose nearing completion in the Core Set 2021 file, we had to cut the second ability. On top of that, we were now hearing from the Commander folks in the studio that they were disappointed that Asmor was not functional as a Commander. So, we tried again, flopping where the hybrid activation was.
Madness (b/r) (If you discard this card, discard it into exile. When you do, cast it for its madness cost or put it into your graveyard.)
B, Sacrifice another creature: Create a Food token.
R, Discard a card: Return this card from your graveyard or the command zone to your hand.
Even though madness didn't work when trying to cast a card from the command zone, this version gave you an out in that you could get it into your hand.
As we iterated on this version, four problems kept surfacing:
- There was a real desire to make sure this character was a usable commander; it was, after all, the flavor-loving "Vorthos" community that was asking for the card in the first place.
- At the same time, there was a lot of continued dislike for the overt mention of the command zone on a card in this set; it was, after all, meant to be a product that was aimed at the Modern format first and foremost.
- Designs that used the madness mechanic were unlikely to be able to thread that needle, since madness as written was incompatible with the command zone.
- The combination of Witch's Oven and Cauldron Familiar from Throne of Eldraine was out in the real world and had kind of put the damper on the appeal of sacrificing creatures to make Food tokens.
Plating the Final Dish
Eventually, we struck upon the idea of splitting the concept of Asmor and her Cookbook into two different cards, which allowed us to spread the abilities out and give them room to breathe. Eventually, we came up with a way for her to play well in madness-themed decks without actually having madness herself, and she's castable from the command zone without having to explicitly reference it. Behold!
Some notes on these final designs:
- You can't cast Asmor normally, but you can sneak her into play with Aether Vial. A 3/3 on turn 1!
- An earlier version of the card sacrificed Food to destroy target creature, but because the card was black-red hybrid, we needed the ability to be a little more red. The target deals damage to itself for practical reasons—we couldn't fit "Asmoranomardicadaistinaculdacar" in the text box again. But I think it also makes some flavor sense—her food is so ghastly that it kills just about anyone who eats it
. . .unless you happen to be the size of a Lord of the Pit!
- The Underworld Cookbook is uncommon and not legendary. In the story, 20 copies were created. In Draft, the card bridges a bunch of archetypes—reanimator, tokens, madness—and we wanted to make sure that if you drafted an Asmor you had a good shot of getting a Cookbook.
- Asmor was called a "wizard" specifically in the short story, which was fortuitous as we have a smattering of cards for Wizards tribal in the set!
As we developed Modern Horizons 2, Asmor quickly became one of the favorite characters of the Creative team, and as such, her name and likeness show up on quite a few cards in the product. In fact, I'd say she rivals Dakkon Blackblade for who the true face of Modern Horizons 2 is!
Discerning Taste is one such card. While not much of a combo with Asmor herself, it does keep with her vibe of "dead creatures are delicious." This card is an important piece of the aforementioned reanimator strategy in Limited, letting you find a reanimation spell as it fills your graveyard and buys you time with extra life. And the bigger the creatures you stuff your deck with, the more life you'll gain!
Only in a product like Modern Horizons 2 could a card like Asmoranomardicadaistinaculdacar exist, and it truly took a village to get the card out the door. Everyone had a hand in this one, from the Vision Design team to the editors and rules manager, from the card conceptors and art directors to the Future Future League playtesters
I feel like we hit the sweet spot at the intersection of fun, novel, and flavorful, with a decent dash of "powerful" thrown in for good measure. I'm excited for you all to see the rest of what Modern Horizons 2 has in store!