A Magictation by Mikeal Basile
“Magictating” is defined as getting into the zone with your Magic the Gathering collection–thinking, planning, organizing, reminiscing about past games, and imagining future games. It is a combination of hard thinking about the game and calm meditation, reveling in the joy it brings you.
Flavor matters. Magic has pretty amazing opportunities to advance flavor between casting costs, art, abilities, and the aptly named flavor text. When I think of Elder Dragon Legends (and EDH for that matter) I like to envision monstrous creatures of vast wisdom that are descending from on high to crush their foes. When I look at cards like the 55 original legends I can’t help but feel they’re fitting representations from their art, to their abilities, to their stats. When Magic reprinted the original Elder Dragaons in modern styles and forms in M20 it was great to see the cycle return. The cards were flavorful and fitting. I’m spoiled; I expect my Magic flavor to be deep and fitting in all ways. I have been finishing my original 55 legends cycle recently, and I stumbled across one of my old favorites—Xira Arien. The original reads pretty swell: Flying (the picture gives her wings) and the ability to tap her and some mana to make any target player draw a card. She’s a cool Jund style commander option. Drawing cards isn’t something Jund is regularly known for. Yet, there’s a huge problem with Xira Arien. She is an epic flavor fail. Let’s analyze the card to figure it out together why this card is such an flavor flop.
Step 1: Casting Cost Flavors
We’ll take this card apart from top to bottom—literally. Xira Arien’s casting cost is only 3 mana. That’s not even awful by today’s standards for a 1/2 flyer that has an activated ability. Granted, I’m not convinced she’d warrant any rarity higher than uncommon in today’s sets, but still she’s printable. I’m not convinced we can say the same for cards like Axelrod Gunnarson or Gosta Dirk. I think the casting cost seems appropriate given the rest of the card’s layout from the art on down to the power and toughness.
Step 2: Artistic Flavors
Now, the art is by a classic Magic the Gathering artist: Melissa Benson. She’s the one responsible for Shivan Dragon, Nightmare, Lord of Atlantis, Altar of Bone, Halfdane, and Ichneumon Druid to name a few. So, is there anything wrong with the art? Absolutely not. The art is amazing. The flavor text reads, “A regular guest at the Royal Masquerade, Arien is the envy of the Court. She appears in a new costume every hour.” Huh, I guess that means she’s part of the royal court in-crowd. She also must have an army of tailors on hand to provide her with new outfits all the time. Those costume wings look pretty sick. I bet they flap and everything. I guess it makes sense, as she can spend mana to get resources, and perhaps those resources also gain her something other abilities like flying. So, I’m guessing those wings are just part of the outfit. The delightfully detailed insect costume she’s sporting is surely a prime example as to why all those at court envy her rotating outfits. Considering she also can draw us new cards every turn, then we have to consider that the card drawing is also a way for her to reflect a constant and ever changing wardrobe. Our resources shift as does hers. That’s a flavorful card indeed! Well, that wraps things up I guess. There is no issue surrounding Xira Arien when we examine the entire card and how it fits within the contexts of its own flavors. It’s a card that is truly flavorfully designed. We have a legend that flies, uses magic, draws cards in a political manner, is linked with courtly appearances, and clearly has amazing taste in costumes. No problem with this legendary creature whatsoever!
Step 3: The Rub
Oh, wait a moment, I started this article by saying we had an issue with Xira Arien. I actually said it was a huge flavor punt…hmmm. I’m not usually wrong—I mean I thought I was wrong once, but I was mistaken. So, what’s going on with Xira Arien? The answer lies in a little thing that happened years ago—The Grand Creature Type Update. To summarize that event—Magic retconned all older cards that lacked creature types. This was in anticipation of Lorwyn’s release—a heavily tribal-based set. You can look up on Gatherer what every card’s creature type(s) are, and know exactly what you’re playing with. When you look at that Dakkon Blackblade, thanks to Gatherer, you now know you are holding a Legendary human warrior in your hands. When you look at Ramirez DePietro you know you have a legendary human pirate ready to swashbuckler his way into infamy as a legendary future Ghost of himself (Ghost of Ramirez DePietro is a spirit pirate). These all fit pretty well. The creature type update was, for the most part, a grand success!
Xira Arien has two creature types. She’s a wizard, and that seems fitting. She employs magic to create political card draw. That fits fine. I guess noble would’ve fit just fine as well, but I’m not certain that type existed in 2007 when the grand creature type update occurred. I know you’ve been waiting for the punt, so here it is…Xira Arien is listed as an insect wizard. An insect. Rrrrreally…like a bug? She’s supposed to be a bug? The flavor text doesn’t indicate she’s a bug. The casting costs might suggest she’s a Jund bug in a rug, but I’m not buying that those colors couldn’t produce a mage that draws cards. More on that later. But, she’s an insect wizard. Again, an insect. I just want to take a moment to peruse the insects that you may or may not be familiar with in Magic. Thanks to the Magic of time travel I just read through all 186 insect card results. Nothing remotely resembles Xira Arien. Why not? Well, let’s examine why not.
Readily known and clearly buggy insects include cards like Acridian, Broodhatch Nantuko, Docent of Perfection, Fog of Gnats, Robber Fly, Wasp of the Bitter End, and even the new legendary Zabaz, the Glimmerwasp. None of those cards, or any of them I didn’t mention, leave any doubt that you’re looking at an insect.
It wasn’t until 2013 when Xira Arien had another insect join her on the list of Insect Wizards. It was Beetleform Mage. This creature, incidentally, was a human-insect-wizard. That card is a flavor score because it makes sense. The flavor text, casting cost, and art all gel together and the result is a Magic card that feels, well, flavorful. Xira Arien, really an amazing card, has been convoluted by this creature type update. Her true nature has been called into question, and I just can’t imagine she’d be happy about it.
Step 4: Wardrobe Woes
How utterly unimaginative would her costume be if she didn’t manage to hide her wings? Heck, it’s not even a costume worth envying at all if she’s actually an insect. She looks like a bug, probably talks like one in that mask, and if those wings aren’t some fancy gossamer crochet with nano technological fibers, then I’m not a human myself. She may look, walk, and talk like a bug, but if she’s a bug, then how on Dominaria did she even get through the door to the latest Masquerade? I mean Romeo at least put a half mask on to get into the Capulet’s masquerade ball. Xira isn’t making much of an effort here if she’s actually an insect. This is about the equivalent of me slapping a name tag that says “My name is Mike” on my shirt and passing it off as my Halloween outfit. I’m not exaggerating. This card is most definitely not supposed to be depicting an insect. It’s an heiress, noble, or other political entity that also happens to be a wizard. Calling a creature an insect because they wear the guise of one is absurd. By this measure, all dragons should also be creature type lizard. They look like lizards, so they must be lizards.
Step 5: Original Intent?
Now, you might try to tell me that when the card was originally designed it was intended to be an insect. OK, but 13 years went by, and last time I looked at that card, as a whole, I registered her as a human noble wizard. A human wizard at the least, but if we’re going for a full flavor win, then I’m placing her in the nobility. Now, thanks to the wonders of Wikipedia, I read some summaries of her characters (yes, apparently there are two versions of her) as they appeared in the novels. Her first appearance has her as a clear human. This makes sense. The second appearance has her as an insect. Now, I’m not pointing fingers at interpretations…wait, yes I am…that’s all wrong. The first one got it right, and the second one glossed over the flavor text and just assumed she was an insect. This might make for a fun character for the book, but that character is not the one on my card. The Xira Arien on my card is not an assassin. She’s not an insect, and she’s definitely wearing a costume. So, I guess the real question here is how to get Wizards of the Coast to rectify this oversight. I would love to have Xira Arien as the commander of my “Custom Costumes and Courts” deck, but how can I do that when she is apparently wearing the lamest costume around?
The Last Step: Final Thoughts
Xira Arien is a beautifully crafted and deliciously odd old school card. Her ability doesn’t seem to fit the colors as we see them today, and her flying, art, and flavor text are at odds with her modern retconned creature type. This all makes for a card that is truly fascinating to behold. I distinctly remember opening a Chronicles version of this card in pack I got for Christmas. It made me want to build a Jund deck. I played Xira Arien in my first game with that deck, and I drew quite a few cards using her ability. Heck, I even used Eternal Warrior and Maze of Ith in order to double up activations! Yes, that’s how slowly old multiplayer games once moved. That beautifully clunky combo was a site, but wouldn’t it be great to see Xira Arien’s, but it is nowhere near as necessary as restoring her humanity.
Do you agree with me about Xira? Should we petition WOTC to change her creature type? Are there other creatures from Magic’s past that got the wrong creature types? Do you need help in your own crusade for creature type updates? Let me know in the comments below! Also, no matter your creature type, may the cards be ever in your favor!