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An Even-Handed Tale

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The letter E!ach game of Magic is a story. It starts out small, introducing a place, be it a mountain, an island, or a forest. Eventually an antagonist appears, and conflict ensues, building to a climax. Inevitably, the situation is resolved, and you shuffle up your deck for another story.

For Theros, the newest magic set, we took inspiration from some of our culture's oldest stories, the mythology of the ancient Greeks. These stories are surprisingly understandable; they defined the template that Western storytelling has followed ever since. Many other ancient cultures had stories, but they seem bizarre to our sensibilities; the motivations are obscure, the actions strange. Not so with the Greeks.

The Tale of Ethan the Intern

This takes me back to the days when I was a callow young intern, a mere thirty-five years old. My boss, Mark Rosewater, told me that the next Magic set to be designed would be about mythology. I am quite the fan of all things ancient, and mythology in particular, and was quite enthused. Research was in order! I immediately hit the books.


I not only refreshed my memory of the original Greek myths, but I also dug deep into Magic's history. I asked myself, "Which Greek monsters and story beats are already part of Magic? Which ones has Magic touched upon only lightly, or not at all?"

Then I wrote the book on the subject.


Admittedly, it wasn't a very big book...

The book, Classical Mythology in Magic:The Gathering, reads kinda like a college research paper, except it has pictures of hydras and minotaurs in it, so I won't reproduce it for public consumption, but here's a brief summary for the curious.

  • Themes in classical literature: I suggested some possible storyline inspirations for Theros block (tragic plays, the Trojan War, the Greco-Persian Wars, etc.).
  • What distinguishes classical mythology?: I talked about what makes Greek and Roman mythology different from the mythologies of Egypt, Babylon, the Judeo-Christian tradition, etc. I also discussed the major Greek deities (Zeus, Athena, Hermes, etc.) and suggested possible color combinations for them.
  • Monsters from classical mythology in Magic: This section was a glossary, from Basilisk to Wolf, of mythological monsters which had already appeared on Magic cards. I wrote a paragraph of description for each monster, and stated how many cards they had appeared on.
  • New creatures: Some creatures from mythology had never appeared on Magic cards. I described them here.
  • Adapting iconic Magic creatures to a classical set: I discussed possible ways to adapt Magic staple creature types, such as Angels, Demons, Goblins, and Zombies into a Greek setting.

Having written this document, I published a limited print run of handsome saddle-stitched octavo volumes. (Can you tell I used to be a bookseller?) Mark and I used the books to show various parties within the company what sort of direction we were going for with Theros. They also came in handy during design meetings as reference material.

How did this story end? Well, Wizards hired me full-time to design Magic cards. By the time Theros design was over, I was an intern no more!

A New Creature

You may have noticed that the category I didn't go into detail on above was "New creatures." I didn't want to spoil my preview card, which represents a mythological monster that has never appeared on a Magic card! May I present...

While designing Theros, we were very conscious of one of the shortcomings of Kamigawa block. That block contains a huge mass of cards that reference specific Shinto mythological creatures unknown to the majority of Magic's audience. These cards, which were intended to be resonant, did not, in fact, resonate with most of the players. For Theros, we had an advantage that a larger proportion of our players would be familiar with Greek mythology than with Shinto mythology, but it would still be easy to "go too deep," to populate Theros with really obscure stuff that most people with a general familiarity with classical mythology still wouldn't recognize.

We didn't want to overcorrect too far, though. There needed to be enough relatively obscure references to delight the mythology nerds among the audience. So we sprinkled them in throughout the block, mostly at higher rarities. At this level of exposure, people would encounter these references and enjoy them, but they wouldn't make the set incomprehensible to all but a select few.

Allusions of Grandeur

Our initial approach was to design Theros's mythological theme the same way we designed to Innistrad's gothic horror theme. We'd identify the values that defined the genre in question and build mechanics to express those values. Also, we'd design individual cards to illustrate tropes that are common in their respective genres. Mark Rosewater, the lead designer, was able to accomplish the former. The latter proved to be more difficult than we'd imagined. Unlike horror, mythology is not actually a trope-rich genre. Some tropes existed, but we weren't going to be designing a lot of cards like Endless Ranks of the Dead, Bump in the Night, or Screeching Bat for Theros. We couldn't fill the set with trope cards. What we could do was make allusions to specific stories from mythology.

For example, Curse of the Swine represents a specific story from Homer's Odyssey, when the sorceress Circe transforms Odysseus's sailors into pigs. Rescue from the Underworld recalls the tale of Orpheus braving Hades's realm to rescue his bride Euridice, and also Heracles's rescue of Theseus from an enchanted chair in the underworld. Titan of Eternal Fire represents the titan Prometheus, who gave humanity the secrets of fire and was punished by the gods for revealing classified technology to the enemy.


Ray of Trope

Three tropes from Greek mythology inspired three of the most important mechanics of Theros block: the God, the Hero, and the Monster.


The gods figure prominently in most of the important Greek myths. These beings have all of the foibles and petty jealousies of humans, but are superpowered immortals with power over natural forces. We decided to tie the gods mechanically to enchantments, and made a devotion mechanic to represent worship. The God cards do not physically manifest as creatures that can attack or block unless you control enough worshippers.


In mythology, heroes were generally the product of the union between a mortal and a god. They were possessed of some of the power of the gods, but also their emotional instability. The gods would frequently take quite an active interest in their offspring's destiny and would meddle on their behalf. We weren't interested in depicting Zeus's love life on Magic cards, so our heroes are merely mortals in whom the gods have taken a special interest. The gifts of the gods, Auras, are particularly potent when given to a hero.


Myths abound with tales of monsters that ravage the countryside. Inevitably, the king of the city-state will send a mighty hero on a suicidally dangerous mission to defeat the monster before it ruins everything. We wanted the monsters in this set to be extra-big, and to loom threateningly. The monstrous ability creates a sense of urgency: slay the beast before it becomes an even bigger problem!

The Hand-Off

So there you have it, a tale of triumph over design-adversity. We translated a society's storytelling tradition into a game-play experience that I believe is one of the best sets we've ever made.

Enjoy the rest of Theros previews!





 
Ethan Fleischer
Ethan Fleischer
@EthanFleischer
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Ethan Fleischer works for Magic R&D as a designer. He can sing, but not dance, and is an indifferent fencer. He lives near Seattle with his wife, three sons, and mother-in-law.

 
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