"Just remember that every card is loved by someone. And I do, in fact, mean every card here, because there are players out there who seek out cards that other players shun (more on this in a second). That is one of Magic's best attributes: there is something for everyone." -- Mark Rosewater, "When Cards Go Bad Revisited"
Though I've never heard it specifically stated by the Creative team, I've come to believe that there's a Vorthos Corollary to the Rosewater Doctrine: "Every card's flavor is loved by someone." Even Gravelgill Axeshark, bearer of the iconic "what the heck?" name of this Magical era, surely has a weird-common-hipster devotee who's turned a medicine cabinet into a shrine for the Shadowmoor common.
"All those other cards' fans don't love me like mine does."
In spite of the Gravelgill Axesharks, of course, there are characters and ideas that catch fire and take on lives of their own, from Jaya Ballard and her scorching hot snark to Magic social media's new Homunculus darling, Fblthp from Totally Lost. What is it that makes a piece of flavor somebody's favorite, though? I'll look at the idea from three angles: flavor text, names, and art/settings.
Flavor Text: Lines Torn from Stories and Laughs
Think about the best story you've read or heard. Maybe it's a tale your grandmother loved to tell, your first fantasy novel, or the one short story in your ninth grade literature textbook that wasn't terrible.* (Mine is from a story-within-a-story, "The Just Man" in Gene Wolfe's The Citadel of the Autarch.)
Now think of your favorite line from within that story. ("It is better to be just than to be kind, but only good judges can be just; let those who cannot be just be kind.") Chances are that line has burrowed itself in your thoughts, found its way into your conversations, maybe even made it into a paper or presentation.
My favorite lines of flavor text have done that to me. Old-school Rancor's line, "Hatred outlives the hateful," has many more applications than a single Magic card.
Adam Lee's article "Writing the Eldrazi" focuses on his contributions to the Rise of the Eldrazi set, but it also has the single best package of insights into naming and flavor text creation that I've found so far. Mr. Lee, now a full-time member of the Creative team, described his end game as a flavor text writer in his inimitable style:
"While I write, somewhere in my feverish brain I am always cognizant of my ultimate goal, and that is to make you laugh, gasp, cringe, boast, swagger, swear, shudder, or, perhaps, feel the fervent desire to crush your opponent because he or she just quoted a particularly arrogant lick of flavor while smugly applying a fatal smack-down on your face."
I've never written flavor text, but I've felt almost all of those emotions—I don't think I've ever sworn upon reading a line of flavor text, but I'm weird and sparing about my swearing. Yes, someone quoted New Syncopate at me. No, he didn't win. Yes, that felt sweet.
"You did not just quote me in a tenuous board state."
Whether or not he did it on purpose, I find it telling that Mr. Lee put "laugh" first in his list of emotions. Humor is the Josh Hamilton of flavor text: when it swings and misses, it looks this bad, but when it connects, no Home Run Derby opening round or Baltimore Orioles pitcher is safe.
The humor in Magic flavor text can be dry as the Atacama (I'm sure Gristleback wouldn't find its flavor text funny if it had sentience) or a Pungeon Master's paradise. Puns are perhaps the most polarizing of flavor texts; for every pun devotee of the Luis Scott-Vargas variety, there are others who whine and moan at the thought of one. It doesn't help that most of the puns are anchored in a Western, specifically American, tradition that makes them all but untranslatable.
Root Greevil and its infamous "The root of all greevils" text is a pun on 1 Timothy 6:10 in the King James version of the New Testament, for example, while Firebolt's one-liner, "Reach out and touch someone," has its roots in a Bell Systems advertising campaign from the pre-monopoly case 1970s, "Reach out and touch someone," making it unintelligible to many United Kingdom players. Firebolt's flavor text hasn't aged well, either; while many players active in 2001 (Odyssey time) would get the reference, much of Magic's target audience in the Duel Decks: Jace vs. Chandra period would be too young to understand.
"The Bible and Ma Bell" has a nice ring to it, yes?
If so many people dislike punning flavor text, though, why does it keep coming back? Because others love, love, love it. To quote Rosewater, from the same article as the lead: "If you make a game that everyone likes but no one loves, it will fail." Puns in flavor text don't drive (enough) players away to be an issue, but they help keep certain players hooked. After twenty years of flavor text experimentation and refinement, puns are here to stay, and if you don't like it, there's other flavor text for you.
Names: Shards of Worlds and SATs
Names don't have as much space as flavor text to communicate a concept, yet their short space must carry a greater burden. It's the rare piece of flavor text that gets quoted from player to player; nobody I know quotes Alms Beast's flavor text. At the Gatecrash Prerelease, on the other hand, I heard its name over and over, the tones a tug-of-war between curses and praise.
In general, names have two viable "hooks" that can attract the Magic player. One is the "slice-of-life-on-this-plane," a name that belongs in exactly one place in the Multiverse and reflects whatever spotlight is shone onto it across the rest of its world. One card that's seeing Constructed play but is also particularly flavorfully named—if a bit off-kilter—is Boros Reckoner.
The root "reckon" has an intriguing split meaning in English, specifically rural and Deep South English. When Foghorn Leghorn says, "Ah reckon," he's talkin' 'bout thinkin', y'all. On the other hand, when Martina McBride sings, "Let the whole world know that today is a day of reckoning" in her version of "Independence Day," the song evokes the Last Judgment in Christianity's New Testament, where reckoning becomes the settling of moral accounts.
It is the second meaning that the Boros Reckoner evokes, in the sense of a creature that deals retributive damage. The Orzhov card Knight of Obligation, on the other hand, suggests a different type of reckoner, an Orzhov Reckoner, that would play on both the financial and apocalyptic dimensions of the term. Maybe in Dragon's Maze?
All this talk of reckon -er -ing brings up the other dimension of Magic's names: vocabulary expansion. As the Okra-Twinkie-Tofu model created by Matt Cavotta and continued by Doug Beyer suggests, while some of Magic's worldbuilding is invented whole, it is far more common for card names to be derived from a real-world source or, better for the vocabulary-obsessed, imported directly. As a certified word geek,**
I get most of the advanced vocabulary, but reejerey (from Merrow Reejerey) was new to me. I'm sure there were others, but after a while it gets hard to remember what I learned from Magic and what I knew beforehand. Others have found Magic's vocabulary useful (see this blog post), and with real-world flavor text being largely a thing of the past, Magic's non-math intellectual side has to hang its hat on the joys of novel names.***
Art and Settings: High-Risk Visions of Other Places
Magic's art and settings walk a tightrope, much more so than names or flavor text. Flavor text is entirely optional as far as tournament Magic play is concerned; names have more impact, but Sensei's Divining Top can be just "Top" once decklists are handed in and Tarmogoyf just "Goyf." Nicknames can take the place of overly long or otherwise annoying names.
Art, though, is far more pervasive. It's meant to be the way players identify cards across the table, which is why altered cards largely have been shunted toward Commander and casual play instead. (Those of us who didn't get release promo versions of Restoration Angel have to grapple with an outfit straight out of the "Nicki Minaj meets Alice in Wonderland" playbook.)
Stop staring! Boot to the head!
There's also a disconnect between the "movie-style" ratings for art and text. The names and flavor text never go above a relatively family-friendly PG, rarely pushing past a "hell" or "damn"—there are only ten cards with "damn" or a variant in the name. Card art is what pushes Magic to its 13+ age rating, thanks to gruesome violence and what comic book geeks euphemistically call "good girl" pictures. However much I may dislike gratuitous cleavage and violence, though, some players do love them, and it becomes an ethical dilemma for Wizards as to how much to indulge that love.
Further complicating matters is that while outsiders may not understand the text goings-on of the game, they grok the art and form their own opinions of the game from it. Descendants' Path gives a different impression from Macabre Waltz. As Boss Tweed is said to have lamented, "My constituents don't know how to read, but they can't help seeing them damned pictures!" Tweed was talking about political cartoons, but Magic players are judged from afar by the packaging for the game and the art on the cards—right or wrong, that's the way it is.
There's a lot of pressure riding on each piece of art. With settings, that pressure is turned up dramatically: one shot, pass/fail in the marketplace, the future of Wizards of the Coast as a relatively autonomous company.
No pressure, R&D.
Every setting has its benefits and drawbacks. Remember that Innistrad, one of the most popular settings of recent times, kept getting pushed back because of internal concerns that it wouldn't be a hit. The initial feedback on Return to Ravnica was positive to say the least, but for players who have bad memories of the city-plane, this will be a long block. Similarly, those not enamored of the long names and "Shinto-gone-wrong" of Kamigawa or the unrelenting twee of Lorwyn were left cold. That's why so much emphasis is put on getting Magic's settings as right and as broadly popular as possible.
With Zendikar, Innistrad, and Return to Ravnica, Wizards is on a hot streak of wonderful settings. It is my sincere hope that the next plane, whatever it may be, keeps up the great work.
What Flavor Was Made for You?
I'll end with a question to you, the reader: what's your favorite flavorful card and why? Do you prefer worldbuilding or vocabulary names? For flavor text, poetry or puns? Let me know in the comments.
As always, thanks for reading.
@jdbeety on Twitter
* I've never met an irredeemable literature textbook. History, though? It takes talent to make something as fascinating as the past seem so pointless and dull.
** The first time I ever got knocked out of a spelling bee, I didn't take it well.
*** One of the beauties of English is that it can make up new words or borrow words from other languages whenever it likes; popular use decides what stays and what goes. Given the choice between English and one with an academic arbiter, I'll take English every time.