One of my duties as a Level 20 flavor judge is to present the top ten most flavorful cards of the year. Let me say that we had a juicy one. In 2014, Wizards bestowed unto us Born of the Gods and Journey into Nyx, along with the last core set in Magic 2015, and Khans of Tarkir unmophed into something unexpectedly scrumptious.
Picking the ten most flavorful cards of the year is an ordeal not even Erebos would inflict on a mortal. Hundreds of cards could have made the list, and I want to congratulate all the creative people who work for Wizards of the Coast. Wise readers, you might think that some of my choices are subjective, matters of mere opinion. You would be wrong. All my flavor rulings are final. Petition them in the comments section for all the good it'll do you.
Now, ordered from most tasty to most delicious, I give you the top ten flavorful cards of 2014.
10 – Best Flavor Without Flavor Text
Often, flavor text will justify a curious game mechanic, as in Heroes' Bane or Sigiled Skink. Hornet Nest needs no explanation. The card does exactly what we expect a hornet’s nest to do: terrify you. We hear the angry buzzing in our minds.
The card does have italicized text, but it’s not for flavor. Not too many people bother to read the reminder text on Hornet Nest, but it actually says, “Attacking a ground creature into this defender will lose you the game, idiot.”
Runner-up: Reef Worm
9 – Best Flavor Text, Long Form
The vanilla creature is pure chocolate to the flavor-text writer. An empty rules box can be filled with a delicious story. Sometimes, that means fleshing out the main characters in a setting. Sometimes, it describes a method of foretelling by reading the warts on a frog’s back.
Witch's Familiar won the division for Flavor Text, Long Form because of its creativity and, ironically, its brevity. The fact that the entire text box can be filled with words doesn’t mean it should be. Four lines were sufficient to describe the proud tradition of batrachomancy.
For the record, I never check my horoscope in the morning. I just wake up and slap my hand on a toad’s back.
8 – Most Flavorful Art
Nothing says ferocious like punching a bear. We can savor not only this card’s art, but also how much sense it makes. If I knocked out a bear, I would feel +2/+2 pumped—that is, if I lived. Maybe if I had Surrak Dragonclaw as a boxing coach, he’d inspire my inner bear. Sure, I’d go bear for Surrak.
No self-respecting list on flavor could exclude Savage Punch, and yet, I cannot help but think it was misnamed. Everyone called it “Bear Punch.” “Savage Punch” is, technically, more correct because the punch does not necessitate a bear be present. And yet, what do we care about technicalities when bear-punching is going down? This technique of fisticuffs might require channeling a bear’s strength, after all, as described in Awaken the Bear. In my heart and loins, this card will always be Bear Punch.
7 – Best Mount
The plane of Tarkir brought with it a zoo of epic mounts, but none matched the flavor of Mantis Rider. Both the vigilance and haste abilities play into the insect’s too-fast-to-see speed. One moment, you’re a Mardu raider minding your own business raiding a Jeskai temple. The next, your head has been snipped off your body, and your brains are being eaten almost daintily by a mantis’s pincher mandibles.
Praying mantis females tend to eat the males after mating. I love how the flavor text references that, warning a similar fate might befall their human riders. All I have to say is, “Worth it!”
6 – Most Flavorful Keyword Mechanic: Bestow
We could’ve had a Theros block without any God cards, but the myths would have all ended tragically without bestow. The heroic mechanic needed enchantments that could stand on their own, and bestow creatures provided a sparkling solution. The gods bestowed their favor on their chosen and their flavor on us, the players.
Of those cards printed in 2014 (excluding the 2013 Theros set), Nyxborn Shieldmate was the most flavorful. The art makes clear that this bestow creature is a manifestation of a god’s will, and the flavor text puts a twist on a well-known saying. It ends the sentence correctly on the payoff word “blades.”
Runners-up: Heroic, raid
5 – Best Card Name
Teach them the meaning of Hubris. Did your opponents think they had the blessing of the gods? They piled card after card on their heroes, hope upon hope. They were more confident than any mortal should be. Now they have nothing but humility.
4 – Most Nefarious
It’s no accident that three winners in the top ten have card names of a single word. They are the most memorable, and being monosyllabic makes Gild even more powerful. Over the history of Magic, most of the single-word card names have already been taken. We’ve had the delectable verbs of Stranglehold, Smother, and Browbeat. Tasty words are precious and not to be wasted on bland cards, and yes, I’m turning my trained sneer on you, Implode.
Gild delivers in more than card name. The mechanics give me everything I could ask for as a black Planeswalker. Not only can I imagine pouring gold over my opponent’s favorite pegasus, but I also enrich my coffers with a diabolical trophy. That I can spend this gold on a mana feels right, trading resource for resource. Or maybe I won’t spend it. I’ll leave the gold token on the battlefield, so my opponent can remember and weep.
Runner-up: Villainous Wealth
3 – Best Flavor Synergy
Sometimes, the flavor zings up and down my spine in tingling chills. Eye Gouge gives us a strong card name combined with a tasty mechanic and flavor text that uses brevity and repetition to build power.
All the creative elements of Eye Gouge synergize to create a single, flavorful idea. A card might have individually powerful art, card name, and flavor text, but if those elements all go in different directions, the card won’t be as moving or memorable. For instance, the flavor text of Drown in Sorrow describes despair using a whip. The art describes the same emotion using skull clouds, and the card name does so with drowning—all fine elements, but lacking in synergy.
2 – Most Evocative
Masterful flavor draws us into the Multiverse and makes us care for the characters and feel for them. Feldon of the Third Path tells the story of an old artificer. He wishes to recreate in metal a woman he loved and lost. He tries again and again, sacrificing his creation at end of turn when it becomes clear she’s not the same, not as perfect. We sympathize with his tragedy—or we wince at his obsession. The single line of flavor text conveys so much desperate emotion. Even knowing nothing else about Feldon, this card is a self-contained story.
1 – Best Story-Builder and Best Flavor Overall
Whereas Feldon of the Third Path told a story on a single card, multiple cards in a set work together to tell the tale of a block. Deicide is the climax of Theros. With a powerful, one-word card name, flavor text with echoing finality due to its brevity, epic art, and resonant mechanics, Deicide has it all.
I regret that I had to remove from contention some of the most flavorful cards from Magic 2015. Waste Not, Shield of the Avatar, Hot Soup, and others were designed with the help of the gaming community. The cards all deserved consideration as winners. However, they committed a flavor foul. Allow me to explain.
At the Magic 2015 prerelease, one player pointed at the line starting, “Designed by,” and asked, “Is this supposed to be here?” His question was a reasonable one. The text box is reserved for game rules and flavor. That line was neither of those. In fact, it was the opposite of flavor because it drew the player out of Magic’s Multiverse. The line reminded us that this was only a game printed by men on cardboard.
We should be proud of the gaming community, and I hope we receive more such creative contributions. When we do, that designer attribution can be printed near the illustrator credit—or not at all. The community is strong enough that we’ll know who created what. There will be a few posts on websites, and word of mouth can do the rest.
Final Thoughts on Humor in Magic
No card won Best Humor this year. Fellow Vorthos writer and flavor aficionado Ant Tessitore has expressed concern that all the funny has drained out of Magic cards.
I would say the death of humor has been greatly exaggerated. True, some of the most humorous cards from Magic 2015 were reprints (Fugitive Wizard and Turn to Frog) or were inspired by designers from other games (Goblin Kaboomist and Hot Soup). That still leaves us with laughter enough—devilish, cackling laughter.
Forge Devil was reprinted with new, pithy flavor text featuring not only humor, but my favorite kind: paradoxical. People with different tastes might chuckle at Goblinslide, smirk at Meteorite, snicker at Bear's Companion, or chortle at Utter End.
Fundamentally, it’s hard to be funny. No one wants to see a bad joke on a Magic card, and I would only want it attempted with cards the names and illustrations of which lend themselves to hilarity.
I look forward to next year’s batch of flavor, and I’ll review each set as it comes out. Then, I’ll be able to discuss more cards. I had to exclude far too many flavor delicacies in this top ten list. If you’d like a flavor ruling on any specific card, let me know in a comment.