any years ago, I had a conversation with my friend Chris in which each of us described exactly what it looked like when we summoned something in a game of Magic. After all, when you're exerting your will to pull something to yourself across an unfathomable distance, there must be some pretty powerful magic at work—and if movies have taught me anything about magic, it's that serious spells are always accompanied by equally serious pyrotechnics.
Anyway, Chris's creatures, he told me, appeared quite dramatically. A bolt of lightning would scream out of the sky and hit the ground, there'd be a blinding flash and a tremendous bang, and when that spot could be seen again, his creature would be standing there, ready to do his bidding. Mine showed up a little more gradually. A point of light would flash into existence, then expand in each dimension in turn—into a line, then a silhouette, then a fully formed shape made of cold, bright light. The light would explode outward in a flash (gotta have a flash, I guess), and the creature would take shape in its outline.
This, of course, had no impact whatsoever on our strategic play or our enjoyment of the game. We didn't really even mention it when we were actually playing. But it was important to us, somehow, to figure out what it was like when we waged our wizardly duels. Magic was, is, and always will be a game of strategic thinking, but it is also, unavoidably, a game with a deep connection to its underlying fantasy metaphor.
This week is Favorite Flavor Week, and that means it's all about that fantasy metaphor. This is a week in which Quenchable Fire gets to outshine Flame Javelin, a good story is more important than a great play, and so-called "vanilla" creatures, on closer examination, actually have words in their text boxes after all.
(The game's fantasy metaphor, by the way, is the reason I'm excited rather than offput about the recent change to the combat rules such that combat damage no longer uses the stack, and thus creatures can't be sacrificed, pumped, returned to hand, or whatever after their damage had been "locked in." I always considered that a breach of the game's fantasy metaphor, and I have at least one friend who played long ago and loved it but refused to come back to the game several years ago because I told him that yes, you can still do "that stupid thing where your creature dies and still deals damage." I guess I should call him up and tell him the good news ....)
Many of my earliest Magic memories have nothing to do with playing the game, or even with what the cards did mechanically. I was all about the flavor text. I read and thought about the names and flavor text of probably every card I owned in those early days, poring over them for every bit of detail I could glean. I loved reading about how cruel Shivan Dragons are, or piecing together the history hinted at by the six (later seven) volumes of the Sarpadian Empires, or reading the snarky exploits of Jaya Ballard, Task Mage, or wondering who the heck these Urza and Mishra guys were.
(Random aside: Once I got it straight that Urza and Mishra were artificer brothers who fought an enormous, continent-destroying war, I decided it would be really cool to name my new hamsters after them. I named the spunkier one Urza because I had figured out that he was the one who won the war. Mishra, as it happened, far outlived his brother, proving nigh-indestructible over the course of multiple escape attempts in a house with four active predators—taking refuge in the stove shortly before it was used, spending an entire night raiding the dog's dish to stockpile food, and somehow surviving biting into an electric cord. Indestructibility indeed.)
Some competitive types claim to disdain the flavor of the game in favor of its strategy, but I don't think I've ever met anybody who didn't have some piece of flavor text they absolutely loved.
The first piece of flavor text I remember falling in love with was on—of all things—Gray Ogre, a card that has never been considered powerful, or even good. But I recall gleefully reading its text aloud to my friends:
Like most of my favorite humor, Gray Ogre's flavor text combines a high concept—in this case, philosophy—with a twisted sort of goofiness. What else would an ogre philosopher believe?
I also recall trying (and failing) to memorize the name of the demonic chef quoted on the wow-that's-way-better-than-Gray Ogre Granite Gargoyle, later quoted for a wonderful dose of nostalgia on Time Spiral's Lightning Axe:
I always loved the flavor text of Orcish Artillery, and I was a little sad that the card wasn't in Magic 2010. Fortunately, Goblin Artillery provided another piece of genuinely funny italic text to chuckle at.
Not all my favorite flavor text is funny, though. I remember finding Mulch genuinely inspirational, and I loved some of the moments of villainous badassery, especially in Tempest block cards like Repentance, which kicked up the dialogue quotient considerably. I also loved trying to solve the riddles on cards like Blistering Barrier.
Flavor was a huge part of why Mirage felt different from Ice Age, and flavor text played a huge role in that difference, not only in content but in tone. Ice Age and Alliances had lots of academic-sounding flavor text, as if excerpted from a history of the period. Mirage and Visions had a lot more sayings, poems, stories, and casual quotations, with a folklore vibe that really struck me.
I couldn't possibly pick a favorite piece of flavor text, but I've got to give major props to the mixture of humor, subtlety, and world-building in Future Sight's (later Shadowmoor's) Mistmeadow Skulk.
But that would be ignoring the sly wink on Magic 2010's triumphantly returning Lightning Bolt, and the cryptic wisdom of Squandered Resources, and the bizarrely placed humor of the truly awful Carnival of Souls, and all the other pieces of flavor text that have made me think, smile, or laugh out loud over the years.
Granting Carnival of Souls a redeeming quality? Now that's a testament to the power of flavor text.
I'm less inclined toward visual arts than writing, so my appreciation of art is on a slightly more superficial level, but I have a few favorites. The first piece of art I remember really hitting me was Living Wall. Teeth and eyes and bones and ew, what a disturbing and effective piece.
I loved Ron Spencer's work on early Magic, and his version of any particular Fallen Empires card (many of which had up to four different versions of the art) was almost always my favorite. I especially liked his art for Goblin Grenade:
I think I've also mentioned another early favorite, Sliver Queen, also by Ron Spencer. I liked a lot of the Slivers' art; they were totally bizarre, more H.R. Giger than John Howe. But Sliver Queen was the best, for a couple of reasons. Slivers debuted in Tempest, and I already loved them when she arrived in Stronghold. I opened a Sliver Queen (and a Mox Diamond) at the Stronghold Prerelease, my second Prerelease ever. And as I pulled Sliver Queen out of its booster, looking at her tower away, out of her tiny little cardboard rectangle and into the mist of her enormous brood chamber, I felt something I'd never felt while looking at a Magic card before. I felt small.
When I first saw Deathmark, from Coldsnap, I loved the snowflake of blood. Then I saw the withered corpse in the middle, and I was blown away. What a creepy, beautiful scene! The Magic 2010 Deathmark, reworked to be a little less Ice Age–setting-specific, is a beautiful, creepy piece of art as well, but I loved the snowflake first.
And lastly, as I said when Shards of Alara came out, my favorite recent piece of art, and possibly my favorite piece ever, is Todd Lockwood's Kiss of the Amesha, which captures not something creepy or cool or powerful, but, much rarer for a Magic card, something utterly beautiful.
When I'm playing Magic, usually I'm thinking about it not in terms of the fantasy metaphor, but on a mechanical basis—what the cards do rather than what they are—and I think I'm pretty typical in this. Sometimes, though, I'll see a game situation that's so wonderfully amusing in-world that I can't help but think of it from that perspective.
For instance, this true story ....
A homunculus awoke and found itself alive. It was hardly well equipped for existential thinking, but nonetheless it had a dim awareness that this "being" was a new and tenuous state. Everything was bright, and very big, and probably dangerous.
The homunculus did not have anything particular to do. It was a blank slate. It looked up to see its master, a conjurer of beings like it. He was very tall, with etherium filigree and a sly grin, and he was sharpening a set of flensing knives.
Oh! thought the homunculus. I wonder what he is going to slice!
But before it could find out, a spray of magma annihilated the sinister-looking Esperite. There was only a smoking crater where the man had been a moment before.
"Oooooooooh," burbled the homunculus. Ahead of it, through the haze of the battlefield, it could make out many kinds of beasts and sentient creatures fighting. Perhaps someday it would get to go in to combat!
There was a flash, and a point of light expanded into a line, then a silhouette, then a huge and intimidating shape, and at last the form of a great demon coalesced next to the tiny homunculus.
The demon sniffed and shifted its enormous, spined body, then looked down at the homunculus and sniffed again. Its eyes locked on the little creature, and its claws flexed.
But just before the demon stretched out one spiked hand to take the homunculus, it was engulfed in a shape made of pure white light. When the light faded, the demon was gone.
"Ooooooooooooooh," the homunculus said again. Already, it knew through some vague instinct, it had survived far longer than its earlier brethren.
Someone began to chant in a strange language, and the little homunculus suddenly felt lighter. In fact, it began to float, its tiny sculpted feet rising off the uneven ground and into the air.
"Ohh!" it exclaimed. Excitement!
From above, the field of battle looked small indeed, and the little homunculus found it could easily pick out the crater where it master had stood and the lines of the opposing armies. In the distance, it could just barely make out two black specks floating in the air, getting bigger with each passing moment. Soon it could see that they were not specks but dragons—a hunting dragon and her mate. She looked much more powerful than her mate, glowing with some strange magic.
"Oooooooooooooh," it said. It was going to get a very close view of them!
The homunculus rose higher and higher, wiggling its toes and looking all around in wide-eyed wonderment. The dragons grew closer and closer, and bigger and bigger, their jaws opening wide ....
The female dragon blinked. Had she just swallowed a bug? She coughed and sputtered and turned back for her lair, letting her mate go on ahead. She would return to the hunt later—after she got this awful metallic taste out of her mouth.
That story, of a brave Homunculus token that survived an astonishing two upkeeps, only to meet its demise chump-blocking an 8/8 Broodmate Dragon, is pretty amusing anyway. But it's funniest when told from the perspective of the confused, Methuselan homunculus—still, no matter how venerable, a pawn in someone else's plans.
Tastes Like Flavor
Magic cards, thankfully, aren't just flavorless collections of game statistics. That game would be fun, but it wouldn't be Magic. From the art to the flavor text, from quiet hints at the storyline to a guy getting hit in the head with a fish tied to a rock, from the unfolding conflicts of worlds and planeswalkers to the adventures of a hapless homunculus, Magic flavor tells the fantasy-minded among us what, exactly, these pieces of cardstock actually do when we sling them.
So what about you? Do you have a favorite piece of flavor text or piece of art? What about a game story that's a better tale inside the game world than outside it? Head to the forums or shoot me an email—flavor is subjective as can be, and I'd love to hear what tickles your taste buds.