Vorthos Is Magic: Legendary Flavor

Jesse Snyder tells you why you shouldn’t be disappointed with the legend rule change coming with M14 even if you’re the Magic flavor police.

Hello and welcome back to Vorthos Is Magic! Today we are going to break the usual Top 10 format so that we can discuss the upcoming change to the legend rule when M14 is released. This may make me a bit of a Johnny-come-lately because this rule change was announced several weeks ago, but it seems fate has sabotaged my efforts to write about this topic in more timely manner. I won’t bore you good readers with the hows and the whys; the details are trivial, and the reasons, as always, are purely human ones. Suffice it to say life happens.

My original article for last month was going to be on humorous game states that could occur within the parameters of our current legend rule. Things like having a Karn, Silver Golem and Karn Liberated in play at the same time or having Jeska, Akroma, and Karona all present on the battlefield simultaneously. Trust me, Spikes, that last one would make your head spin if you knew the story behind those three characters. While these things can still happen under the new legend rule, I feel as though the change has brought to light several things that overshadow my original idea.

Those of you who follow Reuben Bresler or Evan Erwin Twitter pages no doubt have seen this Tumblr page highlighting paradoxes that will be possible after M14. That took the wind out of my sails so to speak, but the more I thought about it the more I discovered that this new legend rule actually makes more sense flavor-wise. Madness, I know, but in order to showcase this we need to look back at the history of the legend rule and its implications on story and character.

Originally introduced in the aptly named Legends set, the first incarnation of the legend rule was simply that only one copy of a legendary permanent (at that time mostly creatures) could exist at one time. All copies that came into play after the first were sent directly to the graveyard. Makes sense, right? There is only one Gwendlyn Di Corci, after all.

This is where things get dicey. From a storytelling point of view, this works perfectly. No awkward paradoxes to hand wave away, no perfectly symmetrical violence…nothing. However, the problem is that Magic, for all its art and world building, isn’t about storytelling. Not at its core it isn’t. I can already hear the wailing and gnashing of teeth from my fellow Vorthos enthusiasts, but bear with me for a little while.

Magic shares a lot in common with video games in that both have stories but fundamentally those stories are superfluous. They aren’t like books or film where storytelling is their primary function. At their most basic level, they’re games. Games by their very nature are supposed to be fun. That is how you evaluate whether a game is good or bad. You ask yourself "was this game fun to play?" If the answer is yes, then it was a good game because it served its intended purpose: to amuse. Everything after that is simply icing on the cake. Hence the term "flavor."

A game might well have an awesome and inspiring story with unique worlds and characters that inhabit said worlds, but if the game is bad, all that effort in storytelling becomes wasted. If your game isn’t fulfilling—its most basic function in entertaining your audience—chances are pretty good they won’t stick around long enough to enjoy the story you’re trying to tell. The Call of Duty games might well have a rich narrative and characters with whom I could identify and get behind, but I’ll never know because I get bored after the second mission and never pick them up again. I can think of dozens of games I kept playing even though the story was moronic and the characters were poorly written because the gameplay was so much fun, but I can’t say the same thing for the reverse. Maybe Dragon Age: Origins. Maybe

Having said all that, what does any of this have to do with the legend rule? Simply that basing a mechanic of your game on story rather than balance is inherently flawed. Magic does have examples of cards that can deny an opponent the ability to play with specific cards (see: Meddling Mage), but that is their intention. That is what you are paying for. They are not clunky and mechanically questionable, which is what was wrong with the original legendary rule. It created an unfair advantage for the player who first got their legend in play. Which is why Wizards eventually revamped the legend rule to what we have for the time being, but even this current rule has its issues when it comes to flavor.

I like to describe the current legend rule as the Doc Brown Theory of Temporal Paradox Resolution. For you kiddies born in the 90’s or later, Doc Brown was a character from the Back to the Future trilogy of films that were centered on the concept of time travel (a touch of incest). In the second installment, the good Doctor expounds on the consequences if one were to meet their future self:

"I foresee two possibilities. One, coming face to face with [yourself] 30 years older would put [you] into shock and [you’d] simply pass out. Or two, the encounter could create a time paradox, the results of which could cause a chain reaction that would unravel the very fabric of the space time continuum and destroy the entire universe! Granted, that’s a worst-case scenario. The destruction might in fact be very localized, limited to merely our own galaxy."

Currently, it seems that in the multiverse of Magic Doc’s second possibility was right, albeit it at an even smaller scale than he foresaw. Instead of destroying whatever local galaxy two copies of the same entity happen to occupy, the backlash from the paradox merely destroys the two duplicates themselves. This works a little better mechanically speaking. Rather than giving the edge to one player it affects both equally, but this makes certain interactions very awkward in regards to flavor.

Things like Clone behave much differently than their intended purpose under the standing legend rule. Instead of emulating the literary concept of a doppelganger, Clone and Clone-like creatures devolve into removal spells. Really handy ones, to be certain, but this ultimately defeats the intention behind those spells. Especially if you consider that "in game" the Clone or Evil Twin is not even the same entity as the subject it is copying but is merely assuming its shape. Heaven help identical twins in this universe! I know I mentioned a few paragraphs ago that Magic isn’t about storytelling fundamentally, but that’s not to say it has no place trying to represent ideas and concepts from fiction altogether. In fact, that is one of its best strengths.

So much of the charm and appeal of Magic is everything that is not the mechanics of the game. The art, the flavor text, and even the outside fluff material is so endearing to so many players that it becomes as big of a draw for the game as new mechanics. For a little perspective, here is my favorite quote from Mark Rosewater from an interview he did for The Magic Show at Worlds 2011. I am paraphrasing here, but here it is in a nutshell:

"It [flavor] is very easy to dismiss. I know people [scoff at] that. ‘You know, whatever. It’s just a game, and I don’t care if there are pictures on it.’ Bull—bologna!"

He goes on to say:

"A lot of people [say] Magic could lose its pictures and its names.’ I cast card 22A or whatever.’ Magic wouldn’t be Magic without all that stuff. The creative is such a key part of the essence of the experience."

Because the flavor of Magic is so important to these players, when game rules seemingly act counter to what would make sense in a narrative fashion, it creates a bit of mental dissonance within those players. I know I’ve pointed out a few myself. While Magic will never be perfect in this aspect, like using fire to destroy creatures composed of flame itself, core mechanics like the legend rule should be made in such a way as to balance form and function. This current environment of exploding duplicates seems odd certainly, but I think that the new legend rule is the best fit for balancing gameplay and flavor.

You might be saying to yourself, "Okay, Mr. Vorthos guy, did you not read the Tumblr link you yourself posted at the beginning of this article? How does any of that make sense? Explain yourself." I will. While it does feel inappropriate or even downright stupid to have multiple Gerrard Capashens running around or two Jaces staring each other down across the battlefield, I feel given Magic’s past, specifically the Time Spiral era, that this isn’t nearly as strange as it originally seems.

Those of you who have recently played Bioshock: Infinite should have no problems buying into this mentality. These multiple copies of individually named spells are merely from an alternate universe or timeline. Given the premise of the Magic itself—that we are in fact nigh-omnipotent planeswalkers with powers to bend reality as we see fit—is it really such a stretch to buy that my Jace is from universe 1 and yours is from universe A? Do a quick Gatherer search for "time" if you don‘t think that sounds plausible.

More than likely the new legend rule is being implemented to coincide with something Wizards is planning for Theros and not simply just to satisfy those of us with a flair for flavor, but I’ll take what I can get. And while it will be odd at first seeing legends facing off against themselves, I think that ultimately the new legend rule will be a positive change for Magic both mechanically and flavor-wise. Even if only to open the floodgates of even more flavor breakers.

Thanks again for reading, and be sure to leave a comment below, As always, don’t forget to have fun!