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Insights from the Inbox

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The letter P!remise 1: I get a lot of email from Savor the Flavor readers. It's true! And I read them all.
Premise 2: I only answer one email per week in the column. Okay, sometimes I throw a couple of quickies in there. But most of the time just the one.
Premise 3: I don't delete email. I put it in all kinds of little subfolders, but I never toss it.
Conclusion: A lot of worthy questions go unanswered.

That's a good argument to do a mailbag column for Rerun Week. It's on-theme, because for some of today's letters I'm reaching back quite a ways into my Walking Archive (which always makes him cranky). In fact, for some bonus verisimilitude action, I'm going to go ahead and answer these in chronological order, and print the dates of when these little beauties hit my inbox. My emails—let me show you them.

9/10/2008

Dear Doug Beyer,
I find the flavor behind the Nacatl of Naya very interesting, but I find something rather amiss about them which I was hoping you could help me with. The Nacatl have been admitted to be leonin, that being the defined race in Magic for cat people, but they don't have the creature type Leonin, just Cat. So are the Nacatl a term for the group of people, or are the Nacatl actually a different type of cat people? And if they are in fact Leonin, do you think that leonin should become a creature type, like Vedalken?
--Peter

Good question, Peter. The Nacatl of Naya are indeed leonin, the very same race that can be found on Mirrodin. Naya's leonin display a bit more physiological variety than Mirrodin's leonin; Nacatl have coats like tigers, jaguars, ocelots, etc., whereas Mirrodin leonin tend to stick with a more strict lion look. But those differences are superficial; they're the same race. The reason they're called something different is just to give a term for the Naya leonin other than "Naya leonin." We do this with goblins pretty often—various flavors of goblins have been called moggs, akki, and boggarts, but they're all goblins.

Since leonin are pretty much straight-ahead "cat people," they'll probably stick with the subtype Cat. We use this same pattern with other anthropomorphic animal races—they get an animal race type and a class type (see also: Rhox = Rhino, Loxodon = Elephant, Nantuko = Insect) to do justice to both their animal characteristics and their culture and sentience.

9/24/08

Dear Doug Beyer,
Regarding your article "Alive and Unwell":
Why is Sedris a Zombie Warrior and not a Lich? Zombie as a creature type works for him, and I realize that there is no Lich creature type (yet), but I think Sedris would make more sense as a Lich. Why was he not made a Lich? And while I'm here, why is Lich not a creature type?

btw I love your column)
Thanks,
Josh

Well, Josh, you've sort of answered your first question already. Sedris doesn't have the Lich subtype because there isn't a Lich subtype in Magic. We've sort of used the "Zombie plus a class type" construction to implement lich-ness in the past—usually Zombie Wizard, but Zombie Warrior seemed to fit Sedris's personality better. There just hasn't been enough need for a separate Lich creature type—plus, Zombie has all kinds of tribal interactions that a Lich creature type wouldn't. We run into this conflict a lot—do we group creatures together with more general creature types, to provide more mechanical tribal synergy? Or do we split creatures off from each other with more specific creature types, to provide more precise flavor? As we do more creatures flavored as liches going forward, it might tip toward a greater need for a separate Lich subtype—but for now, Zombie it remains.

10/1/2008

Dear Doug Beyer,
Regarding your article "Faction Fiction":
Towards the bottom, in the Letter of the week, you talk about how black is not always evil. In the past we have seen each color as the 'antagonist' with blue recently being the 'most evil' if you will. Now seeing how white can be 'evil' and black the hero in Champions block, and how black can be both parts during Lorwyn, with green helping in both, I was wondering how can green be the villain. Some people on another website where debating this and came up with an ecological terrorist, but that can't just seem to be the only way. How else can green be the 'antagonist'?
--Randall T.

Randall! You just (way back at the beginning of October) hit on one my favorite questions! Awesome.

Yes, there's definitely the eco-terrorist angle. It'd be easy to imagine a group of savage elves, led by a fierce elvish elder, who exact their deadly brand of forest justice on all those who would harm nature. Similarly, Lorwyn's elves have some of black's tyranny in them, but you could also see them as villainous just in how they insist on their own standard of beauty and force it on those around them.

But those villainous angles can kind of bleed into other colors. Green is tough to give villainy, in a way, because it's so instinctual. As soon as you give green traditional villain-characteristics like scheming or power-lust, you've turned it blue or black. When you watch a nature documentary and you see a bear using its claws to absolutely savage some salmon in the river, do you think, "Boo, hiss, villain!" No. It's monstrous and violent, but it's natural—and the bones and tails that the bear doesn't digest serve to nourish the river, circle of life, yadda yadda, no villainy. Now maybe you scale up that bear by a hundred fold and you have yourself a reasonable bad guy, but even then you probably sort of sympathize with him when the plane inevitably takes him down (e.g. King Kong—and am I the only one who sided with the killer asteroid in Armageddon? What did it do to deserve the Wrath of Willis?).

But I think there's a deeper way to define bad-guy-ness that is beyond scheming and sheer hugeness, and that green can take part in. I think villainy is all about going past a certain threshold to meet your goals. It's about using means that aren't justified by your ends. Think about those eco-terrorist elves again. Is it so wrong for them to want people to respect nature? Of course not. They're just going about it in ways that hurt people, which crosses a line. Green-aligned characters can certainly have goals, even instinctual ones—and, to my mind, when those characters hurt others to accomplish those goals, they have crossed over into antagonist territory, and then the story needs a hero to go and stop them.

10/9/2008

Dear Doug Beyer,
Where exactly do Demons, Angels, and Horrors come from? At least in the Magic mythos.

Unlike dragons, which do have younger versions and so are obviously natural, and elementals, which have a spontaneous generation vibe (pile enough stuff together and wait long enough *bang* elemental), I can't think of a particular back story. Demons, Angels and Horrors all have an extraplanar story in other mythologies, which Magic hasn't really talked about.

And, hey, the angel and demon weeks have been done before the existence of taste the magic/savor the flavor, so you really should answer this question.

;)

Cheers,
Sawin

P.S. I will assume the answer for devils is about the same for demons.

Battlegrace_Angel

Sawin's is unintentionally relevant to the recent announcement of Duel Decks: Divine vs. Demonic! Angels and demons are actually quite similar in their origins, Sawin, in that they are both manifestations of pure mana. Angels are, simply put, white mana coalesced in heroic form, all the purity and justice of the mana of the plains fused into a champion devoted to the souls of mortals. On Bant, some say that particularly blessed or faithful mortals can become angels, but if that's true, then the mortal leaves behind his or her earthly frame and becomes a being of pure white mana. Other angels may come about through momentous events, or acts of powerful planeswalkers. But in all cases, powerful sources of white mana are required.

Demons are similar, in that they are pure black mana made manifest. In particular, I like to say that demons are the symbols of all the benefits of black mana—they have all the power, ambition, and ruthlessness of black, with none of the drawbacks to hold them back. (Of course, demons might cause detrimental effects for their summoners, but it's not the demons themselves who suffer them. That's simply the price of trifling with such paragons of power.) Again, the creation of demons can happen in different ways, but the result is the same—pure black mana that has taken physical form. (Devils are usually the smaller henchmen of demon lords or other powerful folk.)

Horrors are a different story. The term "horror" describes a kind of grab-bag of horrible, black-aligned beings-that-should-not-be. Horrors can be birthed from any number of grim sources, including the nightmares of madmen, the experimentation of scruple-free magical laboratories, the delving into underworld abysses too sanity-distorting to contemplate, or the misguided construction of minions from unholy combinations of objects and flesh.

Roiling Horror

Basically, whenever you summon a creature against the strong urgings of your better judgment, or that inspires torch-wielding mobs to knock down your front gate, or both, you've probably got yourself a Horror.

11/5/2008

Dear Doug Beyer,
Regarding your article "The Movers and Shakers of Naya":
I really liked how you had the web comic of Chandra in addition to the article. I was wondering if you could do this more often in the future. I think it would be a great way to help us understand the planeswalkers, especially the new ones like Tezzeret, Elspeth, and Sarkhan.
--Joe

Good news, Joe – you'll be seeing more web comics in the future, featuring some of the very planeswalkers you mentioned!

11/5/2008

Dear Doug Beyer,
Regarding your article "The Movers and Shakers of Naya":

You mentioned in your letter of the week about the relationships of space and planeswalking. However, our universe is really, really, really big. So, let's take Esper as an example once again. If Esper is a galaxy in and of itself, when you planeswalk from a plane, and wind up in Esper, what stops you from being stuck in space? Can planeswalkers choose WHERE on a plane they end up?

--Jay

"Short answer yes, with a but—long answer no, with a maybe."

Several factors can affect a planeswalker's accuracy of planeswalking. The most important one is magical aptitude, which is generally correlated with the length of time someone has been a planeswalker. The leonin planeswalker Ajani, for example, hasn't been a planeswalker very long, and just doesn't have a feel for it yet. He can't pinpoint a certain place inside Jund or Naya when he planeswalks—he just aims at the bright blob in the Blind Eternities, says a little prayer to the spirits, and leaps. On the other hand, ancient and masterful planeswalkers (Mr. Bolas, paging Mr. Bolas) can likely be wherever the heck they want, just about whenever they want.

Other factors include mana, prep time, and circumstantial factors. As a rule of thumb, planeswalkers do appear on solid ground, and not inside solid objects, although this can go wrong if somebody really powerful (paging Mr. Bolas, Mr. Bolas, please pick up a black courtesy phone) has it out for you. Even with perfect resources and perfect planning, a planeswalker still has to contend with the mysteries of the Blind Eternities, which is a treacherous meta-void under the best of circumstances. You travel through there and you take your chances.

11/5/2008

Dear Doug Beyer,
Regarding your article "The Movers and Shakers of Naya":

Is it possible for a non-planeswalker to steal the spark from a planeswalker to use themselves?
--Hamish

We like to say that anything is possible, given enough time, mana, and magical skill. In this case, you should check out the Mirrodin cycle of novels by Will McDermott, Jess Lebow, and Cory Herndon, where that very question is put to the test.

12/9/2008

Dear Doug Beyer,

Hello. I enjoy your articles (and those of Matt Cavotta before you) a great deal. I appreciate you taking the time to explain how mechanical aspects of the game can be expressed using flavour text or the novels. There is one mechanic I can't quite understand, and that is when a player is forced by another player to sacrifice a creature.

I don't understand how a card like 'Cruel Edict' can be translated into non-mechanical terms. A spell that says "Sacrifice a creature or I'll do X to you" is grokkable, but I can't imagine how one planeswalker could get another to sacrifice one of there own for no reason.

Why can't they just say 'no'?

Anyway, thank you for your time and efforts.

Sincerely,
Stephen

Thanks for your question, Stephen. I like to think that some black spells are about gaining power, and others are about wielding it (and the rest are, inexplicably, Kezzerdrix). In the gaining-power category, you have stuff like Dark Ritual, Night's Whisper, and Bitterblossom. This side is black knowing what it wants, and paying any price to get it—mana, cards, Faerie Rogues, whatever. But on the wielding-power side, you have black taking advantage of the power it has amassed. For spells of this category, black is in charge, and everyone knows it. It issues commands, and those commands get obeyed, even when threats are not explicitly delivered. That's ultimately what black wants, what it strives for. That's what true power means, and that's the flavor of edict-style spells that force another player's hand. Why is it so good to be the king, and why does black surrender so much to become it? Because you can't say no to the king.

12/10/2008

Ben writes in with not only a question about, but a proposed solution for, the randomized nature of a Magic deck, aka the library zone, aka a planeswalker's long-term memory storage.

Dear Doug Beyer,
Regarding your article "The Flavor of Zones":

As a Cognitive Science major, I have a few issues with your article today regarding the mental functions of planeswalkers. Now, obviously Planeswalkers aren't going to function identically to humans from our plane, but I'm going to assume that the basics are there with some magical extra abilities granted due to the spark. As for your hand representing short-term memory of spells, that seems spot on. Your short-term memory is ready for instant recall, and most people can't keep more than 7 items in short-term memory at any given time, though it can be overloaded at times, and the use of aids can greatly increase this. As for the representation of your library, well, deep memory recall isn't really a matter of chance. Long-term memory recall is the effect of recalling tiny bits of information (typically through a prompt of some sort) and then recreating that full piece of knowledge around that little nugget you just pulled out. To use a metaphor, we don't find the flower, we find the seed and water it. Once that memory is recreated, it's then available in short-term memory for instant use (until it leaves). Thus if your library worked like typical human long-term memory, Planeswalker's memory recall would be affected by the situation they were in. I know as a Magic player I certainly wish it worked that way (i.e. Uh-oh, I have to remember how to cast Lightning Helix or else I die), but for Planeswalkers it's random without magical input (i.e. a deck-stacking or tutoring effect).

Magic spells for Planeswalkers seem to have odd interactions with typical memory functions, and my best guess as to why is some sort of interference from the spark. Regular magic users like wizards/task-mages/shamans/etc are always able to cast the same spell(s) anytime they want, thus their magic seems to perform along the lines we would expect. They can cast their spell anytime they're given reason to pluck the details of it out of their long-term memory and they have access to the mana they need (if they need any). However, Planeswalkers have this randomization aspect and since the only difference between them and normal magic-using beings of the same race is the spark, that has to be the cause.

Memory_Lapse

I'm going to pause Ben's excellent email here before he rolls on to his ideas as to why this might be. First let me say, though, that there's a special place in my heart for cognitive science, the emerging, multidisciplinary science of the workings of the mind (my graduate degree is in philosophy with a concentration in cog sci—and yes, I recognize the irony of attributing that fondness to someplace within my cardiac organ), so I'm especially excited by his email. Anyway—

If we're thinking of a Magic deck as a model for planeswalker spell memory, there's a good reason why that deck should be randomized (other than the obvious answer of "it's a card game, there's shuffling, the end"). In some ways it does seem odd that a planeswalker has to rely on chance to serve up the spell he or she needs. But randomization generates tension at arguably the most exciting part of the planeswalker's spellcasting process—the part where he or she whips the spell from the arsenal in the heat of battle. It's a face-to-face, life-or-death battle of wits. Will the planeswalker come up with the proper spell at just the right moment? If the answer is always "yes," then there's no tension. A deck's randomization models the pressure and stress of a planeswalker duel.

Think of your memory recall during other pressure situations. Can you come up with the Trivial Pursuit answer? Given infinite time, almost always. But while that timer's ticking down? That's another story. While the other players are lobbing fireballs at you? That's an even more exciting story. (Hmm, I may have a new Trivial Pursuit variant to pitch to Hasbro.)

Note also that many deckbuilders use redundancy to overcome randomization. A player loading up his beatdown deck with eight one-drops, twelve two-drops, and twelve burn spells isn't just maximizing his curve; he's focusing his long-term memory on roughly equivalent versions of the same spells. He's creating a "spell playlist" that will ensure that the same kind of face-roasting pyromancy bubbles up during just about every draw step, and that preparedness helps minimize the brain-scattering effects of a high-pressure match. The way I think of it, when someone like Chandra Nalaar (I mean the character here, not the perfectly reliable machine-gun of her card) draws an Incinerate or a Volcanic Hammer or another fiery 3-point burn spell, she isn't thinking about the details of her topdecks. She's thinking, "Gotta roast this guy before he cuts me in half." It's largely effortless for her. Like any decent red mage, she always has a burn spell at the ready, because she's stacked her library with only the good stuff.

Okay, back to more of Ben's email.

Perhaps Planeswalkers actually have some sort of miniature pocket-plane devoted to their knowledge, and they have the ability to create more of these at will in which to place their "spell playlists." If they have the ability to travel from plane to plane in the blink of an eye as a result of the spark igniting, then obviously the phemonenon of spark ignition grants some new, epiphenomenal abilities to the Planeswalker. To my knowledge nobody knows the true extent of them beyond the ability to travel through the Blind Eternities. Yet what most Planeswalkers seem to have in common is the ability to compile VAST amounts of spell knowledge (boxes upon boxes one might say) while only having limited access to it without magical aid. However, they are also able to comb through that knowledge at will in their downtime in order to create these "playlists" for certain scenarios. But even these playlists have their limitations. Access to them is, again, random, and they must contain a certain amount of knowledge in order to be accessed. This could be some sort of metaphysical rule for the minimum size of pocket-planes (perhaps to prevent overpopulation of the Eternities?) or maybe they just have to be a certain size in order to be accessed. In any case, this explains why Planeswalkers cram as many spells into one pocket as they can in order to make sure they don't accidentally get fed empty space, but they ensure consistency by adding multiple instances of certain spells.

In conclusion, there seems to be some sort of process at work here similar to Descartes' Pineal Gland, but instead of a gland that connects the soul to the body, there is the spark that connects the Planeswalker's mind to the Blind Eternities where he somehow stores a database of magical spells. A Planeswalker's access to this is certainly different than typical memory structures. They can direct their mind metaphysically to planeswalk to a self-created repository of magical knowledge and establish a connection with it. However, once that repository has been contacted, they don't have the ability to expressly direct their thoughts through that plane (perhaps since they're in the middle of a duel and can't focus.) So when they tap into these playlists, they are blindly fed a spell, and left hoping it's the right one. This method of contact must be taxing in order to explain why Planeswalkers maintain contact with only one at any given time instead of saying "uh oh, incoming fireball, better tap into my counterspell repository". This also explains why they can create and manipulate these repositories when they can devote the necessary time and effort required to do so.

-Ben

PS: Thanks for indirectly helping me study for my Philosophy of Mind final exam :).

Anytime!

12/10/2008

Dear Doug Beyer,
Regarding your article "The Flavor of Zones":
Hold on a minute... I'm sure you said that you were writing the planeswalker novel? Did something change? Or am I confused?
--Loz

I am writing the Alara block novel, which comes out around the time of Alara Reborn. Exciting!

Even this was only a fraction of the email I received during the last few months. I'm proud to say that I have an incredible community of readers, with minds as voracious as a stampede of baloths. I hope you guys have an excellent holiday season. Enjoy the upcoming hand-picked "previously owned" Savor the Flavor columns, and I'll see you again "live" in January.

I leave you with a creation worthy of the title "Insight from the Inbox." Usually I don't share readers' last names, but I want Owen to get full credit for his work here.

10/2/08

Prism

by Owen Leskovar

Blue.

The mind of a man is a slate to be made
In the image of those who he keeps as his friends
But the smog of emotion that oft clouds the brain
Is a pollution the rational mind can transcend

The heat of the moment, the haze over thought
Robs us of our dignity, and of our wits
Given the chance, time heals all wounds
Rather than robbing a man of his intelligence

We should be blue as a glacier, stoic and calm
Lucid and balanced, and seeking our path
Combing the world and unearthing its secrets
Rather than being enslaved by our wrath

Red.

Red is the color of life and of blood
That hurries and turns through our hearts and our veins
The fervor of love, the longing for freedom
A spirit that casts off all shackles and chains

It's warmth and it's love with no calm or restraint
With no cold eye that judges with rational thought
Like the machines that we paint as black and opaque
Because they embody the things we are not

It's destructive, shortsighted; no barriers observed
A spirit that can't be restrained or subdued
And at their weakest, the feeblest coward
Is still somehow redder. Well, redder than blue.

Black.

I have heard those who told me that life was a fire
And that we're persons of passion who refuse to be caged
And I've listened to those who say we're curious creatures
But to be fully human we must imprison our rage

But the answer to life is much simpler than that
We are all ourselves, nothing more, nothing less
And so we must seize what we feel we deserve
And at last be in charge of our own happiness

It may not be appealing, but it can't be denied
That we're opportunistic, and we'll snatch what we crave
From the weak hands of others (but liars the same)
Those who aren't the masters are fated as slaves

White.

A competitive world of kings and of serfs
Perpetuates evil in all of its forms
We must be united, and equal in all ways
If our weakened spirits are to weather this storm

We must be sober, find truth in each other
Look inwards if that's what will help us obey
The laws and commandments that endeavor to usher
Us into a tomorrow without disarray

It isn't a cage if it keeps out the darkness
And it isn't oppression if it keeps you safe
For what good is freedom if it leads you to ruin?
If your glass house is sheltered it won't ever break.

Green.

Those looking to change things by now look too far
Life's perfect in how it was firstly conceived
We shouldn't be shackled, cut loose, or "protected"
Nor should we see others as tools to deceive

The natural order is not just blind passion
It's not icy reason, or black selfishness
And yet we cannot be slaves to each other
Or cracking reflections of benevolence

We don't need to strive to meet some ideal
Or change our own instincts to meet abstract laws
We should be content with what nature intended:
Glorious, growing, and wonderfully flawed.

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