Khans of Tarkir - Flavor Review pt. 2 - The Khanclusion November 20 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.
This week we dive in to some of the more in-depth flavor issues of Khans of Tarkir, as well as award our coveted best and worst of set awards. While the window has certainly passed for strategy articles, you can still get a major leg up on the competition for your next flavor draft or kitchen-table flavor argument.
Did you miss part 1?
Our Illustrious Leaders
T: Hail Anafenza, Queen of Goats! It's a shame that the Abzan wedge doesn't include blue, because it seems like a perfect place for a reprint of Ovinomancer.
K: I like the Abzan flavor overall, especially the whole siege-style warfare and taking your whole city with you aspect of it. The second ability on Anafenza here might some like a meaningless mechanical necessity, but I read somewhere that it represents that the Abzan grind up their foes’ corpses in order to insult and demoralize their surviving relatives. Metal!
T: It makes great fertilizer for kin-trees, plus it prevents them from becoming zombies! Actually, can you make a zombie out of ground beef chuck? I feel like that could be scarier in a lot of ways.
T: All right. I'm not sure what Mary Steenburgen is doing as the leader of an East Asian clan of monastic martial artists, but good for her.
K: I like how this card’s interpretation of what a master martial artist does is ‘about 4 random unconnected things’.
K: I like how they managed to make most of the Khan’s abilities work cleverly with the clan mechanic without overtly spelling it out. Sidisi here both enables delve and rewards you for playing other delve enablers, while still being non-linear enough that a deck can use these abilities in a completely different way. A cool engine-y card that is able to overcome the disadvantage of having roughly a million words on it.
T: As the first clan leader to not be weilding her weapon menacingly overhead, Sidisi still looks pretty badass. In fact... wait a second, is she FLIPPING US OFF?? I think she might be! Whoa! Sidisi is a true rebel, and the Sultai clan doesn't give a damn about your society or its stupid rules. Especially the rules regarding the inappropriateness of feeding people to alligators.
K: Can’t believe I just got owned by a Magic card. Man Sidisi is so cool.
K: I’m getting a mixed message about Temur’s relationship with bears here. Are we friends with them or are we wearing their split-in-half heads as shoulder pads? I don’t think it can be both.
T: 6/6 is surprisingly beefy for a guy who's apparently smaller than the leaves of an ordinary houseplant.
K: I’m more interested in where he found such a tiny bear. It does seem like they’re establishing that Khans block takes place in Tiny Huge World of Mario fame.
K: The mortal enemy of haberdashers everywhere! Legend says that Zurgo Helmsmasher took on this name when his parents were traumatically killed by a helmet in front of him as a child. It’s easy to see how he got into conflict with Sarkhan, Hat Enthusiast, as he was known before his planeswalker spark ignited.
T: While normally a fearsome and imposing figure on the battlefield, Zurgo is pictured here in the embarrassing moment of tripping over a thigh-high knoll in the midst of one of his famous "Zurg Rush" battle formations.
K: Ok, quick, cover the creature type and look at the art. What kind of thing is this, do you think? Is it a Yeti? An Ork? A Goblin? A Demon? Nope! It’s an ogre, but all those other things are in this set too, and they seem to have been assigned an appearance pretty much at random. On the plus side, I’m digging the knuckleblades that knuckleblade here seems to have made his signature weapon. Once again I am left with the question of who exactly is strapping weaponry to these giant monsters. Did Surrak Dragonclaw make those for him? On a similar note, in what world is Smoke Teller a human?
T: I feel like “savage” is probably a term that they might want to consider phasing out of fantasy games in this day and age. So is “barbarian” for that matter. Unless they’re actual bears, of course.
T: While it’s great to see djinn and efreet returning as creature types, can someone tell me what the hell these things are? The efreets are kind of weird and insectoid-looking, and the djinn are apparently goat-horned teddy bear hybrid beasts. Does Efreet Weaponmaster not look like art from someone’s Batman Beyond fan-fiction? Add to that the fact that they’re flavored as monastic kung-fu masters, and it becomes increasingly clear that Wizards just sees this as the token pan-Asian set. Lorwyn, Theros, and Innistrad are all based on extremely specific branches of European folklore, but the entire continent of Asia just gets lumped into one big sloppy package. This can be done better.
K: I think the thing that separates the Efreets from the Djinn are the time period they’re supposed to be from. Clearly Efreet at time-travelers from Neo Tokyo with cybernetic enhancements and laser weapons. Djinn are like, their more primitive ancestors from before the cyberpocalypse. Look, this is a time travel block, what I just said could be canon.
T: Although this may not look like a vampire at first glance, it is actually based on the Philippine vampire legend of the Aswang. They can take many forms, one of which is a creature with a long hollow tongue used to suck fetuses out of pregnant women's bodies. While impressively specific and accurate, it's again painfully obvious that Wizards is just pulling from random Asian traditions and tossing them all into the same set because they're cool and exotic, regardless of whether they belong together. Wouldn’t it be ridiculous if you opened a pack of Theros and suddenly there was a random Lammasu?
K: Just gonna step in here and point out that Theros contained some pretty superfluous dragons I remember complaining about pretty endlessly. As for this card, it’s one of the creepier arts in this set to be sure, and that mythology around it is pretty messed up. On the one hand I like that they’re showing what various magic standards look like on other planes, on the other hand it becomes kind of weird when those ‘planes’ are just amalgams of a bunch of actual real world cultures.
T: Suddenly, there’s a random Lammasu!
K: Yeah, just checked it out on wikipedia- Lammasu are totally middle eastern type things. Even if this set had it’s boundaries set at the very ambitious ‘all of asia’, this falls outside those parameters. On the other hand, Magic has a long and illustrious history of shoving together a bunch of stuff that doesn’t fit. See, for example, the last appearance of a Lammasu in the Eastern-Europe flavored Ravnica.
T: It always bothers me slightly when they have both humanoid and non-humanoid versions of the same creature type in the same set. Why is one sapient, and one bestial? I wonder if they’re ever going to do the same thing with Humans, and if they’re going to have the good sense not to call it “savage” anything.
K: Look, you can tell the humanoids from the non-humanoid by whether they have a ‘class’ type as well. In other words, those without jobs are sub-human, which is a statement without any kind of coded message at all.
T: On the other hand, they've decided to create a new Naga creature type when the game already supports Snake Archers. Even the inconsistency is inconsistent! Then, to top things off, there’s Hooded Hydra. Magic is clearly in need of a new Creature Type Czar. Known taxonomist Jesse T is up to the task, and will happily accept payment in the form of Magic Online Event Tickets.
K: My favorite aspect of this criticism is how identical the art on these two cards is. Wow! On the other hand, there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation as to why the Orochi are Snake people and the Sagu are Naga people. You see, Orochi have 4 arms and 2 legs, a total of 6 limbs, whereas Naga have only 2. The more limbs you have, the closer to being a snake you are. That’s how snakes work, right?
T: Ok, now they’re just doing this on purpose.
K: That’s far from the most confusing this going on here. Check out this cool Mark Rosewater explanation for why Tombstalker isn’t included in this set. I’ll wait. Ok, did you catch the problem here- The explanation for why no Tombstalker was ‘we didn’t want to print any non-cat demons’. Necropolis fiend is not only a non-cat demon, but he appears to be literally stalking a tomb in his art. I don’t have any special affection for Tombstalker, but that is one terrible explanation.
T: Morph creatures have always been kind of difficult to represent flavor-wise. It's a great mechanic, and super fun to play with, but how could I possibly be unable to distinguish between a Ponyback Brigade and a War Behemoth when I'm looking right at it? The answer? It's a weird magic ball of light or something! If they were all vaguely humanoid, I could potentially even buy that the Ponyback Brigade is standing on each other's shoulders and wearing the same cloak, Little-Rascals-style, but the flavor of morph continues to fall short for me. I'd gladly trade off the phenotypical variety for a little more interpretive consistency. Wouldn't it be way cooler and simpler if all the morph creatures were just hooded figures instead of giant clumps of bioluminescent wisps?
K: In order to bring creative and gameplay closer together, I think facedown morphs should all look like the backs of magic cards with Angry eyes on them.
T: Suddenly, there’s a random Yeti!
K: My only guess is that they thought this Nutella, the hunt caller flavor text was so good that they just had to print a card to put it on. They were wrong.
Flavor Text Fails
K: Never has there been such a gulf between quality of concept and quality of flavor text as Dead Drop. Between this and the train wreck masquerading as flavor text on Hooting Mandril, you would be perfectly justified in reading all Sultai flavor text in a 1940’s gangster movie accent. All that said, I sincerely hope this card is good, because I’m going to enjoy throwing my opponents’ creatures into the alligator pit as often as I possibly can over the next few months.
T: “Jimmy the Rat now sleeps with the fishes.” -- Sultai secret
K: This card’s flavor text is the magic card version of that person in your life who is just terrible at telling stories.
T: Tell me about it. Reading that flavor text is boring enough to make anyone sleep through a Mardu ambush.
K: “Can I stop whispering now?”
“I Said I’m really tired of having to whisper all the time”
“WHAT?” -Exchange between Chianul, Who Whispers Twice and everyone else in her life.
T: “Interlopers in Temur territory usually end up frozen or fricasseed.” -- Johnny Two-Times
K: All right, this is it, the worst flavor text in the set. I vote that this receives the Ancient Grudge Commemorative Worst Flavor Text Award (aka. The Grudgie). This really made me groan using the absolute minimum of words necessary, so at least this has economy going for it. Did they pull the Sultai flavor text out of one of those ‘100 great jokes for kids’ books or something? This is the same clan that apparently employs disfigured slaves as fruit platters, and this is what they have to say? Really? Oh well, maybe next set we’ll finally find out what a ‘Hertz Doughnut’ is.
T: The element of surprise is essential when scouting the borders of the Sultai state: the state of... No. I refuse to stoop to your level, flavor text.
T: I wonder if this is what reading those Magic novels feels like.
K: No, this seems way too boring, since I remember those involving a lot more of people throwing fireballs and lightning bolts at one another.
T: First of all, I have no idea what the geography of Tarkir is like, so the location of Sage-Eye Stronghold gives me no sense of scale whatsoever. Secondly, if they range to the farthest reaches of Tarkir, couldn’t the same thing be said about ANYWHERE on the plane? I mean, I know they’re just making all this shit up, but they don’t have to be so brazen about it.
K: More concerning for me is what my highschool mascot is doing on a magic card. Go Fighting Cardinals!
T: If you’re going to paraphrase Bruce Lee, you might as well give him credit. Then again, I guess it fits better into the set’s theme of pilfering Asian culture without referencing any source material.
K: I wouldn’t fall into the trap of putting this under(water)whelming card into your deck when so many better options exist. Who knows, though, maybe you want to do some Avater: The Last Airbender themed deck building, who am I to judge.
T: Jeez, Smoke Teller. How about finding a thousand nice things to do for them? Or a thousand perfect housewarming gifts? Also, seeing something from a thousand sides isn’t particularly simple advice to follow in the first place.
K: Well at least we know that he’s not giving his ridiculous and impractical advice to people, just smoke. Tell that smoke a thing or two, Smoketeller! No one else is gonna do it.
T: Fear who, now? The sky? God? A wizard? This is my nominee for worst-in-set. At best, this is a magical version of “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” At worst, it’s impenetrable nonsense.
K: I think ‘fear a wizard’ is pretty good advice, at least in the Magic: the Gathering multiverse. I like the cool zoomed-out perspective and the color palette on the art, but yeah, this flavor text is a clunker.
K: If you ever wondered what Polluted Delta was polluted with, now you have your inexplicable answer: Dragon Corpses! The fetches all have art and flavor text that seem more than a little embarrassed about their existence in this set. Like “yeah, we know, these don’t make any flavor sense, but look, we had the artist add some dragon bones”. Of the cycle, this one is one of the worst offenders. At least most of the others make a stronger effort at highlighting the ‘dragons were awesome, now they’re dead’ dichotomy they seem to be going for. It’s still not as bad as Flooded Strand which “contrasts” ‘rests’ with ‘sleeps’.
T: You can almost tell in what order they penned the flavor text for the fetch lands, because there's a pretty stark drop-off in quality. Burn/freeze makes sense, and roar/keen is defensible, but prevail/sink is a pretty bizarre contrast, as is triumph/molder. It feels like someone must have looked up wax/wane or rise/fall in a thesaurus and just applied synonyms at random with no understanding of the English language. Then by the time they got to Flooded Strand they just straight-up forgot what they were supposed to be doing. We’re honestly lucky we didn’t end up with “Where dragons once polished, their bones now Autumn.”
T: This card ought to be called “Throw Shade”.
K: You can see why they made him Khan of the base red clan, because Zurgo always delivers with the sick burns! My vote for best flavor text of the set
Art: Pros and Khans
K: This is my favorite art of the set. Well, favorite non-land art, but picking a land is just cheating. I love how stylized and colorful it is, and unlike every piece of Sultai related flavor text in the set, this one actually gives you the sense of eerie intimidation that I think they were going for. An obvious flavor fail is that it doesn’t make two snake tokens, but I’m willing to take what I can get.
T: Step 1: Destroy target creature. Step 2: ???. Step 3: Profit! That kind of thing is still acceptable on the internet, right? Actually, in this case, I guess those question marks are pretty unambiguously a potential Snake token.
K: Wow. Very death. Quite profit -Doge, Qarsi overseer
K: If I hadn’t already given it away to Rite of the Serpent, I would consider this my favorite art in the set. It’s about the contrasts- first you’ve got the striking and very aesthetic desert evening sky background, but then you’ve got this completely beige subject in the foreground. Our rider looks totally serious and stoic and threatening, but then she’s riding this clearly ridiculous joke monster that seems like it came out of a Doctor Seuss book. Furthermore, it’s like no one’s even paying attention to that thing’s head being out of frame. I want to know what that head looks like so bad!
T: I imagine something like this:
K: And the evidence that Wizards of the Coast’s creative director is a dedicated reader of these flavor reviews continues to mount. Just a few months ago I complained that Cancel and Naturalize both had never had really good art, and now here they come with probably the best illustrations these cards have ever had. I will make a minor nitpick here that a dragon’s skull may not qualify as an “artifact”, but this is a big enough improvement that I don’t care.
T: These are definitely the best and second-best versions I’ve ever seen of each of these cards, respectively. Even the flavor text on Naturalize is even like a strictly better version of what they were going for on the fetch lands. Strangely enough, they also chose to print a new version Act of Treason in this set when the original already had some pretty good flavor text from this block’s main character. I just assumed, based on prior experience, that they wanted to take as many opportunities to awkwardly cram Sarkhan Vol onto these cards as possible.
T: Scion of Glaciers is a neat-looking creature, and Wetland Sambar has some really beautiful lighting. I’ve never seen anything like Scion of Glaciers before, but it’s definitely the kind of thing I might be scared of if I were driving alone somewhere in the snow. Or maybe there’s nothing special about either of these cards and I’m just weirdly fixated on things with antlers.
K: Scion of Glaciers looking a lot like one of Rust Cohle’s LSD visions from True Detective.. not that that’s not a good thing to put on a magic card.
T: This picture really sells the moment it’s capturing without overdoing it. I love how the lighting on the bat’s semi-transparent wings reveals all the veins and capillaries inside. Lots of nice details here. Unfortunately, in the bat-vs-falcon fight, I think the falcon has a slight edge when it’s four stories tall.
K: Good flavor too, since it compares extremely favorably to Royal Falcon, who is the gold standard of falconhood in magic for my money.
T: I really like the impressionistic Francis Bacon thing going on with this monkey. I know I mention Francis Bacon a lot in these set reviews, but what can I say? I just really like Francis Bacon. Also, I’m a hollow charlatan who only knows one painter by name and aims to create an illusion of credibility by frequently citing his work.
K: Between the gold chain and the satin purple scarf, this is an unprecedented amount of swag for a zombie monkey. I didn’t peg Sidisi as the kind of person who puts dumb outfits on her pets, but I guess if you’re gonna go it you might as well do it right.
T: Another nice reprint/upgrade here. I really like how they captured the moment of impact and imbued the figures with convincing movement. However, I still think it’s unacceptable to shoot an innocent Quaker girl with a lightning bolt, and I don’t endorse doing so in any way.
K: Look man, arc lightning doesn’t kill people, wizards kill people. Let me forward you this article I found on Facebook about a law abiding wizard saving his daughter using the lightning the government wants to take away. I think it’ll really change the way you see things.
T: It's a shame this card is so small, because when it's blown up several hundred times on Magic Online, you can actually see that it has some really badass artwork. I guess for some reason they thought it would be a better idea to shrink her face to the size of a pin and have her standing over what appears to be fresh poultry.
K: It’s clearly a creature- turducken
T: This is as good of a place as any to include the Northern Lights, and I’m glad they did. The only thing better than looking at a pretty thing in real life is looking at it while playing a high fantasy card game in the safety and comfort of a sweaty game store basement.
K: Yup, this card looks good. It looks like this is just the set for reprints getting better art.
T: The colors!!! Rust Cohle ain’t got nothing on Rakshasa Vizier. If I’m lucky, one day I’ll look over at my dealer’s cat and see this thing staring back at me.
K: I see what you’re saying about how cool this picture looks, but it’s hard not be disappointed when they print a tri-color rare that does nothing except get bigger, and even then only if you jump through a bunch of hoops. Compare this to Lord of Extinction, for example. I think we deserve more from our cat demons.
K: I felt like this card’s art best illustrated that morph looks kinda stupid now. I mean, not MORE stupid than it did before obviously, but pretty stupid. If anyone has a flavor explanation for why this (admittedly awesome limited) mechanic is in the set I’m all ears. An no, Wizards, “Draconic Magic” is not an answer.
T: That’s right. Draconic magic is not an answer. I hope I didn’t give anyone that impression. Although draconic magic can be fun and even edifying when used correctly, it is not a solution to any problems or difficulties that you may be experiencing in your day-to-day life. If you do choose to use draconic magic, please remember to do so safely and responsibly.
K: So I have a new theory: Wizards was shopping around a CCG based on Avatar: The Last Airbender, but then that terrible M. Night Shyamalan movie came out and just killed the momentum. Exhibit ‘A’ in this theory is this card’s art. Look at this illustration and tell me we are not playing an anime card game right now.
T: This is definitely teaser art for the 2015 programming lineup on Disney XD.
K: Sorry about your neck and head, random archer. I guess this is what you get when you’re not trained in “Dakla, the way of the bow” like the Mardu: terrible whiplash injuries. This card manages to be a real double threat by also having terrible flavor text.
T: I personally like this sort of cubist folk-art spin on the Magic universe. It's not often that we get to see this kind of simple, representative work that isn't bogged down by the constraints of looking "realistic" or "good" or “consistent with our understanding of physics". We’re constantly bombarded with clear, visually pleasing images that neither make us feel disoriented nor slightly nauseous, and I truly believe that it's overall good for the game to have this kind of aesthetic variety.
K: Whoah, hey! Teasing the upcoming spaghetti western/australian outback themed set’s dingo people a little early, eh? If I were going to pick a failing of this set’s art direction, it would be that a lot of the humanoid animals look pretty stupid and dopey. I’m not sure if this is a deliberate move towards a more cartoonish style, or if it is just coincidental that the bird people, cat people, dog people, and elephant people all look mega stupid in most of the art they’re in. Here’s some evidence of this claim:
T: Don’t forget the orcs! Krumar Bond-Kin, for example, looks like someone stuck a tiny pig head on a weightlifter’s body.
T: If not for Heart-Piercer Bow, this poorly-drawn claw would certainly be climbing it’s way up to the number one spot for worst art in the set. Was this done with finger paint? Between this, Inferno Fist, and Seismic Assault, Magic is now legally and morally forbidden from further exploration of the “giant hand made of fire” concept until otherwise notified.
K: An even more disastrous flavor fail is that this clearly depicts only one claw. When I cast crater’s claws I want claws, not claw. How hard is that, idiots?
T: While this is actually a very nicely-detailed, well-rendered piece of art, the overall concept is either too stupid or too clever for its own good. The fact that I can’t even tell makes me want to just stop thinking about this card entirely. Luckily, it’s not locked inside of a capsule that’s intersecting my skull, so I’m going to do just that.
K: Yeah, I almost wanted to say something about this too, but I decided I found it a little too confusing conceptually to really touch. I guess good job on illustrating this extremely odd idea.
K: Too gross, do not want to play with. They went a little overboard a few times in this set, which feels like a weird disconnect from the kiddy vibe I was getting earlier. Death Frenzy, which looks like it was ripped straight from the Dinosaurs Attack! collectable card series and Deflecting Palm, with it’s visible knuckle bones both spring to mind. I guess if they take out all the scantily clad ladies, they have to replace it with gore? It feels weird to do so, since they’re all competently illustrated, but these cards are my co-nominees for The Hunt the Weak Commemorative Worst Art Award (aka. The Huntie). “Makes you want to not look at them” has to got to be a good enough criterion, right?
T: I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: There’s something fundamentally sick about a culture wherein it’s more socially acceptable to depict a flayed and dismembered person being publicly treated with callous indifference than, say, a *CENSORED*, or a *CENSORED*, or a *MEGA CENSORED*. This isn’t unique to Magic or even the fantasy genre, but it is a disappointing reminder of the society we live in. I’d rather just see more cool dragons and wizards than any of this stuff.
Speaking of Dragons:
T: No flavor review would be complete without addressing Magic’s flagship characters (despite the game doing just fine without them for the first 14 years of its existence): The Planeswalkers! Sarkhan Vol, Tarkir’s prodigal son, returns with the fun ability to turn into a dragon, throw fire at your opponents, and apparently give you short-term memory loss. While they’re obviously gesturing desperately toward the past success of Form of the Dragon, Sarkhan’s presence definitely permeates the set (mostly through his liberal inclusion in its art and flavor text), and really helps flesh out the world they’re trying to build.
K: I like them bringing Sarkhan back as the lead planeswalker of this set. His current story arc of ‘goes insane’ was not really very compelling as it was, and he’s an interesting enough character that I’m glad he’s getting some spotlight time. Makes me look forward to some of those random one-off planeswalkers from recent sets (Tamiyo, Kiora) getting to lead a story on their home planes. This set of abilities is one of the more cohesive and fun ones we’ve seen so far. Clearly he’s a dragon guy. The ultimate drags the flavor down a little, but is just fine as something that is interesting, rare to find in red, and doesn’t end the game instantly.
T: Sorin is also present.
K: As someone who only really cares about how soon we’re going to get more full art lands, Sorin’s presence, and the Return to Zendikar that it implies, is actually a little exciting. Still though, extremely bad form to print a new version of a planeswalker that is basically the same as the old version, except with the first two loyalty abilities reversed. Be less boring Sorin, you’re an ancient vampire for crying out loud.
T: While I like the set a great deal mechanically, the overall flavor feels like kind of a mess. It’s cluttered with confusing nonsense, and born out of relative ignorance of the environment it’s exploring. It is great to see Magic including some non-Western cultures, but I was all too frequently reminded that the set was ultimately created by and for white guys. The word “orientalist” springs to mind.
It’s especially grating when Wizards actively prevented Lee Shi Tian, one of the few actual Asian people in the top 8 of the Pro Tour, from referring to his deck as ‘Umbrella Revolution’ because they were worried about making a statement regarding the political unrest in Taiwan. I hate to break it to you Wizards, but “staying neutral” is still choosing a side. Apparently some people only care about what happens in Asia when they get to make it up themselves.
K: Yes, what he said. Do yourself a favor and read that article now. Overall I want to give this set a flavor grade of ‘C+’, or even ‘B’. I’m probably going to look at things a little more optimistically than Jesse T, but they’re doing some ambitious things and putting in a really good effort. They’ve stretched a little bit past the traditional fantasy comfort zones by embracing some really interesting real world mythology, but they’ve compensated for any discomfort this might cause their audience by including a bunch of unrelated, but recognizable things. More importantly however, this set represents Wizards at its most aware thus far of social issues. The presence of people of varying ages, colors, and appearances is at its highest yet, and women are both more prominent and more appropriately dressed. It’s clear to me from this set that Wizards is trying. The best way for them to take it to the next level? Next time they create an ethnically inspired setting, hire somebody from that background and put them in charge of the set. Just an idea. Until next time!