The ending of the calendar year brings forth family, friends, holiday meals, resolutions and reflection. For my last article of the year, I wanted to spend it talking about one of my favorite foods: the Magic color pie. It is the central dish for any gathering of Magic players. Without it, players would go hungry and dissatisfied. Creating a color pie cannot be accomplished by following a simple recipe. The crust is extremely delicate and the filling: completely theoretical. As with any culinary confection, the chef is an integral part of the cooking process. Different chefs will a recipe to interpret or enhance it in different ways. Each new set gives us a unique perspective of a designer’s take on the color pie. Equally important are the ingredients going into Magic pie. Old or rotten additions to the pie will make it rancid as Kamigawa. Fresh ingredients and spices lead to a fantastic dessert in the form of Zendikar. As the year ends, please follow along as we head down the flavor trail.
Cooking with Flavor
Something that didn’t strike my taste buds before I wrote this article was how current mythos influences our reactions to any particular card. Before the creation of Magic, the world already had a plethora of mythical lore from a variety of cultures. Angels, demons, elves, goblins, and spirits encompass many cultures. This aspect heavily weighs in on the creation of cards. Angels typify our bias. The creature type typically symbolizes good. In Magic, angels are flying white creatures with some ability. The recipe for making an angel is art with a majestic person with wings, give it flying, add a powerful ability, make it a white creature, cook for 20 minutes and done. This isn’t to smack down angels. They are naturally flavorful. When I looked at Serra Angel for the first time, I instantly felt it was an angel. I never had to read a Magic novel or internet article. The real world filled in the blanks for me.
Zombies to me are the most naturally flavorful of all the tribes. Unlike angels, zombies are rich with saucy design space. Flipping through my binder or zombie decks, the mechanics or abilities feel organic. Festering Goblin feels like a zombie. Chewing on the cardboard a bit, I can taste the putrid undertones. Carrion Feeder has an equally pungent blue-cheese taste. None of this would be possible without our predisposed perceptions of what zombies are in the game of Magic. The only seven non-black zombies are blue. A stretch a few like myself have a hard time accepting into the fold. Any other color would probably bring forth a discontent from the player populace. Can you imagine a red or green zombie? Just writing it doesn’t feel right. My first thought was how easy it would be to design zombies. Designing stereotyped mindless, zombies is as easy as funeral pie. After more reflection, developing zombies must be incredibly hard. The average Magic consumer as a pre-set bias about zombies. I can only fathom how it forces developers into a corner. Anything else would feel forced.
These thoughts have crossed my mind for one reason. I have been trying in vain to build decks out of my whole collection. And yes, even the bad cards. For years, I have been amassing a large collection and only playing with the most grand and sought after cards. Whenever I want to purchase more cards, my spouse has pointed to insanity that is my collection. Her point: I am not playing with all the cards I do have in my possession. As a truce, I have made a better attempt at utilizing my cards, taking them out of the binders, and putting them in decks. The task has produced an interesting experiment as well as a learning experience.
The quickest, easiest, and quite possibly the laziest way to make decks is to go tribal. Pull out some rogue creatures, slap in some spells, done. Find the next tribe; pull out some insects and miscellaneous spells, done. Rinse and repeat. As time went on, I began to notice how bland a variety of the tribes/creature types were compared to the more flavorful tribes like goblins or elves. My wurm deck feels no different than my beast deck. In a blind Magic taste test, I couldn’t tell whether I was chewing on a beast or a wurm. Both creature types have trample, are typically big creatures, and quite tasteless. As a player, I felt like I could swap the art, creature types and it wouldn’t matter. Wirewood Savage might protest, but I could just as easily replace beast in its text to wurm. Would it really matter? Treefolk are almost as bad. The high toughness at least sets them apart from their brethren. Gnaw on a branch long enough; the mild flavors will eventually be released.
As I continued my deck building, I made an insect deck. I goldfished the deck for a time after its construction to get a feel for it. Flipping the cards felt incredibly boring. I didn’t even feel like I was playing insects. Without any tribal flavor holding it together, the deck felt like a bunch of random green cards. The only time my Magic palette was satisfied when I played my Beacon of Creations. This isn’t to express my discontent. Rather, my deck-building project greatly enhanced my appreciation for how important flavor is for things like creature types. Tribes without proper flavoring are simply bland. As a player, I appreciate of how rich tribes like assassins or slivers are in a zoo of creature types. Slivers very much feel like slivers. The flavor of slivers is very much evident when a single on is dropped down on the table. Nothing puts a target on a player’s back like a single sliver regardless of the threat level. I play slivers. They are fun. I laugh at this aspect because I could have the worst sliver deck in the world, but playing one causes a drastic reaction. Assassins are less of a threat. However, they permeate strong assassin aromas. I could throw a bunch of random assassins together in a deck and it would feel like I am playing an assassin deck. I guarantee if I threw down an insect it would not have the same effect as throwing down a sliver.
A Historical Interpretation
The past couple of months, along with my deck building, I have been slowly sorting my cards into binders. It has been a long year with relocating to a new town, multiple weddings, a job change, working an extra job, and article writing. A years worth of Magic cards have been thrown into boxes and are only now beginning to see the light of day. My sister-in-law even gave me a collector’s box of random cards filled with everything from Legends to Shadowmoor. As I meticulously sorted, I ran into some oldies like Transmutation. It began to make me think about the history of the game. A time or two I have gotten into the occasional argument about Magic’s history. As a player, I don’t believe a particular color should have a monopoly on flying, direct damage, card draw, or anything else for that matter. I think it is wrong to say color X gets mechanic Y. The focus I feel should be the how those colors get mechanic Y.
During such a jovial discussion, many players will point to Magic’s rich flavorful past. History is flawed. The game didn’t start out perfect. Many mistakes have been made along the way. Abilities and mechanics have shifted over the years. Cards have gotten banned. Others have become unbanned, restricted, and unrestricted. Magic gets better because of those mistakes. To stick a person’s head in the sand to say the game was developed perfectly from the get go is ignorant. As such, I don’t think every argument can be made on Magic’s history. The past is to teach lessons to the future. It is not supposed to doom us to further failures. We learn from it and move on. If we don’t, we will be bound to repeat it again to affinity.
If one really digs deep, there are a lot of hypocrites. The images to the right are just one example. Numerous others exist.
The unholy trinity of Darkness, Fog, and Holy Day are the worse of the offenders. Developers have even tinkered with counter magic over the years with such cards as Withering Boon, Artifact Blast, Burnout, Dawn Charm, Illumination, and Molten Influence. I don’t mind the off-color counterspells. They at least have flavor reasons. The off-color fogs don’t even taste like anything. The difference is only a smattering of one mana symbol for another. Their garnished names are the only indication of the color’s flavor. More odds and ends exist in the game. Disenchant and Naturalize or Char and Psionic Blast just to name a few more. The thought reminds me of the forum chatter back when both blue and red damage spells were legal in standard. People cried out the format would degenerate with both spells being legal at the same time. It is kinda funny looking back. Char certainly became a powerhouse while Psionic Blast rarely saw play at the big boy tables.
Honest to a fault, I relate a lot of things to food. I find the culinary field analogous to many situations. The reason being: food is as much a science as an art. A lot of science goes into the creation of culinary masterpieces. Recipes have specific times, temperatures, pan sizes, measurements, and mixing. At the same time, it has an artistic flair. A lot of nuances go into cooking or have special touches only grandma knows. The real chefs and artists out there have learned how to manipulate recipes to form something new entirely. True art can’t be taught. People without an artistic flair just can’t be taught how to be the next Leonardo Da Vinci. Cooking up food and Magic cards are similar. Both have specific rules or recipes to follow. However, there is as much of an art to their design and execution. No rules exist for coming up new ideas or mechanics. Employees of Wizards of the Coast don’t attend some kind of Magic Academy to major in Card Design. A lot of what they do can’t be taught.
When I think of the Magic color pie, I associate each color with some kind of pop-culture food. It doesn’t really matter what it is exactly. The purpose is simply a mental exercise. For instance, green could be pizza and black might be analogous to burgers. A pop-culture food like pizza is a very loose/general term. The deep-dish pizza in Chicago will be very different to the pizzas served in New York. The important aspect is the majority of people will generally agree both can be considered pizza. The same holds true for burgers. A mushroom, Californian, bacon-cheese, or blue-cheese burgers can still be lumped together in the broad category of burgers. When I sit down to eat as a player, the important part is whether I can identify the food in front of me as a pizza or burger. If I can’t, the chef or designers have messed up. I don’t believe any ingredient in Magic is sacred, but I should be able to grasp what I am eating . As long as I can identify a card as green/pizza, the designers were successful. I don’t care if the green card has card draw, direct damage or whatever. If the card feels and tastes green, it is green. A pizza is still a pizza no matter what toppings are on it.
Mechanics, abilities, or card draw are simply ingredients/toppings to me. Pizza and burgers could have a billion-gazillion combinations. The important part is the final product such as a pizza/green card is identifiable. It is the reason cards like Master of the Wild Hunt or Gift of the Gargantuan don’t bother me. Each card steps a little into the taboo territory of card draw or direct damage in the color pie area for green. In the end, Master of the Wild Hunt feels green to me and it satisfies my green palette. Therefore, it annoys me when players argue other colors shouldn’t get counterspells, direct damage or card draw. Such comments to me are like saying bacon only goes on burgers and nothing else. Why can’t a person put bacon on their pizza? Bacon is just a topping. It only defines a type of burger. Adding bacon to a pizza only creates a different food experience. It does not change the concept of a pizza. Also, taking bacon away from a burger doesn’t destroy the concept of what a burger is about. Besides, a bacon-cheeseburger pizza is just yummy.
Well, I hope you enjoyed my last article of the year. This particular online scribbling took on a life of its own. It began as something entirely different. From it, I think I taught myself more about Magic than anything else. As such, I feel more connected to my inner Vorthos and the lessons I learned in writing the article. It gave me a new appreciation how truly important and vital flavor is for Magic. Without flavor, Magic is just a bland and stale game no one wants to eat. One more thing in closing, both food and Magic are only as good as the company we share it with.
Anyway, just some food for thought.