elcome to Favorite Flavor Week! Let me start by explaining that we are beginning a new subtheme for theme weeks: Favorite __________ Week. From time to time we'll run theme weeks where the columnists get to talk about their favorite (fill in the blank). For the first Favorite theme week, we've embraced the theme of resonance from Magic 2010, and each author is going to talk about those cards, decks, mechanics, or storylines have their favorite flavor.
As this is Favorite Flavor Week and not Flavor I Admire Week or Flavor I Feel Is Best for the Game Week, I figured out mighty quickly where my favorite flavor could be found: inside of silver borders. Yes, the flavor that lies closest to my heart appears in the Un- sets (more specifically, for those that don't know what I mean, Unglued and Unhinged—and if you have no idea what I'm talking about, you can click here and here). The Un- sets are parody sets where we approach the game from a much more light-hearted vantage point. In short, it's the set where we take ourselves the least seriously and poke fun at the work we normally do.
Why does this flavor connect so much for me? Because it crosses two of my great loves: Magic and comedy. In my creative life, these are the two things that I love making, so I enjoy nothing better than when I get to do both at the same time. In addition, Un- cards are connected to their flavor in a way that's much more central to them than most Magic cards. When I create an Un- card I have to create the card as a cohesive whole (well, most of the time; there are cards like When Fluffy Bunnies Attack). I'm not just making a mechanic and then slapping some flavor on it. The card has to exist as a whole entity. As an example, in normal sets I seldom know the name of a card when I design its mechanics. For Un- sets, I often know the name of the card before I make its mechanics.
Obviously, what I'm talking about is something we occasionally do in black-bordered Magic and made an extra effort to do in Magic 2010, but Un- cards have an even closer relationship with their flavor (albeit a very different flavor). My favorite comparison to designing an Un- card is like starting to build a house of cards. You have to get numerous cards to lean on each other all at once to make it stable enough to stand on its own. For Un- design, I need to know the name, card concept, mechanic, and sometimes even the flavor text all at once so that they will gel together.
For today, I have selected my ten favorite Un-cards (ten because trying to pick just one would have been far too painful) based on their flavor. Note that these aren't my ten favorite Un- cards in general as there are ones that I really like where flavor is not as tight as on the ten cards I'm going to talk about today. For each card, I will talk about how the card got put together and how the flavor steered its creation. In addition, I'll tell any other cool little stories that come to mind. Sound good? Then let's get started.
This card started out with a simple idea. What if we made a card that wasn't in English? (Remember that the Un- sets only appear in English, as much of the humor wouldn't translate to other languages.)
Quick aside for a funny story. The plans for Unglued II (the sequel that got shelved) was to translate it into Japanese in addition to English. Once my card file was stable I sent it to Ron Foster, a Wizards employee now working in Organized Play, who used to do some of our Japanese translations for us. This story gives an example of the kind of responses I got. One card was called Jeopardy and had the following art:
The card was an enchantment that made all players speak in the form of a question. (Unhinged would tweak this card to become Question Elemental?.) The mechanic was based on the game show "Jeopardy" where they make the contestants do as such while playing the game. The art showed the Weatherlight crew on the game show "Jeopardy." Here's the problem. "Jeopardy," at least at the time, wasn't shown in Japan. There was no way to translate the name that would make the card make any sense. And the cultural issues were just the tip of the iceberg. The set is filled with puns and wordplay that simply wouldn't translate into another language. Ron wrote back to me and said, "I'm not sure if this is possible to translate and have the Japanese audience get half of what is going on."
Let's get back to the pig in the toga. So, I thought it would be cool to create a card in another language. My original concept was a language that basically no one knew such as Elvish. One small problem with this, though: no one would be able to read it and thus no one would know what it did. We thought of translating it possibly on the web site, maybe even on the card itself but none of these answers seemed perfect.
That's when it dawned on me that there was a language that wasn't English exactly but most of our audience could read: Pig Latin. For those that might not know Pig Latin, it's a replacement language meaning that you start with a language, usually English, and make the following change: for each word that starts with a consonant sound, take the beginning consonant sound (be it one, two, or three letters) and put it at the end of the word with the letters "ay" after it. So "book" becomes "ookbay" and "magic" becomes "agicmay." If the word starts with a vowel sound, just add "ay" (with a W, Y, or H before it to aid in pronunciation, in some variants).
Pig Latin allowed us to have our cake and eat it too, as it was not technically English yet still understable as English. The problem, though, was that it had to go on a card that made sense to use Pig Latin. What kind of card would inherently do so? That's when the name came to save us. Who speaks Pig Latin? How about a Latin Pig? With that idea in mind, all the pieces came together. This is a great example of how the name and mechanic can click together to make a concept that makes them each relevant. Plus, Kev Walker's art really made the Latin Pig quite lovable.
This card shows how all the creative pieces can come together to reinforce the same message. This card started mechanically because I liked the idea of taking green's "get a creature from your deck and put it into play" mechanic to the extreme. Why stop at one creature? And for that matter, why stop at only creatures? Let's go get every permanent out of your deck.
This led to a simple but technically complex concept. How do I show all the permanents from a deck coming out at once? The answer was to take the point of view of the other guy. What does he see when you play this spell? We sent the card to Quinton Hoover and he knocked it out of the park. Really, let's look at this art up close, because it so chock full of awesome detail.
I love the choice to minimize the person being attacked so that we could focus on the mob of creatures barreling his way. I also love how many creatures Quinton managed to cram into the art.
So the mechanic was over the top. The art was over the top. That's when we realized we needed a name that was over the top. I wanted a name that you yelled at the top of your lungs when you played it. We realized that this had to be something short and sweet you could yell. We chose "Incoming!," complete with the exclamation point because we wanted the feeling of a title that's being screamed. In retrospect, I might have even put it in all caps. The net result of this is that the card has the over-the-top feeling we were going for.
A quick little aside, I love the use of the texture in the flavor text to explain what happens next. Since we know the guy watching all this has on cowboy boots, we were able to use the cowboy boot treads to show him running away.
Unglued had a card called Sex Appeal that was designed to be more powerful if used by the minority gender in the room (female, in most games of Magic). I wanted to have another similar card in Unhinged. This time I decided to make a card that was always beneficial to women but could be used by men if they jumped through the proper hoop. The solution was to reward players for wearing women's clothing, something women would do without trying but that men would have to go out of their way.
Early in the process I stumbled upon the name Ladies' Knight and once I came up with the mechanic, I knew I had my name. The key was trying to make a card that made both words in the title make sense. Originally, the card had first strike, the most iconic knight ability, but got changed to flying when we realized that white needed more fliers. (If you look in the background, you can see the Knight's flying steed parked at a meter.) For an extra oomph, we made the ladies flocking him in the art famous ladies from Magic's past (Akroma and Phage).
A lot of people probably assume that this card was designed because we were trying to find a way to parody Circles of Protection. While taking Magic tropes and twisting them is a source for many cards, this card came about in a backwards way. While Magic's art is top notch, we don't always bat 1.000. (Although to credit Art Director Jeremy Jarvis and the artists, recently we've come pretty close.) The early days of Magic had some art that didn't quite get there. What if there was a Magic card to protect you from bad art? Hmm, what kind of card can protect you? Of course, Circles of Protection!
Many of you might not recognize the art above as it was commissioned for Unglued II and only used on the promo version of the card. The card most of you would recognize is this one:
Six years later, the percentage of questionable art had gone way down and the joke didn't play quite as well using Magic art. As such, the card shifted to "real world" famous art. While I like this art too, it never quite hit me like the original piece did. It was quite fun trying to remember which card each of the attacking pieces of art came from. Also, Mark Tedin did a great job of making the pieces really attack the wizard.
One of the things I do in Un- design is to keep a list of different partial card ideas. I liked the idea of a piece of art that was a crayon drawing. I wanted a card where the art interacted with the text box. I wanted a card where the text box was much larger than normal. I write all the pieces down because during the process I occasionally find a way to join them together.
In Unglued, two such pieces I had were "a card that plays the action game" and "a card written in legalese." When looking what to write in legalese, I realized I needed to find a mechanic that was a little more complex. My two choices were the "action game" and craps. I ended up using craps, and the large text box joke, on this card:
For the legalese joke, I chose the "action game" for flavor reasons. I liked the idea of the legalese card reflecting the concept of bureaucracy and the "action game" had more process to it allowing us to create a sense of making you go through some long involved process each time. The concept, the presentation, and the mechanic all worked together to create the over all sense I wanted. The other little stuff, like the maze in the insignia or the art literally being held up by red tape, came later.
Before I move on, I'll explain the card in non-legalese for those of you who never read it all the way through to figure out what it does. During the upkeep of the first player to take a turn after Bureacracy hits the battlefield, he or she does a simple physical or verbal action that can be done sitting. You could say something, or do something like knock on the table. Then during the second player's upkeep, that player has to do what the first player did and then add something to the queue. During each subsequent upkeep, the active player does everything in order that was done and adds one more thing. If anybody messes up, you sacrifice Bureaucracy and that player discards his or her hand. Why does a blue card make you discard? Yeah, I'd change that if I could go back. Possibly I'd make the penalty that everyone else gets to draw some amount of cards.
This card was a more traditional top-down design. I started with how the card looked. I wanted the creature to be chewing on part of the flavor text. (Get it? The most tasty part of the card text is the flavor text? I didn't think so.) Once I had the card concept, I had to figure out what it meant mechanically.
Once again, flavor saved the day here. We have a creature that eats text. (Lexivore, by the way, by its roots, means "eater of words.") What would it want most? Wordy cards. I ended up putting the ability in white as white is capable of destroying any card type. Flavor-wise, though, it's odd that an eater of words isn't a blue creature. Perhaps it should have been white-blue. If only Unglued had multicolored cards.
One other little tidbit I've always loved about this card is the flavor text, which is hard to read, as part of it is being eaten. It is:
Plucking the chicken
–Elvish expression meaning "flinging the monkey"
The flavor text was making fun of a style of flavor text we did a lot during Mirage block where a flavorful expression is defined. I loved the idea that each half made no sense. Also, I was trying to get chickens onto as many cards as I could so I like getting a chicken in the flavor text. Why did the other half mention monkeys? Because, like chickens, monkeys are funny.
Frazzled Editor came from a very similar place to Lexivore. I started each card with an overall layout concept and then worked from there. Both cards also play with how much text other cards have. Frazzled Editor was another one of the cards where I matched two different concepts together. I knew I wanted an editor that edited its own text, and I liked the idea of protection from wordy. Once I realized the flavor synergy, I was excited to put the two together.
A few tidbits about this card:
- The handwriting is that of Magic senior editor Del Laugel.
- Del's husband is former Director of Magic R&D, Randy Buehler. Randy's handwriting appears on the card Look at Me, I'm R&D.
- It is ironic that the Frazzled Editor is one of the few cards in the Un- sets that have mistakes on them. Protection from wordy is only supposed to apply to rules text, not flavor text or reminder text. Vanilla creatures with a lot of flavor text are not supposed to be wordy.
- Because this is a family-friendly site, I'm not going to point it out, but this card has one of the more risqué jokes to ever appear on a Magic card.
#3 – AWOL (Unhinged)
This card started as a visual joke I really liked. In case, you missed it, let me start by pointing it out. Notice that the creature on this card has been removed. It's left the picture, a.k.a. it's AWOL (a military acronym meaning "absent without leave"). Now let's look at another Unhinged card:
Here he is, hot tubbing with Urza (yes, that's Urza's severed head—seriously, go read the novels). To make sure you got the joke, we put his face on the milk carton on AWOL so you'd know what he looked like if the outline wasn't enough. (By the way, if you want a close-up of the milk carton or a look at numerous other tiny but cool jokes worked into the set by the graphic designer, check out this article.)
So the joke started with a creature gone missing in the art with the background torn so that you could see the back of the Magic card. Meanwhile, another thing I wanted to make fun of was the concept that "remove from game" didn't actually mean that something was removed from the game. (I like to believe this card is responsible for the term "exile" replacing "remove from the game." It isn't, I just want to believe it is.) Once I realized that the two overlapped in flavor, I put them on the same card. It also helped that common white needed some removal for limited.
There is high concept and then there's HIGH CONCEPT. This card started with the following joke. I wanted one card that was oriented upside down with its back. In case, you've never noticed, the card actually looks like this (and this is what you see if you look up the card in Gatherer.)
The actual card is upside down, but this isn't something you can realize until you compare it with the back of the card. The art was then drawn to look right one way, but all the gravity in the picture works as though the card is in its normal upside-down orientation.
We then married the concept to the name Topsy Turvy, which allowed us to put a mechanic on the card that made a different sense of the title. This way, you wouldn't realize off the bat that the title was referring to the orientation of the card, as it seemed to be talking about the mechanic. This is a different use of blending pieces together. One part is designed to pull focus from a different part to allow the audience the joy of discovering what's actually going on. This kind of thing is almost impossible to do on a black-bordered card, so I loved getting the chance to do an Un- card.
Finally, we get to my all-time favorite-flavored Un- card—technically my two favorite cards, but as they are so interlinked conceptually I'm counting them as one card.
This card started in the most unlikely of places: a practical joke. Magic players know Ron Spencer as being an artist that does dark and twisted images.
It turns out, though, that in other, less famous, illustrating jobs, Ron has shown his gentle side.
Bear Cub (Portal Second Age) art by Ron Spencer
During Tempest block, Ron was asked for some horrifying art for a black creature. The sketch that Ron sent in was the one for Infernal Spawn of Evil. Everyone got a good laugh out of it, and then Ron sent in his real sketch. Shortly after that, I was working on design for Unglued. One of my cards was for a demon so evil that just knowing he was coming damaged the opponent. I named it Infernal Spawn of Evil, as I wanted it to sound like the most evil thing ever. And I knew exactly what I wanted my art to be. I told my art director (Jesper Myrfors) that I wanted Ron's original sketch.
One of the important parts of comedy is juxtaposition. Things are funnier if they contradict what you expect. As Infernal Spawn of Evil became one of the most popular cards from Unglued, I knew my instincts were dead on.
While doing Unhinged, I was aware that I wanted a number of throwbacks to Unglued. Infernal Spawn of Infernal Spawn of Evil was an obvious choice. Of course, we went back to Ron, who did a wonderful job of following up on the original. I particularly like the "Best Dad" mug and the cocoa complete with marshmallow in junior's bottle.
The one other joke I really like was the Demon/Beast joke on the two cards. When Infernal Spawn of Evil was printed we were going through a phase where we didn't use the term Demon (you can read all about it here), so we had the word Demon on the card and had it crossed off and Beast written. By the time Unhinged rolled around, we had reversed that decision, so we reversed it on the card. Infernal Spawn of Infernal Spawn of Evil has Beast crossed off and Demon written in.
Every time I look at Infernal Spawn of Evil or his offspring, it brings a smile to my face. So they get tagged as my favorite flavor of any card in Magic.
Flavor of the Month
I hope this jaunt through my favorite area of flavor was fun for you all. It was definitely fun for me to revisit it.
Join me next week when I'll explore a facet of game design that's been rattling around my head.
Until then, may you know the joy of laughing at yourself.