How wrong I was. In August 2014, Wizards of the Coast announced a change to block structure. Third sets and core sets would soon be no more. Good riddance, I thought at the time. Less than a year later, Wizards of the Coast has made a fool out of me. It was bad enough when Tarkir took us on a dragon-flight awesome three-set story, but now Magic Origins has treated players with an all-stars game of our favorite planes and characters.
How could I have been so wrong? Something changed in the last few years, and much of it has to do with flavor. The storytelling of Magic has improved. In this article, we’ll celebrate the new richness found not only in flavor text but also in card names and mechanics.
As a Level 20 flavor judge, I am obligated not only to present the choicest morsels of the set, but also issue flavor warnings. Following those, I will announce the top three delicacies of Magic Origins.
Some uncertified dabblers of flavor might blanche at the idea of judging subjective topics such as card names and how play mechanics feel. I suppose I might also become self-conscious if I ever made mistakes. But I never do¬. Except for that once.
The great thing about this flavor text is that it evokes all the tragic anguish of children perishing before their time. This would also be the worst thing. In the horror genre, it’s almost not worth having a zombie unless it’s a child. Magic cards tend not to stray so dark, though I still have chills from Blood Bairn.
The flavor of Blessed Spirits is powerful and consistent with the plane of Innistrad, but is the card appropriate? To know for certain, we’d need a judge of decency, morality, and human goodness. I am none of those. The best I can do is defer to Gathering Magic writer and cosplayer MJ Scott.
My son just saw Blessed Spirits & said: "That's awesome. I want 100 of them in my deck. I'm going to marry that card...no, mom you should."
— MJ Scott (@moxymtg) June 25, 2015
When done right, flavor text has the power to summon deep emotion, be it joy or sorrow. In this, Blessed Spirits has succeeded. I will say that I suspect Erin Campbell on Magic Mics was right when she mentioned showing decaying, dead children would be going too far.
Good flavor also reinforces gameplay mechanics. We humans have evolved to remember tales, and even a story as short as a sentence can help us keep a card’s rules straight. The mini-tale of Faerie Miscreant tickles us into understanding why we need an accomplice in play. A pixie-kiss of thanks goes to our own Vorthos writer Ant Tessitore for creating this line.
Here, it’s not the flavor text but the card name explaining why this vampire hurts both players. She cannot control her frothing huger. The flavor text is then free to focus on being awesome. The lyrical line whispers a lullaby of hypnotic terror.
Rhymes sound more true to the human ear, and they’re more memorable––more catchy if you will. Multiple flavor texts in the set exploit this power with subtle rhymes. Other cards overawe with adherence to their concept.
The flavor here is so strong overall that I don't even want to wash out the sting of sea water from my mouth. It’s not just the card name, the art, the mechanics, or the flavor text. It’s all of them. This card has great flavor synergy.
For the best of the rest in the Origins buffet, sample the following flavor texts: Reave Soul, Grasp of the Hieromancer, Soulblade Djinn, Nissa’s Revelation, Patron of the Valiant, Citadel Castellan, Blood-Cursed Knight, Deadbridge Shaman, Despoiler of Souls, War Horn, Nightsnare, Revenant, and Deep-Sea Terror.
I don’t always mention reprints, but when I do, it’s Goblin Piledriver. No other card name has achieved the same level of gobliny flavor (a bit nutty, but otherwise like chicken). Goblin Piledriver is a one-man mosh pit of green goodness.
We can be flash-mob excited about the flavor of the card based on its name alone. In Magic Origins, card names do most of the work transporting us to a specific plane. Eyeblight Assassin plunges us back into the dark prejudices of the elves of Lorwyn. Mizzium Meddler whirls us into the giddy experimentation of Ravnica’s Izzet.
Don’t worry about getting lost across the Multiverse. I’ve mapped out the card names that serve as signposts for their planes, each group led by the most flavorful.
Alara (Bant): Sigil of Valor, Jhessian Thief, Valeron Wardens, Rhox Maulers
Innistrad: Possessed Skaab (for science!), Somberwald Alpha
Lorwyn: Gilt-Leaf Winnower, Eyeblight Massacre, Touch of Moonglove, Eyeblight Assassin, Boggart Brute
Kaladesh: Ghirapur Aether Grid, Ghirapur Gearcrafter
Ravnica: Deadbridge Shaman (Golgari), Mizzium Meddler (Izzet), Bounding Krasis (Simic), Conclave Naturalists (Selesnya), Scab-Clan Berserker (Gruul), Nivix Barrier (Izzet), Undercity Troll (Golgari)
Regatha: Abbot of Keral Keep (training place of the brightest personality in the Multiverse: Jaya Ballard, Task Mage)
Theros: Starfield of Nyx, Erebos's Titan, Herald of the Pantheon, Iroas’s Champion, Akroan Sergeant, Pharika’s Disciple
Vryn: Mage-Ring Network, Ringwarden Owl, Disciple of the Rings, Mage-Ring Responder, Mage-Ring Bully, Prism Ring (look, I was on a Ring roll, okay?)
Zendikar: Malakir Cullblade, Zendikar Incarnate, Joraga Invocation
Many of those names hit me right in the nostalgia. But Magic Origins has more to its flavor banquet. Here are my juiciest picks for naming: Managorger Hydra, Clash of Wills, the Great Aurora, Send to Sleep, Kothophed, Soul Hoarder, Prickleboar, Consecrated by Blood, Ramroller, and Hitchclaw Recluse.
The flavor of Magic isn’t confined to art, card names, and flavor text. The game mechanics themselves tell a story and allow us to participate as players. If one of our creatures comes to grief, Liliana will try to save it, and her card name tells us that, as a healer, she’s taken to Dark Dabbling. Clerics are traditionally white or black in the color pie, and the lifelink ability is another bridge between those identities.
Liliana’s cure turns out to be a Tainted Remedy, and she only manages to bring the creature back to a state of unlife. The shock transforms her innocence into ruthlessness. As a Planeswalker, her +2 ability has undertones of discarding cards in shared grief. Or, if your heart has become empty, it’s only your opponents who still feel the pain. Those weak fools don’t understand true power.
Selling your soul solves so many problems. Just ignore the fine print and sign. Demonic Pact thrills us with the possibility of cheating our contract. By tempting us in the same way as Liliana, the card draws us into her story. We can understand her choices. Will any of us escape our bargains? We’ll have to wait and see how the games play out.
This child hero rallies the poor of a Theros city into a band of soldiers who proudly call themselves Kytheon’s Irregulars. The city looked down on them, but they stand up to defend against a great peril. Kytheon uses his powers to protect himself, but his Tragic Arrogance leads to the death of his friends.
His guilt causes him to planeshift to Bant, where every Sigil of Valor he earns is to repay the dead. By shielding others, his Planeswalker abilities show his new humility.
I don’t wish to spoil the origin of Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy. No, not when you can read the story yourself. Kelly Digges cooked us up a delight. I am scheming to cosplay as Jace, and the story gives me the insight I need to understand the character. More than that, now he’s more than a powerful card in Legacy. I care for him as a person.
For this review, I’ll only mention that Jace has to discard certain memories before his spark ignites. He then vows to rediscover them, which plays out through the mechanic of flashback.
Nissa’s full story wasn’t released by the time I had to write this review. Lucky for me, her card tells so much. She journeys across Zendikar, discovering new lands. Nissa’s Pilgrimage grows into an Animist’s Awakening. Each place she visits inspires her. Understanding blossoms, and her Planeswalker powers take root.
As an animist, she brings to life the spirit of the wildernesses she’s come to treasure. Her abilities tell a story of breathtaking purity. She’ll unite the lands against annihilation in the upcoming Battle for Zendikar.
Not everyone has the aspirations of a Planeswalker. This man does his job and well, even if maintaining the prison overtaxes the nation’s mana reserves. Each turn, the opponent’s best creature tries to escape, but behind bars it’ll stay. An honorable mention must go to another flavorful incarcerator, Hixus, Prison Warden.
Gilt-Leaf Winnower has Legolas-stunt levels of flavor. The Lorwyn elves are a prejudiced bunch who kill the unbeautiful, such as any non-elf with unsymmetrical power and toughness.
Now that we’ve surveyed the flavors of the set, I will soon declare the top three. Before that privilege, I have no choice but to issue flavor rulings against those cards that violated the palette. Keep in mind that it’s a thousand times easier to critique than create, and often, reviewers see too small a picture to understand the greater reasons that demanded a creative choice. Not me, though. The Level 20 flavor certification requires passing a test in omniscience.
One-word card names are memorable, powerful, precious, and not to be wasted. Languish does succeed in calling back to effects such as Sicken, which also bestowed a negative stat bonus. However, as a word, Languish isn’t four times as enfeebling. We have an effect on the scale of Mutilate but a card name that could’ve described the -1/-1 of Shrivel, something that could kill Soldier tokens but not Hill Giant. As an example, let me use the word in a sentence.
If not Languish, what single word could describe creatures withering away while a black Planeswalker laughs? I see scourge hasn’t been used. Or despair.
Flavor disqualification issued.
My worst fears have come true. I have to issue a judgment to a pyromancer. Jaya Ballard, Task Mage will never forgive me, especially not if my ashen remains cause her to sneeze.
Community member Shivam Bhatt expressed his disappointment over Chandra and how her fire-and-ice complexion hardly represents the non-European setting of Kaladesh. The Wizards team replied that the plane is a diverse one, including peoples of all races. The card Pia and Kiran Nalaar does celebrate this with the depiction of an interracial couple.
With parents powerful enough to see tournament play, Chandra has to consider herself destined for greatness. But does she excel at bringing diversity to the Origins Planewalkers who are otherwise white or elvish? No, that doesn’t hold water, not enough to escape burning. Though I have nothing against Chandra (I swear!), one Planeswalker has to take the fall.
Flavor disqualification issued.
Now that the unsavory part of the meal is over, we can indulge in dessert. Get ready to lift your crystal glasses to toast the best flavors of Magic Origins.
Top 3 Flavor Winners
Third Place for Focused Storytelling
Second Place for Poignancy
First Place for Most Cackles