Just Another Dead Bonsai

Tuesday, November 9th – The most beautiful things look easy and simple yet also come out of long hours of painstaking work. Take the bonsai tree, for instance…

“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 mehome again?”

—Unnamed beggar

I’m 30 years old now. I have medical bills, rent, car troubles, an apartment filled with rattling appliances and their associated impending repair-bills. As an adult, I am no longer entitled to forgiveness for the outrageous things I say. Sometimes a tactless word is the difference between getting a job and being left on the curb. I worry about groceries, utilities, pet supplies, credit ratings, toiletries, birth control. I stare apprehensively at cable bills and wonder if the complaint phone call is worth it. I envy the gadgets of my peers and stumble after them at a pace embarrassing and arthritic. Hobby-wise, my lips are long unlatched from the parental teat. I measure my new bikes not in allowances, but hours.

The case fan is rattling even now… how long will it be before my desktop computer gives up the ghost? My laptop is already gone, a fallen soldier in the CPU Temperature Wars. If my desktop computer dies out tomorrow, that’s all she wrote. Worry tucks me in at night and sends me off with a poltergeist’s meddlesome kiss.

Time was, if I blew out my pair of Reeboks by over-pumping them, I could just go downstairs and ask Mom for money to get new shoes. Back in 5th grade, I got in a fight with another boy at school. He knocked me a good one on the jaw– *POP!* and I went home and applied a package of frozen corn to the throbbing impact point. Simple solutions to simple problems. If I took verbal vengeance on prankster Timothy Derris by opining that he had a pizza-face and smelled bad, nobody would care the next day, except maybe for Mrs. Derris. And she wasn’t about to keep me out of any tree houses or pickup games.

Now, the problems are complex, and the solutions aren’t always readily at hand. I saw them once, when I was a child. But they’ve abandoned me now, and you can never really go home again. Stress and circumstance make a bewildered beggar of us all, and at night we exhale softly onto our forearms, comforter-swaddled and fetal, remembering the immortal powers, parental or spiritual, that once took us home.

All the benevolent spirits of youth betray us in the end, and the cry that rises in our throats at this realization is the cry of a new urchin, down on his miserable luck for the first time. But surely not the last.

Let’s talk about bonsai.

Bonsai is a Japanese art form utilizing dwarf potted trees. They’re like regular trees, but just a fraction of the size. You could reach your thumb and forefinger out and snap off a limb, if you so desired. Were you to imagine in doing so that yours was the arm of the towering almighty, splitting unseen clouds to loom over a willow in some distant meadow, nobody would blame you. There’s something appealing about taking a piece of the natural world, miniaturizing it, and showing off all the beauty and dignity of nature in a tiny, easily viewable package.

Practitioners of the art of bonsai treat their creations with the utmost care, for each bonsai is a small and fragile thing. A bonsai can’t take the same punishment as a sturdy oak or redwood. If there was a Bonsai Treefolk, it would be a 0/1 with the Skulking Ghost ability. Had Shel Silverstein written
The Giving Tree

about a bonsai, it would’ve lasted all of two pages. The second page would be Silverstein’s tree-vampire protagonist shrugging sheepishly, palms upward, saying “Boy, did I back the wrong horse, or what?”

Full-grown trees survive almost by accident – it often takes an act of mankind to take one down. Conversely, the tiny bonsai tree will wither or go wildly to seed without an attentive keeper, someone to trim its leaves, to prune its trunk and branches, to shape it with wires and clamps.

A successful bonsai contains
no trace of the artist.

The designer’s touch must not be apparent to the viewer. The art form is effective because it represents the natural world – a miniaturized version of the beauty of the land. Stylistic flourishes that encourage the viewer to think about the directed action of an artist (as opposed to the natural growth of a tree) are against what bonsai is about.

Visual balance

is important. The bonsai must seem natural, without tumescent disproportion in the trunk or branches. Use of negative space can be crucial.

is part of this. No tree is perfectly symmetrical in the wild. Bonsai practitioners stagger the branches in height and take care not to extend two or more branches the exact same distance from the trunk, in order to maintain this aesthetic. This makes the tree seem more “real.”


is an aesthetic principle that refers to the “woodiness” of the branches and trunk. Bonsai are very different from full-sized trees, and as such their trunks don’t naturally look the same – they stay softer and less “rough” than their full-sized counterparts. This would create an aesthetic disconnect without certain measures. In a bonsai that emulates a birch, for example, the trunk surface is encouraged to attain the white color and exfoliating bark of the actual tree. That’s

– encouraging a new and artificial growth to take on the weight of natural years.

Leaf reduction

is related to the general miniaturization of the bonsai. In a full-sized tree, the leaves are very small relative to the full growth. In a bonsai, this isn’t the case, and as such, leaves must be minimized and trimmed away, lest they spoil the illusion and make the plant look like little more than a fern. Before exhibition, it’s desirable to reduce the leaves of a bonsai to proportionate size.

There are good bonsai and bad bonsai, to be sure. A bonsai that lives its life having never aspired to be more than crass shrub will have no mourners – it will be exhibited once to little fanfare, and then simply be dumped into the rubbish, its clay pot to be used for the next bonsai in line.

A product of little effort and even lesser artistic aspiration, without context, created without care, given no depth or reality, is just another dead bonsai.

“He traded sand for skins, skins for gold, gold for life. In the end, he traded life for sand.”

—Afari, Tales

I have traded dignity for satisfaction. Self-respect for opportunity. I have traded idealism for necessity. In service to the maneuverings of executives, I have let fertile fields lay fallow, and I have traded gold for cardboard.

The trades a person makes to break through the ceiling of adolescence and into adulthood are many, all have hidden costs, and I lament that idealism is so freely given in exchange for convenience, for while convenience is everywhere, idealism and forthrightness are in short supply.

What I once coveted, paying vast sums of coin both physical and mental to attain, I’d now gladly set ablaze – a testament to how one year’s obsession can be next year’s afterthought, just another skeletonized horse on the side of a dusty road, ridden to exhaustion. That road is called Time; we’re all called to walk it for a stretch of miles, and none of us knows how long.

I have seen good friends in sad states of emotional poverty, paying hand over fist in pursuit of the whitest of whales. Even a lie is a simple bargain – an exchange of morality for convenience.

I have made a lot of trades that I wish I could take back, and only with experience have I started to understand what commodities really matter and which ones are mere passing fancies. As Afari demonstrates, a lifetime record of such trades could be read as an epitaph.

It remains to be seen what my trades will say about me, after I’m no more than dust in the wind. Somebody call Medina. I’ve still got three copies of Idealism and two copies of Honesty in my binder, and all the playable commons like Kindness. I have three copies of Opportunity. I still have all four copies of Cynicism – people have wanted to trade me Amiableness, but I haven’t been able to pull the trigger.

Maybe I will, though. My understanding of wealth continues to evolve.

Fun fact:

The weight of a single sheet of paper is about 4.3 grams…what? Oh, right – this is an American site. That’s 1/100th of a pound. A Magic card is much smaller than a sheet of paper but is printed on thin paperboard, which is denser. A single Magic card weighs 0.064 ounces.

A pine tree of good size, 75 feet high and 1-foot average diameter, would produce about 1032 lbs. of pulp, enough for 103,200 sheets of paper, or 258,000 Magic cards.

What about a bonsai?

Granting the bonsai a height of one foot and an average trunk diameter of one inch, our dead bonsai would produce about a third of a pound of pulp, enough for 37 sheets of paper – or about 93 Magic cards. That’s almost an EDH deck.

Of course, it would be a shame to take an opportunity for true beauty, like a bonsai, and grind it up to make something as vulgar as a collectible card.

Wouldn’t it?

“On my death, I give you this treasure: the knowledge that life is hard, yet too soon past.”

—Dal funeral rite

I’m going to be married in less than a year, so now I have to live forever. I never thought I was so great, but apparently she likes me, so who am I to check out early?

It’s a great realization that happens when life finally gives you something to do. What is your calling? Are there people you want to help? A cause that needs to be seen all the way through to the end? Have you refused to rest while a certain inequality exists, or until you accomplish some great and noble goal?

Once you get married and/or have children, life takes on a new sort of urgency, giving new meaning to the death date you once thought so irrelevant while sitting around depressed and playing Nintendo. Each chirp-cheery summer morning sees the enameled finger of the Grim Reaper knocking one bead more off the abacus.

I am guilty of being somewhat of a complaining S.O.B. in those frequent moments when the big picture fades, and I focus my myopic vision on some small inconvenience, like the poor functionality of MTGO, someone else’s mediocre work gaining recognition because “people are dumb,” or the fact that my favorite hobby is played by a lot of morally dubious fiscal conservatives. This happens to everyone, of course – it’s all relative, and life is made up with minor inconveniences like these. I might make the “life stinks” blanket statement from time to time, after I burn my supper or stub my toe, but let me tell you this:

Eight months out from getting married, I now understand how that guy in

127 Hours
decided to saw off his own arm and climb his ass out of that chasm. Life is precious because it represents the opportunity to do… well, anything and everything. And especially, the important things. Like putting a (remaining) arm around a beloved parent, spouse, or child and kissing them goodnight just one last time.

Imagine the face of your family, husband/wife, or child on the day you don’t wake up, and tell me you’re not ready to tie off your bicep and pick up the hacksaw. Even if it’s not other people who move you, but art, athletics, adventure, or some other experience, the truth remains the same – life passes too soon.

Every Magic card is an opportunity for something profound – for compelling ideas and imagery that operate beyond the Magic: The Gathering
“fantasy with attitude” demographic concessions. Any designer who has read a classic novel and yet contents himself with
guys’ hexa-wielding wands

is just slumming it, really – there’s no reason to settle for smoldering one-liners from hooded iconoclasts, or fake insight with an alphabet soup attribution.

Jeff Cunningham recently talked about how Magic: The Gathering has been going downhill creatively since The Dark. Art-wise, this might be the case. While technically the pieces are better realized today than they were back when cards were All Foglio, All the Time, the art direction has taken on sort of a comic-book edge, with planeswalkers as the protagonists. We rarely see card art like Divine Intervention or Invoke Prejudice now, cards that show abstract concepts rather than single and easily understood conflicts or events. This is to Magic’s detriment, and the issue likely deserves an article all its own.

Flavor text has also gone downhill, but this didn’t start happening during The Dark (I read back through the flavor text for The Dark and Legends, and a lot of it was generic and/or god-awful). Rather, flavor text hit its absolute apex with Mirage, as a result of world-building efforts that were above and beyond the call of duty. Part of the world-building for Jamuraa was the poem “The Love Song of Night and Day” by a then-editor named Jenny Scott.

Read it here.

I’ll wait.

Because of this one poem, Jenny Scott qualifies as the greatest flavor text writer of all time, and it’s not close.

Flavor text is different from world-building, of course, and that makes “The Love Song of Night and Day” even more of a triumph, in that it shows how one process can lubricate the other. Every time I’ve ever been on a world-building team for anything, it’s been a fairly frustrating experience filled with tantalizing resources that are generally left unleveraged. I believe that the question “What would art be like in this universe?” can tell you a lot about the culture of a created world, and culture adds context, which flavor text sorely needs to be successful. So sitting down and writing a poem as part of world-building is something I can totally get behind, even in the very early stages of a project. Far from being an expression of a completed aesthetic concept, I think a poem (or journal entry, or whatever) could actually

the concept.

Most people aren’t interested in that, though. They’re interested in good-looking concept art (can’t blame them there) but certainly nothing in the way of “concept text.” They’ll ask you for an “elevator pitch” (the explanation of the IP that you’d give if you had to do it while in an elevator, which for Mirage would be something like: “J.R.R. Tolkien meets the African veldt! You can’t say ‘no’!”) or maybe a blurb for the pitch document. The poem stuff is strictly for the encyclopedic brand bible that they’ll never read.

In the face of all that, the fact that “The Love Song of Night and Day” got written and served as a major part of the flavor text for Mirage is one of the more inspiring things I’ve encountered in this industry. I wouldn’t be even a little surprised if Jenny Scott wrote it without anyone asking her to and just slid it into the pile between suggestions like “I think some of the Mtenda Lions should be robotic” and “Kaervek should have a blowout haircut.”

Gandhi famously said that “the greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated,” and when people come up to me with the opinion that world-building minutiae are irrelevant, I want to give them some modified version of that quote, to the effect of:

“You can tell a lot about a world by its epics/poems/works of expression.”

There’s tremendous value in delving into the hearts and minds of a world’s theoretical inhabitants, to the extent that you write their poems and sing their songs. I don’t mean a lazily attributed, alleged “line” from a song that doesn’t exist, but the actual writing of full songs and poems that put to the test the question of whether a world actually makes sense, whether its conditions might give rise to the sort of people that the player would find compelling.

You might think it sounds absurd to sit down and write a poem that’s set in a fantasy world – the sort of thing an obsessed fanboy might do. But to me, Jenny Scott’s poem

Mirage. There’s more emotion, depth, context, and beauty in the seventeen pieces of flavor text contributed by the poem than Scars of Mirrodin has in its entire metallic, 200+ card corpus.

I contributed to that set, but what I contributed was hollow, because I didn’t go above and beyond like Jenny Scott did. Relative to her poem, my contributions were as lifeless and robotic as Phyrexia itself.

What did she do?

All she was sit down and write a poem from the perspective of a poet from a world that doesn’t exist, in a style, voice, and tone that explained exactly what the set was aesthetically about, at a level of excellence publishable in any forum, let alone the tiny fishbowl of Magic: The Gathering exposition.

That’s all.

“I will return / with lizard skins for your sandals. Paint your eyes black and wait for me.” —”Love Song of Night and Day”

For the first few months of my relationship with my fiancée, we didn’t meet. From the very start, I was one place, and she was another, a situation that was only possible because we’d met on the internet. After a few months of increasingly serious, long-distance communication (plus a couple of visits that verified neither of us was insane/a liar), the subject of making it “official” and moving in together started to come up more and more often. We talked on the phone often, and when she’d tell me about her day, relating how she was low on groceries but really too tired to go get any, and how she wished someone was around to fix her computer or give her a ride to her classes, I started to feel pretty bad that she didn’t have anyone physically present to share the burden/joy of day-to-day life. Her constant problems with her ex-boyfriend, who was hanging around waiting to ‘get in there’ if I dropped the ball, added to our desire to shift to a more conventional relationship.

Nonetheless, I was reluctant to pull the trigger. What if it didn’t work out? Could I really just give up my nerdy gamer apartment, within walking distance from the local card shop, and leave the little border town that I’d lived in for every one of my (at the time) 28 years? Eventually it threatened to become a now-or-never proposition. The fair question: if I never planned to pull up stakes and be with her, what was I even doing in the relationship? Was I just going to hang out until I was asked to change my life, and then back out?

I eventually mustered the courage to take the leap – expecting her to sit around alone in her apartment for much longer seemed irresponsible. And really, what was I doing? Nothing. Sitting on my can, playing WoW, and eating pizza every night. Moving forward with our relationship was a life change I needed. When I let her know that I was ready to get on with it, she made the trip out to me, I loaded up all my possessions, and we drove back to her place together.

From that moment forward, we’ve been pretty inseparable.

About six months later, she had a business trip in California and had to catch a plane. I drove her to the airport.

Watching her go through security and knowing I would miss her, I wondered how, in the beginning, I was able to stay away for so long. I thought back to those earlier days, when she had first started to talk about the idea of living together.

If I was half as smooth as the Night, I’d have told her to just chill and paint her eyes black, since I’d be there soon. Probably with some lizard skins for her sandals.

Let’s talk about flavor text.

Flavor text is an American art form utilizing short lengths of written words. They’re like novels, just a fraction of the size. You could reach out your thumb and forefinger and snap off a few sentences, if you so desired. Were you to imagine in doing so that yours was the arm of Brady Dommermouth, splitting unseen clouds to loom over a Gravelgill Axeshark on a distant decklist, nobody would blame you.

A successful flavor text contains
no trace of the artist.

As a flavor text writer, you’re the agent of a higher power, a scribe operating in service to an ideal greater than himself. The goal should be to show the masses a world both fantastic and relatable. Stylistic flourishes that encourage the reader to think about the directed action of the writer (as opposed to new reality of the setting) are against what a flavor text is about.


is important. The text must seem natural, without laboring under the weight of its artificial construction at any juncture.

is part of this. Few passages are perfectly symmetrical in the wild. Flavor text writers should stagger their sentences in tone and take care not to offer forth platitudes that seem too cookie-cutter or contrived. The real world is seldom so simple or convenient. Asymmetrical text makes the world seem more “real.”


is an aesthetic principle that refers to the “apparent context” of a flavor text’s tone and content. Flavor texts are very different from full-sized pieces of writing, and as such their words don’t naturally offer the same context – they can be generic and devoid of any meaning beyond the very basic. This would create an aesthetic disconnect without certain measures. In a flavor quote that purports to originate from a member of a war-weary populace, for example, the words are encouraged to attain the pain and grief that such circumstances would naturally supply – even absent any true details of the conflict. That’s

– encouraging a newborn set of words to take on the weight of pain and years.

You won’t have all the context in the world to draw from, but you should have some idea of the events that have shaped lives in your world, and if you’re particularly lucky and particularly good, you might have something along the lines of “The Love Song of Night and Day” in your pocket.

Good flavor text boasts a density of ideas, ideas that make people think about their lives and experiences, and show them that while the world they’re looking at is different, the emotions are the same, and the characters are men, women, and golems they can care about in the same way that they care about themselves.

That’s how you get ‘em. Pick up your pen and make it

Love, life, relationships, growing up, uncertainty, fear, and mortality – these things are understood by just about everyone. The flavor texts I’ve highlighted in this article have touched me with their ideas, and text that can do that is the exact sort of exposition that Magic: The Gathering needs.

It’s in short supply these days. Even Mirage fell off… by Weatherlight the block was just a collection of Gerard Capashen one-liners.

Razorfield Thresher? Just another dead bonsai.

M11 Cultivate? Just another dead bonsai

Goblin Chieftain? Just another dead bonsai.

God knows I’ve killed my fair share. Heck, to put food on the table I’ve occasionally become the bonsai Ed Gein. That doesn’t mean I don’t want something more, though. Back in the day I’d have been thrilled to show this to a fellow passenger, if he was wearing a suit and we had a long-enough elevator ride ahead of us:

Enchant me with your tale-telling. Tell about Tree, Grass, River, and Wind.
Tell why Truth must fight with Falsehood, and why Truth will always win.

I will tell my father’s stories: how the giant mantis fooled Death
by holding still as a felled tree; how the elephants trampled
the leopard cub, and its father, though he knew, killed nine goats instead;
how pirates gambled with a djinn and lost the thing more dear than gold.

Tonight we’ll eat a farewell feast. Cold corn porridge is not enough.
Let’s peel papayas, pineapples, and mangoes, drink coconut milk,
and bake bananas. We’ll dine on crocodiles, wild birds, and turtles,
perhaps a hippopotamus–if only you can catch it first.

I can see it now. He’d probably tune me out or ask for a pitch document with a lot of colorful pictures, something I could bring with me to the next meeting. “Don’t worry so much about fleshing it out,” he’d say. “It’s the premise that matters. Just give me the big picture.”

But the details prove the premise!

I would yearn to reply.

But I’d bite my lip… and my elevator companion, mind elsewhere, would wander out the door, leaving me to contemplate my shoes.

Oh well. Those who truly care will always have Jamuraa.