In games, I appreciate a confluence of mechanics and flavor. It’s not enough that a game have interesting mechanical actions; it better engage me thematically as well. This is why I tend toward more characteristically “American” games like Axis & Allies, and away from purer abstracts (although I appreciate games that are fairly abstract with lighter themes, like Carcassonne).
Magic is confluence city. More in the extended.
Although I clearly appreciate the flavor in and behind Magic, I don’t necessarily think all that much about what it means that all the cards I have in a given deck are in that deck.
A deck represents a suite of spells, creatures, and other items that are accessible to a planeswalker, a dimension-hopping wizard of extensive (if no longer quite so godlike) powers. So, each deck is a set of people, places, and things, collected from a number of dimensions, to suit the needs and MO of a given planeswalker.
Let’s break down one deck in particular, the Commands Rock build I discussed in this post. What does our intrepid planeswalker have at his or her disposal?
The “people” in this deck come most heavily from Dominaria proper — the core “world” of Magic. From Dominaria, we have the Elves of Llanowar, as well as some Slivers. We tap into Lorwyn for more elves, although these are decidedly scarier, and, unlike those from Llanowar, have horns (!). We also have the Tombstalker, apparently summoned from some odd set of catacombs in an unlabeled corner of the universe.
Our planeswalker has an obvious preference for elves, but does not care too much where they come from. In addition to Llanowar and the wilds of Lorwyn, we’ve touched on the artificial plane of MIrrodin for the incredibly handy Viridian Shaman, right before we return to the apocalyptic era of Dominaria for Riftsweepers. From that same era, we have a cadre of Darkheart Slivers, presumably from the woods near Benalia.
In addition to all of these lesser creatures, we also have a “lifeline,” in the form of our two pals Liliana Vess and Garruk Wildspeaker. These fellow planeswalkers can be called on at need, and will hang around until they take too much of a beating and decide to bug out.
Love elves, love their lands.
Our planeswalker taps heavily into the homelands of the elves for power, with a double helping of Gilt-Leaf Palace (home to the Masked Admirers) and Llanowar Wastes (eponymous home to the Llanowar Elves). Beyond these elven lands, we look to a few names of legend — Pendelhaven and the evil-ridden Urborg, former home of the demon lord Yawgmoth. Finally, in addition to some generic Forests and Swamps, our planeswalker maintains contact with a cadre of ape-filled Treetop Villages.
As we might expect from the compilation of creatures and planeswalker allies, the lands are planeswalker taps into are a mix of wilderness and darkness.
Some planeswalkers are laden with “things,” be they spells or artifacts. In the case of Commands Rock, our planeswalker appears to be more fond of creatures and pals than anything else.
The idea behind many spells in Magic is that they represent a planeswalker seeing a thing and then figuring out how to mimic it. For example, playing a Tsabo’s Decree does not mean that you’ve gone and asked Tsabo to get with the decree-ing. Rather, it means that at some point you, or some other planeswalker, saw Tsabo’s Decree or its effect, thought, “That looks useful,” and figured out how to do something like it. So, rather than being like the “named” spells in Dungeons & Dragons that are named after their inventor, in Magic, “named” spells are named after the event or action they’re meant to replicate the effects of.
Commands Rock doesn’t have many of these genuinely “branded” spells. Distress, originating in Kamigawa block, is not thematically tied to that world. Instead, it represents one of many generic ways that you can rip a single “thought” out of another planeswalker’s head. Similarly, although the commands — Profane and Primal — originate in Lorwyn, they’re fairly generic in concept. It’s no surprise that many people just say, “Black command” when referring to Profane, as it’s basically just “a multi-option black spell.”
There is the one named spell, however. Eyeblight’s Ending replicates the act of assassination as carried out by the genocidal elves of Lorwyn. Being a copy of this type of killing, it is simply incapable of killing an Elf. Our planeswalker accepts this annoying limitation because so many other kinds of black, destructive spells can’t affect other black creatures (for example, the elemental Shriekmaws can’t take out other black critters). One quirky consequence of this choice is that our planeswalker has in their repertoire no way to just flat out kill a black elf.
The big picture
The Commands Rock deck shows us a planeswalker who taps into both dark and primal forces in an attempt to win the fight. This isn’t the wild or savage side of either force, though, as both the darkness and the wilderness are channeled in a very controlled fashion into attempting to dominate the situation. More than anything, the paired Commands represent the attitude of the planeswalker, as everything they tap into serves to let them command the situation and by doing so, win the fight.