Real-world Flavor. Coleridge’s Quotes From Alpha to Portal

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About, about in reel and rout

The death-fires danced at night;

The water, like a witch’s oils,

Burnt green, and blue and white.

In previous installments, we analyzed the nature of real-world quotations in Magic flavor text from a variety of sources. We dealt with the classical world (Greek and Latin literature), explored Arabian Nights (One Thousand and One Nights), and unpacked the literary basis behind Portal Three Kingdoms, and Chinese authors other than Luo Guanzhong quoted in flavor text. Now, it’s time to pass to English-speaking authors.

As we saw in the first article of the series, the most represented authors from this group are William Shakespeare and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, with Edgar Allan Poe and many others a few steps behind. Let’s start with Coleridge, whose quotation on Scathe Zombies we have already discussed.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

There exist six unique cards with a flavor text consisting of a quote from Coleridge. Interestingly, five of them come from Limited Edition Alpha (1993). The last one was instead first printed in Portal (1997). It looks like Coleridge was an author very much beloved in the beginning, and then almost forgotten. Why is that the case? We’ll try and answer at the end of this article. Now, let’s see the cards in more detail.

Hypnotic Specter

…There was no trace / Of aught on that illumined face…

The first card is an all-star of mono-black decks ever since the beginning of Magic. A 2/2 flying specter for three mana is not bad, and whenever it deals damage to an opponent, they will have to discard a card at random. It’s one of the most typically black abilities, and this creature has always had many fans throughout the course of Magic's history.

What about the flavor text? It’s a couple of lines from Coleridge’s short poem Phantom. On a card with an image like this one, it’s a strong choice in my opinion. It’s about an illumined face with no trace of aught, and it goes very well with the beautiful illustration from Douglas Shuler.

It’s a text in verses, and it starts with an ellipsis, as the first half of that verse was eliminated. I like the briefness of the quotation, as it makes the card even more mysterious by avoiding excessive details. It’s a shadow, it’s mesmerizing and it makes opponents discard cards. The clipped lines from before the flavor text begins are: "All look and likeness caught from earth / All accident of kin and birth, / Had pass'd away." Very spooky.

Plague Rats

Should you a Rat to madness tease

Why ev'n a Rat may plague you…

The second card is another typical black creature. This rat costs three mana and gets bigger and bigger depending on how many rats you control. Not that powerful, but I like the illustration and the concept. The flavor text is also a nice addition.

The quotation comes from Coleridge’s work: Recantation. This poem is a bit longer than Phantom, but still, it's a short one, very distant from his famous The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. It’s in verses, again, but this time there are no ellipses. It’s two full lines of the poem, and it contains both the word ‘Rat’ and the word ‘plague’, which together make for the full name of the card.

The flavor text also contains words such as ‘madness’ and ‘tease’, which are really spot on in a card like this one. They contribute to evoke ideas of crazy swarms of rats, in a similar way of Relentless Rats. In the following lines, not included on the card, it states that "Rage and Fear are one disease", adding to the idea of blind terror of a rats' swarm.

Scathe Zombies

They groaned, they stirred, they all uprose,

Nor spake, nor moved their eyes;

It had been strange, even in a dream,

To have seen those dead men rise.

We have already seen this card in the first article of the series. There was no particular reason, except that it’s probably my favorite card ever, and the flavor text is a huge part of this. Let’s recall the main characteristic of Scathe Zombies.

It’s a 2/2 black creature for three mana, which makes it an overly costed Grizzly Bears. There’s an actual reason for that, and that is the attention of Magic developers to colors’ balance. From the very beginning of this game, they knew green creatures must have a bit more raw power when it came to stats, and this is a great example.

The quote appearing in the flavor text is a famous passage from Coleridge's masterpiece The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. It’s a much longer poem than could ever fit on a single card. This particular excerpt comes from a scene where the protagonist recalls his encounter with a crew of dead men. It’s among the first examples of the literary trope of the ghost ship.

On this card, there are no references to any ship or mariner, but in my opinion, it makes it even stronger. In fact, it makes it more adaptable. Even when taken out of context, it works with the idea of horror and profanity it wants to convey.

Wall of Ice

And through the drifts the snowy cliffs

Did send a dismal sheen:

Nor shapes of men nor beasts we ken—

The ice was all between.

After three black cards, this is the first from another color. Wall of Ice is a green creature. It has defender like every other wall, and cannot attack. The illustration is a great one, and the flavor text comes once more from The Rime, this time from a different passage. It’s funny because you might think that work is better used for black creatures, given its dark and horrific atmosphere, but it still works.

This quotation doesn't mention any zombie, dead man, or other gothic creatures of fantasy. It just describes a drab landscape, that the protagonist remembers seeing from his ship. There are no living beings in these four lines, there is just nature. It is still a hostile kind of nature: there are "snowy cliffs" a "dismal sheen" and ice that is "all between." The illustration works very well with this quote since they are both cold and inhospitable.


About, about in reel and rout

The death-fires danced at night;

The water, like a witch’s oils,

Burnt green, and blue and white.

This small spirit is the fifth card from Alpha. Again, it’s a creature, and once more it’s black. For the third time, the excerpt comes from The Rime. Another similarity is in the number of lines. Just as it happened with Scathe Zombies and Wall of Ice, it contains four verses.

This time, it mentions the setting of the scene, saying that the water (seawater) shows colors such as green, blue, and white. That is the effect of the presence of the ‘death-fires’, i.e., another name for the fantastic creature commonly known as Will-o'-the-Wisp. Interestingly, the three colors mentioned are all in Magic’s color wheel, but black is missing. The colors also appear in the illustration, and overall it's a very consistent creative choice.

It’s a dark and scary card, even though it doesn’t mention any direct element of horror. There is a similarity with the "witch’s oils", to which the water is compared. We don’t know what it actually means, but just as it happened with Hypnotic Specter the flavor text adds to the overall impression of the card.

Sacred Nectar

For he on honey-dew hath fed,

And drunk the milk of Paradise.

This last card is the only one that was printed outside of Alpha. There was no mention of Coleridge during the four years between Alpha and Portal. This one doesn’t come from the Rime, even though the work it comes from is nowadays frequently published together with it. We are talking about Kubla Khan, a short poem (about 50 lines) with a remarkable variety of metric and rhythmic choices. This excerpt is actually the closure, made of the final two lines of the poem.

It’s the first card with a quotation from Coleridge that is not a creature. It’s a sorcery, and a white one - another novelty since we only saw black and green so far. The spell gains you four life for the cost of two mana. It was reprinted several times in later core sets, not necessarily with the same flavor text.

This quote is very on theme for white, as much as the previous ones were for the black cards we discussed. It mentions concepts such as ‘honey-dew’ and ‘milk of Paradise’. In my opinion, this kind of flavor text is among the best choices. It works because it’s evocative, it delivers a concept that marries well with the essence of the card. In the case of Sacred Nectar, the idea of purity. You don’t need to know the poem it comes from; you’ll still get what it’s about, and it resonates strongly.

What Do They Have in Common?

This is the first question we normally try to answer. Why did these specific cards all receive a quotation from Coleridge? Do they share any quality? We already saw how most of them come from Alpha, but that’s not enough. What about the color?

Four of them are black, one is green, and one is white. The majority of Coleridge's style is capable of evoking dark feelings, thus making them align well with black cards. Rats, Specters, Zombies, Spirits are all dark, shadowy creatures, and the words of Coleridge strongly resonate on these cards.

What else? We might say that, regardless of the color, these six cards share a special quality connected to ancient magic, which Coleridge evokes in his writings. It might just be that in retrospect, we see Alpha as the old-school edition par excellence, but I’d say it was a good choice to limit the use of Coleridge to that set.


Today we examined one of the most quoted English-speaking authors. It's still too soon to draw conclusions about English-language writers overall. However, it might be fair to say that Coleridge was perhaps a bit overused during Alpha, and then mostly abandoned.

Other English-language authors such as Shakespeare, Poe, Carrol, and Milton have their quotes spread throughout Magic’s history. They all appear on cards from more than two different sets. In the next few articles, we will see what they have to offer.

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.

View More By Francesco Spagnol

Posted in Creative, Design, Flavor, FreeTagged , , , , ,

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