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Introducing Gygaxian Naturalism in MTG


Hello All!

I hope that you are keeping yourself safe in our modern COVID-19 world! Don't forget to enjoy yourself as well!! Preferably in that order though!!! And many other thoughts that require exclamation points!!!!

Today I want to dig into my project past and look at what I think has been a loss of Gygaxian Naturalism in MTG over the years. My goal today with this article is to do a few things:

  1. Introduce the idea of Gygaxian Naturalism as introduced in DnD.
  2. Create a framework of analysis for Gygaxian Naturalism in a game.
  3. Verify that framework works by using it on 1st Edition DnD which embraced it.
  4. Use that framework on both Alpha and Core Set 2021 to see if my impressions of lost Gygaxian Naturalism stand up to objective analysis.

I used to write a lot of these sorts of projects that take a lot of time prep time for myself but that aren't long to read. I have created my own Core Set and then had people play-test it and gave my results. I called it Abeth Edition. I have done evaluations of cards using objective criteria such as Finding Silklash Spiders to find cards that can be as good as Silklash Spider. Or my 100 real life Combo decks in 20 weeks! I really embraced projects in my writing past, but they take a lot of time. This will take twice as long as previous ones.

What do I mean when I use the germ Gygaxian Naturalism? Great Question!

Gary Gygax created a fun game called Dungeons and Dragons in the 1970s. As he did so, he created the modern fantasy gaming central concepts and used a number of tropes, which would inspire most subsequent games and other fantasy works. All modern fantasy games are in DnD's shadow, including MTG. For example, the first set (Alpha) has cards named after spells in the DnD game such as Fireball and Lightning Bolt. It has clearly been influenced by DnD.

In the first DnD as well as 1st Edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, Gygax was in charge of much of the game, and he embraced something I am calling Gygaxian Naturalism. He loaded the game's spells, creatures, magical items, and other décor with real life and real myths and legends so that the entire game would feel very grounded and realistic. While he did pepper these with original creations here and there, that was minor. He dug deeply into myths, legends, and real life in order to flesh out his world.

This gave DnD an atmosphere of reality and naturalism that led to a more believable world. Gaming felt grittier and more realistic. Later versions of DnD would leave that atmosphere of Naturalism behind and instead lean into things created for the game. As Gygax left the company so too did his emphasis on Gygaxian Naturalism.

I believe that the first few editions of MTG have felt more realistic along the line of Gygaxian Naturalism than later versions of the game. Today we'll find out if that premise is true!

What framework will I use?

I want to find two elements that will compare easily across games. I could do magical items in DnD with artifacts in MTG, but that's a bit too small of a sample size on the MTG side to draw comparisons. I have a better idea!

Creatures vs creatures! Gygax wrote two books in 1st Edition called Monster Manuals. Creatures are heavily leaned into on both the DnD side and the MTG side.

Here is what I am going to do; I am going to assess both MM1 and MM2 independently to see if Gygax himself moves away from Gygaxian Naturalism, and then I will break down all creatures in Alpha independently of Core Set 2021.

What is my framework?

I am going to use five categories that I see when I look at the work of Gygax. I will assign the various dorks to these categories. Then I will do a numeric breakdown of what percentage was used for each one.

Here are my categories:

Normal Creature - Lots of normal creatures are ones you'd run into and you can use your power to take them out. These are a key part of Gygaxian Naturalism. You can die to a Grizzly Bears just as well as you can to a created IP dork like a Beholder. In MTG one example of this in action is the Timber Wolves card. If you were scoring GN on a scale, I'd give these a 0. These are the ideal as they provide an on-ramp to a game. I know how difficult a crocodile would be to kill with a sword.

Giant Normal Creature - The first step along Gygaxian Naturalism is to make a threatening normal dork bigger, like a Giant Scorpion or a Giant Centipede. You know how annoying these would be to deal with in normal life, and you can easily see how annoying they would be to encounter in a fantasy setting when made bigger. Examples of this in MTG is the Giant Spider. On a scale, I'd give these a 1. They are the next level of ease, as they provide just one speed bump on your on-ramp.

Magical Normal Creature - This is the next iteration of GN in action. Take an existing creature like a wolf. Then give you an evil or magical version of that already threatening creature, such as a Warg. As a player I can extrapolate a threat level easily enough. An example of this in action in MTG form would be a Runeclaw Bear. If I had to assign a score (I'm not) I'd assign a 2. This on-ramp has two speed bumps, but you have an easy path to seeing how threatening a bear can be, so how much more powerful will Super Evil Bear be.

Legendary or Trope Creature - There are several fantasy tropes and legendary and mythical dorks that you can tap into. Fantasy tropes are popular with an audience that is already familiar with the genre. These are easy to add. This includes J.R.R. Tolkien's orcs or dwarves. They are already understood. Similarly, Norse Mythology's kraken is easily understood as well by someone conversant in the source material or a modern take such as the movie Clash of the Titans. Examples of these in MTG form include Ironclaw Orcs, Polar Kraken and Shivan Dragon. If I were assigning a score, I'd assign a 3 because they are harder to understand than the previous ones but are doable. In order to make these work you need to have the mechanics line up with their trope.

New Creature - This is what you want to avoid. I have no thing what Thing X is. I can relate to myths or fantasy tropes. I can relate to real dorks, giant versions of real dorks or magical and/or super-evil versions of said normal dork. But what is a new creature? It feels fake. You want to avoid these as much as possible. They are made for your IP and are your brand in action. Examples of this in DnD include Yuan-Ti and Beholders as well as Slivers in MTG. They are made up. Ideally if you are making these up you want to make them as close to the above four lines as possible rather than heading into the deep end of life here. I would assign a value of 4 here were this a mathematical test, due to how difficult this is to get.

And there we have it! Those are the five categories of GN in increasing levels of difficulty to relate to.

Now what I want to do it go through each source and compare them to my five categories, and then number-ize them for you. In the Appendices you will find the raw data. Note that my assignments could be in error as I mis-assign one or more dorks here and there. I am not perfect and you can find my data in the Appendices.

Let's begin!

Monster Manual 1

  • Normal Creature - 44 - 20%
  • Giant Creature - 32 - 14%
  • Magical Creature - 22 - 10%
  • Trope or Myth - 88 - 39%
  • New Creature - 38 - 17%

Total - 224

Our first set of results! It was about what I expected. Real normal creatures are bigger than created ones, and the second largest category overall. Normal, Giant, and Magical version of regular dorks account for roughly 45% of the total of dorks, and new and tropes/myths around 55% total. You can see my raw assignments in the data below. Now for the next question which is... did the next book change these?

There could be good gaming reasons why the Monster Manual II a few years later might lean away from the first elements. They have already listed all the Giant Rats and Giant Beetles, Sharks and Wolves, Brain Moles and Blink Dogs. Now there may be more of a gaming need for other entries. Let's see!

Monster Manual 2

  • Normal Creature - 21 - 10%
  • Giant Creature - 17 - 8%
  • Magical Creature - 41 - 20%
  • Trope or Myth - 54 - 27%
  • New Creature - 70 - 34%

Total - 203

As you can see, we have a larger amount of newer but there are still a large number of the first three running around, more than you might otherwise think! But new ones are catching up. And again, there could be gaming reasons for these.

Let's look at MTG, but before I do so please note that tropes changed in the meantime. Take Elementals. Due to their heavy use in DnD and subsequent material they became heavy trope, so I'd argue that Air Elemental from MTG is not created for the game but is now an expected fantasy trope.


  • Normal Creature - 13 -14%
  • Giant Creature - 1 - 1%
  • Magical Creature - 5 - 5%
  • Trope or Myth - 64 - 70%
  • New Creature - 9 - 10%

Total - 92

And there is the first set! As you can see most of these tap into tropes, with fewer than ten new creatures. Giant dorks were non-existent save for the token Giant Spider. The percentages for this are very different than the MMI or MM2. Fewer number of new cards for the game like Force of Nature. Fewer everything, save for tropes and myths which was an overwhelming 7 out of 10!

Force of Nature

But this article hinges on this final outfit, right?

Where does the last set rank?

Core Set 2021

  • Normal Creature - 24 - 16%
  • Giant Creature - 1 - 1%
  • Magical Creature - 41 - 28%
  • Trope or Myth - 60 - 40%
  • New Creature - 23 - 15%

Total - 149

Wow that's better than I thought it would be! I have to admit that I expected a big number of Aven, Slivers, Myr, Loxodon, and more here, but that's much lower than I expected!

Normal dorks include things like both humans in White Knight form or Grizzly Bears. The first set had a similar number of normal, but Core Set 2021 had a tiny number of normal creatures, so this number is just Soldiers and such. The trope numbers dropped. I included every Zombie, Vampire, Elf, and more that appeared on a card. But I have to admit that I was surprised at those numbers.

Good job Wizards of the Coast!

What did you think? Anything in here you enjoyed? Anything I missed? Just let me know and have an awesome day!

Appendix A - Monster Manual 1

Normal Creature - Gorilla, Baboon, Badger, Barracuda, Bear, Boar, Buffalo, Bull, Camel, Cattle, Crocodile, Dinosaur, Dog, Dolphin, Eel, Elephant, Flightless Bird, Herd Animal, Hippopotamus, Horse, Hyena, Irish Deer, Jackal, Jaguar, Lamprey, leopard, Lion, Lizard, Mammoth, Mastodon, Men, Mule, Man-o'War, Ray, Rhinoceros, Sea Lion, Shark, Spider, Stag, Tiger, Troglodyte, Whale, Wolf, Wolverine - 44

Giant Creature - Giant Ant, Baluchtiherium, Giant Beetle, Giant Beaver, Giant Centipede, Giant Crab, Giant Crayfish, Giant Eagle, Giant Frog, Giant Gar, Giant Goat, Giant Leech, Giant Lynx, Giant Octopus, Giant Otter, Giant Owl, Giant Pike, Giant Porcupine, Giant Ram, Giant Rat, Giant Scorpion, Giant Sea Horse, Giant Skunk, Giant Slug, Giant Snake, Giant Spider, Giant Squid, Giant Tick, Giant Toad, Giant Turtle, Giant Wasp, Giant Weasel - 32

Magical Creature - Carnivorous Ape, Axebeak, Blink Dog, Brain Mole, Bulette, Dragon Turtle, Ear Seeker, Violet Fungi, Hell Hound, Ixitxachitl, Larva, Leucrotta, Fire Lizard, Mold, Nightmare, Owlbear, Purple Worm, Rot Grub, Salamander, Shrieker, Stirge, Strangle Weed - 22

Trope or Myth - Basilisk, Brownie, Bugbear, Catoblepas, Centaur, Chimera, Cockatrice, Couatl, Demon, Devil, Djinni, Doppleganger, Dragon, Dryad, Dwarf, Efreet, Elf, Ettin, Gargoyle, Ghast, Ghost, Ghoul, Giant, Gnoll, Gnome, Goblin, Golem, Gorgon, Griffon, Groaning Spirit, Halfling, Harpy, Hippocampus, Hippogriff, Hobgoblin, Homunculus, Hydra, Imp, jackalwere, Ki-Rin, Kobold, Lamia, Lammasu, Leprechaun, Lich, Lizard Man, Lycanthrope, Manticore, Medusa, Merman, Minotaur, Mummy, Naga, Night Hag, Nixie, Nymph, Ogre, Ogre Mage, Orc, Pegasus, Peryton, Pixie, Pseudo Dragon, Quasit, Rakshasa, Roc, Satyr, Sea Hag, Shadow, Shedu, Skeleton, Spectre, Sphinx, Sprite, Su -Monster, Sylph, Titan, Treat, Triton, Troll, Unicorn, Vampire, Wight, Will-o'-Wisp, Wraith, Wyvern, Yeti, Zombie - 88

New Creature - Aerial Servant, Ankheg, Black Pudding, Beholder, Carrion Crawler, Cerebral Parasite, Dragonne, Displace Beast, Elemental, Eye, Eye of the Deep, Gas Spore, Gelatinous Cube, Grey Ooze, Green Slime, Intellect Devourer, Invisible Stalker, Locathah, Lurker Above, Masher, Mimic, Mind Flayer, Morkoth, Neo-Otyusgh, Ochre Jelly, Piercer, Remorhaz, Roper, Rust Monster, Sahuagin, Shambling Mound, Slithering Tracker, Thought Eater, Trapper, Umber hulk, Water Weird, Wind Walker, Xorn - 38

Total - 224

Appendix B - Monster Manual 2

Normal Creature - Polar Bear, Cat, Cheetah, Dinosaur, Eagle, Electric Eel, Falcon, Goat, Narwhale, Otter, Owl, Ram, Rat, Raven, Skunk, Snake, Squirrel, Swan, Swordfish, Vulture, Weasel - 21

Giant Creature - Ant Lion, Giant Bee, Behemoth, Giant Catfish, Centipede, Giant Crane, Giant Dragonfly, Giant Firefly, Giant Fly, Giant Mantis, Oliphant, Pedipalp, Scorpion, Solifugid, Giant Marine Spider, Giant Sundew, Giant Harvester Termite - 17

Magical Creature - Afanc, Aspis, Aurumvorax, Baku, Barkburr, Fire Bat, Beetle, Bloodthorn, Boobrie, Bookworm, Cave Cricket, Cave Moray, Cooshee, Dustdigger, Elfin Cat, Gloomwing, Hangman tree, Kampfult, Land Lamprey, Mantrap, Shadow Mastiff, Moon Dog, Muckdweller, Quickwood, Vapor Rat, Retch Plant, Rock Reptile, Carnivorous Flying Squirrel, Stegocentipede, Stench Kow, Tri-Flower Frond, Twilight Bloom, Land Urchin, Verme, Vulchling, Webbird, Willow, Worm, Yeth hound, Zorbo, Zygom - 41

Trope or Myth - Annis, Atomie, Banderlog, Barghest, Greater Basilisk, Boggart, Boggle, Buckawn, Cyclopskin, Daemon, Demon, Devil, Dao, Demilich, Deva, Dragon, Dragon Horse, Duergar, Elf, Foo Creature, Giant, Gorgimera, Green hag, Haunt, Jann, Kraken, Lammasu, Lycanthrope, Margoyle, Marid, Nereid, Phantom, Phoenix, Planetar, Pseudo-Undead, Pyrolisk, Quickling, Selkie, Shade, Shedu, Sirine, Animal Skeleton, Solar, Spriggan, Swanmay, Tarrasque, Tasloi, Thassalhydra, Marine troll, Vargouille, Wemic, Wolfwere, Zombie, Monster Zombie - 54

New Creature - Aboleth, Agathion, Ascomid, Azer, Basidrond, Behir, Boalisk, Bodak, Bowler, Cat Lord, Cave Fisher, Choke Creeper, Cloaker,crysmal, Crystal Ooze, Crimson Death, Demodand, Derro, Diakk, Dracolisk, Draggonel, Drider, Eblis, Executioner's hood, Forester's Bane, Formian, Froghemoth, Galeb Duhr, Gibbering Mouther, Grippli, Grig, Grim, Grue, Hollyphant, Hordling, Hybsil, Mustard Jelly, Kech, Korred, Luck Eater, Magman, Mandragora, Mihstu, Miner, Modron, Russet Mold, Mongrelman, Mud-Man, Myconid, Oblivax, Aquatic Ogre, Ophidian, Opinicus, Para-Elemental, Pech, Phycomid, Pudding, Sandling, Scum Creeper, Slime Creature, Olive Slime, Spectator, Squealer, Stone Guardian, Storoper, Taer, Thri-kreen, Thunder Beast, Time Elemental, Thunderherder, Transposer, Ustilagor, Vagabond, Vegepygmy, Vilstrak, Wolf-in-sheeps's clothing, Xag-ya, Xaren, Yochlo, Yuan Ti - 70

Total - 203

Appendix C - Alpha

Normal Creature - Birds of Paradise, Benalish Hero, Black Knight, Grizzly Bears, Keldon Warlord, Northern Paladin, Pirate Ship, Royal Assassin, Savanah Lions, Timber Wolves, Veteran Bodyguard, War Mammoth, White Knight - 13

Giant Creature - Giant Spider - 1

Magical Creature - Ley Druid, Plague Rats, Prodigal Sorcerer, Samite Healer, Verduran Enchantress, -5

Trope or Myth - Air Elemental, Bog Wraith, Clone, Cockatrice, Craw Wurm, Demonic Hordes, Dragon Whelp, Drudge Skeletons, Dwarven Demolition Team, Dwarven Warriors, Earth Elemental, Elvish Archers, Fire Elemental, Frozen Shade, Goblin Balloon Brigade, Goblin King, Granite Gargoyle, Gray Ogre, Hill Giant, Hurloon Minotaur, Hypnotic Specter, Ironclaw Orcs, Ironroot Treefolk, Juggernaut, Llanowar Elves, Lord of Atlantis, Lord of the Pit, Mahamoti Djinn, Merfolk of the Pearl Trident, Mesa Pegasus, Mons's Goblin Raiders, Nether Shadow, Nettling Imp, Nightmare, Obsianus Golem, Orcish Artillery, Pearled Unicorn, Roc of Kher Ridges, Rock Hydra, Scathe Zombies, Scavenging Ghoul, Scryb Sprites, Sea Serpent, Sedge Troll, Sengir Vampire, Serra Angel, Shanodin Dryads, Shivan Dragon, Stone Giant, Thicket Basilisk, Two-Headed Giant of Foriys, Uthden Troll, Vesuvin Doppelganger, Wall of Air, Wall of Bones, Wall of Brambles, Wall of Fire, Wall of Ice, Wall of Stone, Wall of Water, Wall of Wood, Water Elemental, Will-o'-the-Wisp, Zombie Master - 64

New Creature - Clockwork Beast, Force of Nature, Fungusaur, Gaea's Liege, Living Wall, Personal Incarnation, Phantasmal Forces, Phantom Monster, Wall of Swords -9

Total - 92

Appendix D - Core Set 2021

Normal Creature - Alpine Houndmaster, Alpine Watchdog, Basri's Lieutenant, Colossal Dreadmaw, Drowsing Tyrannodon, Falconer Adept, Kitesail Freebooter, Makeshift Battalion, Mangara, the Diplomat, Masked Blackguard, Ornery Dilophosaur, Pack Leader, Pursued Whale, Rambunctious Mutt, Seasoned Hallowblade, Selfless Savior, Siege Striker, Sigiled Contender, Staunch Shieldmate, Tavern Swindler, Tempered Veteran, Thieves Guild Enforcer, Thrashing Brontodon, Warded Battlements - 24

Giant Creature - Wishcoin Crab - 1

Magical Creature - Ardent of Hope, Anointed Chorister, Archfiend's Vessel, Azusa, Lost But Seeking, Barrin, Tolarian Archmage, Bolt Hound, Canopy Stalker, Celestial Enforcer, Chandra's Firemaw, Chandra's Magmutt, Conclave Mentor, Containment Priest, Feline Sovereign, Garruk's Warsteed, Heartfire Immolator, Historian of Zhalfir, Hooded Blightfang, Igneous Cur, Jeskai Elder, Joreal, Mwonvuli Tracker, Kaervek, the Spiteful, Keen Glidemaster, Keral Keep Disciples, Kinetic Augur, Liliana's Devotee, Liliana's Standard Bearer, Liliana's Scrounger, Mystic Skyfish, Niambi, Esteemed Speaker, Obsessive Stitcher, Pridemalkin, Rin and Seri, Inseparable, Sabertooh Mauler, Snarespinner, Speaker of the Heavens, Spined Megaladon, Sporeweb Weaver, Subira, Tulzidi Caravanner, Teferi's Protégé, Trufflesnout, Waker of Waves - 41

Trope or Myth - Baneslayer Angel, Battle-Rattle Shaman, Blood Glutton, Brash Taunter, Burlfist Oak, Caged Zombie, Concordia Pegasus, Conspicuous Snoop, Daybreak Charger, Dire Flee Warmonger, Epitaph Golem, Fetid Imp, Fierce Empath, Forgotten Sentinel, Gadrak, the Crown-Scourge, Gale Swooper, Ghostly Pilferer, Gnarled Sage, Goblin Arsonist, Goremand, Havoc Jester, Hellkite Punisher, Hobblefiend, Indulging Patrician, Library Larcenist, Liliana's Steward, Llanowar Visionary, Lorescale Coatl, Massacre Wurm, Mistral Singer, Onakke Ogre, Pitchburn Devils, Portcullis Vine, Prismite, Quirion Dryad, Radha, Heart of Keld, Roaming Ghostlight, Shacklegeist, Shipwreck Dowser, Silversmote Ghoul, Skeleton Archer, Skyway Sniper, Spirit of Malevolence, Storm Caller, Teferi's Wavecaster, Terror of the Peaks, Tolarian Kraken, Turret Ogre, Twinblade Assassins, Valorous Steed, Vito, Thorn of the Dusk Rose, Vodalian Arcanist, Vyrn Wingmare, Walking Corpse, Warden of the Woods, Wildwood Patrol, Wildwood Scourge - 60

New Creature - Aven Gagglemaster, Basri's Acolyte, Chandra's Incinerator, Chandra's Pyreling, Chrome Replicator, Crypt Lurker, Deathbloom Thallid, Elder Gargaroth, Garruk's Gorehorn, Garruk's Harbinger, Gloom Sower, Leafkin Avenger, Palladium Myr, Scavenging Ooze, Skyscanner, Solemn Simulacrum, Sparkhunter Masticore, Spellgorger Weird, Stormwing Entity, Tide Skimmer, Tome Anima, Wall of Runes, Watcher of the Spheres - 23

Total - 149

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