I play a lot of Magic: The Gathering. I first learned to play the game back in 2015 and was a casual fan for a while, but after the release of Arena I ended up becoming very invested. There are a lot of card games, from primarily physical games like Yu-Gi-Oh! and Pokémon, to digital games like Hearthstone and Legends of Runeterra. Of course, every game has its benefits and drawbacks, and I’m sure that there’s a chance I might enjoy the gameplay of Runeterra or Hearthstone a lot, but I was never really able to get into them for one key reason: the flavor. “Flavor” is a term I’ve seen very frequently in the Magic community but doesn’t seem that common outside of it, which is unfortunate, since it’s a term I’ve really latched on to. I used it in the Castlevania review I did a few weeks back. For those unfamiliar with the term, I’d recommend this YouTube video from essayist Rhystic Studies, which explores the concept of flavor in Magic. It generally refers to the general aesthetic of something, and particularly, in my eyes, what other things that particular aesthetic evokes. For example, something with a Gothic flavor evokes classic works of Gothic literature like Dracula or Frankenstein.
Magic has always had an interesting relationship with flavor, and this relationship has changed over time, as outlined in the video I’ve already linked. To reference something not covered by the video, today, on November 29th, 2021, Lead designer at Wizards of the Coast Mark Rosewater published an article detailing the upcoming “Unfinity” expansion, the latest in Magic’s “Un-sets,” a series of sets that feature zany, comic cards with effects that the rules of tournament Magic don’t support. These were differentiated from standard Magic cards by a unique silver border. Emphasis on “were”. “Unfinity” changes everything, being a black-bordered set that will feature multiple cards that will be legal in official, sanctioned tournament formats like Legacy, Vintage, and non-tournament sanctioned formats like Commander. It’s not like these cards don’t have a distinctly comedic flavor ‒ I think it’s safe to say “Saw in Half” is a bit of a joke card ‒ but its effect works perfectly under tournament rules, so why not let it be black border? This is basically a loose paraphrase of what Rosewater wrote in his article. The thing is, it’s not like previous Un-sets didn’t have cards that would work under tournament rules. I’m not a judge, but nothing on “Crow Storm” looks like it would be unaccounted for in the tournament rulebook. The card is silver-bordered because its flavor doesn’t fit what would be expected of Magic. It’s a joke card (for those unfamiliar, it’s a reference to classic Magic card “Storm Crow,” that jokes about the fact it somewhat shares its name with the Storm mechanic), and that isn’t what people expect to see on the big screen during the World Championship, right?
Unstable was released as recently as 2017, but the idea of Magic’s flavor as it was implicitly presented by cards like Crow Storm has changed greatly. In 2017, a card like Crow Storm is completely functional in black border, but it’s a joke card. WOTC is willing to make joke cards, because people like them, but your Local Game Store’s Friday Night Modern tourney isn’t the place for them. It’s not like all of Magic’s black-bordered cards before Unfinity were completely dry and serious (might I reference “Phelddagrif,” a weird and wacky card whose name is an anagram for “Garfield PHD”, as in creator of Magic Dr. Richard Garfield), but they weren’t quite so blatantly comic as cards like Crow Storm. Since then, however, a lot of things have changed. In 2021, WOTC announced “Universes Beyond,” which they describe as “a series that combines the gameplay of Magic: The Gathering with worlds, characters, and stories that are cherished by millions of fans around the world.” Even earlier than that, there was the infamous “Secret Lair Drop Series: The Walking Dead,” which featured a collection of completely unique cards designed after characters from AMC’s The Walking Dead, available originally exclusively through the extremely limited release Secret Lair product, which was only available for sale directly from WOTC for an extremely short period of time, between October 4th and October 12th 2020. These cards are mechanically unique (and, as of time of writing, still are), and these cards are themselves legal in eternal formats. There were an exceptional number of complaints about this, some about the limited availability of tournament legal cards being a gross business practice that encourages scalping and mass buyouts by scumbag investor types, but the ones I’m more interested in are the ones regarding the actual flavor of these cards. I think it’s easy to say that concerns over flavor are lesser concerns than concerns over accessibility, and contemporary writeups like Kendra Smith’s article on the matter certainly frame things that way, but I think they’re fair concerns nonetheless. You’re really telling me that I can sit down for a sanctioned game of legacy and expect to see Rick from The Walking Dead show up across the table? Magic has such a vast array of characters and worlds, with thirty-odd years worth of lore to build on, but The Walking Dead isn’t that. The Walking Dead isn’t Magic.
Like I said before, a significant portion of why I love Magic is its lore. Its range of evocative settings and characters is so vast and impressive. It isn’t like Runeterra or Hearthstone, which both rely on the preexisting lore of other franchises and have a decidedly constant comic tone to them that I don’t really vibe with (I’ve referred to Blizzard’s approach to worldbuilding in the Warcraft universe as “Funny Gnome Fantasy,” where it feels like it’s more about showing you the things you’d expect to see in a Fantasy universe than using any elements of its setting or world to explore any actual themes). While I’m not “worried” about Universes Beyond totally usurping the flavor of Magic, because that’s obviously not going to happen, it is a bit of an odd phenomenon. The Walking Dead cards, specifically, since if I wanted to play a legacy deck that uses Rick, Steadfast Leader, I currently have literally no choice but to play the Walking Dead card. There is no mechanical equivalent with Magic flavoring (yet, again this is subject to change). There were Godzilla crossover cards in the set “Ikoria, Lair of Behemoths,” but they were all promo versions of actual Magic cards. I don’t care about Godzilla, so I can just play the Magic version instead. This isn’t an option with Rick.
Magic has definitely changed direction somewhat over the last couple of years. There have been numerous complaints about things like Universes Beyond and the brutal power creep that lead to the printing of format-warping cards like Oko, Thief of Crowns. It’s just kind of an odd time to be a Magic fan, no matter how you engage with the game. That said, I’m still definitely a Magic fan. I play the game online very regularly and occasionally buy physical cards and products. I’m thoroughly hooked and I don’t see that changing, outside of some massive upset. I engage with this game a lot. For instance, one thing I’ve been doing recently is reading through the set lists for old, 90’s - era sets that predate both me getting into the game and me being born, just to look a little bit into the history of Magic as a game. It’s been an interesting look into the substantial differences between the early days of the game and what it’s like today. There are a lot of particular cards that stand out to me for one reason or another, whether it be cards like City in a Bottle that remain tournament legal despite their effect being nowadays largely considered the domain of silver-border. However, I’d like to discuss one particular card that stood out to me for a different, more esoteric reason. Take a look:
THE SECTION WHERE I JUSTIFY CALLING THIS ARTICLE WHAT I DID
Yes, I’d like to discuss the card Giant Albatross. It might be initially confusing why. It’s a fairly unassuming card. It’s not particularly powerful; its effect is somewhat odd, yes, but nothing too out of the ordinary for the early days of Magic. It’s not a card that would ever be printed in a modern set, but it’s nothing particularly out of the ordinary for an old card, though its effect does still raise some questions. It has multiple art printings in the same set, but there are numerous cards in the same expansion that also do. There’s nothing mechanically that interesting about the card, aside from the blatant color pie break it represents. The thing that stood out to me, though, is that this card pretty much functions as a part of the Universes Beyond collection. No, really. It might not seem so on the surface, but I personally believe that this card is the way it is because it is directly modeled after another, non-Magic artistic work, that work being Samuel Coleridge’s 1798 poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
For those unfamiliar, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is a rather long poem in which an old sailor recounts the story of being lost at sea to an initially unwilling wedding guest. The sailor recounts the supernatural events that he experienced on his voyage, from the way in which his ship became lost at sea, to the sudden and inexplicable death of all of his crew but him, to the inconceivable and miraculous journey which brought him home. Wikipedia states that the poem represents “The beginning of British romantic literature.” One notable and very specific element of the poem I’d like to address is a particular object ‒ namely, the albatross. To briefly summarize (though I’d recommend just reading it yourself for the full context), when the crew of the ship first becomes stranded, they encounter an albatross, and after the crew begins feeding and caring for it, the ice that has kept the ship trapped begins to crack, allowing them to escape. The mariner, however, shoots the albatross with his crossbow, killing it. The crew are initially angry at this, as stated in the lines “Ah wretch! said they, the bird to slay, / That made the breeze to blow!”. The crew’s assumption appears to be vindicated when the ship becomes instead stranded, with no wind blowing to stir their sails. The crew, after being stranded for a while, see another ship’s sail, believing it to be their salvation, but as the ship approaches, it becomes clear that it is instead a ghost ship, with gossamer-thin sails and a decaying body. After this happens, every single member of the crew ‒ with the exception of the mariner ‒ drop dead instantly. The summary of the poem as written on the previously cited Wikipedia article also discusses these points, and draws particular attention to the albatross as an object.
As a brief aside, for those unaware, Magic features a concept called “planes,” where different sets take place on different planes, which are basically different realities that usually draw from different themings. Homelands is set on a plane called Ulgrotha, a plane which is itself largely exclusive to the set. Ulgrotha has a somewhat Gothic flair, with its lurking monsters and the story of Baron Sengir, a vampire who seeks to take control of the plane, a parallel to the titular Count’s quest to conquer England in Stoker’s original Dracula. In a 2018 article where Mark Rosewater outlines the likelihood that certain planes will reappear in Magic’s future, Ulgrotha was given a low chance of reappearing, both due to the legacy of Homelands as one of the absolute worst sets in the history of Magic from a mechanical angle and the set’s theme, which Rosewater states to be “Gothic horror”, has since been reused on the far more popular plane of Innistrad. The Rime of The Ancient Mariner is often considered to be an early piece of Gothic literature, according to Wikipedia.
I think it’s safe to assume that Magic’s design team were familiar with Colerdige’s poem when they designed Giant Albatross. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is explicitly referenced thrice in Magic’s first ever set, Limited Edition Alpha, where it’s quoted to serve as the flavor text for a set of three cards. Multiple of the people who worked on the design team for Homelands, the expansion in which the Albatross appears, worked on the design team for Limited Edition Alpha. The set also references undead sailors on cards like Reef Pirates ‒ obviously not a concept that’s exclusive to the Coleridge poem, but one that certainly makes an appearance within it. The flavor text for Alpha’s Scathe Zombies uses as flavor text a passage from Coleridge’s poem that explicitly refers, in the context of the poem, to a moment where the mariner’s deceased crew are roused from their eternal slumber. This evidence leaves me fairly comfortable in saying that the designers of Homelands were familiar with the poem. Furthermore, if the designers were interested in paying homage to their influences through a character like Sengir, it would also follow that they’d be willing to pay influence to another one of their influences through other cards.
The reason I think Giant Albatross was modeled directly after the Coleridge poem is due to its effect. The card has a fairly odd effect that seems like it doesn’t have much connection to the flavor of the card ‒ what about a big bird would cause it to have the weird, punishing ability it has here? Though it can be fairly hard to discern what exactly the card does, even for a Magic player, due to the old rules text printed on the card being fairly hard to read, the card’s function is basically that, whenever it dies, it takes down creatures that damaged it this turn with it (unless its controller pays 2 life, I guess). This mirrors how the albatross is portrayed in the Coleridge poem (and, particularly, the previously referenced summary), wherein the slaughter of the albatross leads to the death of the crew that harmed it. It’s not a one-to-one match, since the person who slaughters the poem’s albatross is actually the only one that survives, but the broad concept is similar enough ‒ the bird brings you down with it. Besides, a Magic card with the effect that when it dies, it kills every creature that didn’t deal damage to it would be probably a little too good as a wrath-on-a-stick when combined with sacrifice effects, and also the effect itself would be fairly weird and unintuitive. The effect as it’s written is already weird and unintuitive, and I can’t think of any reason the card would do what it does outside of an attempt to establish this reference.
So there you have it. Giant Albatross is a card which reads very much like a top-down design based directly off of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner [for those unfamiliar, the Mark Rosewater article I cited earlier describes what “top-down” means in this context: basically, that the cards are designed to meet a certain flavor]. There are, obviously, significant differences between the Giant Albatross and a card like Rick, Steadfast Leader. The albatross isn’t nearly as in-your-face about being something from another work, since an albatross isn’t a particularly exclusive concept. It’s just a bird. Without the context I’ve provided here, the albatross doesn’t have a particularly strong flavor at all. In general, the card’s flavor and context exists mostly outside the realm of Magic lore. The same can be said of the Walking Dead cards, or any future Universes Beyond product. A nonspecific albatross isn’t as blatant as a Walking Dead card, but, at least when I see it, it kind of takes me out of the Magic world (especially now that I’ve committed so much time to writing about this card).
NOTHING NEW UNDER THE SUN
So that’s what’s up with Giant Albatross, but I’d like to take an additional look back at Scathe Zombies. To reiterate, this card features a quote from Coleridge’s poem as its flavor text. This practice of taking external literary quotations and using them as flavor text was fairly common in the early days of Magic, but ceased to be used in premier sets after 1994’s “The Dark” expansion. Premier sets, as opposed to Core Sets or supplemental products, are “expert-level” sets that feature original Magic worlds and a cohesive story presented by the cards in the set. Scathe Zombies was repeatedly reprinted until Tenth Edition, a core set, with the Coleridge quote as its flavor text. However, in Magic 2014 (which actually came out in 2013), they stopped using external literary quotes as flavor text, outside of one instance from a special commemorative product in 2020. In 2002, Mark Rosewater wrote that WOTC stopped using literary quotes as flavor text because they “want Magic to have its own world and its own voice,” and furthermore that “Real-world literature takes players out of the world of dueling wizards and according to some, makes them feel like they're in school.” Homelands was released after The Dark, in ‘95. That’s within a year, but the precedent set is that subtle references to external IP are fine, but direct, blatant references take people out of the Magic experience. This appears to no longer be the philosophy. Magic has printed some outside IP on cards before, but they weren’t tournament legal. See the Ponies: The Galloping supplemental product as an example.
Though Wizards doesn’t officially consider the recent Dungeons & Dragons: Adventures in the Forgotten Realms to be a Universes Beyond set, it’s a full set designed after a non-Magic IP, and it’s pretty much a UB product in everything but name. In this set, we can find a card like Magic Missile. This card’s flavor is generic enough that I wouldn’t question it in any given set. However, I read online that the card works the way it does because of how the Magic Missile spell functions in D&D; and after looking it up, sure enough, it’s a nearly 1-to-1 match in terms of how you’d adapt the spell’s essence for a different game system. Neither Giant Albatross or Magic Missile are considered Universes Beyond cards, officially, but they’re both clearly modeled directly after a non-Magic work. If you permit me the opportunity to be cynical, I think the only reason AFR isn’t actually considered a Universes Beyond product officially is because it’s a standard-legal set, while Universes Beyond products aren’t meant to be standard legal, though the official reason is that D&D is still a Wizards Of The Coast owned IP. I’d argue that fact doesn’t mean the set shouldn’t be considered Universes Beyond, since D&D is not Magic, but that’s just my opinion.
So clearly, WOTC has changed their minds. In 2002, something as minor as a quote from King Lear was too much and took players outside of the world of Magic. They might be willing to still use quotes from recognizable places, perhaps to draw in new players with something new and recognizable in the beginner-focused core set products. Nowadays, we’ll get a full-on major Magic expansion based on a non-Magic IP. We’ll get mechanically unique cards that blatantly bear the likeness of whatever real-world actor portrayed a character on The Walking Dead. Personally, I’d say these things are significantly more distracting than a random Shakespeare quote printed on the card. What’s changed since 2013?
Wizards said in their article introducing Universes Beyond that they “hope that Universes Beyond will bring the game we love to more people who might not have otherwise found us.” I imagine this was the same philosophy that led them to print Emily Dickinson quotes on early Magic cards. Show people something they’re familiar with to entice them to give this new thing a shot. It’s the same reason Nintendo made Kirby’s Epic Yarn a Kirby game instead of its own IP. What I find interesting is the way in which the introduction of the Universes Beyond series mirrors the old practice after it was abandoned. In the early days of Magic, you needed something external to convince people to play, since Magic was a new game. Do we need something like that now? Has Wizards lost confidence in their own game? I don’t think so; Magic is very successful, with recent sets repeatedly breaking milestones in terms of sales. WOTC, though, is a corporation under capitalism, so it obviously seeks to grow as much as possible, by any means possible. If Universes Beyond helps them do that, then they’re gonna use it to do it. Magic is, of course, very complicated, and convincing someone to give the game a shot can be a hard sell. There are 30 years of mechanics to deal with, and the game’s most popular casual format (Commander) deals with a lot of them, from every era of Magic. If there’s any format that I would play Giant Albatross, it’s in some kind of themed Commander deck.
My point is, in summary, that Universes Beyond really isn’t anything new. Magic’s been attempting to attract new people to the game by showing them something they’re familiar with since the dawn of the game. In the early days, they adapted traditional fantasy elements and public domain stories like One Thousand and One Nights (see Arabian Nights) or the Romance of the Three Kingdoms ( see Portal: Three Kingdoms). They referenced well known works of classic literature like Hamlet or The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Nowadays, they reference arguably more relevant things, namely contemporary IP that’s generally popular in nerd culture already. I think it’s a reasonable hypothesis that, looking at what a marketing department would consider King Lear enthusiasts versus The Walking Dead enthusiasts, the latter camp would be a lot more likely to give Magic a shot in general. Universes Beyond is, simply, a good product from a marketing perspective. It appeals to collectors, who can become players over time. If the old quotes made people feel like they’re in school, Universes Beyond cards might make people feel like they’re at some crusty nerd culture convention, but WOTC probably sees that as a much more desirable outcome.
It’s not like Universes Beyond is entirely aimed to lure new people in. I’ll admit that I’m not a not a “nerd” nerd, and I don’t care very much about The Walking Dead, The Lord of The Rings, or Warhammer 40,000. But if Wizards were to suddenly announce a DOOM or Hollow Knight Universes Beyond product tomorrow, I’d be the first one in line, ready and willing to drop some cash on those, because both of those products sound as kickass as they are unlikely to exist. That’s where Universes Beyond appeals to enfranchised players; people who play Magic probably collect stuff to some extent, and they’d be willing to pick up a neat crossover product between two properties they really love. If WOTC announced a Jimmy and the Pulsating Mass secret lair featuring like two silver-border reprints for $250, I’d still seriously consider buying that. I bought Pokémon: Shining Pearl, so my fiscal responsibility when it comes to media collectibles is clearly hovering near the zero mark.
When I started writing this article, I just wanted to show off a cool thing I noticed about an old Magic card nobody else cares about. It might have spiraled a little out of control from there. Giant Albatross led me to thinking about the way Magic engages with external IP in general, and how that’s changed over time. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the old days and the new ones are more connected than I initially assumed. Magic’s direction is changing, and I want to be clear that that isn’t a bad thing. Like I said, I bought Pokémon: Shining Pearl, so I have literally no right whatsoever to judge someone else on what they buy and what kinds of things they’re interested in consuming. In casual play, people used to ask whether they could play silver-bordered cards in their EDH deck. I’m sure that some players walked up to the table asking their playgroup if they’d all be cool with them breaking out their Nightmare Moon // Princess Luna deck. Now, they don't have to ask. You roll up to the table with Rick, Steadfast Leader, and nobody can stop you. More people get the opportunity to play the Magic they want, and I think that’s a good thing. It’s why I consider Arena, with all of its flaws, to be one of the greatest things to ever happen to the game. I want everyone who wants to to have the opportunity to partake in the same things I hold dear. It’s why I never shut up about the same couple of video games (incidentally, have you considered picking up Hollow Knight, BioShock, Iconoclasts, Jimmy and the Pulsating Mass, OMORI, Monster Sanctuary, Subnautica, Resident Evil 4, or Hotline Miami 2 this upcoming holiday season?).
As long as WOTC makes Magic-flavored versions of the Universes Beyond cards they print, I’m 100% down with the program. Maybe, some day, they’ll even make a Universes Beyond set I’m genuinely interested in, and I’ll buy it. However, a lot depends on that “as long” clause. I just hope Wizards remembers why they stopped printing Coleridge quotes on Magic cards. Magic’s flavor is what makes it so special among card games for so many people, and an essential aspect of the game in my eyes. Hell, even bring back the Giant Albatross model, and make cards based on external properties that are a little more subtle about it. But for as long as we’re getting Rick, Steadfast Leaders, just give me a Magic version. Giant Albatross is one of my new favorite cards, because I love Gothic literature, and a clever reference like this is just really cool to me. It combines two things I love. I just hope WOTC can find a way to pull off Universes Beyond that doesn’t forsake the fact that, in the end, we’re still playing Magic.
I know this article was a bit rambling and covered a lot of ground at once, so please feel free to tell me what you think in the comments. Up next, I’ll be providing my own input to our ongoing series on Pokémon: Brilliant Diamond / Shining Pearl. After all, I need some way to justify my purchase. See you all then.
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