Flavor Soup For The Soul

Thursday, October 14th – Many times in my career as a content writer, I’ve felt haunted, tortured by the same dream every night. A dream filled with corpulent cash-money shades, their lurking forms slipping into my bedroom between door and jamb.


worlds, as they are applied to card sets, need breadth, not depth.”

Aaron Forsythe

Why do I care about Magic flavor? Maybe it’s because I like rooting for the underdog. Flavor text is, after all, an art form against which the deck (so to speak) is stacked.

Or maybe it’s because I still feel a little haunted.

Many times in my career as a content writer, I have felt haunted. What do I mean by “haunted?” I mean tortured by the same waking dream, every night. A dream filled with corpulent cash-money shades, their lurking forms slipping into my bedroom between door and jamb, seeking my carotid. As the nightmare progresses, I lay paralyzed, their long claws tracing my jaw line. My skin is pallid, feverish. They loom, and I feel breath wafting against my face, breath that smells like a garbage disposal filled with week-old lettuce. The kicker: When the killing strike finally comes, what bursts forth from my neck is not a jet of lifeblood but streamers of endless red tape.

Were Jerry Orbach to investigate the subsequent scene, I know he would make several jokes at the expense of my corpse.

“Look at this, Lenny— somebody slashed this guy’s throat from ear to ear.”

“Who does this stiff work for?”

“He’s a creative content writer for some game company.”

“Writer, huh? I guess the pen isn’t mightier than the sword.”

*DUN-DUN…dun-na-na, na-na…*

I wake up, screaming.

I have been the nineteenth wheel in boardrooms where financial conquerors held palaver, considering at length the precise arrangement of their nickels and dimes. Once or twice at these summits, filled with youthful impertinence, I decided to unhinge my jaw and chant sounds. It was folly. Ask anyone, and they’ll tell you, “Don’t let the creative guys talk.” When men with $100 haircuts gather to discuss network time slots, placement in major magazines, and six-figure episode budgets, any idea from the mouth of a disheveled “junior man” is not fit to grace the itinerary.

I realized pretty early on that no one cared much about the specifics of my characters, or my “flavor,” yet producing content was still my job. I had a really hard time reconciling those two things, and so I was haunted, tossing and turning at night with questions about my place in the universe. I think every person wants to take pride in what they produce or contribute — whether it’s a new invention, or just a clean countertop and a friendly smile at the greasy spoon. Contrast that “want” with an unfortunate truth — that world-building/flavor text is the last thing that any given gaming company cares about. To most, “flavor” is an indulgence secondary to concerns both fiscal and temporal.

As a creative content guy, everywhere you look in the industry, people will have it better than you.

Artists are rock stars. Their images are plastered on packaging and advertising materials, and they fill up space in a brand bible like no other. The difference between a great-looking pitch document and an amateur hour “TL;DR” snore fest could be as few as two rockin’ concept sketches. Artists sign their works by the bushel at events and conventions, and a good artist can make or break a product with his visual style. This is why artists are the number one weapon in the arsenal of a creative director when it comes to bringing a world to life.

If artists are rock stars, game designers are gods. They’re not as flashy as the rock stars, but they get the job done behind the scenes, and the yearning masses know where their bread is buttered. One number here or there on the rules text of a card can shape the play experience of millions. First and foremost, game objects are remembered not for what they’re called or what they look like, but what they do.

And what about creative content guys?

Creative content guys are puppets, dancing a sad, little jig, pulled by strings that seem unable to raise their shoulders above a defeated slump. As a creative content guy, you show up to work, and everyone in the company either a) assumes they could do your job or b) doesn’t care what you do, as long as your work isn’t completely embarrassing.

Your boss on the creative team could easily do your job, but he doesn’t have the time. If he did, you’d never have been hired. Your bosses’ boss doesn’t care who does it, as long as it’s done, and will never read a line of it. And your bosses’ bosses’ boss doesn’t know that your job even exists. Neither of these latter two hotshots will ever open up your brand bible, read about your main character who wields a bo staff and “does machines,” and say to himself, “That’s pretty cool; I want to read all about the seven factions and twelve sub-factions involved in this complex narrative.”

When I was visiting Upper Deck and working with the creative team there, I’d occasionally shamble up to the door of the Game Designer’s Room and look longingly inside. By then, I was starting to put it all together — the truth about what really mattered in making a game, and what didn’t. Each day in my trudge past R&D, I felt like Sisyphus peeking over that last ridge, my accursed eyes falling upon an endless revel at the apex of a mountain I’d never be able to climb. I would pause, my envy a deeper emerald than the Jolly Green Giant’s grundle, and then chase my boulder back down the mountain and to the Creative Department.

Socially, my content generation work was a very good experience — I met some friends who are better than I deserve. Creatively, it was sobering, and I produced almost nothing of value despite the absolute best of intentions. Part of the problem was that it was Upper Deck — a company that could only be described as a train wreck. That wasn’t all of it, though. Writing in the gaming industry is a miserable dromedary, a mountainous hump jutting squarely into the testes. A man’s more likely to pass a Phelddagrif through the eye of a needle than to do anything both profound and profitable.

“Having a decent idea about what a medium-sized white flying creature could be in your world is much, much more important than figuring out which of the Druid King’s advisors is really a double-agent from the Shapeshifter Cooperative.”

Aaron Forsythe

Yes, Aaron — and the conventions of any given game are not the only things that keep the tale of the Druid King conspiracy from being told. The conventions of business and corporate politics can be just as stubborn.

In my time as a content monkey, I once received creative documents from a partner company eager to collaborate, only to be ordered not to help brainstorm their ideas, engage them, or speak to them, because even acknowledging their efforts would constitute
de facto

acquiescence of creative control on the project. Did it matter if their ideas were good? No, it did not — and it was heartbreaking to see their earnest efforts being buried as a power-play tactic. I figured the same thing could easily happen to my work.

On another occasion, I painstakingly prepared an extensive style guide and passed it off to the art department, eager to engage them and be part of the process of making an intellectual property come to life. But lo and behold, there came a blank stare from the department head. He was not as interested in my wonderful world as I was. In fact, he seemed to resent my shoveling work onto his department for a project in which he was not personally invested. He was about as enthusiastic about it as a man might be if he were made to do someone else’s laundry.

I was alarmed and confused.
But wait… doesn’t anyone care about

ideas? I’m a member of the vaunted
creative team
! Is it not appropriate to push a little on something like this?

The response never came, but if it had, it would’ve gone something like:

“No, no one cares — the specifics of your creative work aren’t that important. It doesn’t matter if your main character is named Zax, Zorph, or (as, Omeed Dariani once suggested) Charlemagne/Barlemagne. Just hit the deadline. Now, go and pick up your check, if you can stomach it.”

I once thought I was a writer.

I now consider graphic design to be my “practical skill,” as it’s the skill I have that people actually care about. If someone asks me to design a logo, and they like it, I can expect them to be satisfied. That satisfaction brings with it an ability to collect payment for my services without a sense of shame, and that’s important to me. It makes the bad dreams go away — those nightmares wherein I bleed bureaucracy until I’m buried in a grave of irrelevance, where Lenny and the coroner drop one-liners while I lay there on a slab, fish-belly white and free at last.

Question, hotshot:

You’re a startup company, and you’re making a card game. You want to keep costs low. Do you pay a graphic designer to do your card frame? Yeah, you have to. Do you pay an artist to do your card art? Yeah, you have to. Do you pay a game designer to do your rules text? Yeah, you have to.

Do you pay a writer to develop your storyline and write your flavor text?

Heh, are you kidding? If you’ve read The Hobbit, you can do flavor text that will get the job done. And as far as a storyline, you can handle that yourself, too. You enjoy games, and you’re a creative guy, right? Only a few people can do art, web design, game development, and/or graphic design. Everybody learns to write — why pay for a skill that everyone has?

Absorb all that, and then turn the tables and imagine that your job is to write, and do flavor text — and you’re in the gaming industry. Try going in to pick up your pay with a straight face. Try to feel pride in what you do when, if money was tight, your position would be the first one flushed down the john. Try to keep those nightmares from eating you up inside. I went into the breach with idealistic views — pleasantly astounded that my skills in putting words into the mouths of goblins and dwarves would be valued by a major corporation. It seemed too good to be true.

And it was.

Follow in the wake of the big dogs, and you’ll be paid well for the alphabetic sludge that oozes from your laptop. Go ahead, crank it like a sausage maker into which dictionaries have been dumped en masse! Let the cash roll in! They only require a C+.

Here’s the bad news. That extra 10% that separates you from the next guy? They don’t need that. That 10% invisible to the CEOs and bosses of the world. Invisible to their eyes and to their bottom line. You don’t need to shine; you just need to hit your deadline.

Eventually, that’s going to kill your soul.

“Don’t try to write

Lord of the Rings 2

A Game of Thrones

and jam it into a


Aaron Forsythe

Creative content stuff is always going to be secondary to the game, especially in games that don’t provide a cinematic experience. I wish it were otherwise. I wish that when planning a given hobby gaming project, the question “Who is going to write it?” was the foremost question on the mind of everyone present. Reality doesn’t bear that out, and more than once, I’ve asked myself, “What the heck am I even doing in this industry?”

Oh yeah — I like games. A lot. Now I remember. I’m not a writer. I’m a gamer who happens to know how to write a little, and use Photoshop from time to time.

I’ve worked in a dual role as a graphic designer and creative guy (on the same project), and the difference between the two jobs is stark. My graphic design work always felt crucial, and I billed every hour without shame. Conversely, had I billed the four hours I spent brainstorming names and descriptions for extra-dimensional choirs of angels, my employer would’ve laughed in my face.

If you’re a writer, and you get a toe in the door, the gaming industry will gradually teach you to let go of your idealism. For me, this process took far too long. I wanted to believe that my work was vital to the projects I was on, but evidence to the contrary piled up in drifts. It wasn’t a happy journey.

I survived with the help of others. Iranian prank magnate Omeed Dariani said it best. “Most people don’t want good stuff,” he opined. “They just want stuff.” He’s right. Now, at age 30, I’ve finally drilled that through my thick head. It’s a lesson for which I owe him thanks.

It’s also a lesson that feels like dying.

That’s why I care about flavor text. Caring about flavor text is my rebellion against the marginalization of writing in hobby games, and the feelings of disenfranchisement that result. It’s my last, great act of defiance, a scream from the part of me that sat down at 22 years of age to pound out some texts while really believing that it mattered, before learning that in gaming, no creative work really matters all that much. It’s my incantation against the pain I felt when I first talked with enthusiasm to men in suits about my grand ideas, going for all of fifteen seconds before realizing they didn’t give a crap.

“Magic sets need only a tiny number of significant, unique characters—the bulk of the important work is coming up with the dozens of denizens that will make up the commons and uncommons.”

Aaron Forsythe

These quotes are taken from a new regular feature that I’m enjoying a lot — Aaron Forsythe “Random Card Comment of the Day,” which can be found on his

I’m taking these quotes a little bit out of context — Aaron is talking about conceiving a game world for a Magic block, and what sorts of information is useful in that context. They pretty much apply to all creative content generation in hobby gaming, though.

The story serves everything else, is secondary to everything else. In conventional media, characters are made great because of depth, but characters in gaming don’t need depth. As Aaron himself notes, games need breadth, an all-encompassing patina of information rather than a bottomless well. Hobby games need factions, and settings, and skin-deep flourishes. They need colorful Matchbox racers with which eager players can stage a game of “Demolition Derby.”

That sorta sucks, because I had a really good idea about how the Shapeshifter Cooperative ties into it all.*

For a closing thought, here’s the text from Wandering Ones, a COK card. In the world in which this takes place, the gods and spirits of the land have turned against the mortals they previously protected. In the midst of it all, a lost and forsaken man laments the change.

“I saw them once, when I was a child. They led me to my parents’ arms when I was lost. Why have they abandoned me now? Why won’t they take me home again?”

—Unnamed beggar

So good, it hurts. My heart breaks for that guy. If every text were this good, people wouldn’t even play Magic, they’d read it.

Flavor text is the one chance that Magic: The Gathering has to rise above a utilitarian “hobby games” level of storytelling and tug at a few heartstrings. That it can sometimes do this despite gameplay conceits that actively discourage depth is a testament to the power of the written word, and how it never hurts to try.

Flavor of the Week

Not every flavor text is as good as Wandering Ones, and the not-so-goods fall into various categories, which I will gradually enumerate here. Last week I promised ten categories. There’s only enough space in this article for the first five. Here they are.

The “Cool Story, Bro”


A “Cool Story, Bro” text is when the flavor text writer just goes off on his own, adding information that isn’t in the style guide. This is exposition that might

flavorful, but if you sit and think about it for a while, isn’t so great. Sometimes, it’s because the details given are too general, and they stand out against the more detailed background of the game world like a big, lazy beacon. Other times, it’s clear the stuff isn’t from the style guide because it’s just a bad idea or doesn’t make any sense.

Often, when I read texts in this category, I just burst out laughing and say out loud: “Pfffft, no way that’s actually true.”

Why This Happens:

This happens because the flavor text writer is trying really hard to “sell” the card. In selling the card, the writer will weave some elaborate scenario that perhaps he should have kept under his hat. He “tells a story” about the focus of the card, meant to paint it as something special. In doing this, the writer sometimes drags the world through the mud.


Skeletal Wurm (ROE)

Necromancers are judged by the most powerful undead they’ve ever created. There are those who have animated just a single being, yet are considered the pinnacle of their dark craft.

This card is part of Rise of the Eldrazi, but you’d never know it from this text. Instead of referring to the ROE world, it spins a tale of necromancers, their works, and how those works are judged by their peers. This feels more like a Core Set flavor text. The Rise of the Eldrazi style guide probably contained paragraph after paragraph of specific information about the setting that could’ve been incorporated here. But no, we get this yarn, which tries to sell the Skeletal Wurm by playing up the fame of the necromancer who raised it.

The idea isn’t just out of place; it’s not all that convincing. Why are necromancers judged by the most powerful undead they’ve ever created? So if you just raise a huge legion of zombies, you’re a nobody compared to this Bobby Fischer necromancer who raised one Skeletal Wurm and called it a day? It couldn’t just be a fluke?

Thanks for the info about necromancers, bro. Take it back to your D&D campaign, and maybe we’ll bust it out again for M12. Maybe talk about the Eldrazi next time, if that’s cool.

Boros Swiftblade (Planechase)

When the Boros Legion attacks, swiftblades enter the fray first. They pick off the archers and mages, softening the enemy front before the flame-kin and giants go in.

They take out the archers and mages first, huh? Why are they able to target enemy mages and archers? Are these mages and archers just standing around in the enemy vanguard? What’s to prevent the mages and archers from standing like… 100 yards behind a huge wall of pikemen, like mages and archers should?

It’s not like this guy is unblockable or something. He’s not sneaking around behind the enemy lines. It literally says he’s softening the enemy front.

This text just seems to tell a story that isn’t shown in the art (not much of a fray — he’s slinking around alone) or card mechanics. The story itself has some holes. Imagine this text on the following card:

Creature — Human Rogue
Whenever Boros Swiftblade deals damage to a player, you may destroy target nonblack creature that player controls.

That’s more of an “Enter the fray first, destroy the archers and mages” sort of card. The sneaking art would also make sense.

Cool story, Boros.

Arrest (Scar of Mirrodin)

Bladehold houses a rogues’ gallery filled with the living “statues” of the worst enemies of the Auriok.

Lol — really? Come on, no it doesn’t!

This writer is trying to sell Arrest by making us believe that there’s an area in Bladehold where Arrested killing machines are just chilling, reduced to mere decorations by the strength of the enchantment.

Somebody email Doug Beyer: “Does Bladehold really house an area where, if someone sneaks a Back to Nature in, the whole city is going to be destroyed?”

The text does in fact put forth the idea that this is an attraction of sorts where the Auriok can bring their children to run the rub-ins. It also confirms that the enemies of the Auriok would in fact still be trying to commit murder if not for Arrest, by putting quotation marks around the word “statues.”

Is this canon, now? Are the Auriok really this overconfident/dumb?

Excruciator (Ravnica)

Though used as a piercing weapon, the tusk is more akin to a stinger, spreading pain instantly throughout the body of its victim. This specimen deserves further study.

– Simic research notes

Cool story about the tusk/stinger, bro, except the guy is a 7/7. You’re saying that arm doesn’t just obliterate you? That tapered point is actually small enough to function like a stinger? How tall is Excruciator, like 4’11”? Just keep chatting nonchalantly about your “specimen” when in fact it’s powerful enough to beat the hell out of Experiment Kraj.

“The pain is just as bad throughout the rest of my body as it is in this two-foot-diameter sucking chest wound.”

Excruciator is actually a flavor disaster on a number of levels (basically everything but the card name), but this text could’ve helped salvage the art/stats disconnect. Instead it just went on a magical Simic journey all its own.

How to Prevent This:

The key to avoiding this sort of nonsense is to just stick to the game plan laid out by the creative team. Style guides have far more information than you can actually use — and if you’re going to spin a tale that highlights the power of a given card, you should try not to step on any toes by describing military tactics/places/relationships between Necromancers that don’t exist. If you’re doing flavor text from scratch for your homemade set (and as such don’t have a style guide), just use common sense. If you’re going to go through the trouble of telling a story about something, make sure it seems to be part of a larger whole and isn’t too general. That text about Necromancers not only could be from any expansion set, it could be from any fantasy game, period.

The Wrong Voice


A “Wrong Voice” text occurs when the text reads in a way that doesn’t jibe with what the reader would expect from the attribution. Have you ever played World of Warcraft and clicked a Troll?

“Watcha wan’?” he says, sounding like Screwface from the Steven Seagal movie
Marked for Death.

Then his quest text pops up.

“Alas and alack! The fiendish humans of Hillsbrad have…”

That’s a wrong voice.

Why This Happens:

Magic actually has a lot of problems with voice in flavor text, because the texts are so formulaic, especially in the case of couplets. There are literally hundreds of flavor texts that say “Thing one: thing two” or “Thing one, thing two.” They all sound pretty much the same. Likewise, there have been so many bystanders, worshippers, and chieftains out there selling for cards that they all tend to run together. That’s still no excuse, though. A backwards tribesman should sound like a backwards tribesman, a wizard should sound like a wizard. Most importantly, one guy should not sound like two different guys. Occasionally, two disparate texts are given the same attribution because they’re on the same color of card, as you’ll see below.


Goblin Chieftain (M10/11)

“We are goblinkind, heirs to the mountain empires of chieftains past. Rest is death to us, and arson is our call to war.”

A pretty egregious example. I’ve already talked about this one in
this article.

Magmaw (Rise of the Eldrazi)

“The purpose of existence is simple: everything is fuel for the magmaw.”—Jaji, magmaw worshipper

Imagine a “Magmaw worshipper” from a savage wilderness. His entire life, he’s known nothing but perilous terrain, traps that swallow men whole, and being in thrall to a terrible magma beast. He has all the perspective that a life of dodging chthonic behemoths has given him.

The couplet construction doesn’t work — it’s spoken like he knows how ludicrous it sounds. Setting it up with “The purpose of life is simple:” lets us know he’s going to say something crazy. But of course he allegedly believes this. Even the word “simple” is strange. A life of Magmaw worship would probably not seem simple. It certainly sounds dangerous. This text seems less like what a Magmaw worshipper would actually say, and more like an anthropologist’s joke about what he might say.

Arc Trail (Scar of Mirrodin)

“Don’t try to hit your enemies. Concentrate on the space between them, and fill the air with doom.”—Spear-Tribe teaching

Flameborn Hellion (Scar of Mirrodin)

“The most reliable omen of a future hellion attack is a past hellion attack.”—Spear-Tribe teaching

The Spear-Tribe teaching on Arc Trail sounds mystical and martial. The second one is some guy’s attempt at a joke. These cards were submitted without attributions or with two different attributions, and certainly came from two different people. A decision was made to tie them together, and it wasn’t a good decision.

How to Prevent This:

Creative teams simply have to provide “voice examples” in the style guide, which contractors can then use to populate attributed flavor text while keeping voice consistent. Style guides already provide some information about cultures and major characters, and the general “tone” of a given faction is available so that these mistakes don’t come up often. That said, a few examples would help steer people in the right direction.

Creative can also help their own cause by not bundling disparate texts together via attribution. This is a lesson you can take to heart when you’re going your own flavor text.

The Nothing


“The Nothing” is a text that offers scarcely any insight or ideas at all. A lot of texts attempt to offer insight or provoke thought by swerving through similes and metaphors, or using couplet or triplet construction. “Nothings” don’t even resort to those tricks. They simply say nothing. The best flavor texts have interesting imagery or ideas — Nothings have one simple piece of imagery or one simple idea, and that’s it. That’s all you get. These can also be called “Alexander Graham Bells,” as in “they phoned it in.”

Why This Happens:

Sometimes creative teams and contractors get tired, and deadlines are creeping up. At this point, they sign the Steve-Blake-as-backup-PG flavor text, put it into the game/set, and say, “Look, just don’t kill us.” Contractors are lazy and will submit plenty of stinkers as the deadline looms. When there’s no time for a rewrite and no time to fix it yourself, a Nothing happens.

Mind Rot (M11)

Not every thought is a good one.

Adding a worthwhile idea or image to this text is as simple as changing one word, as I demonstrated
in an earlier article.

Nobody bothered to do it, though.

Divebomber Griffin (Ravnica)

Justice flies swiftly on angry wings.

Uh, okay. There are actually a lot of texts like this that say nothing and try to get away with being “artistic,” conjuring the image of Griffon-as-Justice… it doesn’t work. By now we’ve seen these interchangeable parts a million times. Maybe this has more going on than other texts in this category, but relative to what it could’ve been, it’s a Nothing. This is the sort of text where you look at the database, and it’s one of five submissions made within ten seconds of each other, all by the same guy.

Vinelasher Kudzu (Ravnica)

It grows to hate you.

Dull, requires a stretch to make any sense. It’s almost like a negative score. Every idea is one point; every leap the reader has to make for the text to make sense is -1 point. This text has no ideas and requires the reader to say, “Oh, it grows to hate the enemy, I see — not actually me.”

Relic Crush (Zendikar)

There are many ruins, but there used to be many more.

Sounds like the first page in a children’s book about Zendikar.

Devastating Summons (Rise of the Eldrazi)

Things born in magma are always angry.

Thanks for the hot info.

How to Prevent This:

You can only buckle down and put in a few extra hours when a text is a blank like this. Whenever the suggestions for a given card really stink, Wizards does put it in for a rewrite if there’s time for contractors to do another pass. If there isn’t, they’re stuck with it and have to fix it themselves. It’s not always an issue of time, though — sometimes they just feel texts like these are acceptable. Yeah, I understand, guys — you have a lot to do. You’re busy. But come on.

The key to breaking out of a “nothing” mold is to start from scratch and try to come up with an idea. Does the card depict a creature? How does that creature fit in with its environment? What is its history? Zoom that microscope way in. Make up an imaginary peccadillo for the creature and then zoom back out and use it in a text. (Be careful not to “Cool Story, Bro” it, though.) If that doesn’t work, try another angle. Imagine a bystander’s anecdote about the creature. And so on, and so on.

To be perfectly serviceable, a text just needs to have an idea and do something with it.

The Sphinx


A “Sphinx” is a type of bad flavor text named after a character from the Ben Stiller film
Mystery Men.

It can be used to describe any flavor text that is supposed to be profound, but in fact is just formulaic schlock.

Why This Happens:

In service to this flavor trope, text writers are tasked with coming up with the wisest things ever said by the wisest men on entire planes and continents. Sadly, flavor text writers are not H.L. Mencken, Dorothy Parker, or Gandhi. Neither are their supervisors.

Mortician Beetle (ROE)

To the soldier, war is famine; to the scavenger, a feast.

In my first article

back, and in the forums thereafter, I explained how this text attempts to appear profound but doesn’t actually make any sense.

Tanglesap (Zendikar)

“The blood of the forest is beholden to no one.” —Nissa Revane

Initially, Jules Winfield didn’t really understand the significance of Ezekiel 25:13. He just thought it was some cool stuff to say to a guy before he shot him. I’m pretty sure this is the only reason anyone in Magic: The Gathering says anything.

This flavor text is constructed exactly like a profound saying would be, but it means nothing.

The blood of the forest is beholden to no one?

Why would it be?

Here’s how this happened:

Flavor Writer: “Man, how do I get across my idea of frickin’ RENEGADE sap that plays by its own rules!?”

(1 minute later)

Flavor Writer: “This sh-t is money. Thank you, Nissa Revane!”

The question that wasn’t asked, of course, is, “Why would she say this, and in what context?” It only makes sense if some other force is trying to bend the sap to its will. Maybe because it wants syrup, or something.

In short, Nissa Revane hates Canadians.

Cultivate (M11)

All seeds share a common bond, calling to each other across infinity.

Sounds good, means nothing. I talked about this one in a
previous article,

too. I think it would be a fun exercise to do the following:

Take this text, but remove the word “seeds.”

Pick any five Magic cards.

Make a text for each of them by replacing the word “seeds” with any other word.

A pseudo-profundity that can apply to any word? That’s the essence of a Sphinx.

Kozilek’s Predator (ROE)

It’s difficult to outwit something that doesn’t speak, strategize, or even think.

Another school of thought would be that it

easy to outwit something that doesn’t speak, strategize, or even think.

How to Prevent This:

Someone in charge has to comb through all of these attempts to show wisdom and separate the real deals from the pretenders. The problem with most of these texts is that they’re “good enough” just by the faux-wisdom inherent in the way they’re constructed. It’s only after you look at them and think about it that they become embarrassing.

Yes, that does in fact mean that the solution is to look at them and think about it. This is especially important for any text that is supposed to get across how wise the speaker is. If the text is supposed to represent intelligence on the part of the speaker, or serenity, or bad-assery, make sure it actually does that. Get a second opinion if you must.


If you’re uncertain as to whether your text contains an actual useful idea or not, it probably doesn’t.


If you think there’s a chance your text might actually be dumb, don’t attribute it to “Brainonicus the Wise, Sage of Intellion.”

The Hamfist


A “Hamfist” is simply a flavor text that is poorly written. It often has plenty of ideas, but they’re ruined by awkward word choices, repetition, and homonyms.

Why This Happens:

Bad writers or careless ones — often the ideas are there but the words lack flow and polish. Texts go through something like a ten phase polishing process, the first 7-8 phases of which are to be handled by the initial writer. In the beginning, a writer comes up with the basic idea, which of course probably sounds like hell. The writer knows it’s a good idea, so they work at it a while, try some different implementations, and so on. Eventually, when it’s as perfect as one person can make it without feedback, it gets submitted.

Well, some writers skip most of that stuff, come up with the first half-assed implementation of their idea, no matter what words are used, and wash their hands of it. Who can blame them? It’s 10:00 p.m., after all, and
Sexual Healing

isn’t going to watch itself.


Ant Queen (M10)

“Kill the queen first, or we’ll be fighting her drones forever. It is not in a queen’s nature to have enough servants.”

-Borzard, exterminator captain

Ant Queen can be read to mean either one thing or its exact opposite. You’re telling me you couldn’t word it any other way than “It’s not in a queen’s nature to have enough servants?”

Veteran Swordsmith (M10)

“Truth is a straight, keen edge. There are no soft angles or rounded edges. To fight for truth, we must forge in steel.”

Let’s just say “edge” a few more times.

Hour of Reckoning (RAV)

Ravnica, like a hedge, must be pruned, leaving only leaves of verdant uniformity.

– Niszka, Selesnya evangel

Leaving/leaves is an awkward near-homonym and verdant is not the adjective I’d use before uniformity. If I didn’t know better I’d say that “verdant uniformity” doesn’t actually mean anything. What this actually wants to say is “uniformly verdant.”

Roofstalker Wight (RAV)

No heartbeat to hear, no greed to bribe, no fear of death.

A triplet that’s all over the place. Since when do you bribe someone’s greed? Should be “no greed to tempt” or something similar. Then the third part of the couplet just changes direction entirely and the “verb” comes first (except now it’s a noun). I guess that’s a stylistic choice?

Anyway, this text is balls.

Kor Firewalker (WWK)

“A river of lava is just another river to cross.”

No reason the first instance of the word river couldn’t be “flow” instead, for a text that’s 100% better. I don’t buy that the guy is just using the word twice for emphasis — it doesn’t sound right.

Demonic Appetite (ROE)

“Morality is just shorthand for the constraints of being powerless.” —Ob Nixilis

I can’t decide whether this is a “Sphinx,” a “Wrong Voice,” or a “Hamfist.” It’s certainly an attempt to say something profound, but it misses the mark. “Shorthand” is simply the wrong word — it’s a file clerk’s word. This exact sentiment could have been expressed without it, and using it makes Ob Nixilis look like a knob. Knob Ixilis, if you will.

How to Prevent This:

These can be subjective. The major advice here is to reread the texts a few times, out loud. In the case of attributed texts, imagine you’re the speaker, or listener. Is it awkward? Does it make sense?

If you sense something wrong, closely examine the words used and try to find instances when a word change would add better cadence or more variety to a text. I’ve said before that texts are like little poems, and just as you would agonize over every word in a poem, right down to the number of syllables, you should do the same thing with texts. In the same way you wouldn’t just use the same word twice in a poem unless it was for some form of emphasis, you shouldn’t do it in texts. And while the Hour of Reckoning example is a bit of a nitpick, people in real life are very cognizant of homonyms (words that sound alike but mean different things) and repetition of words, such that they change their inflections. Flavor text should be written the same way.

If a text sounds awkward, dive back in and hammer away at it a while. It just takes time and perseverance to find that perfect word.

The Horatio Caine


A Horatio Caine actually describes two types of texts. One is a flavor text that uses some sort of progressive construction, such as a couplet, a triplet, or a longer list… but it doesn’t work because the final line doesn’t make any sense or is a huge letdown. The second is a type of text that is simply a very formulaic couplet that sounds like meaningless action-movie dialogue (like many of the crime-scene utterances of David Caruso’s namesake character). They are called “Horatio Caine” texts because you get to imagine the speaker pausing before the last line, putting on some sunglasses, and then speaking it aloud before the theme for
CSI: Miami

comes on.

Why This Happens:

Magic flavor text writers love couplets and progressive texts, and they like nothing better than to put a button on their masterpiece with
le mot juste

. Unfortunately, they don’t always get there, and a lot of times it’s a mistake to use the construction in the first place. Couplets sometimes create the illusion of profundity and poetry where none exists, which is probably why they’re so popular. Constructed correctly, they have an action movie sort of bad-assery to them.

Nemesis of Reason (Alara Reborn)

Words describing it fail. Pages relating it shrivel. Tales recounting it end.

Compare this to Duskmantle, House of Shadow — a card that does it the right way.

Words describing it fail. Pages relating to it shrivel.

*put sunglasses on*

Tales recounting it end.

YEAAAAAAAAAAAAA—wait, what? Seriously, as opposed to what? Going on forever? I mean… all tales end. This text started unraveling with the second part of the trifecta and was nothing more than dust in the wind by the third.

Helldozer (RAV)

Sometimes you go to hell, and sometimes hell comes to you.


Mold Shambler (ZEN)

When civilization encroaches on nature, Zendikar encroaches back.


How to Prevent This:

As noted, couplets and other forms of progressive text are among the most common in Magic. As you write these or evaluate them, try to pick out those that could be expressed as a more conventional turn of phrase. Many of these texts, more conversationally written, would go a long way to showing the personality of the speaker, and by extension, of the culture to which the speaker belongs, and the world as a whole.

Okay, okay. I’ve droned on long enough. You might find it an interesting exercise to poke your nose around Gatherer and see what other texts you can find that fall into these categories. It’s harder than it looks, though — in general, flavor texts in Magic: The Gathering are a solid B, and the stinkers are few and far between.

Until next week, don’t rest until it’s awesome, even if they only want a C+.

Best wishes,
Geordie Tait


on Twitter

*  — In terms of appreciating the efforts of creative content writers, Wizards of the Coast is up there as one of the better companies. They pay good money, and the fact that they value contributions makes it easy to try hard. They also are pretty classy with the perks. For example, as I’ve already mentioned, if you name a card or contribute flavor text to one, you receive a foil complimentary copy of the card once the set is released. Policies like this, combined with the good compensation, can help to make a creative content guy feel a lot less irrelevant. This in turn
leads to higher quality work. They also feature regular articles that are essentially about creative content generation (like
Savor the Flavor
), which provide a glimpse into how the creative process works when your company is not run by crooks.