Card names! One of the coolest things about a card, but not discussed, is the card title proper. It’s the first thing you see! The name of a card defines what it is. And we’ve had some great names as well as a lot of stinkers. A lot.
Last week I looked at the Top Ten Magic Artists of All Time, and right up front I have to admit that any such list is going to be subjective. The same is clearly true of card’s name. There is no I way to avoid looking at these names from a subjective “Abe” viewpoint. So these are my personal favorites. Maybe you’ll see some you like there as well!
Now there have been a few genres of card naming. They will often combine two words to make one, or two concepts to make one, following it with a noun. So like this: “AdjectiveNoun Noun”, “NounAdjectiveNoun” or even the rare “NounNoun Noun”. Consider Blistercoil Weird, Flameborn Viron, or Graveborn Muse. And then there are the “Noun NounVerbers”, like Ogre Geargrabber or Akki Blizzard-Herder or even Akki Coalflinger. And they often reverse the order to really change it up into “NounVerber Noun” instead, like Acid-Spewer Dragon or Waveskimmer Aven or Skybinder Staff or Wayfarer's Bauble.
Once you learn the tricks of naming stuff, it gets a little obvious.
So these tricks of nomenclature get a little interesting. In addition to the above “Form of Names”, many cards have simple resonant fantasy names and concepts. As a good example, consider the resonance with Dungeons and Dragons. Many names of spells, effects, and items come straight out of a Dungeon’s Master’s Guide or Player’s Handbook:
- Lightning Bolt
- Crystal Ball
- Phantasmal Forces
- Ball Lightning
- Wall of Fire
- Wall of Stone
- Wall of Ice
- Wall of Sand
- Wall of Bone
- Ice Storm
- Descent into Madness
- Chain Lightning
- Animate Dead
- Raise Dead
And then you have similar effects like Phantasmal Terrain instead of Hallucinatory Terrain or Phantasmal Mount vs Phantom Steed, Fly vs Flight, etc. And we also have conceptual matches like Wall of Swords for the spell Blade Barrier, Chill Touch in D&D which drains spirit and soul vs Touch of Death, Return to Sand vs Return to Dust, Anti-Magic Aura vs Anti-Magic Shell, etc.
And considering just how many of these similar cards were in the early days of the game, I’m sure we’d all agree that the beginning of Magic leaned heavily on D&D as an inspiration, including the names and concepts of cards.
And then we’ve had cards that came from specific places. Arabian Nights needed them from a certain set of literature. Legends came from a D&D playgroup. And so on and so forth. During the era of the Weatherlight Saga we have winning cards such as Mirri's Guile or Hanna's Custody or Orim's Thunder. And that hasn’t ended, we just flavor stuff after planeswalkers (Jace's Erasure, Liliana's Specter, Chandra's Ignition) or still after legendary creatures (Ezuri's Predation, Daxos's Torment, Kalemne's Captain, Gisa's Bidding, Geralf's Masterpiece, Oona's Grace, etc).
Again, by identifying a cards with a given person, you are giving cards a decent concept of the card, and also sort of punting on the name. This game has a lot of cards, so you have to do something to make the names last.
This article was inspired in part by Kaladesh’s Unlicensed Disintegration, which struck me as a really cool name.
Now this article only considers normal cards, not Un- jokes or Schemes. Otherwise the article would be rife with cards like Dance, Pathetic Marionette or My Genius Knows No Bounds or Your Inescapable Doom.
Oh, and I’m telling you right now to get ready for a bunch of Black cards. Black owns the best card names from the earliest days to the latest.
The Eldrazi have awesome names, and this is not going to be the first one. They have these throwback old school names that really sort of evoke early Magic with its Cosmic Horror, Elder Spawn, Horror of Horrors, The Abyss, Worms of the Earth, and such. And It of the Horrid Swarm is a great example of a recent card with these awesome names. And oh, don’t forget some of the Eldrazi reverse sides are great too. In fact, I thought about Abolisher of Bloodlines, the flip side of Voldaren Pariah. That’s an awesome name too. It of the Horrid Swarm works, and is a nasty concept as well.
Did you know we have a card whose full name is in italics? Well, until last month when they changed it as part of the Kaladeshi Updates. But it’s still italics in my heart, and on my card. And that’s what matters. This card has a cool, powerful name that evokes a lot of the era and such. Now, to be fair, for someone who doesn’t play Magic and doesn’t recognize the reference, it’s not anything major. But I played heavily during Fallen Empires and the series was heavily quoted as the flavor text in most cards. So for me, this was a great call back.
8. Uncle Istvan
That’s right – feel the Uncle. One of the coolest, zonkiest, card concepts comes from the title and drips down. What would Uncle Istvan be? Obviously a crazy axe-wielding murderer with a deeply disturbing stare and the ability to stay alive even though you have wacked him over and over again. He’s like a trope from a movie or fiction in Magic card form. Feel the Uncle!
Flavoring your typical, “You have a bigger attack as long as this aura lasts” concept has always been a bit odd to me. How do you do it? Holy Strength? Unholy Strength? Is it something equipment--ish like Holy Armor or Flaming Blade? But one really cool way to do it is by eating a unicorn. Feast of the Unicorn. Eat up me hearties! Get yourself a load of power, and defile everything that is good and natural at the same time. All the world loves a unicorn, so feast on it to give yourself true, ultimate power.
This is one of the coolest names around, because it’s an awesome concept. Form of the Dragon. The mechanics obviously follow. You have turned into a Dragon! You are getting your best Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker impression. Rar Dragons! What form do you have? A Dragon! I mean, if you are going to be turning into any creature type in the game, isn’t Dragon the one you’d do first? After all, does Form of the Goblin really do anything for anyone? Form of the Merfolk? What are you doing, swimming around? Breathing through gills? Whoop de doo. Form of the Human? I mean there’s a limited group of creatures you would want to Form-itize. Dragons always get the good toys! (This is the only Red card that made the list, by the by)
Our highest charting Eldrazi is this awesome wonder. It just sells itself. It. That. Betrays. And what or who is being betrayed? It’s promise? It’s master? The ruler? Something that relied on it? Or maybe it’s more serious than that. Maybe it betrays existence. Maybe it betrays understanding or reasoning. Maybe it betrays the very laws of magic, nature, and, science. It. That. Betrays.
This has always struck me as one of the great names and concepts from Theros Block. A lot of this block has that Greek Hero concept, where you go out and slay your Cerebus, your Hydra, your Medusa, your Minotaur, and then you return a hero as the Perseus or Odysseus. And that sort of testing yourself against the most powerful enemies out there is resonant in this giant snake thing. It’s the Nemesis (which is a Greek word) of Mortals. That’s your Cyclops. Your Chimera. Can you slay the Nemesis of Mortals?
There are a lot of great names that linger out there on bad cards. Until I led with it here, did you really know that there was a card called Yoke of the Damned? Isn’t that just one of the best names ever? It’s awesome. Like devastatingly awesome. If you are reading a card file or spoiler list, and you read that title, what would you expect to see follow? What kind of art? Flavor text? Mechanic? Type? Like the flavor text says, “The demon’s yoke is part leash, part noose.” Yes it is. Yoke indeed. And there is a similar concept in Chains of Mephistopheles. The Chains of weight. Of a demonic entity upon you, burdening you, and keeping you down. The names of these two cards drip flavor from every syllable. These are wonderful cards at selling something important.
But they aren’t the best title Black has ever had. So what is . . . ?
And there it is folks. This is the best name Black has to offer. Let’s just countdown the awesome ways. Evil? Check! Eye? Check, its one big eye. Of? Yes, this thing curses a special spot. Orms-by-Gore? Sure! That’s the coolest place or person or cult or whatever. That’s the epicenter of a major intersection of awesome. We have a callback to this in Time Spiral with Evil Eye of Urborg. We need more Eyes. I love the Eye mechanic of preventing other Non-Eyes from attacking. But what is next? What Eye works? I love it!
This has always been my favorite card name. It’s a brilliant and powerful way to give a hint into the culture and traditions of the Aven people without spending too much in it. What are the Nine Gales? And why are they being Kept? The obvious choice would have been Four Gales. One from each direction. But why Nine? There’s no obvious answer. Consider a similarly named Warden of the First Tree. Well that just lines up either with the modern fantasy concept of a first tree or sylvan elder that spawned a forest. Or maybe it lines up with myths like Yggdrasil. But there are obvious ways to see that. But Nine Gales? I love it. With an honorable mention to Shaman of Forgotten Ways for another interesting set of questions, with no answers given.
There we have it! A bunch of cards that just ooze flavor from the name. Most of these hit the flavor hammer in other places too. But even if they were flavor misses elsewhere, that title just made it work. Brought it all together.
So what did you think of my list? And what are your favorites?