Here’s how you create a game:
-Make a world
-Populate that world with living entities
-Smash those entities together to create conflict.
There are probably some other steps but I don’t care about those.
Flavour is important. It’s evocative. It helps a player live vicariously through a game piece. It helps raise the stakes, and gives us an emotional investment in what we’re playing. Without it, we’re pushing cardboard rectangles around and throwing pentagonal trapezohedrons at each other.
For whatever reason, a lot of people don’t care about the story or the flavour. This isn’t for those people. This is for the people that love to immerse themselves in the distinct lore that makes a game go from good to great.
When WotC gets flavour wrong, we as the public are all over them. And WHY NOT? They lied to us! They promised a flawless experience of wonder! And then we got the Kamigawa block!
I could do a thing about times WotC got it wrong, but let’s do a positive list today. For this list, I draw upon my own experience as a writer and content creator for Star Realms and Epic Card Game, and this means I can be every kind of snarky smartass. Right?
TOP 6 TIMES MAGIC GOT THE FLAVOUR RIGHT
by Ian Taylor
Let’s face it, Planeswalkers are awesome but they were hardly necessary. Magic was chugging along just fine, and if we didn’t get new card types, we’d still be in good shape.
But Magic always had that slight disconnect. The novels and stories were filled with interesting and unique characters that populated these worlds, but in the grand scheme of things didn’t really matter.
Making in-game Planeswalker characters was just what Magic needed to bridge that gap. It put the names of dozens of new and interestingly powerful beings in the minds of millions of people that just don’t care about story, and it brought some of them into the fold.
As a card type, it’s cool and fun. Planeswalkers can be annoying as hell (*cough*Gideon*cough) or it can just supplement a stupid Hardened Scales deck. They are a great way to introduce new characters that haven’t been yet seen in stories, and they make those stories better since we can now focus on these cool and sexy beings of near-infinite power instead of Gorgar the Boat Captain or whatever.
Sometimes a card by itself is perfect. I’m going to do a mini top 6 inside the top 6:
1 damage for 1 is ok, but this nod to ancient Loony Tunes cartoons makes me laugh in stupid ways.
BOUNTY OF THE LUXA
A card from Amonkhet. The elegance of this card evokes a sense of world history. The Fertile Crescent had never been summed up with a simple card mechanic before. Plus it draws cards, so even if you don’t give a crap about Mesopotamia (and I’m guessing most of you don’t) this is still a decent card.
WRATH OF GOD
There are many pretenders to the board-sweeper throne, but none have the same effectiveness as a being of infinite power saying “let’s just start again, shall we?” There are many answers to the question “How did everybody die?” and Wrath of God is the hands-down coolest, most evocative answer. (It sure as hell isn’t “Rout with Kicker”)
CAUGHT IN THE BRIGHTS
Vehicles are dumb. Kaladesh is dumb. This card is dumb. But, goddamn it tells a story.
Look at the art. See what’s happening there? That happens every time you use Banding.
NORIN THE WARY
The star of many a flavour text, Norin finally gets his own card, and it’s basically perfect.
TIME SPIRAL BLOCK
Time Spiral as a block is the most successful Magic expansion ever. Story-wise it’s not outstanding. I can’t even name four characters from it (I assume Teferi is there, because it’s got Time in the title).
Time Spiral, however, gave players access to an incredible assortment of cards that were not constrained by theme, style, flavour, or even decade.
As presented, it was a wonderful smooshing-together of Magic’s past, present, and future. From the throwback cards of Time Spiral with their delightful ancient card borders, to the alternate-reality cards in Planeshift, to the ridiculous cards in Future Sight, the Time Spiral block really gave you the impression that reality was up for grabs, and we were reaping the benefits of a cascading dimensional barrier that just wanted to shower us with goodies.
THE WEATHERLIGHT SAGA
This was Wizards of the Coast’s first real attempt to weave a storyline into the cards. Sure, the characters were formulaic, and sure the explosion-and-exposition plot would have made Michael Bay roll his eyes, but dammit, it WORKED!
Every single card in the block (with a possible few exceptions) was a scene from that storyline, or at least the world in which it took place. I recall the Stronghold Prerelease in Sydney. After the tournament, a bunch of us laid out cards on a long table trying to reconstruct the story. I’ve never seen that level of excitement at a Magic tournament over something so inconsequential as lore.
Citing complains that it was overdone, WotC scaled back their story-driven art design, and later sets had a rather tepid nod to a vague series of events. Lately, they seem to have taken a harder line with regards to story. I don’t think they’ll ever recapture the wonder of the Weatherlight Saga
COME AT ME HATERS!
Homelands is rather universally condemned to go down as the worst Magic expansion in the game’s history. While there were some cool things about it (the first Shroud creature, the first pre-Hexproof template) there are maybe three cards that are money. Homelands just wasn’t good.
The big reason why it wasn’t good is that it was flavour-driven, but that flavour was incredible. A single, small expansion told a compelling and deep story. The comic book, drawn by Rebecca Guay, is one of my treasured possessions. I wish it worked, I really do.
Let’s make an expansion that’s all set in a giant unwieldy city. The Plains can be rooftops. The Mountains can be...I don’t know potholes I guess.
Ravnica was an experience. Magic had already gone through several fantasy tropes. Ravnica was the first real attempt to try something original. Each two-colour combination was its own guild, and the guilds all felt real. Not only that, but the block itself was a lot of fun. It felt like a throwback to Tempest, which is considered among Magic historians the first expansion where WotC got the design right.
The Ravnica novels by Cory Herndon were all a fantastic read, and I recommend them if you’re at all interested in a great story done in a crisp and exciting writing style. They’re also funny, which you can probably tell I enjoy. Not straight comedy, but there are definitely some Pratchett-inspired moments in there.
There we have it. My opinion of course, but since I'm basically fantastic, my opinion is correct.
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