What makes us laugh is often not complicated. But when laughs come from dark humor or humor that arrives with a bleak sting, we may often desire to plumb further for the why and how. Magic has, since Alpha, had a sense of humor. (I mean, how is Demonic Attorney not funny? Periwigs? Demons?) When I read the flavor text of a card that makes me laugh, or art that elicits a corresponding chuckle, I probably spend too much time analyzing why. But I also have to remember that someone (likely) spent an inordinate amount of time fashioning that text for me and all the other millions of Magic players to enjoy. And, for a game so laser-focused on competitive virtual warfare between two spellcasters, a well-placed joke, smile, or laugh is a kind of gift.

In Part 1, we’ll go from the beginning in 1993 to somewhere around Coldsnap. I’m going to focus on Black cards, ‘cause this is a column about Black cards–but let me acknowledge that there are humorous cards in all colors. For example, a couple that come to mind are Primeval Titan’s “When nature calls, run” or Twinferno’s “‘More fire?’ Jaya asked. ‘More fire,’ Jodah agreed.” However, I can’t yet claim that Black’s humor is qualitatively different than any other color’s. But I am willing to wager that it is, by definition, more macabre and morbid. It just has to be. Let’s start with a couple of basic entries.

Funny Black Cards, 1993 to 2006, not in Chronological Order

HexWhen killing five just isn’t enough. In many cards, the humor is in the gap between the art and the flavor text. And then sometimes it’s between those and the rules text. This is a great example of that juxtaposition.

Death Pits of RathAs the sludge below began to shift and take shapes, Gerrard turned from the railing to Orim. “I suppose,” he said, “it’s a little too late for prayer, isn’t it?” A card like this is an example of the cards that rely on dialogue, like Twinferno above. It’s got a casual tone, rather droll. “Turned from the railing” implying that Gerrard doesn’t seem to put out by the death pits. Has a bit of Brendan Fraser’s The Mummy about it.  The implicit humor, the kind that a player has to piece together a bit, is always the kind that lasts longer than the more eyerolling humor, as we’ll see.

There are lots of these punning flavor texts. In fact, I would say that one of the main ways the flavor texts operates, in a humorous fashion, is through the troping (or consciously turning in some way) on a well-known phrase. One potential downfall here is that any actual scintilla of seriousness is wiped away–especially for the Black cards which, often, are hoping to induce dread and the dark side of the game….is this a calculated risk? If so, why? A great question to ask, as a player or otherwise is: What does the combination of a cliché and horror do for the card? Well, maybe nothing in the end other than give it, yup, pure flavor. For me, it is distinctly like a logline for all those VHS boxes lined up at the video store as a kid in the 80s. Like the notorious classic Chopping Mall: “Where shopping can cost you an arm and a leg.” Har har.

Let’s start with the worst/best example of this. 

Sadistic Augermage: Don’t worry. I know the drill. I’m purposely using this first because I want to end this series with what I think is Magic’s funniest, best, most clever card. (You’ll have to wait for that one…) And this card is that one’s unfortunate cousin. This is that straight 80s VHS horror fare. The Nick Percival art shows a wizard in full tattered ragsd, lounging in his stone workplace, cradling lovingly his preposterously long auger. Waiting for his victims, no doubt. I will give this card a fair shake and say that they let the title and the flavor do a bit of work. Some people might not know what an auger is, so the joke doesn’t hit you over the head. It’s perhaps more subtle than the obviousness I’m dogging it for. But the fun (or funny) part is the punning on “drill.”

Souldrinker: Don’t drink and thrive. Here’s an example of how the pun is done for pun’s sake. This makes no sense, really. It’s a souldrinker. That’s what it does. But the flavor text is saying, “Don’t drink. Don’t thrive.” But it does. It’s a souldrinker’s card, therefore he should. We are watching it happen. Sigh. The text is antithetical to the card’s aim. Again, funny because wrong and because a pun, sort of.

Serpent Warrior: A hiss before dying. I mean, it’s barely a chuckle. And it could’ve come from my six year old’s joke book.

Cursed Flesh: A farewell to arms…and feet…and legs…

Okay. This is legitimately humorous in a not punny way. Why? Because it’s a great gag and a reference to the Hemingway novel. (I think the ellipses sell the joke here. Who said punctuation couldn’t be funny!?) Which, yes, Hemingway probably took himself a bit too seriously. Yet anytime you can reference both one thing in your own art–the Magic card–and another piece of cultural material–the famous novel–then it’s a win-win. When a Black card’s humor is original, fitting, and funny, this is a good example of how it works.

Nausea: Any mogg will tell you there’s nothing more nauseating than the smell of cute. I mean, this is practically charming in its art style and execution. Jeff Miracola’s moggs and pixieish thing are just drawn funnily. And the pixie fart is sparkly. Also, I would argue that this card is cute. Moreover, the card’s title and subsequent art and flavor text don’t battle each other to make sense, which is why Exodus’s version is superior. The strange detour into almost 70s Heavy Metal animation and the card’s goal duke it out. That’s funny. What a thing says and what it does and the gap of meaning in between is funny to forge.

Thrull Surgeon: “Just take a little off the top.” So we’re back to a pun, which doesn’t feel great. But it’s in dialogue, which is hilarious. And it’s a great example of the comedic understatement.

Carrion Beetles: It’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye. I’m not even upset about this one, to be honest. The original phrase just slots in and does all the heavy lifting. It’s kind of admirable, really. However, who’s speaking here? Would’ve been better if it was from the beetles’ point of view. Would at least have changed the expectation a bit.

Tethered Skirge: It bites the hand that leads it. Yes, fine, another pun! But you have to remember how hard these WotC folk were working back in the day! I imagine a long roll of onion skin paper unfurling from a busted typewriter. Pop cans. Pizza boxes. The eventual despair of the flavor text writer when they realized that the pun would be the savior again. Almost makes you wonder if the pun-laden cards would be better without them altogether?

Zombie Trailblazer: Some zombies are natural-reborn leaders. To answer my previous question: Yes, this would be better without the pun. Absolutely horrible. 0/10 – would not play. (Note to Self: sticking a pun in a compound adjective isn’t wise.)

Wretched Anurid: The only prince inside this frog is the one it ate. I’m ending this first look at humor with an actually nearly clever, truly well-thought-out piece of flavor text. It’s almost a zeugma, which is a rhetorical trope. That’s where a word does double duty in being applied to two others, one seemingly unrelated or unexpected. But here, “inside” is doing the tricky work. We’re meant to think one thing and are brought up short on the last word, the punchline.

I hope you didn’t think that in this first installment there’d be a rapid fire list of sophisticated hilarity. No. We are looking at some of the entry level, first year basics of Funny. And so, a question: What does this brand of humor do for a game that relies so much on a scrim of seriousness over the whole proceedings? Does it risk throwing it all into the “we-know-we’re-just-being-silly bin?” I’d argue that we need to laugh in the face of death. Maybe even blow raspberries in the face of death? Tell abominable puns in the face of death? And while the game we play isnt’ actually high stakes in the mortality arena, I’d argue any image of death, in some small way, portends all of our eventual ends.

In the examples above, I think they are worth mentioning because their main form of humor (is that the word we want all the time?), the pun, dissolves any lasting laughs. As I mention, none of these are gut-busters, nor were they designed to be. Though think of the corny in relation to the horrific. We return back to the 80s video nasties and constant barrage of cheap slashers and special effects. I find it compelling that Magic: The Gathering started up right when that first wave of horror paperbacks was dying away.

But! Stick around, because I’m going to explore the best and wittiest lines on any Magic

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