Today’s article is the third of a three part Top Ten series I envisioned on the flavor of cards. Cards are more than mere mechanics. I doubt Magic would still be here if there was no art, the cards were only simply named, and had no art or flavor.
Imagine if the 2/3 vanilla creature in Alpha were named “Minotaur Captain” and had no flavor text. Compare Hurloon Minotaur. Iconic art. World specific name. Solid flavor text where you learn about the world of the Hurloon Mountains and this tribe of Minotaurs. Without the evocative qualities of flavorful art, names, and text to make these worlds, characters, spells, and conflicts of these worlds live, I just don’t see this game making it. The majesty of Hurloon Minotaur and friends made Magic sing.
Magic is its own take on fantasy tropes. And that’s fine. Live it and breathe it!
So I wanted to honor the many years of flavor in these three aspects of cards by looking at the top. I did the first two in top ten takes back in October. Then Commander 2016 came out, and I wanted to do a few Commander 2016 centric Top 10s. I was excited that Commander 2016 also gave us more of the old-school creation of characters that already existed Magic’s history. So I wanted to delve into characters, Planewalkers, and even vehicles and equipment for potential printing in future Commander sets. Now that we’ve finished all of that, I want hit up the flavor text and conclude this trilogy of flavor.
Like art and names, no flavor text is going to appeal to everyone. And that’s okay! Flavor texts really help to give room for cards to breathe. But there are flavor texts for different people.
For example, I’ll tell you right now, I don’t like puns as flavor text. They wear out extremely quickly. I loathe the flavor text on Werebear. Or the Wheel of Torture. It’s torturous for me to read that freakin’ flavor text once again. And I find jokes are right behind it. They wear out, and then I have an annoyingly lame piece of flavor text. I don’t think the in-joke on Goblin Offensive, “They certainly are,” is a good one. If you are going to use a flavor text that self-references the title of the card, I’d rather you do it like To the Slaughter, with the text, “’Where has little Gossamer gone?’ - Thaniel, Gatstaf Shepherd” But there are people out there that adore jokes and puns in their flavor text. I get it!
I don’t mind whimsy and making you smile. I have some fun quotes in my favorites below (such as #10 and #9). So yay fun!
One thing I really do like is real world quotes. I love seeing quotes by Samuel Taylor Coleridge or Macbeth or famous writers on these cards. It makes them so much more evocative for me. But I get why some don’t like them. There are people out there for whom the quote on Scathe Zombies, by Coleridge, is a real turn off, because it breaks them out of the world. But I love it. (Mostly. I was always a little off-put by the use of religious texts like the Qur’an and Bible as sources of quotes in cards like Durkwood Boars or Piety).Now, because you aren’t writing a real world quote, I won’t be using it. I will not be considering real world quotes.
Another major theme of world building we don’t see any more is the numerous quotes from a famous work that relates to that world. Take Fallen Empires, where cards are regularly quoting the Sarpadian Empires historical book series or Mirage that evokes the Love Song of Night and Day that is used in a bunch of cards like Blinding Light and Chariot of the Sun. In that same set we have the book, “Afari, Tales” referenced as well. Phyrexian Tribute, Hazerider Drake, and River Boa are all examples of flavor text attributed to that author and book. So it’s a major theme in the early era of the game, but not one we see anymore. I won’t be hitting any of those either. (Although, honorable mention to Squandered Resources, arguably the best of that lot).
I’m also not a super fan of pop culture references in flavor text either. Take Goblin Arsonist’s, “With great power comes great risk of getting yourself killed.” It’s an allusion to the Spider Man film franchise and comics and the “With great power comes great responsibility,” motif. I don’t think that’s a very clever flavor text. Again, I understand if you do, but it works for me precisely one time, the first time I read it, and then it’s jarring from then on out.
One of the first things I like to do when I get a new set, it to open a couple of booster boxes, make a set of all of the commons, uncommons, rares, etc, and then sit, look at them, and read the flavor text to feel the story and the world. I love it!
So given that, I’ll be looking at flavor text that really hits me. With the emphasis on, “Me.” These are just my personal favorites. And that’s okay. My list will never be your list, and your list will never be mine. And that’s good!
But here are my top ten flavor texts!
10. Furnace Whelp
Seriously, why are we made of meat and treasure? I mean, isn’t that a bit two-faced of us to be so tempting to Dragons and then get all uppity about them when they come to eat us and take our stuff? Don’t the Khans have it all wrong over on Tarkir? Probably! In addition to the gentle smile this quote constantly evokes, I love how this puts you in the mindset of the creature, rather than with the people who have to deal with the creature, which is where flavor text usually lives.
This card’s flavor text just oozes whimsy. Shoot, I bet you want to see a Davvol legendary creature based off this quote alone. Davvol is clearly upset that he has to keep killing elves and moving troops around, despite his desire to take the day off and get his party on. You haven’t seen a dance until you witness Davvol drop those beats.
This has to be one of the best, coolest, and yet very, very weird flavor texts out there. It also just perfectly suits the card. I mean, we could have gotten some adequate flavor text like, “The Skullcap induces both paranoia and inspiration in equal measure,” or, “We’re not sure if wearing it is agony or ecstasy.” You could even add a bit of whimsy to it, “I don’t know if wearing it is torture or pleasure, but I’m not putting it on!” Shoot, you could even go with a creepy horror asylum concept like, “After it was grafted to Patient 32, his face was rendered in two, one half fully ecstatic, and the other fully painful, as if his body could not choose which sensation it was experiencing. — Dr. Fellhand, Adara Asylum.” Choose whatever iteration works. But even a good, by-the-numbers flavor text like those above pale in comparison to this! We get this amazing quote for the card that just wins. It just suits the card so well. You could never pen a better flavor text than that, no matter how hard you tried.
7. Angelic Wall
This flavor text is not on most printings of Angelic Wall. So if you have an Angelic Wall sitting around, you may not notice it. But the Angelic Walls in my decks, including the one in Abe’s Deck of Happiness and Joy, are from Portal 2. And that printing is the only place to see this text. And it has grown on me. It’s very White. It’s gets the point across that the Wall is both majestic and breathtaking. Just be. And let beauty overcome you. But if you bring ire, war, and battle in your heart, then you will find something very different indeed.
6. Manic Vandal
Oh, on a similar note, I enjoy the first Decimate’s “’Anyone can admire creation. Only a barbarian sees the beauty in demolition.’—Kamahl, pit fighter.” It’s pretty to blow stuff up, right? Right! Anybody who has ever just watched a fire burn something down, or big giant monster trucks drive over smaller cars and smash them, or who goes to a Michael Bay film for the explosions, just knows what it’s like to enjoy destruction. There is something primeval and beautiful about it. Kamahl is right. I love to take a BB gun to my backyard and break some bottles on occasion. It’s fun. I don’t need another reason.
This a guilty pleasure for me. I think the flavor text just absolutely on point. So I have to give the card some serious love. I also love the card’s mechanic too. You draw a card before the spell resolves, so you can potentially draw into a counter. It’s a wonderful shield, and I like it for Zur the Enchanter enchantment decks as a potential target to fetch. But there is always a little guilt here. You have the obviously wealthy white guy who burned down a village of black people. The card uses a term in America for bringing former slaves back up to standards in post-slavery America. That is a bit uncomfortable for me. But the flavor text is still solid, you can’t deny it.
I love this card. I know a lot of folks may point to the first Pacifism in Mirage as a great flavor text. “For the first time in his life, Grakk felt a little warm and fuzzy inside.” I’ve always found that a little obvious and on the nose. It’s also feels a little bit pop-culture-y to me. But poor Bulgo on the other hand, really gets this point across. You are becoming a tree. The first sentence is simple. The second better. And the third? It sells the point perfectly. Your feet are thirsty. I never thought of that. It has a bit of body horror in there. I adore the flavor text!
This be a little bit of a cheat, but I don’t care. Without the art, the flavor text is nothing noticeable. It can fit any number of cards, like an aura. It could be the flavor text for Holy Strength or something. Or it could be referring to Elementals or Clerics or something. Like a new card called something like, “Strength of the Ancient Woods.” But with the art in view, check out that flavor text. That works. Emotionally. Viscerally. There is precisely one card in the history of Magic that has made me shed a literal tear. It’s this magnificent beauty. And I’m not apologizing for the fact that these two aspects of flavor, when twinned together, just move in a way Magic doesn’t normally do.
This is one of the most memorable flavor texts I’ve ever encountered. It’s like a mnemonic bomb. It just went off on my head, and has never left. First of all, it says more about Goblins in that one flavor text than you will get in a bunch of cards, art, or more. It’s one of the best ways to sum up Magic’s take on Goblins. Plus, it’s on meter, rhymes, and is very clever. Say it out load a few times, and you will giggle, and enjoy the world so much more! Another in this oeuvre I really enjoy is the Ekundu Cyclops’s “’Big One I, One big eye. One-eye see Two-eye die.’-Traditional cyclops chant.” Again, the flavor is just right there, and it’s fun to say aloud!
What makes a flavor text memorable? For me, one of the questions I ask is, do I remember it? And most importantly, do I quote it myself as I play the game? How many flavor texts do I know by heart? Maybe a hundred? And no text is quoted as much by myself as Undermine. In fact, I speak it anytime I play a Counterspell that counters and does something else bad for my opponent. Suffocating Blast. Undermine. Dismal Failure. Render Silent. Geist Snatch. Mystic Genesis. Mana Drain. Which would you like first, the insult, or the injury?
I also really like the flavor text of Obliterate — “For his family, Barrin made a funeral pyre of Tolaria” and while it certainly is jokesy, I still find something deeply whimsical in the Patrol Hound flavor text: “To the camp, it was a fierce and loyal protector. To the sentry's youngest daughter, it would always be her ‘Wuv Muffin.’” And while it was very influential to Magic, so honorable mention to Lhurgoyf, I wouldn’t put it in my personal top ten. Top twenty? Top thirty? Probably somewhere there. But for me, not top 10, sorry! Oh, and props to Sorcerer's Strongbox – “Simun the Quiet filled the chest with his most precious thoughts. But in a fit of paranoia, he locked up the memory of where he hid the key.”
So what are your favorite flavor texts? Anything in my list would be in yours? Was there something here you didn’t remember or know about? Thanks for reading!