Removed From Game – Some Text About Flavor

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Tuesday, October 27th – With the Prerelease, Release, and Magic Online unveiling of Zendikar now behind us, Rich takes a time-out to look at some of the stories lurking behind the casting costs in the latest set. For fans of flavor, and for fans of some high-quality writing squeezed into tiny spaces, this is the place to come.

Whenever a new set comes out, the overriding concern for most of us is to ascertain the strengths and weaknesses of the new cards. That process accelerates with the arrival of Zendikar in Magic Online, and it won’t be long before the fascinating process of the Metagame dance begins in earnest — Black/Red Aggro is clearly the best and therefore becomes overdrafted, while Green has lots of depth but can only compete as long as Black/Red continues to be overdrafted, Allies could be the risky play of choice as long as you’re the only one actively pursuing that strategy, or maybe you get the Mono-Red deck with double Valakut, The Molten Pinnacle. In the last sentence, I’ve made the archetypes up, but as the correct assumptions get made, so everything shifts, and Blue/White flyers, or White Weenie, or… becomes the deck of choice.

All that is to come, however. Behind us are the first few frantic weeks, where the Pro world in particular has no time for anything beyond poring over the cards one by one, looking for the interaction that can take them to Pro Tour glory. This time around, it seems as if Ben Rubin and Co found that interaction in the form of Zendikar burn spell Punishing Fire coupled with Future Sight land Grove of the Burnwillows.

One thing is for sure — with a Pro Tour looming, if there was no art on the cards at all, and the text box was nothing but rules, nobody would care. It’s all about what a card does, what it’s meant to do, and what, with the right build, it could do for you.

Now we get to catch our breath. A little more than a year ago, I had the rare privilege of working on the flavor text for ‘Alara Reborn.’ I’ve always loved those tiny little stories buried at the bottom of the cards, and spending three months trying to come up with the perfect combination of ten words or less to illuminate an entirely new breed of creature… suffice to say it was a major challenge. That these intimate word puzzles get solved hundreds of times over in the course of every set says much about the writing talent involved.

So, with the Pro Tour behind us, now seems a good time to move our eyes just an inch or two lower, away from casting costs and rules text, and take a look at those few words that help bring a world alive. This, then, is some text about flavor.


The best flavor text in the world isn’t going to make you love a card that’s utterly rubbish, but I confess to having a little more sympathy towards the unexciting Caravan Hurda after seeing this:

“Not too bright, but good enough for the job required — carrying and walking in a straight line” – Bruse Tarl, Goma Fada nomad.

Of course, the marriage of flavor with the art helps you towards the flavor home run, and it doesn’t take much imagination to see that the lumbering hulk in Dave Kendall’s art isn’t the sharpest tool in the box.

There’s an American phrase I can’t stand, which is ‘in the moment,’ used to imply focus and determination. There’s no doubt that’s the place where Cliff Thresher lives:

“The crossing demands singular focus. Your life consists of these ropes, these hooks, and these rocky crags. Your past is miles below.”

It strikes me that he’s a pretty good metaphor for the Pro Tour, where ‘in the moment’ players live their lives thinking about nothing other than the next card, the board position, and the next Sideboard choice. It’s that utter devotion and focus that is at once exciting and slightly unnerving. I suspect Cliff Thresher isn’t really one for cracking jokes.

It’s a terrific skill to reveal something about a character’s personality in only a few words, and one of the principal new arrivals is Sorin Markov, the Black Planeswalker. The flavor on Day of Judgment suggests a certain amount of light and shade to a character who you might expect would be ‘purely’ evil:

“I have seen places leveled and all life rendered to dust. It brought no pleasure, even to a heart as dark as mine.” – Sorin Markov.

I’ve already mentioned getting beaten severely by Felidar Sovereign at the Prerelease, so I enjoyed his rather pithy flavor, that tells you as much about the speaker as the creature:

“If survival is a game, I’ve seen the winner.” – Hazir, Sejiri cartographer.

Sometimes, flavor can bring us a snapshot of a moment in time. In the case of Kazandu Blademaster, we get to sit in on his sales pitch to a prospective adventurer:

“If you hire a sell-sword, you’d better watch your back. Hire me, and I’ll watch it for you.”

Even when there are only a few words to play with, it’s possible to set up a payoff. Kor Cartographer is an example of some very ordinary words leading up to two words of real beauty:

“Kor have no concept of exploration. They return to homelands forgotten.”

See? We get some factual information about the Kor culture, but then we end with “homelands forgotten,” playing with the very idea of home, which is all about the familiar and the secure. A great phrase.

One of the problems we have to solve in Magic is to create a sense of history in a world that is automatically transient. We only get one year in the company of the worlds of Ravnica, or Time Spiral, or wherever, and any card is going to be in play for such a short period of time, it’s a tough gig trying to persuade us that what we’re looking at is part of something immeasurably old. That’s where something like Landbind Ritual comes in:

“Honor this place, for our children’s children will stand here and speak these same words again.” – Ayli, Kamsa cleric.

Flavor and art are often combined neatly, but it’s also nice when there’s a direct link between flavor and game text. Take Makindi Shieldmate, which gradually accumulates +1+1 counters:

“The more you rely on him, the more resolute he becomes.”

Magic has a long history of using fairytales and folk stories and myths for inspiration, and it’s always nice when an accepted wisdom is turned on its head. One of the most prevalent ‘truths’ about ghosts is that they are in some way ‘unquiet’, hanging around for the purpose of atoning for past sins while alive. Noble Vestige doesn’t work like that:

“Most spirits are chained to this world by their despair, but he remains tethered by his hope for better days.”

Magic is full of creatures that inspire despair, as you realize that you’re in big trouble. World Queller goes out of its way to invite you to throw in the towel, and along the way we find out something about the Green Planeswalker, Nissa Revane:

“Why fight the world when you know who will win?” – Nissa Revane.


The color wheel is regularly the subject of debate, both within the confines of R&D, and also in the forums, where fans endlessly debate whether certain abilities should be allowed to belong in the various colors, and at different rarities. Blue is clearly the color of both sea and air, with plenty of monsters at home below and above the waves. In terms of flavor, joining the two is problematic. What on Earth is a Merfolk of the sea doing, getting itself involved in the business of flying? Here’s the explanation from Caller Of Gales:

“Some merfolk choose to rest their fins in the water. I believe wisdom exists not only where we were born but where we were told not to go.”

Not only does this neatly explain the ability to grant flying, it also sits neatly in a world of exploration and striking out on new paths. One of the difficulties with exploration is that it fundamentally implies movement, and that’s hard to convey on cards that are always static. Here’s an ‘action shot’ that manages to convey a ton of excitement, fear, and movement, all in seven words, courtesy of Into The Roil:

“Roil tide! Roil tide! Tie yourselves down!”

I’m always fond of the ironic flavor text that sets you up in one direction and then knocks you down with a punch line coming the other way. Lethargy Trap has a nice piece of art by Anthony Francisco that perfectly complements the daydreaming Zurdi. Unfortunately, there’s a price to pay:

“Suddenly, Zurdi didn’t care about treasure, glory, food… or the drakes circling above.”

A lot of the people who get involved in the business of making flavor text for Magic are extremely erudite and well-read. Sometimes, they get to make a philosophical point along the way. There’s nothing obviously compelling about Merfolk Seastalkers. They have pretty average game stats, and an ability that doesn’t easily convert into flavor. What we get, then, is a variation on the theme of ‘it’s the victors who get to write the history,’ with a nice bit of b & b alliteration, thus:

“Do they seek knowledge or wealth? Are they bandits or benefactors? It depends on who is chanting the tale.” – Nikou, Joraga bard.

It’s generally true that leaving bad things to your imagination is one of the most effective tools in creating a sense of dread, since our own imaginations tend to focus in on exactly the things that horrify us the most, rather than the generic fates decreed by the writer. Plenty is left to the imagination in Paralyzing Grasp, but it certainly left me with a queasy look on my face:

“The Halimar Sea Caves are both the breeding ground of giant squids and the dumping ground of hardened criminals.”


I like simple sentences. And sentences that begin with ‘and.’ Here’s Sky Ruin Drake:

“Hold up your spears. And try not to look like food.” – Tarsa, Sea Gate sell-sword.

Writers will sometimes add flavor without seeing even the concept art for a card, but towards the end of the process, we can get a glimpse of the finished product. I’m pretty certain that the art for Spell Pierce was firmly in place when this flavor got added:

“There’s a hole in your plan.” – Noyan Dar, Tazeem lullmage.

When it comes to being brief but to the point, it’s hard to beat Umara Raptor, which combines three distinct ideas into exactly that many words:

“Messenger, weapon, friend.”


This is arguably the most fun color to write for, since you get to let go of your (hopefully) vaguely human self, and get down to the business of thinking evil. We begin with a nice piece that combines lore about a creature with a sinister overtone. Who wants Blood Seeker as an adversary? Not me:

“A drop now is all he needs to find you later.”

Next up is a new twist on an old idea. We’re all familiar with the idea of a wraith, to the point at which we probably don’t spend too much time thinking about just how they’re created. Bog Tatters spells it out:

“A wraith is a tale of brutal slaying told anew whenever it finds a victim.”

In its truest sense, Sorin Markov is a little bit perverse. He seems to be in a permanent state of head-shaking disbelief at the state of the multiverse he’s forced to live in. We find a bit more about this attitude in Feast of Blood:

“The vampires of this world don’t know the pleasures of hunger. They gorge themselves without savoring the kill.” – Sorin Markov.

Since all the artwork is constrained by the size of each card, it isn’t always easy to convey the scale of things. Windrider Eel and Welkin Tern both deal two damage, yet the Eel looks gigantic compared to the tiny Tern. Sometimes, it’s up to the flavor to get across the threat level of the monster concerned. Take Hagra Crocodile, for example:

“The creatures of Zendikar are opportunists, eating whatever is available to them. Like Goblins. Or boats.”

Just as the game itself has cycles of cards, the same is true of flavor, and some traditions go back fifteen years or more. Something that plenty of writers try to get into a set is a continuation of the ‘last words’ theme, in which some hapless fool is moments from death. In Zendikar, this tradition is honored in Hideous End:

“A little dark magic won’t stop me. The worse the curse, the greater the prize.” – Radavi, Joraga relic hunter, last words.

Tone of voice is a difficult thing to convey in a few short words, but there’s no doubt that the character in Mire Blight is more than a little bitter about their situation:

“Is there anything in Gruul Draz that DOESN’T suck the life out of you?” – Tarsa, Sea Gate sell-sword.

Not every card in the set gets flavor, and occasionally you really wish there had been room for a little bit more information. To me, Vampire Nighthawk is such a card. The art by Jason Chan is simply breathtaking, and I’m confident that there are some very dark tales that could be told by the light of that moon. Sadly, with flying, lifelink, and deathtouch all involved, those stories remain, to date, untold.


Because Red is the home of Goblins, Red is also the home of much of the ironic humor in flavor text. Their role as comedy stooges stretches across multiple cards, and not just on ones that actually are Goblins. Consider Bladetusk Boar:

“Those who dare stand in its path are either brave or mindless. Or in the case of goblins, both.”

Goblin Guide doesn’t exactly imply a great mind:

“I’ve been all over this world. I even remember some of those places.”

Taken as a whole, a network of flavor begins to give us a sense of all the various expeditions and mercenaries that make up the ongoing day to day business of survival on Zendikar. Here’s a more cautionary take on Goblins, courtesy of Goblin Shortcutter:

“Goblins are cheap, but be careful. It’s a lot easier to steal from a corpse than a customer” – Samila, Murasa Expeditionary House.

Caution can work both ways, and in Goblin War Paint, we discover that an excess of bravado can be a quick route to death:

“War paint made from kolya fruit heightens senses and lessens fear. Unfortunately, fear is usually what keeps you alive.”

Another race that have been around since the beginning of Magic are the minotaurs. I confess, I hadn’t thought of them as particularly dim, but that’s certainly the implication of Kazuul Warlord:

“On expeditions, minotaurs are worth their weight in gold. Fortunately for their paymasters, most minotaurs don’t know how much they weigh.”

That ‘paymasters’ is a great word, so evocative. An unusual piece of flavor can be found on Plated Geopede. We’re often told how awesome a monster is, but it’s rare for us to be told what happens once they’re dead, as we get here:

“Kor armorers buy the scales and claws. Elf oracles buy the rest” – Nablus, North Hada trapper.

In part, I suspect, because there are so many different kinds of non-basic lands in Zendikar (twenty, across four cycles), there’s no flavor on any of those cards. Given that Zendikar has a theme running through it of land being important, it’s left to cards from other colors to bring us that aspect of the set. Here’s Chandra, ruefully bemoaning the nature of the place on Seismic Shudder:

“The land here seems to go out of its way to kill you.” – Chandra Nalaar

Back we go to the Goblins, for what may very well be my favorite piece in the whole set. Frankly, it’s just so stupid, and all the more delicious for that:

“Since when did ‘AIIIEEEE!’ become a negotiation tactic?” – Nikou, Joraga Bard.

That’s from Slaughter Cry, and another reason I like it is because it actively encourages players to join in the stupidity. Perhaps we’re just weird here in the UK, but Mind Control-type effects are frequently accompanied by the word, “Yoink!” as we reach out and take the best monster from the other side. Here, the temptation to make the sound as you almost certainly put the opposition in the bin is severe. And, in my case, irresistible.

A good piece of flavor can open up all sorts of future possibilities. Going back more than a decade, a whole slew of flavor was based around the ‘Love Song of Night and Day,’ and a similar possibility arises courtesy of the flavor on Spire Barrage:

“Goblin lessons include the 2,071 tips for survival. Frek only remembered 2,070”

Somebody, somewhere, sometime, will come up with a website that looks to list them all. And yes, that’s a challenge. Next up is something that I promise you I wouldn’t joke about. Rest assured, it’s not my imminent intention to commit suicide (53% cheer, 47% boo vociferously, or is it the other way round?), but if I ever did, I suppose I imagine the uber-dramatic throwing myself out of a hotel window. I’m not sure who ‘they’ are, but ‘they’ do say that time stands still, and you get to look back on your life on the way down. Unstable Footing suggests that this may not be the case:

“A long way down is shorter than you think.”

Hmm. Maybe I’ll pass, because I’ve got a lot to think about on the way down.


I’ve always found the flavor on Green cards both the least interesting to read, and the hardest to write for. Perhaps these two are linked. To me, it’s very hard to find original things to say about big monsters (of which there have been many, many hundreds down the years), trampling (which doesn’t do much in flavor terms other than emphasis bigness, see previous awkwardness), Nature being abundant (if I see another ‘fruits of Nature’s bounty’ number, I may actually scream), and Nature being violent and unpredictable (ditto.) Add in the fact that there really isn’t much humor in any of these topics, and I was pleasantly surprised at a reasonable number of pieces in Zendikar that caught the eye.

First up is Mold Shambler, which uses an unusual word, and uses it a second time in an unusual way. Neat:

“When civilization encroaches on nature, Zendikar encroaches back.”

Oran-Rief Survivalist has a really nice crafting to it. It could have been written as one sentence, but his self-reliance, or at least self-interest, is highlighted by the fact that both sentences begin the same way, in a necessary self-absorbtion:

“I’m strong enough to survive alone. I’m smart enough to want companions at my side.”

Giant Growth effects are as old as the hills, so finding something new to say can be tough. Primal Bellow manages to suggest an entirely new way of looking at the virtues of being bigger:

“A might spell can be handy against baloths, giants, kraken, the Roil — or if you lose your bearings in the woods.” – Chadir the Navigator

Given that the game is monumentally violent at its core — fundamentally we’re all trying to ‘kill’ each other, and monsters die all the time at the hands of spells designed to eviscerate, disembowel, and variously inconvenience the opposition — it’s amazing that Magic still manages to have an almost innocent feel to it. That said, while I’m mostly comfortable with death, which comes to us all (although I’m working on it), I’m much less of a fan of the flavor based around pain and suffering. I’m no snake lover, as they actually terrify me, but I confess to feeling more than a little uncomfortable at the sensibilities on display in River Boa, humorous though it’s meant to be:

“Sheath your swords! Cudgels only. I see a new pair of waterproof trek boots slithering away.” – Nablus, North Hada trapper.

Here’s Scute Mob:

“Survival rule 781: There are always more scute bugs.” – Zurdi, goblin shortcutter.

I love it when a character comes into the story across several cards. He’s obviously the Goblin Shortcutter himself, he’s on Lethargy Trap, and now here he is again. And yes, there’s the first rule for our ‘2,071.com’ website.

For some of you, the only text that matters on the cards is the bit that impacts the game directly, and that probably means that for you, this ‘have a look at good writers being good at writing’ article won’t have had much to offer you. Then again, most of you who share your time with me here know that Removed From Game has always been about more than just card advantage and efficiency.

To the rest of you, I hope I’ve been able to lift the lid on some of the techniques and styles that go into solving each of the mini-puzzles that each card represents, and that, sometime once the initial excitement of card evaluation goes down, you take the time to immerse yourself in the very tasty world of flavor.

Until next week, as ever, thanks for reading.