he Magic 2012 design team had an empty saddle, and it was apparently shaped like my butt. As I've mentioned before, my main job is not to conjure up rules text; I am one of those flavormongers who slings art descriptions, card names, flavor text, world-building material, and other creative writing for Magic. But hey. When the saddle calls, you get your hindquarters in it. Besides, I can't refuse the mewling voices of all the core set cards that strive for some sweet fantasy resonance. My heart goes out to those little cardboard soldiers of Vorthos, and I want to be there to help them on their mission. So I was happy to join the crew.
Last week Brady Dommermuth graciously took over this column, hitting some of the M12 highlights from an art perspective. Today I want to execute another flyby of the Vorthosian gems of the set, this time from the perspective of a flavor-minded M12 designer.
It's not often that we get to introduce a wholly new vanilla (ability-less) creature to Magic. Most of those power-and-toughness-and-cost-combination boxes have already been checked, but the Warhorse has answered the call. I'm actually weirdly excited about vanilla creatures. Rules-wise, they're creatures that have been stripped down to just power, toughness, and color. They're mechanically pretty quiet, so flavor has to tell the rest of the story. Armored Warhorse was a great opportunity to show off the "knight's trusty steed" trope, and also reinforce the idea that white's vision of wild beasts is about animals that have been domesticated for the sake of order and the good of the community. And on the topic of steeds...
There have been several attempts to create "mounts" in Magic design—pack animals and steeds that can be ridden by other creatures. The flavor is pretty clear; get on a horse and you become a swifter, more maneuverable, and more effective fighter. But implementing it in the space of a card's text box can be tricky. It's the age-old balance: how to get the feel of the flavor—in this case, "trusty steed"—with a simple, easy-to-understand line of text? Griffin Rider makes a strong assertion that there exist straightforward solutions. Note that we had to engineer the set with a few more Griffins than normal to make sure the Rider could find her flying mount buddy.
So huggable, this guy. I submitted and fought for this line of text back in Magic 2011 design. I liked the flavor of this visiting dignitary who is so important that the whole town calls off the fighting for the day. The card didn't make it into M11, but here it is in M12—actually a pretty short journey to print, compared with many designer's pet designs. I also enjoy getting our less-used humanoid races, such as rhoxes, into the core set.
Yep, he's the deadeye who wields a weapon similar to Heavy Arbalest, with a similar "stays-tapped" effect that simulates the slow reload rate of such a burly blaster. If you faced this guy at the Prerelease, you know his aim is true and certainly worth the turn of loading another bolt.
What's this? An "amphin"? With creature type Salamander Rogue? *blinks* What in the whatwhat?
Every so often we try out a new creature race. The amphin are a race of lanky, shrewd, partially aquatic humanoids who can dwell either in the briny depths or in the overgrown shallows. Little is known about their civilization as yet; time will tell whether we see more of them in the future.
It's always risky to debut a new race, as they have to compete with dozens of other creature types for slots in Magic sets and in players' hearts. Plus, a vanilla 2/4 is not exactly a splashy debut, so the amphin might not be putting their most dramatic foot forward here. (Compare to the dramatic debuts of, say, Ravenous Baloth, Crater Hellion, or Masticore—those species really started with a bang.) But I have a long-term attitude about it—we'll see how these salamander-folk fare as Magic rolls on.
Frost Titan breathes on you, and also on you over there. We're doing a little more "cold keeps you tapped" flavor here and there (Frost Titan, Wall of Frost), somewhat expanding on the legacy of Fire // Ice and Icy Manipulator.
Such a pure implementation of a fairly obvious concept! It was amazing to me that this card didn't exist already. This was one of my favorites from M12 design, and it made it all the way through development essentially unchanged. I am not sure if this has an impact on a Standard environment full of Mirran and Phyrexian artifacts, but I'm interested to see if people get their thievery on.
This card was designed to match the art. Interestingly, the art was originally commissioned for an Esper spell back in Shards of Alara block—you can kind of see a subtle hint of etherium filigree shapes in the fallen armor. The card was killed, so the art didn't get used in that block, but we held onto it, knowing that the art would work fine on a more setting-neutral core set card—and here it is. Given the art, designing what the spell did was pretty straightforward.
I'm very fond of the Illusion subtheme in M12 blue. It's a proactive, attack-you-with-creatures thing for blue to do, and I find it fun and healthy when blue does more of that. It's also quite flavorful to fill your deck with these scary but secretly fragile illusions, attacking with them just like full-fledged, physical creatures as long as your opponent doesn't "touch" them and see through the trick. The Lord of the Unreal is your master illusionist, coming along to lend a little more punch—and surprising solidity—to your illusionary minions.
This forlorn ghost drifts right through your opponent's defenses—but it also doesn't lend much to your own defenses. Although most Spirits in Magic are pretty tangible (as anyone who's been bonked by a Moss Kami or Midnight Banshee can attest), it's nice to be able to do simple cards like this that deliver substantially on their flavor. The fact that the Soul provides a quick, elusive threat to "turn on" your bloodthirst creatures makes this emo ghost the whole package.
Speaking of bloodthirst, we were excited to run with the flavor of bloodthirst now that M12 had divorced its flavor from the flavor of Ravnica's Gruul guild. We wanted to do the keyword only on creatures that actually felt bloodthirsty, leading us to river-lurking crocodiles, battle-raging berserkers, and of course, the original blood-lusters themselves: vampires! After we listed out all the fantasy creatures that could flavorfully be described as bloodthirsty, it was clear that they basically all fell into black, red, and green, so that's where the mechanic landed. That's my kind of set design!
What's the flavor of a mummy? Well, they're desiccated undead that have been embalmed with bandages. But that's more of a visual description—it doesn't tell you much about what they do. The key to this design was the flavor of the mummy's curse, which causes the undead menace to come haunt you if you disturb his tomb. The Pharaoh is no jokes—you try any shenanigans around his domain, and he will whack the interloper (presumably some kind of tomb robber or over-curious archaeologist) and arise personally to inflict his vengeance.
Yeah, I think it's safe to say that I've been obsessed with summoning whatever well-read demon it was who lets you cast Demonic Tutor. This illuminated manuscript of a fiend fills your mind with dark thoughts just by his very presence. I think it was during an M12 Sealed playtest that I first saw a Rune-Scarred Demon tutor up another Rune-Scarred Demon and realized how powerful the creature version of this card would be.
That's it for this week—I'll have to get to the tales of the rest of M12's new cards in a future column. I hope you get a chance to bust open some M12 and enjoy the flavorful goodies lying in store there. I think you'll find that our vision of the core set as a sanctuary for the familiar themes of classic fantasy is alive and well.
Letter of the Week
Today's letter comes from Fabio and is about free will—and the magical manipulation thereof! Love it love it love it.
Subject: Locus of control
Dear Doug Beyer,
I have a very straightforward question with which I hope you can help me.
What's the difference, flavor-wise, between cards like Mind Control, Enslave and Act of Treason? I mean, it seems like those three colors are capable of strip off people's free will, but what differences are there between them and why?
I hope you can answer me,
Three colors, three methods of taking control of your opponent's creatures! The effect can be almost identical, but the flavor is rather different. Let's take a look at how the colors of Magic affect the will of the summoned.
Blue, the color of the mind, deception, and manipulation, represents the fattest slice of the Grand Pie Chart o' Volition-Bending. Blue regards the mind as the driver of the body, and so it attacks the mind directly to affect how a creature behaves. You could expect a blue mage to actually change a creature's thoughts when taking control of it—she might be replacing its memories of who summoned it, or altering its perception of who its master is, or changing its rational decisions about whom to serve.
Black doesn't have a ton of creature-stealing effects in the game; it prefers to destroy utterly anything that stands in its way, with the discretionary necromancer's option of reanimating the victim to serve its own purposes. When black does take a creature directly (without first passing the graveyard or collecting $200), the magic is all about the threat of violence rather than manipulation of the mind. Come serve me, or you die. Black can certainly affect the mind with its magic—it has plenty of memory-destroying discard spells—but it isn't too great at carefully altering the mind for its own purposes. It's much more fun to influence behavior by threats—it lets the victim choose to defect rather than die. I've mentioned before how much black enjoys that.
Red has plenty of Act of Treason effects—magics that cause creatures to change sides and fight for the enemy temporarily. The flavor here is magic that inspires emotion so powerful that it overwhelms intellect and good sense. While blue manipulates thoughts, red empowers emotions. While blue alters a creature's decisions, red makes decisions irrelevant—and just short-circuits the whole "established lines of authority" thing and goes straight to action! The creature probably wants to fight anyway; red just overpowers the creature's grasp on ticky-tacky details like whom it was supposed to fight for. And of course, red's stealing effects only last a while; its short-term orientation means it's not concerned with what happens with the creature tomorrow. Today, we FIGHT.
What are white and green's positions on taking control of creatures? A card like Evangelize might show us how white would approach an allegiance-affecting spell. White is all about the unity of the collective; it wants creatures to join its society and become part of the larger whole. But most of the time, its orderly, protective, and retributive stance don't allow it to venture into creature-stealing territory.
Green is the color most diametrically opposed to creature-stealing. As the color most involved with creatures and with the status quo of nature, green abhors the artificial manipulation of the will. Green at its purest is free to follow its instincts; casting magic that alters a creature's behavior around a green mage is a good way to get your face trampled over. Seriously—Gilt-Leaf Archdruid? Is there anything else in (mono-)green that even gains control of anything? Green is not fond of the will-manipulation, thankyouverymuch.
Thanks for the great question, Fabio!