Legendary Creatures featuring more than one person.
I was going to arrange them in chronological order by set but if you put them this way it looks like Anax and Cymede and Pia and Kiran are all looking over their balconies at a show put on by Tibor and Lumia.
Your eyelids sink with the jungle’s symphony. Tree frogs squeak
and crickets chirp, their rhythms a distant backdrop to your dreams. Your
breaths are slow, steady. Your mind is dormant.
The bush next to you rustles.
You find yourself sitting stick-straight, the rapid thud
of your heart amplified in your temples.
Your breaths are quick.
You only become conscious of your shaking as the beeble
rolls out of the undergrowth.
Congratulations, planeswalker, you have just felt fear!
Fear is often referred to as a basic emotion, something so primal that it forms
the core of our emotional tapestry. Humans experience emotions like no other
animal, but fear is so evolutionarily ancient that the chemical processes that
allow fear to happen can be found in almost every living organism.
Core to game design is the ability to produce
experiences. Games, and fun in general, hinge on making the players feel something.
Creating a game that people hate is more fruitful to a game designer than
making a game that is ignored.
Magic, in its
ever-expanding Multiverse, has visited the emotion of fear more than once.
Today I’m going to look at how certain mechanics tap into our experience of
fear in order to create a gameplay experience that becomes more visceral than
simply having a winner and a loser. I’m going to focus on three mechanics in
particular: annihilator, infect, and undying.
Humans are social creatures (duh). One of the major
concepts that emerges from our social tendencies is culture. Billions of people
exist in pockets of context as varied as the genes in our cells. The mechanisms
of fear are all shared, triggered by stimuli that are threatening. But what we’re
afraid of differs from person to person, culture to culture.
In order for a mechanic to trigger fear in Magic, it has to do something that is
threatening within the context of playing a game of Magic. Learning Magic
conditions us to value certain things like board presence, hand size, and
impact plays. Generally, if you control a lot of permanents, you’re doing well
in a game. How do you know you’re suddenly losing? When those permanents go
away. Winning and losing are closely tied to emotional responses; we feel good
when we win and feel bad when we lose.
Annihilator plays into the board presence dynamic in two
ways, one directly and one indirectly. This mechanic creates fear when it
threatens a player’s sense of stability. A key part of this fear is
inevitability. As soon as an Eldrazi turns sideways, annihilator triggers,
eating away at your board state. We’re used to removal that happens once or
equally affects every player, but the one-sidedness of annihilator isolates you
as a victim. It puts tension into the game; if you don’t stop this Eldrazi, you’re
going to watch all your friends on the battlefield die before being consumed
Indirectly, annihilator gets a boost in fear-spewing
power by being attached to some of the largest creatures in Magic history. Annihilator on a 1/1 isn’t
scary. You sac a land, block the creature, and move on. Annihilator on an 8/8?
Block it or you’re dead in three turns. This two-fold destruction attacks the
only thing you have in a game of Magic:
life and cards. If you have cards but not life you can still pull out a
victory. If you have life but not cards, you’ll probably last long enough to
get more cards. By depriving you of your two basic resources, annihilator is
one of the most threatening things you can stare down in Magic.
The fact that annihilator has so many haters is a
testament to its success as a fear-inducing mechanic. Anyone who has seen an
Eldrazi hit the table in a multiplayer game has probably experienced the kind
of impact that one creature has on the game’s politics (Spoiler alert: politics
disappear as everyone panics and tries to kill the Eldrazi ASAP.) Regardless of
your personal feelings regarding annihilator, it’s difficult to deny that it
succeeded as a scary mechanic by attacking the things in the game that we’ve
been conditioned to hold sacred.
Phyrexia had been festering in Mirrodin’s core for centuries,
a blight transmitted by Karn himself. They are twisted figures of horror,
warping reality around their sickening ideals. They are cold, invasive,
dangerous, alien, uncanny. The Phyrexians are the most resilient disease in the
And let’s face it, diseases are scary. The Phyrexians
needed a scary mechanic in Scars of
Mirrodin, and infect was ready to step up to the plate. Like annihilator,
the scariness embedded within infect functions on two levels. The first relates
to how infect interacts with creatures. Normally, you block with a creature and
it takes some damage, but that damage wears off at the end of the turn. With
infect, however, leaves -1/-1 counters behind. This damage doesn’t wear off. It’s
permanent. Block a 1/1 infect creature with your 3/3 and you’re stuck with a
2/2. That’s not good.
Why isn’t this good and why is it scary? We make
decisions in games based on the information we have. Games also have sets of
rules that determine what actions we can take. Normally, blocking a 1/1 with a
3/3 is a fairly easy decision. Your creature wins. Infect corrupts that
certainty by changing the results of that blocking decision. It’s no longer
safe to block with your 3/3. Maybe the -1/-1 counter won’t matter, but maybe it
will. Part of fear functions on a level beneath your consciousness, and even
the slightest chance that something is dangerous can set it off.
Say you’re too afraid to block with your 3/3. You let the
1/1 infect creature deal damage to you. Wither, a similar mechanic, made this a
reasonable decision, but infect comes with the consequence of giving you a
poison counter. Ten poison counters and you lose, and there’s no way to get rid
of them. Like your creatures, you can’t be healed. There’s a tension at play
that forces you to choose between two bad things. This kind of psychological
dilemma is what made the Saw movies particularly
It’s important that infect breaks the regular rules of
decision making in Magic. The source
of the mechanic’s unsettling flavor is that it forces you to play a different
game than you’re used to playing. Infect isn’t your regular nemesis. It’s
Tournament-level infect decks like the ones seen in the
Modern format play with another aspect of fear: anticipation. The opponent is
left sitting there wondering when the infect player is going to kill them in a
single attack. But there’s another mechanic that plays into anticipation even
Most non-mammals react to fear on a basal, instinctual
level. They sense something that might be dangerous and they bolt for cover.
But mammals, and humans in particular, have complex brains that make reacting
to fear…well, complex.
Mammals have two fear pathways. The aforementioned one
bypasses your cognition, but there’s an “upper deck” pathway that runs through
your thoughts and memories at the same time (It’s noticeably slower.) This is
why we jump at things that aren’t actually dangerous. They trigger a fear
response that works faster than our conscious brain can process. This might
seem silly for evolution to keep around, but the power our conscious brains
have at instigating fear is unparalleled.
Anticipation of fear is as real to us, chemically
speaking, as the actual stimulus of fear. We can get scared even when nothing
bad has happened yet. If we think something bad is about to happen, our bodies
start up our fight-or-flight responses and supercharge our reaction time. It’s
a great survival technique.
What’s this have to do with Magic? The anticipation of danger is exactly what the undying
mechanic mimics. Having to deal with a threat once is hard enough, but having
to deal with it twice is asking a lot. The inevitability that killing a
creature only makes it stronger makes playing against undying creatures a somewhat
frustrating experience. Nothing you do will be good enough as the value
shambles closer from all sides.
And that’s exactly how Innistrad wanted the players to feel: trapped. Your actions are
fruitless against undying, and you know it. Persist didn’t have this same
feeling because the creature came back smaller. “If I can just kill it, it will
be even weaker the next time!” With undying, you know killing the creature only
makes things more difficult for you.
The mechanic forces you to think ahead to a board state where you’re even worse
off than before.
Here it’s not the direct threat that creates fear, but
the threat that is to come. Instead of producing a tense situation, it lets the
players imagine the scenario and play around that mental image. This fits into
a deep bag of tricks that horror and thriller movies pull from: anticipation of
the unseen danger. You know the monster is right around the corner, but you
never see it. People are excellent at imagining scary scenarios, and this trick (and mechanic) promote this brand of thought.
You know the undying creature will come back, but until
then you can only imagine how much more difficult your task will be.
Annihilator, infect, and undying prey upon human
faculties that incite fear. They threaten your safety and become associated with
negative feelings of danger. By creating moments of tension, these mechanics
enrich the experience of playing Magic
by linking flavor to gameplay. There’s an even greater emotional upshot to
having mechanics that play into fear: the thrill of victory. Beating an
Eldrazi, Phyrexian, or monster when everything seemed hopeless is a moment of
emotional surprise and elation.
If making you scared is critical to the texture of Magic, planeswalkers, then surely
allowing you to overcome your own fears is even better.