Khans of Tarkir - Flavor Review pt. 1 November 10 2014
I'm Jesse K, and he's Jesse T, and together we review magic sets.
We don't know anything about which cards will win you a tournament, but we do take a close look at the creatures, storylines, and settings of each magic set and how they are explored through art, mechanics, and flavor text. If this sounds like a good time to you, strap in and get ready to read about what makes the latest Magic set tick.
K: Welcome to the fantastical world of Khans of Tarkir! There’s a lot of exciting stuff going on here- a new flavor driven world, rich with mythology and top-down designs; the sweet, sweet pattern completion of finally having a ‘wedge’ set; Wizard’s apparently recent realization that the Chinese market is a really big deal. But below the surface there are hints of a looming confrontation with one of magic’s all time greatest villains! I’m talking, of course, about Zurgo Helmsmasher. Can’t wait to see where they go with this one!
T: If there’s one thing I’ve always said the world was poorer for, it was the absence of a bunch of white guys in Seattle creating an imaginary version of Asia based off of half-remembered comic books, kung-fu films, and World War II propaganda. Between the wedge theme and the return of morph, Khans of Tarkir will surely go down in history as the biggest fanservice set since Future Sight. And I loved Future Sight! So let's all strap on our pith helmets and get ready to "discover" the already-inhabited plane of Tarkir.
K: The card wins ‘good overall card’ praises from me for having good flavor text and a cool illustration that does a really good job of capturing a moment in a hectic battle, something many cards have tried and failed to do realistically. It does get a minor markdown by following in the well-worn ‘fantasyword blankblade’ tradition, but otherwise I have nothing but love for the hateblade.
T: I couldn't agree more. There's a lot of good detail on this card. If you look closely at the hectic battle in the background, you can even spot two ogre corpses modeled after Mark Rosewater and Richard Garfield!
K: Those dragons said they were too big to fail, but Sarkin Vol bailed them out with your tax money. It’s time to send a message to the big dragons and their lobbyists in the walled city of Mer-Ek. Vote Khibat for Khan next November.
T: This seems like an excellent opportunity to talk about the elephant people in this set. The Loxodon have definitely looked better. They kind of remind me of the pink elephants from Dumbo.
T: I’d really like it if the flavor text offered some explanation as to why this falcon is so alarmingly large.
K: A brief guide to Tarkir Wildlife- Size of Goats, Horses and People: Tiny. Size of Bears: Twice as big as normal. Size of Turtles: Absurdly Large. Size of ponies: Uncertain. Size of all other animals: Gigantic.
T: Poof! There was a bird underneath! At some point during an FNM, I'm looking forward to turning a morph face-up and having a bunch of doves fly out. Can you imagine how intimidated your opponent would be if they expect you of being capable of that kind of sleight of hand? It’d be like playing against David Blaine! “Weren’t you supposed to draw a card?” “I already did.” o_O
K: There’s surprisingly little crossover between Magic players and magicians, but between this and Sleight of Hand we’re starting to get there. Now they just need to print a wand that turns into a bouquet of flowers, and boom, you’re already halfway to a terrible birthday party.
T: Handle twined with branch and frond, give me a Diviner’s Wand!
K: Monumental flavor fail here! The clan banners, which is what is clearly being Stroke’d Disdainfully here, all cost 3. There seems to be an extremely arbitrary theme of ‘the number 4 matters’ on Sultai cards (or “the one with the Delve” as I’m sure I’ll be calling them), which interacts weirdly and unintuitively with the clan with the actual ‘number 4 matters’ theme (Temur). It can easily get to the point in a Tarkir limited game where you have to be aware of your creature’s casting cost, power, and toughness being 4 or greater, and each of those things possibly being a good or bad thing given what cards are in play or in your opponent’s hand. See also: Sultai Flayer, Smite the Monstrous, and Kheru Bloodsucker.
T: That's a great point, and a valid criticism. Much of that is mitigated, however, by the spot-on resonance of gazing down your nose and disdainfully waving your hand at your opponent's spells as you cast this.
K: Looks like Wizards reads these flavor reviews after all! Last set I complained about every woman looking like a 16 year old, but here is a female character who somehow manages to have aged past 22. And fully clothed to boot, which even just a few years ago was nearly unheard of. In fact, this is a good time to give some praise to Wizards for starting to pay attention to this kind of thing. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of one truly pin-up-y piece of art in this set.
T: It's a cool card, but it's annoying when an artist's influences are so transparent. I'm not sure why the training scene from The Matrix needs to appear in a set about feudal China. Actually, come to think of it, I'm not sure exactly what the historical setting of Khans of Tarkir is supposed to be. Feudal? Ancient? Dynastic? I'm sure it was all rigorously researched by the diverse team of cultural anthropologists in the Wizards creative department, so I should probably just stop worrying about it.
K: Ok, I’ll give you your Singing Bell Strikes and your Dragon-style Twinses, but I don’t believe for a second that wire-fu is any kind of mythological tradition. I guess I’m opening myself up to being wrong here, but this just seems like pandering using a recognizable image. On the other hand, I really like that they put Djinn and Efreeti into this set. I know that was an abrupt 180 from being critical to being positive, but that’s just my signature kung-fu move.
T: Actually, recent archaeological evidence suggests that ancient Chinese performance artists used wirework in their aerial acts dating back as far as 200 BCE. In fact, the emperors of the Han dynasty were so entranced by these shows that acrobats were given special status within the courts of nobility, and even allowed to marry among them. It's true! Or at least it might be, for all I know. If no one is willing to double-check the stuff I make up, it’s essentially as good as fact. Also, those are probably completely reasonable depictions of Djinn.
K: I like the fat one. Gotta represent all the kung-fu movie stereotypes!
K: A question that I’m probably going to be asking a lot on these cards is ‘is this really a thing?’ I’ll be the first to admit that my knowledge of Chinese and Mongolian mythology is lacking, especially when compared to my comparative Theros block expertise. On the one hand, this is kind of embarrassing and ethnocentric, but on the other hand, I’m way more likely to give cards the benefit of the doubt. “Master of Pearls? Yeah, I’m sure that probably makes sense.” Of all the cards in the set that give me that vibe, I emphasize this one because it’s got a really awesome illustration, good flavor text (!), and a perfect name. Subtly one of my favorite cards in the set.
T: The beauty of living in the Western world is we don't have to know if any of this stuff is real or accurate. Who's going to care if it isn't? No one! No one who matters, anyway. They don't even PRINT this game in most of the countries that this set was "inspired" by. And if someone does raise a stink, you can just tell them it's a fantasy game, and there's supposed to be some degree of creative license. We colonized most of the globe and destroyed all extant records of their mythologies, so I'll be damned if we can't re-imagine them however we damn well please! Crushing our enemies and then repurposing their desecrated remains is the Sultai way, after all.
K: What kind of flavor text attribution is ‘Sultai Secret’? As a general rule of thumb a secret probably shouldn’t be a tired maxim. The card overall is redeemed by the delightfully cartoonish Wayne Reynolds art. They seem to have set him loose in full-on slapstick mode for this set, and I love it. See also the wonderfully named Throttle.
T: Man, when that orc agreed to do a live man-on-the-street interview with a sock puppet, he clearly did NOT expect it to turn around and squirt seltzer water in his face. Those writers for Late Nite with Sidisi are brilliant!
T: I'm not sure which is sillier: This card's name, or the fact that spiritual growth on Tarkir is apparently accomplished through single combat. If we could conquer our own inner demons by bludgeoning them to death, we'd all live in a much more peaceful world. Except for the rampant demons everywhere.
K: Disagree! He’s like your dark mirror, except he can also be an inanimate object or maybe just a concept. Imagine if Shang Tsung from Mortal Kombat could ALSO turn into an invisible sword or an arrow wound or a flag. That’s how cool this guy is! My only complain is that he can’t be a land. I mean, conceptually if you’re already gonna go this far, then why not.
T: Ah, I see they’ve hit the indispensable “sea monster who is good at martial arts” trope.
K: Hey, this flavor loss is still a win for my Leviathan tribal deck. Given that this card appears to have been “designed” by a database error that took random words and numbers from other cards and put them all together, I’d say it came out pretty good.
T: When boiling water is slightly too hot for your foes, but they’ve already dispensed with your lukewarm milk elemental, summon the Scaldkin!
K: “When eruptions melt the frozen whispers of sleeping ancestors?” What kind of crazy mumbo-jumbo is this? Are the Temur Scientologists or something? And the scaldkin looked much like earth’s own DC-8 jetliners.
T: I’m sorry, but this champion is spotless.
K: Maybe physically he’s not bloody, but he’s metaphorically bloodsoaked because he supports unethical industries, like factory farming, the oil business, and republicans.
T: Oh god, I just ate the hearts of my enemies, and they weren’t even certified fair trade organic! What have I done??
T: How is that arrow a debilitating injury? That ogre looks fine. Then again, I’m not an ogre doctor.
K: Inconvenient Injury just doesn’t have the same ring to it.
K: You might think I’m biased towards cards that have sweet alligators on them, and you wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. This card has awesome flavor and I think my alligator-pit themed draft decks are going to come out very well.
T: This is very evocative. It's like something a James Bond villain would have. Some of the Sultai cards get pretty gruesome, but the whole "alligator pit" thing walks that line where it's dark and flavorful without being overtly disturbing. On a side note, I think a Zombie Gator attraction would have done very well in the part of Orlando where I went to college.
T: I'll definitely draft this guy if I'm trying to put together a panel on Bloodfire. Actually, I think I saw him give a Bloodfire TED talk once. It was pretty interesting!
K: You gotta be careful with your bloodfire experts. There’s no certification process or anything. Anybody can just go around putting ‘bloodfire expert’ on their business card and there’s no legal recourse. It’s like my 4 years at Bloodfire U don’t mean anything.
K: Eat a boring cereal? No way MOM! On Goblinpuffs there’s an AVALANCHE of powdered sugar all over every bite! First Surge is getting revived, now this magic card illustration. I guess the 90’s really are back.
T: I knew this card was a '90s throwback as soon as I saw what is apparently concept art from the beloved "Gremlins" series. Like most of Magic’s target audience, I assume/hope Mogwai are actual creatures from traditional Chinese mythology, and not just something made up by Warner Bros.
K: Like by punching a rock or something? Dubious wisdom from Surrak Dragonclaw here, whose qualifications as Khan seem to be limited to ‘dude punched a bear once’. I’m voting for Khibat.
T: "Bring low, sweet chariot, humbled by the element of stone..."
K: Blazebringer is very euphemistic language for ‘guy you light on fire’. The Mardu clan really knows how to ‘spin’ things. The art delivers on the ridiculous premise, and it’s an additional layer of fun to see Fog Elemental get a color shift like this.
T: Is it really necessary for me to point out how tone deaf it is to include SELF-IMMOLATION in the same set as TIBETAN MONKS? Seriously? They know that's still happening, right?
T: Valley Dasher is probably my favorite character from My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic: The Gathering.
K: It always seems like a real flavor fail when you can skirt the drawback of cards like this by playing them second main phase. Does this guy look like he’s just going to wait politely for the next scheduled combat phase? No way man, he’s gotta get in there!
T: Oh, sweet! I remember these guys from Tank Girl. This set is already kind of a hodge-podge, so I guess it's cool if they want to throw some mutant kangaroo people in there.
K: This is actually the least stupid-looking a humanoid race gets in this set. Kudos to the artist for at least semi-pulling off the concept of ‘dog people archers’.
K: I would say this is a home run, but I think you could more accurately call it a ‘walk with the bases loaded’. Same result, just not as urgent. I would say this is my vote for most flavorful card overall in the set. I love this big, stupid guy. You tell him to attack and he just kind of wanders off, very slowly in the general direction of your opponent. One of my favorite experiences in magic is taking a card with an interesting drawback and trying to make it work in my favor. Although these cards have largely fallen by the wayside, it’s nice to see they still get printed occasionally.
T: What I imagine happening here is the turtle walking around the entire planet, and coming back at your opponent from the other side. It needs Islandwalk so it can cross all of the oceans in between. I think this is the closest we're ever going to get to a "giant turtle with the world on its back" card, so I'll take it!
T: I wonder if this card was designed by/for Stephen Colbert. Savage Punch: Great green removal spell, or the GREATEST green removal spell?
K: This art. Man oh man. Unless you’re a soulless husk you decided that you wanted to play this clan at the prerelease the moment you saw this image, regardless of how good it actually turned out. I don’t even care what it does. This could be basic land art for all I care. In fact, it should be basic land art.
K: Mongolian themed set: Not quite enough. Mongolian/Chinese mythology themed set: getting closer, but we need something white people will like. Mongolian/Chinese mythology/Kung-fu movie themed set: perfect! This card is pretty hilarious and gives me hope that we will see more blatant shoutouts before the block is over- at the top of my list are an enchantment called Tiger Style, a removal spell called 5 Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique, and of course a reprint of Killer Bees.
T: What really sells this card for me is the random guy on the left in the cybernetic virtual reality bodysuit. It seems like such a simple detail, but it just ties everything else together so beautifully.
T: It really bothers me that none of the mantises in this set have first strike. Isn’t striking quickly their whole deal?
K: No no no, the mantis having haste represents its quickness. Everyone knows first strike is more associated with having a spear.. oh.. wait.. In any case, I like how this contrasts with Highspire Mantis. What advantages and costs does having a human rider come with? We finally have a concrete answer thanks to this card. Also more evidence that this is ‘Honey, I Shrunk the Kids’ world.
K: Well, it seems like Sedris finally abdicated the throne and this is his idiot son heir. It’s a real shame that they couldn’t make this a little different, because anyone who conceivably wants this card can just play with its almost strictly superior predecessor. Truly the George W. Bush of the Traitor King line.
T: Lay off the guy. He's already got low self-esteem and body-image issues from the way he's trying to squeeze himself into armor that's clearly designed for a Creature -- Bird Soldier.
K: You’ve gotta love a card with this name. Extremely awesome illustration as well. One of the goblins is a little bigger cause he’s still riding the pony! Flavor A+
T: Run, Valley Dasher! They'll never tame your wild heart!
K: It seems like Wizards finally took their policy of using each card’s colors as its literal color palette to its logical extreme in this set. Everything mardu is pink and I really like it! See also: High Spire Mantis. Super underused color in magic art.
T: So you’re saying the Mardu cards are black and white and red all over?
K: It is criminal that this art doesn’t feature a dude riding a corpse down a mountain like a snowboard. There’s always hope for an FNM promo, I guess, which have been getting increasingly silly lately. I know you’re reading this, Jeremy Jarvis- get on it! And have Wayne Reynolds to do it.
T: You mean like something that’s green and red and goes 100 mph?
K: Can we talk about the demon cat people for a minute? First, they mainly seem to be characterized as pan-Asian Scrooge McDucks. Second, I mean, just look at them. Third, Cat Demon?
T: I actually think it's cool that they're using some legit creatures from South Asian mythology like the Rakshasa. If there were ever an appropriate way to explore the rich traditions of the Indian subcontinent, it's certainly as a superficial inclusion in a hodge-podge of draft mechanics and fanservice that really only exists to get ally-colored fetchlands into Modern.
K: Sometimes a card has such perfect flavor you just have to let it speak for itself. Altar of the Brood completely epitomizes such a well known, resonant concept that it doesn’t even need the art or the flavor text, but somehow both only make the picture more clear. Bravo to Wizards and three cheers for Altar of the Brood, a card I’m sure to open a seemingly disproportionate amount of in drafts.
T: I can't tell if you're being serious or not. Either way, I "agree" that this design is "great".
K: The images this card produces are just so great that I can’t not include it here. Serra Angel surreptitiously slipping a hundred dollar bill into her pocket, whistling and looking the other way as a horde of goblins stampede by her.
T: The best part about this card is that I can finally carry around special "gem counters" without being judged or called weird for clutching handfuls of tiny plastic jewels at all times.
T: What is this throne doing on Tarkir? Everyone knows its belongs to Daenerys Targaryen, Stormborn, The Unburnt, Mother of Dragons, and rightful queen of Westeros.
K: Listen, I don’t watch Breaking Bad so I don’t know what you’re talking about. What I do know is that I’d listen to pretty much anyone with a throne made out of a dragon. Maybe this is why America isn’t a world power anymore.
T: Hey, guys! Check out this cool trick where I set my hand on fire and cut it in half! AAAAAAAAGHHHH!!!! Neat, huh?!
K: I like to imagine that Ghostfire blade is just a really high quality version of one of those novelty plastic knives that disappears into the hilt. Whoah, I just stabbed you, where’d the ghostfire blade go??
T: I like how the flavor of this card perfectly reflects the uselessness of it’s mechanical ability to tell you which morph creature is about to kill you.
K: Onslaught block rule for morph: It’s always a willbender. Khans block rule: Its always a stupid looking cat thing.
K: Expositionbot 5000 doing a lot of heavy lifting in the flavor text here. My only complaint is that this should’ve been a common so that new players could have had any hope of figuring out what is going on with this block’s storyline.
T: It’s true. Witness of the Ages explains pretty much everything, except where the giant transforming robot came from.
K: If I say the card name ‘Opulent Palace’ to you, what colors do you imagine it produces? Eh, maybe white and black, right? I could see blue somewhere in there, but green is a real stretch. Don’t even get me started on Frontier Bivouac, which feels like it could produce purple, beige, and teal mana for all the sense it currently makes. At first I was willing to give them a pass here, since I imagine wedge colors could be really hard to make a land that makes sense for, but then I realized that just calling this ‘verdant palace’ or ‘jungle palace’ would have been much better. These tri-lands largely don’t make any sense, and them being in the set alongside the comes-into-play-tapped-and-gains-you-a-life duals (CIPT&GUAL lands, as they’re commonly known), which all have great names and art, is really anomalous.
T: Speaking of the common duals, since they’ve done so many cycles of ten lands, I wish they’d start mixing it up. It’d be nice if the mechanical drawback actually matched up with the color identity of the mana. For example, the B/R land deals you damage, the U/W one comes into play tapped, and so forth. Sure, it’d make limited more confusing, but isn’t a cluttered and confusing limited environment exactly what they were going for?
K: Perhaps they’re saving that wonderful idea for Return to Future Sight.
K: I have a feeling that “Is this more dragon trickery?” is going to be my most frequently quoted piece of flavor text in this set. Excellent flavor here, since the name of the card seems to imply it should be legendary, but the flavor text explains why it isn’t. There are just that many spirit dragon gravesites littering the countryside of Tarkir. Sorry Sorin, your spirit dragon is in another tomb.
T: I don't really understand why this card gains you life for controlling morph creatures. See also the equally baffling Ugin’s Nexus. I'm probably just not familiar enough with the origin story of the Spirit Dragon, nor do I plan to be.
K: That’s all for this time folks, but join us next week when we delve into some of the deeper issues present in the set, as well as award or props and slops for flavor and artwork. You Khan’t afford to miss it!