Allen Varney, Writer and Traveler



Stories behind the words and names on Magic cards

by Allen Varney

[Written 1995; loosely adapted in early installments of the InQuest magazine column "The Name of the Game"]

Urza, Mishra, Tawnos, Phyrexia, Mox -- seasoned Magic players know these names like they know members of their families. But where did these words originate? It turns out that behind the names of many Magic cards lurk stories as fascinating as the cards themselves.

The names on Magic cards have four principal origins. Most common are the invented names that designer Richard Garfield and the other Magic creators concocted simply for their sound: Hurloon, Uthden, Vesuvan, Lhurghoyf.

Then there are the anagrams and inside jokes. Many words derive from the names of the designers, their friends, and their interests. For instance, "Wyluli" in Wyluli Wolf is a scrambling of "Lily Wu," now Mrs. Richard Garfield. Leshrac, used on several cards in Ice Age, is an anagram of "Charles," the middle name of early Magic playtester Chris Page.

Names of the third type are also invented or anagrammed, but they come with backgrounds derived from the emerging story of Dominia, the setting of Magic. Phyrexia, Tawnos, and many Ice Age names belong in this category.

Finally, many Magic names come from Earth's actual history, mythology and folklore. The term "mana," from the beliefs of Polynesia and Melanesia, is a perfect example, as are many Arabian Nights cards.

"Names add more [to Magic] than the average player realizes," says Garfield. "Language is incredibly important to how you think and feel about things. The player gets `invested' in the card as much through the name as through the art." If you've gotten invested in these Magic words, find out how they came about.

Kick-Starting the Adjective Thing: THE ORIGINAL MAGIC SET

Until just before the game's first publication in 1993, most Magic cards had short, dull playtest names: Bears, Skeletons, and so on. At that time Richard Garfield and Wizards of the Coast planned to produce and sell the limited print run of Magic: The Gathering, then do another limited-run game about eight months later using many of the same cards with slightly different names. Garfield knew he could turn Bears into Grizzly Bears, Brown Bears, and so on, but how to individualize his Skeletons?

Playtester Tom Fontaine, enshrined in the Magic rulebook for his "Deck of Sooner Than Instant Death," devised the notion of naming each generic creature with an evocative adjective. "Tom sent me a message with about two dozen names," says Garfield. "Samite Healer, Drudge Skeletons, Scathe Zombies, Scryb Sprites, Sengir Vampire -- I used most of them. That kicked the `adjective thing' into gear."

Several examples of the "adjective thing" Garfield derived from archaic or obscure English words: Obsianus (a synonym for obsidian or black), Sedge (swamp), Verduran (spring). He himself invented most of the other names in The Gathering's first edition. Urza and Mishra, whose story became the centerpiece of the Antiquities expansion, began simply as names that sounded "vaguely Hindu." When he was six, Garfield and his family lived for a short time in Bangladesh, and then for four and a half years in Nepal. So the designer was well-acquainted with the sound of "Indian-English hybrids." Garfield took the name Shivan Dragon from the Indian god of destruction.

Many players know that Garfield drew one of the game's most important terms, mana, from a series of fantasy stories by writer Larry Niven. In his ``Warlock'' series of fantasies, Niven describes mana as a natural magical energy source. Mana powers spells and nourishes magical creatures, and it can be exploited or exhausted. "Niven's view of magic as very mechanistic, following regular laws, was a fundamental inspiration for the game," says Garfield.

The mana concept actually comes from Melanesia and Polynesia, two island chains in the south Pacific. In a 1947 book called The Heathens: Primitive Man and His Religions William Howells, a Harvard anthropology professor, described mana as a quantifiable magical fluid, much like electricity: "Typically, mana is a sort of essence of nature. It is not a spirit, and it has no will or purpose of its own." The Polynesian conception of mana, he said, ``was not scientific, of course, but it was otherwise completely logical. Mana was believed to be indestructible, although it might be dissipated by improper practices. It came originally from the gods; nevertheless it was not possessed by them any more than by any other being or substance, but was independent of them all. It flowed continually [...] from heavenly things to earthbound things, just as though from a positive to a negative pole. It came to the people through the chiefs, who were the direct descendants of the gods, and the chiefs kept it and conducted it to whatever function needed it: ceremony, war, or agriculture. It was not a privilege of the chief that he had so much mana. It was, rather, his function in the scheme of things to serve as reservoir and transmitter of it'' (Chapter 3).

Later writers discovered flaws in this conception. Island societies actually regard mana as an abstract quality, similar to what the West might call "grandeur" or even "holiness," and it derives from living and ancestral spirits. But the obsolete conception of mana is what inspired Niven, and therefore the mana of Magic.

Here are some other word origins:

Black Lotus: Why should a one-shot artifact that gives you three mana of any one color be a flower? Garfield says, "I liked the idea of a lot of power being contained in a flower -- transient, not a permanent object like a ring, but more flexible."

Jayemdae's Tome: "Jayemdae" is a phonetic spelling of the initials JMD. J. Michael Davis, Richard Garfield's co-worker at Bell Labs in 1992, was co-designer on the RoboRally boardgame and is now Director of R&D at Wizards of the Coast.

Kormus Bell: Kormus (pronounced "kor-moo") was an undead villain in Garfield's Call of Cthulhu roleplaying campaign at the University of Pennsylvania. Kormus didn't use a bell in that campaign, but then again,(he wasn't trying to animate any swamps.

Lace: Chaoslace, Thoughtlace, and the rest all change a card's color. Garfield derived "lace" from the Wizards of the Coast roleplaying game The Primal Order. In that game deities can "lace" an object or spell with primal energy, imbuing it with a portion of their own divine nature.

Llanowar Elves: Although "Llanowar" can be anagrammed into "war on all," Garfield simply invented the word for its sound.

Mox: The five sought-after jewels take their name from "moxie," slang for courage, pluck, or (in Garfield's thinking) energy.

Nevinyrral's Disk: The 1969 Larry Niven story "Not Long Before the End," the first of his "Warlock" stories (see above), inspired this artifact. That story features a floating disk that spins ever faster, consumes all mana in the vicinity, and thereby destroys all magical creatures and enchantments. Most of the "Warlock" stories appear in Niven's book The Magic Goes Away. "Not Long Before the End" shows up in a sequel anthology Niven edited, The Magic May Return.

Serra Angel: In biology, a serra is a sawlike appendage. The word, Latin for "saw," gives us the word "serrated." Garfield thought such an appendage would be appropriate for a bodyguard creature. Not knowing this line of thinking, artist Douglas Shuler omitted sawblades from his beautiful Angel.

"I Have Heard It Told...": ARABIAN NIGHTS

The unforeseen success of Magic prompted Garfield and WotC to do expansion sets. For the first one Garfield, still unclear on how such sets should work, decided to adapt folklore of a particular culture. Works of the Argentine fantasist Jorge Luis Borges and English comics writer Neil Gaiman led Garfield to The Thousand and One Nights, better known as The Arabian Nights' Entertainment.

A huge collection of folktales from many kingdoms and many centuries, the Arabian Nights uses the framing story of King Shahryar, who believed all women faithless, married one each night, and then executed her the next morning. His vizier's daughter, Shahrazad, married the king, but she forestalled her death by starting a story and leaving it unfinished. Curious to hear the story's end, King Shahryar delayed her death for one day. The next night Shahrazad finished that story and began another. This went on night after night for three years, until Shahryar fell in love with Shahrazad, renounced his cruel policy, and made her his queen. This framing sequence, with its stories within stories, inspired the Arabian Nights card Shahrazad, which requires the players to leave their game in progress and play a game-within-a-game of Magic.

In general, about 20 percent of Arabian Nights card names come from the source material (Sindbad, King Suleiman, Island Fish Jasconius), and another 60 percent from Arabic words (kird, as in Apes, is Arabic for "forest"). Most of the rest are anagrams or tributes. Common cards have generic "flavor" names, whereas specific characters were made uncommon. Listen, O King, to the stories behind some Arabian Nights cards:

Djinns and efreets: Garfield invented all these names except Serendib (the historical name for Ceylon, now Sri Lanka). Mijae (Djinn) and Ydwen (Efreet) are anagrams of "Jamie" and "Wendy," two of Garfield's friends who got married while he was designing the set. Ifh-Biff (Efreet) was Garfield's childhood name for his sister, Elizabeth, and Ernham (Djinn) anagrams the name "Herman," Elizabeth's husband.

Drop of Honey: This Arabian Nights version of "For want of a nail, the battle was lost" is a humorous anecdote about a farmer who finds a honeycomb in a beehive. On the way home he stopped to talk, and a drop of honey fell from the comb. An ant ate the honey, a mouse ate the ant and was in turn eaten by a cat. A dog started fighting the cat; the fight triggered an argument between the dog's owner and a lifelong rival; this soon drew both men's families into the dispute; and the story ends with the farmer's whole town in an uproar. During each of your upkeeps, Drop of Honey destroys the creature in play with the lowest power.

Fishliver Oil: Several characters in the folktales rub this oil over their bodies to gain the ability to breathe underwater. The enchantment gives a creature islandwalk ability.

Repentant Blacksmith: One Arabian Nights tale concerns an evil blacksmith who repented his ways and, as a result, found tht he could handle fire and forge metal with his bare hands -- thus, a 1/2 creature with protection from Red.

Stone-Throwing Devils: This term comes directly from the Nights. After publication, Garfield learned that this is apparently a derogatory term for Palestinian protesters in Israel.

City in a Bottle: The direct inspiration for Arabian Nights was "Ramadan," a splendid comic-book story from DC Comics' Sandman (#50), written by Neil Gaiman and drawn by P. Craig Russell. In this sumptuous fable Haroun el Raschid, caliph of the fabulous city of Baghdad, bargains with the Sandman, master of dreams. Sick with fear that his glorious realm will pass away, Haroun persuades the Sandman to take the city into dream, where it will live forever. We last see this fantastic version of Baghdad confined to a bottle in the Sandman's arms. In similar fashion, City in a Bottle removes all Arabian Nights cards from the game, except itself. ("Ramadan" is reprinted in the Sandman trade paperback collection Fables & Reflections.)

The Brothers' War: ANTIQUITIES

Though Garfield researched Arabian Nights well, he made the mistake of adapting the game to the source material rather than vice-versa. That's why, for instance, White is so much more aggressive in Arabian Nights than in the basic game. Also, Garfield became uncomfortable adapting folklore, in effect judging a culture by making its institutions Black or White. So later Magic expansions dealt with the history of Dominia.

Antiquities was designed by Garfield's core group of Magic playtesters at the University of Pennsylvania: Skaff Elias, Jim Lin, Joel Mick, Chris Page, and Dave Pettey. (The name "Skaff" is Syrian for "shoemaker." It was the maiden name of Elias's grandmother.) They created the story of the Brothers' War, the continent-shattering conflict between the twin artificers Urza and Mishra. The brothers, though not planeswalkers, were gifted mages trained by the wizard Tocasia -- whose name derives from Jocasta, mother of Oedipus Rex. Rivals from boyhood, Urza and Mishra came to blows over love of the warrior woman Ashnod. Urza controlled the eastern half of the continent Terisiare, including the regions of Kroog and Yotia. Mishra controlled the west. From the safety of the isle of Lat-Nam, the wizard Hurkyl and his wife Drafna observed as the brothers developed ever greater artifacts to destroy one another. Ultimately they devastated Teresiare and destroyed the nearby island continent of Argoth.

Much of the story comes through on the cards, except for its ending. The Magic designers imagined it this way: Urza slays Mishra and later becomes a planeswalker; Ashnod dies, and the henchman Tawnos ends up trapped in his own coffin, presumably to be released at some later time. The calamitous war causes climatic changes that lead eventually to Dominia's dark age and subsequent ice age.

From the ancient past come these stories of Antiquities names:

Atog: Anagram of "goat." Atogs are the goats of the Dominian ecosystem, munching on stray artifacts.

Citanul Druid: Yes, they did just write "lunatic" backward. Citanul was the only city in Argoth.

Feldon's Cane: The convoluted story behind this card began as a tribute to an early playtester, Don Felice. The designers came up with a card called Feldon's Ice Cone, an approximate anagram of "Don Felice's Cone." But in transmission to artist Mark Tedin, "cone" became "cane," and that's what Tedin painted. The designers, considering the idea of an ice cane too strange, deleted "ice." They finally made their tribute in Ice Age with the card Delif's Cone, a closer anagram of "Don Felice."

Golgothian Sylex: From Golgotha, the hill where Jesus was crucified. A sylex is an antique bowl. The word has many spellings, and so far a couple of them have made it into Magic sets. Future sets should include more variant spellings.

Jalum Tome: "Jalum" is a phonetic rendering of the initials JLM, for designer Joel L. Mick.

Onulet: The name was originally "Onulets," an anagram of Soul Net; the creature has a Net-like special ability. The artist painted a single creature, and so the name turned from plural to singular.

Phyrexia: The hellish afterlife where artifact creatures go when they die, seen in the card names Phyrexian Gremlins and Gate to Phyrexia. The dimensional plane of Phyrexia, ruled by the monstrous demigod Yawgmoth, is a dark landscape pelted constantly by a rain of hot oil. The realm figures prominently in the Brothers' War, for the mage Jarsyl and others entered Phyrexia in hopes of learning powerful magic that would defeat the brothers. Though this hope proved vain, Phyrexian secrets led to the Dominian mages' discovery of the five colors of mana.

Su-Chi: It's a 4/4 creature that costs four mana to summon, and if it goes to the graveyard you get four mana. "Su" and "chi" are the Mandarin and Taiwanese words for "four."

Tablet of Epityr: This is a sucker card, intended to look good to novices. Epityr is an anagram of "pyrite" -- fool's gold. In Dominia, Epityr is either a college of mages or a city containing such a college.

Tawnos: Anagram of "Watson," as in Sherlock Holmes's sidekick. This seemed an appropriate name to assign to a henchman of Urza.

Yotian Soldier: The designers thought of this 1/4 creature as a toy soldier, and so they reversed "toy" and added -ian.

This profusion of stories comes from just the original Magic game and its first two expansions. There are as many more in Legends, The Dark, Fallen Empires, Ice Age, and the new Homelands expansion. What's an Aeolipile? Who is Peter Douglas? What inspired the Thelon Monk? These answers, like the end of a story by Shahrazad, must wait for another time....

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Copyright ©1995 Allen Varney.