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What is Flavor and Why is it so Important to Magic: the Gathering



What is flavor? It's a word that I'm sure you've heard bounced around your circles through that one friend, have heard your favorite YouTuber bring it up in some discussion or heard it mentioned in one of Mark Rosewater's articles, but it's one of those aspects of the game that has remained abstract, a thought, a whisper.


And whether you are directly aware of its presence or not its what has silently endured this game to millions, including you. That is why its important we break down these invisible barriers and answer the three main questions surrounding it: what exactly is flavor, what is its history in this game and of course why is it so important? With that let us begin with the most important question, and that is... What the hell is flavor anyway?


What is Flavor?



Doug Beyer, Creative Designer for Magic the Gathering, defined flavor as 'Simulation' in a 2010 article he wrote, aptly named What is Flavor, and I am inclined to agree with the use of this definition. But what does this really mean in the context of Magic? Well in short Simulation is the act of imitating, reenacting, or re-creating the likeness of something. In terms of Magic the gathering, it's the act of transposing a concept, character, story beat, or environment onto a card. When we think of a simulation we think of something digital right, but in the case of Magic it's flipped around, instead the card is acting as a tangible proxy for an intangible idea.


It's worlds that only exist in stories and imagination, its characters thought up by writers and its fantasy tropes borrowed from the likes of Tolkien. These abstractions are then given a place in the real world as cards that we can hold and collect. As such they become something more than an idea, they become reality.


But to successfully accomplish this simulation the card must work within the confines of its own design, it's the sum of all its parts working together to express a single concept in order to convince us of the intended idea. To accomplish this simulation, the card must leverage the the name, the art, the type, the effect, the stats, the color pie and of course the flavor text. If done right the simulation is seamless and we intuit its intent with ease, rather than being stuck in the uncanny valley we call the flavor fail.



I personally find the best way to learn a given concept is by looking to an example. So let me show you this card Bring to Trial, its simple, and yet it's full of flavor, a perfect slice of Ravnica, and a great expression of one of its guilds. When we look at the card as a whole, with each of its parts in mind, you begin to understand why Doug Beyer used the term simulation. Of course the Azorius are not real, nor are giants being taken to court, but it's a believable transportation to another time and place because the card has simulated it flawlessly through its name, choice of color, art, type, rules text and flavor text. If any one of these parts were off in some way the simulation would not have the same effect, and in fact we would reject it at first sight.


As we noticed with our example the name of the card is often the greatest tool for setting expectations. The name's job is there to inform us of what the rest of the card, in terms of flavor, aims to accomplish. Now I am certain that its one of the last things that is set in stone when designing a card, but it does a lot of heavy lifting when us players are viewing any given card.


To the right of the name is the color cost, and is one of the inherent advantages that Magic: the Gathering has when it comes to expressing flavor, and that is its use of the color pie. This act of cost categorization actually adds its own layer of flavor because of the methodology and philosophy baked into each color and combination of those colors. With the color pie alone we can make assumptions of any given character or faction that appears on a given card.



We know that a red character can be brash and emotional. We understand that a Black-White faction is one of moral ambiguity. This core part of the game is an application of flavor in its own right, and something that helps it stand out among the many tcg's out there. In most games the cost categories are nothing more than factional representations but in Magic they are core aspects that can be used to describe humanity.


This is why the assignment of colors goes beyond design, just like with the rules text the color pie must be a deliberate choice, not just in terms of mechanical design but in flavor as well. We have these baked in expectations of how the colors act and how they are represented. A lightning bolt in Blue goes against what we expect of a methodical color. A Demon in Green pushes against our notions of the natural. This is why the color pie simulates philosophy while also abiding to player expectations, as such it is a core to flavor.



Below both the name and the mana cost is the art, which is a snapshot in time and space, and aids in bringing the total concept to life at a glance. The art then facilitates or relieves the burden on our imagination, but in truth the art does not have to be present, it simply adds to the tone of the card. We know this because in Magic, especially in modern times, the art is interchangeable, while the other pieces are not. The job of art is to add to the flavor, but if the flavor of the rest of the card is strong enough, our imagination should be able to fill in this blanks.



Below that is the card type, in the case of our initial example it was a sorcery, which is best thought of as an action rather than a place or character, which would otherwise be a land or creature respectively. The type is useful when it comes to flavor because it places the character, event or place into a known box, which we can use to compare it against others who also fit into that box. Think of how when you see an elf type it evokes expectations all in a single word, which can be bolstered further with the class as well.


Below that is the cornerstone of any card and that is the rules text. Now that our expectations have been set from the top half of the card, we must assume that the rules text will now reinforce those established expectation, otherwise the simulation falls apart. In my opinion the core of flavor comes from the rules text on the card, even though expressing flavor in this way can be the biggest hurdle for designers to overcome.


It may seem that the logical aspect of a given card, that is the rules text, would be at odds with the artistic flavor, but this notion could not be further from the truth. Flavor does not trump function nor does function to flavor, they must work together, and when they do we get the strongest examples of flavor. This balance is precarious though, don't get me wrong, because if flavor takes over you get these hyper specific cards with no use outside of pure fluff, and if function trumps flavor you are left with mechanical blandness.



The two may often find themselves at odds with one another during the design phase, as its easy enough to think of an effect, but much harder to incorporate the why of the effect, but this struggle is an important one. Mark Rosewater said as much in his 2003 article Bursting with Flavor “Game mechanics (like names, mana costs, card types, flavor text, power and toughness) are a tool used to create a Magic card. This tool can be used for flavor and for function. The best game mechanics, in fact, have both flavor and function.”


The final piece is the flavor text, an optional component of flavor that is welcome but not needed. Think of it in a way that is similar to art, in terms of expressing flavor but even less important. Kind of odd I know considering its called flavor text, but in truth it's best to think of Flavor text as nothing more than a dressing, something that is not necessary to the equation but a welcome addition none the less. What I mean is that flavor text should add additional context but should not carry the burden of the flavor.


With all of these pieces in place: the name, color cost, art, type, rules text and flavor text the simulation can be achieved effectively. Flavor is not one of these things on its own but rather the interactions each part have with the whole that achieves something greater. Think of each part of the card like a puzzle piece, we may be able to intuit the final image from its parts, but it isn't until we place the final piece that we may witness the complete image. Now that you have better understand of what flavor is we should take a step back and look at its role historically in Magic: the Gathering. As before you can truly understand why its important we must look to its roots in the game and how it has evolved alongside it.


History of Flavor



Flavor has been a part of Magic's identity since the beginning. Richard Garfield knew what he wanted the game to feel and look like. He conceptualized a high fantasy game and as such he filled it with all of the things we have come to expect in those kinds of world, as such there had to be knights, wizards, demons and more. It wasn't that he knew he needed a card with 1/1 stats and regenerate, no he needed a skeleton, so he asked what does that look like.


It wasn't that he thought about how much the game needed a a 2/2 that gave other cards mountain walk, no he wanted to give the game a goblin king, and then asked himself how to accomplish this through flavor. With this intention in mind he set out to fulfill those expectations we had, rudimentary as they were. As we know now flavor would continue to evolve alongside the game and our rising expectations of it.


Not long after Arabian Nights and The Dark, the team at Magic began to see cracks in simply building flavor off of old tropes and knew it needed to begin crafting worlds and stories all their own, as a way to get the player-base further invested in the game, and to give the designers more to work with. Former creative director Brady Dommermuth talked about this in his 2003 article “The Story of the Story” : -



“Wizards found out the hard way, though, that representing a fantasy world on cards only takes you so far, maybe a thousand cards. When R&D started coming up with more abstract mechanics that didn't really have a connection to a fantasy world (such as buyback, echo, or cycling), we had to try some new approaches.”

That something new was the introduction of books which aimed to create a cohesive story across the game, and thus the cards had something to latch onto when it came to flavor. Now each card wasn't simply pulling from established fantasy tropes but could now hint at or showcase aspects of the story and characters, but there was a problem with this too, because now design relied heavily on the writing of the books, and the cards themselves told a scattered plot.


From this standpoint they had to try a new approach, something that would take an environment-centric look at flavor. In this style the worlds would be built by creatives and the story would be conceptualized, all parallel to design. The goal of the cards and flavor now, would be to express the world, to bring its every inch to life. Important story beats would still appear on cards sure but their goal was to



“describe the world, its monsters, its civilizations, its magic, and so on. In short, the Big Idea drives the world, and the world and the Big Idea work together to drive the cards first, then the novels and everything else.”

Even though Brady is speaking to us from 20 years ago in this article we can see how this approach has continued on into the modern day. A time where we no longer spend an entire year on a Plane, and as such it has become more important than ever to utilize Flavor to establish the ties between set and setting. But why do all of this? What really is the purpose or importance of flavor?


Why Flavor Matters



I have a question for you, which of these two cards appeal to you more? I mean they both function in the same way. Yet I have a feeling all but a few contrarians will choose the one on the right? Why is that? Sure one is more flashy, it has vivid art, but really does that effect your game-play in the slightest, simply put no it doesn't. Do we really need this flavor text, it has no function.


Could we not categorize types by codes instead of fancy names and classes, sure, nothing would change, the piece would work in the exact same way. And yet these small details, and their work in conjunction are an important part of our enjoyment of Magic: the Gathering, not because they are game pieces with text upon them that facilitate this game, gripping as it is, but because of our human nature. We are naturally drawn to that which holds familiarity and emotion. As such we create attachments to these characters, worlds, creatures, and events.


We are not just playing a game, but feeding into a broader world that is built upon the cards and facilitated by our imagination. This is the taste of Magic that we have become such deep fans of, whether we have noticed its influence or not.



The roll of flavor isn't so much to wow us, to form some spicy dish that we can't forget, rather it's there to spoon feed us a settings, events, characters, and items in a convincing way. In most cases it isn't some complete dish but rather part of a whole experience, and as such while each piece must stand on its own, we aren't really getting the whole picture with one card. In fact in most cases the flavor of cards goes nearly unnoticed, and that's a good thing.


Video games have a similar need when it comes to crafting their environments, sure you might not notice every small detail that someone painstakingly put together, but as a total package it brings a world to life. Think of a set in a similar way. Each card within it must stand on its own, but the beauty of flavour is in bringing the entire setting to life, whether we notice the effort taken on each card or not. On the flip side if these small details, or acts of flavour are not present it goes from being invisible to a sore spot in the game. I'm sure you've played one of those cheaply made games, with little or no love put into them. You proceed into one of its villages and it just feels... off.


Perhaps the NPC's are standing perfectly still, the homes are barren and there isn't any music. This lack of immersion pulls us out of our imagination and into a literal space. The same thing happens in Magic. Think of a pack of cards like that village. If the first card you pull is bland, or does not meet your expectations of the setting, then something feels off, our immersion is broken. This feeling we get isn't direct, I mean it is a Magic card still, you did expect that, but the card just doesn't feel right, its not what you expected of the setting that has been sold to you. Flavour has a big job, an invisible job in most cases, to bring the game to life and to immerse us in new worlds. It is the context behind our actions, and if there is no context we are removed from the intent.



This is because flavor creates a consistency of feel, as it's the glue that hold both set and setting together. This connection aids in creating cohesive card design that lends itself to a given Plane. In Kaladesh for instance, a Plane of artifice and technology, it was important to express the nature of the Plane through the flavor of the cards. Thus for this block we were introduced to a new card type in vehicles, this was flavor and world building working together with mechanics to form a consistency of feel for this block. During the ice age of Dominaria, told through the set Coldsnap, it was important to express the idea of frost taking over this world, thus the designers thought up the snow super type. Both of these card types are there so that any player who picked up a pack from this set inherently understood the conditions of this world.


I have been saying it a few times in this article but to put it plainly flavor is also a fulfillment of expectations. Which is the meeting of our assumptions based on established knowledge. If we know that a fantasy game is going to have elves, dragons, goblins and the like, then we expect them to act in the ways we are familiar with. A dragon should fly and be imposing, goblins should be small yet come in hordes and elves should have a focus on nature. This meeting of expectations is something that can be a sore spot when a card does not meet them, something we commonly call a flavor fail.


The card is no less valid as a game piece and yet we get this itching feeling that something is just not right. Why can't the whipporill fly? Why does bloodsoaked champion have 2 shields but cannot block. They both still function just fine yet our expectations are not met or alternatively they are not subverted in a meaningful way. This idea takes us back to the beginning of the game, with Richard Garfields intent to mimic the tropes of the fantasy stories he loved, and of the tabletop games he played.



But it goes further than that. Think of how this is used to build out our assumptions of top down designed Planes, places like Innistrad and its horror themes or Eldraine and fairy tales. Flavour can rely on our expectations and knowledge, then twist it in a way that is unique to a given Plane in order to make it its own. Because yes expectations of flavour can be used in a way that dashes expectations, but it must be done in a consistent way. Like a movie that sets the rules of its world but must obey them lest the believably of the world fall apart.


While flavor is one of the greatest tools at the disposal of the designers us players interact with flavor all the time, many of us do not build our decks around some optimal game-plan, but rather a card or concept that has caught our attention. Perhaps we want to feel like a necromancer wearing our opponent down with endless hordes summoned from the grave, or we adore a certain character and want to make them our commander and sometimes its based on a feeling, a desire to act as some relentless force of destruction. Flavor is there not just as a mechanism to build up the worlds that Magic has created, but for us to find our own story to tell. It's what endears us to specific decks, and adds a new layer onto the game itself.


Without flavor the game would be directionless, it would be a mashup of ideas and effects. It is the invisible hand guiding us through worlds, introducing us to character and expressing certain events. It is abstract and yet tangible. A simulation of a world out of reach. Without flavor the game would be grey, it would be one replaced by code and math, as function would be the only goal. Sure the game would operate in the same way, but what is function without art. Truly not a world I would wish to be a part of.


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