Ned Flanders: Who's up for a big bowl of nonfat ice milk?
Rod: I want wintergreen!
Maude: Unflavored for me!
—The Simpsons, "Home Sweet Home-Diddily-Dum-Doodily"
ike nonfat ice milk, some keyword mechanics have only a wisp of flavor, and are there just to make the game go. There's a continuum of keywords from the mechanical cogs to those that drip with flavor, and while we love to tie mechanics and flavor close together, there can be tradeoffs to doing so. Today we take a look at the keywords (and ability words)—yeah, all of them!—from the perspective of where I believe they fall on the flavor continuum.
We'll start with the keyword mechanics that drip with flavor, the end of the continuum where Vorthos is happiest. Then we'll move into the middle zone where flavor is there, but is diminished for various reasons. Then we'll finish up with the clunkers, where the mechanics are useful but the flavor just does not come through.
But first, I want to get to the voting results of last week's Conflux edition of the Vorthos Awards! Thanks everyone for voting over the last several days!
Nice! Congratulations, Quenchable Fire, on your Vorthos Award. It's not a flashy card, and it had a hard time fighting for its inclusion in the set just to tell a little flavor story about a nasty fire and a drop of blue mana—I'm happy that many of you enjoyed it.
Most Flavorful Legend – Progenitus
A landslide for the Hydra Avatar. He's got a great backstory, amazing art, a hilarious mana cost, and of course he has protection from everything (which includes all the other cards in the category!). As a bonus, now Progenitus knows which half of you not to eat.
Best Conveyance of Set Themes – Conflux
The card Conflux was kind of a shoo-in due to the name, but I actually think it's well-deserved. The card's art shows Nicol Bolas's claw closing in on the five-color power of a reunited Alara, and the mechanic lets you bring together the mightiest magics from all five shards—not too shabby for one sorcery.
Congrats, Sigil of the Empty Throne! I love this card (and this category), so maybe someday I'll have time to elaborate on the story of Asha and the lonely, floating throne that marks the archangel's absence.
It's hard to beat a funny piece about destructive goblins—congrats on your Vorthos Award, Goblin Razerunners (and congrats to our very own Kelly Digges, who penned that piece)! Many of you sent in other flavor text favorites from Conflux, which I'll share in another column.
In case you hadn't heard, there's a little scavenger hunt going on on magicthegathering.com right now, and it ends at the end of this week. If you see a particular symbol show up somewhere on the site, click it, and you'll be led to more information. Enjoy the hunt, and keep your eyes peeled!
Now, it's time to go through the keywords (and ability words) looking for delicious flavor—starting with the tip-top!
Many keywords nail the flavor just right. They usually have a specific flavor, a resonant fantasy idea behind them, and a good name. Some of them are tied to specific factions within the setting, such as guilds or creature types, which helps create a particular mental image around their mechanics.
Banding – It's incredibly complicated in the rules, but once you get the hang of it, it does capture the flavor of your creatures ganging up and attacking as a group.
Bushido – Bushido comes up a lot in discussions in R&D. The word is very flavorful, but it's also so tied to the flavor of Kamigawa that it's sort of stuck. If we use it again on a creature that isn't a Samurai, it feels weird. Yet it's attached to a very simple ability that we'd like to reuse. Do we rename it to bring the ability back in settings not inspired by Japanese myths and history?
Convoke – The word is unusual, but the flavor of your creatures working together to help you cast spells really resonates for me, and is perfect for the feel of the Selesnya guild.
Devour – Devour is one of the great wins of flavorful keywords in Shards of Alara block. I love how Conflux has innovated on devour with cards like Hellkite Hatchling. Nom nom.
Double Strike, First Strike – These abilities have to do with the timing of damage, which sounds pretty mechanical—yet the fact that they've been treated with strong flavor throughout their lifetimes make them winners. When you get hit with a double strike guy, you really feel like you've been hit in the face twice.
Enchant – Ever since Holy Strength we've enjoyed the flavor of us mages casting enchantments on creatures.
Epic – This ability is awesome. For me, this one cycle of cards almost defined the flavor of an entire set all by itself. If you could cast only one spell for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Equip – Equipment is one of the most flavorful card subtypes in the game. Point to your Craw Wurm wearing Lightning Greaves all you want—I don't care. Equipment is flavorful!
Evoke – Evoke is pretty mechanical, but I get a strong flavor vibe from it. It only appears on Elementals, which helps it feel like a particular kind of ritual in which you channel the essence of that elemental to your aid. The fact that you get the very same benefit when you actually summon the Elemental (plus the Elemental itself) reinforces this flavor.
Fear – I feel that this ability has always had the wrong name (it names the emotion it inspires in your opponent's creatures, rather than some quality of the fear creature itself), but once you get what it's saying, it's very flavorful. It doesn't work on black creatures or artifact creatures, because presumably they don't get scared of the black creature's spookiness.
Flying – Still one of the game's most fundamental flavor wins. It's the ability we in Creative are the most careful about, when writing art descriptions and evaluating artists' sketches. We're still living down Whippoorwill!
Fortify – It's only on one Future Sight card, and the mechanic has limited design space (and appeal, arguably) but I think this "equipment for lands" makes a lot of flavor sense.
Frenzy, Rampage – These are similar to Bushido, but with setting-generic names. They do a great job of getting across the sense that the creature bearing them is a mean monster that shouldn't be trifled with.
Graft – This ability is pretty mechanical, but the strong flavor of the Simic bio-engineers and their cytoplasts and mutated creatures really pushes it into flavor-world for me.
Haste – It's an old D&D spell that has gained new life as one of Magic's most basic keywords. Like first strike and flying, the fact that we've tried to keep hasty creatures' art concepts "fast-seeming" has kept its flavor strong. It helps that I've always thought that the term "summoning sickness" was very flavorful.
Haunt – As with banding, once you get it, I feel like the flavor really comes through.
Horsemanship – Not as strong a flavor as flying, but it worked for the Portal Three Kingdoms environment.
Landhome – Sea Serpent can only live in the water, get it? It makes a lot of flavor sense, but unfortunately, it should go on many more cards than it's on. (Why doesn't Giant Octopus die when you have no Islands?) Islandhome is a drawback ability, meaning that we don't want to put it on many aquatic creatures, but that means that it looks strange when it shows up in some places and not others.
Landwalk – My Goblin Mountaineer is sneaking up on you via your own Mountain, get it? Landwalk abilities call into question our "mana bonds" theory of what playing lands represents in flavor terms, but if you don't think about that too hard it is cool flavor.
Morph – You really get the feel of a mystery creature popping out of its nondescript little shell. Many cards have tried to replicate the feel of transformation, but I think morph is the winner.
Ninjutsu – Speaking of popping out of nondescript shells, ninjutsu has some flavor problems (ninjas unzipping their boar suits and all) but the sneaky-ninja flavor is still comes across powerfully. Like evoke, associating a keyword with a creature type generates a strong flavor combo.
Offering – Creatures that would die to help summon their mighty Patron! Awesome. Of course, the Goblin Patron is the funniest.
Phasing – That crocodile is going in an out of phase with our universe! I had this lower, down in the "somewhat flavorful" category at first, but I moved it up here. Maybe it took some squinting to see why it made sense in an African-fantasy block (Mirage block), but the feel of the mechanic in action has a lot of cool sci-fi resonance with me.
Poisonous – Poison drips with flavor. Poison has had a little bit of flavor interference from the much more commonly printed deathtouch, as many "I use venom" cards like poison-tipped arrow hunters have been concepted as deathtouch guys. But poison is still a cool way to die.
Provoke – For being a somewhat mechanical ability, this word does a good job of naming the flavor of a creature who enjoys picking fights. A lot of the power here rests on the keyword itself.
Regenerate – I love that Trolls and Skeletons almost always regenerate. It's a very strange ability mechanically, full of weird replacement effects and mysterious tappings, but it generally does what you think it does, and so the flavor of regeneration always comes across strong.
Replicate – It's a pretty mechanical idea, but it just works for me. It does what you expect it to do, and it feels right for the Izzet.
Shadow – The flavor of creatures that pass each other in the night is really cool. I'm a little sad that this keyword took such a cool word as "shadow" for the ability, as these days it's hard to justify using it in card names.
Trample – Another pretty complicated ability that sells itself completely by the name. Although damage assignment can get pretty arcane in the rules, you understand intuitively what an elephant does to your little chump blockers (and then to your face).
Unearth – Rise from your graves! Another Shards of Alara block flavor home run.
These keywords have some significant flavor, but in my opinion, don't hit it out of the park for one reason or another. Some of them have an iffy name or too generic a flavor application. Others have so much mechanical baggage behind them that the flavor suffers to some degree, but there's still good Vorthosian enjoyment to be had.
Absorb – It's a flexible keyword that could represent a variety of concepts. It could go on armored creatures like platemail-wearing knights or plated artifact juggernauts, or it could go on naturally or magically tough creatures like shelled tortoises or flesh-blessed slivers. That flexibility is nice, but it also makes the flavor less specific, and therefore less powerful.
Champion – The flavor of a big, strong guy coming to the aid of a little one, protecting it until death, works okay. But the fact that the big, strong guy is often two or three guys makes the flavor suffer—yet that kind of art concept was mandated by the tribal block full of races with small power/toughnesses (see today's Letter of the Week). Happily, the word is cool (maybe too cool, in that we couldn't easily use it elsewhere).
Changeling – A pretty good flavor success, except that the mechanics of "I'm all creature types all the time" doesn't quite match the flavor of "I'm a shapeshifter that can become whatever is around me."
Channel – I dig this mechanic a lot. Like evoke, you pour your creature's essence into magical form and get a powerful effect out of it. If it were a longer keyword, it might be "Channel the magical essence of" or something; the word "channel" by itself has so many mundane meanings that the cool thaumaturgical vibe of it doesn't come through immediately, but I like it as a whole.
Clash – The word is cool and the action of clashing is fun. Comparing converted mana costs isn't exactly the most Vorthosian activity, but it's got the feel of a magical duel between two mages, and that's all right by me.
Conspire – This name rescued what was otherwise a largely mechanical color-matters ability. Your red guys get together and conspire to do more damage with a burn spell! It works (although the mechanics of convoke nail it better in my opinion).
Cumulative Upkeep – Upkeep costs, despite their bookkeeping and mathiness, are actually quite flavorful, to my mind. You've got this increasingly unwieldy hunk of magic barely under control, and at some point it spirals out of control. I think it's a mechanic that would benefit from only occasional use—the more cards we do with cumulative upkeep, the less chance the card concept feels like one of those archetypical "wild spells that will soon go wrong," and the more chance it feels like "another cumulative upkeep card."
Deathtouch – This ability is quite flavorful, don't get me wrong. The reason it's down here is that it was named to be flexible. It can go on Gorgons or Basilisks or Moonglove Winnowers, depending on what's needed—which is great, but the lack of specificity can cause it to suffer. I believe it'll hold up, though—one day, with enough right-on art concepts under its belt, maybe deathtouch will end up in the Highly Flavorful category alongside double strike and haste.
Defender – It names what it does, but it's also named to be able to appear on a variety of concepts.
Dredge – The ability is very mechanical, but the word—and the feeling of rooting around in your graveyard, looking for goodies to reuse—push it over the flavor (dr)edge for me.
Exalted – If the word "champion" had been available, I would have put it here. Still, this has nice flavor built up around it, and even if you don't think about the Bant flavor of one sigil-laden guy marching out to fight the opposing guy, the word gives you the feel of a blessed champion with many followers supporting him. The fact that your champion can change turn by turn is the only thing that makes it suffer somewhat, for me.
Fading, Vanishing – Very mechanical, and they're on so many cards that sort of ignore their temporariness that the flavor doesn't hit home. But at the same time, the flavor of a creature or other permanent that's only around for a limited time can make for a very flavorful card. File these under unspent potential.
Fateseal, Scry – The word "fateseal" is pretty bad—my fault. But scry is a real word (an okra term if there ever was one) and the ability does nail the future-seeing flavor. The fact that you get to manipulate the future is what bugs me, though. (From a flavor standpoint, I mean. As a player, I love to scry away bad futures!)
Flanking – It's a flavorful concept and it's on Knights a lot of the time, which resonates with flavor—but why does it eat away at the blocker so much? Flanking a Drudge Skeletons seems like it would give you a slight tactical advantage over it, not obliterate it.
Grandeur – Multiple copies of legend cards generates lots of flavor headaches, frankly. But the idea that legendary creatures can create powerful abilities that nonlegendary creatures can't is really cool. And I'm very happy with the name.
Hellbent – This ability word concerns "handlessness," a quality you wouldn't normally think of as flavorful. But the feel of the gameplay—blasting your hand onto the table as fast as you can, ignoring card advantage just so you can get your tanks empty—just feels so right for Rakdos that it does have some good flavor. The word is cool too.
Hideaway – The word does a pretty good job of covering a world of mechanical weirdness.
Kinship – It doesn't make a lot of sense as an ability (the other summoning spells that I'll draw later help these creatures that I've already summoned?), but the decks it goes into do lend some flavor. Shamans get more powerful when there are other Shamans around. It makes sense, and the word names the ability simply and understandably.
Lifelink – The link between you and your summoned creature is a cool flavorful feel. The ability can be surprisingly hard to make sense of, though. Interestingly, I feel like the flavor works better in black (blood-drinking bats, thieves, vampires) than it does in white.
Madness – Don't be scared away by the bizarre timing rules surrounding madness—the mechanic contributes to the whole "dementia summoner" flavor component of the Odyssey Block. Any madness card on its own it might not feel like magic fueled by insanity, but in concert with other Odyssey-era cards that benefit from discarding and graveyard shenanigans, it does feel like you're benefiting from going crazy.
Modular – The cool "Voltronish" flavor of this artifact-creature-only ability stands out, even though the ability doesn't quite attach the creatures to one another.
Persist – We never really came up with a direct flavor explanation for persist, and yet it has a gameplay feel of its own. Don't mess with that guy—he will just not go down. We thought about calling it "persistence" or other nouns, but persist felt right because you're more concerned with the ability as an action you're doing rather than a quality of a creature just sitting there.
Protection – The phrase "protection from black" is loaded with flavor. As a new player, you see that phrase, and you're already full of ideas about what it means for your awesome White Knight. Sadly, protection is full of secret and sometimes counterintuitive rules that can be hard to explain (sorry, your Black Knight dies to Austere Command), which to me makes the flavor suffer.
Prowl – Your Rogue gets through the defenses and then strikes out with a cool ability—flavorful, but it had some problems because the effect just got too abstract. This was initially called backstab, but the fact that this ended up primarily as a cost reduction mechanic—and that it reduced the costs of creatures and not just cool stabby effects—made me not want to name it that.
Radiance – The word does a lot of the work here—it is a very Boros word, a word that sounds like light glinting off of the shining helms of the frenzied armies of the righteous. Just hearing the word doesn't tell you much about what's going on with the mechanic, but you can get into the flavor of it once you figure it out.
Reach – Like deathtouch, reach was named to be flexible—able to be deployed on Giant Spider as well as archer and other concepts. I think we're underutilizing it, actually—a guy who's really tall (a Giant, maybe) or had long arms (like an Octopus) could easily get the reach ability, in flavor terms. But red and blue don't usually get reach in the color pie.
Reinforce – The feel of adding a +1/+1 counter doesn't perfectly create the feel of kithkin (or whatever) coming to each other's aid (it's closer to the feel of modular, weirdly). But it does have a community feel that contributes to the flavor of your tribal deck—and plus, the name helps.
Shroud – Here's another word that's meant to be applied on several different types of flavor, and so the specificity suffers. It would have been better if it could have been either "dodgy agility" or "magical armament" or "invisibility," but since the word doesn't specify how exactly the untargetability comes about, it can be used on more cards. A classic example of the flavor / applicability tradeoff.
Soulshift – I'm not sure why kami can "die into" one another like this, but it does give Spirit decks a particular undying feel.
Split Second – These spells are so fast that they happen
in an instant before anyone can react. For being a mechanic about dull timing rules, it's pretty good at feeling like the skill of an expert gunfighter who's incredibly fast on the draw. Before you move to pull your own revolver, the bullet is already in you.
Storm – I think the counting and bookkeeping involved with this mechanic are so mathy that they detract from the feel of the ability. But the idea of a mage building up to a huge, powerful accumulation of magics—indeed, a spell storm—is a classic fantasy trope that resonates with me big-time. Plus the name is awesome (so sadly, it's hard to use elsewhere).
Sunburst – Although Mirrodin Block's switch from "half artifacts" to "five-color mana bases" was abrupt, this mechanically was actually not that far from nice flavor, if you followed the set storyline. Mirrodin has five colored suns, and the whole backstory of the Fifth Dawn set was related to the dramatic changes resulting from the impact of their ascension and power, so maybe this "five-color artifacts" mechanic works in flavor terms.
Suspend – Perhaps surprisingly, I think suspend is pretty flavorful. Like storm, the feel of a spell that has a lot of build-up has a cool feel in gameplay. Seeing a Greater Gargadon or Deep-Sea Kraken tick down across the table makes you sweat—with flavor.
Transmute – Transmutation is a classic form of "magic" "practiced" by "actual" "magicians" in the "real world." Back before Magic was a trading card game, everybody wanted to know how to spin wool into gold. Now they want to spin Muddle the Mixture into Oath of Druids or Painter's Servant, but the idea is roughly the same.
Vigilance – "Staying untapped" has never had quite the flavor I think we've wanted it to, but vigilance does as good a job as any. I wish it were easier to draw a picture of "remaining vigilant."
Wither – The flavor is spread out among several different colors and card concepts, but the feel of the gameplay in Shadowmoor / Eventide Limited does nicely bear out the feel of creatures withering away.
Now we get down to the mechanics that—although they're powerful, useful, and fun—doesn't have a lot of impact on the world of Vorthos. They do a lot within the bounds of the card game, but they don't mean much to the guy who's imagining mages throwing spells at one another. This is not a bad property of keywords—it's just another way that a mechanic can function within Magic: The Gathering. The freedom to do strictly mechanical keyword mechanics frees us up to explore design space much further than if we stuck only to those mechanics that felt like a classic fantasy trope (although, see Aaron Forsythe's article from Monday!).
Affinity – Cost reduction mechanics, and mana cost in general, don't have a lot of impact on the art or flavor of a card (other than color). Should Myr Enforcer have a big number seven over his head, and Frogmite is flipping it down into a six? There's a note of "artifact tribalness" at work here, which has some flavor for the artificer-mage, but the actual action of the mechanic is largely un-Vorthosian.
Amplify – Amplify is redeemable, in that "creatures that get huge" is not that hard a concept to understand, and tribal mechanics are typically flavor wins. But I have a hard time seeing what exactly is going on here.
Buyback – Strictly a resource-preserving card advantage mechanic, with no bearing on the art, and a flavorless name. We could think up a flavor excuse for how buyback spells work, but it'd definitely be an uphill climb.
Chroma – Kithkin and boggarts have a hard time knowing what their mana costs are. So a mechanic that hinges on the difference between colored and generic mana costs—"colored-mana density" if you will—is going to have pretty low flavor impact.
Cycling – Welcome to Cycling Week! The whole point of this article was to tell you that cycling isn't very flavorful. It's some sort of magic that lets you get a new idea, by pushing the old idea out of your head, I guess.
Delve – Right now, delve is just a cost-reduction mechanic, which again is not that flavorful in practice. But it's got an intriguing name, and the flavor of powering up your spell with the ashes of the past definitely has flavor potential. I don't think we've seen the last of delve, or of its Vorthos possibilities.
Echo – Echo has a very cool name—it's a great term for "I have to pay this cost twice." The flavor doesn't exactly come through, but I could see making sense of it, with some amount of squinting.
Flash – Timing rules are another part of the Magic rules that don't carry over well to the world of flavor. Flash creatures are sneaky and stealthy, and Teferi is a powerful time-mage, which tends to redeem the flavor to some degree. I'd like it if the flavor of flash came across as "ætheric facility" or something like that—something that made creatures and other permanent cards easier to summon from the æther. But it's sort of like the flavor difference between instants and sorceries—namely, there isn't much.
Flashback – "Recastable from the graveyard" has a shred of flavor to it, and the term has a cool "revisited memory" kind of feel (especially if you don't think of it next to the term "buyback"). With a little imagination, world-building work, and dedicated art-description writing, I could see flashback as a more flavorful mechanic. But as it is, it's pretty dry and mechanical.
Forecast – The action of forecast does have fun "Infernal Spawn of Evil" gameplay to it, and it's an interesting variant on kicker (pay a bit less mana, get a smaller effect that you can repeat a bunch of times). But the ability is a little too abstract to give a great "Aha, I get what I'm doing here!" punch.
Gravestorm – It's a cool idea as a one-off card, but I'd be nervous if we ever tried to do a zillion cards with it. Feels like a stunt mechanic, not really worth the keyword we created for it, but I've been wrong before.
Imprint – Imprint is an interesting case—it's almost completely flavorless on its own, but it can actually lead to very flavorful cards. Isochron Scepter and Panoptic Mirror are artifacts that you can "load" with a particular spell, and then cast it multiple times. Imprint lets you choose what creature is inside Summoner's Egg. I have imprint down here because the keyword doesn't create flavor all on its own, but interestingly I do enjoy the flavor of most imprint cards.
Kicker – Kicker is a great example of a nearly flavorless mechanic that is nevertheless incredibly fun. Invasion block contains some heroic attempts to introduce flavor into kicker (for example, see the visual cue for off-color kickers in the art of many cards), but it's pretty much a cost/benefit game mechanic. You can think of mages forcing more mana into their spells to get a huger effect, which nails it pretty well—but that's about it. Maybe that's for the best, though. The keyword is used in so many contexts in that block that naming it something more specific probably would have been problematic anyway.
Recover – This ability is not far from flavorful—it's magic that thrives on death, allowing you to restore memories of past spells and use them again. I think with a different keyword and a bit of a story, recover could have had some cool Vorthos elements. Sadly its reminder text was so long that very few of the cards with the ability have flavor text, and "restored memories of past spells" is difficult to represent visually on more than a couple cards. So it was tough to that utilize that potential.
Retrace – I wish this Eventide recursion mechanic were on the list above, but I couldn't justify putting it there. I wrote the art descriptions of Eventide's card art, and I really wanted to come up with a word that captured the feel of "toss a land, replay the spell." For a while I was trying to flavor these cards as "local specialty magic," as magic that people from a certain locale were so good at that they could cast that spell over and over. Land ... recursion .... Get it? But that was so abstract that it was hard to sum up in a short keyword—and it would have been even harder to paint a picture of. Sometimes it's best to embrace game mechanics as game mechanical.
Ripple – This mechanic lets Coldsnap-only draft decks shine, but it doesn't have much to do with the actions of snow-obsessed mages or with frozen Terisiare. I like the word, though—it makes me think of concentric waves of power radiating out from the initial spell, causing additional effects—but it's no home run in terms of fantasy resonance.
Splice – I've heard that part of the motivation behind the mechanic that eventually became Splice onto Arcane was to create huge magical effects that would simulate flurries of martial-arts-like spell combos. There's something cool there, to be sure, but some due to some combination of the name, the power of the cards, and the rules strangeness to get it to work, that didn't come through.
Substance – Heh.
Sweep – The names of this cycle of sweep cards tries valiantly to make sense of the flavor of picking up a pile of Plains or Mountains, but ultimately it doesn't carry a lot of flavor.
Threshold – Don't get me wrong—the flavor of "now my magic is more powerful once a certain condition holds" is great stuff. But I wish there was a stronger flavor component to the particular condition of "seven cards in the graveyard." I don't know the story here, but it's possible that it was harder to develop a unified flavor message for what was going on behind threshold because the mechanic was variable at first—i.e. some cards were "threshold 3" while others were "threshold 7." I think with some flavor work, threshold could actually be a neat Vorthosian concept.
Transfigure – This transformation magic isn't as resonant with fantasy lovers as transmute, I feel. Then again, it's only on one card—a lot of Future Sight keywords have yet to find their place in the world of flavor.
The fact that even these highly mechanical keywords don't hit the endpoint of zero flavor (except perhaps you, substance) gives me great hope for the future. The more we make Magic cards, the more we see the power of flavor in its ability to make the game fun. Magic will always have resource-manipulating and rules-exception mechanics like cycling and flash, I think we'll see more and more flavorful spins on keywords as the game goes on.
Letter of the Week
Subject: The Power of Humanity
Dear Doug Beyer,
You and others have said before that Humans should be within a certain size range. This makes sense, and most are, but I've noticed an odd exception - Vectis Agents, a 4/3 Human Rogue. It's not legendary, nor is there a mount/vehicle in the art (or creature type, like Knight, that would suggest one). Does the fact that there are two of them (I assume - the title is plural, and there's a second figure in the far background) allow for 4 power?
Good eye, Andrew. Yes, we like to keep our ordinary humanoids, including Humans, somewhere under the 2/3 or 3/2 range. You mentioned the exception of legendary status, which exempts legends from the humanoid power/toughness range. Rafiq of the Many isn't as large as a Hill Giant—he's a legend, and that much of a badass. Knights (that is, cards concepted as riding mounts like horses or leotau, which we often give the Knight class type) get a bit of a pass as well, within reason. The elf on Wilt-Leaf Liege isn't as large as a Ravenous Baloth—but when she's riding her trusty cervin, she fights as big as one.
The other main way that humanoids get to be big is when they're in groups. Thoughtweft Trio can be a 5/5 Kithkin because it's three of the feisty little buggers. Nath's Elite is a 4/2 Elf because they're two of them shown in the art. Same deal, as you guessed, for Vectis Agents. Here's the art description for that card.
Color: Black creature
Location: Esper (and Grixis, see below)
Action: Show two sneaky human rogues of Esper, complete with metal "filigree" (one male, one female). They have long elegant blades or other weaponry, and are infiltrating the undead lands of Grixis, looking for good treasures to steal.
Focus: The two Esper rogues
Mood: They are used to sneaking through gleaming cities, but have been reduced to skulking in a dead world
And let's see that art by the amazing Chippy. In this high-res art, you can see that crucial second rogue in the background, providing the necessary boost to P/T:
There are other exceptions, many of which are exactly that—exceptions. A few creatures in Lorwyn block slid slightly over the 2/3 line to give the tribes enough creature size variety. And sometimes cycles create uncomfortable decisions for Creative—break the cycle or break the humanoid power/toughness rules? I'm thinking of the triple cycle of the "Magus of the Whatever" creatures in Time Spiral block here. There's Magus of the Candelabra, quite a reasonable Human Wizard at 1/2, but then there's the hulking Magus of the Arena topping out at 5/5—he's nonlegendary, nonplural, non-Giant, and non-Knight—he's just a huge dude so that the Magi could all line up. Judgment calls—they're never easy! For more on the flavor of power and toughness, check out this article I wrote on the flavor of power and toughness. Thanks for your question, Andrew!