Real-world Flavor. Latin Authors in Magic Cards

Dark Tutelage

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But who is to guard the guards themselves?


Even when taken out of context, this sentence sounds like a rhetorical question. We will see just how much so. For the moment, let's just say the quotation is from Juvenal's Satires, a group of sixteen poems dealing with social matters in a tone that ranges from ironic to furious. Ivory Guardians, the card it appears on, is an uncommon from Fifth Edition. It's one of just six cards featuring a quotation from an ancient, Latin-speaking author.

Seneca's Epistles

An Overview on Latin Authors

In our last installment, we discussed the nine examples of Greek authors quoted in Magic flavor text and mentioned there were only six examples from Latin authors. This number looks even smaller when we consider the fact that half of these quotations come from the same author: Seneca. Two are quotes from his Moral Epistles, and one is from his philosophical dialogue known as "On Providence". The remaining three include quotations from Virgil's epic poem Aeneid, Plautus' comedic play Trinummus, and the aforementioned Juvenal's Satires. Here is the full list in order of printing:

That three quotations out of six are from Seneca is symptomatic of a tendency on the part of the creative team towards choosing a specific kind of works to quote as Magic flavor text. Namely, maxims, proverbs, rhetorical questions, and the like. In this regard, Seneca is an excellent author to quote. He is almost synonymous with the concept of sententia, i.e. a sentence which is concise and memorable at the same time. Just what you need for a quote on a card. We will explore this more later in the article. First, let's analyze the six texts card by card.


The card Hurricane has great flavor. First printed in Alpha, and reprinted many times over, it perfectly conveys the idea of a violent storm mechanically, dealing damage to all players and all flying creatures. Part of its charm no doubt comes from its mirroring of Earthquake, a similar card of great flavor which deals damage to all players and non-flying creatures.

Fifth Edition's printing features this quotation from Virgil: "The raging winds …, settling on the sea, the surges sweep, / Raise liquid mountains, and disclose the deep." Virgil is best known for his epic poem The Aeneid, telling the legendary travels and fights of Aeneas after the fall of Troy. It's a majestic work, packed with action, and also capable of displaying human feelings to the highest level. What we find on this printing of Hurricane though, is something different.

The flavor text is informational, almost to the point of pedantry. The card shows a Hurricane in action, and the flavor text describes that action. It's a weak choice for Magic flavor text, and well below our expectations. It's not that different from the case of Alluring Siren and its Homeric quotation which we looked at in our previous piece on Greek authors. At least in that case the card and flavor were closer to fantasy. With Hurricane, Virgil's words describe a storming sea, and the illustration shows a ship in a storm, making the flavor merely descriptive. Let's see if we can find some more interesting flavor.

Ivory Guardians

"But who is to guard the guards themselves?" is quite a famous question, even though not everyone normally knows where it comes from. In this case, it's also on a card few remember. First printed in Legends, Ivory Guardians received this quotation from Juvenal as its flavor text in Fifth Edition. The card is pretty bad. A 3/3 for six mana, Protection from red, and a potential pump is not very exciting. The flavor text, while famous, is equally unexciting in the context of this card. In our culture generally, the quote is much more interesting and frequently misunderstood.

Essentially, the quotation asks: "Who assures us that those who have positions of responsibility in our society deserve our trust? Who tells us that they don't need someone to control them in turn?" Pop culture made it so famous that many people even know the Latin version: "Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?" It appears in Alan Moore's Watchmen, and the very title of the series comes from that phrase.

The problem in attributing this quotation to Juvenal, is we ignore that he in turn was indirectly quoting Plato's Republic, twisting Plato's original concept with the aim of targeting women (which is the goal of his Sixth Satire). If we read a few lines before and after the quote, we see Juvenal's subject is marital infidelity, a subject less high-minded than Plato's. Also not the most appropriate flavor for a Magic card.

Soltari Priest

Things get better with Soltari Priest. We get our first quote from Seneca: “Fire is the test of gold; adversity of strong men."

You see immediately the short, striking sentences we described earlier. This one sounds much like a proverb. The card and the quote are both well known. In this case, the card is also playable as well. Originally printed in Tempest, it's a cheap Cleric with good stats and interesting abilities. The card/text couple is a decent choice since the concept of adversity testing strong men is very White-flavored. It's taken from the work On Providence, a short essay written in the Platonic style of dialogue, and deals with the "problem of evil."

Maggot Carrier

“We do not suddenly fall on death, but advance towards it by slight degrees; we die every day” is another quotation from Seneca, this time from his Moral Epistles. It's another strong sentence that seems almost tailored for being quoted. It appears on the Eighth Edition reprint of Maggot Carrier, a common Zombie with a great illustration by Ron Spencer. While not a particularly powerful card, a cheap creature that makes each player lose one life when entering the battlefield is at least something. As for the quotation, the shift from dialogue to letter does not change the substance. It's another of Seneca's philosophical maxims.

Mind Stone

"Not by age but by capacity is wisdom gained," is a quote from Plautus's Trinummus. It appears on the Tenth Edition printing of Mind Stone, probably the most played card among the six we are analyzing today. Mind Stone sees a lot of action in Commander and has multiple reprints. Originally printed in Weatherlight, without flavor, the Plautus quote appears only on the Tenth Edition printing. The quote and the card are both good. Whether they go well together is another matter. A quote about wisdom is a strange fit for a magical artifact, other than that it has "Mind" in its name.

Dark Tutelage

"It is a rough road that leads to the heights of greatness." Three quotations from Seneca, three wise proverbs. This is the best combination of card and flavor we've seen. It has echoes of Dark Confidant, in both flavor and function. It's ironic when you consider how old this quotation is. The flavor of Dark Confidant, "Greatness, at any cost" feels like a variation of the same concept. Both cards have similar functionality, allowing you to draw cards in exchange for life.

Greek and Latin Quotations in Summary

By considering both Greek and Latin quotations together we see the Classical World appears in flavor from a variety of literary genres. What qualities do all these texts share? They are all obviously short quotations, but more importantly, they are all self-sufficient even when taken out of their context. This doesn't mean their meaning stays the same. On the contrary, the vast majority of these quotations display one meaning when considered on their own, and another meaning when considered in the context of the whole work from which they come. Juvenal's sentence about guards is the clearest evidence of this tendency, as we discussed, but this is true for most of the examples we've looked at.

Missed Opportunities?

I love the fact that 15 unique cards exist with flavor text from Greek and Latin literature. I can't deny though, that several choices are a bit unimpressive, or plainly lame. The grandiosity of excerpts such as Achilles' dream of Patroclus, or the poignancy of reflections about dying a little every day, almost gets lost on Magic cards, which, after all, tend towards levity. This tendency, in my opinion, has grown throughout the course of Magic's history. As a consequence, after a few years, there was no point mixing this kind of literary thought with this kind of entertainment product.

I feel like a different kind of approach was possible, and perhaps might still be possible in the future. The way to go, if you want to sporadically include some real-world quotations in Magic flavor text, is keeping in mind what audience is going to consume them. Greek and Latin literature is not limited to a few witty sentences and some pathetic passages. There is more useful material in that body of literature to take advantage of and give the audience something closer to entertainment and less to an academic lesson.

Cheap Choices

As an example, I believe quoting Seneca is a cheap choice and doesn't pay. Sure, he seems like an almost perfect source of quotes, but that is an illusion. Many passages that would make thrilling quotations don't come as "perfect quotes". You have to search for them, you need to know your Greek and Latin, and not limit the search to what people think that world is. Otherwise, you're going to replicate the same tedious series of quotes that make people run away.

Even when you choose an author who should technically be funny, such as Plautus, there is a high risk of repeating the pattern. Ironically, the very quotation from a comedic genius like Plautus sounds very much like a random maxim by Seneca. That happens for two reasons: first, Trinummus is one of the latest works from Plautus and possibly the most serious and monotonous (not to say dull) among his plays. Second, the sentence has been chosen without considering the context of the card on which it appeared, or the audience. The moralistic tone simply doesn't work.

Some Proposals

If I was on the creative team, I'd make the case for using real-world quotations for flavor once more. As part of my argument, I'd say that some of the best authors to quote for use in Magic flavor have been totally neglected. I'd cite the Greek author Lucian of Samosata as one such example. Lucian was the author of True History, the earliest known work deserving of the definition "science fiction." In True History, we find alien forms of life, interplanetary wars, and travels beyond our world, in addition to beautiful passages concerning dreams and nightmares.

Another example I'd cite is the Latin author Apuleius. Apuleius wrote the first example we have of a novel with his Metamorphoses (also known as Asinus Aureus, or The Golden Ass). In Metamorphoses, we find a protagonist whose curiosity is so stinging that he is willing to do anything to practice magic and unravel the mysteries surrounding him.

One last example I'd cite is the Greek author and historian Herodotus. Often credited as "The Father of History", Herodotus was the first historiographer, that is, the first author to systematically investigate the facts of events of which he wrote. That didn't stop him from including tall tales and legends in his histories though, leading critics to call him "The Father of Lies." Some of his tales might be far-fetched, but they're certainly interesting.

The Future of Magic Flavor

Maybe there will come a time in the future when we will again see texts from Latin and Greek authors in Magic flavor. If that happens, we hope the creative team will take an approach such as what we described above. As we demonstrated in these last two pieces, some of the flavor they've used in the past was not always effective. As for us, we are finished with the classical world. In the next installment, we move on to explore some very different cultures and their appearances in Magic flavor.

Francesco Spagnol

Francesco started playing Magic in middle school just as the Onslaught came out. He has taken part in many tournaments and organized several events himself. Booster draft is by far his favorite format, but he also enjoys Pauper and Pre-Modern. When he doesn't play Magic, he works in the publishing industry, as an editor of children's books. He is always looking for good stories.

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