Monarch Flavor Text – Part 1: Wasted Opportunities

Today we’re talking flavor text. I discussed FAB’s use of flavor text in a piece from a previous series, but if you don’t want to go down that rabbit hole, the key point is that flavor text can work in tandem with art and card mechanics to help flesh out the world of the game or the characters within it. In some cases, cards even manage to tell an entire self-contained story. Sometimes it’s also just there to make a joke, though I personally find these efforts to be very high risk as they often aren’t actually funny and just read as lazy. I’ll give a real quick example of what I’d consider flavor text done well with a Magic card.

This card is a very tight package of flavor that does a whole lot of work. The name, art, mechanics, and flavor text are all working harmoniously to elevate the design. Magic has a lot of cards that sacrifice for an effect. Historically many of the creatures with this type of effect of pathetic and monstrous, aggressive to the point of not giving a shit if they live or die, dumb as a box of rocks, or extremely noble.

Selfless Savior falls in that final category. The flavor text prompts you to think of what the card and its ability represent. This is a story of an adopted dog sacrificing himself (happily, as implied by the art) to save his owner. The flavor text gets this done in 21 words and hits me right in the feels. It’s a very effective emotional punch for anyone who has had a loyal pet. The narrative is reinforced by the art, which is all the more tragic for how the dog goes joyously to his end, the name of the card, which elevates the dog to a “savior”, and the mechanics which interpret the narrative element into an in game effect.

And that brings us to FAB. There are 27 cards in Monarch with flavor text, if you count different pitch values as the same card (I do, though it doesn’t have to be this way –more on that in a minute). I was initially going to pick five top and five bottom flavor texts, but, given how few there are, I’m just going to do the entire set. I’m using the card gallery on the main site, so if some of the foils have variant flavor text, it’s not accounted for here. Before we jump in, I want to note that one thing that strikes me about FAB as compared to Magic is that it has very little flavor text overall. Part of this is having multiple pitch values of the same card, which are functionally identical from a flavor standpoint, and part is a concession to many cards having a lot of rules text. Although, that could be mitigated by not printing out reminder text for keywords on R+ rarity. I’m not sure Phantasm needs to be explained on the rares in addition to the commons. FAB already removes reminder text on a lot of 1st edition RF cards, so clearly it’s not essential in LSS’s mind that it shows up on all cards. My intuition is that there is more value in building out the world and characters with more instances of flavor text than retaining reminder text on rares. It feels like a squandered opportunity. Anyway, we’re getting a bit in the weeds here, but as I was going card-to-card in the order that they appear in the gallery, I realized that Light Illusionist gets skipped entirely for flavor text courtesy of the extreme amount of reminder text it currently has. Aside from Luminaris, literally ever Light Illusionist card has reminder text, and twenty of twenty eight total Light Illusionist card have the full reminder text for Phantasm -it’s overkill.

Beyond the reminder text, the fact that many cards have three versions with identical flavor text is another massive wasted opportunity. If it was me, I’d be doing R/Y/B pitch cards as either three sequential bits of lore or a conversation between characters. Right now LSS is just ceding that space to reproduce the same flavor text across three different cards when they’ve already designed themselves into a corner where few cards can accommodate flavor text after all the rules and reminder text. Anyway, as you can probably tell from the title, I’m not super impressed by the overall use of flavor text in this set. However, I don’t want this to just be me dunking on cards; I want to try to articulate where I see opportunities that could be realized in future sets, make note of the cards that are currently doing good work, and then, at the end, discuss what I’d like to see future sets do better.

This critique is going to be emblematic of a lot of cards in the set, so I’m going to take some time to discuss the broader issue at play since we’ll see it again and again. There are a lot of cards that introduce a new character, depict them, and give a quote that is fairly generic or cliché fantasy writing.  For clarity, I’m approaching this from the standpoint of someone who probably knows more about the story than the average player but is emphatically not a “lore person”. I’m operating off of the cards themselves and a casual engagement with the main FAB website and the lore book. I’ve read some but not all of the lore posts, and I’ve not really made a major effort to go searching for hard-to-find details. Someone like DeadSummer, could potentially tell you a bunch of information about one of the characters that I’m going to gloss over. However, I think the majority of players don’t read the stories on the website, much less go seeking out even deeper lore. They are getting their lore knowledge from the cards themselves. While it’s cool to have additional material for the lore nerds to dive into, the flavor text should also be self-contained enough to be interesting to people who are just engaging with the game via the cards.

So let’s talk Battlefield Blitz. This is a prime example of generic fantasy text. Since we don’t know who she is prior to encountering this card, what we learn is that Aurea exists and that she’s the “Champion of the Dawn” which gives some mild Solana world building in that we know they have these titled characters. It’s not bad, it’s inoffensive, but it doesn’t do much. When I see this class of card (introduction of a new character, a depiction of them, and a quote), I’m viewing it as an attempt to capture my interest – if it does its job, it should make me want to know more about this person or the world they live in. When I look at Battlefield Blitz, Aurea is giving us a generic “good guy” line, and that’s about it. There is nothing here that captures my interest or makes me want to learn more about her. Because all we get is “good,” “woman,” “knight,” “Solana,” we’re going to likely make a connection to Dorinthea as a reference point because she shares all of these traits and is an extant character with more development. Because Aurea does nothing to differentiate herself, she doesn’t grab our interest. I’m going to make a quick comparison to another FAB card that does better work within similar parameters:

Rousing Aether introduces Linnea. Linnea is immediately a much more interesting character than Aurea. Auera is Champion of the Dawn, which feels like a very generic paladin or holy knight title that most people who play FAB are probably familiar with from assorted fantasy media. Linnea, on the other hand, carries the title of “Mistress of Malady” which is more provocative and prompts some questions of what exactly comes along with that. Her quote also does more to define her character than Aurea’s. Linnea is condescending, smug (her art does work here as well), and confident in her own abilities. I want to know more about Linnea. I’ll probably forget that Aurea exists in a week.

We did all that work on the first one so we could move through cards like these at a faster clip. This is another example of generic fantasy flavor text. If they had attributed this line to Aurea, would it have stood out in any way to you? If I swapped the art on the two cards would it make a meaningful difference to you? Or, are they totally interchangeable? Astra is a more interesting character because she has pink hair, which stands out among other Solana characters (have we seen other characters with unnaturally dyed hair?) and makes her seem more unique, but that’s all work from the art. Her quote doesn’t really give her any characterization beyond generic “good” person.

And here we are again. Look at this one and then tell me if anything would meaningfully change if you just tossed this flavor text on Take Flight.

Is that another generic set of flavor text I see? Why, yes it is. The minor difference here is that that unlike Valiant Thrust or Express Lightning, which seem to depict the character cited in their flavor text, Chancellor Hypatia is presumably not the man on the card. I want to pause to note that any one of the cards we just discussed would be fine in isolation. There is some modest value in reinforcing Solana’s whole “we’re the generic good guys” we’ve got a light-based religion vibe, but we just blew through 15% of the flavor text for the entire set, and it mostly just reads as the same sentiment of “Sol/Solana will triumph over the baddies.”

Alright, this one is interesting because it’s an actual quote from a hero we care about. That is inherently more interesting than the previous ones because we don’t actually know how or if those characters will ever matter – we might never hear of Chiara Suncrest again. Meanwhile, we know Prism matters. So what does this tell us about her – well, she’s perhaps a bit overly verbose and grandiloquent (which is something I certainly can’t relate to at all, no ma’am). It’s also a piece that helps deepen our understanding of her because it draws a sharp contrast to how she is conveyed on other cards within the set, like Great Library of Solana, where she is sprinting through aisles. This juxtaposition of Prism giving a somewhat academic discussion of how stories work (which is something we can infer is a topic she’s passionate about just from her cards without reading her story on the site) with the image of her sprinting through the Library help to flesh out a character that has nuance. She is serious about scholarship but also kind of reckless and excitable. This is the first Monarch card we’ve looked at that I would say is doing good work.

Chancellor Helena Primavera, aside from having a bizarre choice of last name sounds largely indistinguishable from Chancellor Hypatia. This is another instantiation of the issues I’ve been hammering on this whole time: leaning on generic fantasy writing and a new character a minute without any nuance that would allow you meaningfully differentiate between these two characters, is wasteful. We’d be better served by either attributing both of these quotes to the same character to build up their personality or by making the quotes different enough in tone that we could get an idea of how one chancellor differs from the other.

We’re going to take a detour to Magic for a quick illustration of how we can benefit from this sort of characterization. We’re about to examine two red Planeswalkers (Magic’s heroes, as it were): Chandra and Koth.

That’s them. I’m going to give you a quote from each of them and then a few pairs of quotes that pertain to similar situations, and I want you to guess which line is attributed to which planeswalker.

“Molten earth has no anger of its own. Only by infusing it with your own rage can the magma seethe and take shape.”

—Koth of the Hammer

“Dissent? Your gods can’t even begin to comprehend the dissent that’s about to happen here!” —Chandra Nalaar

Alright, that’s your base. Let’s do this shit:

A.) “I like it here. You always get a little more for your mana.”
B.) “The mountains have been corrupted. Otherwise, they would not lend me their fire so easily.”

And again

C.) “Few can coax the creatures within the magma to be cooled and take form.”
D.) “Is it purebred? No, but it’s pure fire.”

One more

E.) “If it wasn’t a blackened, stinking, melted abomination before, it certainly is now.”
F.)  “‘Utterly’ is my favorite way to destroy something.”

What I’ve tried to do here is pick quotes from each of them that are describing the same or similar situations –the first pair is about drawing magical power, the second is each character talking about fire elementals they’ve conjured, and the third is them describing something they destroyed. So, did you say Chandra was A/D/F and Koth was B/C/E? Assuming you aren’t a Magic lore nerd, how’d you manage to pull that off? It should be fairly obvious that the two of them, despite having a lot of similar characteristics and both talking about similar circumstances, have distinct voices. I especially like the third set here because they’re both giving a quip and their characterization isn’t so basic that it’s like “Chandra would make a joke, but Koth is too serious for that.” However, at the same time, it’s easy to pick out Chandra’s because it’s more conversational, whereas Koth’s is a bit overwrought. Whether you like both, either, or neither of these characters, and even if you think all of these quotes are bad writing, what they are definitely accomplishing is helping to define who these characters are. The Solana character quotes fail to make this sort of distinction.

: I originally wrote this piece as a single long document, but, at about 6,000 words, it was far and away my longest FAB piece. Now, I wasted nearly a decade of my life in higher education, so that length didn’t really phase me, but, after consulting with some humans who don’t have the particular type of brain damage that comes from spending too much time in academia, I learned that pretty much everyone else prefers two shorter articles to one giant one, so that’s what we’re doing here.

This felt like a good point for the break because it was roughly midway through the total article length, and because the Chandra/Koth discussion really emphasizes one of the key shortcomings with how FAB is using flavor text (we’ll focus on some others in Part 2). LSS is underutilizing flavor text as a tool to develop their characters. The game is centered on the heroes. I’ve seen countless people talk about themselves as “Katsu players” or say thing like, “Azalea is my girl,” in the past year. Most people have a favorite character or characters even if they aren’t playing them – however, the majority of people are not reading the lore entries on the LSS website (I would bet every cold foil I own on that). So, what people like is mostly based on aesthetics. I realize that, by virtue of the fact that you’re reading this in the first place, you’re probably more engaged with FAB than the average player, but for those of you who haven’t read the FAB homepage lore articles, answer the following questions for me. Without describing his physical appearance, what is Chane’s deal? What are his goals? What is he like as a person? How does he talk? What is he up to in the narrative? Why is Eclipse his Legendary? Realistically, you’ve probably got nothing here because the cards gave you nothing to work with beyond his character card. If you’re not doing supplemental reading, you really don’t have a clue about most of the heroes. Dash is definitely the most developed with multiple lines of flavor text across a few cards, Kano has Aetherize, Azalea has Three of a Kind, and Prism has Celestial Cataclysm, but that’s about it. If your point of contact for FAB’s story is the actual cards, you likely don’t have a clue who these characters are beyond the most basic physical descriptions and inferences from genre tropes.

I think this is also why you get all the weird “waifu” discourse and the subset of people creepily drooling over which characters they think are the hottest. I realize that, as the author of an article on how dateable the women of FAB are, I’m walking a really fine line with that last point. But part of my intent in writing that piece was to try to, as much as possible and with some decided creative license, try to think about who these characters are beyond their physical qualities, especially the heroes we can actually play. I am kind of exhausted by how much of the enthusiasm for any of the women in the game is limited to “X is hot” objectification. But I can see how that happens. It’s a fantasy setting, I get it, almost all of the women who show up on cards are going to be attractive. I’m a lesbian, believe me, I can appreciate an attractive woman. And, honestly, for a one-off character that may never show up on a card again, that’s probably fine (that was pretty much the basis of my Exude Confidence joke in the aforementioned piece). In the same way that you can pass someone on the street and think, “oh they’re hot,” and then just go on with your day, that’s not a super weird or creepy thing to think unless you go on to talk about it ALL THE DAMN TIME. However, for a game where the creators cared enough about the characters to employ a writer to give them all multipage lore entries on the website, it kind of sucks that there are a lot of people who talk about how hot Dorinthea is and couldn’t really tell you anything about her beyond the fact that she’s a pretty blonde knight that they want to step on them. I don’t think we’re going to solve any big societal problems with flavor text, but if LSS cares about these characters (and I believe they do), they’re doing themselves a disservice by not developing them more on the cards. Give your audience more to work with, and they’ll have more nuanced attachments to your characters.

*Header Image – Levia by Wisnu Tan

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