Real-world Flavor. Clover, Bee, And Reverie: Fantasy As The Faculty Of Imagination


Are you a Quiet Speculation member?

If not, now is a perfect time to join up! Our powerful tools, breaking-news analysis, and exclusive Discord channel will make sure you stay up to date and ahead of the curve.

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,

One clover, and a bee,

And revery.

Emily Dickinson, To Make a Prairie

In the last article, we dealt with a bunch of magical creatures whose flavor text quoted literary sources from the real world. This week we'll expand on the topic, this time moving into the realm of another sort of fantasy, namely reverie. The distinction is based on the difference between fantasy meant as the physical creatures from a fantasy world, and the imaginative process itself.

Dragon Whelp (Limited Edition Alpha, 1993)

O to be a dragon … of silkworm size or immense …

Marianne Moore, O to Be a Dragon

Dragon Whelp is a creature, yes, but I’m including it in this second part because the text is not really about dragons. It’s rather about the idea of being a dragon, and therefore it’s a perfect reverie, an act of imagination. The card is a 2/3 flying creature for the cost of four mana. It gets +1/+0 for each red mana you spend (though it's better not exceeding three). It's a decent creature, actually, at least in limited formats.

While playability is certainly a plus, The price of the Alpha version is driven by the low print run of Alpha, combined with collectors' demand. Collectors really love dragons.

The flavor text is simple, a small bit from Marianne Moore's 1959 poem. The art by Amy Weber represents a cute puppy-like dragon. It's an almost humorous choice for the subject matter. Many cards in Magic's history have either the illustration or the flavor text intentionally designed to be comical. In this case, the coupling is a bit risky, since the art is entirely cartoonish, whereas the quote evokes a much more grand concept.

Karakas (Legends, 1994)

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,

One clover, and a bee,

And revery.

Emily Dickinson, To Make a Prairie

This one is my all-time favorite Magic flavor quote. It's from the poem To Make a Prairie, by Emily Dickinson. It’s a very short piece composed in free verses. From the artistic point of view, the illustration by Nicola Leonard shows a flatland with a sort of building towering up. It’s actually a real-world building, as the art depicts the Shwedagon Pagoda, a Buddhist monument located in Myanmar. It doesn’t really resemble a prairie, but it doesn’t matter when both the art and the flavor text are such gems. In Magic’s world, Karakas is a city on the plane of Dominaria, and that’s why the illustration doesn’t only show the tower, but a whole town.

Shwedagon Pagoda

Karakas is an auto-include for decks such as Death and Taxes, in Legacy, and one of the most famous lands of this game. It’s extremely versatile, as you can use it both to protect your own creatures from removal and to bounce opponents’ threats. Not to mention all the dirty tricks with enter-the-battlefield abilities on your legendary creatures. It also has advantages in being a land, in that it cannot be countered, and as a colorless card, it’s even more resistant to interaction.

Sacred Nectar (Eighth Edition, 2003)

Over the silver mountains,

Where spring the nectar fountains,

There will I kiss

The bowl of bliss;

And drink my everlasting fill…

Sir Walter Raleigh, The Pilgrimage

Let’s conclude this section with a typical white sorcery. Sacred Nectar gains you four life for two mana. We looked at a different printing of this card in a previous installment. That was the Portal version, quoting Coleridge. The quotation from Coleridge was used on the card again in Starter 1999, and again in Seventh Edition. It was reprinted in Eighth Edition, and again in Ninth Edition with this flavor text. It’s common to see cards receive different flavor texts in different editions. It's less common when they stay real-world quotations. In fact, this is one of the few occurrences of that phenomenon. We might see this again in one of the next pieces.

Let’s keep focused on this specific version of Sacred Nectar. Sir Walter Raleigh, the author of The Pilgrimage, was an English soldier and explorer under Elizabeth I. His poem is supposed to be written from the point of view of a man at the point of death. The pilgrimage of the title is that of his soul ascending to heaven. There are very few cards in this game with such an on-theme flavor text, at least from a color perspective. As with the Portal version, the concept of purity (proper of the color white) is clearly expressed. Any player is sure to pick up the meaning, even if they don’t know the poem.

The quote starts with a couple of lines loosely evoking some very distant place. It mentions silver mountains and "nectar fountains." This also works as a reference to the name of the card. As for the "sacred" part, it's described through the usage of the expression "bowl of bliss". The art and the text both represent the same idea expressed on the card. This unity of flavor and expression is what should ideally happen with every card design.

What Kind of Fantasy?

So, what kind of fantasy works better on a Magic card? Fantasy grounded in a physical world, even if made up, or that of pure imagination? Well, truthfully, there is no correct answer. It depends on many factors and overall on personal preferences. From my perspective, I'd say this second type of fantasy is the most effective. Instead of slavishly describing a particular magical creature, such as a zombie or a goblin, it relies on more generic and abstract concepts. It leaves the reader (or in the case of Magic, the player) with more freedom to invent in their own mind.

I find the cards we have just analyzed to be truly majestic in their delicate and suggestive nature. Since Magic cards often suffer from over-precision, both in their names and their arts, a bit of uncertainty in flavor texts sounds appealing to me. What do you think?

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 , ,

Have you joined the Quiet Speculation Discord?

If you haven't, you're leaving value on the table! Join our community of experts, enthusiasts, entertainers, and educators and enjoy exclusive podcasts, questions asked and answered, trades, sales, and everything else Discord has to offer.

Want to create content with Quiet Speculation?

All you need to succeed is a passion for Magic: The Gathering, and the ability to write coherently. Share your knowledge of MTG and how you leverage it to win games, get value from your cards – or even turn a profit.

Join the conversation

Want Prices?

Browse thousands of prices with the first and most comprehensive MTG Finance tool around.

Trader Tools lists both buylist and retail prices for every MTG card, going back a decade.

Quiet Speculation