Hatred Outlives the Hateful

Hatred Outlives the Hateful


Advocates of Magic often describe the game as a hybrid between chess and poker with an interface wrapped in high fantasy. The game is rooted in strategy and mathematical complexity and appeals to anyone seeking a system that rewards sharp wit and a little luck. What takes Magic a step further, though, is its ability to remain interesting even when not playing it. The fantasy may be the façade, but for many players, it’s the meat and potatoes of the package. The flavor is why they play. And for fantasy aficionados and tournament players alike, Rancor is a perfect Magic card. Mechanically speaking, it’s one of the game’s strongest pieces of tech. It was supposed to cost 1G, but an oversight let it slip through the cracks of Urza’s Legacy and R&D didn’t catch the mistake until the card sheets came rolling off the presses. Since 1999, it has been trampling over chump blockers in constructed decks and cube drafts alike, relentlessly sending creatures to the graveyard yet rarely spending time there itself. Today, however, I’m not interested in exploring what makes Rancor so strong nor in highlighting its history in tournament play. Instead, I want to look at this little line of text here, “Hatred outlives the hateful,” and use it as a conduit to explore the literary in Magic. In many player’s eyes, mine included, it is the best line of flavor text in the game. Because such claims are so subjective, though, I’d rather take a more neutral eye to the matter in order to answer the simple question: what makes good flavor text? What makes good flavor text? To help guide my way, I reached out to Ant Tessitore, writer of names and flavor text for Wizards of the Coast, and asked him the same question. “To me, and this is speaking from someone who plays drums, flavor text is a lot like the drummer in the band in that it’s the job of the flavor text to make everyone else sound good” Flavor text, in Ant’s analogy, is the groove that keeps the song together. It elevates the other pieces. I like this analogy and will be using it to analyze how flavor text, like a drummer in a song, can situate itself on a card and elevate, or distract from, its surrounding components. First, though, let’s look at the various types of flavor text that we can find on Magic cards. After reading a thousand or so lines of text over the past few weeks, I’ve made a list of five, broad categories that most pieces can fit into. If you’d like a more nuanced and detailed list of categories, I’d suggest Jay Moldenhauer-Salazar’s article from 2005 titled “Urban Flavor”. He came up with ten. For the purpose of this video, though, I’m using these five: Quotes from Literature, World-building, Dialogue, Whimsy, and Stand-Alones. And just as a quick disclaimer, some flavor texts bleed into other categories. These are not exclusive to one another. The first category is a pretty neat aspect of Magic that appeared in the early years but has since been phased out. Rosewater has stated that once Magic committed to finding its own voice, these excerpts from novels and poems needed to go. Appropriating literature into fantasy has its own challenges and merits, though, and has made for some stylish gems in the game. Scathe Zombies is one such card. Pulling from the 19th century poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the quote here references a group of dead sailors in the original work and reimagines it to describe a horde of overwhelming zombies. Will-o’-the-Wisp and Wall of Ice also utilize Samuel Coleridge’s poem to great effect. Shakespeare was also a popular reference back in the day, and the legend lives on on 25 different Magic cards now. Well, actually, he’s not on every version of those 25 cards. Dirk Schlösser, one of my Patrons, pointed out that many of these quotes from English literature were rewritten with other famous writers when translated into other languages, as seen on Redeem. The English card has Shakespeare, while the German card has Goethe, and the French version has a piece from Stendhal. While it’s true that quotes from literature have made for clever nods to the past, abandoning the practice was the correct move for the game. To use Ant’s music analogy, it’s fun to pay homage to the musicians who have inspired you, but do it too much and you risk becoming a simulacrum. Using literature exclusively for flavor text on Magic cards would furthermore make it the equivalent a cover band. The next category is world-building. These flavor texts help give depth to the planes and provide context for the environment outside of the frame and artwork. Back in Theros block, world-building flavor text gave way for Magic to repurpose Homer’s Iliad into The Theriad, a miniature epic of the Greek version, which appeared on 15 different vanilla creatures in the block. The flavor text here let the creative team cleverly narrate the story arc of the three-act block in a condensed manner and rewarded any of the players who took the time to find and organize all of the pieces. The two Ravnica blocks also heavily featured flavor text that gave a sense of place and depth to the cityscape. Courier Hawk is a great example: “The Orzhov started using hawks as messengers in order to bypass the many toll roads and bridges that dot Ravnica. Soon the service became one of their most profitable businesses.” From this innocuous little flier, we learn quite a bit about the business tendencies of the Orzhov Syndicate, as well as the civic structure of Ravnica. Similarly, Duskmantle, House of Shadow is often quoted as many players’ favorite flavor text. “In a space where there is no room, in a structure that was never built, meets the guild that doesn’t exist.” Through this line, we learn that the Dimir are highly secretive and undercover, which helps elevate the art and give it a sense of space. World-building flavor text is also responsible for one of the game’s most beloved characters. Gatecrash gave us Totally Lost, and with it came both an established naming convention for homunculi and a succinct reason for which this one was particularly frightened. Players clung to the gag and have been anxious to see more of the frightened fellow ever since. “Fblthp had always hated crowds” is a perfect line, and Ant Tessitore knew it. Writing for Conspiracy: Take the Crown, he played with the idea for Jeering Homonculus and reversed the roles. “Mklthd had always hated crowds” To his credit, the second line was added by someone else later, which I think weakened the interplay. Next we have dialogue. In this category, you can find just as much world-building as character development, as these distinctions tend to blend into one another here. Clear a Path, for example, gives us a look into the morality of the Boros Legion from the perspective of a confused, two-headed ogre. “Why do guards always look surprised when we bash them?” asked Ruric. “I think they expect a bribe,” said Thar. This flavor text is witty and good. It’s humorous and works double-duty without being excessive. Dialogue, however, is usually where you find the bulk of cheesy and melodramatic writing. A lot of Jace quotes, for example, end up painting the character as dull or arrogant and lead to shunning reactions from fans. When done poorly, dialogue flavor text is a bit too expository and reminds me of something that came from The Room. But there are some gems. Monastery Mentor is one, with “speak little, do much.” Feldon of the Third Path’s flavor text “She will come back to me” is a quote that opens up the character’s tragic backstory and also describes the mechanic of the card. And Riptide Chimera’s “I want one”, provides a fun insight into Kiora’s character in just three words and sends the viewer back to the artwork with a new perspective in mind. Something like this can also fall into my final category, whimsy, which encompasses all jokes, gags, and puns. Goblins, for example, dominate this realm. As much as I love this ongoing tendency to paint goblins as dim-witted and suicidal, I think there’s room to explore other elements of this tribe in a clever way. Goblin Chieftain from M10 did this quite well with the text “We are goblin kind, heirs to the mountain empires of chieftains past. Rest is death to us, and arson is our call to war.” But this neat insight was undermined two years later with “It’s time for the ‘Smash, Smash’ song!” which I think took away from the gobbos’ motivation a little bit. One-liners live here, too, like the flavor text for Hex. The whimsical, though, has a time and a place, which brings me back to my interview with Ant. “Something that I consider to be bad flavor text going off from what I said before, is anything that distracts away from the card or belittles the card. So, my go-to example is always Gorilla Titan. And the only reason I say that is not because I don’t like humor, I love humor and I’ve written some humor into the game, but the art itself is not humorous. The art is showing this really aggressive Tiger Gorilla thing and it just happens to be in a pose that would facilitate the joke and once that joke line was written in of ‘I want a banana this big!’, you’re doing a disservice to the card only because you’re making that art that might have been done to be serious and then you kind of mess that up by writing something goofy.” I agree with Ant: humor is good, but in small doses. It works in Conspiracy and usually on any card with art by Jesper Ejsing or Steve Prescott. I’m all for the light-hearted in Magic, but anything that ends in a ba-dum-tss or could double as an elbow-nudging dad joke doesn’t really age well. Our last category is Stand-Alones, which I define as any line of flavor text that could exist outside of the context of the game and still work as a solid piece of writing. These are just as hit-or-miss as the whimsical ones: go too deep and philosophical, and it reads like a magnet from Pinterest. But with some elegance and craftsmanship, I believe Magic can be the source of some fairly poetic lines of text. Squandered Resources is one such card. “He traded sand for skins, skins for gold, gold for life. In the end, he traded life for sand.” Something like this can stop and make you think. Boldwyr Intimidator is another one of my favorites in this category; “Now everyone knows what you are” as it invokes the mechanic of the card in a way that leaves me questioning even myself. Am I a warrior or a coward? Damn man, sometimes I don’t know! Which brings me to Rancor. Going back to the drumming analogy, Rancor is the John Bonham of flavor texts. “Hatred outlives the hateful” does it all, subtly, and ties every piece of the card together. It elevates the card in the same way a solid drum line drives a song. Bonham’s skill, just like a strong writer with a gigantic vocabulary and control over their language, could easily have him playing something far more complex. But he refrains, keeps it simple and melodic, and doesn’t over-extend. He plays to the song. Rancor’s flavor text does the same thing. What’s written here is not an exaggeration about how angry the enchantment makes your creatures. Nor is it some zany pun. Rather, it serves the one-word name of the card and indirectly describes exactly what it does while also working as a stand-alone piece of text that, like Squandered Resources, just makes you stop and think. I asked Ant why Rancor is such a marquee card for its flavor text: “The flavor text of hatred outlives the hateful reiterates to you, hammers home into your mind, if you want to think about that solid bass drum, that this card makes creatures pissed over and over again. But the final kind of flourish and fill that puts this over the top is that not only does that line of text fit on one line, so visually it’s very appealing, but also it has a more deep, psychological lesson behind it… [and] any time that flavor text can impart a life lesson on you… that’s when it starts to get absurd! … that’s when it’s no longer just a game it’s something that can really change the way you think about your own life.” To tie this all together, I think good flavor text is one that gives harmony to the rest of the card. It’s not just the stand-alone pieces; well-written dialogue or whimsy pieces can be knockouts, too. Sometimes giving harmony means keeping it simple, Bonham style. Other times, that means going to 11, like Thomas Pridgen opening up The Mars Volta’s Wax Simulacra: Certain cards, like Blazing Archon, deserve this kind of colossal rhythm section, one that explodes and soars over the top of subtlety. Other whimsical pieces, like the time-traveling dialogue on Return to Ravnica’s Inspiration, is akin to the silliness of a song like Born on a Horse by Biffy Clyro. The cowbell here works because it fits the bouncy tone of the song. And still sometimes, the best flavor text is one that is absent. Cards like Wrath of God and Time Stop turn Oracle Text into a work of art by themselves. These cards are the “Never Going Back Again” by Fleetwood Mac: the drums and bass that do the most by sitting one out. And so the best flavor texts, like Ant said, make everything else on the card better. They are the drummers that play for the song. Thanks for watching! I am a proud partner of Card Kingdom. Use CardKingdom.com/Studies as the affiliate link to support the show and get Magic product faster than a Courier Hawk delivers the secrets of the Orzhov Syndicate. Very special shout-out to Ant Tessitore for the interview. If you would like to listen to the full thing, go to my website: rhysticstudies.com and go to the “Articles” tab. You will find the link to the full 20-minute long-ish conversation that I had with Ant about all things flavor text and writing for WOTC… it’s a really good conversation, so I recommend that! Also, follow him on Twitter (@AntTessitore). He also does a show with Mike Linnemann called Snack Time! If you’re not on Snack Time Podcast grind, I don’t know what you’re doing out there, Vorthoses; it’s a great show high-energy, those guys are really good and you will very much enjoy it. If you enjoyed the small bits of interview that we had in this video, then you’ll really love Snack Time! So, get on it! Also, of course, Cardkingdom.com/studies if you would like to support the show indirectly while buying cards and if you want to support the show directly, go to my Patreon page. Just a buck really really helps me out. It lets me know that you really dig my stuff. So, check that out as well! And finally I would like to give one special shout out to @OrcishLibrarian on Twitter! ‘The Orc’ he’s a great writer. He has a bunch of series that he likes to tweet out, one of which he puts flavor text on cards that don’t have flavor text and they’re always very witty and very good. It’s great writing, it’s great Magic content and I would like to push The Orc into your radar! Alright, guys I’ll see you all very soon for the next video! Cheers!