Flavor Versus Function – Haggling with the Muse

You could play this game with less—a lot less. Cards could boil down to stats and numeral codenames, shedding their art and interpretive keywords until bare mechanics remained. Those bones would function in the strictest sense—technically sufficient the way gruel could count as dinner—but who would play that game? Who wants to attack with Unit A034 and recur it with Dead Thing Recovery 2? That poverty sounds miserable, the game hardly itself.

Damnation by Kev Walker

What Flavor Does

Without flavor, function is pure abstraction—an isolated system of interlocking parts. In art terms, it uses no representation, no signs or symbols to evoke something else. Beads are simply beads in the mancala bowl. Flavorless function can be nuanced, deep, and a lot of fun (see Go), but it doesn’t connect to the world, doesn’t reflect any human drama without extraneous analogies. It’s like theoretical math, clean and esoteric. We meet it at a distance from ourselves.

Dressing function up relates it to our lives. Chess, whose royalty theme is almost bare minimum flavor, becomes a microcosm of monarchy by virtue of that texture. I think of feminine empowerment when striking with my queen. The game’s mechanical narrative has context outside of itself and borrows the significance of those external issues. Capturing land in Risk, for instance, carries historical weight because the continents look like ours; we imagine ourselves as conquerors. Settlers of Catan is a ruthless commerce simulator, but it doesn’t feel like Forbes because of quaint pastoral landscapes (until the Insider Trading expansion.) Little pictures of sheep keep our minds off the Koch brothers.

Settlers of Catan courtesy of StarLitCitadel.com

In short, flavor brings us in by connecting to our interests. We see ourselves in the game and play it as self-expression, trying different archetypes as identity experiments. In this way, flavor is a vehicle for exploring alter egos, a wardrobe of costumes we rotate while competing. Each choice we make expresses some part of ourselves.

Magic: The Manifold

Though Magic’s overall flavor adheres to fantasy aesthetics, creative development has always made the point of drawing from outside genres: Phyrexia makes the easy jump to sci-fi (“compleat” sounds a lot like “assimilate”), both visits to Ravnica incorporated noir, and Innistrad gave us gothic horror. None of these are massive departures, but each diversifies the players’ wardrobe.

Most games give their players just a handful of costumes—contained, as they are, in a single cardboard box—but Magic adds more options with each release. The multiverse is brilliantly expansive design space, allowing creative development to sample any kind of setting while technically building one. Each plane comes with its own distinct flavor, and with that, its own bag of costumes: There’s always something new, or at the very least, new visions of something old. The wardrobe keeps expanding (insert Narnia lowball).

Angelic Destiny by Jana Schirmer & Johannes Voss

Though Magic counts its bones in individual cards, it—like any deck-building game—cares less about their value in isolation than their performance with each other. The player’s costume is the deck, which he designs himself. He assembles its features from Magic’s giant shelves, picking out accessories until they make a necromancer, paladin, or calculating scholar. These identities emerge via synergy: It’s not that the player is his Contagion Engine or Mycologist, but that he’s the type of being who would use them both together (in this case, an infectious fungal wizard). The costume is the union of its parts.

Function as Expression

The wardrobe metaphor reduces gaming to dress-up and neglects the fact that actions scream identity without the need for symbols. Many Magic players ignore the lore entirely or treat it is as peripheral to gameplay. For them, in-game expression is finesse with the mechanics. Archetypes such as aggro and control refer to strategies of play, not aesthetic composition, and they demonstrate personality types by how they function. The “calculating scholar” comes through just as clearly in dig mechanics such as Ponder’s as it does in pictures of books. If you stripped away that card’s flavor, we’d eventually reinterpret it.

The difference here is that flavor expresses who players would like to be while function expresses who they are. Function, being action-based, can’t help but reflect behavior. It manifests the player’s disposition without any apparel. The repeated aggro player is probably a go-getter—aggressive in real life—and those who lean toward control tend to be more laid back and patient.

This is all there would be if games had zero flavor.

When Flavor and Function Conflict

Painful Quandary by Whit Brachna

We always want them both, but sometimes, we build around flavorful cards to find out that they suck—their flavor outpaces their function. We wouldn’t play this game if weren’t trying to win, so what do we now? Do we cut bad cards that we like, or play with decks that don’t win?

For spikes, this isn’t an issue—put the best cards in the deck, regardless of their flavor; maximize mechanical value. Outside competitive play, however, flavor has value all its own. The question is what level of performance are we willing to sacrifice for something so sentimental. How strictly should we adhere to theme when dissonance would help us win?

There’s obviously no objective answer: People play Magic for different reasons and define value for themselves. This conflict, however, seems common to everyone but the most committed Vorthos. We all know the flavor fire and the cold-blooded process of dousing it.

But is that healthy thinking? What service do we do ourselves by strangling the flavor muse?

Flavorful Decks That Win

Unsurprisingly, I learned to strike the balance in Commander. When a friend introduced me to the format, he described it as a place where “bad cards are playable” and wacky combinations make sense. Johnny Land, I thought, and disengaged from Standard like the ring abandoning Gollum. Visions of melodrama danced through my head. These will be the decks I always wanted—the vessels for my terrible plans. Meet me in the lab with a pen.

Rooftop Storm by John Stanko

I immediately devised some grandiose list for Damia, Sage of Stone with the sole intention of making Zombie tokens. That’s right, I went for the Parallel Lives, Army of the Damned, and Endless Ranks of the Dead pipe dream. I thought blue would give me token producers like Undead Alchemist, and Damia would carry the draw. It took literally one game for that dream to expire.

I thought: This is dumb, and I am dumb. None of these cards do anything without the perfect sequence, and all the sweepers in this format laugh at me for trying. Zombie horde flavor means nothing if I never get to see it.

That final realization was key: Flavor so committed that it simply doesn’t function isn’t actually valuable. Aesthetic potential isn’t enough. The cards have to hit the board and do their thing for us to enjoy their flavor, since nobody cares about what a deck might do—we want to see it happen.

Damia became Grimgrin, Corpse-Born, who eventually dropped the tribe and became combo reanimator (see the list below). I wasn’t spamming Zombies, but burying alive Sheoldred, Whispering One and a host of other tomb-dwellers that had flavor I could dig. Functional concerns diluted my first vision but led me to a new one that losing didn’t undermine. This was a different costume, a new identity expressed for different reasons, and I realized its cohesion was my job to imagine. The fact that Wizards didn’t spoon-feed me a theme didn’t mean I couldn’t find one on my own.

Flavor pointed to function, and function pointed back around to flavor.

"Grimgrin’s Graveyard Smash"

The trick—at least for me—is to ensure that I’m having fun and then be flexible and creative with where that process leads. If your playgroup builds Duel Decks from the lore, by all means, keep Urza out of Treefolk—but if some object from his workshop helps the forest stomp, maybe your theme is bigger than you thought.

Mind Unbound by Jason Felix